Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man goes to Las Vegas (again), Part I

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Thursday, June 26: Believe it or not, it’s been more than a month since this Travelin’ Man has trekked by air. After returning home from Montreal on May 25, I drove to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s 25th induction weekend, then traveled by car to and from Wilkes-Barre, Pa. to work last week’s NBC Sports Network televised card. In all, more than 2,100 miles were added to the odometer, which is now pushing 150,000 miles.

Following three days of never-ending activity and a morning highlighted by my polishing off most of July’s CompuBox pre-fight research, updating my master DVD list (which I neglected to do for the past three weeks) and keeping an eye on the first half of America’s World Cup match with Germany, I began my two-and-a-half hour drive to Pittsburgh International Airport. As was the case for the Wilkes-Barre trips, I was granted scenic perfection but this time, the mid-80s temperatures were accompanied by some modestly perceived humidity. I searched in vain for a radio call of the U.S.-Germany match, so I contented myself with occasional updates from ESPN Radio and, when that signal faded, Fox Sports Radio. The drive was smooth and, except for a brief delay for road construction, free of hassles.

Today’s destination is Las Vegas, where the ShoBox series will mark its 199th episode with a doubleheader featuring middleweights Dominic Wade and Nick Brinson and, in the main event, Errol Spence Jr. and Ronald Cruz.

It took a while to find a parking spot in the extended lot but my persistence paid off as I found a space that required less than a three-minute walk to the terminal entrance. Because my laptops fit snugly inside my new carrying case – and because I hadn’t flown in so long – I anticipated some issues unpacking and repacking my items while going through security but to my surprise, I executed every move with speed and fluidity. One of my traveling peeves are people who have tons of items to handle in the security line but ignore the urgency to keep the line moving and with my three trays (one for each of my laptops and one for everything else), I always risk being that person. Sometimes I go overboard with the speed and get fumbled up as a result but this time, my execution matched my intent.

Southwest offers the only direct Pittsburgh-Las Vegas route and despite checking in exactly 24 hours prior to my 5:40 p.m. departure, I still drew B-41, which, under the airline’s first-come-first-served boarding policy, meant I would be the 101st passenger to enter the aircraft. Based on past experience, I expected a window or aisle seat in the middle or back rows but once I entered the plane, I was stunned to see an unoccupied aisle seat in the second row – the very seat I would have chosen had I been first to board. I asked the elderly couple occupying the other seats if they were saving the spot for anyone else and to my delight, they said no.

Thinking I’d need a large book to pass the time during the four-hour flight, I packed Mark Ribowsky’s “The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry,” a 684-page tome that rivals my own 738-page book “Tales from the Vault” in terms of thickness. Instead, I spent the entire flight talking with one of my seatmates, a veteran teacher, about the flaws of the American educational system and how to address them. With my ears popping constantly, we talked right through the occasional bursts of turbulence as well as the landing, which occurred less than five minutes after the advertised time.

The line at the taxi station was far shorter than during past visits and within three minutes, I was inside the cab I was assigned. My driver was not in a good mood and he didn’t hesitate to tell me why. First: I was his third fare of the shift and, like the other two, I had asked him to drive to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which, because it was the closest hotel to the airport, yielded a low fare. Second: he told me he’d be lucky to clear $50 during his 12-hour shift, which meant he’d be making $4.17 an hour. Third: he was on his third vehicle of the day because the other two experienced mechanical problems. Finally: he was assigned a “van-style” cab, a model he hated driving. Perhaps because I was willing to listen, he was considerably calmer by the time we arrived at the hotel and was even joking around as I paid the fare. I guess he just needed to vent.

As always, the line at the Hard Rock’s hotel registration desk was long but the clerks handled the logjam with their usual aplomb. I noticed that the 20-something who checked me in was perfectly lip-synching the words to the song blaring over the loudspeakers at the moment, Heart’s “Barracuda,” a song from their 1977 “Little Queen” album that far predated her birth. “I just love this song,” she said when I noted how well she was doing. “They play really good music here.”

That’s an understatement. The Hard Rock is devoted to music, particularly classic rock, in every conceivable way. Instead of Muzak, the elevators play the likes of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and its walls are adorned with photographic portraits and one-of-a-kind artifacts. My 15th floor room included a 1980 black-and-white photo of Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein posing on the roof of their New York City apartment building.

Once I unpacked my belongings, I returned downstairs to gaze upon the hundreds of one-of-a-kind artifacts, one of which struck me as particularly fascinating: a glass-encased display containing dozen of drumstick couplets signed by their users. I’ve been to the Hard Rock more than a few times and I never fail to see something different each time.

During my walk, I briefly ran into ShoBox analyst (and former IBF junior middleweight titlist) Raul Marquez, who gave me a friendly-but-quick handshake and hello. I decided to stop by the Fuel Café outlet near the Paradise Towers elevators, where I bought a large salad, a bag of Fritos (for later) and a bottle of Coke Zero. I then returned to the room to catch up on all the sports news I missed (the NBA draft, the Pirates beating the Mets 5-2, Wimbledon scores and so on).

I turned out the lights shortly after 11 p.m. – or 2 a.m. body clock time – and prepared for yet another night’s rest.

Friday, June 27: I don’t know what brand of mattress the Hard Rock uses but I wanted to take this one home with me. Save for one brief moment, I had slept solidly for eight hours and had I not needed to catch up on my writing I would have gotten in at least one or two more.

After getting ready for the day, I met Steve Farhood at one of the Fuel Café outlets scattered through the hotel and spent the next hour collecting quotes for a future story. Once we finished, I noticed that my 24-hour check-in window had just begun, so I sought to find the business center to print my boarding passes. As is often the case during my Hard Rock stays, I had to navigate past hundreds of heavily made-up, prepubescent dancers who were either stretching or practicing their moves in preparation for the competition that was taking place in the giant conference room nearby. I arrived at the center just after the attendant put up a sign indicating her return in five minutes’ time. Once she did, I was given a mouse to navigate the computer screen and when I completed the check-in procedures, I learned I had drawn the 123rd place in line. Hmph.

I spent a few minutes talking on the cell to “In This Corner” host and Las Vegas resident James “Smitty” Smith, who had left a message while I was interviewing Farhood. He told me he would be attending the card with a group that included his daughter, Meagan, producer Jon Hait, a West Virginian named Anthony (from Beckley, who hopes to become a cut man), a local TV anchor and several others. By the time we finished speaking, I looked at my cell’s clock and saw it was still 30 minutes before my noon call time to the arena. Restless soul that I am – and with nothing pressing to do until then – I decided to report to work a bit early.

For the first time in a while, I was working with Dennis Allen, a Las Vegas-based North Dakotan who, when he’s not counting punches, works as a purchase clearing specialist at Wells Fargo Correspondent Lending. From 1992-2001, Dennis boxed professionally, compiling a 22-5 (11) record and fighting the likes of Cory Spinks, Lonnie Smith, Reggie Strickland, Anthony Ivory, Tony Duran and Rudy Lovato. He’s one of the more experienced CompuBox operators and the combination of his low-key demeanor and ever-present smile makes working with him a pleasure.

The first fight of the marathon 12-fight card – a four-round welterweight contest between Memphis southpaw Ladarius Miller and Fort Myers, Fla.’s Jacinto Quintana – began at 1 p.m. when the doors were still closed to the public. With Showtime personnel, ring officials, arena security and members of various camps making up the audience, their bout was conducted under somewhat surreal circumstances.

The battle lines were evident immediately as Quintana went on the attack while Miller pivoted smartly and caught his antagonist coming in with sharp, straight counters. Miller risked a point penalty when several of his left hands strayed below the border but while Quintana put forth an honest effort, he simply didn’t have the guns to threaten Miller’s control. In the end, Miller raised his record to 3-0 (1) with a 40-36 win across the board that also dropped Quintana to 2-3 (2).

The meal break for the Showtime crew prevented me from seeing the next fight – a 40-36 sweep by Nashville’s Caleb Plant, 2-0 (1), over Brawley, Calif.’s Michael Noriega, 4-4 (4) – but I returned to the arena just in time to catch the announcement of super middleweight John Magda’s four-round stoppage win over Philadelphia journeyman Taneal Goyco, 6-7-1 (3), that raised Magda’s mark to 7-0 (6). By this time, admission to the arena had been granted to the general public and from that point forward, the attendance steadily moved upward.

The next bout saw super middleweight Lanell Bellows use solid clubs to the body to outscore New Orleans lefty Jas Phipps, who showed open disdain for the 59-55 and 58-56 (twice) decision that dropped his mark to 4-5 (1) and raised Bellows’ to 8-1-1 (6). A few minutes later, a fight listed on the bout sheet as the “short swing” more than lived up to its billing as Houston welterweight Ryan Karl (who came into the ring wearing a black cowboy hat) blew away Texarkana’s Cory Muldrew in just 61 seconds. The volume-punching Karl, 2-0 (2), assumed instant command and visibly shook Muldrew with several heavy rights to the temple before a flurry capped by a hook to the body persuaded his fellow Texan, 1-8, to take a knee for the full 10.

Undefeated Australian cruiserweight Steve Lovett entered the ring to Men at Work’s “Down Under” (as well as with renowned trainer Ronnie Shields) and left it as a third round TKO winner over Chicago’s Dwayne Williams, 5-3 (2), thanks to a right to the temple that caused referee Vic Drakulich to stop his count at seven. The win improved Lovett’s record to 10-0 (8).

The night’s one significant upset was a role reversal on two levels as an undefeated Philadelphia fighter (16-0, 6 coming in) was knocked out by a Georgia product in four rounds. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of Philly fighters with pockmarked ledgers spring surprises on unsuspecting favorites as well as fighters from less prominent areas fall victim to their favored foes. This, however, was different in both respects. The journeyman, Gainesville, Ga.’s Tyrell Hendrix, now 11-4-2 (4), launched a determined attack that forced Dennis Hasson to fight on his opponent’s rugged terms. Hasson attempted to stem the tide through sprightly movement and light, quick combos but they lacked the heft to discourage Hendrix’s aggression. A quick right over the top dropped Hasson on his back midway through the fourth and though he arose, it was evident much work still needed to be done to get out of the round. Just after the 10-second clapper sounded, Hendrix landed another right that decked Hasson a second time. Referee Kenny Bayless, noticing Hasson’s woozy state, stopped the fight at his count of five. The time: 2:59 of round four.

Having worked more than a few NBCSN cards with analyst BJ Flores, I was particularly intrigued to watch his eight-rounder with Delaware journeyman Anthony Caputo Smith, who started his career with 15 straight wins but had gone 2-2 (both wins by decision, both losses by KO) since then. At 35, Flores was engaging in his second fight in 48 days following a 19-month layoff and in Smith, he had a complementary foil.

It was clear Flores followed a specific blueprint designed to neutralize Smith’s intended aggression. He worked the left hand overtime to maintain his preferred range and constantly changed his position with small semi-circles in both directions. He pelted Smith with thwacking jabs, occasional one-twos and sniping right leads while Smith, always coming forward, landed body shots from time to time. Flores’ methodical, but successful, work resulted in each round looking much the same and the judges rewarded him with 80-72 scores across the board that raised his record to 30-1-1 (19).

Between fights, I ran into Smitty and his crew, who was joined by a most surprising guest: former WBA junior featherweight titlist Clarence “Bones” Adams. Several years earlier, I had spoken to Adams via phone and exchanged several emails but had since lost touch. He was happy to finally put a face to the voice and I was glad to reconnect with someone whose skills I had admired so many years earlier.

I remembered watching Adams as a 16-year-old fighting on MSG Network telecasts and marveled at how advanced he was for someone so young. Adams very nearly became history’s seventh 18-year-old-or-under major titlist in March 1993 when he pushed IBF bantamweight king (and future Hall-of-Famer) Orlando Canizales as hard as anyone could during that point in the champ’s career. A broken jaw and a late-round surge by Canizales ended Adams’ ambitious challenge in the 11th. Through 10 rounds, Adams trailed by just 96-94 on all cards.

Two more losses against Frankie Toledo (TKO by 4) and 4-8 journeyman Jeff Trimble (TKO by 6) followed and it appeared as if Adams’ precocious career had come to an end at age 20. But Adams then went on a tear as he went 13-0-2 (4) in his next 15 fights. The 13th fight in the string was a comprehensive 12-round decision over the favored 39-1-1 Nestor Garza to win Garza’s WBA 122-pound title, which he defended twice until losing it to Paulie Ayala in a “Fight of the Year”-quality split decision and dropping the rematch via unanimous decision six months later. After losing his third straight fight via split nod to Guty Espadas Jr. and notching a four-round technical draw against Manuel Sepeda in July 2003, Adams’ career was a study in fits and starts – a three-year layoff followed by one fight each in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. His record stands at 44-7-4 (20) and while the still-trim Adams feels he still can fight, he also knows he doesn’t have that extra something that would make a comeback at 40 worthwhile.

My conversation with Adams coincided with Gerald Washington’s second round TKO over trial horse Travis Walker, which began with an inspired assault by Walker and ended with him collapsing under the weight of two Washington shots. Washington advanced to 13-0 (10) while Walker dipped to 39-12-1 (31).

Light heavyweight Marcus Browne was originally part of the televised portion of the card but those plans changed when veteran Yusaf Mack was forced to withdraw after failing a blood test earlier in the week. Showtime’s brass felt that the addition of late-sub Donta Woods would not create a competitive enough match to merit air time and they had good reason to feel that way. After the Atlanta product began his career 8-0 against soft opposition (four pro debuts and four opponents with a combined 40-74-9 record), he lost his last two fights against foes with a combined 14-0 record. The executives’ instincts proved correct for a combination capped by a straight left to the chin – Browne’s only significant landed punch – put Woods on his back. Woods appeared as if he would beat the count but at eight-and-a-half, he fell back to the canvas and was counted out just 91 seconds after he answered the opening bell.

With that, Dennis and I awaited the start of the televised doubleheader, which brought forth several intriguing plot twists and instigated a hard question or two.

*

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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