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The Travelin’ Man goes to Pittsburgh

24
Feb
Photo by Amanda Kwok/Showtime

Photo by Amanda Kwok/Showtime

 

Friday, Feb. 20: During my early years of traveling, especially when ESPN2 aired cards on Wednesdays and Fridays, five-day road trips were a semi-regular phenomenon. Travel on Tuesday, work the first show on Wednesday, speed to the next card on Thursday, count punches for the second telecast on Friday and jet home Saturday. The jam-packed schedule, and the fact I was having so much fun doing it, made those days fly by – figuratively and literally.

Then there are trips like this trek to Pittsburgh, where I worked the CompuBox keys for Sammy Vasquez Jr.’s points win over Emmanuel Lartei Lartey, Claudio Marrero’s punishing decision over fellow lefty Orlando Rizo and Craig Baker’s stunning TKO over Umberto Savigne. Thanks to a series of circumstances, both expected and unexpected, this entire adventure lasted just 15 ¾ hours.

I knew going in that this was going to be a relatively relaxed “ShoBox” assignment. For one thing, CompuBox colleague Joe Carnicelli was making a rare East Coast trip, which meant he would be the “lead dog” for the show while I was the “second banana.” For those who don’t know, the “lead dog” is the operator responsible for printing and preparing all the appropriate forms, making sure all is well electronically with the truck, suggesting stats to the graphics operators during the show and scribbling notes for the on-air talent. Meanwhile, the “second banana” records the round-by-round numbers on the master sheet, answers questions posed by the lead dog and tracks his fighter. The “second banana” gig is, by far, the less stressful of the two; there are virtually no snap judgments to make beyond which punches landed and missed and all he has to do is be there when he is needed, which isn’t often. Seniority usually determines who fills which role and since Joe had more than a decade on me in terms of experience, he was the man in charge, which was perfectly fine by me. Because I “lead dog” most shows, it was a nice change of pace.



Another reason for my laid-back attitude was the location of the show. Pittsburgh is a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive from my hometown of Friendly, W.Va. and since our scheduled call time was a little after 3 p.m., I had the luxury of starting the trip following a good night’s sleep. Better yet, our crew hotel was across the street from the venue, the CONSOL Energy Center, and 95 percent of my route was identical to the one I use to get to Pittsburgh International Airport. The plan was to arrive at the hotel around 2 p.m., meet Joe in the lobby at 3 and walk to the venue. In my mind, all was well – until I stepped outside.

For the past several days, West Virginia – and much of the country – had endured the effects of yet another “polar vortex” that caused the mercury to plunge well below zero. When I awakened at 8:30 a.m., the temperature was minus-3 Fahrenheit and my car was buried in several inches of snow. By the time I pulled out of the driveway three hours later, it had “warmed” to six-above but the wind more than neutralized any perceived benefits. Seeing my gas tank was below one-quarter full, I knew I’d have to expose myself to the elements at least once before arriving at my destination. I chose to fill my tank in New Martinsville, where the price was a reasonable $2.18 per gallon (at least in comparison to the $2.25s and $2.35s at other stations). Also, that 15-mile drive allowed my car’s interior to warm up nicely before having to taste another bone-chilling blast.

I made excellent time, thanks to snow-free interstates and sparse traffic. My Magellan GPS helped me negotiate the last few unfamiliar turns in downtown Pittsburgh but when it declared, “You have arrived,” I looked around and knew it wasn’t true. With some trepidation, I crept past the next traffic light, glanced to my left and spotted the crew hotel, the Marriott City Center. Indeed, I had arrived but I also saw that I needed to complete a legal U-turn in order to get to the self-parking garage. It took around 90 seconds to spot the opening I needed but like the good boxers I count, I pounced on that opening the moment I saw it.

I received another stroke of good luck in the garage; just steps away from the hotel entrance, I found a gap that allowed me to drive all the way through so that my car would be facing forward, not backward, when it came time to leave.

I arrived at my 19th floor hotel room shortly after 2 p.m. and after unpacking and making several phone calls to let everyone know I had arrived, I texted Joe to make sure we were still going to meet in the lobby at 3. A few minutes later, he answered that we were. Joe, however, was one weary guy; he had taken a 12:15 a.m. red-eye from Phoenix to Charlotte, then, after enduring a two-hour layover, jetted to Pittsburgh and arrived earlier this morning. He managed to sneak in a nap and he seemed ready to go but his journey into the Steel City had been much tougher than mine. The walk to the arena was wickedly frigid and we were glad that the first set of doors we tried to open was unlocked.

Joe and I spent the next several hours hanging out at ringside and one of the first things we noticed was the size of the ring. Although we were told it was a 20-foot ring, the area inside the ropes looked no more than 16 feet, if not less. Those dimensions surely would have benefited perceived favorites Vasquez, Savigne and Marrero while harming the more mobile Lartey, Baker and Rizo. The latter three did receive one benefit: The hard, flat canvas was “fast” instead of spongy so at least the surface wouldn’t tire their legs.

While Joe and I waited for the electronics to be connected, I occasionally walked around the bowels of the arena, which primarily serves as the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins – my favorite NHL team. I passed by the team’s locker room and looked at the numerous pictures and murals devoted to past and present stars. As I wandered around the arena floor, the historian in me couldn’t help but think that some of the NHL’s greatest players had skated there. Though two-thirds of the arena was sectioned off for the boxing show, we still were within those confines and that was good enough for me. The crew meal was served in the spacious media room and soon after Joe and I returned to ringside, we began surfing the web.

A little before 6:30 p.m., Joe came across a story on Bleacher Report that the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight was officially on. At first, I was disbelieving because the last several weeks produced countless false alarms, so I did what I normally do when I hear such reports – immediately dial up RingTV.com to see if something had been posted. This time, something was.

“Finally! Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao superfight is on,” the top headline blared. I saw that my own piece detailing the fight’s historical significance was posted directly below it. I then zipped over to ESPN.com and other sports-related websites, then to Facebook to check out the explosive reaction.

As I scanned story after story, I felt a mixture of exhilaration and relief. I was thrilled for the sport of boxing in general because the Mayweather-Pacquiao announcement capped what has been an incredibly encouraging first seven weeks of 2015. For years, I had been advocating the return of boxing to free, over-the-air television and thanks to Al Haymon’s “Premier Boxing Champions” series, the Sweet Science will be seen not on one but two networks – NBC and CBS – and several of these shows will be aired in prime time. On paper at least, the quality of the matches appear similar to those provided by the Big Three networks on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the 1970s and 1980s and the fact that boxing will be seen on Spike TV, NBC and CBS’s cable arms and ESPN’s main channel among others surely will give this great sport a fantastic opportunity to create a powerful impression on a new generation of potential fans.

For the first time in nearly three decades, boxing has re-assembled a complete TV hierarchy: Smaller cards on basic cable, medium-to-large-scale bouts on network television and premium cable and superfights on pay-per-view platforms. Add to that the ad buys and wrap-around programming designed to pique the interest of untapped demographics and one has the foundation for a powerful resurgence.

Last year, I wrote about how someone had to take the ultimate “leap of faith” to create a new and improved universe for boxing. I said this person would have to be willing to risk huge money (and be willing to take losses at first) to build the infrastructure for something lasting. That person turned out to be Al Haymon and while many are concerned about the UFC-style league and the potential for mismatches and the monopoly that could result from it, I, the eternal optimist, am as hopeful for the sport’s long-term well-being as I have been in a long time. The combination of the PBC, the expanding TV reach, the ascension of heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder and the massive build-up for Mayweather-Pacquiao represents the perfect storm for boxing.

Now comes the hard part – delivering on the promise.

The fights need to put forth compelling action. The powers-that-be must assemble the most attractive fights possible on a consistent basis so the wave of momentum can be maximized. The fighters must do their part in pitching the sport to an unknowing and skeptical audience by social media and frequent TV interviews. Those in charge of administering fights must be on point, no horrible decisions or controversies that could open new wounds and cause on-the-fence viewers to run away for good. If wrongdoing is discovered, root it out; get rid of it and do so in a transparent manner. Longtime boxing fans should educate their friends and family about who these fighters are and why they should take the time to watch. After all, word of mouth from trusted people is the best advertising of all. Fans should also build the ratings by watching those cards and supporting whatever sponsors are there because to TV executives, ratings are everything. If boxing proves to be a ratings draw, it will stay on the air. If not, it will fall by the wayside.

Yes, some of the negative forces are inevitable given the sport’s subjectivity but if boxing can conduct itself as a big-league sport, more people, over time, will join the cause. Perhaps aspiring athletes again will make boxing their first sport instead of their substitute for NBA and NFL glory. Maybe it can become a part of mainstream society again instead of being shunted into the red light district. Maybe it can become relevant again. For the first time in decades, that is possible.

Boxing was once a top-tier sport and now it has the chance to become one again. The first steps have been taken and the next chapters are about to be written. If all goes well, 2015 may not only be a landmark year in the sport’s history but it also could be the start of a long-term renaissance.

As I see it, this is a team effort. We who have loved the sport during the dark years can play a role in bringing it back to the light now that boxing has created a larger presence for itself. If all the pieces fall into place, success is possible, if not probable.

Every renaissance begins with a first step and, on this night in Pittsburgh, it commenced with Washington D.C. welterweight Kareem Martin’s 135-second blitzing of Oregonian Cole Miliani, who fell to 2-3 (2) while Martin elevated to 4-0-1 (3). Undefeated Puerto Rican super lightweight Sammy Figueroa, 7-0 (4), followed with a four-round unanimous decision over York, Pa.’s James Robinson, 3-3-2 (1), while Baltimore’s Gervonta Davis raised his record to 10-0 (9) at the expense of Puerto Rican featherweight Israel Suarez, 4-5-2 (1), who fell in just 47 seconds. Other undercard results included Milton Santiago’s unanimous decision over Jose Valderrama in a six-round junior welterweight bout, Bryant Perrella’s fourth round stoppage of Justin Johnson at welterweight and former IBF junior lightweight titlist Argenis Mendez’s sixth round corner retirement to Mexico’s Daniel Evangelista.

The best undercard fight in terms of action saw Cuban expatriate Yudel Jhonson score an eight-round split decision over diminutive Mexican Pablo Munguia. This was a bout I wish I had counted because Jhonson’s sharp and accurate punching meshed well with Munguia’s extreme volume and spraying combinations. In the end, I thought the 77-75 card for Munguia best reflected what happened in the squared circle only because of its closeness but the other two judges somehow saw it 79-74 and 79-73 for Jhonson. The verdict was roundly booed and the rugged Munguia was showered with cheers when he raised his arms to the crowd.

The televised portion began with Marrero’s bloody domination of Rizo, which saw the Dominican score knockdowns in rounds two and five and added two more in the fourth. The scorecards read 78-70, 78-71 and 80-68 and the stats backed up that contention. Marrero prevailed 160-79 overall, 64-27 jabs and 96-52 power while the connection gaps were equally wide (39%-17% total, 34%-12% jabs and 43%-23% power. Marrero’s southpaw jab was particularly impressive as he reached double-digits three times (12 in the first, 10 in the fourth and 14 in the seventh) and his eight connects per round were well above the 4.5 featherweight average.

In sizing up Baker-Savigne, the definitive statistic wasn’t Baker’s 15-0 (11) record coming in but the make-up of his opposition. His last five opponents were a combined 35-97-6 (.257) and only four of his 15 opponents came into their Baker fights off a win. Also, the career cruiserweight was now campaigning at 175 and during his career, he had several lengthy layoffs. At 6-foot-2, the 174-pound Baker was mean and lean but was he too lean? Meanwhile, the 36-year-old Savigne had the clear edge in power. He destroyed the shopworn Jeff Lacy in his last fight seven months earlier and I recalled his rock-handed punches in March 2013 when he flattened the previously undefeated Jackson Junior in four. A failed drug test turned the result into a no-contest but the effects on Jackson’s body were all too real.

The first two-and-a-half minutes unfolded as expected as the Cuban repeatedly rocked the backpedaling Baker, who, astonishingly, was once a 295-pound football player. But in the final 30 seconds, Baker began landing heavy right hands that slowed Savigne’s attack to a standstill.

Then came round two and the extraordinary shift in fortune; 30 seconds into the round, Baker landed a salvo that backed Savigne to the ropes, after which another explosion left the Cuban on his face. Savigne desperately tried to get to his feet but his rubbery legs couldn’t bear the weight of the rest of his body and his brain couldn’t loose the fireflies that only Savigne could see. At eight, Savigne’s body sagged one last time, prompting referee Ernie Sharif to halt the fight at the 1:58 mark.

In round two, Baker prevailed 10-3 in total punches and 9-2 in power connects but that couldn’t overcome Savigne’s initial wave as the Cuban led 25-20 overall and 10-3 jabs. Baker, however, led 17-15 in power connects and the final few proved definitive. Baker’s joy was unrestrained as he shouted, “I did it! I did it!” and it continued more than an hour later as he walked by our position and accepted congratulations from ringsiders. One couldn’t help but be happy for Baker and here’s hoping he’ll get another TV gig soon.

When it comes to ring entrances, few can top Vasquez’s as the two-time Iraq combat veteran arrived atop a Humvee. Once the bell sounded, he fought like a warrior from first bell to last as he pounded out an impressively one-sided decision over the rugged Lartey. Vasquez not only dominated from long range (he led 102-37 in jab connects), he also proved highly effective in close as he landed 50% of his power punches and led 135-55 in connects. In rounds four through nine, Vasquez led 167-59 overall and 106-35 power, gaps that would normally result in a TKO but given the Ghanaian’s toughness, it just established an untouchable mathematical margin.

Vasquez answered any questions about his stamina by maintaining a hot pace through nine rounds before voluntarily decelerating in the 10th. From my perch, it looked as if Vasquez was concerned about Lartey’s welfare, a storyline that also was reflected in the commentary. Lartey thought differently and backed up his sentiment with action as he outlanded Vasquez 11-7 overall and 9-2 power, the only time he outdid Vasquez in the fight.

During the undercard I kept close watch on the weather forecast that called for heavy precipitation from a snowstorm appropriately named “Pandora.” When the forecast called for three-to-five inches, I wasn’t overly concerned. That changed when I began to hear rumors that the snow would begin falling around 5 a.m. and that the city might respond by cutting off access to the various tunnels. But when I looked at a weather map that indicated that my home area might receive between 12 and 18 inches of snow, I decided that I had better get out of Dodge while I could.

My decision to leave was confirmed during our post-show pizza-fest when a higher-up read a weather update from United Airlines that used particularly apocalyptic language. After scarfing down two slices of sausage pizza and stuffing a can of Diet Coke into my jean jacket pocket, I said my goodbyes and walked back to the hotel with Joe and a half-dozen others.

The biting cold prompted me to break into my best power walk and thankfully traffic was light enough so that we didn’t have to stop crossing the street. I asked one of the people at the registration desk if he had heard anything about the tunnels being closed and he said he hadn’t. I was happy to hear that because I was told that the various detours would have sent me miles out of my way.

After packing my belongings and checking out of my room at 1 a.m., I turned on the Magellan, punched in my home city and waited for the screen to activate. Instead I got a turn-by-turn breakdown. Luckily, I found the street I was looking for and soon I was on the interstate. Within minutes I was back on very familiar roads and thus, I turned off the Magellan and turned on the radio, where I listened to (and sang along with) classic rock stations. Not a flake was in sight.

The extremely sparse traffic allowed me to make excellent time. Just two hours and 10 minutes after I began, I pulled into the driveway, safe and sound. I spent the next hour unpacking and getting my DVR recordings in order, after which I went to bed. When I arose seven hours later, I knew I had made the right decision; five inches of snow had already fallen and the roads looked menacing and treacherous. I worried about my fellow travelers and sent out emails to see if they were OK. Thankfully, they were.

It had been a long yet energizing day that saw me begin and end in my own bed – a rarity for this Travelin’ Man. That certainly won’t happen next time because my next destination will be Montreal, where Sergey Kovalev will risk his three alphabet titles against Jean Pascal; Steve Cunningham and Vyacheslav Glazkov will engage in a heavyweight showdown and Vasily Lepikhin will meet Isaac Chilemba in an intriguing crossroads bout at 175. Better yet – at least according to the calendar – spring’s arrival will be less than a week away.

Until then, happy trails!

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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.