The Travelin’ Man goes to San Antonio-part I
Friday, November 14: Just five days after my 788-mile round-trip road trip to Bethlehem, Pa., this Travelin’ Man returns to the saddle. Or, more accurately, the airplane seat.
There was no way I was going to drive this time because my destination is San Antonio, Texas, which, according to MapQuest, would have been a 21¾-hour, 1,430-mile drive – one way. As adventurous as I am sometimes, that’s a step too far. That drive is not a one-man job nor something I’d want to put my veteran car through.
Actually, I didn’t know about this trip until the previous week when CompuBox President Bob Canobbio raised the possibility via email. HBO had just acquired the U.S. rights to Wladimir Klitschko’s defense against Kubrat Pulev and they decided to couple that broadcast with an HBO Latino-aired card emanating from San Antonio. Thanks to my boss, CompuBox – and, by extension, colleague Aris Pina and I – were added to the equation. As a result, we would count Klitschko-Pulev off monitors, then the live card on-site.
The details were finalized a few hours later and Bob gave me the go-ahead to call HBO Travel and book the flights. As is often the case, I chose US Airways, which had a 12:05 p.m. flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte and, following a 65-minute layover, a 2:40 p.m. bird which would have me land in San Antonio by 4:50 p.m. Following a short cab ride, I’d be at the crew hotel in time to wrap up some technical loose ends at the Alamodome less than a mile away.
Yes, you read that right: The card was being staged at Alamodome, best known to boxing fans as the venue for Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Chavez in September 1993. Nearly 60,000 fans jammed into the arena – which was staging its first boxing card – to witness boxing’s last head-to-head meeting to date for pound-for-pound supremacy. Although virtually everyone saw Whitaker a clear winner – and judge Jack Woodruff had him winning 115-113 – the otherwise mute Franz Marti and Mickey Vann proved to be the two loudest voices as they turned in identical 115-115 cards. Chavez, who was 87-0 coming in, escaped his first loss that night but it was clear his armor of invincibility had been irreparably pierced.
Normally an extremely slow starter, Chavez tore out of his corner and tried to jumpstart his voracious body attack. But Whitaker was ready for that as he amplified his usually masterful defense with graphically clean counters and robust body shots that strayed low more than once. In fact, referee Joe Cortez would have been justified to deduct at least one point from Whitaker for his repeated fouls but had he done, so the highly controversial draw would have transformed into a seismically scandalous split decision win for Chavez.
While most scribes at the time had Whitaker winning between nine and 11 rounds, I saw it 116-112 for Whitaker and, in my eyes, Woodruff’s score was within the outskirts of reason. Whitaker was the unquestioned ring general that night and those who witnessed it, scribes and fans alike, responded by treating him like the winner he was.
It was nearly four more years before the Alamodome hosted its next card, which was topped by Oscar De La Hoya’s two-round destruction of David Kamau. Since then, it has hosted fights such as Jesse James Leija-Azumah Nelson II, Manny Pacquiao-Marco Antonio Barrera I, Evander Holyfield-Fres Oquendo, Manny Pacquiao-Jorge Solis, Cristian Mijares-Jorge Arce, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-John Duddy, Saul Alvarez-Austin Trout, Orlando Salido-Vasyl Lomachenko and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Bryan Vera II. While Saturday’s card represents only the 12th boxing event there, the good news is that five of them have occurred since February 2012. As someone who reveres history, I’d like to see another mega-match land at the Alamodome but the guess here is that Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, also known as “Jerry World,” would be the heavy favorite to snag such a bout.
Because my TSA Pre-Check status was authorized for both flights, I felt comfortable about arriving at the airport later than my usual two hours before departure. In fact, my original plan was to leave the house at 8 a.m., which, if all went well, would have me at my destination just one hour before boarding.
But after thinking some more, I decided to head out at 7:30 a.m. instead – just in case something unforeseen happened.
Guess what? It did.
Just three miles into my drive, I spotted an emergency vehicle with its blue lights flashing to my left and a wrecked gray van facing me to my right that was pinned between the side of the road and the start of the rock face that lines that stretch of highway. I passed by the scene without incident.
Fifteen minutes later, my cell phone rang. It was my mother, who was on her way to work.
“What happened on Route 2?” she asked. “Was there a wreck?”
“There was,” I replied. “I saw it a few minutes ago.”
“Well, they’re holding up traffic in both directions,” she reported. “Did you get through?”
“I did,” I said. “I’m just crossing into Ohio on the bridge in New Martinsville.”
“Good,” she said. “I’m glad you made it.”
I was too. While I felt badly for the driver, who wasn’t inside the wrecked vehicle when I encountered it, the decision to leave earlier than planned now looked like a stroke of genius. It wasn’t, of course; it was just an example of fortuitous timing.
I arrived at the airport just before 10 a.m. and, on most days, I am able to find a parking spot within a few minutes, even when I saw signs indicating the lots were full. I always ignored those signs because logic says that in a lot containing thousands of parking spots, at least one would be available at any given time.
For once, however, the first lot I sifted was completely full. So was the second. And the third.
After scanning the last row of spaces in lot three, I resigned myself to parking in an area I call “The Hinterlands,” the group of lots situated farthest away from the terminal entrance. There, empty spaces were plentiful but the walk in and, more depressingly, the walk back were long. It took me less than 30 seconds to find a spot directly under the “15G” sign and I was happy to find out later that Sunday’s forecast for Pittsburgh called for a high of 46, a 15-degree improvement over today’s conditions.
Once I reached the terminal, I noticed the TSA Pre-Check line was longer than usual – at least three dozen travelers. When I first learned of the program, that area was nearly empty all the time but as more airports joined the eligibility list, more passengers like me who were weary of the time-consuming security screenings signed up.
At this rate, Pittsburgh may well have to open a second Pre-Check line in order to sustain one of its main selling points – shorter queues. I had to wonder, however, if the program’s popularity would expand to the point that the majority of passengers would have it, which may, in turn, result in the program being terminated due to security concerns. I hope that doesn’t happen because the convenience of not having to unpack plastic bags and multiple laptops was heavenly after enduring nearly a decade of the previous protocol.
One of Pittsburgh International Airport’s defining characteristics is the two statues of a young George Washington and a prime Franco Harris bending down to make the “Immaculate Reception.” Only in Pittsburgh can our country’s first president and a Hall of Fame football player be granted equal billing – and to have that scenario make sense, at least to diehard Steelers fans. Here’s how: Just as Washington played a major role in the birth of our country, many consider Harris’ miraculous catch in the 1972 AFC playoff game against the Oakland Raiders as the birth of the “Steel Curtain” dynasty to come. Yes, the Steelers lost to the undefeated Dolphins the following week but from that point forward, they were considered a team worthy of respect, if not outright fear.
Usually, these statues were located side-by-side between the top set of escalators in the secure area of the airport. Today, however, they were placed one level below. I soon saw why: Over the past couple of years, the airport’s interior has undergone massive renovations, especially the center area of the terminal. The signs indicated a possible new store being built in the area but I received a different story when I asked the woman at the information desk. She said the area was getting new flooring and as a result, the statues were moved last week. Once that was done, she assured George and Franco would be back at their usual spots.
Thanks to my frequent flier status, I was able to move up from seat 24F to a window seat in row five on my Pittsburgh-to-Charlotte leg and from 16D to first class on the Charlotte-to-San Antonio flight. I couldn’t have asked for a better pair of flights; they departed on time, experienced no noticeable turbulence even while ascending and descending through considerable cloud cover and touched down well before their advertised arrival times. Another stroke of good luck: My connecting gate was located less than 300 feet away.
Once I landed in San Antonio, I headed toward the “ground transportation” area to secure a cab. Unlike my recent visit to Philadelphia, there was no queue and I was asked to take the second cab in the area. My driver, a native of Iran who has been in the U.S. since 1997, efficiently drove me to the Hilton Palacio Del Rio on Alamo Street. Upon leaving the cab, one of the bellmen informed me that the hotel was about to go into lockdown because the governor of Texas was scheduled to attend a policy conference there that evening. He couldn’t tell me whether it was current governor Rick Perry or governor-elect Greg Abbott but the dozens of well-dressed dignitaries who lined the lobby told me something important was afoot. As for me, I had my own issues to tackle at the Alamodome.
I had briefly considered taking another cab to the arena but I put that idea aside after receiving assurances from a front desk person that the arena was within walking distance.
“Just go out the front door, cross the street and look to your right,” she said. “You can’t miss it.”
Obviously, she didn’t know who she was talking to. Alarm bells go off in my head every time someone says, “You can’t miss it” because if anyone can “miss it,” it’s me.
The temperature was a chilly (for Texas) 48 degrees and I did as I was instructed. Unfortunately for me, the straight path I envisioned was blocked by a man-made detour. I asked a bellhop at the nearby Hyatt how to circumvent it and he proceeded to give me excellent turn-by-turn instructions. Before I knew it, I saw the sign for Montana Street and a subsequent sign for Alamodome parking.
Now that I had found the building – which looked different than the structure I envisioned in my mind based on the Whitaker-Chavez fight – I had to find my way inside. Of course, all the doors were locked (as they should have been) and I ended up circling nearly the entire periphery of the building before I spotted a loading dock. After introducing myself to the security guard manning the area, he told me to walk down the straightaway to gain access to the arena floor.
At first, I didn’t know whether I was in the correct area, for I saw a goalpost and a partially-turfed football field instead of a boxing ring. I asked another guard if this was the place where the boxing matches would be held the next evening or whether I needed to walk toward another part of the building.
“You’re in the right place,” he said. “Just walk a few hundred feet that way and you’ll see the ring being built.” And that’s exactly what I saw.
I had arrived but it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to complete my tasks in short order. The previous night’s game threw off the schedule by several hours so I passed the time by doing one of the things I do best – conversing with anyone and everyone who would engage me.
Once the preparations were finished, the pre-fight tests were completed and I was ready to leave. Thanks to a helpful producer and one of the runners, I caught a ride back to the Hilton and spent the next few hours winding down. Shortly after 1 a.m. – or 2 a.m. body clock time – I switched off the lights.
Saturday, November 15: I arose following seven hours of semi-slumber and spent much of the morning writing most of the words you are reading now. The conditions outside were hardly Texas-like: misting rain and a shroud of fog that obscured the top of a nearby tower. Our call time at the arena was 12:30 p.m., which allowed me just enough time to check into my flights and print out my boarding passes. Punch-counting colleague Aris Pina and I took a cab to the arena and quickly found our work station at ringside.
All remained well electronically and we wiled away the hours before the Klitschko-Pulev telecast shooting the bull with various ringsiders, including HBO’s Max Kellerman and Harold Lederman. All the boxing talk made the minutes seem like seconds and before we knew it, it was time to begin our unusual two-tiered work 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.