Friday, March 28: It has often been written that “familiarity breeds contempt” but in my case, familiarity has created comfort. For the fourth time since last October, this Travelin’ Man has worked shows in Atlantic City and as a result, a perennial navigational curse has been expunged.
For years, the drive from Philadelphia International Airport to Atlantic City (and from Atlantic City to Philadelphia) had flummoxed me. My errant ways even transcended MapQuest and GPS assistance and because of this, I was forced to drive on many unfamiliar roads before helpful locals eventually pointed me in the right direction. One of my worst wayward journeys saw me drive into northern New Jersey and I discovered, through a toll booth employee, that I had to drive for more than 30 minutes just to reach the correct road, much less get to my destination.
Although I had gotten better over time (how could I get any worse?), my concerns were still present last autumn when I was asked to make the first of several scheduled trips to “America’s Playground.” But after stumbling onto a breakthrough – what I had thought was a wrong turn ended up being the right turn – my fear factor dropped considerably. With every successive – and successful – trip to AC, my internal roadmap crystallized to the point where I felt I could make the trip without an electronic net. I wasn’t foolish enough to go “whole hog” – I packed my GPS in the clothes bag just in case – but I felt pretty good about my chances.
In the past, I traveled to my destination the day before our customary pre-fight electronic checks but here I was asked to arrive on the day of those checks, which, in the case of HBO show, occur the day before the fight card. It’s just as well. Had I traveled 24 hours earlier, I would have walked into a variety of chaotic side stories. First, RingTV.com’s Tim Smith reported that a crime suspect who had been involved in a police chase that stretched through three cities was shot and killed in front of the hotel where the fighters (and HBO crew) were staying. Second, a brawl broke out during the weigh-in for Karim Mayfield-Thomas Dulorme after Mayfield licked his opponent on the chest and neck. Finally, Marion Sullivan, who was about to become Mayfield’s manager, was being pursued by authorities on a variety of charges including a murder-for-hire conspiracy, gun trafficking, a drug-trafficking scheme and the sale of fraudulent credit cards (he was apprehended in California the following morning).
My scheduled call time at the venue was 4 p.m. and the only flight that could accommodate this request without wrecking my body clock was the 12:50 p.m. US Airways flight from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. If all went perfectly, I’d land at 2:03, secure my rental car by 2:35 and arrive at Boardwalk Hall precisely at four.
That was the plan anyway.
The first part – driving from home to Pittsburgh – went smoothly. I left the house at 8:15 a.m., stopped at the Walmart in New Martinsville to buy a phone card that fortified my available minutes and arrived at the airport shortly before 11. As a “silver” traveler on US Airways, I had the privilege of using the “preferred” access line, which, at that moment, consisted of only two people, one of which was headed to Sweden for a lengthy holiday. Although I brought two laptops with me – one to use at the show and one to have available if anything went wrong – I breezed through the security checkpoint and arrived inside the terminal with plenty of time to spare. So far, so good.
I began to have my doubts the moment I looked at the “arrivals” monitor at the top of the escalator. The bird that was to fly me to Philly was listed as delayed but when I looked at the “departures” monitor, the flight was still listed as being “on time.”
Those doubts intensified when the plane hadn’t arrived at the gate by the scheduled 12:20 boarding time. When I asked the gate agent about the plane’s whereabouts, she said it was in range of the airport and would be landing soon. Moreover, she intended to expedite the process of getting the plane ready so that we’d have an on-time departure.
The realist in me was skeptical. Based on past experience, it takes about 45 minutes to disembark, clean the interior, seat the next group of passengers, go through the required safety instructions, pull out of the gate, reach the runway and take off. However, the optimist in me held out hope that the gate agent’s word would come true.
It didn’t. The aircraft didn’t arrive at the gate until 12:33 and any hopes for an on-time departure vanished the instant the flight attendant announced that our plane was under a ground stop for at least the next 30 minutes. This was hardly a surprise: I knew any trip involving Philadelphia’s airport carried this risk because as a hub facility, it is one of the busiest – and most congested – airports in the country.
When it became clear I wasn’t going to make the 4 p.m. call time, I rang up my contact at the arena and let him know what was happening and why. He didn’t seem concerned because the set-up process was taking a bit longer than expected and he said he probably wouldn’t have been ready for me at 4 p.m. anyway. He instructed me to contact him when I arrived in Atlantic City to see if I needed to drive directly to the venue or whether I could check into the hotel first.
The ground stop ended a little sooner than expected but that didn’t stop the take-off and landing from taking place later than scheduled. Once I touched down in Philadelphia, I was granted two strokes of good luck. First, my wait for the rental car company’s shuttle bus lasted less than five minutes and second, the queue at the office was a short one. I climbed into my rental – a dark gray 2013 Chevrolet Sonic – and began my 90-minute, GPS-less final exam.
The first few minutes were tentative and for a moment, I thought I had failed less than five minutes in when, at the route’s first fork, I veered to the right instead of going straight ahead. But just as the initial pangs were about to escalate, my mind experienced a flashback: this was the exact place last fall where I thought I had erred only to find out I was on the correct road. Sure enough, my memories proved right as it became evident through my surroundings that I had passed the opening quiz. Although I nearly missed the exit leading to the Walt Whitman Bridge – the critical point on the route that would lead me to the Atlantic City Expressway – the rest of the drive was uneventful and confidently carried out.
During the latter stages of the trip, I learned I had time to check into the hotel – Caesars Atlantic City – before walking over to Boardwalk Hall to conduct the pre-fight electronic checks. After finding a spot on the fifth level of the parking garage, I experienced issues finding the elevators that would lead me to the hotel lobby. A parking garage employee stationed on the ground floor told me I needed to take the elevator to the third floor and walk diagonally across the entirety of the garage, all of which took about 15 minutes to execute. It also took a while to find the hotel registration desk but fortunately for me, I wasn’t confronted by a long line.
I stayed in my fifth-floor room long enough to put my clothes bag down and 10 minutes later, I arrived at Boardwalk Hall’s loading dock where HBO’s trucks were parked. The security guard told me the escalator leading up to the Adrian Phillips Ballroom was broken, so he suggested that I take an elevator up. When I told him I didn’t know where that elevator was located, he generously offered to escort me not just to the elevator but also to the arena floor.
It turned out that I had arrived at the perfect moment for our work area had just been given a power strip. The checks were completed in less than 10 minutes and after saying hello to some familiar faces around ringside and in the production truck (where I got credentials for myself and punch-counting partner Aris Pina), I intended to walk directly back to the hotel to get an early-evening dinner.
Instead, I spent about a half-hour talking to the security guard who had previously escorted me to the arena. At the end of our conversation, he asked me where I was planning to eat that evening. I said I didn’t know.
“I highly recommend that you stop at a place called the ‘White House Sub Shop,’” he said. “They make the best sandwiches and the prices are very reasonable. They have a place inside the Taj Mahal but you should stop by the original place, which is on the corner of Mississippi and Arctic avenues.” He then proceeded to give me directions, which I tried to follow once I returned to the hotel and put away my laptop bag.
As usual, my gyroscope didn’t work properly. In retrospect, I made my left turn one traffic light too soon but after stopping at a gas station, I was soon righted. The exterior was small and nondescript but the interior was the polar opposite. The malt-shop style decor was dotted with dozens of autographed photos provided by famous patrons ranging from the Food Network’s Guy Fieri to actor Ed Asner to several notable politicians. I only spotted one boxer’s visage on the “wall of fame”: Two spots to the right of the giant Pepsi clock was a huge photo of Rocky Marciano that included a fight-by-fight listing of his famed 49-0 career.
I scanned the menu on the wall before choosing the “famous Italian Sub,” which, on their website, is billed as being 80 percent fat-free. One could get a “half” sub for $6.75 but as famished as I was, I opted to get the “whole” for $13.50 plus tax along with a small bag of Lays potato chips and a cup of Diet Pepsi. I assumed the “whole” would be a foot-long but surprisingly, the whole was a two-footer served in foot-long halves.
“I had no idea the ‘whole’ was this whole,” I told the woman at the check-out counter. “This isn’t a sub, this is a battleship!”
“Well, that’s why we’ve been here since 1946,” she replied. “The best thing about our sandwiches is that you can save them for later and they will actually taste better.”
With my tightly wrapped sub sticking out of the white plastic bag, I walked back to Caesars and munched away as I watched the end of ESPN2’s “Catching Hell” before turning to ESPN and watching “Friday Night Fights.” I managed to eat the first half of the sub, which was wonderful, before wrapping up the other half and putting it in the refrigerator. The meal filled me to the gills and, predictably, my eyes grew so heavy that I ended up turning out the lights at 11:30, about three hours earlier than my usual bedtime.
Saturday, March 29: My in-and-out slumber lasted a full nine hours and I spent much of the morning – and early afternoon – catching up on all of the tasks I opted to put off the previous evening. When I finished those, I went down to the lobby to grab a soda and chips to join the sub I had stored in the fridge.
Just before heading down to print out my boarding passes, Aris called my cell. We agreed to meet in the lobby so I could give him his credential and while that part of the journey was successful, the other part wasn’t. Because the hotel’s computers automatically blocked pop-up ads, the buttons necessary to transfer the image on my screen to the printer was also blocked. But I noticed there was a station to plug in one’s laptop to the printer so I returned upstairs, packed my laptop and returned to the business center.
Unfortunately for me, the web page on my laptop seemed to be stuck on the home page and wouldn’t go any further. I used the business center’s hotline to alert those experts about my problem and added that I needed to have it rectified in less than 20 minutes’ time because Aris and I had agreed to meet at 3:30 to walk to the arena. They promised to have someone stop by but didn’t vow that he’d be there in time.
As the minutes dwindled, I decided to use the hotline again to let them know that I had to leave but the person on the other line, a different person from the one I had spoken to earlier, appeared to know what he was doing. With one simple command – Control P – the problems with the print link vanished and I was able to print out my boarding pass. After thanking him for his help, I quickly packed my documents and laptop before heading out to the hotel registration desk to meet Aris.
The clammy weather that had gripped Atlantic City turned drizzly but the “HBO Sports” cap I packed helped ward off the precipitation. Not that it mattered because a passing car to our right splashed some roadside water on my pants. The damage was limited, however, so a change of clothes was unnecessary.
Once Aris and I reached ringside, all was well. All of the computers spoke to each other fluently and the crew meal at the Fortunes Room at the Trump Plaza was filling. By the time we reached our position at ringside, the second fight of the evening – a four-rounder between undefeated junior welterweights Wellington Romero and Gerald Smith – was about to begin. Less than 30 minutes later, the night of punch counting for Aris and me would officially begin.
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 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. 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 e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.
Photo / Naoki Fukuda