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The Travelin’ Man: Back to Verona – Part one

04
Jan

Turning Stone Resort Casino

 

Friday, Dec. 18: Six days after returning home from Houston, I began my final road trip of 2015 which, if all went well, would land me in Verona, NY. to cover an HBO-televised doubleheader pitting heavyweights Luis Ortiz and Bryant Jennings as well as junior lightweights Nicholas Walters and Jason Sosa. Both promised to be intriguing matches due to the contrasts in style: The Cuban bomber vs. the bustling Philadelphian and the lanky Jamaican boxer/power puncher vs. the volume-punching Jersey guy.

While I enjoy working the CompuBox keys from ringside, this trip offered two more personal perks. First, Verona is located 15 minutes east of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, a place I call my “home away from home,” and, second, I’ll be able to properly congratulate one of the key people that helped make my second career happen.



Two days earlier, HBO’s “Unofficial Official” Harold Lederman was announced as part of the IBHOF’s Class of 2016 and most agree it’s an honor that is years overdue. Although Harold is best known for his role on HBO, he is getting in for his work as a judge, the first to be enshrined. He hopes his election will open the door for other judges, especially New Jersey’s Tom Kaczmarek, who retired in 2009 and thus is eligible to be placed on the ballot.

I first met Harold more than 15 years ago on an invitation-only boxing chat room. Although Harold was, by far, the biggest celebrity in our group, he always considered himself one of the guys; he never put on airs and he freely discussed what he knew – which was a lot. Our collective affection for him was such that he always was (and still is) referred to as “Our Harold.”

One day in 2001, Harold asked me via email to call CompuBox president Bob Canobbio, whose number he included in the message. Based on our chat room discussions, Harold recommended me to Bob, who was looking for a research guy as well as an additional punch-counter. I knew Canobbio’s name, thanks to the frequent citations by the various announcers on ESPN’s “Top Rank Boxing” series, so it was a particular thrill to be able to talk with him.

Harold’s thoughtfulness and eagerness to advance the career of a friend opened the first door to what eventually became a fruitful and extremely fulfilling mid-life career change. I, in turn, was one of many who recommended Harold to the Hall and, on several occasions, I pleaded his case directly to the top two men in the Hall’s food chain – Executive director Ed Brophy and his nephew, public relations ace Jeff Brophy. Now you know why I am so ecstatic about Harold’s elevation.

Several weeks earlier, I predicted, with more than a little cynicism, that Hector Camacho, Michael Moorer and either Donald Curry or Fernando Vargas would comprise the Modern Class of 2016, mostly because I had such little faith in my fellow voters in what was a wide-open year. To my great surprise (and delight) I was proven wrong. Yes, Camacho got in but his classmates were two fighters for which I had long advocated – Lupe Pintor and Hilario Zapata.

Although Camacho and Pintor didn’t make my Top 5 this year, I have absolutely no objections to their elevation. Camacho, up through his masterful performance against Jose Luis Ramirez, was arguably the most electrifying young boxer of the 1980s – and yes, that includes Mike Tyson. He appeared poised to become the face of boxing in the first post-Sugar Ray Leonard era that began in late 1982. But a combination of substance abuse, suspect training habits and a massive fifth round left hook from Edwin Rosario forever changed his career trajectory. “The Macho Man” was transformed from a predatory slickster with a neon-bright mean streak to an ultra-defensive dancing master whose nickname became the ultimate misnomer. Still, his talent was so prodigious that he still remained undefeated for nearly six years after the Rosario match and picked up a third divisional title by beating the comebacking Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini for the vacant WBO 140-pound belt. Despite his success, he never regained the scintillating blend that marked his rise to prominence.

In this respect, Camacho is much like Tyson. While both of their careers were deemed worthy of Hall of Fame enshrinement, most experts agree they never reached their full potential due to forces, both internal and external. I believe Tyson had the ability to shatter Joe Louis’ all-time longevity records of 25 title defenses and 11 years, eight months as champion. A frightening thought: Tyson would have been just 33 by the time he would have reached Louis’ latter mark and he probably would have registered between 30 and 40 title defenses during that span, had he managed to stay on the straight and narrow – and had he spurned Don King’s overtures.

As for Camacho, he could have rivaled Tyson, in terms of star power, because he had that megawatt smile, that anti-hero verve and that wondrous combination of supersonic speed and killer instinct that would have lit up TV screens everywhere. But it wasn’t to be for either of them. While Tyson has improbably reshaped his life and his star in his late-40s, Camacho’s life was snuffed out by a bullet at age 50. Just as the powerful memories of Arturo Gatti fueled the 2013 IBHOF induction weekend, such will also be the case with Camacho’s next June.

Pintor and Zapata were two of my original “Deserving Dozen,” which refers to an article I wrote for MaxBoxing.com in Nov. 2003, in which I touted the candidacies of 12 eligible but overlooked candidates. The strictures of the current voting process prevented me from checking Pintor’s name the last two years but his case was strong enough for me to place him in my original MaxBoxing list (eight defenses at bantamweight, which compares favorably to those already in the Hall, victories over Albert Davila (twice), Carlos Zarate (I saw their fight as a draw), Alberto Sandoval, Johnny Owen, Seung-Hoon Lee and an Indian Summer victory (and a second title) over Juan “Kid” Meza in a “Fight of the Year”-caliber match).

As for Zapata, I’ve been pumping his candidacy to anyone and everyone who would listen, both in print and verbally on the Hall of Fame grounds. To me, Zapata’s career is the epitome of two traits that define a Hall-of-Famer to me: Superlative talent and sustained achievement. Consider: 303 championship rounds (fourth behind Emile Griffith, Abe Attell and Bernard Hopkins), an 18-5-1 record in 24 title fights, 10 defenses in two reigns at 108 and five more at 112. Not only was he accomplished, Zapata was exceptionally gifted, especially on defense. Few fighters in history had the storehouse of moves Zapata had and, like Nicolino Locche and Willie Pep, he executed them with a showman’s flair. Woe was the fighter who trapped Zapata along the ropes, for his jack-in-the-box act left his opponents looking like flailing beginners. Finally, Zapata overcame his profound lack of power (14 knockouts in 43 wins and four in 18 title fight victories) to register decision wins in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Venezuela and the US. As any fighter will tell you, winning on points away from home, especially in title bouts, requires a fighter to be so dominant that even local forces wouldn’t be able to deny him his rightful victory. Zapata not only did this once; he did it repeatedly.

With a record like that and brilliant talent like that, why did it take so long for him to be enshrined? Why did it require years-long campaigns by Steve Farhood, Cliff Rold, me and a few others to get him over the top? Zapata was on the ballot during my first year of voting in 2001, so his elevation has ended a decade-and-a-half of frustration.

I felt much the same way about the candidacy of broadcaster Colonel Bob Sheridan, whose longevity and worldwide renown should have gained him entry years ago. His ledger includes nearly 1,000 major title fights, tens of thousands of other bouts on radio and TV, and, in recent years, thanks to mutual friend James “Smitty” Smith (who also should be considered for enshrinement), Sheridan has become a friend as well. Despite his record, the Colonel had only been recently included on the ballot (this was his second appearance). Otherwise, I believe, he would have been elevated long ago.

I was also happy for the other living inductees: Marc Ratner (a Facebook friend) and writer Jerry Izenberg, for whom I instantly voted. All in all, I was very pleased with the way the voting unfolded and, given the first-timers poised to be considered for the Class of 2017 – Johnny Tapia, Marco Antonio Barrera and Evander Holyfield among them – I’m sure I’ll feel the same away next year.

*

Because I needed to be at the Turning Stone Casino by at 4 p.m. – and because there were no direct flights from Pittsburgh to Syracuse (the nearest international airport to Verona), I requested a 10:20 a.m. flight to Charlotte, which, if all went well, would have me in Syracuse by 2:34 and at the crew hotel in Verona (the La Quinta Inn and Suite across from the Turning Stone) by 3:30. That meant getting up at 4:45 a.m. and leaving the house an hour later, which required me to greatly alter my usual night-owl sleeping patterns. This, of course, I was able to do, thanks to my tendency to get sleepy during the mid-evening hours but, instead of taking a 90-minute nap, I simply went to bed.

I pulled out of the driveway amid more seasonable temperatures in the mid-30s and, thanks to light traffic, I arrived at the airport shortly after 8 a.m. I left home a bit earlier than usual because, for whatever reason, the American Airlines website wouldn’t allow me to print out my second boarding pass, which would mandate a stop at the check-in counter. Another reason for the stop was the fact that my TSA Pre-Check status wasn’t printed on the pass, something that should have been automatically included when I checked in.

My visit to the counter was only partially successful: While I was able to secure my Charlotte-to-Syracuse boarding pass, the agent was unable to include my TSA Pre-Check number, which meant that I had to undergo the more thorough security screening process (taking off the shoes and light jacket, emptying all pockets of metals and cell phones, unpacking and repacking my two laptops, going through the more sophisticated scanner, etc.). Strangely, the scanner spotted a suspect area on my upper back, which prompted a brief pat-down before being waved through to the luggage conveyor belt. I wasn’t alone; the scanner zeroed in on the lower back of the woman behind me.

I was able to regain my TSA Pre-Check privileges, thanks to the gate agent (apparently their computers are superior to those at the check-in counter) but the Pittsburgh-to-Charlotte flight took off 15 minutes later than scheduled. Midway through the flight, there was some bothersome turbulence, which prompted the pilot to announce on the loudspeaker that it would likely stop once we reached the lower altitude he just negotiated with air traffic control (it didÔǪMaybe he read Donald Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal”). Our pilot also managed to make up most of the lost time as we landed just three minutes past the advertised arrival time. Still, I had a pretty tight connection window in Charlotte and, just like last week, my connecting gate was two concourses away. Thanks to my version of speed walking (a relative term, at best), I arrived a little more than five minutes before the start of the boarding process.

A massive tailwind (according to our pilot) enabled us to land in Syracuse 16 minutes earlier than scheduled. After deplaning, I walked to the Hertz counter, where I was assigned a silver-colored 2015 Versa. No GPS was necessary due to my 20-plus years of visiting the area and I arrived at the La Quinta at 3:35. After unpacking, I drove to the venue, found a great parking spot just a few steps away from the Level 2 casino entry point and walked down the hallway toward the ballroom that contained the ring. Waiting for me was Sports Media’s Dustin Vinton, the very person I needed to see in order to do our pre-show testing, which, despite lasting an hour, ultimately turned out perfectly.

Famished, I walked toward the State Street Deli inside the Turning Stone and ordered a half-pound turkey sandwich with mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickles, a small (but free) bag of ripple chips and a bottle of Diet Pepsi. A word to the wise: The half-pound sandwich is plenty filling. Unless you’re really hungry or if you have the stomach capacity of Joey Chestnut, stay away from the full-pound option. Either way, however, the food was delicious and satisfying.

I spent the next few hours watching the RingTVLive.com stream of the card, topped by Joseph Diaz Jr.’s second-round KO win over Hugo Partida, then, after some channel surfing, turned out the lights shortly after 1:30 a.m.

Saturday, Dec. 19: The 21-hour day must have done a number on me because I slept soundly for the next six hours. Once I arose and finished my morning routines, I spent the next couple of hours on the laptop, after which I called punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak to see if he was up for a trip to the IBHOF. I couldn’t reach him, so I left messages on his cell and in his hotel room to let him know where I was going.

When I opened the window, I was lifted by the bright sunshine but once I stepped outside, I received a blast of wind that would have tested the most robust hairspray (something I’ve never used). The flags outside the hotel were fully blown out and I instantly knew I was not appropriately layered. I fixed that problem a half-hour later when I purchased a black IBHOF sweatshirt at the Hall’s gift shop.

The next three hours were a joy. My conversation partners included Jeff Brophy, Hall-of-Famers J Russell Peltz and Don Chargin, cornermen Richard Schwarz, Rudy Hernandez (older brother of Genaro) and Manuel Robles, and various gift shop employees. I showed off the original CompuBox computer to Hernandez and Robles (it can be seen in the backmost corner of the original Madison Square Garden ring in the gift shop and, if I have my way, the owner of CompuBox will be enshrined someday soon) and I made sure to visit most of the exhibits and plaques. The most notable change to the interior was the space previously occupied by the gorgeous championship belts belonging to Carmen Basilio and Tony Zale. I was told that no progress toward their recovery has been made.

I would have stayed even longer, except I needed to return to the hotel to get ready for the show.

I met Andy in the lobby at 3:45 and, less than 10 minutes later, we were inside the Turning Stone. Our work station lacked a power source but Andy happened to have a power strip in his bag, which, after an assist from utility guy Zaque Meyers, paved our way to modernity. The pre-show electronic tests were completed about an hour later and, as far as Andy and I were concerned, we were ready to roll.

As we scanned the bout sheet, we noticed this seven-fight card was unusually deep and featured fighters for which we wanted to compile fresh data – the three HBO Latino fights featuring Yuriorkis Gamboa-Hylon Williams Jr., Vyacheslav Shabranskyy-Yunieski Gonzalez and Gabriel Rosado-Joshua Clottey as well as the two fights airing on HBO. Luckily, we were allowed to indulge in the earlier crew meal reserved for the HBO Latino crew. However, Andy and I missed the opening bout that saw Steve Martinez stop Jorge Melendez in two rounds but we were there to count the rest. With a potential 52 rounds of action to count, we knew a long shift was on the immediate horizon but I, for one, looked forward to the assignment.

*

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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