The Travelin’ Man returns to Quebec City: Part one
Friday, Nov. 27: If one is privileged to live long enough, he will discover that daily life will, on occasion, allow him to relive past circumstances – but with a little twist to keep it interesting. That certainly has been the case for me over the years, which soon will number 51, and, for the most part, these circumstances have been happy ones.
On Nov. 28, 2009, I was at ringside in Quebec City to work the CompuBox keys for a championship main event involving Lucian Bute, who, despite being a native of Romania, is arguably the most beloved boxer in Canada. On that occasion, he scored a one-punch, fourth round knockout against the usually iron-chinned Librado Andrade to retain his IBF super middleweight title for the fourth time overall and the second time against Andrade. It was perhaps the most impressive performance of what would become a nine-defense reign that spanned four-and-a-half years. His time at the top of the division ended after recently defrocked WBC titlist Carl Froch flattened Bute in five rounds in front of “The Cobra’s” home fans in Nottingham.
Now, on Nov. 28, 2015, exactly six years later, Bute again will fight a championship main event in Quebec City and I will be at ringside to count it. For me, the overall scope of the job will be the same but some details will be altered: First, the fight will take place at the Videotron Centre, an 18,259-seat stadium that opened in September and is situated next to the Pepsi Coliseum, where Bute-Andrade II took place. Second, I will be the primary operator (a.k.a “The Lead Dog”) while Aris Pina will be my “second banana” while, six years ago, Dennis Allen was at the helm and I served with him. Finally, Showtime Extreme and Showtime will be airing Saturday’s quadruple-header while HBO – then – beamed a two-fight show that included a scandalous draw that favored Joan Guzman over Ali Funeka in addition to Bute-Andrade II. There also were personal plot twists (and literal twists) that would unfold – and not all of them were pleasant. Those will be revealed later.
This “same-but-different” dynamic will apply to Bute and it also features a full-circle bent. While he’ll be fighting for the same version of the 168-pound belt he did in 2009, he will do so as the challenger instead of as the champion. Last May, James DeGale outpointed Andre Dirrell to capture the IBF title, a belt vacated by Froch, the man who dethroned Bute. Now, at age 35, Bute will attempt to do to Froch’s countryman what the then-nearly 35-year-old Froch did to him: Regain a piece of the 168-pound title against a younger champion before his passionately partisan fans.
Statistically speaking, Bute couldn’t have asked for a better preamble: In stopping Italian Andrea Di Luisa in four rounds in August, Bute landed 41% of his total punches and 65% of his power shots while taking just 17% overall and 23% power in return. Better yet, for him, he landed 14 of 17 power punches in the final round, which translates to an incredible 82% accuracy rate. Conversely, DeGale experienced an up-and-down performance in beating Dirrell. Following a tight and tense first round that saw Dirrell out-land DeGale 6-3 overall, Dirrell consolidated his advantage by opening a cut over DeGale’s right eye. But with 25 seconds remaining in the second, DeGale violently turned the fight by scoring the first of two knockdowns. Only the round-ending bell saved Dirrell from losing then and there.
The title appeared to be DeGale’s for the taking but, for reasons only known to him, he lifted his foot from the accelerator. He threw just 33 punches in the third and slumped to 22 in the fourth, which allowed Dirrell to regain his bearings and stay in the fight. The peaks-and-valleys pattern continued through round 10 as he throttled up in the sixth (16 of 46), slumped in the seventh (7 of 18), surged in the eighth (17 of 43) and decelerated in the ninth (7 of 22). After 10 rounds, DeGale held a narrow 97-96 lead in total connects and despite everything that had befallen him, Dirrell still had a chance to win on points. In the end, however, DeGale found the extra energy he needed in the final two rounds while the tiring Dirrell repeatedly slapped on clinches in order to sneak peeks at the clock. DeGale out-landed Dirrell 18-15 in the last six minutes and did just enough to earn 114-112 leads on two scorecards as well as a 115-111 advantage in total connects.
Now, for the second consecutive fight, DeGale, the first British Olympic gold medalist to win a major professional boxing title, will travel to his opponent’s home turf. And what a home advantage it should be for Bute, for the crowd inside the Videotron Centre will be far louder and much more partisan than what the inaccurately named “Chunky” experienced in Boston six months earlier. This fight will severely test DeGale’s ability to shut out sonic adversity.
I have long been a big believer in home ring advantage, whose effects are an extension of human nature in general. Most people perform much better if they know their audience wants them to succeed and that dynamic applies whether that person is giving a presentation, delivering an important speech or engaging in athletic competition. When one introduces thousands of cheering fans to the mix, that rush of positive energy is even more pronounced. The correlation of geography and performance is so strong that those who set odds factor in that phenomenon when setting their lines. While judges are trained to ignore the ambient noise, even they can hear the robust reaction to the home fighter’s actions as well as the muted response to the opponents’ successes. While certainly not intentional, I believe locality provides a noticeable mathematical cushion for the crowd favorite – perhaps as many as two or three points.
It was for this reason – and also because of DeGale’s inconsistent offensive output – that I believed, going in, that Bute had his best chance to regain his old belt, especially if the fight was fought at the slow pace both men appear to prefer. I still believed DeGale, the younger and more versatile man, would have just enough to eke out a points win but if there were too many closely-fought rounds, a narrow and controversial decision could have resulted. The power of home was, is, and, I think, always will be that formidable.
Speaking of home, this trip from my native West Virginia to Quebec City was fraught with potential complications. First, because I needed to be inside the Videotron Centre during the mid-afternoon hours to perform the usual pre-telecast electronic checks and, because there are no direct flights to Quebec City from Pittsburgh, I booked a United Airlines flight that was scheduled to leave at 9:41 a.m. Normally I would have rented a hotel room in Pittsburgh and stayed overnight but because I didn’t want to spend any of my Thanksgiving on the road I decided to turn in extra early (10 p.m.) in the hopes of stirring awake in the middle of the night.
I had planned to get up at 4 a.m. but because United’s website prohibited me from printing out my boarding passes in advance (they apparently didn’t allow that option for outbound international flights), I needed to make a stop at the check-in counter in Pittsburgh. To account for potential long lines, I decided to set my mental alarm for 3:30 a.m.
Though I struggled to fall asleep for more than a half-hour, I eventually got in five good hours of shuteye before I awoke 10 minutes before my goal time. I felt well-rested as I went through the usual morning routines and I was pleasantly surprised that the temperature was still near 50 degrees Fahrenheit when I stepped outside and approached my car at 4:38 a.m.
Because traffic was light, I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport 15 minutes earlier than usual. Most of that advantage was taken away by scanning the two parking lots nearest the terminal entrance, which were stuffed with cars, thanks to robust Thanksgiving travel. I finally found a spot near the 14C sign in the extended lot but the available space was perilously tight, thanks to the two SUVs bracketing it. Worse yet, the left wheel of the vehicle on the right slightly encroached into what should have been my area and the vehicle to my left did the same, though to a lesser degree. The good news was that I was able to squeeze into the space, thanks to some careful and skillful maneuvering. The bad news was that the space between me and the vehicle to my right was so tight that I had to extricate my luggage, which was on and beneath the passenger seat, from the driver’s side.
As I walked toward the terminal entrance, I was of two minds: I marveled at the brilliant bands of red, orange, purple, yellow and blue that indicated sunrise was near but I also felt mild dread over the prospect of seeing a long line at United’s check-in counter.
I need not have worried; seconds after I arrived, I was waved forward. But instead of one-on-one service with an agent, I was encouraged to try the kiosk. Past experiences with kiosks have been frustrating because they either do not recognize my frequent flyer number, my passport or my reservation code, after which I would have all my issues straightened out by an agent. I had every reason to believe that would happen here but guess what? Everything worked out well, right down to my TSA Pre-Check designation.
The general security lines were unusually short and the TSA Pre-Check queue was non-existent until I arrived. Within two minutes, I was on the other side of the screening area.
Because I didn’t have much status with United – I was in the fourth and final boarding group even after the gate agent added my frequent flyer number – I was seated in row 15 on the aisle. My seatmate was a college student who was editing his economics paper regarding current events. The old-school journalism student in me was delighted to see that (1) he had a hard copy of his paper; (2) he was making his changes longhand and (3) he made his amendments using several of the editing symbols I had learned more than three decades earlier.
The plane landed in Newark 23 minutes earlier than advertised but, as I reached into the overhead bin to retrieve my clothes bag, I felt a slight cramp in my right triceps. As I’ve grown older, I’ve experienced these out-of-the-blue muscle strains from time to time; one recent episode took place near my neck and, a few weeks earlier, I experienced a particularly painful spasm from my left shoulder blade to the midway point of my back. Like the others, this pain, which went away after about 20 minutes, didn’t prevent me from handling the remainder of my business. Still, as an incongruously young Mick Jagger sang in “Mother’s Little Helper,” what a drag it is getting old.
After I took a shuttle bus to Terminal A, I found my gate, bought an energy bar and a bottle of Coke Zero and settled in to read my copy of Thomas Boswell’s “Game Day Sports Writing,” a collection of his past articles on various sports and sporting personalities that I purchased a couple of weeks earlier at an area church’s annual used book sale for 50 cents. It was worth every penny – and most certainly many times more pennies than I paid.
While reading a profile of Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott, a familiar face (but not a familiar name) called out, “Hey, CompuBox guy!” It was Pete Hary, who I met several times during the IBHOF’s induction weekend and at various cards in Connecticut. He told me he was assigned to judge the DeGale-Bute co-feature that pitted Eleider Alvarez and Isaac Chilemba. He, along with several other boxing figures connected to the card, were to be on this flight, which landed somewhat heavily on the runway well ahead of the slated 3:02 p.m. arrival.
I briskly walked toward customs, hoping against hope that the process would be far smoother than what occurred last year. This is what happened then: After explaining the purpose of this trip – punch-counter for an upcoming fight card – I was asked to undergo further questioning at a side office and my luggage underwent a second screening. After I was released about an hour later, I was told I was detained because they were concerned I was taking work away from a Canadian. I was allowed into the country only after they determined that my job was so specific and required too much training for a Canadian citizen to assume my role on the spot.
No such delays happened here. After I was briefly questioned and asked to produce the letter of entry from Interbox that explained why I was in Canada, my passport was stamped and I was waved through. No fuss. No muss. No mess. Well, there was a mess but that was caused by the weather. Had it not been for warmer-than-usual temperatures, I would have seen snow instead of rain.
Thanks to a young and personable Quebecker named Yannick, the 25-minute cab ride to the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac was entertaining and informative. Along the way, we discussed the potential return of the Nordiques (which was why the Videotron Centre was built), Sunday’s Grey Cup matchup between Ottawa and Edmonton and other assorted sports-related subjects. I spent just enough time in the room to drop off my clothes bag, after which I took a taxi to the Videotron Centre.
Unfortunately for me, this driver – who was older and far less talkative than Yannick – dropped me off in front of the stadium but not anywhere close to the production truck. Plus, the rain was still falling and the temperature was dropping into the high-30s. I found my way to a security checkpoint and, after explaining who I was and why I was there – I also made sure to show him my Showtime production memo – I was led to an entryway where I walked under a metal detector, underwent a bag search and was given a sweep by a metal-detecting wand before I was allowed into the arena. I didn’t mind; I had nothing to hide.
The weigh-in was taking place on a makeshift stage on the arena floor, so the area was congested with spectators, security personnel and miles of wires from various production trucks. The scene also was dimly lit to project the intended ambiance, so I had a tough time seeing what was in front of me.
As I worked my way through the congestion, I suddenly felt searing pain in my right ankle, which apparently had caught the corner of a raised curb. Instead of fighting to stay upright, I allowed my body to fall in sections with the intent of minimizing the damage. Instead, my fall onto the bare concrete floor caused me to incur additional damage to the fourth knuckle on my left hand and the inside of my left knee. Finally, the top of my head struck the pavement with moderate force. Still, I was more embarrassed than hurt as two security guards helped me to my feet. After briefly testing the ankle to make sure it wasn’t broken, I thanked them for their help and assured them I was OK to continue.
I made my way, somewhat gingerly, to Showtime’s production truck, where the pre-fight electronics tests were completed within seconds. Though the checks were done in short order, I still needed to attend the format meeting in which all of the nuts and bolts of the broadcast would be covered. Following the one-hour confab, I stopped by Showtime’s production office, where production coordinator Angie Sztejn arranged for a van to take me back to the hotel.
Earlier, while I was waiting in the truck to go to the format meeting, punch-counting partner Aris Pina invited me, via Facebook, to have dinner with him and we tentatively set a time of 8 p.m. Though I returned to the hotel around 7:30, I was met with a blizzard of emails from HBO and NBC regarding some last-minute research for the shows that were to air the next day, which meant they had to be done now. It took me approximately 45 minutes to complete the work and, after being assured by CompuBox president Bob Canobbio that all was well, Aris and I ventured out into the night.
Aris had heard about a particularly good restaurant near the hotel but, after wandering the streets for 20 minutes amidst a light but consistent rain and asking for directions without success, we decided to return to the 1640 Bistro, which was located at a plaza close to the hotel. I had trouble hearing Aris over the live music provided by a guitar-and-sax duo (curse my aging ears) but the food was delicious and satisfying.
Once I returned to the room and watched some TV, the ankle began to stiffen and I experienced more difficulty getting around. “Perhaps a good night’s rest would help,” I thought. So, at 11:40 p.m., a little more than 20 hours after initially waking up, I turned out the lights.
Saturday, Nov. 28: I was wrong about the rest; after seven hours of unusually restful slumber, the ankle wasn’t much better – in fact, it sported the slightest of bruising – but I could still walk on it. Also, the area around my left knuckle had assumed a deeper shade of red but, while it was tender to the touch, I typed without trouble. And it wouldn’t have any effect on my punch-counting because I use the first two fingers of both hands to do that task. The interior of the left knee, the least severe of the injuries I incurred in yesterday’s fall, was a minimal factor. So yes, I would be playing hurt – but at least I’ll be able to play.
I spent most of the morning catching up on my writing and, when I reached a good stopping point, I called Aris to see what was going on with him. His reply came a few hours later – he preferred to get some more rest. Meanwhile, I got some more work done.
Shortly before my 24-hour check-in window arrived, I took an elevator down to the business center to see – just for giggles – if I could print my boarding passes. One Showtime crew member – whose boarding time was an unbelievably early 4:40 a.m. – tried to do so unsuccessfully before leaving. So, with considerable doubt coursing through my mind, I took my turn.
Just when you think failure is on the horizon, success sneaks up and delights you. I not only checked in, I printed out the boarding passes without any printer issues. I silently cheered the extra 30 minutes of sleep that was ahead of me.
I met Aris at 2 p.m. in the lobby, where we were scheduled to meet three others to take a van to the venue. While that trio didn’t show, Sports Media aces Rob Stuchbury and Alex Williams did. Since there were two vans waiting just outside the door, we packed our belongings into the trunk. As we did so, Aris presented me with a gift – a box of Canada True maple cream cookies. Thanks to Facebook, he knew my age was advancing another year on this day and it was nice that he bought me something to mark the occasion. After thanking Aris, the four of us found our seats inside the van and zipped away.
After Aris and I found our work space that was situated approximately 20 feet from ringside and confirmed all was well electronically, I spent the next few hours conversing with Aris and other various ringsiders and watched several YouTube videos on Aris’ computer, one of which was Emanuel Steward’s intense chewing out of Danell Nicholson during his March 1996 fight with Andrew Golota (Steward’s motivational tactics didn’t work, for Nicholson was stopped shortly thereafter).
By the time we left ringside to attend the crew meal, the biggest boxing event of the day – the four-belt heavyweight title fight between longtime champion Wladimir Klitschko and challenger Tyson Fury in Dusseldorf – had begun. Aris kept track of the early action on his phone, then, after finishing our meal and returning to ringside, we watched the HBO stream on my laptop. As word spread of Fury’s success, more people gathered around my laptop to witness the history that was unfolding. By the end, nearly a dozen TV people and boxing officials had gathered around my computer screen and all agreed with the unanimous decision that was authored by a combination of Fury’s superior speed, twitchy head and shoulder feints, mobility and ring generalship and Klitschko’s inability to unleash his “Dr. Steelhammer” fists. Just like that, Klitschko’s majestic nine-and-a-half year reign and his 11 ¾-year undefeated streak had come to an end.
Everything about Fury’s attack – both physical and verbal – was confounding to Klitschko, especially when Fury called him a devil worshipper at one point. Inside the ring, Fury’s constant movement and occasional switch-hitting prevented Klitschko from planting his feet and delivering the crosses that had crippled previous opponents. Also, the Briton’s superior height changed every potential punching angle that Klitschko had to defend. For years, Klitschko had fought shorter opponents who could attempt punches from certain places, places he knew by heart and could avoid virtually in his sleep. On offense, the consistently changing target, along with Klitschko’s eroding reflexes, scrambled the champion’s aiming mechanism. Being the type to strike only when a reasonable chance of connecting existed, he ended up landing just 52 punches in 12 rounds, a record-low total for a title fight that went the entire distance. Just like Joe Louis and countless other aging legends, Klitschko could see the openings but, by the time he wanted to take advantage, the target was gone.
What effect will Fury’s ascension have on the sport? Despite the pound-for-pound standings of lower-weight standouts like Roman Gonzalez, Gennady Golovkin, Saul Alvarez, Terence Crawford and Sergey Kovalev, to the general sporting public, the persona projected by the heavyweight champion drives how boxing will be perceived and how it will be sold. In this four-belt era, one can’t imagine a more charismatic pairing than Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. Both are boastful, humorous extroverts who also can back up their words inside the ring. At ages 27 (Fury) and 30 (Wilder), they are either nearing or at their respective athletic peaks and, for as long as they remain at the top, the heavyweight division will be a lively and highly quotable place. In this era of short attention spans and reality-show mentalities, this is a good thing and I look forward to witnessing what will transpire over the next few years.
A fight for the undisputed championship probably isn’t in the cards for now – they still need to pad their championship resumes as well as create a deeper public imprint of themselves as champions – and Klitschko intends to invoke the rematch clause in the contract. With Fury at the helm, my guess is 2016 will produce the sight of 90,000 boisterous fans gathered inside Wembley to see if their man can do to Klitschko a second time what so many others hadn’t come close to doing once since 2004. And if Wilder keeps winning – “silver” titlist Alexander Povetkin is in the mix of potential foes – we could see our first heavyweight unification fight of the four-belt era.
The undercard bouts began precisely at 7 p.m. and as we waited for the 9 p.m. start time for the Showtime Extreme portion of the telecast, Aris and I talked shop and swapped stories with broadcasters Barry Tompkins and Steve Farhood. For my money, Tompkins and Farhood not only are Hall-of-Famers in waiting for their considerable accomplishments in boxing but they also are two of the best people I’ve ever met. Once the prelims concluded, we all took our places and prepared for the live broadcast to begin.
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.