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The Travelin’ Man returns to Philadelphia-part I

25
Oct

Cunningham-Visinia poster-crop

 

Friday, October 17: A lot has transpired in the 26 days since the end of my last journey to Foxwoods and this day. Four boxing-related headlines captured my attention: first, the boxing world went back to the future as 36-year-old Jermain Taylor and 41-year-old Cornelius Bundrage improbably regained major titles from IBF middleweight king Sam Soliman and IBF junior middleweight beltholder Carlos Molina respectively. Second and third, former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks and high-grade journeyman Emanuel Augustus were hospitalized for differing reasons, Spinks for two emergency abdominal surgeries and Augustus after being shot in the back of the head near a Baton Rouge gym. Finally, NBC and Al Haymon reached a multi-million dollar deal that promises boxing’s partial return to prime-time terrestrial television.

Exactly five years ago this day, Taylor’s career appeared to reach a most disturbing end when, in the opening fight of the “Super Six” super middleweight tournament at Berlin’s O2 Arena, Arthur Abraham scored a one-punch knockout with just six seconds left in the fight. For the onetime undisputed middleweight champion, it was his second straight 12th round stoppage defeat and his third inside-the-distance loss in his last five fights. Unlike his defeat against Carl Froch six months earlier – the result of attrition as much as “The Cobra’s” blows – the Abraham ending saw Taylor knocked unconscious, his stiffened right arm hanging in the air for several moments before coming to rest. Taylor’s then-promoter Lou DiBella, obviously concerned for Taylor’s welfare, ducked between the ropes at the count of six and rushed to his stricken client’s side.



Taylor left the ring under his own power but he suffered a brain bleed that resulted in his license being revoked. Two years later, after undergoing a battery of tests that included visits to the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Taylor regained his license and launched a seemingly quixotic comeback.

Competing in his original weight class and looking sharp, he dominated all four opponents and scored three knockouts. There were trouble signs, however: he suffered a ninth-round knockdown against Caleb Truax and he was docked one point for hitting after the sixth-round bell in his opening comeback fight against Jessie Nicklow, whom he stopped in eight punishing rounds. As good as Taylor looked in the fights leading up to the Soliman bout, I was among the legion of observers who gave Taylor little chance of beating Soliman, who, at age 40, had completed his own unlikely run to his first major title when he scored a lopsided win over Felix Sturm in Germany. Despite Soliman’s advanced years, he still represented a big step up in competition for Taylor and I believed his herky-jerky movement, bizarre punching angles and sheer hustle would be enough to outpoint Taylor.

For the first six rounds, I (and most other observers) was proven correct. But then the fight turned in a way I couldn’t have guessed. Taylor seized command with knockdowns in rounds seven, eight, nine and 11 that were partially produced by an injury to Soliman’s right leg. While the Australian showed his typical courage and resourcefulness by lasting the distance, those four 10-8 rounds propelled Taylor to a wide decision victory (116-109, 116-111 and 115-109) and his first major title since losing his WBC and WBO straps to Kelly Pavlik in September 2007. The seven-year gap between middleweight reigns is the largest in division history but the question now is how will this story continue? Taylor’s management will surely guide him away from the likes of Gennady Golovkin, Peter Quillin, Miguel Cotto and Saul Alvarez in favor of concentrating on the IBF’s top-10 list. Onetime titlist Hassan N’Dam is Taylor’s mandatory, thanks to his decisive decision over Curtis Stevens a week before Taylor-Soliman but although the France-based Cameroon native has earned the right to get the first crack, he may be victimized by a more powerful dynamic: high risk/low recognition/low reward.

My gut tells me that if the decision were Taylor’s alone to make, he would sign on the dotted line to fight anyone, even Golovkin if the money is right. After all, his comeback proves he’s willing to risk everything – even his very life – to maximize his boxing career. His management, however, will guide him differently because they know the wrong fight may produce a very wrong and perhaps very permanent, negative result.

As a fan, I wish Taylor well and hope he will end his career without sustaining more major damage. As a writer, I hope I will be given reasons to chronicle successes instead of addressing tragedies. Experience, however, tells me that the real end may most likely fall somewhere between.

As surprised as I was at the Taylor-Soliman result, I was less so by Bundrage’s upset of Molina. After all, Molina was coming off a career-long 13-month layoff caused largely by a myriad of legal issues. Bundrage, no matter his age, always had two assets going for him – impeccable conditioning and a potent right hand. That right hand produced knockdowns in rounds one and 10 as well as consistent connects throughout the fight. “K9” clearly was the more focused and prepared fighter and at 41 years and 210 days, he extended his own record as the oldest man ever to hold a junior middleweight title. Also, he became one of a handful of fighters ever to capture a major boxing belt after age 40. The others: Bernard Hopkins (of course), George Foreman, Virgil Hill, Thulani “Sugar Boy” Malinga (who, like Hopkins, did it twice) – and Sam Soliman.

I had the pleasure of meeting Spinks a few times during the IBHOF’s induction weekend and Augustus at the initial Florida Boxing Hall of Fame festivities in November 2009. But while my personal encounters with them were brief and fleeting, their impact on my journey as a boxing fan was beyond question.

One of my most powerful memories during my early teen years was Spinks’ mind-blowing upset of Muhammad Ali in February 1978. To that point, Ali had been the only heavyweight champion I had ever known and though he had shown clear signs of decline, he still had enough in the tank physically – and even more politically – to turn back every challenge. I never thought that Spinks, who struggled to a draw versus Scott LeDoux and a decision over Alfio Righetti in his last two fights, would have what it took to beat even a diminished Ali. But beat him he did. His energetic, all-out attack in the first half of the fight created a mathematical hole from which Ali couldn’t extricate himself and Spinks’ grit in the face of Ali’s huge finishing kick in the 15th propelled him to one of sports history’s biggest upsets.

My 13-year-old mind struggled to comprehend what I had just seen. As I lay in the dark of my bedroom I reran the fight in my mind while silently repeating the phrase, “Leon Spinks, heavyweight champion of the world” until I fell asleep. Spinks’ triumph ended up being a bolt of lightning rather than the start of a glorious run at the top as he lost the title back to a rejuvenated Ali seven months later. But Spinks’ decline as a fighter had no impact on his worldwide fame or the high regard fans have for him personally. He remains one of the most popular returnees to the Hall of Fame weekend because of his accessibility and his down-to-earth nature.

“Everyone loves Leon because he never conducted himself like a person in the limelight,” said CompuBox colleague and boxing historian Aris Pina, who had spent considerable time with Spinks at the Hall. “If you go to the Hall of Fame every year, you know exactly where you can find him every night: on the corner stool at Graziano’s. Half the people who approach him don’t even ask for an autograph because he’s just the guy you want to share a beer with. When you hang out with him you don’t think about boxing so much. He’s just a regular Joe who just happens to have a pretty cool boxing legacy hanging on him.”

In this respect, Spinks is a throwback to a time when fans and stars mingled freely and shared a level of trust that created indelible memories. That dynamic evaporated a couple of generations ago when a more aggressive media corps began to dig out and publicize sordid and previously withheld private details that spiked circulations and generated untold profits. The walls of distrust between media and athletes eventually expanded to relationships between fans and stars, especially when memorabilia started to become big business. Now, with cell phones capturing every word and every movement, it won’t be shocking if we’ll never again encounter Spinks’ brand of openness.

One of the most appealing aspects of Hall of Fame weekend is the predominant absence of guile between fans and athletes. Autographs are given free of charge and the vast majority of fans who seek them only want a keepsake, not a money-making opportunity. Those who violate the unwritten rules are asked to cease and desist and more times than not, they do so though sometimes grudgingly. Given today’s sensibilities, the fact that this climate has held for 25 years is nothing short of miraculous.

In March 2008, I wrote a two-part series for Maxboxing.com entitled “Boxing’s Kings of Funk” in which I profiled fighters with unique and sometimes bizarre styles. I wrote the following about Augustus:

Throughout his career, Augustus was both a blessing and a nightmare for matchmakers and promoters. His willingness to fight anyone and anywhere on short notice helped save many a show but no one – much less Augustus – knew which version would step between the ropes. He could either lose lopsidedly by decision, give the favorite everything he could handle in a close fight or produce a reputation-shattering upset. The one thing that remained constant was his array of jukes, jives and jokes that left everyone staring in disbelief.

“To me, the thing was that Augustus was not just so stylistically unorthodox, but he was probably one of the more athletic guys you ever saw in the ring,” said ESPN blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore, who covered many of Augustus’ fights. “He threw your timing off so dramatically because his own timing was so hard to predict.”

One of Augustus’ patented maneuvers is a series of moves best described as the “string puppet dance.”

“He was like a snake charmer,” Tessitore said. “He had this ability to dance right in front of your face rhythmically and then, all of a sudden, put you in a trance and hit you with shots at an odd angle. My favorite move of his was the ‘step-over uppercut.’ He would take this very oversized and theatrical step with his right foot way up in the air, crossing it over to his left side, turning his head to the far left and then – once it was planted – come back at you with a left uppercut. It was insanely good.”

One of his best performances occurred on April 2, 2004 when Augustus won a unanimous decision over the 23-1 Alex Trujillo for the IBA junior welterweight title. Augustus wove a masterpiece of physical and psychological domination as he smoothly alternated between skillful, straight-up boxing highlighted by excellent punch selection and an almost endless variety of showboat moves.

After easily taking the first two rounds, Augustus broke into the puppet dance immediately after taking a right to the jaw, smacking up-jabs and a double-hook/right cross combo while rocking his body and legs in divergent directions. After taking another right in the fourth, Augustus lifted his left leg like a flamingo and decked an overhand right that made Trujillo flinch. In the fifth, Augustus missed a wild, overhand right and as he recoiled, he whirled his arm in the opposite direction.

Between doing the “chicken walk” during a clinch, talking to his opponent, laughing in his face, doing the puppet dance with both arms behind his back while simultaneously kicking his feet from side to side, he handed out a beating. He fired uppercuts out of exaggerated upper body weaves and smartly punched off the angles his superior mobility created. His antics kept the crowd buzzing and his punches piled up points and rendered Trujillo offensively impotent. In the end, Augustus won by 117-110, 118-109 and 119-108 scores.

“I think Alex Trujillo had no idea what he got himself into,” Tessitore said. “Through the years, I heard promoters and matchmakers say he is the guy they would most avoid. They would rather face a world champion or a top contender than face Emanuel Augustus in his prime.”

All those recollections were on my mind during my only face-to-face meeting with Augustus five years ago. I instantly recognized “The Drunken Master,” who was conversing with a fellow boxing dignitary and waited for the proper moment to introduce myself. Once I did, Augustus was personable yet understated and was appreciative of the plaudits I offered him before happily signing my “big book.” I asked him when he was going to fight next and he said he didn’t know. That was the truth, for Augustus, like Soliman, was what Team Soliman labeled an “AAA” fighter – anyone, anywhere and anytime.

He was just a few weeks removed from flying to Australia and losing by ninth-round TKO to 13-0 prospect Wale Omotoso. Augustus would fight thrice more against future WBO titlist Ruslan Provodnikov in Laredo, Texas, Charles Hartley in Grand Prairie, Texas and Vernon Paris in Pontiac, Mich. He lost all three (TKO by 9, L UD 8 and L UD 8), which wasn’t surprising because his trio of opponents boasted a combined record of 51-0 and, if you include Omotoso, that combined record soared to 64-0.

As he lay in a hospital bed in Louisiana, he once again is fighting for his life. The stakes in this fight are far higher than any he has yet faced but if anyone has the resources to overcome the odds, it is Augustus. Let’s hope that he has at least one more triumph in him.

When word of Haymon’s deal with NBC became public, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I knew the 24-show deal that may include four prime-time telecasts on the main NBC channel would be good for the sport as a whole. Any time boxing can be showcased on free, over-the-air television is a positive development and even more so if the fights are well-matched and well-waged. On the other hand, I was sorry to see the deal with Main Events expire.

Aris and I have worked the majority of the NBC Sports Network/Main Events shows over the past couple of years and during our countless hours hanging around ringside waiting for the shows to begin, we formed friendly bonds with promoter Kathy Duva, matchmaker Jolene Mizzone, Hall of Famer J Russell Peltz, trainer Don Turner, public relations director Ellen Haley and Director of Multimedia Operations Alexis Mann among others. Shooting the breeze with these boxing lifers is always a pleasure and though they’re not going anywhere in terms of putting fight cards together, I hope I’ll have more chances to see them in my future travels. I know I’ll have one more opportunity next month when I travel to Bethlehem, Pa. to work the final NBCSN/Main Events collaboration.

*

Another positive development in my traveling life came to fruition earlier in the week when I was notified by mail that I had been successfully accepted in the Transportation Security Administration Pre-Check program. I long had wanted to sign up for the expedited security screening but it wasn’t until earlier this month when I realized I now could apply at a center located just 35 miles from my house (last year, the closest airport to apply was in Indianapolis while the closest office was in Virginia). I jumped at the chance to start the process, which began with completing an online application at the TSA’s website and setting up an appointment at the Parkersburg, W.Va. office. After presenting my ID, confirming my online application data, providing fingerprints and putting the $85 charge on my credit card, I was told that if my application was approved, my Known Traveler Number would come via snail mail in about three weeks.

As it turned out, I received my approval letter less than a week later and once I gave my KTN to the travel people at NBCSN, it was added to my reservation.

Today’s itinerary was simple: Drive to Pittsburgh International Airport, catch a 3:50 p.m. US Airways flight to Philadelphia, take a cab to the hotel and hopefully arrive in time to catch the weigh-in that was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. at a nearby Holiday Inn.

My two-and-a-half hour drive to the airport was completed under partly sunny skies and a crisp 64-degree temperature. It didn’t take me long to find a decent parking space (eight spots away from the 13C sign in the extended lot) or to complete the relatively short walk to the terminal entrance.

Once I arrived at the security screening area, I dug out my boarding pass (which now bore the words “TSA PRECHK” under my name) and headed toward the proper line at the far-left corner of the checkpoint. Although there was a small line of people ahead of me, I reached the head of the queue within seconds.

Because I didn’t begin flying until four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I have known only one set of protocols regarding security screening – take off your shoes, take out all laptops and put them on separate trays, remove all liquids from your luggage and place them in separate clear plastic bags, empty all change, cell phones and other metallic materials from your pockets as well as remove light jackets and belts and stand inside a metal detector/x-ray device for at least 15 seconds before finally being allowed to proceed to the rest of the airport. With TSA Pre-Check, I got a small taste of what security might have been like before the attacks on New York, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pa.

I kept my shoes on. My laptops and liquids stayed inside my bags. I placed my keys and cell phone on a tray and simply walked under a metal detector without having to stop and place my hands over my head for three seconds. I learned later that I could have kept my cell phone inside my pants pocket while also wearing my light windbreaker. Better yet, the only waiting involved was for my bags to emerge from the other end of the x-ray tunnel. The process took less than two minutes to complete. No muss, no fuss and no hassle. Compared to the usual regimen, this was heavenly. The $85 price tag – which translates to $17 per year – has to rank among the best investments I’ve ever made.

I picked up a late-lunch at Subway while on my way to gate B-37, which is located at the end of the concourse, and soon after consuming my meal, I began writing some of the words you’ve been reading.

Not long after getting started, my cell phone rang. It was a recorded message from US Airways informing me that due to delays in Philadelphia, my departure would be pushed back at least 30 minutes. A particularly informative and candid gate agent not only confirmed the information a couple of minutes later; he told us why: mechanical issues with the original plane forced a change of aircraft, which, in turn, delayed its departure for Pittsburgh. He also told us he didn’t know at the moment when the plane would arrive but would be able to better pinpoint that information once the aircraft came into radar range.

It was no empty promise. The moment he knew what was what, he passed it along to us through the loudspeaker and even gave us an approximate departure time – with the caveat that we passengers get up only at the moment our zone number is called and that we stow our items and find our seats as quickly as possible.

In my experience, that rarely happens. Passengers of all zones clog the gate area long before the boarding process begins and once they enter the aircraft, more than a few stragglers stand in the aisle and chat with their friends or family as they leisurely store their items in the overhead bin as those of us who want to quickly take our seats and stow our stuff are forced to wait behind them. Now imagine that dynamic repeating itself dozens of times and one can figure out one of the many reasons planes don’t leave on time.

This time, however, the gate agent’s admonitions were largely heeded and as a result, the plane departed on schedule. Although the pilot warned us about turbulence during ascent and descent due to windy conditions at both airports, the shaking was far less than expected and we landed five minutes earlier than the anticipated 5:30 p.m. arrival time.

As soon as I deplaned, I walked almost the entirety of the C concourse to the escalator that would take me down to street level. Although NBC assigned me a rental car, I asked if I could take a cab instead since I was uncomfortable with the prospect of navigating the narrow one-way streets of Central Philadelphia. My request was granted and for that I was grateful. My qualms have nothing to do with my general positive opinion of the city and its people; I just wanted to leave the driving to the experts.

I walked toward Zone 5 – where the taxi stand was located – and when I told the agent I wanted to get a cab, he told me to walk toward the third cab in the queue. After stowing my luggage in the trunk, I climbed in and asked the driver to take me to the Westin Philadelphia on 17th Street. Once we started rolling, the cabbie noticed his meter wasn’t working.

For whatever reason, electronics act strangely around me. More than once in my travels, a device would mysteriously blank out or malfunction in ways that the owner had never experienced before. If I had a dollar for every time I heard, “That’s never happened,” I’d have enough money to at least pay for a full tank of gas. And that’s no exaggeration.

“Are you paying credit or cash,” the cabbie asked.

“Cash,” I replied.

“Good, because my meter doesn’t seem to be working,” he said as he stopped the cab. While we waited for the meter to resolve its issues, I glanced down at a separate computer screen located a couple of feet below. It detailed information on the taxi company, the driver’s ID number and at the bottom, his name.

Would you believe my cabbie’s name was “Mohammad Ali”?

Swear. To. God.

The convergence of coincidences was simply too delicious. Imagine a lifelong boxing fan traveling to Philadelphia, one of America’s most celebrated and significant fight towns, and drawing a cab driver who shares the same name (if not the identical spelling) of the most famous boxer alive? I was thunderstruck but I did my best to hold in my wonder.

“Is your name really Mohammad Ali?” I asked.

“Yes it is,” he said.

“Incredible,” I said. “I’m going to be working tomorrow night’s boxing show at the 2300 Arena and here I am with a cab driver named Mohammad Ali.” He’s probably experienced this reaction to his name tens of thousands of times during his life but he still had the grace to laugh at my observation.

As we talked, I learned he’s a native of Bangladesh who has lived in the United States for the past 24 years. I wanted to learn even more about him but I stopped because I realized road conditions would demand his full attention. Rush-hour traffic soon clogged all three lanes and at one point, he skillfully wedged his way into the center lane, then the far right-hand lane in order to veer off toward Central Philly. Within 20 minutes, we were at the Westin.

I checked into my seventh-floor room and after settling in, I ventured out in search of an early-evening meal. After walking around the block, I settled on a Jimmy John’s outlet directly across the street from the Westin, where I ordered a “Vito” eight-inch sub (Genoa salami, provolone, capicola, onion, lettuce, tomato and Italian vinaigrette), a small bag of barbeque chips and a Diet Coke to go. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing and giving the TV remote a healthy workout. At the unusually early time of 11:30 p.m., I turned out the lights and ended yet another travel day.

*

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 [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

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