The Travelin’ Man goes to Boston-part I
Friday, May 22: It’s hard to believe that it’s been five weeks since my last trip, when I had the privilege of working the Lucas Matthysse-Ruslan Provodnikov card in Verona, N.Y. That’s because virtually every day has been spent conducting research for the massive June slate of fights carried by CompuBox client networks as well as for friends who seek help for their boxing history-based projects (it’s nice to be wanted). Because I enjoy my work so much, the hours, days and weeks zoom past at warp speed and before I know it, it’s time to hit the road again.
This time, my travels will take me to Boston, where punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak and I will work the keys for the NBC-televised card topped by Andre Dirrell and James DeGale, who will vie for the IBF super middleweight title Carl Froch vacated in February.
For someone who grew up during the days of frequent boxing telecasts on the three major, over-the-air networks in the United States, just typing the words “NBC-televised card” – and having those words be true – is particularly sweet. Thanks to Al Haymon’s “Premier Boxing Champions” series – and the investors who are financing his venture – the Sweet Science has raged back into the public consciousness in terms of TV platforms. NBC and CBS have already aired PBC cards and since ESPN is set to join the party in July, perhaps ABC (owned by the same company as ESPN) may complete the terrestrial trifecta in the not-too-distant future. Add to that the more than one dozen cable and web-based networks that carry the PBC brand, as well as channels that carry cards by other promoters (truTV, FOX Sports 1, FOX Deportes, UniMas, CBS Sports Network and beIn Sports Espanol among them) and boxing, in terms of TV availability, is at its absolute zenith.
“A dying sport?” What a load of rubbish.
While the PBC has its critics, its greatest contribution thus far is the restoration of the television infrastructure that was in play during the late-1970s to mid-1980s – basic cable to handle lower-profile shows, network TV to air more obscure championship fights as well as introductory contests for potential future stars, premium cable for higher-profile shows and pay-per-view (or closed-circuit in the old days) for the biggest attractions. Granted, today’s highly-specialized 1,000-channel TV universe combined with the Internet explosion have added new challenges to the broadcast hierarchy that worked so well several decades earlier but the NFL, NBA, UFC and NASCAR have proved beyond doubt that smart marketing and consistent exposure on multiple platforms can result in unprecedented and sustainable growth.
That said, it takes time to educate viewers about the current cast of characters – and for them to sort out who is worth watching in the future. Therefore, I believe it will take at least two years to determine the impact of the PBC’s ambitious strategy. One sure sign of success will be seen between rounds: The ratio between paid ads and the in-house promos featuring PBC fighters. If there are more of the former than the latter, then there’s reason to be optimistic. If not, then the money financing the PBC eventually will dry up and the last, best chance for boxing to make an imprint on this sporting generation in America will be lost.
The PBC’s emergence also has claimed casualties beyond lesser-known promoters and their charges. The most prominent of these is ESPN 2’s “Friday Night Fights” series, which will air its final episode on this night following a terrific 17-year run. When FNF launched in the fall of 1998, its arrival was seen as a massive relief for fans and promoters alike, for it came on the heels of the cancelation of the USA Network’s “Tuesday Night Fights” franchise, which, coincidentally, also lasted 17 seasons and ESPN’s own “Top Rank Boxing” series, which aired for – you guessed it – 17 years. The decision to ax TNF wasn’t caused by declining ratings but rather by a group of younger executives hell-bent on transforming USA’s prime-time line-up to fit what they felt were the sensibilities of their target demographic. Boxing, perceived to be an “old man’s” sport, was considered toxic, so, after months of combat with fight fans who did everything they could to change minds, the powers-that-be finally pulled the plug on Aug. 25, 1998. Following some initial angst regarding the future of televised boxing in the U.S., especially for developing fighters and aspiring promoters, FNF stepped into the breach.
In the years that followed, FNF aired some of the era’s best fights in terms of action. Among them were Thomas Tate KO 10 Merqui Sosa, Julio Cesar Gonzalez UD 12 Julian Letterlough, Pawel Wolak D 10 Delvin Rodriguez I, Artur Szpilka KO 6 Mike Mollo I, Scott Pemberton TKO 10 Omar Sheika II, Charles Brewer TKO 6 Scott Pemberton, Arturo Gatti UD 10 Joe Hutchinson, Dave Hilton TKO 12 Stephane Ouellet I, Elvir Muriqi TKO 3 Sam Ahmad, John Revish KO 1 Leo Lizarraga, Oscar Larios TKO 12 Israel Vazquez II, Antonio Escalante UD 10 Miguel Roman, Roman Karmazin KO 10 Dionisio Miranda, Kermit Cintron TKO 10 David Estrada, Anterio Vines D 4 Chris McInerney, Ramsey Luna UD 4 Rene Luna, John Molina Jr. TKO 11 Hank Lundy, Mauricio Herrera UD 12 Ruslan Provodnikov, Tyrell Hendrix D 6 Mike Gavronski, Daniel Roman UD 4 Alfredo Madrigal, Denis Grachev TKO 8 Ismayl Sillakh, Rustam Nugaev KO 8 Jonathan Maicelo, Immanuwel Aleem TKO 6 Juan Carlos Rojas, Thomas Falowo UD 8 Russell Lamour Thomas Williams Jr. TKO 1 Cornelius White, Vince Phillips MD 12 Ray Oliveira (a fight that saw, for the first and only time in CompuBox history, both men top the 200-punch mark in a given round – and it in the same round, the 12th) and, of course, Micky Ward UD 10 Emanuel Augustus. This list is by no means a complete one but it does show the depth and breadth of quality fights that made air.
It’s surprising that Ward-Augustus was the only FNF-aired fight that won THE RING’s “Fight of the Year” award but, as this list shows, excellent action not only was seen in main events but also during the undercard. That alone is the reason why real boxing fans know to be in their seats in time to see the first fight of the card, not the last.
Through much of the last decade, FNF not only was a portal for boxing action; it also was a driving force for advocacy. The creation of a national commission and of a boxing league were among the causes nearest and dearest to Teddy Atlas and Max Kellerman and, many times, bad scorecards ignited emotional eruptions from the former trainer of Mike Tyson and Michael Moorer. The betterment of boxing always was the prime motivator and that sentiment rang true because the men on camera didn’t just cover the sport but also radiated a genuine passion for it.
The original mission of FNF was to revive the spirit of the old Friday Night Fights that aired during the Golden Era of Television. Like those days, the fare spanned the gamut in terms of quality and it achieved a pleasing mix of old-time sensibility and new-fangled technology. It helped to launch stars in the ring, at ringside and in the studio, but, most importantly, it created indelible memories.
In terms of visibility, boxing’s move to the main ESPN channel is a positive development in terms of visibility and prestige but, at the same time, I will miss the regularity and the reliability of Friday Night Fights on ESPN 2.
Because I needed to be inside the Agganis Arena for the required mid-afternoon electronic make-sures, I chose to take a 12:10 p.m. direct flight from Pittsburgh to Boston in the hopes that I would arrive at the arena around 3 p.m. Long-time readers of “The Travelin’ Man Chronicles” know that, from time to time, unforeseen snags pop up.
No, I didn’t oversleep; in fact, my eyes snapped open a good 10 minutes before my intended 6:30 a.m. goal. No, Mother Nature was rather kind this day; when I pulled out of the driveway at 7:35 a.m. I did so under sunny skies and a 44-degree temperature that left my car soaked in dew. Even my fellow drivers were rather sedate and here’s an extra bonus: Because schools were closed due to the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend, I didn’t get stuck behind the fleet of school buses that seem to stop every 50 feet to pick up passengers. Thus, I arrived at the airport well before my 10 a.m. goal.
All was well – until I hit the parking lot.
As usual, I ignored the sign in front of the nearest lot to the terminal entrance that read “Lot is full.” But this time, it was, as was the nearest set of spaces on the other side of the building. Sighing, I began to scour the next farthest set of spaces but after circling for a total of 15 minutes and more than two miles, I decided to cut my losses. At that point, I retreated to the farthest set of spaces I often dubbed, “The Hinterlands.” There, spaces are plentiful because no one ever wants to park there unless they absolutely must. For me, that day was today.
I should have expected this outcome; after all, one report said this Memorial Day travel weekend was expected to be the busiest in 10 years. I figured if I was going to park so far away, I might as well grab an easy-to-remember spot – directly under the 19C sign. Just as I was contemplating the massive walk that awaited me, I spotted a parking shuttle bus pulling into my area. Yes, I could have handled the long walk – the weekly four-mile treks at my local mall and the regular sessions on the self-powered treadmill have greatly helped – but I also wasn’t one to ignore fortuitous timing.
The bus drove us right to the US Airways terminal entrance and thanks to my TSA Pre-Check status, I was through security within five minutes, even on this busier-than-usual travel day. Another positive development: The flight departed on time and actually landed in Boston 15 minutes early. I also achieved an instant rapport with my cab driver, for the moment he mentioned he was from Casablanca, I brought up the name of Marcel Cerdan, who, though he was born in Algeria, was known as the “Casablanca Clouter.” When we reached the crew hotel – the Courtyard Marrriott in Cambridge – the driver, who said he was also a journalist, gave me his email address along with my change.
I checked into my room but stayed only long enough to unpack because I needed to get to the arena for my required pre-show checks. I was told the hotel was a 30-minute walk away from the venue so, to save time, I grabbed another cab. After being told all was electronically well, I was told I didn’t need to stay for the full-show rehearsal. Once I informed the production manager that everything was OK on CompuBox’s end, I left the arena. Though I wanted to take a cab back, no taxis were in sight, so I decided to take advantage of the nice (but blustery) day and walked back to the hotel. Even though I walked at a pretty fast pace, I handled the two-mile journey without even losing my breath.
Famished, I decided to have dinner at the hotel’s bistro, whose servings, I learned, were exceedingly large. While I finished my turkey BLT, chips and diet soda, I had no prayer of completing the giant ice cream cone-shaped bowl of French fries. After paying the bill, I returned to my room in the hopes of watching the FNF finale but as I flipped through the channels, I noticed the picture on the high-definition stations (of which ESPN 2 was one) alternated between freezing and going black. I called the front desk, who told me I was the only person to report trouble. A hotel staffer was sent to my room and after making some adjustments to the wiring, full function was restored.
Shortly after watching the fight card, I switched off the lights and brought down the curtain to another eventful travel day.
Saturday, May 23: I slept unusually well but I still decided to rise at 6:30 a.m. so I could catch up on my writing before leaving the hotel to make my agreed-upon 10 a.m. call time. But as someone who loves to be where he needs to be well before he needs to be there, I left early. Although my cabbie needed to be told by a colleague where the arena was, I still arrived with 20 minutes to spare. The pre-fight testing at ringside was finished within moments, so all I needed to do was wait for Andy to drive in from nearby Andover, present him his credential, complete the pre-telecast rehearsals and wait for the action to begin.
I spent my considerable down time chatting with various ringsiders such as ring announcer Mike Williams (who, in a PBC-specific wrinkle, performed his duties at ringside instead of inside the squared circle), several members of the NBC technical crew, graphics guy Mike Eisenstein (with whom I’d be selling stats through the headsets), writers Steve Tobey and Jeffrey Freeman as well as a few Sky Sports crew members. Speaking of Sky, I learned through one of them that former lightweight champion and longtime broadcaster Jim Watt, who I met at a show last year, would be seated to my immediate left. A quick scan of the name tags on press row revealed that the Boston Herald’s Ron Borges (a future Hall-of-Famer in my eyes) will be seated directly behind me. I didn’t get to speak to him – he always appeared to be working on something, so I didn’t want to disturb his concentration – but I was glad to see him nonetheless.
Andy arrived at the production truck right on time and after giving him his credential and talking for a while at ringside, we headed out toward the area where the catered meal for the NBC crew would be served. We began our walk shortly before the first fight of the day between bantamweights Antonio Russell and Brandon Ali Garvin kicked off but we weren’t even out of earshot by the time it ended at the 63-second mark. Once we returned, Andy settled back into our work station while I chatted with PBC historian Steve Farhood and ace researcher Bob Yalen, whose name I had heard for years but who I hadn’t yet met. I returned to my spot shortly after unbeaten Canadian lightweight Logan McGuinness was announced as a 57-56 decision winner, across the board, over Gerardo Cuevas Jr., overcoming a first-round knockdown in the process.
Though this PBC card consisted of 11 fights, the undercard proceeded at lightning speed as four of the first six fights ended in the first round (Russell over Garvin, Ryan Kielczewski over Anthony Napunyi, Immanuwel Aleem over David Toribio and Danny Kelly over Curtis Lee Tate). The Kelly-Tate heavyweight fight was particularly noteworthy, for while Tate was legitimately struck, each of his three falls appeared – to me anyway – to be overwrought. Time will tell whether the power within Kelly’s fists – which scored their seventh knockout in eight wins – will produce such dramatic displays in the future.
The ending of one of the longer fights produced an interesting situation. As Providence light heavyweight Edwin Espinal put the finishing touches on what would be a four-round decision win over Mexico City’s Alvaro Enriquez (whose left eyebrow sported the whitest, thickest scar tissue I’ve ever seen on a fighter), a member of the commission entered stage right and stood in the line of sight for the Sky Sports crew. This is a fairly common problem for us CompuBox guys, especially during undercard bouts when ringsiders feel the cameras aren’t rolling. CompuBox president Bob Canobbio once told a story about having to shoo former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier out of his sightline, a fearsome but, at the moment, extremely necessary task since a rehearsal undercard fight was in progress. Luckily for Bob, Frazier was in a good mood and the champ repositioned himself without incident.
Because he was still on the air, Watt tried to get the commission official’s attention by tapping his pen on the metal barricade and motioning with his arm to move to the side but when that didn’t work, I stood up, reached out and tried to hiss out an order so my voice wouldn’t be picked up by Watt’s microphone. We succeeded in getting the official to move to our right and, for a bit, it seemed the crisis had passed. A smiling Watt tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a thumbs-up in gratitude.
However, the incident wasn’t quite done. A few moments later, that same official returned to the area – and he brought two colleagues with him. This time, our efforts were even more urgent, so much so that when they saw Jim and me, their faces scrunched up in horror and they scurried away from the ringside area entirely. Maybe they were afraid of redheads, Jim being a former one and me (thankfully at age 50) still a current one.
With the card more than halfway done, it was time to begin our first (and only) rehearsal fight – a scheduled six-rounder between Gary O’Sullivan and Melvin Betancourt. O’Sullivan, a native of Cork, was robustly regional in his presentation as he sported a green kilt and a shamrock-shaped tuft of hair on the back of his shaved skull. Betancourt, a Dominican, entered the ring with a glossy 29-1 (23) record but further examination revealed that 24 of his victims overall and 18 of his 23 KO wins came against fighters with sub-.500 records. Also, this was Betancourt’s first fight outside the Dominican Republic and it didn’t take O’Sullivan long to show how deceiving records can be.
After a first round that saw Betancourt gain a 14-10 connect advantage, largely because he threw so many more punches (76 to 39), O’Sullivan dropped Betancourt with a right cross in round two and scored a second knockdown moments later that brought forth an old-fashioned 10-count knockout. O’Sullivan’s 24 of 45 effort in round two that included 71% accuracy with his jab (12 of 17) vaulted him into narrow leads in all three categories – 34-27 overall, 16-10 jabs and 18-17 power as well as percentage gaps of 40%-18% overall, 48%-15% jabs and 35%-20% power. The victory, his fifth straight since losing a near-shut-out, 12-round unanimous decision to Billy Joe Saunders in July 2013, lifted O’Sullivan’s record to 21-1 (14).
With that, the stage was set for the 4:30 p.m. start of the live telecast on NBC. As usual with the PBC, the ring entrances for DeGale, then Dirrell, were elaborate but would their fight live up to the stagecraft? We would soon see.
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.