The Travelin’ Man returns to Montreal…again-part I
Friday, March 13: Yes, you read the date correctly – it was Friday the 13th and this Travelin’ Man, with his history of troubled trips, was on the road and in the skies. Was it a dangerous combination? Yes. Should I have been worried? Probably.
But I wasn’t. Why? Because I have never been overly superstitious. Sure, I have my routines like many people but these rituals are done mostly for convenience and comfort, not to induce positive outcomes from potentially negative situations. Experience has taught me that all I can do when things go wrong is handle the situation the best I can, then hope it turns out well. Therefore, I don’t wring my hands about things like triskaidekaphobia, also known as the irrational fear of the number 13.
It’s been 17 days since my same-day road trip to and from Pittsburgh and, happily for me, virtually each of them has been stuffed with boxing-related activities. When I wasn’t conducting research for upcoming cards or working on tasks related to CompuBox’s “Throwdown Fantasy” game, I was tending to my ever-expanding sports video collection. Last week alone, I added fights from a dozen televised boxing cards to the collection and, thanks to the “Premier Boxing Champions” series, more shows will be on the way (including the Spike TV card headlined by Andre Berto’s curious stoppage victory over Josesito Lopez). Every day presented a different challenge and yet I was able to keep all the balls in the air without losing my marbles.
On this day, I was working on very short rest – less than four-and-a-half hours. Reason one: Though I was given the chance to decline, I chose to compile the punch stats for the previous night’s HBO2-aired main event between Francisco Vargas and Will Tomlinson for the fantasy game, a fight that kept my fingers extremely busy as they combined for 1,380 punches and 458 connects. The 16 rounds of counts (eight for each guy) and my winding-down process caused me to turn out the lights around 12:30 a.m. Reason two: Because I needed to be inside Montreal’s Bell Centre by late-afternoon to conduct our usual pre-fight electronic checks, the latest flight that would get me there on time – a 10:13 a.m. US Airways bird from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia – required me to arise at 5 a.m. and leave the house at 6 in order to arrive at the airport by 8:30. Thus this night owl had to transform himself into an early bird overnight – a process that is never easy.
Despite the short turnover, I snapped awake at 4:55 a.m. and pulled out of the driveway at 5:58 amid partly cloudy skies, a last-quarter moon and a 36-degree temperature. So far, so good. Even better: Traffic was light so I arrived in Pittsburgh 15 minutes earlier than expected. Better still: No one was in front of me at the TSA Pre-Check line, allowing me to breeze through security.
Even when issues arose, they were resolved quickly. Thanks to my frequent flier status, I moved from a row 11 aisle seat to a sixth-row window seat on flight one while also snagging a second-row window spot for my Philadelphia-to-Montreal leg. My plane in Pittsburgh sat on the runway for 15 minutes due to heavy air traffic in Philadelphia (a given at that perpetually-clogged hub airport) but once we got going, the flight was nearly devoid of turbulence. The landing was a bit on the heavy side – me and my seat mate glanced at each other in surprise – but the shock was minimal. The two-hour layover in Philly gave me enough time to enjoy a leisurely lunch at the gate – it was a salad because I’m hoping to drop some weight – and, surprise, surprise, the second flight departed Philadelphia and reached Montreal on time.
Take that, 13.
As always, gaining entry into another country is a time-consuming process. After completing a lengthy walk to access the proper area inside Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, I saw that the immigration lines for native Canadians on the right and for visitors on the left were hundreds of people long. Complicating matters was that numerous Canadians were in our line because, as one native directly in front of me said, “This line moves a lot faster.” Despite this preventable logjam due to non-enforcement of the rules, the queue did move rather spritely and, by 3:45, I was at the head of the line.
The last time I was in Canada – Quebec City in December – I had problems because, since I was there for business, the immigration officials were concerned I was taking away potential work from a Canadian citizen. They eventually allowed me in for this reason: My job as a punch-counter was so specific in terms of tasks that no native son could fill my shoes on such short notice. This time, in Montreal, I had no such issues. As soon as I told the agent I was there to work the Sergey Kovalev-Jean Pascal card, his ears perked up and he proceeded to pepper me with fight-related questions. Jackpot – the man charged with stamping my passport was a boxing fan. After answering his queries in full detail (as is my wont), he happily allowed me to proceed – another fortunate stroke on this supposedly “unlucky” day.
When I approached the currency exchange counter I was pleasantly surprised once more as I only had to pay $180 U.S. to receive $202.65 Canadian, a welcome reversal of the trend I experienced in recent years. I also had the good fortune to meet my first native of Morocco – my cab driver. During the 20-minute drive to the Hotel Le Crystal, we discussed, among other things, the careers of Moroccan track stars Hicham El Guerrouj (who still holds world records for 1,500 meters, the mile and 2,000 meters after setting them in the 1990s) and Said Aouita, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000. Yes, I love my boxing but I also count track-and-field and tennis among my favorite sports because, in their own way, they emulate boxing’s athlete-on-athlete confrontation.
Once I checked into my room, unpacked and informed loved ones via email that I had arrived safely, I returned to the lobby to begin my short trek to the Bell Centre. But before I departed, I briefly joined a gaggle that included HBO.com’s Kieran Mulvaney and HBO broadcasters Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman. It’s always great to talk boxing with people who share my passion because it happens so rarely when I’m at home. It was tough to tear myself away but because duty was calling, I had to do it.
The walk to the Bell Centre was windy and chilly and because of construction issues the usual route I took to the media entrance was altered. Thanks to some helpful staffers, I found my way and within minutes, I had my temporary credential (a green wristband) that allowed me access to the arena floor. One look told me the ringside area was hours away from being ready, so I stopped by the production truck and asked Sports Media’s Dustin Vinton if we could test there. Dustin answered affirmatively and, within minutes, all was finished. After grabbing a quick dinner at a local restaurant, I returned to the Le Crystal and prepared myself for a long evening of writing.
Those plans changed instantly when my hotel phone rang. On the other end was punch-counting colleague – and fellow historian – Aris Pina, who invited me to join him for an evening on the town. Montreal is legendary for its night life but his plans were far tamer: Dinner at Subway, then meet boxing writers David Greisman (BoxingScene) and Tim Starks (The Queensberry Rules) at the MVP Restaurant and Bar Sportif at 200 East St. Catherine St. to watch the PBC card on Spike TV, a broadcast that wasn’t available at our various hotels. The walk was a long one but we arrived in plenty of time for the 9 p.m. start. At our request, one of the employees switched two of the screens (situated in opposite directions) to the fight so that nobody had to turn around to watch the action.
I had known Greisman, who won on “Jeopardy” in late-2014, for several years while this was my first encounter with Starks. As is usually the case with boxing guys, the opinions and anecdotes were plentiful and vividly expressed. I sparked a lively discussion when I asked everyone what was their best and worst prediction. My best – Glen Johnson over Antonio Tarver in their first fight (I was the only one of the MaxBoxing “experts” to foresee that result), Frankie Randall over Julio Cesar Chavez in their initial bout and coming within one second of pinpointing the exact round and time of Lennox Lewis’ knockout over Mike Tyson (2:25 of round eight). I joked that the only thing that prevented me from hitting it on the nose was the slow count of referee Eddie Cotton. My worst: Philip N’dou not only beating Floyd Mayweather Jr. but knocking him unconscious in the process. I had my reasons then (and if given the same set of circumstances, I would have made that pick again) but, in retrospect, my prediction was quite “out there.”
Watching a fight casually is a far different experience than doing so as a punch-counter. Here at the MVP, I divided my attention between the TV screen 20 feet in front of me and the three guys chattering at the table. Because we couldn’t hear the commentary, we provided our own and although we formed general impressions of which fighter won the round we also realized that one can’t accurately gauge that without 100 percent attention 100 percent of the time.
That’s the level of focus necessary to properly count fights and, in reality, Aris and I are watching half-a-fight since we are tracking only what our respective fighter is doing. When counting punches, my eyes are focused on the space between the fighters as well as the target areas on my fighter’s opponent. My eyes follow the path of my fighter’s gloves to see if they connect or miss and one can’t dally with the decision because the next punch is likely a split-second away from being launched. Every so often, usually when there’s a break in the action or if the fighters are clinching, I quickly scan the action screen for any notable numbers to pass on to the production truck and to the blow-by-blow man so I can be ready to do so on a moment’s notice. The one-minute break between rounds offers no respite for the punch-counters because the lead operator scribbles down notable stats and passes them to a nearby production assistant while the second operator records the round-by-round numbers on a prepared form.
Meanwhile, the judges are watching the fight in yet another fashion, far more detail-oriented than that practiced by spectators, broadcasters, patrons and TV viewers but less specific than us punch-counters because they are tracking both fighters simultaneously and from different spots around the ring. Given the subjective nature of scoring in boxing, is it any wonder that conflicts of opinion are fairly commonplace?
After returning to the hotel, I spent the next couple of hours writing many of the words you are reading now. At 3 a.m., I turned out the lights on what became a 22-hour day.
Saturday, March 14: I stirred awake after five-and-a-half hours of undisturbed slumber and after getting ready for the day, I headed down to the lobby to print out my boarding passes, usually a routine process.
What happened over the next hour was hardly routine.
First, I was re-directed from the US Airways website to the home page of American Airlines, with whom US Air merged last year. When I typed in my record locator, the website indicated that it could not find it and that I needed to call a 1-800 number in the U.S. in order to resolve the issue. Unfortunately, my cell phone doesn’t work outside America but, thanks to the valet, I was able to use the phone at his work station. While on hold for the next 25 minutes, I tried several options, the last of which enabled me to find my flights. Because the computer was located 15 feet from the phone the valet kindly kept listening to the line as I was doing this and, wouldn’t you know, the reservations agent finally came on the line just as I was making headway.
I explained my situation to him, after which he gave me instructions on how to proceed. After following them, I saw that I needed to submit my “trusted traveler” number, which would grant me the TSA Pre-Check privileges I have grown to love since acquiring them last year. Thinking I had that information inside my laptop bag, I returned to my room while informing the valet I’d be back in a couple of minutes’ time. A quick search revealed nothing, so I trudged downstairs, resigned to the fact that I’d have to forego the Pre-Check perks for at least one day.
But then I had a brainstorm; I recalled I had that information on the pen drive I always take with me on my trips. Back up to the room I went, and, lo and behold, the info was there. I hustled back downstairs, logged in the information on the computer and clicked the “submit” button, fully expecting to see my success confirmed.
It wasn’t to be. An error message indicated that the name on the form and the one on my travel documents didn’t match (because of an error on AA’s part). Thus, I would have to resolve everything with an agent at the airport, which, given past experience, meant I’d have to go to the airport an hour earlier than previously planned to account for the possibility of long lines at the check-in counter and/or red tape I’d have to wade through while correcting my issues. So with a heavy sigh, I mentally readjusted my mental alarms to an even more ungodly rising time.
The equation became even more complicated when I saw the weather forecast. Thanks to a merging of two low-pressure systems, blizzard conditions were likely in the late evening hours and it was possible those conditions might last into Sunday. Snowfall was expected to be between 15 and 30 centimeters – or roughly six-to-12 inches. Yikes!
Last month in Pittsburgh, I was able to avoid Snowstorm Pandora because I drove home immediately after the show. I had no such option here and I dreaded the possibilities of delayed or canceled flights as well as an extra night away from home. The flakes began to hit the asphalt less than 30 seconds before Aris met me in the lobby at 3:30 p.m. and as we walked toward the venue, the wind picked up its pace. I could only wonder what it would be like when we would leave the arena 10 hours later. But for now, we had a show to do and I hoped the fighters’ flurries would be as furious as Old Man Winter’s.
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.