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The Travelin’ Man comes back to Verona: Part one

26
Apr

Turning Stone Resort Casino

 

Thursday, April 14: Nineteen days after returning home from Miami – the one in Oklahoma, not Florida – this Travelin’ Man was back on the road to work a ShoBox tripleheader featuring cruiserweights Alexey Zubov and Constantin Bejenaru, lightweights Eudy Bernardo and Mason Menard and, in the main event, bantamweights Nikolay Potapov and Stephon Young. This line-up definitely fulfilled ShoBox’s mission statement of testing up-and-comers, for while they boasted a combined 99-1-2 record, only six of those wins came against undefeated opponents with at least one victory. In other words, they’ll have the chance to show how much substance is behind their stylish records.

By now, working shows at ringside is old hat for me but that certainly wasn’t the case 11 years ago when I began counting fights during live shows. Yes, I had undergone considerable training before doing so but, just like a boxer can’t simulate game conditions in the gym, a punch-counter can’t duplicate the hustle and bustle of a telecast while conducting counts at home. The finality that comes with live TV – warts and all – can only be experienced in the moment.



So how do we punch-counters do what we do? What exactly are we looking at when we’re tracking our fighters? And how do we maintain our concentration during shows that often last several hours? I can only speak for myself but here’s my methodology:

Before I started training with CompuBox in the early-2000s, I had no clue about the mechanics of counting punches because I viewed everything from an outsider’s perspective. As I watched ESPN’s “Top Rank Boxing” series week after week and HBO’s monthly shows throughout the late-1980s and early-1990s, I wondered how anyone could accurately track punches thrown with the speed of a prime Meldrick Taylor and Sugar Ray Leonard or the volume of Zack Padilla and Ray Oliveira.

Once I learned the location of the various buttons – at the time, they were “jab miss,” “jab connect,” “power miss” and “power connect” (“body jab connect” and “body power connect” keys have since been added) – and spent time working with the program, I quickly learned I had the necessary hand-eye coordination, sustained focus and decision-making skills to perform the job. During the learning phase, I developed a system I felt would allow me to most accurately record the punches thrown and landed by my assigned fighter.

A crucial component is the placement of my fingers on the keys and the basis for my decision was drawn from my distant past. When I learned to type as a freshman in high school, I was taught the “touch” method, which establishes a “home row” for both hands, from which I accessed the other buttons on the keyboard without having to look away from the text. I applied that concept for my finger placement for punch-counting; for my left hand (the “jabs” hand), I placed my index finger on the “jab miss” key and the second finger on the “jab connect” key above it, while, with the right hand (the “power punch” hand), I placed the index finger on the “power miss” key and the second finger on the “power connect” key. When the body-connect keys were added a few years ago, I slightly moved up the position of the second fingers on both hands from key-center to the upper-third sector, so I would be able to crisply strike those keys when needed. I also made sure to rest my fingers very lightly on the home keys, for if I didn’t, I’d inadvertently register dozens of nonexistent punches.

As was the case in high school, sheer repetition enabled me to develop the necessary speed and fluidity to quickly and accurately produce the data my eyes perceived. My “four-finger” system produced two extra benefits: First, I was able to track punches without looking away from the ring and, second, I was able to record multi-punch bursts with minimal movement and maximum efficiency.

During the round, I focus on an area between the fighters with particularly sharp attention devoted to the scoring zones of my fighter’s opponent – the face, chest and body – while also remaining keenly aware of whether my fighter is throwing punches or not. I also try to minimize the number of times I blink during the action so I don’t miss anything (I save most blinks for clinches, other breaks in the action or knockdowns). It sounds difficult but my focus is so intense during a round that I find myself remaining wide-eyed for longer-than-usual periods.

Also, because of the ropes, I’m constantly changing my body position to ensure the most unobstructed view of the combat. More often than not, I’m tilting to one side or the other, craning my neck up or hunching it down while leaning slightly forward. During a particularly active round, I’m probably doing more bobbing and weaving than my fighter.

When I see my boxer land a punch, my mind’s eye experiences a mixture of a flash bulb going off and the briefest of freeze-frames. Thanks to my muscle memory – or, more accurately, my “finger memory” – I am able to instantly press the appropriate key (or keys), then restart the process and start looking for the next punch from my fighter. For fighters like Leo Santa Cruz, Vasyl Lomachenko and Roman Gonzalez, the flashes in my head are going off so often that it feels like I’m walking the red carpet at the Oscars.

On most shows I work these days, I also receive the benefit of a small TV monitor at our work station, which allows my colleague and me a better view of the action during those times when our angle at ringside is less optimal. During those shows, my eyes constantly shift from the ring to the monitor and back again. For me, the live action/monitor configuration produces the most accurate counts because we get the best of all worlds – the three-dimensional video (and audio) of being at ringside and the “extra eyes” provided by the camera operators and the director who decides which angle is aired from moment to moment.

As complicated as this process is in general, it is even more so when one is the lead operator, which I have been for most of the shows I’ve worked since 2007. Besides tracking the punches, the “lead dog” must also be mindful of which statistic to pitch to the production truck either during the round or between rounds as well as whether or not to pass a note to the talent. So, when the action permits, I’ll glance down at the action screen on my laptop and scan the numbers to see if anything stands out. Because I’ve done this so many times, this process is almost instantaneous. Meanwhile, I’m also listening to the commentary through my headsets to hear if a trend is mentioned, like if a fighter is unusually effective with his jab or if he’s landing a high percentage of his power shots. At the first possible moment, I’ll check the screen to see if the numbers confirm the observation. If they do, then that’s the stat I’ll pitch.

Occasionally I’ll write a note concerning stats that occur over several rounds, such as a large gap in total connects or landed power shots. To do that, I’ll refer to the written round-by-round breakdowns provided by my colleague between rounds, do some quick addition in my head, do it a second time to make sure I’m right and write it down.

To ease the process of writing notes to the on-air talent, I apply a trick I learned from CompuBox legend Joe Carnicelli: Preparing and printing forms that include the fighters’ names in bold print. On an 8-by-11 ¾ inch sheet of paper, I can fit three sets of fighters’ names, so, for a 12-round fight, I print out four sheets, use scissors to create 12 slips of paper and use paper clips to keep them together. I do this for all the fights on a given card and the pre-printed names give me the luxury of writing the numbers more legibly.

Once I finish writing the note, I’ll either pass it to someone nearby or, if that someone is busy, I’ll take off my headset and deliver it myself. I’ll then hustle back to the work station, put my headset back on and prepare to start the next round.

Just imagine doing all of this second after second, round after round and, sometimes, hour after hour. The level of concentration needed to execute every element of the job is immense and it can be incredibly draining if one isn’t used to it. For me, however, the time goes by very quickly and, because of the adrenaline rush, it usually takes me a while to wind down after the show. In past years, I would burn off some of that energy by writing in my room but, in recent years, all I wanted to do was to relax, catch up on the news I missed and try to get some shuteye.

To sum up, being a punch-counter requires lightning-quick perception, attention to detail, improvisational thinking and the ability to remain in the moment while also being able to look ahead. These are skills that can only be sharpened by time, repetition and experience and once that level of expertise is achieved, working shows becomes a wonderful and exhilarating experience. To me, it doesn’t matter whether I’m working Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s first fight with Marcos Maidana or a show peppered with unknowns because, as long as I’m at ringside doing what I do, there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.

*

The route to Verona is one I’ve taken often over the years: Drive to Pittsburgh International Airport, board flights from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Syracuse, drive 45 minutes on Interstate 90 East until I reach Exit 33 and end up at the Turning Stone Resort Casino. Thanks to my numerous trips to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s induction weekend (this year will mark my 24th), I left the Magellan GPS at home.

With a 1:30 p.m. flight to catch, I left the house shortly after 9 on a most gorgeous mid-spring morning. What wasn’t so gorgeous was my timing, for I hit virtually every red light imaginable. It began with the only traffic signal in my home county of Tyler and the streak extended to the two in Paden City, three more in New Martinsville, and so on. It would have been even worse had I not twice caught the tail end of a line of cars caused by road construction but, as it was, I arrived at the airport 20 minutes later than usual. I found a decent parking spot almost directly across from the 13D sign in the extended lot and proceeded to walk toward the terminal entrance.

Once I arrived in the security screening area, I saw something highly unusual: More people in the TSA Pre-Check line (nearly two dozen) than in the general queue (zero). With Pre-Check being relatively easy to get (paying $85 for five years and undergoing a background check that includes submitting fingerprints), I figured it would come to this. If a majority of fliers go this route, it eventually will defeat the original purpose – less hassle for frequent fliers – and, with a majority of travelers undergoing less stringent security, the odds of something harmful slipping through the cracks increases exponentially. At that point, will the feds pull the plug on Pre-Check or will they create another program that will provide even more benefits to frequent fliers? If they choose the latter, you can guarantee the price will be far higher than $17 a year.

Because of congestion on the ground in Philadelphia (a common problem for that hub airport), our plane arrived in Pittsburgh later than scheduled, departed seven minutes later than anticipated and landed in Philly 10 minutes behind. That ground clutter also affected my Philadelphia-to-Syracuse leg (16 minutes on the departure side, 14 minutes on the arrival side). Being a “half-full” sort, I also saw several positives: First, both flights were relatively free of turbulence; second, the latter flight, which was aboard a prop job instead of a jet, was smoother than average (thanks to the female captain); third, American Airlines (as of the beginning of April) resumed giving out free snacks (either mini-pretzels or cookies) during flight and fourth, my carpool partner (audio man Tim Arden) was seated directly across from me in row six.

Tim’s GPS guided us to the Turning Stone and, after settling into my third-floor hotel room and making a few “I’m all right” phone calls, I headed down to the State Street Deli and ordered a half-pound turkey Reuben sandwich, a small bag of chips and a diet Pepsi, my first real meal of the day. I was prepared to spend the next hour or so consuming my bounty with the TV tuned to some sporting event but, after hitting the power button on the remote, something strange happened.

Nothing.

I switched channels and all I saw was “no signal” on every station I tried. Hmph.

I called the front desk to report the problem and, a few minutes later, two members of the housekeeping staff arrived to see what was wrong. After confirming my issue, one of them called a repairman while the other said she’d fetch me a new TV (which she later brought inside a cart). Shortly thereafter, the two housekeepers and the repairman arrived to tackle the issue, which turned out to be a broken coax cable. Once the new cable was installed, all was well. A few minutes after watching ESPN’s “30 for 30” film on the Orlando Magic, I turned out the lights and ended another travel day.

Friday, April 15: Following six-and-a-half hours of intermittent sleep, I woke up and began the usual morning routines. But before I did so, I saw the red message light blinking on my phone. The first thought was “Did something bad happen at home?” After all, why else would someone leave a message in the middle of the night? To my relief, it turned out that the front desk needed to swipe my credit card for incidentals, a step that somehow was skipped when I checked in the previous evening.

That task done, I spent the next few hours typing on my laptop and the words flowed so freely that I was able to reach a good stopping point by my goal time of 10:30 a.m. That’s because I wanted to make my customary visit to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, located 15 minutes west of the Turning Stone and, thanks to Tim (who gave me the keys to his rental car the previous evening), I was free to go.

Before I left, however, I ran into Executive Producer Gordon Hall and broadcasters Steve Farhood and Barry Tompkins, all of whom invited me to sit with them. The next half-hour was a joy as we talked about boxing history, recent events in the sport as well as the nuts and bolts of tonight’s card. I, for one, could have gone on for hours but it wasn’t meant to be.

I was greeted by blinding sunshine tempered by moderate chill but I still thoroughly enjoyed the drive on Interstate 90 West. I pulled into the parking lot directly across from the pavilion, walked to the modestly-sized Hall of Fame building and, upon entry, said, “Hello, honey; I’m home” to no one in particular. Lucky for me, a woman was manning the registration desk and, because she knew me and my history with the place, she got the joke.

To be truthful, I do consider the Hall of Fame my second home. There are few places on Earth outside of Friendly, West Virginia where I feel this comfortable and this welcomed. As is often the case, during Hall of Fame weekend, it didn’t take long for me to spot familiar faces – or, rather, for those familiar faces to spot me. One of them belonged to Richard Schwartz, a boxing lifer and a frequent attendee to Hall of Fame weekend, with whom I’ve formed a friendship. And, as usual, he brought friends, one of which was the cutman for Menard (who also was a longtime friend of Johnny Tapia, who I fully expect to be among the IBHOF’s Class of 2017, along with Marco Antonio Barrera and Evander Holyfield. That’s my prediction and I’m sticking to it). I also spoke at length with Jeff Brophy and briefly with his uncle Ed, who was recently inducted into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame.

A thought: What if Brophy was inducted into his own Hall of Fame someday? I think that’s within the realm of possibility, especially during the first year after he decides to step down from his role at the hall (which I hope is many years from now). This scenario also has precedent: Historian Hank Kaplan was placed on the ballot (and was quickly elected), only after being asked to step down from his advisory position with the IBHOF to avoid the conflict of interest.

When I wasn’t chatting with friends, I took time to visit the many exhibits and drew upon memories associated with each while doing so. For example, when I looked at Thomas Hearns’ gold trunks with red lettering on the waistband, I thought back to his historic brawl with Juan Domingo Roldan that resulted in “The Hitman” capturing his then-unprecedented fourth divisional crown. I also took time to look at the videos that are always playing inside the Hall, one of which is a compilation of one-punch knockouts. Thanks to my semi-photographic memory, I can instantly identify many fights but there were a few on the reel for which I had to wait for identification. Hey, I know a lot but I don’t know everything.

I spent nearly 90 minutes inside the Hall and I could have lingered a lot longer but I needed to complete some necessary tasks, one of which was to print out my boarding passes and another was to make my 3 p.m. call time at the events center. Both were executed successfully.

Punch-counting partner Aris Pina joined me during the crew meal at the Seasons Harvest Buffet and said his trip went well. One thing about Aris: He often gets far more food than he ends up eating (hence his still-trim frame). As for me, I eat everything on my plate because I believe food is meant to be eaten and not wasted (hence my not-so-trim frame).

Once I got the green light I was seeking and received confirmation from the truck that all was well, Aris and I chatted with each other (and with future Hall-of-Famer Farhood) and I also spoke with other ringsiders like “Boxing Bob” Newman of Fightnews.com and the timekeeper seated to my immediate left. Soon enough, it was time for the undercard to begin and Aris and I settled in to start another night at the keys.

*

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. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com. You can contact Groves directly at [email protected].

 

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