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The Travelin’ Man goes to Houston: Part one

28
Dec

Bayou Event Center

 

Thursday, Dec. 10: Less than two weeks after returning home from Quebec City, the Travelin’ Man returned to the road and the sky to work a “ShoBox” quadruple-header topped by a scheduled 10-rounder between junior welterweights Regis Prograis and Abel Ramos.

I was looking forward to working this card and particularly counting Prograis. That’s because, four months earlier, in Atlantic City, I tracked his punches during his eight-round decision victory over Amos Cowart Jr. – all 909 of them. His numbers were incredible: Prograis averaged 113.6 punches and 27.4 power connects per round (nearly double the 57.8 and 11.8 junior welterweight averages) as well as 47.6 total connects and 67.9 attempted jabs per round (nearly triple the 17.2 and 24.3 division norms) and 20.3 landed jabs per round – more than four times the 4.8 average. Had the fight gone 10 rounds – and given Cowart’s considerable courage and durability, it might have – Prograis was on pace to break into the Top 10 in terms of all-time CompuBox stats among 140-pounders in multiple categories.



Not only was Prograis active (he topped 100 punches in each of the final seven rounds and peaked at 139 in round four), he also was devastatingly accurate as he landed 42% of his total punches, 30% of his jabs and 60% of his power shots. Finally, given his hyperactive pace, Prograis’ defensive numbers were pretty good as Cowart landed 28% overall, 20% jabs and 34% power.

One would think that tracking such huge output would leave me frazzled. When I first tried the CompuBox program, more than a decade earlier, it might have but, thanks to diligent practice at home, using fights from my collection, it didn’t take me long to acquire the muscle memory needed to handle such fights. Now, I love tracking high-volume fighters such as Leo Santa Cruz, Vasyl Lomachenko, Andrzej Fonfara and Prograis, not just because of the action they produce but also because (1) their hot pace provides great numbers to sell to the production truck and to the talent and (2) it keeps my mind occupied to the point that lengthy shows seem far briefer.

I was dazzled by what I saw of Prograis in Atlantic City and now that he’ll be fighting in his adopted hometown of Houston (where he moved after Hurricane Katrina devastated his native New Orleans), I’m hopeful he’ll come close to duplicating that level of performance before an appreciative audience.

My aeronautical route to Houston appeared straightforward: A 1:55 p.m. flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte (one of my favorite airports) and, following a short but manageable layover, a 4:35 p.m. bird from Charlotte to Houston. I then would drive for what was billed as 30 minutes from Houston’s airport to the crew hotel, the Houston Marriott West Loop.

I had planned to leave the house at 9:30 a.m. but I changed my mind when, while making sure all the shows on my DVR had been set, I noticed that the latest episode of “The Fight Game With Jim Lampley” (which first aired the previous night) was about to re-air on HBO 2. Being the boxing junkie I am, I figured I could spare an extra 25 minutes and still arrive in Pittsburgh plenty of time, especially if the parking gods would yield a space quicker (and closer to the terminal) than usual.

I pulled out of the driveway at 9:55 a.m. under cloudy skies but above-normal temperatures (upper 40s with a predicted high in the 60s), thanks to El Nino. However, I knew a corollary of Murphy’s Law says that if one needs to get someplace in less time than usual impediments to one’s progress surely will occur, and, to twist the knife further, they usually come out of nowhere. During this trip, I ran into three such impediments – a road construction project that closed off one lane of traffic just outside Sistersville, a traffic light in New Martinsville that usually stays red for at least two minutes and a bridge project a few hundred yards later which occupied one of the two access lanes.

Wouldn’t you know: The traffic light stayed green and the state road workers in charge of traffic flow flipped their signs from “stop” to “slow” just moments before I arrived. To paraphrase Hall-of-Famer Rocky Graziano, “Somebody up there likes me.”

Because of my good fortune, I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport several minutes ahead of my goal time. But after sifting through the first section of the extended parking lot and seeing every space filled, I began to think my luck had run out. But as I started looking through the second lot, I saw a woman wearing a Steelers jacket walk in front of me and her path indicated that her vehicle was parked somewhere in this lot.

“Aha!” I thought. “So there will be at least one vacant spot in just a few minutes’ time.” So while I continued my search for a spot, I also monitored her location.

As I was scanning the final rows of the lot, I noticed Steeler Lady, who now was about 300 feet in front of me, was about to climb into her vehicle, which was situated only six spots before the 14E sign, nearly the farthest space away from the terminal entrance one can get in this particular section. At this point, it didn’t matter; I’ll take what I could get. Thankfully there were no other vehicles in sight, so I gently pulled up about 30 feet from the space, waited for her to vacate, and nabbed the spot as soon as she was safely away.

Once inside the terminal, I retrieved my boarding pass from my laptop bag, my ID from my wallet, entered the TSA Pre-Check line and consulted the overhead flight monitor to see from which gate my Pittsburgh-to-Charlotte flight would leave. Of 44 flights listed, 42 were either on time, boarding or just departed, while two were either delayed or canceled. Guess which group my flight occupied?

The good news (at least for me) was that the canceled flight was one headed to LaGuardia. Mine was delayed but no new time was listed.

Once I reached the gate, I saw the new departure time was 2:05, only 10 minutes beyond the original listing. That was fine with me because my connection window had now shrunk to slightly less than an hour and that boarding would begin less than a half-hour after deplaning. Everything changed a few minutes later when the gate agent announced over the loudspeaker that the flight now would be leaving Pittsburgh at 2:40 instead of 2:05, obliterating the connection windows of just about everyone who had one – including me.

The line at the counter formed quickly but it moved with dispatch because two gate agents handled the re-bookings. When I got to the head of the queue, I was granted the best of all worlds – I still was booked on my original 4:35 p.m. Houston flight but, if unforeseen circumstances caused me to miss that plane, I had a guaranteed seat on the next flight at 6 p.m. Still, I felt I had a decent chance of making the earlier flight, especially since I changed my seat from a 23rd-row aisle seat to an eighth-row window seat when I checked in online yesterday.

My prospects brightened further when, a few minutes later, one of the gate agents informed us that our plane would land in Pittsburgh earlier than expected, which, in turn, would give me more wiggle room, in terms of making the connection. Of course, time would tell but, because I had the 6 p.m. reservation in my back pocket, I had no reason to worry about not getting into Houston sometime today.

The plane pulled in at the gate at 1:54 p.m. but boarding didn’t start for at least a half-hour. When I gave the agent my boarding pass, his scanner didn’t recognize it, no matter how many times he tried. So he hit a few buttons and printed a pair of new passes, after which I entered the jet way and proceeded toward the aircraft.

When I looked at seat 8F, I saw someone was already seated. Passengers seated in the wrong row are something that occurs fairly often, so I turned to him and said, “8F?” He stared at me as if I had asked him to stand up and perform the hula. It was then that I glanced at my new boarding pass and saw I had been bumped back to row 23 – and on the window, to boot. With that, any chance I had of deplaning quickly evaporated, for instead of waiting behind approximately 30 people, I’d have to do so behind nearly 200, plus two potential seat mates. If I hoped to catch the earlier Houston flight and avoid a long layover, I needed for the delay in Pittsburgh to be repeated in Charlotte. One good omen: The two seats next to me remained vacant, which, at least, removed one roadblock.

Following a smooth, one-hour flight, I landed in Charlotte at 3:02 and, as expected, it took me nearly 15 minutes to exit the aircraft and arrive at Gate C-6. I looked at the flight monitor and saw that my Houston flight was “on time” but not yet “boarding” or “departed,” which meant I still had a shot of making the connection. However, my connecting gate was B-16, which was among the backmost cluster of gates in that part of the airport. Knowing that, I broke into my fastest power walk (which, at age 51, still isn’t bad) and, thanks to a trio of moving sidewalks, I reached the gate five minutes later.

Good news: Although the boarding process was well under way, I had arrived before they closed the door. That happened about five minutes after I found my aisle seat in row 25. It was one of the closest shaves yet in terms of making a connecting flight but make it I did.

Once the airplane pushed back from the gate, we stayed on the runway for about 20 minutes as the pilot waited for air traffic control to grant him a take-off window. Meanwhile, I settled in and continued to read my copy of Gary M. Pomerantz’s excellent book, “Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now,” a recent birthday gift.

Midway through the flight, however, our aircraft encountered considerably choppy air that rocked the plane with disconcerting intensity. As is my habit, I clutched the top of the seat in front of me with my right hand and the arm rest with my left while looking out the window to calibrate my bearings. While I fretted mildly, my seat mate on the window continued to snooze, while others looked at their tablets or played with their phones as if nothing was happening. Their composure and their ability to shut out their surroundings impressed me.

Even after all these years, I, a person who loves order, detest turbulence, especially after sundown. During the worst episodes (my 2013 outbound flight to London, for instance), the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. In addition to my coping mechanisms, I also tried to remember what a pilot told me recently: These planes are built strong (emphasis his) and it would take a lot to make them fall out of the sky.

The turbulence stopped about 20 minutes later and the remainder of the flight was uneventful. We landed in Houston at 6:03 p.m. Central Standard Time and, after deplaning, I took a bus toward the rental car center. I was assigned a white Ford Fusion with keyless entry and, after spending a few minutes familiarizing myself with the controls I headed toward the exit.

One complication: My Magellan GPS hadn’t “found” me yet, so I asked the person manning the booth to give me the first few turns toward Interstate 610 West. Armed with that information, I headed off into the night.

Driving on unfamiliar roads after dark is difficult enough but doing so on crowded interstate highways increased the degree of difficulty for me. I was grateful when my GPS kicked in shortly before my first major turn and, from there, I felt more confident, though not totally settled.

One observation about the drivers I encountered in Houston: While their geography is Southern, the driving habits and manners were unquestionably Northeastern – driving far above the speed limit, shifting lanes suddenly with little regard to overall safety and honking their horns even when the “offense” committed by the other driver (i.e. me) was unavoidable. For example, my first major turn required me to wait out a long red-arrow light in the left-most lane. Because the light stayed red so long and because the access lane was short in length, the line of cars awaiting the green light extended to the point of which the back of my car extended into the next available lane of traffic. There was nowhere else for me to be but that didn’t stop three cars from honking their displeasure at me as they whizzed around me. Hmph.

“The reason why traffic is so bad in Houston is that we’re a melting pot,” I was told later by a Houston native. “We have people from other states and other countries and they bring their bad driving habits with them.”

The GPS perfectly guided me to the Houston Marriott West Loop, though I had some trouble finding the entry point for the self-parking garage. That turned out to be around the corner – and beyond the point when the Magellan had declared, “You have arrived.” That done, I found a space directly across from the elevator on Level 3, checked into the hotel, called home and spent a couple of hours on the laptop, alternating between writing this travelogue and firming up research for upcoming shows on NBC and Spike TV. I took an elevator down to the lobby, bought some snacks from the hotel’s adjacent mini-store, watched the final moments of the Arizona Cardinals-Minnesota Vikings game on NFL Network and turned out the lights shortly after midnight.

Friday, Dec. 11: I arose after seven hours of fitful sleep – I awoke five times only to find I had slept a little more than an hour – probably because the mattress was too soft for my taste and the dreams I dreamt weren’t exactly sweet (they seldom are). After getting ready for the day, I spent some more time typing on the laptop (duty calls, you know?). When I typed the date to begin this section, my mind instantly realized this was the anniversary of two notable fights from my teen years: Muhammad Ali’s final bout in 1981 (a 10-round decision loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas and Bobby Chacon’s thrilling points win over Rafael “Bazooka” Limon the following year).

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on the night of Berbick-Ali – listening to the fight card on the radio in my bedroom. I had joined the broadcast during one of the undercard fights (Thomas Hearns’ 10-round decision over Ernie Singletary) and while the signal faded in and out, it was strong enough for me to stick around until the end. As I heard the announcers describe the main event, my mind tried to conjure images that matched the commentary. Based on what I heard, Ali was pretty competitive and I had reason to hope he would pull out the decision. Alas, he didn’t; the judges saw him a decisive loser (99-94 twice, 97-94). I have since seen the fight on video and, while the judges were correct to declare Berbick the winner, Ali, even at a rotund 236 1/4, fought far better than he did against Holmes 14 months earlier. Then again, Ali had a very low bar to clear.

Precisely one year after Berbick-Ali, I witnessed the single greatest fight I’ve yet seen – Chacon’s melodramatic victory over Limon to capture the WBC junior lightweight title. I saw this one live on ABC and I was rooting hard for Chacon because, even at age 17, I had a soft spot for nostalgia. I knew that Chacon had been a world titlist seven years earlier and, since the horribly weight-depleted “Schoolboy” lost the WBC featherweight title to Ruben Olivares in June 1975, he had failed in two title shots against Alexis Arguello (KO by 7) and Cornelius Boza-Edwards (KO by 13) as well as going 1-1-1 against Limon, who had good reason to believe he should have won all three bouts.

The “Bazooka,” a wild-swinging, trash-talking Mexican, who was making the second defense of his second reign, was fresh off a come-from-behind seventh-round TKO over Chung-Il Choi and was favored to turn back Chacon. But their match was staged at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento in front of an explosively pro-Chacon crowd, who not only knew of their hero’s struggles inside the ring but also those beyond the ropes. His most significant personal trial was the suicide of his wife, Valerie, who dearly wanted her husband to quit his seemingly quixotic quest to regain a world title and preserve whatever was left of his health. When he refused, she acted, and she did so the night before Chacon fought Salvador Ugalde inside that very same Memorial Auditorium. Though racked with grief, Chacon stopped Ugalde in three and he followed that win with two more against Rosendo Ramirez (TKO 8) and Arturo Leon (UD 10) to earn the crack at Limon.

Chacon-Limon IV promised fireworks but no one would have dared think that what actually happened would happen.

 

 

It was as if Chacon’s post-title life was being played out in the ring; he suffered knockdowns in rounds three and 10 and, on numerous occasions, Chacon endured hellacious beatings while trapped in a corner, only to fight his way out behind savage and accurate right leads. Going into the final round, Chacon was still one point down on two cards and tied on a third but, in the final 15 seconds, Chacon scored his only knockdown with a series of right hands. That knockdown instantly resurrected Chacon’s career, for it vaulted him to a slim but unanimous decision and ended a ring odyssey that was pockmarked with chaos, tragedy, disappointment and turmoil.

I have seen plenty of action-packed contests since then, but no other fight in my memory has surpassed Chacon-Limon IV when one merges the rivalry and enmity between the two fighters, the incredible personal back-story of Chacon, the rapturous reactions of the crowd, the constant action over the long haul and the cinematic swings of momentum from first bell to last.

Berbick-Ali and Chacon-Limon IV occupy diametrically opposed spots on the fistic spectrum as far as in-ring action and post-fight feel but both were an indelible portion of my formative years as a fight aficionado. I never thought that, more than three decades later, I would be sitting ringside in Houston, Texas working a ShoBox quadruple-header with Barry Tompkins (the voice of HBO in my youth), Steve Farhood (the editor of KO, one of my favorite magazines) and Raul Marquez (who I watched, at age 27, on the Olympic Triplecast in 1992). Of course, I had dreams of what my future could be but they seemed so far away – and so improbable given my small-town roots and my anonymity. Thanks to some very important people – and they know who they are – most of those dreams not only have come true but they have also turned better than I ever could have imagined.

*

Once I got to a good stopping point, I headed downstairs to get some orange juice – I can’t handle much more than that in the first few hours after awakening. When the elevator doors opened, I spotted a cluster consisting of Executive Producer Gordon Hall, PR guru Matt Donovan, ace cameraman Gene Samuels and Farhood (one of those “very important people” I mentioned in the previous paragraph). After the group and I said our hellos and exchanged handshakes, Steve and I spent a few minutes doing what we usually do: Discussing boxing’s distant past (pinpointing when John L. Sullivan’s heavyweight title reign began as well as the three previous heavyweight title fights that took place in Brooklyn in honor of the upcoming Deontay Wilder-Artur Szpilka WBC title fight) as well as its immediate future (Andy Lee vs. Billy Joe Saunders). Not only that, Steve graciously bought me a cup of orange juice.

Following another writing session, I returned downstairs to print out my boarding passes, both of which were produced with no trouble. Then, I met Aris Pina in the lobby a few minutes after 1:30 and drove to the venue, the Bayou Event Center, thanks to the guidance of Aris’ phone GPS.

If there is one place in Houston that qualifies as being in a remote location, the Bayou Event Center is it. As a person who is accustomed to wide-open spaces and easily accessible locales, I appreciated that dynamic. I found a parking spot less than 50 steps from the front door and, once we entered the building, we instantly saw the open door that led us to ringside. There were no complicated catacombs to navigate – which was the case in Quebec City – and, happily, the electronic checks at ringside were completed in short order.

With the live broadcast still six-and-a-half hours away and the first fight four-and-a-half hours away, there was plenty of down time. Aris and I watched some videos, thanks to the internet connection with the production truck (Randall “Tex” Cobb’s performance at a roast of Larry Holmes was particularly memorable).

 

 

We chatted about boxing history amongst ourselves (and with Farhood, when he stopped by) and, later on, I conversed with a couple of ringsiders. One of them was Kellie Yoh, who has judged fights since 2001. An attractive blonde with a quick wit and an even quicker smile, she was assigned to judge five of the eight bouts, including all four TV fights. She was particularly fascinated with CompuBox and she agreed with my perception that the company’s numbers affirm the judges far more often than not. But human nature being what it is, the rare negative episode is remembered far more readily than the many positive ones.

The first of the four untelevised fights began at 7 p.m., two hours before airtime. Super middleweight (and pro debutant) Yunier Calzada used effective aggression and a steady body attack to score a first-round knockdown and a methodical six-round decision over the now 1-5 Patrick Simes, who lost his fifth consecutive fight on points.

Debuting middleweight Joshua Crayton did his best to create a powerful first impression as he charged out of the corner, landed a flush right to the chin and drove his opponent to the ropes with a cluster of body shots. But the favored Aziz Izbakyev, a lanky Kazakh southpaw, kept his cool, rode out the storm and used sharp counterpunching with both hands to score three knockdowns and register the TKO victory.

Thanks to my conversation with Yoh, I didn’t maintain a sharp eye during the next contest that saw featherweight Darryl Hayes outpoint Jose Ortiz over four rounds but the final punch that ended the untelevised preliminaries commanded our attention – and concern. Houston native Pablo Cruz dropped Luis Lopez of Cleveland, Texas once in the first and again in the second but the straight right that felled Lopez for the final time caused Lopez’s head to strike the canvas and his body to stiffen. After referee Laurence Cole stopped the match, the medical team rushed into the ring and effectively tended to Lopez, who left the ring a few minutes later.

It had been a lively and eventful undercard that saw two undefeated records vanish. Given the mission statement of ShoBox – testing the mettle of up-and-comers by pitting them against one another – and because seven of the eight fighters on the telecast were risking their unbeaten records, more career-changing events were sure to follow.

With that tantalizing prospect in mind, Aris and I settled in and waited for the 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 e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

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