The Travelin’ Man returns to Bethlehem…again-part I
Thursday, July 16: One thing I’ve learned over the years is that travel days occasionally adopt a theme. If today’s journey to Bethlehem, Penn. could be encapsulated in one concept, it would be “The benefits of patience.”
Patience is – and always has been – a trait that isn’t easily practiced and today’s high-energy, short-attention-span, get-it-done-now culture makes it even harder to achieve. The advantages of remaining calm under adversity include clarity of mind, serenity of spirit and crispness of execution. Pushing too hard for a result that isn’t ready to happen naturally often results in disaster, whether inside the squared circle or when one is forced to navigate clogged urban highways.
Many of history’s greatest fighters are united by their willingness to wait for the proper moment to strike. Sugar Ray Robinson, regarded by most as the most perfectly assembled fighting machine boxing ever produced, set up most of his 109 knockouts by establishing range with the jab and using introductory power shots to assess which sequence of blows would best unlock the keys to his opponent’s consciousness. Once Robinson’s fertile mind figured out those variables, he zeroed in and waited for the optimum time to end the contest. Many times, that process took just a few moments – 59 of Robinson’s knockouts occurred within the first three rounds – while other opponents required more time to solve. Dozens of times, the knockout never happened but, throughout his 25-year career, Robinson brought an emotionally mature mindset into the ring. Robinson had everything a fighter could have ever wanted – lightning hand speed, balletic footwork, above-average height and reach, massive power in both hands, an iron chin, an impressive strategic mind and a deep competitive streak – but without patience, he never would have maximized his considerable physical and intangible assets.
Robinson certainly wasn’t alone. During my teenage years, I witnessed the latter years of Carlos Monzon’s magnificent middleweight championship reign when he transformed himself from a right-hand bomber into a volume puncher that systematically wore down opponents over the long haul. I marveled at Alexis Arguello’s ability to use every weapon at his disposal to intelligently break down his foes’ defenses and set up the knockout shots that followed. Carlos Zarate, arguably the hardest-hitting bantamweight who has yet lived, scored 53 knockouts in his first 54 wins with a cold, clinical and calculated approach. During those rare times in which Zarate’s fights ventured into deeper waters, neither his concentration nor his composure ever wavered because that’s how much faith he had in his punching power and in his ability to wait for the payoff.
Each of these men – and many more that followed, like Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Ricardo Lopez, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jeff Chandler, Salvador Sanchez and dozens of others – had the talent and the weaponry to bulldoze most of their opponents at will. But because they possessed the discipline to keep their powder dry, they maximized their effectiveness and secured their immortality.
Despite their excellent examples, it took me quite a while to learn from them. Like most children, I wanted what I wanted now and I did anything I could to speed up the process. When I couldn’t, I stewed.
I received a wonderful lesson in patience at a track meet in Moundsville, W.Va. during my freshman year in high school. Although I was best suited to be a long jumper – earlier that year, I leaped 9 feet, 2 inches in the standing broad jump when the school conducted its annual physical fitness tests, a mark equaled only by our junior starting quarterback – I was designated a distance runner. We were competing in an dual meet at Moundsville High School, a Class AA school, as opposed to Sistersville’s Class A status, and the track coach assigned me and a teammate to run against a pair of Moundsville runners in the 800 meters.
I had never run that distance at a sanctioned event but, at age 15, I was smart enough to seek advice from a teammate who had done it before.
His counsel was simple: “Stride it out the first lap, then burn it the second.”
The first part of the plan worked to perfection. As the four of us finished the first lap I was in second place, inches behind the right shoulder of the Moundsville runner. My breathing was steady and my legs felt strong. As we approached the first turn of the final lap, I glanced to my right and saw a cluster of teammates cheering loudly for me while standing behind a thin wire.
“This is great,” I thought. “Now I’ll really give them something to cheer about.”
At that point, I produced an all-out burst that propelled me into the lead by several meters. I could hardly believe what was happening; I was leading my very first 800-meter race and I was a little more than a minute away from winning it. All sorts of glorious scenarios flashed through my teenaged mind – the congratulations from teammates and loved ones and the social leap from gawky, red-headed brainiac to successful athlete being two. I couldn’t wait to get to the finish line to experience all that – and more.
But as I began heading down the backstretch, my perspective of the world was transformed and not for the better. Suddenly, the distance between me and the final turn looked as if it were a half-mile away and I saw tiny black dots when I looked into the overcast sky. The legs that were so springy became leaden and my lungs desperately sucked in oxygen in gulps and gasps. In track parlance, I had just “hit the wall” and, not only did I hit it, I slammed into it heart-first. I wanted so badly to please my teammates and to raise my status within the high-school hierarchy that I burned myself out. And now I was paying the price.
I sputtered down the backstretch like a broken-down jalopy and, seconds later, both Moundsville runners zoomed past me. They widened the gap with every stride and I couldn’t do anything to stop the bleeding. It took everything I had left just to complete the last lap and, in the end, I managed to finish third only because my teammate was, by far, the slowest runner on the team. It took several minutes of heaving and wheezing before I regained control of my breathing but the memories – and lessons – from that failure remain to this day.
Because my coach’s background was in football and because I was a non-descript freshman who just plugged a hole, he offered no post-mortem instruction. Only after watching world-class track meets on TV did I learn the error of my ways: The kick I began early in lap two should have been saved for the final 150 meters. Had I known to do that, I certainly would have fared much better physically and I might have even won the race. But because I didn’t show sufficient patience, I was forced to endure a hard, hard lesson.
It was the only 800-meter race I ever ran; shortly thereafter, the anchor man of our freshman 4-by-200 relay team was promoted to the varsity squad and on his recommendation – he was a neighbor who had run plenty of competitive sprints with me on Friendly Hill – the coach decided to let me fill the void. Thanks to a giant lead my three teammates gave me, I was able to break the tape in my final high school sports competition.
The next 35 years have served to sharpen and shape my perspective on life and, had my former self faced what I faced on this day, he might have unleashed a raging and volcanic anger. Waiting for anything wasn’t a strong suit back then and the second half of this trip would involve lots of it. But before explaining why, allow me to provide some background:
Less than three weeks after returning home from Shelton, Wash., I began a journey to an increasingly familiar venue: The Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Penn. On past trips, I had either flown from Pittsburgh to Allentown or drove the six-and-a-half hours but, this time, I was asked to fly into Philadelphia and drive 90 minutes to Bethlehem for two reasons: To save money and to create a carpool with a crew member who was set to land in Philly around the same time. It also helped that the new itinerary had me flying out of “The Steel City” at 1:15 p.m., which was later than the flight I selected. That, in turn, allowed me to arise at 8 a.m. following a decent night’s rest.
When I pulled out of the driveway at 9:05, the weather was glorious: 71 degrees and partly sunny skies. The drive to Pittsburgh International Airport was picture-perfect and I found a parking spot within three minutes of entering the lot. My seat location on the flight wasn’t ideal – 10th row aisle – but since I didn’t have to make any connections, I was OK with it. As I was waiting to board the aircraft, I got a phone call from my carpool mate, EVS (or “Elvis”) operator Dave Raynak. He was at his gate in Nashville awaiting his scheduled 11:40 a.m. departure and, since we had never met before, I told him I would be an easy guy to spot at the Avis rental car location – thick red hair, glasses and wearing a black “ShoBox: t-shirt. If all went well, since our flights were set to land 20 minutes apart, I’d be waiting for him when he arrived.
All went well on my end. My plane left Pittsburgh five minutes early and, aside from a brief flutter of turbulence, it was an uneventful flight. Moments after landing I received a text from Raynak.
“Flight delayed,” he said. “Arriving 3:10 p.m. now.”
“OK,” I thought. “That’s only an extra 20 minutes. Maybe there’ll be a long line at the Avis check-in counter, which might actually work to our advantage.”
A few minutes after that, however, Raynak sent another text: “Arriving at 4:30 now.” He called shortly thereafter and we discussed the situation. Since I was still his official ride, I offered to wait for him in Philly until the situation was resolved and he replied that he would first call production coordinator Nikki Ferry to see if she could reserve a separate rental for him. A few minutes later, Dave told me he had his own car and that I didn’t need to wait for him.
That turned out to be the last non-waiting situation I’d face this day.
Unlike some airports, Philadelphia’s rental car facility isn’t located inside the terminal but rather in another location on the property. To get there, I needed to go outside and stand at a designated “waiting zone.”
Just as I hit the door, I saw an Avis bus rolling up to the zone.
“Wow, talk about great timing,” I thought.
But it rolled away as quickly as it rolled up. At best, it did a “moving stop” like one often sees at virtually every stop sign in this country. A woman who was hoping to catch the bus was as dumbfounded as I was and, unlike me, she was under a deadline. Less than five minutes later, I spotted, way off in the distance, the tell-tale red “VI” portion of the company’s name on a bus and it turned out I guessed correctly. Within 10 minutes, we were on our way.
Thankfully the line at the Avis check-in counter was relatively short – I was in fourth in the queue – but, while I patiently awaited my turn, the man standing directly behind me was muttering under his breath. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he thought the agents were spending too much time bantering with the customers. As a person in the customer service business, he felt there should have been less chit-chat, especially since our line was growing longer by the second. Because he acted as if he was in a hurry, I offered to let him ahead of me in line. He said he wasn’t pressed for time; he was just disgusted by the proceedings. Soon enough, I made it to the front of the line and was summoned to one of the three stations.
After securing a gray 2015 Hyundai Sonata, I grabbed my Magellan GPS and programmed the address of the Sands – 901 Daly Avenue. Because the Magellan didn’t “find” me quickly in Shelton, I made sure to print out MapQuest directions just to get me through the first few turns. The good news was the GPS locked into my location within moments but the bad news was the suggested route was completely different than the one spelled out by MapQuest. Since the Magellan had served me so well over the years, I decided to let it lead the way.
One thing about the Magellan: No matter what the direction arrow might indicate, the pink line on the screen is the be-all and end-all. After crossing a bridge, the pink line indicated that a potential left turn might be at hand but the direction arrow said the next turn wouldn’t be for another six miles. Fearing I was about to make an improper turn, I veered one lane to my right and began to drive straight ahead.
As usual, I outsmarted myself. I should have stayed where I was and, because I didn’t, I was forced to improvise – which is never a good thing for me. I found a place to reverse my course but, while doing so, I heard the seven most dreaded words one can hear from a GPS: “When possible, please make a legal U-turn.”
That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re driving in Philadelphia. I ended up driving back over the bridge, using a left-turn lane to duck into a side street and, retracing my steps, until I returned to the turn-off I had missed. Once I made that left turn, more difficulties followed.
While I didn’t execute any more wrong turns, I had the misfortune of arriving just as afternoon rush-hour traffic was forming. Because I ran into five different traffic bottlenecks, a 90-minute drive turned into one that lasted nearly three hours. Not only did I experience sustained bumper-to-bumper traffic, construction projects had created several merging points that slowed the flow even more. I did my best to let people in without disturbing the drivers behind me but I saw that my compatriots weren’t willing to be as accommodating.
This was no relaxing interstate drive in which one could click on the radio and enjoy the scenery. Rather, it was a trek that required continuously intense focus as well as a deep wellspring of patience (there’s that word again). To paraphrase the Eurythmics, “Road rage is made of this.”
Experience has taught me that no amount of honking horns or spewed obscenities would unclog this logjam. Time would. And, in time, it loosened up.
Once I arrived in Bethlehem, my personal GPS carried me the rest of the way. Once I crossed the bridge into town, I knew to turn left onto Third Street instead of going straight as I had done on previous visits. I also knew that my final destination was a half-mile beyond the point where my GPS declared “You have arrived.”
I found a spot on level six just 14 spots away from the parking garage entrance but, even after entering the building, my day of long waits wasn’t over. The elevator I hoped would take me down to the lobby instead stopped and let in a large group of business people who were attending a conference and I discovered they hadn’t yet checked into the hotel. When we all arrived, about three dozen more conference attendees were already standing in the queue.
It certainly was a fitting end to a trying day but, as was the case in all the other situations, I didn’t let it affect my mood or blood pressure. Instead, I looked at the TV to check out the British Open highlights, then chatted about the results with the guy who was one spot ahead of me in line. It was a nice way to pass the time.
After checking into my 10th floor room, I called my loved ones to tell them I had arrived safely and walked down to the casino’s food court to grab a mid-evening snack. Weary from my draining travel day, I spent the remainder of the evening watching TV and losing myself in thought. Those thoughts eventually led to my eyelids growing heavy and, at the unusually early time of 11:30 p.m., I switched off the TV and the light.
Friday, July 17: The next seven-and-a-half hours were more rest than slumber. I first awoke at 4:30 a.m. and, after some tossing and turning, I arose for good at 7 a.m. After getting ready for the day, I spent most of the sun-drenched morning tapping away at the laptop. When I reached a good stopping point, shortly after noon, I ventured down to the food court in search of lunch. For a change of pace, I stopped at Greenleaf’s, where I bought a chicken avocado sandwich, a small bag of Sun Chips and a Diet Pepsi, all of which hit the spot.
I then went to the lobby to check in for tomorrow’s flight and, as I approached the small business center, tucked into the corner of the room, I saw longtime Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission Executive Director Greg Sirb. Since he was on the phone at the time, I contented myself with a wave after printing out my boarding pass, a wave which he returned with a smile. Thanks to my frequent flier status, I was upgraded to first class and was assigned a row two window seat. Perfect.
I set up shop at ringside and waited for the various technicians to finish the tasks they needed to do before turning their attention to CompuBox. Punch-counting partner Aris Pina, who came to Bethlehem by bus, arrived at the arena about an hour after I did and we spent most of the next several hours talking about our favorite subject – boxing history.
At one point, Aris asked a trivia question that had me stumped: With Shane Mosley Sr. and Jr. scheduled to fight on the same card Aug. 29 in Los Angeles, who was the first father and son to turn the trick? I came up with a few suggestions but came up empty. The answer was surprising.
“Shane and Shane Jr. aren’t even going to be the first Mosleys to do it,” Aris said. On Sept. 23, 1975 in Everett, Washington, 38-year-old Rocky Mosley Sr. was stopped in two rounds by Mike Lankester while 19-year-old Rocky Mosley Jr. (who was engaging in his second pro fight) stopped Al Foster in two rounds.
Aris posed the same question to ShoBox analyst (and future Hall-of-Famer) Steve Farhood and he, like me, couldn’t come up with the answer.
“I didn’t even know there was a Rocky Mosley Sr.,” he said, which was exactly what I said to Aris when he told me the answer.
Thanks in part to technical manager Paul Tarter’s hard work and ingenuity, several issues were overcome and the much-sought green light was achieved well before airtime.
The undercard produced several surprises. For example, 15-0 middleweight Rob Brant survived a first-round flash knockdown against 10-8 southpaw Mexican journeyman Ernesto Berrospe before regaining command by round’s end and scoring a decisive TKO 33 seconds into round three. Also, super middleweight Botirsher Obidov – who occupied the “B-side” blue corner despite his 1-0-1 record – earned a close but deserved four-round split decision over previously undefeated Chris Brooker, even after a point penalty for holding in round two.
The non-TV bouts also included a pair of thunderous, one-punch knockouts by Philadelphia super bantamweight (and newly-minted police officer) Emmanuel “Major Pain” Folly and local lightweight attraction Ricky “Numero Uno” Nuno. Folly raised his record to 5-0 (4) with a massive second-round hook to the rib cage of Jose Garcia (0-3), who remained on the canvas for the 10-count while ticket-seller Nuno scored a scary, third-round TKO over debuting lightweight Tim Kunkel, thanks to a crushing right hand that smashed him to the floor and left him woozy for several minutes.
With the preliminaries completed, the stage was set for the televised portion of the card. A long and late night was possible, for this quadrupleheader was slated to begin at 10 p.m. and, if every fight went the distance, 38 rounds would be waged. My night-owl nature and well-trained fingers were OK with that scenario but Aris’ situation was a bit more precarious because he was scheduled to board a 1:45 a.m. bus back to New York City. Given the match-ups, however, there was little reason to worry because we thought that at least two bouts – if not all four – would end in knockout.
I believed the main event between middleweight Antoine Douglas and Istvan Szili would conclude early because I anticipated Douglas’ dynamic power and angles would trump the rugged Szili’s straight-ahead approach and that middleweight Arif Magomedov would follow up his sensational one-round KO over Darnell Boone with another over the 6-foot-4 Derrick Webster, who, at 33, was 11 years older. Also, super middleweight Jerry Odom’s tendency to engage in exciting slugfests would result in another shortened contest, though southpaw Samuel Clarkson had the potential to throw stylistic road blocks in his way. The only fight that was a mystery to me was the junior featherweight contest between Adam Lopez and Eliecer Aquino because there was no available footage of Aquino to scout. That said, one had reason to question Aquino’s glossy 17-0-1 (11) record because 12 of his victims had one win or fewer at the time they fought him and every fight had taken place in the Dominican Republic. Thus, if Aquino wasn’t the goods, Lopez would expose that fact quickly.
Boxing, however, has a way of making fools of prognosticators, so all Aris and I could do was to watch, count, and wait.
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.