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

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Sep

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Friday, Sept. 19: For the first time in six weeks, boxing’s Travelin’ Man returned to the road and the final destination was a familiar one – Foxwoods Resort Casino. There, cruiserweights Thabiso Mchunu and Garrett Wilson and lightweights Karl Dargan and Angino Perez headlined an afternoon card televised on NBC’s main channel instead of its customary NBC Sports Network location – a positive but hopefully not temporary development in terms of boxing’s potential access to the masses.

Even in this age of the Internet and hundreds of highly specialized cable channels, ABC, CBS and NBC continue to amass the widest viewership in the United States. So it’s always a good thing for U.S. fans and the sport in general whenever boxing secures a “big three” programming slot – any programming slot.



Such slots were once commonplace. When I became a fan four decades ago, the terrestrial networks considered boxing a vital property that generated reliable ratings and advertising revenue as well as compelling, competitive action. Many times, in this era before VCRs, much less DVRs, viewers were forced to choose between competing telecasts featuring major title fights.

For example, on November 3, 1984, NBC aired Jose Luis Ramirez’s thrilling four-round TKO over defending WBC lightweight champ Edwin Rosario while CBS offered a championship doubleheader featuring Juan “Kid” Meza’s shocking one-punch KO over WBC junior featherweight king (and previously undefeated) Jaime Garza and Billy Costello’s successful WBC junior welterweight title defense against ex-champ Saoul Mamby. Since remote controls didn’t exist at my house, I repeatedly turned the channel selector to catch as much of the action as I could. When one fight went into commercial, I switched to the other to ensure myself wall-to-wall boxing.

For this budding fan, those over-the-air network telecasts were Nirvana. Because the same few dozen fighters showed up every so often, I eventually learned their names as well as their histories. One of the most powerful examples of free-TV’s power to shape opinion about a boxer was CBS’ packaging of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in the early 1980s. Mancini’s story of winning the lightweight title denied his father by World War II captivated the sporting public to the point that the ultra-popular Alexis Arguello was viewed as the bad guy when the 20-year-old Ohioan challenged for the Nicaraguan’s WBC lightweight belt. Though Mancini lost by 14th round TKO, the fight more than lived up to the hype both inside the ring and in terms of the TV ratings. Mancini’s money-making capacity in great part propelled “Boom Boom” into a second chance at the brass ring against WBA king Art Frias seven months and three fights later. This time, Mancini made good by stopping Frias in a classic 174-second war.

More than two decades after his retirement, Mancini remains a well-known figure and that couldn’t have happened without free-TV’s potent imprint during a crucial time in his career. That formula worked for countless boxers over the years, the most notable of which was Sugar Ray Leonard. Unfortunately for the sport, the publicity train provided by the Big Three networks slowed down and eventually stopped.

Yes, other factors have adversely affected the sport’s standing with the general public – nonsensical decisions at all levels of the sport, the proliferation of sanctioning bodies and its myriad of subordinate belts, ratings that put political connections and popularity ahead of merit and so on – but nothing has had a bigger long-term negative effect on boxing than its disappearance from free network TV.

Starting in the late 1980s, ABC, CBS and NBC began weaning the public from the “Sweet Science.” The rise of HBO – and eventually pay-per-view cards accessible from one’s living room – changed the sport’s pay structure so much that the networks were priced out of the highest profile matches. The advertising revenue from network telecasts couldn’t begin to match the cash flow derived from pay-TV subscriptions.

At first, the networks bought the delayed-broadcast rights to the biggest fights but because pre-taped bouts didn’t pack the same ratings punch as a live broadcast, that practice was eventually phased out. Also, a new generation of TV executives and newspaper sports editors that didn’t hold boxing with the same esteem as their predecessors did their part to squeeze the sport out of the mainstream.

Though diehards like me objected vehemently, the die was cast and it was irreversible. Newspaper coverage of the biggest fights were reduced to a trickle while the networks’ once-robust 36-week boxing slate was steadily whittled to nothing. Once the “out of sight/out of mind” dynamic took root, a once-proud sport was relegated to the periphery save for an occasional Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao “event” or a police blotter story that put boxing in a bad light.

After boxing became a pay-cable sport, the casual fans saved their money and moved on to other sports that still peddled their wares for free on some platforms – most notably the NFL, NBA and MLB. The effects on boxing were damaging: the rightfully frugal public lost out on the chance to be introduced to the next cast of world-class boxers and those boxers, in turn, lost out on the opportunity to cash in on the popularity they would have garnered from free-TV exposure.

Just imagine how much more popular a fighter like Paul Malignaggi – a gregarious, garrulous, made-for-TV New Yorker with world-class skills – would have been had he been featured on any of the three big networks and their respective publicity machines. He is just one example of many potential stars who could have benefited from the enhanced exposure. Moreover, the vacuum boxing created for itself set the stage for the explosive rise of mixed-martial arts over the last decade. Thanks to its visionary multi-platform advertising campaign, MMA has become the combat sport of choice for the treasured 18 to 34-year-old demographic. Had boxing still been in the free-TV mix, that rise would have been far more difficult to pull off.

I realize boxing can’t return to the climate of yesteryear and it shouldn’t because today’s TV universe is light years better in terms of selection and the quality of signal. Boxing is shown on more channels than ever before. For example, I DVR’ed shows from NBC, UniMas, TyC from Argentina, beIN Sports, Time Warner Cable’s Spanish-language channel, SNY and MSG-Plus, all of which will be transferred to space-saving DVDs instead of bulky VHS tapes.

Even with this far wider network net, adding regular “Big Three” network shows to the mix can help repair – if not totally restore – boxing’s rightful place in the sporting hierarchy. The neglect of the past few decades has created a “start from scratch” environment and because of that, the process of reintroducing the public at large to the full cast of characters will require a substantial attitudinal and monetary commitment as well as a willingness to endure the inevitable growing pains.

Boxing’s problems took years to take hold and it will take years to fix them. That’s a fact. But if consistent network shows are combined with other administrative reforms, then perhaps this great sport can return to what it was when I first fell in love with it 40 years ago – and perhaps beyond that standard. After all, if that TV structure worked with me all those years ago, why couldn’t it work with other people now?

Main Events’ association with NBC Sports Network over the past couple of years has forged the pathway to occasional appearances on the “Mother Ship” including this latest broadcast emanating from Foxwoods. Hopefully other promoters will seek out similar partnerships. Perhaps Golden Boy Promotions could leverage its association with Showtime into shows airing on CBS, which is owned by the same company. ESPN and ABC are owned by the same business entity, Disney, so why not start a series there?

Yes, a lot must happen in order to make this dream a reality but if the will is there on all sides, the ways to do it will emerge. Television’s power to shape opinion remains as strong as ever, for once the mass media latches on to a story, it can whip the nation into a frothing fervor. That can occur for boxing if the emotional investment is granted because once a decision-maker believes something is important, it can become important.

That, however, is my dream for the future. For now, however, we boxing fans will take whatever we can get and in less than 24 hours’ time NBC will give boxing its latest booster shot.

*

It’s a good thing I’ve been to Foxwoods many times over the past decade because it’s the only place I know whose address has multiple aliases. Depending on the source, the resort is located in either Mashantucket or Ledyard, Conn. The Google page for Foxwoods lists Ledyard but the casino’s website has it as Mashantucket. Worse yet for neophytes, two street addresses are listed. On the website, it is 350 Trolley Line Boulevard (and P.O. Box 7777) but on the NBC production memo, those with GPS devices are advised to enter 39 Norwich Westerly Road. At least both of those addresses are in Ledyard although they could easily be in Mashantucket too.

Confused? I certainly was at first. But time and experience eventually resolved those problems.

This day’s to-do list included driving to Pittsburgh to catch a direct flight to Hartford, then using a Hertz rental car to travel approximately 75 minutes to Foxwoods. As usual, I over-prepared; not only did I have printed directions from airport to hotel, thanks to NBC’s memo, I also had my trusty Magellan GPS in tow.

Like most travel days, this one started innocently enough. I arose at 7:45 a.m. and after finishing the usual morning routines, I applied the final touches to the packing process and headed out the door shortly after 8:30. It was a delightful late summer morning; sunny skies and temperatures in the upper-50s that spawned easily disposed dew on the windshield. I felt the telltale chill of impending autumn on my face and forearms as I made sure (1) no stray animals were underneath the car and (2) my tires remained fully inflated.

“No cats and no flats,” I silently confirmed as I walked toward the driver’s side door.

As I began my usual two-and-a-half hour trip to Pittsburgh International Airport, I hoped for a routine journey especially after enduring a highly unusual and occasionally chaotic outbound trip to Bethlehem, Pa. last time out. Any hopes for an unimpeded trip were dashed 45 minutes into my drive when my cell phone rang. It was a robo-call from US Airways informing me that my scheduled 1:20 p.m. flight would be delayed until at least 3:10. The stated reason: federal regulations regarding crew rest delayed the aircraft’s departure from Hartford to St. Louis, which, in turn, pushed back the start of its St. Louis-to-Pittsburgh leg.

It would have been nice to know this before I pulled out of the driveway but such is life. I couldn’t turn around and go home because by the time I got home, it would be time to leave again. The eternal optimist in me portrayed the situation in its best possible light: first, I no longer had to worry about getting to my gate on time; second, I could consume my first meal of the day at a leisurely pace and third, I could finish a couple of items on the to-do list while waiting at the gate – all of which I accomplished by the time the plane rolled into its assigned slot.

The bird didn’t take off until nearly 3:30 but it made up enough time in the air to land in Hartford just 60 minutes later. My fourth row aisle seat ensured I was one of the first to leave the aircraft and in another stroke of luck, I caught the Hertz shuttle bus just before it left the terminal area. The line at the check-in counter was pleasingly short and I was served less than 10 minutes later.

After saying hello to the female Hertz agent, she looked at my license and said, “West Virginia, huh? But you don’t talk with an accent.” While others might treat that as an insult, I took it as an opportunity to educate.

“The area of the state where I’m from borders Ohio and is fairly close to Pennsylvania,” I told her. “For some, that tends to neutralize the twang normally associated with my state. Some of my neighbors who grew up in Friendly speak with the accent while others don’t. I’m not sure why. I suppose the ‘accent line’ runs a bit south of where I live but I don’t know exactly where since it’s such an individual thing.”

In short, few, if any, stereotypes are universal but enough examples exist to perpetuate them.

I was given a full-size silver Nissan Altima that included a GPS but I still opted to use my own device. Happily, the Magellan “found” me quickly and I was on my way.

My later-than-anticipated arrival, however, created a bad byproduct: the onset of rush-hour traffic. Interstate 91 South was clogged with cars that forced stop-and-go driving for quite a while. I thought taking the left exit to Route 2 East off I-84 East would provide some welcome relief but it was not to be, at least until I had gone several more miles. Also, the Magellan helped me navigate Norwich’s numerous side streets, multiple-forked roads and hairpin turns. All of these factors lengthened a normally 75-minute drive to one lasting more than two hours.

I arrived at Foxwoods’ Fox Towers shortly after 7 p.m. and after checking into my room on the 21st floor, I discovered I had several messages waiting for me, some business, some personal. Once I took care of those, I headed down to the casino to get a belated dinner at one of the food court restaurants, making sure to take the latest issue of THE RING with me to serve as company.

For every advantage, there is a disadvantage and this show was no different. Advantage: the live broadcast begins at 3 p.m. and ends at 5, which would afford me unusually ample time after the show to take care of my writing and to prepare for the next day’s trip back home. Disadvantage: most of the crew (me included) needed to be on site at 7 a.m. – and I am definitely not a morning person.

I did my best to “fool” myself into an earlier-than-usual bedtime by setting the hotel room clock three hours ahead. It did the trick; I turned out the lights shortly after 11 p.m. and fell asleep shortly thereafter.

Saturday, Sept. 20: I stirred awake at 5:30 a.m. and snoozed until 6. After finishing the morning routines, I left the room at 6:40 in search of the Fox Theater. I had never sought out the venue from the Fox Tower portion of the property and after some initial confusion, a helpful casino cashier pointed me in the right direction.

As I walked toward ringside, I felt a mild sense of dread because every time I worked the Fox Theater, the CompuBox work station was situated inside what I call “the trench” – the extremely narrow area between the front of the stage and the edge of the ring. The distance between those two areas is so short that I’ve seen fighters in the ring and fans in the stands reach over and shake hands. Now imagine fitting tables, chairs, TV equipment and people within that trench. Needless to say, it’s a very tight fit and once you’re locked in, you’re locked in.

Beyond the obvious discomfort factor, passing notes to the talent resembled a bucket brigade. After writing the stats on a slip of paper, I would pass it to the referee counting the knockdowns, who would give it to the timekeeper, who would forward it to the production manager, who would turn it over to the ringside analyst, who finally gave it to the blow-by-blow man. Sometimes the note got there; sometimes it didn’t but the effort was always there.

But once I walked inside the arena, I noticed the headsets marked for CompuBox were sitting not in the trench but rather a side table normally reserved for the press.

“Could it be?” I silently asked myself.

It was. The good folks at NBC in charge of diagramming the facility on the memo thought it best that the talent be situated at the edge of the trench so they could easily reach their “stand-up” positions and that the CompuBox operators would be placed in the front row of the press section to make it easier to pass notes to the talent. I couldn’t have been more pleased, especially since I put on a few pounds over the past several months.

The usual pre-fight connection tests went off without a hitch and a few hours later, punch-counting partner Aris Pina joined me at our new work station location. He too was happy with the new arrangement, which I suggest other networks adopt in the future.

The crew meal at the Festival Buffet was somewhat shortened because the restaurant hadn’t yet cleared out a block of tables for us even though they knew we were coming. The food more than made up for the delay, for it was delicious and filling.

Although the live broadcast was set to begin at 3, the taping of potential filler fights was set to start two-and-a-half hours earlier. The first two fighters on the card – super middleweights Charles Foster and Robert Jackson – stepped into the ring precisely at 12:30 but because the ambulance required to be at the arena was on a run, it didn’t arrive until 30 minutes later. All the while the fighters waited inside the ring instead of being sent back to their dressing rooms to restart their warm-ups. A poor move, in my opinion.

Ring announcer Joe Antonacci’s first syllable over the loudspeaker brought cheers from the crowd, for that meant the afternoon’s action was about to begin. It was a long time coming but in the end it turned out to be worth the wait.

*

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 three 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 email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

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