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The Travelin’ Man returns to Quebec-part I

31
Dec

Pepsi Center-635

 

 

Wednesday, December 17: Less than four days after arriving home from San Antonio, this Travelin’ Man returned to the road to commence the final journey of 2014. In two days’ time, I’ll be working a Showtime-televised quadrupleheader in Quebec City topped by THE RING (and WBC) light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson’s defense against Russian challenger Dmitry Sukhotskiy.

For Stevenson, it also marks his return to the Pepsi Center, where, one year and 19 days earlier, he stopped Tony Bellew to end the greatest year of his career to date, both in terms of accomplishments and standing in the sport. Since then, however, a lot has changed in the light heavyweight landscape and Stevenson’s perceived place in it.

First, instead of four titlists at 175, boxing now has two thanks to Bernard Hopkins merging the IBF and WBA belts by outpointing Beibut Shumenov in April and WBO king Sergey Kovalev beating Hopkins for those two straps in November.

Second, Hopkins’ and Kovalev’s deeds dramatically shifted the division’s balance of power from Stevenson to Hopkins to Kovalev while also changing the Haitian-Canadian’s public perception from “The Man” to what his critics call an un-artful dodger. For those unfamiliar with the details, here’s how: Last year in Quebec City, HBO aired a title fight doubleheader involving Stevenson and Kovalev in the hope that their anticipated victories would set the stage for a blockbuster unification fight in the spring. Since the bout was staged in Stevenson’s adopted home country, “The Krusher” was cast as an aspiring understudy to Stevenson’s leading man but his two-round destruction of Ismayl Sillakh stole the show – and some of the spotlight.

That performance also appeared to plant seeds of doubt in Stevenson’s mind, seeds that sprouted with stunning speed. The proof: When HBO’s Max Kellerman asked Stevenson a direct question about fighting Kovalev next, the champ, instead of enthusiastically accepting the challenge as Kovalev did after beating Sillakh, turned away from his inquisitor and asked the crowd if they would rather have him fight the soon-to-be-49-year-old Hopkins or Carl Froch, who was fresh off his perilous first fight against George Groves. Although his response made perfect business sense from his standpoint, it was not the answer anyone else outside his team wanted to hear, especially after Stevenson had just retained his title impressively. In that instant, Stevenson’s reputation started to nosedive.

That freefall continued in late-March when Stevenson announced his jump from HBO to Showtime to pursue a showdown with Hopkins, who, by now, was a two-belt titleholder and the most marquee opponent available. But “The Alien” had a trick up his sleeve by jumping to HBO and meeting Kovalev. For whatever reason – most believed it was to beat a deadline to sign for a unification fight to avoid either being stripped or being forced to fight low-marquee IBF mandatory challenger Nadjib Mohammedi – Hopkins’ move was admirably bold given the mortal threat Kovalev posed. The result was that Kovalev, who Stevenson sought to isolate, now was in a position to assert his superiority in a meaningful fight in terms of money and historical standing. So while Stevenson scored an off-the-floor decision over Andrzej Fonfara in May, Kovalev floored Hopkins en route to a dominating and career-defining points win.

While Kovalev is in the running for “Fighter of the Year” for the second straight time, Stevenson was left to pick up the pieces even though he hadn’t lost a fight. But the great news for Stevenson is, in boxing, reputations can be restored – and even enhanced – by a single punch. Stevenson knows that as well as anyone because his first left cross to Chad Dawson’s chin transformed him from an overlooked, blown-up 168-pounder to a star in the making. In that vein, an equally explosive showing against Kovalev’s countryman, Sukhotskiy would stoke the fires for a Stevenson-Kovalev match that would be even more anticipated, far more financially rewarding and more historically significant than their previously planned meeting ever would have been.

One could fairly say that, at least in hardcore circles, Stevenson-Kovalev has so far followed the identical path as Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao – a long-desired match that surged, died, then resurrected itself thanks to a series of circumstances. While talks between the Mayweather and Pacquiao camps continue, Stevenson has the power to write his own ticket with his fists as well as with a willing attitude. Both fights might come to fruition but, then again, they may never happen because at least one party was not willing to commit. For boxing’s sake, let’s hope both fights happen.

*

 

Although this show was billed as a “ShoBox: Special Edition” broadcast, the scheduling sequence was that of a “Showtime Championship Boxing” show as opposed to a ShoBox. From my vantage point, that meant that my pre-card electronic checks were scheduled for 5 p.m. the day before the show instead of the early afternoon hours on the day of the telecast.

Due to the limited numbers of US Airways flights that would take me from Pittsburgh to Quebec City – all of which went through Philadelphia – the only route that would allow me to make my call time was a bird that would depart at 7:25 a.m. and have me in town by 11:50 a.m.

The personal math was all wrong. To make a 7:25 a.m. flight, which boards at 6:55, I’d have to arrive at the gate by 5:55 to have time to at least grab some breakfast. Factoring in an hour to get ready in the morning, two-and-a-half hours to drive to the airport and 15 minutes to find a parking space and to clear the truncated TSA Pre-Check security screening, I’d have to rise at 2:20 a.m. – which is around the time I go to bed most nights.

The solution: Reserve a hotel room near Pittsburgh International Airport and stay overnight Wednesday. Yes, the rising hour won’t be the best – 4 a.m. – but at least I could get a few hours of shuteye before starting my travel day. I figured if I rested my eyes during the two flights and perhaps get some more in my hotel room, I’d feel fresh by the time I got to the arena. That was the plan anyway.

So last week, I booked a reservation at the Super 8 in Coraopolis, Pa., which is located less than 15 minutes from the airport. I had stayed there a couple of times before, so the terrain was somewhat familiar. Other than a snafu during check-in once, I mostly had good experiences there.

I left the house shortly after noon under dreary gray skies that spat occasional snow flurries and temperatures that gradually fell into the 20s, thanks to an approaching cold front. Ninety-nine percent of the route to the hotel was identical to the one I use to get to the airport but, to be safe, I used the Magellan GPS to help me negotiate the final few turns.

The drive was picture-perfect and I arrived at the hotel shortly after 2:30 p.m. This time, I had no problems checking in and since ground level was actually the third floor, I was told to go down one flight of stairs to find my room. The custodian was about to finish vacuuming when I arrived, so I knew at least that my quarters were freshly serviced.

I spent the next couple of hours writing, checking emails and web-surfing, then walked across the street to Arby’s to grab dinner. I ordered the Reuben sandwich, curly fries and a large Diet Pepsi and thoroughly enjoyed them once I returned to the room.

Just as I was settling in for a relaxing evening, I received an email that prompted me to handle some last-minute research for Saturday’s Showtime Extreme card in Shelton, Wash. Edgar Ortega was scratched as Julian Williams’ opponent because of a training injury and it took more than a day to find his replacement, the 6-foot-1 Jamar Freeman. I updated the statistical package, ran the numbers on his fifth round TKO loss to Sammy Vasquez on Feb. 1, re-wrote the analysis and emailed my work to CompuBox president Bob Canobbio. While Freeman showed above-average hand speed, I also saw that his defensive reactions were painfully slow. Once Vasquez began hitting him, Freeman seemingly froze and then was struck by long series of combinations. I figured that tendency would be disastrous against a sharp-shooter like Williams, so in the prediction section of my analysis I projected a TKO win for the Philadelphian. It wasn’t exactly a stretch given Williams’ unbeaten status, Freeman’s checkered history against his best competition and Freeman’s short-notice status.

I began my winding-down process shortly after 8 p.m. in order to trick myself into getting sleepy by 10. It worked pretty well, even though I could hear traffic motoring past my window as well as a bad singer’s voice accompanied by a bass guitar piping through a nearby nightclub’s sound system. Still, I found a way.

 

Thursday, December 18: After some tossing and turning, I awakened at 4 a.m. feeling pretty rested. A little more than an hour later, I checked out of the Super 8 and began the short drive to the airport. With sunrise still more than two hours away, I took my time getting there. Perhaps it’s an old West Virginia habit; we Mountaineers never know when a deer will bolt out in front of our cars and try to run across the road. It has happened hundreds of times to me at night but only thrice have I struck them. Two of those incidents came within a month of each other more than a decade ago, but thankfully it hasn’t happened since. One can never be too careful, though, even if one is driving four-lane highways.

Once I arrived at the airport, I found that securing a parking space at this hour was a far easier task. I passed up seven empty spaces before finding one six spots beyond the 11B sign, meaning my walk to the terminal would last less than two minutes. But as open as the parking lot was, that’s how crowded the security screening area was, including the TSA Pre-Check line. Once I reached the head of the queue, I breezed through and caught the tram to the secured portion of the airport.

I bought an Egg McMuffin and a bottle of orange juice at the McDonald’s closest to my gate. I was the second person to arrive; a member of Wake Forest’s women’s tennis team was blearily leafing through a copy of Cosmopolitan.

I thought I was the earliest of the early birds,” I told her as I found my seat. She smiled slightly but said nothing.

The plane arrived at the gate well before its departure time but the boarding process was chaotic to say the least. The flight was in an oversold situation and the airline apparently didn’t get the two volunteers it needed to resolve it. Then at least a half-dozen groups – families, couples, friends and so on – insisted on sitting together so numerous passengers were re-seated to accommodate them. I didn’t have to move but, at times, the seating process descended into farce. Despite the confusion, the plane still departed Philadelphia on time, which, given Philly’s hub status and its reputation for severe congestion, qualifies as an upset. I spent most of the flight conversing with my seat-mate, a division manager at an energy company, instead of reading the book I brought with me, “John L. Sullivan and His America” by Michael T. Isenberg, a gift I received several years ago. As soon as he learned I was in the boxing business, he peppered me with questions, mostly about the prospects for a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. That further illustrates why this fight must be made: For at least one night, boxing will make the world stop and pay attention. If the main event – and the rest of the fights that precede it – is good enough and is judged sensibly, then perhaps some of those casual fans will be inspired to delve deeper. The more people boxing has in its grip, the better its chances of thriving instead of merely surviving.

Once I landed in Quebec City and deplaned, I headed toward customs. The process is usually straightforward: I present my passport and customs form to the agent, then answer some brief questions before getting the necessary stamp and permission to enter the country. But this time, it was different. After explaining my role in the broadcast, I was asked to walk to a side office and wait to be interviewed by another immigration agent. When that agent failed to show after several minutes, I then was directed to walk toward a secondary office at the other end of the hallway, where I was met a few minutes later by the customs official who originally questioned me and a co-worker.

The co-worker asked me why I was in Canada and as soon as I told him I was a punch-counter, his eyes lit up and the tone of the conversation completely changed. Yes, he examined my passport, read the letter of invitation written by the card’s promoter and sifted through my clothes bag but, all the while, he asked me a series of boxing-related questions in a friendly, conversational manner. I made sure to answer with as much detail as possible to make my level of expertise obvious to him. A few minutes later, it was confirmed that all was well and that I was free to proceed.

Through it all I didn’t feel any undue stress. I just had a feeling that all would turn out OK because, after all, I bore no ill intent and I had the facts on my side. That armor of truth allowed me to maintain a lighthearted disposition that surely helped decrease the temperature for everyone. It’s been my experience that if you respect authority, more likely than not, authority will respect you back.

I caught a taxi to the crew hotel, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac on Rue des Carrieres. My driver was a rather quirky sort. At one point, he unhooked his seat belt and mimicked his taxi’s warning beeps in perfect pitch and rhythm, stopping the moment it stopped. It was obvious that he had done this many times before. He also tried to orchestrate the cars around him, telling slower vehicles to “allez” (“go”) and weaving around other vehicles he perceived to be malcontents. We also were held up briefly by a carriage pulled by a monstrously large but slow-moving black-coated horse. The driver briefly beeped at the stallion but the animal just kept going his merry way. It was a strange but interesting trip.

After checking into my room and settling in, I decided to explore my immediate surroundings. Like my other two trips to Quebec City five years ago and last November, there was plenty of snow on the ground but the bone-chilling cold that marked those trips was nowhere to be found. In fact, the thermometer registered 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). The slush on the sidewalks made walking difficult in my tread-less shoes but I managed to avoid a messy and embarrassing fall. The narrow cobblestone streets, classic architecture and French signage projected a European air and there was no shortage of available restaurants. I didn’t indulge but I took mental notes on some possible stops for the next day. My final stop was the Terrasse Dufferin, one of the city’s great attractions. This elevated area located behind the crew hotel offered a breathtaking panoramic view of Old Quebec as well as the St. Lawrence River, which sported several chunks of ice.

I returned to my room and rested for a couple of hours before returning to the lobby to seek out my ride to the Pepsi Center. A petite, bespectacled and extremely helpful female Quebecois used her knowledge of shortcuts to get me to the arena on time despite a late start (she thought four more Showtime crew members were set to join me but the updated schedule I received via email indicated I was the only one taking the 4:30 shuttle).

One look inside the arena told me that the work was well behind schedule so the pre-fight testing was conducted inside one of the production trucks, a fairly common occurrence. All was found to be well within seconds and just like that, my day’s duties were over.

The question now: How was I going to get back to the hotel? The answer: I happened to find my driver just when she was arranging another shuttle for two other crew members. After production coordinator Angie Sztejn provided wristband credentials for me and punch-counting colleague Aris Pina, I was on my way.

Quebec City at night near Christmas-time is a sight to behold. The majority of buildings featured tons of holiday lights and more than a few locales featured not one but rows of elaborately decorated Christmas trees. The snowfall and seasonable chill only added to the picturesque spectacle. All the while one of my seatmates, a crew member who also was a history buff, pointed out various French and Indian war battlefields and explained their significance. The decor inside the hotel was equally festive; in the lobby alone, I counted more than 20 Christmas trees, each of which sported numerous trimmings. I certainly was lifted by my surroundings and I’m sure others were as well.

I didn’t feel like venturing out again, so I returned to my room, ordered room service and spent the remainder of the evening catching up with friends on Facebook and alternating between the Montreal Canadiens’ 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, the NFL match-up between the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars and Duke’s 66-56 victory over defending champion Connecticut. All the while the Sandman was knocking on my door and I answered it shortly before midnight.

 

Friday, December 19: I was out for most of the next eight-and-a-half hours. That’s what happens when you’re awake 20 straight hours; I suppose. But the rest did me a world of good, as did the sunshine that poured through my window once I lifted the shades. My legs, however, let me know in no uncertain terms that I did a little too much uphill walking the previous afternoon.

Sometimes, however, I can be stubborn, so I intended to take another walk in the hopes of checking out the restaurants that had previously caught my eye. It wasn’t to be, for the relative warmth of yesterday had given way to the more typical blustery chill. After a couple of minutes at the Terrasse Dufferin, I went back inside and decided to have lunch inside the hotel. That changed, however, when I contacted Aris on Facebook and asked what plans he had. He asked me to meet him in the lobby between 12:15 and 12:20. He told me about a restaurant a friend of his recommended – the 1640 Bistro – and asked directions from a bellman.

Go through the arches and it’s a 30-second walk,” he said. Well, the bellman underestimated the time of the walk – it was more like five minutes – but the telltale red roof was easy to see. The 1640 was one of the restaurants on my mental checklist and my expectations were fulfilled. The food was well-prepared and filling and after showing Aris the Terrasse Dufferin, we headed back to our rooms to prepare for the 2:30 p.m. shuttle.

It was a shuttle that never came. So we, along with a pair of cameramen, caught a taxi to the venue and once we arrived at the arena floor, we went to our respective work stations. A few hours after my equipment re-established electronic contact with the truck, Aris and I joined the rest of the crew for dinner, then waited for the night of fights to begin.

Featherweight Vislan Dalkhaev, a Montreal-based Russian whose crab-like style reminded me of Vic Darchinyan, made a successful pro debut by decisioning 13-24-1 journeyman Csaba Toth over four rounds. Onetime amateur standout Custio Clayton did the same by outpointing Sophyan Haoud over four while junior middleweight Sebastien Bouchard advanced his record to 9-1 (3) by stopping Cedric Spada, 11-3 (2), with 1:17 remaining in their scheduled six-rounder. Aris and I noticed that the stands in the Pepsi Center were almost filled even during the deep undercard, which, to me, was worthy of note. In my eyes, real fight fans are those who watch every fight, not just the marquee bouts. To us, boxing is boxing, no matter the combatants’ level of notoriety. While Showtime’s cameras weren’t yet rolling, the Canadian pay-per-view broadcast showed all the bouts on the card.

With the first three fights completed, the Showtime-televised portion of the card was about to commence. I anticipated that the fights would go a combined 28 rounds with three fairly quick knockouts and a compelling 12-round decision. Would I be right?

*

 

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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