The Travelin’ Man returns to Verona…again-part I
Friday, April 17: For the sport of boxing in general – and for CompuBox in particular – the hits keep on coming and at warp speed. The next two days will be extremely busy ones for the company; on this night, operators will provide numbers for competing shows airing on ESPN 2 and FOX Sports 1 while, the next day, numbers will be tabulated for cards on Showtime Extreme, Showtime and HBO. With the rise of the “Premier Boxing Champions” series and the massive expansion of TV outlets showcasing “The Sweet Science,” it has been all hands – or, more accurately, all fingers – on deck.
Happily for me, my fingers – and those of colleague Andy Kasprzak – were assigned to be ringside at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y. for what many boxing experts believe will be the year’s best action fight: Lucas Matthysse vs. Ruslan Provodnikov. For me, it was a plum assignment for two reasons: First, and most obvious, both fighters have racked up huge numbers in past fights and I, for one, prefer to work high-octane bouts because they allow me to achieve a nice counting rhythm. Second, the Turning Stone is within my “sphere of familiarity” because it is located just one New York Thruway exit east of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, where I hope to make my 23rd consecutive appearance at the annual induction weekend in June.
While anyone worth his salt would have wanted to work the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao card – that honor will rightly go to CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and Joe Carnicelli, the company’s most experienced punch-counting employee – getting the chance to work this fight from ringside can hardly be called a consolation prize. For me, it is a privilege. Like the three fights between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, the rubber match between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield or the non-unification bout between Carlos Zarate and Alfonso Zamora in 1977, Matthysse-Provodnikov is proof that major titles don’t have to be on the line in order to create a big-fight feel. If the public is made aware that mayhem is likely, they will take notice – then gladly remove some money from their wallets or willingly watch it on TV (or stream it on the web). They sure did it for this fight; for the first time in memory, the arena’s uppermost seats not only were made available, they sold out. Speaking for myself, I felt a burst of excitement the moment I heard Matthysse-Provodnikov was made official and another when I learned I would be there.
But first, I needed to get there. Unlike last week, I had to dramatically alter my sleep cycle in order to accommodate the schedule I was given. As the lead operator, I needed to be at the Turning Stone during the late afternoon hours to make certain all was well electronically. Unfortunately for me, there are no direct flights from Pittsburgh to Syracuse – the closest international airport to Verona – so I had no choice but to reserve a Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia-to-Syracuse route that included a lengthy layover and a 40-minute drive once I landed in “Orange Country.” The latest flight I could take and still make it to Verona in a timely manner was a 10:15 a.m. bird on American Airlines, which, because I have to drive two-and-a-half hours just to get to Pittsburgh, required me to arise at 4:45 a.m. – a little more than two hours after I go to bed most nights while at home. In effect, I was getting a case of jet lag without the jet.
Sure, I could have reserved a hotel room and stayed overnight in Pittsburgh so I could arise at a more decent hour but I opted to stay home so I could get as much work done as possible before hitting the road. After completing my research during the early afternoon hours, I set about the task of “fooling” my body into turning in extra early.
Ever since my early 40s, my body has often begged for a mid-evening snooze, so I was hoping that when the Sandman came calling, I’d simply go to bed instead of dozing in the easy chair. Sure enough, my eyes started getting heavy around 7 p.m. but, for whatever reason, that heaviness never descended deep enough to call it a day. By 8:30, I was wide awake again. Maybe it was because I wanted to get sleepy a little too much.
So I went to Plan B: Go through the before-bed routines and hope I’ll be relaxed enough to turn out the lights by 10:15, six-and-a-half hours before my target wake-up time. The good news was that I made my intended lights-out time. The bad news was that it took at least an hour for me to finally fall asleep. Therefore, when I woke up at 4:45 a.m., my eyes still burned from deprivation.
The morning rituals helped sharpen the senses and by the time I pulled out of the driveway at 5:30 a.m., amid light drizzle and a pre-dawn sky, I was raring to go. So, all things considered, everything worked out the way I hoped.
Once daylight arrived, the sky revealed plenty of gray but not in a gloomy way. Traffic, which initially was light, became far heavier – and occasionally more chaotic – as I neared Pittsburgh. I don’t know if drive-time traffic in “The Steel City” is always like this but the crazies were definitely out in force.
Anyone who has driven with me knows I usually hang out in the rightmost or middle lanes, content to let the Dale Earnhardt wannabes zip by me. At one point, though, a long line of cars in the middle lane was driving 10 miles-per-hour below the speed limit – probably because it was “rush hour” – so to get past them, I swung into the fast lane and mirrored the speed of the car directly in front of me so I wouldn’t offend the speed demons behind me. All the while I was anxious to find the right opportunity to return to my more comfortable middle lane. This process took an inordinately long time – at least three minutes – but the moment I activated my turn signal and began my gradual rightward drift, I saw a car to my right fly past me in excess of 90 mph. Apparently the fast lane wasn’t nearly fast enough for this person so this driver chose to make an attempt at the land speed record in the very place reserved for the slowest drivers. It was nuts.
Because I initially thought he was in the lane I was about to occupy, I jerked the wheel toward my previous lane. For a moment, I felt I had lost control of the car. As it turned out, Mr. Speedy was two lanes away, so after hearing his sonic boomlet, I glided into the middle lane without further incident. For a couple of minutes afterward, I didn’t know which was faster, the guy’s driving speed or my heart rate.
I arrived at the airport at 7:45 a.m. – 15 minutes ahead of schedule – but that extra time was spent trying to find a parking space. I scoured both of the lots closest to the terminal entrance and found nothing, so I focused on the next furthest set of spaces. Finally, after more than two miles of sifting, I found a spot that was two rows left of the 16C sign in the extended lot and five spaces from the farthest end of the row. It wasn’t ideal but at least I wasn’t relegated to the “hinterlands,” which required walks long enough to wear out soles.
The screening process was routine and I arrived at my gate in plenty of time. Thanks to my newly-created frequent flier account that added my US Airways miles to those I accrued on American, I received a first-class upgrade – always a plus.
Once we boarded the aircraft and found our place in line on the runway, everything screeched to a halt. The pilot came on the loudspeaker and told us we wouldn’t be leaving for another 25 minutes because of heavy traffic in Philadelphia. A few minutes later, an additional 25 minutes were tacked on.
“It’s a good thing I have a nice long connection window,” I thought. “Otherwise, I’d be cooked.”
We made up 15 of the 50 minutes in the air and because my connecting gate in Philly was in Terminal F, I had to catch a shuttle bus or else I’d have to go through security a second time. I probably could have crawled to my connecting gate and still made it on time because, for the second straight flight, our departure was pushed back 50 minutes due to Philly’s over-clogged skies.
Because I had a third-row aisle seat, I couldn’t buckle my belt until my window-seat companion arrived. One never knows who might end up being your seatmate and while the vast majority of my experiences have been positive, there’s the occasional bad apple. That certainly wasn’t the case here, for my seatmate was a lovely lady from upstate New York who was traveling with her mother and fianc├®, who were seated elsewhere. I learned that Kathy, a mother of three, was a hairdresser who does bookkeeping on the side and we ended up chatting for the entire flight.
After deplaning, I walked down to the Hertz desk and secured my rental vehicle, an electric blue 2015 Nissan Versa Note that still had the new-car smell. Sure, it was a compact car but I’m happy to say that I am a bit more compact myself; in the last month, I have lost eight pounds.
Although I brought my Magellan GPS to help guide me through the turns leading to the Thruway, my memory (at least this time) got the job done. Good thing: My device didn’t “find” me until halfway through the drive.
I arrived at the La Quinta Inn located across the street from the Turning Stone around 4:15 p.m. and I only had enough time to drop off my clothes bag before heading to the casino’s event center to conduct the pre-fight testing. It took a while to get the indicators we wanted but, by the end, all was well. By 8:45, I was back at the hotel and ready to watch the latest edition of ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.”
Once I cleared out the day’s work shortly after midnight, I was famished. With all of the day’s activities, I realized that I hadn’t had time to eat anything besides munchies on the airplane and at the arena in more than 24 hours. Needless to say, I was eager to change that.
I walked down to the lobby and asked LuAnne – the manager at the front desk – where I could find a 24-hour establishment. She recommended two places but placed much more emphasis on the Nice and Easy grocery shop located a half-mile from the hotel. “They have much better food,” she said.
She was right. I bought a loaded 12-inch turkey sub, a can of Pringles and a 44-ounce Diet Coke, then ate to my heart’s content while watching SportsCenter. Though I was ravenous, I still ate only half the sandwich and two-thirds of the Pringles, so I put the sandwich in the mini-fridge to make sure it was still good for my lunch tomorrow. Even though I had already been awake an unusually long time – nearly 21 hours – it still took a while for me to wind down enough to turn out the lights a little after 2 a.m.
Saturday, April 18: The next six hours of slumber were blissful. I usually don’t remember my dreams because most of the ones I do recall aren’t pleasant but here, it was different: I saw myself in close proximity to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. Sometimes I perceived I was inside the MGM Grand while at other times, I felt as if I were at a fight party watching the card on TV. I was hoping to get a sneak preview of the final result but my eyes popped awake long before the “telecast” even started.
I spent much of the morning updating the judges’ profiles for HBO and catching up on other work responsibilities. After reaching a good stopping point, I ate the rest of the food I bought the previous night, headed down to the business center to print out my boarding passes and called the Hall of Fame to see if I could drop by.
“This is Lee Groves,” I began. “Could I please speak to Ed or Jeff?”
“I’m not sure where they are now,” I was told, “because there’s more people here now except for during Hall of Fame weekend. There’s a bunch of people coming in for the fight at the Turning Stone.”
“Ah, I see,” I said. “I just wanted to see if my presence would disturb the quiet but you’ve made it clear that it’s anything but quiet. I’ll be around in a few minutes.”
“Look forward to seeing you,” the voice on the other end said.
Once I parked the rental car, I walked toward the gift shop to purchase a Hall of Fame windbreaker but as soon as I hit the entrance, I was greeted like Norm of “Cheers” Fame – “Leeeeeeeeee!” I saw the faces of Jeff and Ed Brophy, Harold Lederman, Jim Lampley, Dan Rafael and an additional cast of dozens. I guess, in this case, everybody did know my name.
As I was walking toward the car to stow my newly-purchased jacket, Jeff told me that the person manning the cash register wanted to meet me. He had seen plenty of my articles and knew my name from my frequent visits but had never seen me face-to-face.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d be glad to meet him.”
It was a neat conversation; he told me about his vintage ticket collection that included the rematch with Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. His professional responsibilities prevented us from talking longer. I did a lap around the interior, admiring the statue of Billy Backus, the original copy of Broughton’s rules, the glass-encased robes that are rotated in and out and the plaques enshrining the Hall-of-Famers. I saluted the Bert Randolph Sugar exhibit that featured a vintage typewriter, his signature fedora and a cigar wedged between bronzed fingers. I gazed upon the gorgeous RING championship belts from eons past and reflected on the action photos of unforgettable fights. No matter how many times I visit the interior of the Hall, it never gets old.
As I swung by the Carmen Basilio statue, I ran into a fellow wearing a blue HBO shirt and – me being me – I struck up a conversation with him. It took just a few seconds to realize that David Harding’s level of knowledge about the business was strong, so strong that I thought he was employed by either the network or with the promotion. He wasn’t; he was a relatively new fan of the sport that just happened to possess a sponge-like memory and an analytical mind (sounds like someone I know). We ended up talking for nearly two hours and, along the way, we ran into the unmistakable 6-foot-9 frame of Jeffrey Freeman, also known as “KO Digest” on Facebook. He and I always good-naturedly tease one another about our differences regarding Arturo Gatti’s Hall of Fame enshrinement – his advocacy of Gatti mirrors Paul Heyman’s of Brock Lesnar, while I believed he fell far short of the mark – but there always is a deep respect for the other’s acumen. That’s the way it should be; disagree if you must but don’t do so in a disagreeable manner.
I was in the middle of this confab when a text from my punch-counting colleague came in. We agreed to meet in the lobby at 3:30 p.m. so I could give him his credential and drive to the venue.
The lessons of yesterday resulted in a quick electronic hook-up at ringside. For Andy and me, this was to be an unusual workday; the first count of the night – Terence Crawford vs. Thomas Dulorme – would be done off a monitor at our work station, after which we’d count Matthysse-Provodnikov live. That required two sets of protocols regarding when and how to sell the stats but because this wasn’t my first rodeo (I did the same thing last year when we counted Wladimir Klitschko-Kubrat Pulev in the afternoon while later working the live card on HBO Latino), we were sure we’d have no significant issues.
The undercard fights were already underway by the time we returned from the crew meal and we made sure all was still well by doing not one but three rehearsal fights. Everything worked well, as would be the case for the remainder of the evening.
For Andy and me, the first “live” count was Crawford-Dulorme, which saw “Bud” capture the vacant WBO junior welterweight title with a sudden and spectacular attack that produced three knockdowns and the stoppage in round six. Entering what would be the final round, Crawford trailed 50-43 in total connects, mostly because Dulorme had out-thrown him 266-214. But in the sixth, Crawford unleashed all of the reconnaissance he appeared to collect in the first 15 minutes of combat. A precise left-right to the head buckled Dulorme’s legs and, from that point, the Nebraskan’s all-around game and surgical strikes took over the contest. Crawford out-landed Dulorme 24-3 and 21-1 in power shots in the sixth, which allowed him to finish the fight with connect leads of 67-53 overall and 40-23 in power shots. The explosive finish obscured Crawford’s chess fighting of the previous five rounds (43 punches per round to Dulorme’s 53) but it also drove home the point that the Midwesterner is one of the game’s most strategically changeable fighters.
“My coaches told me (to hold back in the early rounds), then they said to step it up going into round six,” Crawford said. “I feel like I’m versatile. I can do whatever.”
What he has achieved over the past two years has been nothing short of astonishing. Stepping in for the injured Khabib Allakhverdiev on an HBO-televised show in March 2013, Crawford dissected Breidis Prescott to win a commanding 10-round decision. Since then, he has rolled off six straight wins that have allowed him to earn two divisional championships, the BWAA’s “Fighter of the Year” award and a solid case for a spot on any pound-for-pound list. Seldom has a fighter from the Midwestern US achieved such a dramatic emergence from obscurity and his immediate fistic future looks extremely bright, both in terms of potential opponents and probable financial rewards.
That future may well include the winner of the fight that was about to take place roughly 1,600 miles northeast of Arlington, Texas – a fight that carried the enormous challenge of fulfilling exceedingly high expectations. Would it?
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 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five 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.