Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Verona…again-part I

Treiber-ShoBox-200

 

Thursday, July 24: I don’t know who coined the phrase “Time flies when you’re having fun” but he must have had someone like me in mind when he did so. The 26 days since I returned from Las Vegas have blurred like Sugar Ray Leonard’s fists once did because every one of them was spent juggling boxing-related tasks: compiling pre-fight research for CompuBox, adding and tending to the ever-expanding sports video collection and writing the article marking “ShoBox’s” 200th episode. For me, meals and sleep were necessary impositions on my good time.

But while I always enjoy my time at the home office, I was itching to hit the road again. While today’s final destination was a familiar one – the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y. located 10 miles east of the International Boxing Hall of Fame – the route I chose to get there was somewhat unusual. Instead of the usual Pittsburgh-Philadelphia-Syracuse path, I opted to connect through Boston due to its more agreeable arrival time in Verona (late afternoon). The trade-off: arising at 6:30 a.m. in order to comfortably meet the first plane’s scheduled 11:55 a.m. departure.

Following five-and-a-half hours of unsteady slumber – mostly because I turned out the lights two hours earlier than usual – I arose at 6:28 a.m. and pulled out of the driveway one hour later amid overcast skies. The two-and-a-half hour drive to Pittsburgh International Airport followed a good news/bad news scenario. The good: the weather brightened with every passing mile. The bad: shortly after I arrived at the Interstate 470 interchange – step four of my eight-step journey – road construction forced four lanes’ worth of cars to squeeze into one and because most of my fellow motorists grudgingly ceded space to a neighboring vehicle, the usually 10-minute segment tripled in length. Still, I managed to arrive at the airport’s parking lot right on schedule.

While sifting for a parking space, I stopped the car to allow a young woman traveling with her three small children as well as a 20-something man who was walking toward his vehicle to cross in front of me. When they made eye contact, I made sure to smile and wave.

My friendliness must have paid off because a couple of minutes later, I spotted the same man loading belongings into his vehicle. He motioned for me to wait and take his spot but I demurred, thinking I soon would find a better space. I was wrong; I scoured the rest of the section and found nothing. I then retraced my vehicular steps while hoping the slot was still empty. It was and there was a bonus: it was located directly under the 13E sign. This time, I happily pulled in, noted the location on my parking stub and began the five-minute walk toward the terminal building.

Thanks to my frequent flier miles, I was upgraded to first-class for the Pittsburgh-to-Boston leg, which gave me access to the shorter “preferred access” line at the security checkpoint. Even so, the queue was unusually long, perhaps because one of the five conveyor belts was shut down. Just as well; the slow-moving line reduced the need to hurry, which in turn, made the unpacking/repacking process a relatively stress-free process.

Boarding began an hour later and when the gate agent failed to mention first-class passengers in her rundown, I stayed put. When she announced that the next group of passengers was allowed to board, the person ahead of me mentioned she was seated in first-class. The agent replied, rather curiously, “Oh, I had already handled the first-class cabin.” Some people would have started an argument but this woman wisely just presented her boarding pass and proceeded down the jet way. I chose to do the same. I was just happy I wasn’t the only one who was confused.

Despite the late start on the boarding process, the plane departed on time and actually landed 10 minutes early. The connecting gate was just a couple hundred feet away and I chose to spend my time surfing the Internet and getting some writing done. I was briefly disappointed to see that my Boston-to-Syracuse bird was a 40-seat prop plane only because previous small-plane flights featured rougher turbulence than usual. That trend, however, had changed the last couple of times and, for the most part, that more pleasant pattern held true here.

I landed in Syracuse ahead of the advertised 4:33 touchdown and as soon as I deplaned, I headed for the Avis rental car counter to secure my vehicle, a gray Hyundai Sonata. But before I could leave, I needed to wait for the other two members of my car pool – videotape guru Pete Sheehan and ace audio man Mike Sena. They couldn’t have had more divergent paths to Syracuse: Pete, who was scheduled to land seven minutes after me, had a direct one-hour flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. while Mike, who was set to land 27 minutes after Pete, caught a 7 a.m. flight in Los Angeles and connected through Detroit.

Three-man carpools, especially when each party is coming from far-flung starting points, are difficult to pull off but happily all of our stars aligned. Although the car was assigned to me and I knew how to get to the Turning Stone, I asked Pete and Mike if they would rather drive. Pete said no but Mike said yes.

We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful driving weather and the fact that Mike’s GPS chose a scenic – and thankfully toll-free – route only enhanced the experience. We marveled at the lush, sun-bathed landscape and the various forms of old-school architecture during our nearly hour-long drive, which took us through several small towns. We could have followed the path detailed on the production memo – the I-90 East route I usually use when attending the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend – but we agreed this way, while less efficient, was better.

Once we arrived in front of the Turning Stone, Mike and Pete retrieved their belongings while I sought out a parking space in the garage. After circling for a bit, I found an easy-to-find spot: Level 4, 17th space from the casino entrance on the right side (yes, I do count the spaces. Part of my living comes from counting, after all). While checking in, I ran into ring announcer Thomas Treiber, who, unlike the last time we met at a check-in desk, was dressed in his customary suit and tie instead of the blue track suit I saw him wearing at Foxwoods several months earlier.

A couple of days earlier, I received a gracious invitation to attend an informal reception at the Turquoise Tiger honoring the 200th episode of ShoBox. The event was set for 5 to 7 p.m. but because of my late arrival (and because I needed to ask several casino staffers where the restaurant was located), I was only able to catch the final 15 minutes, enough time to say my hellos and eat a rather large – and delicious – piece of cake. Part of the group asked me to join them at the Pino Bianco restaurant, where I ate a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese so filling I was unable to finish it. That’s what I get for eating dessert before the meal.

Afterward, Treiber – who sat across the table from me – and I split off and talked about the nuances of ring announcing, a subject which has long fascinated me.

As a kid, I particularly admired Chuck Hull’s sonorous delivery and the understated excellence as well as Jimmy Lennon Sr.’s exquisite tenor and perfect pronunciations. Bill Merriman’s over-the-top enthusiasm was a source of merriment – especially his introduction of Mike Ayala before he fought Danny “Little Red” Lopez in 1979 – while “Steady” Eddie Derian was a model of consistency and professionalism. Later on, I often watched Mark Beiro on ESPN and the USA “Tuesday Night Fights” series in which his mix of solid nuts-and-bolts information merged with his madcap sense of humor, a lot of which took place off camera. When Sacramento boxing experienced a boom in the 1980s with Tony Lopez and Loreto Garza, I often heard Jim Hall’s impressively smooth delivery while Jeff Fenech’s success in Australia brought Ray Connolly’s unique and highly literate style into my living room and VHS machine.

Jimmy Lennon Jr. and Michael Buffer perfected what their predecessors created and as a result they’ve become the Klitschko brothers of the ring announcing industry – twin towers whose work has deservedly resulted in Hall of Fame enshrinement. In the intervening years, a new generation of talented announcers, including Treiber, has established its place in the pantheon.

“My first ring announcing job took place 23 years ago when I was a senior in high school,” the youthful looking 41-year-old Hammond, Indiana native said. “I went to the same high school as boxers Eric and Marty Jakubowski and they knew I had an interest in broadcasting. They hooked me up with their promoter, Fred Burns of Indianapolis, who got me started locally. Through those events, I was able to network and through that networking, I was able to work shows in other states. In 1995, I got my first opportunity to work a TV card with ESPN.”

Since then, Treiber has announced in 10 countries, including England – more than 30 times as the regular ring announcer for the Hennessy Sports series aired on Channel 5.

“I did my first show in England in December 2008 when Carl Froch fought Jean Pascal for the vacant WBC super middleweight title,” he said. “That was the fight that put both of them on the map because shortly after that, Pascal moved up to 175 and won a belt while Froch became champ and made his mark at 168.”

Unlike several other announcers, Treiber’s speaking voice nearly matches the one with which most boxing fans are familiar. That’s an extension of a key piece of advice he gives to aspiring announcers – be yourself.

“There wasn’t one particular ring announcer I admired growing up but I studied all the different ones and basically tried to learn from all of them,” he said. “You want to learn how to announce the decisions properly and you want to learn the best way to work with the camera in televised fights. The only way to do that is to watch the top announcers. But you also don’t want to become an impersonator because that won’t ring true to the audience. You want your own style and the process of finding yourself and honing your trade takes time.”

Effective ring announcing entails much more than grabbing a microphone and reading off cue cards. Treiber said that if one wants to achieve excellence, he must have a thirst for nailing down every single detail. Along with correct records and career highlights, the most important facts to gather involve names, nicknames and hometowns, all of which must be pronounced correctly. The only way to secure that information is to go directly to the source – the fighters and their team members.

“The key is show prep,” he said. “If you don’t do that, it’ll show in your performance, especially if you’re working on TV. You want to leave as little room for error as possible. Mistakes are going to happen but you want to do everything you can to eliminate as many of them as possible.

“The first thing I do to prepare is to attend the weigh-in,” he continued. “I’ll take a close look at the bout sheet and see if there’s anything particular I need to address such as a foreign fighter’s name or hometown. I get the trunk colors and other bits of information, then I’ll meet with the commission and if the information is available, I’ll get a list of all the officials. At some point, I’ll also meet with the promoter to discuss sponsors, ticket information and anything else of importance as the emcee of the weigh-in. After that, if it’s a televised event, I’ll find the person involved with production and make sure we are connected on all the information such as the order of introductions and which fighters are standing in which corner. It’s very important that those in the TV truck know which corner you’re going to introduce first so they can match up the graphics and cue the correct cameraman.”

Treiber said one-on-one time with the fighters and their corner people is a must as far as doing the best job possible – and no detail is too small.

“I like to meet with the fighters individually at the weigh-in and if they’re a foreign fighter, it’s especially important to get the proper pronunciation of their hometowns and their last names, especially if his countrymen are watching back at home,” he said. “I’ll have them say their name for me so I can hear it with my own ears and I keep saying it until they tell me I have it right. If it’s a name that I feel is difficult, I will rehearse it on my own time until I feel comfortable with it before entering the ring. My philosophy includes writing out those names phonetically and saying it as closely to their native tongue as possible, which is greatly appreciated.”

That attention to detail extends to nicknames.

“Not only do I get the nickname from the fighter, I will ask them how to say it,” he said. “For example, Ray Leonard’s nickname is placed before his name – ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard – while most fighters have their nickname between their first and last names. But there are a handful of fighters, like Devon Alexander, whose nickname follows their last name – Devon Alexander ‘The Great.’”

In the hours before the show, Treiber makes certain he presents the proper image.

“You want to look the part,” he said. “For boxing, you want to wear a nice tuxedo. Some announcers are going with wearing a tie with their suit instead of the bow tie but no matter which way you go, having a proper appearance is important. I have three tuxedos that I rotate around but because styles have changed over the years, I have eight in my closet. Being well-groomed is also important because it shows you take pride in your appearance and in being a professional.”

Being an early bird helps too.

“I always show up minimum of 90 minutes to two hours before each event,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m there early enough just in case there are any changes in the main event or the undercard fights.”

Navigating a televised card has its own challenges.

“When you’re in the ring doing TV, you’re often stepping over cables as you’re doing the introductions and every so often, the cameraman accidentally bumps into you,” he said. “I’ve been hit in the shoulder and when that happens all you can do is keep going.”

Another unique aspect of working TV cards is coordinating the various cues with the production crew and the timekeeper. When executed properly, the transition from commentary to ring announcing acts as an audio/visual passing of the baton.

On most shows, the stage manager will stand at ringside directly in the ring announcer’s sight line. Two sets of signals are commonly used – an outstretched hand or forearms forming an “X” meaning “Don’t talk” and a pointed finger meaning “Start talking.” But before uttering his first syllable, Treiber will point to the timekeeper to ring the bell.

“Most of the time, you’ll get the cue from a floor director but sometimes commentators, particularly Joe Tessitore at ESPN, will handle those duties himself,” Treiber said. “You have to be very aware of when it’s time to begin your introductions so there’s not any awkward silence.”

Once the introductions start, so does the alternating rhythm between the announcer and the timekeeper. If all goes well, the bell’s dings serve as a pleasing transition from one step to the next.

“I will always talk to the timekeeper before the event so he understands how I cue him for the bell,” he said. “It’s like the period at the end of a sentence – ‘I’m done with that one and now I’m turning the page.’ During a main event there are five cues – the transition between commentary and my first sentence, after plugging the promoters’ sponsors, networks and the details of the fight itself, after I introduce the referee and after I introduce each of the fighters. For each cue, two light taps of the bell is best but you’ll get some timekeepers who are bell-happy. When they bang the bell three and four times, it throws off your rhythm. I prefer one or two bells after a name so it keeps the flow going nicely.”

All the top ring announcers know how volume and inflection enhance the presentation of facts.

“As you get more comfortable as a ring announcer, you can experiment with different things,” Treiber said. “A common mistake for beginners is maintaining the same level and volume without any build-up. You don’t announce the weights and trunk colors with the same enthusiasm as you would when you’re telling the audience they’re a world champion and when you’re announcing their name. People pick up on that, not consciously, but if an announcer starts at a lower pitch and volume and gradually builds it up as he’s going through a champion’s résumé, it sets up the crescendo when you announce the fighter’s name. They key is to build up the excitement as you introduce the fighter and to give it that extra push at exactly the right time. It’s a real art to be able to say all the different names from all the different countries and to do so with the proper energy.”

After creating the proper preamble to a fight, the ring announcer takes a seat and awaits the centerpiece of his duties – announcing the final result. Even that has subtleties that must be addressed, such as reading scorecards in the correct sequence.

“If there’s a unanimous decision in which every score is identical, I would say, for example, ‘All three judges – Glenn Feldman, Wynn Kintz and Tom Schreck – are all in agreement, scoring it exactly the same,’ and then read the score. You don’t say the same score all three times. If they have the same winner but different scores, I’ll announce them individually.”

When confronted with split decisions, majority decisions or draws, Treiber strives to achieve maximum effect by reading each score in a certain order. For split decisions, he recites a score favoring one fighter first, a score favoring the other fighter next and the deciding vote last. He also tries not to tip off the winner’s identity by following a “Fighter A-Fighter B-Fighter A” reading pattern.

“I always mix it up,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll read the winning fighter’s first scorecard first and sometimes I’ll read the card favoring the eventual loser first. I don’t like to do it the same all the time.”

Treiber follows similar principles when reading a draw decision, though he makes sure to add an extra pause between the numbers on the third card to squeeze out every bit of drama.

“When they hear that it’s a draw, you’ll hear a few ‘Aahs’ and boos from the crowd,” he said. “That’s where delivery is so important.”

Majority decisions and majority draws are the toughest to announce in terms of maximizing the suspense because two of the cards are identical. Most, if not all, save the two identical cards for last but while some choose to announce them together, Treiber opts to read each one separately. To Treiber, using that approach isn’t a matter of right or wrong but rather preference that comes with experience.

“When I first started ring announcing, even though I was a casual fan, I didn’t know how to announce decisions properly,” he said. “Once I started doing it on a serious level, I knew that if I wanted to be on TV, I needed to learn to do it correctly. I would ask referees, commission people and announcers for advice and over time, you just learn.”

One rule he does follow is to immediately identify if a verdict is split or majority.

“That creates a level of suspense the moment I say that because it sets the stage for a dramatic announcement,” he said. “For unanimous decisions, I don’t preface it by saying ‘We have a unanimous decision,’ I just go right into the scores. Some announcers do say that and it’s not wrong to do so; it’s just my preference.”

On rare occasions, Treiber’s duties are forced to go beyond the sphere of presentation and information into the chaotic world of crowd control.

“Fans can become quite hostile at times and the ring announcer is the messenger, so sometimes your job can go outside just introducing fighters and announcing decisions,” he said. “I remember doing an event in Texas in the late 1990s where there was a lot of debris was being thrown in the ring after an unpopular decision. It was a very scary moment. I remember being in the ring and seeing things flying around like bottles and I knew it was time to get out of the ring and find cover.”

Treiber is not limited to boxing shows, for he has also worked MMA, Muay Thai and professional wrestling. As he looks to his future, Treiber wants to expand his sphere of events.

“Absolutely, I have worn a few hats behind the microphone and I’d be open to do P.A. announcing like David Diamante does at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn,” he said. “I’ve done bodybuilding competitions, emcee work for non-sports related functions such as corporate events and casinos have hired me out to be an emcee for special events. I don’t have any exclusive deals with anyone; I’m an independent contractor. I work with several different promoters and it depends on which TV outlet the promoter has for that particular event. But I’m seen often on Channel 5 in England because Hennessy Sports promotes all the shows that appear on the channel and I’m there because Hennessy hired me.”

Although the ring announcer is the center of attention before and after the fight, Treiber believes the best announcers are those who can balance showmanship with humility.

“My job is to put over the fighter and put over the event,” he said. “It’s not about me in there. I’m a pitchman and I’m presenting a product. It’s my job to make the promoter’s event look as professional as possible and no matter what kind of event I’m doing, my job is to put over the athletes, not myself.”

But if one does his job well enough for long enough, as Treiber has, the attention and accolades will eventually come from those who really count – fans, promoters, TV networks, industry insiders and peers.

“Thomas Treiber is one of the best ring announcers in boxing and watching him grow as he’s worked numerous ShoBox shows has been great to see,” said analyst Steve Farhood. “Thomas is thorough and well-prepared and his confidence and maturity are plain for all to see. Whenever he’s working a show that I’m part of, I always feel good.”

“I first met Tom when I moved to Las Vegas with my family in 1997,” recalled “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith. “I really liked the young man who I would watch blossom into one of the best ring announcers in the business but the road to that place was paved with highs and lows, ebbs and flows. I have had many a lengthy phone call with Tom advising him now to navigate through the B.S. of boxing and the thing I tried to pound home was just to be the best you can be at your craft and don’t sweat the other stuff. Through it all, I found a young man who became excellent through persistence, dedication and determination. He is the consummate professional as a boxing ring announcer and, by the way, he’s also a good guy.”

“He’s well respected and he’s a real professional,” Lennon Jr. said. “He’s always so prepared; you don’t see him making mistakes and he does a good, solid job. He works on the small details of making it look easy and he puts a good face on the show at the same time. What I really appreciate about him is that he has a good perspective of his role. He knows he’s an important part of the show but he also knows that he’s not the show. As a ring announcer, you are the face and voice of the event and he presents the whole event. Plus, he’s just a super nice guy, the kind of person that you root for and would like to see good things happen to.”

Given these testimonials, it’s clear that Treiber personifies the biblical saying that “He who exalts himself shall be humbled but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

*

Following dinner and another informal chat session with the ShoBox crew, I headed back to the room around 11 p.m., where I got a diet soda from the vending machine and alternated between CFL football on ESPN 2 and cable news. It wasn’t until 2 a.m. that I decided to turn out the lights to another long and eventful day.

Friday, July 26: As usual on the road, deep sleep was almost impossible to achieve but by the time I arose at 8:30 a.m., I felt as if I had gotten enough to get by. I spent the majority of the morning catching up on my writing and surfing the web, after which I went downstairs to the business office to print out my boarding pass. It was there that I experienced another chance meeting, for sitting to my immediate left was the ubiquitous and multi-talented Marc Abrams of GoFightLive.tv fame. After talking shop for a bit, I grabbed lunch at the Stone Street Deli, one of my familiar Turning Stone haunts. After consuming a half-pound sandwich, a small bag of chips and a cup of Diet Pepsi, my usually brisk walking pace slowed to a waddle because suddenly I felt as if I had become sumo-sized.

With my call time drawing nearer, I decided to walk to the arena to get credentials and bout sheets for myself and punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak, who was just starting his multi-hour drive from Massachusetts. As production manager Joie Silva handed over the passes, I received a most pleasant surprise: during last night’s reception, a series of awards were given out – and I was one of the recipients. Along with my credential, she gave me a laminated pass bearing these words: “Award of Excellence/The Wikipedia Award/Presented to Lee Groves/For Being a Living Encyclopedia About the Sport of Boxing.”

I was proud yet humbled, for out-of-the-blue expressions of appreciation from others are the most treasured.

The good vibrations continued once I returned to ringside. The customary electronic checks proceeded flawlessly and the mid-afternoon meal at the Seasons Buffet went down easily. All seemed to be going well – almost too well.

Who was I to argue with good fortune? The seven-bout card began a little after 8 p.m. with the televised quadruple-header set to start two hours later. A long night of counting awaited but there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

*

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.

Around the web