The Travelin’ Man goes to Washington DC: Part one
Friday, April 29: Just like the year’s boxing schedule has begun to accelerate, so has the Travelin’ Man’s frequency of trips. Just 13 days after returning from Verona, New York, I’m about to leave for Washington DC to work the keys for a Showtime Championship Boxing doubleheader pitting WBC super middleweight titlist Badou Jack against former IBF titlist Lucian Bute and IBF super middleweight king James DeGale against rugged volume-punching Mexican Rogelio Medina.
These two fights were billed as a four-man tournament whose objective was to merge the WBC and IBF belts. When one combines this news with the WBA’s intention to consolidate its three belts per division (which was addressed in the lead editorial of THE RING’s July 2016 issue), it’s clear that, at least on some level, the sport has finally started to act on a message fans and media have been screaming for decades: Less is more, at least, in terms of world titles.
I became a boxing fan during the mid-1970s when the only major belts were offered by the WBA and WBC. Even then, when unification fights were just one mutual decision by WBC President Jose Sulaiman and WBA President Gilberto Mendoza Sr. away from becoming reality, they did everything they could to maintain their fiefdoms at the expense of mouth-watering match-ups such as an all-Merida turf war between flyweight monarchs Guty Espadas (WBA) and Miguel Canto (WBC), a clash of contrasts pitting boxer-puncher Jeff Chandler (WBA) and body-punching aggressor Lupe Pintor (WBC), a battle of legends between Eusebio Pedroza (WBA) and both Danny “Little Red” Lopez and his successor Salvador Sanchez (WBC) and a welterweight showdown between longtime titleholders Pipino Cuevas (WBA) and Carlos Palomino (WBC) among others. One dream match that occurred only did so after the WBC’s Carlos Zarate and the WBA’s Alfonso Zamora were made to scale over the 118-pound limit and engage in a scheduled 10-rounder instead of the 15-round championship distance, thus preserving the Alphabets’ domains. Not that the scheduled length would have mattered, for they combined for 73 knockouts in their 74-0 record, but Zarate’s sensational fourth-round TKO would have carried even more significance had he walked out of the ring with both belts strapped around him.
To be fair, there were occasional fusions of the belts but only after all possible marinating (and profit-making) options were exhausted. In March 1983, the WBA’s Michael Spinks out-pointed the WBC’s Dwight Muhammad Qawi in a far more scientific fight than anticipated while, in December 1985, WBA welterweight king Donald Curry flattened WBA titlist Milton McCrory with a picturesque left hook, then finished the job with a pulverizing right. In June 1976, the WBA middleweight champion Carlos Monzon merged the middleweight belts by beating the WBC’s Rodrigo Valdes via unanimous decision. Miracle of miracles, the undisputed championship was preserved after Monzon retired after beating Valdes in the rematch, for, instead of splitting the belts, the WBA and WBC arranged for a fight in November 1977 between Valdes and Bennie Briscoe for both vacant titles, which Valdes won on points. Incredibly, the belts stayed together for nearly 10 more years thanks mainly to Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s willingness to take on a gauntlet of mandatory challengers. But the unified belts frayed shortly after Sugar Ray Leonard ended Hagler’s reign in April 1987 and it took more than a quarter-century to re-stitch the fabric.
By then, the four-belt era was in full swing as the IBF and WBO joined the party and Bernard Hopkins restored order at 160. Not only did the longtime IBF titleholder beat the WBC’s Keith Holmes and the WBA’s Felix Trinidad to win the middleweight unification tournament, he added Oscar De La Hoya’s WBO title nearly three years later to become boxing history’s first four-belt titleholder. Hopkins managed to register one successful defense against Howard Eastman before dropping a disputed decision to Jermain Taylor, who, before their rematch, was stripped of the IBF bauble. More than a decade has passed and these belts, like all others, remain divided.
On the one hand, the current model makes business sense, at least for the Alphabets, because they siphon sanctioning fees from both fighters every time a title fight takes place and the more title fights there are, the richer they get. Other subsets of the problem are logistical and innate. The logistical: In the glamour weight classes, the pay scale is so high at the top end thanks to pay-per-view that there’s no incentive for champions to risk their belts more than twice a year and divided belts help loosen the logjam created by contenders waiting for their big chance. The counterargument, of course, is that in the old days the contenders passed the time by fighting each other, which created better fights for the fans and stronger claims to secure title opportunities for the victors.
Now the innate: Human nature dictates we take the path of least resistance and that absolutely applies to boxing. You can bet that had today’s financial structure been in place, we would have never seen Sugar Ray Robinson fight 200 times, Willie Pep fight 241 times or Harry Greb fight 298 times, including 44 bouts in 1919 alone. Conversely, had the pay scale of bygone eras been in effect, today’s pound-for-pound stars would be forced to fight far more often just to pay the bills and, given the far smaller pool of fighters these days, they’d either fight a succession of mismatches, face the same opponents repeatedly or be forced to juggle a job or two between bouts to supplement their income while waiting for the next ring assignment.
It would be absurd to ask fighters to accept a pay cut; superstars justify the monstrous payouts by drawing huge live crowds, generating the pay-per-view buys and assuming the risk of climbing the ring steps and taking on dangerous athletes of similar status. Given the financial success of the current structure for the Alphabets, we’ll probably never, ever see the ideal of one champion in every weight class. Too much power would have to be surrendered for the greater good and too few people – especially in boxing – are wired that way. Thus, only a seismic sea change in attitude coupled with revolutionary acts by powerfully connected people of unshakable integrity will ever move the needle away from the status quo. And as we all know, mass cooperation in boxing is an alien concept. Being an eternal optimist, however, I can always dream of what could be, even if that dream appears to be one of the “pipe” variety.
I won’t lie; I came into this trip with mild trepidation. That’s because, along with New York City, Boston and Chicago, Washington, DC is a member of my personal “Fearsome Foursome” – the cities I would avoid driving in if at all possible. Up until a few weeks ago, this grouping included a fifth member – Philadelphia – but my success in navigating the route from Philadelphia International Airport to Atlantic City, in recent years, has allowed me to take it off my “terror list” – for now. It would probably return if I had to drive within the city limits (maybe to find the 2300 Arena) but that hasn’t happened recently.
It had been a while since my last show in our nation’s capital and my strongest memory was how much trouble punch-counting colleagues Andy Kasprzak, Thierry Gourjon and I had finding a ride back to the hotel after one ESPN show several years ago which ended after midnight. Thanks to photographer Mike Greenhill, we got one. To avoid that scenario, and because I would arrive several hours before my colleague Joe Carnicelli (who was flying in from Phoenix), I accepted the rental car assigned to me by Showtime.
With my trusted Magellan GPS and two sets of driving directions stuffed inside my luggage, I pulled out of the driveway at 6:35 a.m. in the hopes of arriving at Pittsburgh’s airport by 9, which I did. Unlike the last trip, my timing with the traffic lights was excellent, as I hit only one red light and I had no issues finding a parking space (four spots away from the 13D sign in the extended lot for those who are scoring at home). Also, unlike two weeks earlier, the TSA Pre-Check line was far shorter than the general queue and all seemed in order when I looked at the flight monitor and ascertained that my 11:15 a.m. American Airlines flight to DC was listed on time.
Of course, that all changed.
After arriving at Gate B26, the video board indicated that the flight preceding mine – a 9:50 a.m. bird bound for LaGuardia in New York City – was going to be delayed at least 45 minutes because of traffic issues in Philadelphia. The gate agent told me it was caused by not one but two emergency landings that morning. The resulting backlog also would delay my flight’s departure for at least an hour. I wasn’t worried, for my call time inside the DC Armory wasn’t until 4 p.m.
Then, an hour later, there was another change of plans: Because of the massive delay in Philadelphia, American Airlines ordered a change in aircraft. This jet would be flying out of LaGuardia toward Pittsburgh and, if all went well, I’d be in Washington shortly after 1 p.m. (For the record, our flight left Pittsburgh at 12:18 and landed in DC at 1:19.) While the flight was smooth, it was eventful in that our descent into Washington began just seconds after my seatmate and I were served a free bag of pretzels and a cup of cranberry juice (her) and a can of Coke Zero (me). Thus, I had to go against my preference of eating and drinking slowly so that I could be ready for the final trash-bag sweep.
Despite being seated in Row 12, I chose to be among the last to leave the plane, perhaps because I wanted to delay the next part of the journey as long as possible. I trudged outside to catch the bus that would take me to the rental car facility and, once there, I was pleasantly surprised to see the line at Avis was almost non-existent. I was summoned to approach the counter within seconds and, soon, I was assigned a black Ford Fusion that was located in stall C25.
As I turned on the Magellan, programmed the address of the hotel and waited for the device to “find” me, I reviewed the MapQuest directions to help me through the first few turns. That plan worked well as I heard the tell-tale “bing-bong” midway through my drive on I-376. The numerous hairpin turns, one-way streets and tight quarters made for a stressful drive and, as I entered a tunnel (which turned my map into a listing of turns), I momentarily feared I had make a mistake by choosing to veer into the right-most lane instead of continuing straight ahead. I was relieved to find that I had made the correct choice and, soon thereafter, I arrived at the Hyatt Regency, which is located just a few blocks from the US Capitol. All in all, this first foray through DC was an unqualified – and quite unexpected – success.
The Hyatt had only one parking option – valet – and I told the attendant I would need to be back on the road in less than an hour’s time because I had to be at the DC Armory to conduct our pre-fight testing. To accommodate me, he moved the car to an out-of-the-way spot in front of the hotel instead of moving it to their garage.
After checking into my seventh-floor room and unpacking my belongings, I attempted to program the DC Armory’s address into the Magellan. Unfortunately it wouldn’t accept the exact street address listed on my MapQuest directions (2400 E. Capital St. SE) so I ended up typing in “2200” instead and hoped it would get me within the vicinity.
It did. As I drove down a lengthy straightaway (Independence Avenue SE), I recognized the Armory to my left and, at that point, I turned off the GPS, breathing a sigh of relief as I did so.
My next objective was to find parking lot 3, which, according to the production memo, was where we needed to park tomorrow night. I asked directions from a nearby employee, who guided me perfectly through the process: “While driving around the outskirts of the arena, stay on the left until you see a skate park. When you do, veer two lanes to your right and the lot will be on your right.”
Once on the property, I tried to walk to the area where the TV trucks were parked but the security guard I queried advised me to enter through the front door. I soon learned why and it was an excellent reason: In order to gain entry into US government property I needed to go through security screening. I placed my laptop bag onto a conveyor belt, then walked under a metal detector and soon gained entry to the arena floor just a few steps away.
After a brief stop by the production office to say hello, I walked to the truck to conduct the customary pre-fight electronics checks. This process can either last five seconds or a couple of hours and for me I’ve experienced both sides of the equation. My punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli has been on the good side so often that a quick test has been dubbed a “Carnicelli.” Even though Joe was jetting eastward at the moment, his force must have been strong on this day because all checked out within a few moments.
Next up was the format meeting in which the nuts and bolts of the telecast are discussed. Every detail – the composition of the scenic shots, the cameras in the dressing rooms, graphics, ring walks, music inside the arena, between-rounds promos, coordination with Sky Sports personnel and so on – was on the agenda and once all issues were resolved, about an hour later, it was time for me to make the day’s third and final drive through the DC streets. This route proved simpler to follow and though I did miss an awkward angled left turn near the hotel, the Magellan quickly conjured a recovery plan that got me back to the Hyatt Regency without much trouble.
With the day’s “to-do” list finally completed, I returned to the room, ordered an Angus burger and French fries from room service (my only real meal of the day) and spent the remainder of the evening channel surfing and relaxing until switching off the light shortly after midnight.
Saturday, April 30: Although I spent the next seven hours in bed, I only slept four. A few minutes past 4 a.m., I stirred awake and my mind suddenly began lighting up with various thoughts that kept me from drifting off. As much as I tried to shut down, the trying only allowed me to rest instead of sleep. At 7 a.m., I finally gave up and officially began my day. I spent the next several hours catching up on my writing and, when I got to a good stopping point, I headed downstairs with the intent of doing some sightseeing. Many of the city’s landmarks were within walking distance and it had been several years since I visited them.
That plan was changed after I spotted my punch-counting colleague sitting on a couch in the lobby. Of course, I walked over to say hello but we ended up chatting for more than an hour. We hadn’t seen each other since working in Tucson, three months earlier, so we decided to catch up. After doing so, we returned to our rooms to retrieve our travel information so we could print our boarding passes. Joe printed his but I ran into a snag: All the seats had been assigned and the only way to guarantee one at that moment was to choose an exit-row seat, which, of course, required an additional fee. I think not.
Joe gave me the number of American Airlines’ customer service line for “gold” customers and above and I was told that, while several seats in rows two and three were available, I wouldn’t be able to secure them until the following morning at the check-in counter. After thanking her, I made a mental note to wake up 30 minutes earlier than planned.
Joe and I agreed to meet in the lobby at 2 p.m. – 30 minutes before our call time at the DC Armory. Twenty minutes earlier, I called the valet parking line to make sure my car was ready and waiting for us. The scenario I had in mind was that the car would be in front of the hotel at 1:55 and would be ready to go the moment we arrived.
Guess what? Yep, it didn’t turn out that way.
Joe arrived at the lobby at 2:03 and after going up the escalator to access the hotel exit, I spotted a somewhat familiar-looking black car parked 50 feet away and to our left. Upon closer inspection, the vehicle was a Nissan instead of a Ford. Not seeing a Ford Fusion anywhere in the vicinity, I approached one of the attendants and asked what happened.
“We had a Ford Fusion sitting here but it was there so long that we took it back to the garage,” he replied.
“So long?” I thought. “How long could it have been?”
So, as clumps of Showtime employees crammed into their vehicles (one van designed to seat five was made to fit a sixth when one opted to sit in the trunk area) Joe and I waited. Ten minutes later, the Fusion was brought to the front and we were on our way.
Just before leaving the room, I decided to program my GPS so that it would “find” me faster. Because my MapQuest directions were in the car, I looked up the DC Armory’s address online. Here I discovered why my GPS didn’t accept MapQuest’s address when I attempted to program it in yesterday: According to Wikipedia, the Armory’s address is 2001 E. Capitol St. SE, not 2400. When I typed that address into the Magellan, it accepted it with no issues.
Joe and I arrived at the Armory but, because I missed the final right turn toward Lot 3, I ended up making an extra lap around the property. When I got there I rolled down my window expecting to give the guard our names so he could check them against his list. But when I told him, “Hi, we’re with the Showtime crew” he stopped me and said, “Go right in.” That was easy.
Better still, Joe and I didn’t have to have our bags x-rayed once we entered the Armory. After saying we were with Showtime, the guard said, “You’re good.”
“Are you sure,” I asked.
“I’m sure,” he replied.
Who knew the word “Showtime” would carry such clout? The network sure has come a long way.
Joe and I found our work station, which was located about 15 feet straight back from ring center. Two monitors were within eyesight and though space was at a premium, we had just enough of it for our various tools of the trade.
By the time we were electronically ready to go, it was still seven hours until airtime. Part of that time was spent at the crew dinner located elsewhere within the main arena and other portions were spent chatting with each other and other ringsiders such as writer Dan Rafael, broadcaster Dave Bontempo (who was doing one of the international broadcasts), ring announcer Henry “Discombobulating” Jones (who has long called me “Loquacious Lee”) and broadcaster/ringside scorer Steve Farhood (who worked the Spike show in Atlantic City the previous evening as the Premier Boxing Champions historian and ringside scorer).
We also spent time watching the undercard bouts. In round two of the opener between junior middleweights Moshea Aleem and Martez Jackson, I saw something I had never seen in my 40-plus years of watching fights: Both fighters simultaneously losing their mouthpieces. The fight ended in a debatable draw, in which Aleem, the A-side, appeared fortunate to avoid the defeat.
I had a lighthearted rooting interest in the next fight – and it was based only on surname and geography. Lightweight Keegan Grove (our family name is actually “Grove”), was based out of Fredericksburg, Maryland but was announced as being from West Virginia, was making his pro debut against Kenyan southpaw Anthony Napunyi. Grove, nicknamed “Sandman,” attacked the body vigorously and was the aggressor throughout but suffered a cut over the right eye in round three, following a clash of heads. When he was announced as the 40-36 winner on all cards (no surprise given that the 14-18 Napunyi had lost 14 straight coming in), I let out a little cheer.
“No cheering in the press section,” a smiling Carnicelli told me.
“We’re not in the press section,” I said. “We’re in the punch-counting section.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “No cheering allowed.”
What could I say? Though I’ve never seen Grove before now, we are probably related (especially since Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove – my third cousin – was from Lonaconing, Maryland.) and what self-respecting person doesn’t root for family?
The third bout lasted just 18 seconds as a light salvo from female junior middleweight Latondria Jones caused the debuting Kamika Slade to turn away and cower as if she had never been in a boxing ring before. Referee Kenny Chavalier wisely halted the gross mismatch. Joe and I were going to use this fight to test the equipment but the fight was far too short and my boxer didn’t throw a single punch.
After light heavyweight Carlos Gongora blasted out Zacharia Kelley in two and junior welterweight Sharif Bogere (who came into the ring without the cage and lion’s head) pounded out a shutout 10-round decision over Samuel Akoako, we counted the first five rounds of middleweight Chris Pearson’s 10-round points win over Joshua Okine. As expected, the equipment performed perfectly.
Once Pearson and Akoako left the ring, all that was left to do was to count the co-main events. Joe and I anticipated a long – and interesting – night at the 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 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last six 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. To contact Groves, use the e-mail [email protected].