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The Travelin’ Man returns to Cincinnati – part one

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Friday, Oct. 2: This year, the gaps between trips has been larger – it’s been nearly two months since I worked the “ShoBox” tripleheader in Atlantic City, NJ., topped by Sergiy Derevyanchenko-Elvin Ayala – but the activity within the Home Office has intensified, thanks mostly to Premier Boxing Champions’ ambitious schedule. One of its fighters, Adrien Broner, will top a Showtime-televised card in Cincinnati and I (along with colleague Andy Kasprzak) will be at ringside working the CompuBox keys.

The last time I did a show in “The Queen City” was in July 2012 and then, too, Broner was the headliner – in more ways than one. Broner was to make the second defense of his WBO junior lightweight title against Vicente Escobedo, a newsworthy event in itself. But “The Problem’s” second hometown title appearance suddenly was thrown into chaos the moment he stepped onto the scale. Weighing 133 ¾ – three-and-a-half pounds over the championship limit – Broner lost the title on the scales but an agreement was reached so that the fight could proceed. To prevent Broner from exacerbating his already robust physical advantage by adding even more pounds in the interim, a second weigh-in was staged at 9:30 a.m. the morning of the fight and there Broner tipped in at 143 ¾. Seeing the poundage, Escobedo’s brain trust exploded in outrage. Here’s why:



Escobedo’s team asserted that Broner had to weigh no more than 140, 10 pounds over the championship limit, while Broner’s camp believed they needed to scale 10 pounds more than their fighter’s original 133 ¾. Initial reports indicated the fight had been canceled but, following hours of intense negotiations that stretched into the late afternoon, a second deal was brokered and the fight took place. Broner scored a savage and dominant fifth round TKO and then produced a YouTube moment by making a faux marriage proposal to his then-girlfriend Arie Nicole. Escobedo, though thoroughly beaten, did leave town with a considerably heavier wallet.

At ringside, I heard words like “arrogant,” “unprofessional” and “obnoxious” to describe the then-22-year-old Broner. And until a few months ago, those terms were still applicable to the persona he chose to project. That said, his tactics had worked well, as far as creating a brand.

In this age of widely diverse entertainment options, boxers must do what they can to break through the noise within the sports culture that is dominated by the NFL, the NBA and, to a somewhat lesser degree, MLB, NASCAR and MMA. Broner knew talent alone wouldn’t get him noticed so he borrowed the blueprint of his hero – Floyd Mayweather Jr. – and added his twist to the elements he felt fueled the “Money” phenomenon: The braggadocio, the active night life, the flashy possessions and the inflammatory rhetoric. To a point, Broner’s plan succeeded as he became a wealthy man and a well-known (if highly polarizing) figure in his chosen sport. He stuck with the formula even after losing a decision to Marcos Maidana and before his most recent fight versus Shawn Porter.

But sometime after the June loss to Porter, his second in five fights, Broner realized he had reached a moment of reckoning. Thanks to his powerful advisor Al Haymon, Broner, despite his recent stumble, was favorably positioned to capture a fourth divisional title, do so in his hometown, and against a fighter who hadn’t fought in 18 months and whose last outing was a bloody and debatable defeat to Jessie Vargas. The path to success was paved but Broner also sensed he needed to adjust his trajectory.

The most noticeable change was his pre-fight commentary – or a lack of it. Instead of declaring that “AB” stood for “About Billions,” he said the initials now stood for “About Boxing” and “About Business.” He said little else.

“I told you I wouldn’t do any interviews or talk,” he stated at the final press conference. “Nothing has changed. I just want to thank everyone for coming. I will be victorious on Saturday night, October 3.” He would reserve all additional comments for Showtime because it was the network televising his bout and, even then, his tone and verbiage was subdued when compared to his previous standard.

Another change was revealed when he stepped on the scale. Not only was he a pound-and-a-half under the 140-pound maximum, his shredded physique had the look of someone who had worked down to weight over a sustained period instead of crash dieting just to make a certain number for 90 seconds. If Broner impresses – both inside and outside the ring – he still has a chance to realize most of his dreams. He’ll never be “Mayweather 2.0” – the two losses made sure of that – but a focused, mature Broner has the potential of being an even bigger “Problem” for his opponents than he already has been, while not being as much of one for himself.

*

As was the case three years ago, this trip won’t involve airplanes but rather a five-hour drive inside my trusted Subaru. After all, why drive to Pittsburgh and fly to Cincinnati when I’m a third of the way there just sitting in my driveway? I also like how driving to the show grants me the freedom of setting my own schedule as well as controlling how I get there.

My plan was to arrive at the Hyatt Regency by 2 p.m., two hours before my call time inside the US Bank Arena for the usual pre-fight connection test and three hours before the format meeting in which every detail of the next day’s broadcast would be addressed. As always, I over-prepared; not only did I have my Magellan GPS with me, I had printed MapQuest directions from home to the hotel, from the hotel to the arena, from the arena to the hotel and from the hotel to home. It was a good thing I did that, for all four routes suggested a different way to get from Point A to Point B, thanks to the city’s one-way streets and the two similarly-distanced routes between home and Cincinnati.

I arose at 7:45 a.m. and pulled out of the driveway shortly after 9, amid an overcast sky and a temperature in the mid-’50s. September had been a sun-drenched month with comfortable temperatures and humidity but, in the last week or so, the conditions had changed suddenly and dramatically. Leaves that had remained green far longer than had been the case in recent years turned orange, red and yellow with startling dispatch and the stone-gray skies that mark autumn and winter in West Virginia had returned. The crisp chill in the air also was in evidence as I loaded my belongings in the front seat. While most people enjoy this change of seasons, I only see it as a reminder that winter is just around the corner.

The suggested route was the more northern path – follow Route 2 south until crossing into Ohio via the bridge in St. Marys, then drive Ohio 7 South, Interstate 77 North, Interstate 70 West and Interstate 71 South into Cincinnati. Except for a glimmer of sunshine in Gratiot, located between Zanesville and Columbus, it was gray but not necessarily gloomy.

I had given myself an extra half-hour of travel time because of massive road construction in my home area. Those delays didn’t materialize but I still arrived at the hotel precisely at 2 p.m., thanks to my failure to spot it the first time my Magellan stated, “You have arrived.” A simple lap around the block rectified that minor lapse.

As I pulled into the valet parking lane, I asked the employee who approached my vehicle about my parking options. He said valet was the only service the hotel provided but mentioned that the parking garage across the street was an alternative. At that moment, I had planned to check into my room and drive to the arena, so the valet option sounded like the better choice because the hotel didn’t charge in-and-out fees.

After checking in, unpacking and making a couple of phone calls, I decided I’d rather walk to the arena than drive to it. It wasn’t raining and I also wanted to get in a little exercise. I returned to the lobby and asked another hotel employee whether the US Bank Arena was within walking distance. He dug out a map and traced the route for me – walk down Fifth Street, then take a left on Broadway. He added that the walk would only be about 20 minutes.

“Do you think you can handle that?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I replied. I’ve taken far longer walks without breaking much of a sweat, including my last mall walk of three miles just two days earlier.

His directions were impeccable and, as I approached the arena floor, I ran into the person I needed to see – Sports Media wizard Rob Stuchbury. He told me we would do our testing inside the production truck because work was still being done around ringside. Happily, it took less than five minutes to get the green light we all wanted to see.

Following the format meeting, which took about an hour, I walked back to the hotel. As I neared my destination, I spotted a Subway outlet and decided to go there for dinner. As I approached the property, a vagrant looked at my black IBHOF jacket and said, “I’ll pay you $4.99 for that jacket.” Considering I paid $50 for it – and considering that the vagrant looked warmly dressed anyway – I walked past without a word. It was the first time I ever heard a homeless person offer to pay for anything, so he must have had a productive day of panhandling.

Because it turned out the Subway was closed, I ended up getting dinner from a couple of the mini-marts inside the lobby; a ham and cheese sub from one and a small bag of Lays from the other (I grabbed a bottle of diet soda from the bin just outside the meeting room at the arena). I had wanted to spend the rest of the evening watching the Reds-Pirates game but, because the hotel didn’t carry Fox Sports Ohio, I contented myself with occasional score updates while channel-surfing. I missed a heck of a game; the Bucs rallied from 4-0 deficit to win 6-4 in 12 innings, thanks to Starling Marte’s home run, and moved closer to clinching home-field advantage for next week’s National League Wild Card game.

Because I slept restlessly the previous night, my eyes grew heavy with fatigue unusually early, so much so that I turned out the lights at 10:45.

Saturday, Oct. 3: Whatever sleep I didn’t get Thursday night, I more than made up for it here because I slumbered for nearly nine hours. I spent most of the morning (and early afternoon) catching up on my writing but, shortly before noon, I received a call from punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak. Although I did drive here, I told him I preferred to walk to the arena (mostly because of my distaste for inner-city driving). So we decided to meet in the lobby at 1:30 and I spent most of that time watching the West Virginia-Oklahoma game, which the Mountaineers would lose 44-24.

The weather was overcast but not bad but not long after Andy and I started, the sky began to spit sprinkles. Thankfully the precipitation didn’t intensify and my IBHOF jacket did a good job of beading the raindrops. We arrived at the arena well before our 2 p.m. call time and, once inside the building, we headed straight for the production office, where we picked up our credentials (two wrist bands and a laminated one bearing photos of the main event fighters), as well as an updated bout sheet. Shortly after arriving at our work station, we again got the green light within moments and later I spoke with the PR people to ensure the final stats for the four TV fights would be distributed to the media. A sign of the times: Instead of collecting the stat sheet and running off copies, they would snap a picture with their phones and send a mass e-mail. They assured me everyone who would need the stats would get them.

Because Andy and I were the first to arrive at the crew meal – we actually showed up a minute earlier than the designated time – we got back to ringside just in time to see the first fight of the evening between unbeaten featherweights Luis Rosario of Puerto Rico and Cincinnati’s Aaron Hollis. Fights such as Rosario-Hollis are why fans should see every bout of a given card, for while it ultimately was a lopsided fight, it was a highly entertaining lopsided fight.

In this match-up of southpaws, Rosario, appropriately nicknamed “Zurdo,” sent Hollis crashing butt-first to the canvas a minute into the contest with a powerful left cross. Just when it appeared the visitor was about to score a quickie KO, Hollis cleared the cobwebs and nailed Rosario with a right hook that forced him to briefly decelerate. The two then traded bombs until the bell. That pattern repeated itself in rounds two and three as Rosario added savage right uppercuts to the mix. But every time Rosario seemed close to victory, Hollis would resuscitate himself and fight back with stunning ferocity. The cheers from the stands, which were already filling up nicely, reverberated throughout the arena and only paused when the bell forced them to stop.

The end came one minute into the fourth as Rosario scored a second knockdown, thanks to a pair of left crosses. Hollis arose but Rosario’s final push prompted the referee to intervene. The victory lifted Rosario to 7-0-1 (7) while Hollis dropped to 3-1 (2) but the fight served as a terrific table-setter.

Two more fights comprised the pre-Showtime Extreme portion of the card and, while they were good, they paled in comparison. Heavyweight Danny Calhoun advanced to 6-1 (3) with a workmanlike, six-round decision win over journeyman Jamal Woods (7-22-3, 7 KOs), while 2008 US Olympian and local favorite Raynell Williams lifted his ledger to 10-0 (5) at the expense of Mexican Eduardo Reyes (0-2,) following an eight-round chess match.

With the preliminaries done, it was time for Andy and me to warm up our fingers and get ready for the potentially long night ahead of us. As usual, we scanned the bout sheet and tried to guess the number of rounds the two shows would last. I predicted 13 rounds for the Showtime Extreme broadcast (three for the Robert Easter-Juan Solis fight, 10 for the Jamel Herring-Yakubu Amidu bout) while Andy’s number was higher because he believed in the toughness of the Argentine Solis. We both foresaw 22 rounds for the “Showtime Championship Boxing” doubleheader (12 for Jose Pedraza-Edner Cherry, 10 for Adrien Broner-Khabib Allakhverdiev). As I am well aware, it is one thing to make predictions from the safe side of the ropes and entirely another to walk up the ring steps and fulfill those forecasts or make fools of the soothsayers. As for me, I was just looking forward to the coming combat.

*

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.

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