The Travelin’ Man returns to Miami…Oklahoma: Part one
Thursday, March 24: It doesn’t seem like 18 days have passed since my last trip to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania but the calendar never lies. As usual, my life inside the Home Office has been stuffed with professional duties I thoroughly enjoy – writing, researching, collecting punch-count data and tending to my sports video collection. I never take the benefits of working from home for granted but my situation is even better because all of my various bosses grant me the flexibility to set my own pace, which, thankfully for everyone concerned, is fast. My professional pride and sense of responsibility demands I tackle each assignment without procrastinating, devote full energy and attention to it, complete it as quickly and correctly as possible, then move on to the next task. That blueprint has kept the conveyor belt running at a manageable speed for many years and I’ll keep applying it until the day on which I can no longer apply. Hopefully that day is years away.
As of now, I’m about three weeks ahead on my CompuBox research as I’m working on the last of five fights slated for April 16 – IBF junior lightweight titlist Jose Pedraza’s defense against Liverpool’s Stephen Smith, one of four fighting brothers who have made their marks not only on British boxing but also on the world level. Liam, the second-youngest at 27, is the current WBO junior middleweight champion, while, the oldest, 33-year-old Paul, challenged WBO super middleweight king Arthur Abraham in back-to-back fights before losing his third straight bout against Andre Ward last June. He’s set to return April 2 in Liverpool and, on that same card, the youngest sibling, 23-year-old Callum, will challenge 35-year-old Hadillah Mohoumadi for his European super middleweight title, the next major step to gauge the substance behind the youngster’s sparking 18-0 (13 knockouts) record. Callum’s nickname – “Mundo,” the Spanish word for “world” – makes it clear that he harbors grand ambitions.
Should Stephen dethrone Pedraza, the Smiths will join more than two dozen families that have produced at least two major boxing titlists. But, if Callum goes on to capture a belt, the Smiths will become only the second three-brother champion act in boxing history. Unlike most categories, this line of boxing lore was created less than five years earlier with the Kameda brothers – Koki, Daiki and Tomoki.
When Tomoki captured the WBO bantamweight title in Aug. 2013, not only did he complete the three-sibling set, he also created – at least from Aug. 1 to Dec. 3, 2013, a scenario in which all the Kamedas held belts simultaneously. Koki was the WBA bantamweight titlist and Daiki was the IBF junior bantamweight beltholder when Tomoki captured the WBO bantamweight strap by out-pointing Paulus Ambunda of Namibia in Cebu City in the Philippines. That fragile bubble burst when Daiki lost his chance to unify his IBF belt with Liborio Solis’ WBA bauble by dropping a split decision. Because Solis failed to make weight and because Kameda lost the fight, both titles were declared vacant, an event that undoubtedly pleased the sanctioning bodies, for instead of one man holding two belts and crimping their respective revenue streams, both titles were now made available for others to win.
If the Smiths can win three belts – and hold them for a while – they will build a strong case for being one of the best brother combinations ever. That said, they’ll have a long way to go to even approach the two main contenders for that distinction: The Klitschkos (Wladimir and Vitali) and the Marquezes (Juan Manuel and Rafael). That’s because both sides of the equation assembled substantive, championship-level resumes that not only earned them spots on the pound-for-pound list but also enabled them to craft credible cases for eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Of the two pairings, the Klitschkos are at the top of the mountain – and not by a little bit. Moreover, I don’t think they’ll ever lose that status. Here’s why:
If one combines Wladimir’s two reigns, he has spent more time as a heavyweight champion than any other fighter in history – 12 years and two leap days – and his 23 combined defenses tie him with former lineal/WBO light heavyweight champion Dariusz Michalczewski for second place on the all-time, all-divisions list behind Joe Louis’ 25. Also, in this four-belt climate that discourages united belts, Klitschko was at least a two-belt titleholder for all but two years of his latest reign of nine years 222 days and a three-belt owner for nearly four years. Yes, his ability to draw enormous crowds in Europe and generate massive purses in the process (from which the IBF, WBA and WBO each got a cut) surely motivated “The Alphabet Boys” to maintain the status quo but Wladimir’s skill set and steel-fisted power proved too much for nearly everyone who stepped into the ring with him. Only age – as well as Tyson Fury’s hustle and the extraordinary size that short-circuited Klitschko’s defensive blueprint that worked against shorter foes – ended his string of dominance.
As for Vitali, he assembled three title tenures that saw a combined 12 defenses and five years 116 days as champion. If one counts the time Vitali spent on the disabled list, before giving up the belt in his second reign, and the long delay before voluntarily ending his third tenure, that figure expands to seven years 181 days, 75 days longer than Larry Holmes’ seven years 106 days (which was, unlike “Dr. Ironfist’s,” a continuous reign). Also, had Vitali’s second reign not been cut short by chronic injuries that thrice postponed (and eventually canceled) his mandatory defense against Hasim Rahman. he likely would have been a titlist just as long as his brother. As it was, he picked up right where he left off in 2004 by destroying Samuel Peter in eight rounds, nearly four years later to regain his WBC title – in his first fight back, and at age 37.
The brothers’ combined figures are staggering: a 109-6 (94) record, 35 successful title defenses, a 40-5 (33) record in title fights, nearly 20 years as heavyweight titlists and 17 wins over fighters who had held championships sometime in their careers. The lone minus: Five of the brother’s six losses occurred inside the distance, which included one failed attempt by each to regain a belt (Lamon Brewster TKO 5 Wladimir for the vacant WBO title in April 2004 and a Vitali TKO 6 WBC champ Lennox Lewis in June 2003).
The Klitschkos never received their just due from most American fans and scribes, despite their in-ring success and exemplary public behavior beyond the ropes but their individual – and combined – greatness is beyond argument.
Every once in a while, the Travel Fates like to throw a few curve balls and, with the NCAA basketball tournament beginning its Sweet 16 round on this day, I suspected, given my history with road trips, that a little March Madness could come my way.
Miami, Oklahoma, a town of 13,570 people, located in the northeastern corner of the state, is not the easiest place which to arrive even under the best of circumstances. If all went well, it would take nearly 13 hours to get from my driveway to our crew hotel located five minutes away from the Buffalo Run Casino and Resort. To get there, I would have to drive two-and-a-half hours to Pittsburgh, catch a plane to Dallas-Fort Worth, endure a nearly two-and-a-half hour layover, fly to Tulsa, meet the other two guys in my carpool – audio man Kevin White and punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak, who were scheduled to land in Tulsa 45 minutes earlier than me – then drive 90 minutes to Miami. That’s a lot of moving parts and I doubted every gear would end up perfectly fitting with the others. But I still wanted to try.
I left the house shortly after 8 a.m., amid sunny skies and a temperature in the mid-40s, pretty good conditions for late-March in West Virginia. Aside from a five-minute delay, due to road construction, I experienced little trouble and arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport at 10:30 a.m. After veering into the extended parking lot, I usually take the first available spot because vacancies are always at a premium. This time, I bypassed a space near the back of the lot but memorized its location in case I found no other vacancies. Two minutes later, the Fates smiled on me as I found a space four spots before the 13B sign, an exceptionally good location, given the Easter weekend was nearing and it was less than a three-minute walk away from the terminal entrance.
In the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks two days earlier, I expected heightened security measures in the screening area but that wasn’t the case for me as the TSA Pre-Check queue consisted of two people when I arrived. But, as I looked up at the flight monitor, I was surprised to see the word “boarding” across from the listing for Dallas-Fort Worth, despite being in line 90 minutes before my scheduled boarding time.
“Boarding?” I thought. “Now?”
It made me look twice at the clock at the bottom right corner of the screen to make sure I hadn’t entered some sort of bizarre time warp. I wasn’t; the flight was still listed as leaving at 12:40 p.m. and the clock read 10:40 a.m. Still, I asked the woman who scanned and authorized my boarding pass about it because this Travelin’ Man has learned that one can’t be too careful about such things. She assured me all was well and that the “boarding” status must have been referring to the Dallas flight preceding mine. But just in case she was wrong, I invested an extra pep in my step once I was allowed to proceed toward the “sterile” area of the airport.
Once I arrived at Gate B38, a fairly long haul, I saw that all was as it should have been: No gate agent processing boarding passes, no notification on the message board that departure was imminent and less than a dozen early birds sitting calmly at the gate. I mentioned the “boarding” status snafu to a pilot seated nearby and mentioned that, in my dozen years of flying, I hadn’t seen anything like it.
“I’ve been flying with American for more than 25 years and I hadn’t seen anything like it either,” he replied. “It’s just one of those things, I guess.”
It seems that “those things” happen pretty often to me. And, to make it worse, they usually occur in unexpected and unique forms. Such is the life of The Travelin’ Man, and yes, I still love it.
As it turned out, the plane that was to take us to Dallas arrived at our gate behind schedule and, despite the airline’s best efforts to produce a quick turnaround, the bird lifted off 20 minutes late. As was the case on recent flights, pilots have a way of making up time when absolutely necessary, such as boosting their speed or taking shortcuts on their flight path. The tactics they employed were successful as we landed at 2:56 p.m. CDT, eight minutes earlier than advertised. Ah, the wonders of modern aviation.
Near the end of many flights, the flight attendant reads a list of connecting gates. Most would simply read the letter and number of the gate but others, like our flight attendant, would spice up their renderings by substituting the letters with descriptive words to make them easier to understand over the intercom. It was obvious that she was a plant aficionado, for she used the word “azalea” for the A gates, “chrysanthemum” for the C gates and “daffodil” for the D gates. (For the record, she broke the chain by using the word “bluebonnet” for the B gatesÔÇªmaybe she’s a fan of spring too. I know I am.)
With plenty of time to burn, I strolled to the escalator that led me upstairs to DFW’s two Skylink trams, one of which takes passengers to the A and B terminals and the other that covers the C, D and E terminals. My group of gates in the B terminal didn’t come until the third stop but I thought it interesting that a most fitting song was playing over the loudspeaker while I was going down the escalator toward my gates: Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”
So far, the travel day had gone well but as I settled into my gate, Fate would throw its first knuckleball.
I received a text from Andy that he and Kevin’s flight from Atlanta to Tulsa would be delayed two hours, so, unless I could arrange for other transportation, I would be in for a long wait. I told Andy I would contact production coordinator Nikki Ferry, who was in charge of arranging our various carpools, to see if I could get my own car.
No such luck. However, she proposed an alternate solution: I would meet wireless chieftain Tim Arden, whose own flight from Las Vegas to Tulsa was delayed four hours and whose new arrival time was the closest to mine. I had thought that he would arrive within minutes of me but, after meeting him at the lounge near the Avis rental car counter, he said he chose to wait 90 minutes for me instead of taking his own car and heaping even more expenses onto Showtime. Bless his heart.
Since the car was in Tim’s name, he was the designated driver. He punched in the address of the crew hotel into his phone’s GPS and off we went.
After we proceeded a few miles on Interstate 44, Tim’s device instructed us to execute a U-turn that would eventually lead us to the Will Rogers Turnpike. We were puzzled at first but Tim assured me that his GPS had never steered him wrong. Thankfully for us, his device maintained its perfect record and, before we knew it, we were pulling into the parking lot of the crew hotel, ending a drive that was made most enjoyable by Tim’s tales of past road trips.
Tim invited me to join a group of crew members headed for the casino but I politely declined because I felt a need to catch up on my writing. Plus, since I didn’t have my own car, I would be reliant on others in terms of when I would get back to the hotel.
So, my evening, like most evenings in my life, was a quiet one filled with simple pleasures. After settling into my third-floor room and cranking out a few hundred words on the laptop, I bought a sandwich, crackers and diet soda from the mini-mart near the registration desk and watched the top-seeded Oregon Ducks dispose of Duke, the defending champions, by a robust 82-68 margin. As is often, the case the need to sleep gradually approached and then persuaded me to turn out the lights at the stroke of midnight.
Friday, March 25: I felt refreshed after sleeping for six solid hours and snoozing for one more, after which I spent much of the morning polishing and amplifying the words in this article. When I reached a good stopping point, I headed downstairs in the hopes of meeting Ted Conniff, whose rental car I was to borrow to drive to the venue, but instead I saw ring announcer Thomas Treiber seated in the lobby’s dining area. He graciously allowed me to sit with him and after we (and, briefly, referee Gary Ritter) spent the next hour talking shop, he told me he needed to run over to the casino to coordinate notes with Joe Jacovino, Showtime’s manager of production operations, and the man to whom with I’ll be talking during the show. He invited me to tag along, an offer I instantly accepted.
Tom’s invitation actually helped resolve a couple of lingering issues. First, I was told the previous evening that Ted would leave the keys to his rental car at the hotel registration desk, so I checked with the clerk to see if he had done so. He had, so now we had transportation to the casino. Second, taking Thomas would serve as a “drive rehearsal” for when I would take punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak a few hours later.
Though the sun shone brightly, there still was a nip in the air that required us to don our light jackets. Though I didn’t know where Ted parked the car, I took note of the model (Nissan) and the license number that was included with the keys and then went outside to see if any of the vehicles matched. I then swept the area with the electronic key while pressing the “unlock” button to see if any bumper lights lit up. One did, and – voila – within 30 seconds, the mystery of Ted’s car was solved.
The drive to Buffalo Run turned out to be a simple one and, within minutes, we rolled into the parking lot. It didn’t take long for Thomas and Joe to complete their business or for me to drive us back to the hotel.
I returned to my room (which was actually located next to Thomas’) to write some more, after which I went down to the business office to check into the next day’s flights and hopefully snag better seats than the ones I was assigned. I was especially anxious to improve my seating position for the first flight because, if everything remained on schedule, I would have only a 25-minute window to catch the beginning of boarding the Chicago-to-Pittsburgh flight. Alas, no new seats were available but I did get the passes.
I met Andy in the lobby at the appointed time and we arrived at the casino without any trouble. Once the laptop-to-truck connections were completed successfully, we indulged in the crew meal that largely consisted of customized tortillas, brown rice, salad and various desserts (though I didn’t eat the rice or the dessert; the rest was filling enough).
Once Andy and I returned to ringside, our usual long wait began. As we scanned the bout sheet, we suspected that few, if any, of the eight bouts would go to the scorecards. In fact, Joe Jacovino predicted that the four televised fights would require just 16 of the 34 scheduled rounds. In a rare display of pessimism, I took the “over,” though a bit reluctantly.
Less than two hours before the opening bell of the evening, Andy and I saw a unique sight at ringside: All the fighters and seconds met with commissioners and ring physicians to complete the pre-fight paperwork and physical exams, tasks that are usually completed the day before along with the weigh-ins and rules meetings. My curiosity piqued, I asked one of the officials if this was standard operating procedure in Oklahoma. It was, he replied, and the purpose was to eliminate (or at least minimize) any shenanigans such as ingesting illegal substances between the weigh-ins and fight time to ensure that the contests would be conducted on a level playing field. In today’s world, where many seek the tiniest of edges, that explanation made perfect sense. The fighters and their teams didn’t raise a fuss, at least at ringside, so all appeared well.
Another pleasant surprise for me was seeing retired sportswriter/educator Ron Copher (pronounced “ko-fer”), who, during my last visit to Buffalo Run, regaled us with stories about Mickey Mantle’s early years, meeting Kenny Lane during Lane’s later years and conversations with numerous Heisman Trophy winners. By the way, Oklahoma running back Steve Owens, the 1969 winner, was raised in Miami and one of the main streets is named after him. He reintroduced himself to us at our work station and then imparted nuggets about the late Pat O’Grady, among others, before leaving for his seat. As always, it was great to see him.
With the paying customers now streaming in, Andy and I readied ourselves for what would become a most eventful – and exciting – night of fights.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. 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. Groves is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com. To contact Groves, use the e-mail [email protected].