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The Travelin’ Man goes to Mashantucket: Part one

01
Aug

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Thursday, July 21: In geological terms, 15 years is an infinitesimal ripple in the space-time continuum but, for us mortals, who consider living a single century an extraordinary feat, it’s a span that consumes a sizable chunk of our existence. In our world, having something – anything – last 15 years is an occasion worth celebrating.

Such will be the case for my latest journey, for, while I’ll be traveling to the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut to cover a quadruple-header topped by a 10-rounder between junior featherweight hopefuls Adam Lopez and Ruben Reynoso, this card also marks the 15th anniversary show for a truly unique boxing series: “ShoBox: The New Generation.”

ShoBox’s mission statement of matching rising prospects against one another was a revolutionary concept, given the prevailing matchmaking wisdom of the time. Back then, a prospect’s first defeat was seen as an existential event that was to be avoided at all costs – at least until a title shot or, better yet, a pay-per-view bonanza was secured and the money was in the bank. Thus, the challenge for executive producer Gordon Hall, a soft-spoken and professorial 58-year-old, was to convince two managers to roll the dice, then, after one show was completed, do so again and again to keep the series going.

Fifteen years and 219 episodes later, it’s still going. The challenges, however, remain ever-present.

“Matching prospects is always going to be tough,” Hall said, “because inherently you’re going to have different agendas between myself and the promoter, manager and trainer. Traditionally prospects have been brought along slowly and what we’re asking is for younger prospects to get matched tough earlier than they might have been in the past. This series is unique in that it’s a developmental series. We like to have prospects on multiple times in step-up fights, watch them grow and hopefully turn prospects into contenders.”

While Hall, a senior vice president of production, who has been with Showtime for 26 years, knows prospects must be nurtured to maximize their potential, he believes that appearing on ShoBox has ultimately enhanced the process.

“I think (being on ShoBox) is not only good for the fighter; it’s good for the sport because we’re pushing these kids along,” he said. “We’re giving them exposure to the public on a major cable platform at a stage of their careers where otherwise they might get on the air as a swing bout if the feature fight goes short. We put them in fights that develop them quicker and it allows the managers, promoters and trainers to see what they have in an earlier stage of that fighter’s career. I understand there’s a proper way to bring along prospects, have them fight against fighters that are in front of them, fighters that move, fighters who are southpaws or fighters who are durable enough to go rounds. But in my mind, matching kids tough in the earlier parts of their careers would help escalate their careers at a faster pace. It’s not the end of the world for a 15-0 prospect to face another 15-0 prospect and possibly lose because it allows them to (identify and) work on their deficiencies.”

The hesitation to take the plunge, especially early in the show’s run, was real, palpable and sometimes not without cause. Hall said Andre Ward’s team, at the time, was particularly reluctant to buy into the ShoBox vision but after a little give-and-take on both sides the man known as “SOG” eventually made air.

“Andre Ward was somebody we wanted on the series because he was a high-profile amateur and an Olympic gold medalist,” Hall said. “At the time, the promoter wasn’t thrilled with matching him tough because he saw what the future might hold for Ward. As a result we might have matched him a little easier earlier in his career than we wanted but it did end up with a career-defining fight as a prospect, against Edison Miranda, where he bullied the bully, showed he wasn’t just a pretty fighter and escalated him from prospect to contender.” Ward – one of only eight fighters to win a world title immediately following a ShoBox appearance – graduated to Showtime Championship Boxing thanks to the “Super Six World Classic” super middleweight tournament, which he won by out-pointing Carl Froch in the final. That victory propelled Ward into the upper reaches of the pound-for-pound rankings, a place he still occupies today.

On the other side of the equation stood light heavyweight bomber Jaidon Codrington, who, along with middleweight Curtis Stevens, was one-half of the “Chin Checkers” that was knocking out opponents with frightful frequency and dispatch a decade ago. When Hall proposed a fight with Allan Green, who was 17-0 (11) at the time, Team Codrington, headed by promoter Lou DiBella, jumped at the chance to be part of the telecast, which was staged at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, on Nov. 4, 2005.

“When that match was made with Lou DiBella, I knew it was great for us because I knew it would be Codrington’s toughest test to date, no doubt,” Hall said.

Indeed it was but, unfortunately for “The Don,” it was too tough – and much too brief – as Green stopped Codrington just 18 seconds after the opening bell. Despite that disastrous result, DiBella and other promoters continued to work with Hall and, over time, the benefits of appearing on ShoBox became apparent. For example, Hall is justifiably proud of the path Timothy Bradley’s career took.

“He fought four times on ShoBox, which culminated with him winning his first world title on ShoBox, which, to me, validated the series,” he said. On May 10, 2008, Bradley traveled to Birmingham, England to challenge WBC junior welterweight titlist Junior Witter on the champion’s home soil. Bradley scored a pivotal sixth-round knockdown that turned a potential draw into a split decision victory for the American.

Bradley is just one of 142 ShoBox alums who went on to fight for world titles and one of 67 who won them. That statistic elevated ShoBox’s standing in the industry, which, in turn, provided a persuasive counter-argument for those managers who remained leery. In fact, the main event of tomorrow’s anniversary telecast carries world title implications.

“Adam Lopez is fighting for the fourth time on ShoBox and Jonathan Guzman, who just won the IBF super bantamweight title in Japan just a few days ago, will be at ringside to watch,” Hall said. “Reports say that Guzman will face the winner of this fight in his first title defense, especially if it’s Lopez. Whether Lopez is ready for a title shot or not, he’s in the conversation and he probably wouldn’t be in the conversation had he not already met and beaten three undefeated fighters in a row on ShoBox. People in the boxing industry have seen the benefits of appearing on ShoBox and they see that it is worth their time to take these risks.”

Now that ShoBox has proven to be a viable vehicle to propel prospects forward, Hall is able to put together tripleheaders and four-fight cards.

“We’re able to do it because the talent is there for us and because we are still able to stay within the same rights fees,” Hall said. “It allows promoters to get more TV time for their prospects, which only strengthens their names in the boxing community and gives the promoters the ability to sign even more fighters. Young fighters – and their promoters – know what a ShoBox fight is, what it represents and where victories could lead them.”

Therefore, Hall sees a bright and sustainable future for the series.

“This series is as strong as it has even been,” he said. “We’re working with a lot of new promoters and we’re putting together more cards featuring more fighters. Everyone in the industry has seen the success of matching kids tough, so promoters aren’t as wary. The formula is there and I know we’re continuing to grow.”

Another reason for the series’ success is the people who work on it. There is the “Core Quintet” – Hall, producer Richard Gaughan, director Rick Phillips, analyst Steve Farhood and replay operator Dave Lilling – who have worked either every show or nearly every show, as well as dozens of crew members who have remained together for years. The overall atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable yet professional and precise. The tension that overshadows other productions is absent here, yet the final results shine just as brightly.

As is the case with long-running shows, deaths and departures have occurred – most notably producer Jay Larkin in August 2010 and blow-by-blow man Nick Charles in July 2011, both from cancer – but their replacements (Hall for Larkin and Barry Tompkins for Curt Menefee, who succeeded Nick Charles) have more than stepped in and stepped up. The trio of Tompkins, Farhood and former 154-pound titlist Raul Marquez exude a breezy yet knowledgeable dynamic and their voices provide the soundtrack for what has been, and remains, an excellent product.

Boxing has always been the ultimate proving ground but, over the past 15 years, ShoBox has managed to redefine the landscape of its given sport. The best news of all: With an ever-changing cast of characters inside the ring, there’s plenty more drama to come.

*

Patience is a virtue and I needed plenty of it on this travel day. You’ll soon know why but let’s start at the beginning:

Because my first flight of the day (Pittsburgh to Washington DC) was scheduled to depart at 10:57 a.m., I needed to arise at 5:30 a.m. in order to leave the house by 6:30 and arrive at the airport by 9, a little less than 90 minutes before boarding. That meant going to bed and getting up two hours earlier than usual, which, for me, is no easy task. Like most people, I’m locked into my daily rhythms and, as such, I recognize only one 5:30 every day – the p.m. one.

It took me nearly an hour to fall asleep but I managed to awaken 10 minutes before my goal time. After getting ready for the day and finishing some last-minute tasks, I walked out of the house and toward my 2005 Subaru Impreza, which just passed the 173,000-mile mark. The descending full moon was to my right while the first rays of sunlight illuminated the sky to my left. The temperature, predicted to be in the high-80s by mid-afternoon, was a comfortable 60 degrees.

Despite a brief traffic snarl at Exit 59B on Interstate 79, I still arrived at the airport 10 minutes early. But whatever cushion I created for myself evaporated once I entered the extended parking lot.

I’ve been flying out of Pittsburgh for more than a decade and I’ve never had a tougher time finding a parking space. My procedure is simple and effective: Start at row one, scan both sides for an empty space and, if I fail to find one, loop around to the next row and repeat the process. I usually find a space in the first lot I scan but there are times when I need to check out the next one on the other side of the terminal building. Rarely do I need to go beyond that but, on this day, “rarely” made an appearance.

I sifted through the next outermost lot and, to my amazement, every spot was filled. At this point, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to park somewhere in the “Hinterlands,” the outermost lots where spaces are usually plentiful.

Except for today.

As I continued to search, I seriously wondered if every single space inside this gigantic area was occupied. I briefly considered the possibility of driving to an off-property parking lot and trying my luck there. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking; I gave myself a 90-minute window between my arrival and my scheduled boarding time but now I had consumed half that time and I knew that at least part of the remainder would be eaten up by the long walk from my eventual space to the terminal building. But first things first: I still needed a spot.

Finally, after more than three miles worth of sifting, I found a single space directly underneath the 15N sign, which was located along the most distant fence on the property. I jotted the location on my pink parking pass, unloaded my luggage, sighed deeply and began the long slog. Since there was less than 40 minutes remaining before boarding was set to start, I couldn’t afford to wait for the shuttle bus to pick me up and take me to the terminal as others in the area were doing. I needed to go and I needed to go now.

I did my version of a power walk (which, at age 51, is a relative term) and arrived at the terminal 15 minutes later. Because I was wearing a black “ShoBox 200” shirt and black sweatpants, I was bathed in a light layer of sweat, which thankfully dissipated once I entered the air-conditioned terminal. The line at the TSA Pre-Check station was lengthier than usual but, once I entered the queue, I was through within two minutes.

Since my last trip, the airport installed a handy monitor above the tram entrances on each side that not only indicated which of the two trams would be arriving next but also estimated its arrival with a countdown. In fact, my tram pulled in eight seconds before the predicted arrival, which was nice.

Once I arrived at Gate B30, the monitor indicated that the departure time would be pushed back eight minutes, which, considering that I was flying into one of the nation’s busiest airports, was a minor setback.

The flight departed Pittsburgh on time and was one that was free of turbulence, a fairly unusual occurrence as of late. A point of interest: When I checked into my flight the previous afternoon, the seating chart indicated few options to improve my seat but, when I entered the aircraft, I saw that more than half were unoccupied. For someone with decent frequent-flier “pull,” this struck me as strange.

The plane landed in DC at 11:52 a.m., nine minutes earlier than advertised and, best of all, my connecting gate was the same as my arrival gate. Gate 35X at Reagan International Airport is a two-level location in which passengers wait on the upper level, then, when their various flights are called, passengers descend an escalator to access the lower level, where passengers go through one of several doors to board buses that take them to their aircraft.

It was here where my second test of patience took place, for my flight from DC to Hartford wouldn’t depart for another two-and-a-half hours. I bought a turkey sandwich at one of the numerous convenience outlets, found a nice corner seat on the upper level of 35X that faced one of the large-screen TVs and spent much of the time surfing the net, tapping on the laptop or reading my latest library acquisition, Roger Angell’s “Game Time: A Baseball Companion.”

With my mind sufficiently occupied, the time passed quickly. I hustled out of my seat as soon as the gate agent summoned the DC-to-Hartford group but I still ended up near the back of the line, once I arrived downstairs. The queue didn’t move for several minutes (another test of patience) and, once it did, we were told which of the three buses we were supposed to board. This bus looked as if it could carry 40 people comfortably but, airports being airports, that capacity ended up being exceeded by at least 20. I somehow found a space along the wall near a pair of sliding doors on the other side, after which I set down my laptop bag and small suitcase and thought thin thoughts.

It was nearly 10 minutes before the bus began to move but, once it did, it arrived at planeside rather quickly. It turned out I had chosen the best space possible, for the doors behind me suddenly opened and gave me prime access to the aircraft. I ended up being just the second person to board.

Aside from brief shaking during the descent, the flight to Hartford was pleasingly uneventful and we landed 15 minutes earlier than the listed 4:38 p.m. arrival time. Thus, we had to wait for traffic to clear before the plane was allowed to pull into the gate. Once inside the terminal, I headed directly to the “ground transportation” area, so I could board the bus that would take me to the Avis building. Another stroke of luck: The Avis bus was parked 30 yards to my right and it was at the head of the queue. I just hoped it wouldn’t pull away before I got to it.

I need not have worried because the bus was empty. Three others eventually joined me before we were on our way.

Once I arrived at Avis, I experienced my third test of patience: Although I was at the head of the line, the person being served apparently had issues that required a lengthy explanation and considerable manpower to be resolved. Once that was completed, I acquired my car in short order and, after I punched in the address on my GPS (as well as consulted the directions on the production memo to get me through the first few turns while the Magellan “looked” for me), I was ready to go.

Given it was 5:05 p.m., I knew there was a good possibility that I’d run into rush-hour traffic (a misnomer if ever I heard one because rushing was the last thing that was happening). The first couple of miles proceeded smoothly but, with stunning swiftness, everything came to a near-standstill.

So began my biggest test of patience of this day. The bumper-to-bumper traffic was among the most massive I’ve seen in years – only the jam I experienced in New York City several years ago was comparable – and, over the next hour, the speedometer seldom broke double-digits. For long stretches, it felt as if I had hitched a ride on an inchworm’s back instead of driving a silver-colored Toyota Camry. I saw several cars illegally cross the median to access the “diamond” lane reserved for carpools and, while I briefly considered doing the same, I opted to heed my nature and stay on the straight and narrow.

I had hoped traffic would loosen once I reached Exit 30 on I-91, a left exit that would get me onto Connecticut Route 2 but, to my dismay I crept into more of the same. Meanwhile, I received word that ESPN wanted me to do some last-minute research connected with that evening’s main event between Sergey Derevyanchenko and Sam Soliman and, during one of the many times my vehicle wasn’t moving, I informed the network that I was stuck in traffic and would unlikely get to the hotel in a timely fashion.

The logjam finally broke as I approached the first Glastonbury exit and, from then on, I was able to drive at highway speeds. I arrived at the Hilton in Mystic, Connecticut at 7:05 p.m., which, in theory anyway, offered me just enough time to do the ESPN research, if they still needed me to do so. After I checked into my fourth-floor room, I attempted to log into the internet – and failed.

I called the front desk for assistance but the clerk advised me to take the laptop downstairs so she could better resolve the issue, which was achieved a few minutes later. I texted ESPN to see if they still needed my assistance and, to my relief, they didn’t.

Now freed from pressing matters, I decided to drive to the nearby Latitude 41 restaurant, where the ShoBox crew was holding a 15th anniversary celebration. The invitation said the event would last from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and, even though I’d be an extremely late arrival, I hoped to at least say hello.

No such luck. Moments after parking across the street from the restaurant, I spotted Phillips and another crew member headed toward the lot. They told me the party had just broken up.

“Well, at least you made an effort,” Phillips said, trying to boost my spirits.

“Yes, I did.” I replied with a wry smile. “But life – and about 10,000 cars – got in the way.”

So, I drove to a nearby drive-through to pick up my first real meal of the day and toted it to my room, where I spent the evening watching “Friday Night Fights,” then channel surfing until my eyes grew too heavy. I turned out the lights slightly after 12:30 a.m., bringing the curtain down on a trying-yet-adventuresome day.

Saturday, July 22: I stirred awake six hours later and arose following a 30-minute snooze. Most of the first eight hours were work-oriented, as I chronicled the events of the previous day and gathered the quotes from Hall that were included earlier in this article. When I reached a good stopping point, I returned to the lobby to print out my boarding passes, then packed up my belongings in preparation for my drive to Foxwoods, where I needed to be by my 3 p.m. call time.

Once again, fate intervened in an unfavorable manner. Not knowing exactly which garage to use, I pulled into the first one I saw, which had the memorable moniker of the “Rainmaker Garage.” Once inside, I couldn’t find any signs that read “Premier Ballroom” and, when I asked an employee if I was anywhere near it, he replied, “You’re about as far away from it as humanly possible.”

Wonderful.

With the help of five more employees, I eventually found my way to ringside about a half-hour (and approximately a mile) later. My late arrival had no negative effect on the work that needed to be done, for, within a half-hour, I had achieved green-light status with the production truck. Punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak arrived shortly before the crew meal, which we learned was located at a buffet near – you guessed it – the Rainmaker Garage. Not only did I just complete one mile-long walk, I was poised to take at least three of them and possibly a fourth after the show in order to return to my rental car. In addition to that, I was wearing dress shoes and thin socks. I could only imagine the severity of the blisters that were in my near future.

By the time I returned ringside, my feet were killing me and I desperately needed to sit down. After doing so, I got on the intercom at ringside to ask Joe Jacovino – the man with whom I suggest stats during most of the ShoBox telecasts – if he could hear me. Nothing. I asked again. Nada. A third time. Zilch. I tried at least two dozen times without success, after which Joie Silva came to ringside and informed me that Joe had replied each time I called him. So, obviously something was wrong with my intercom and soon ace audio man Mike Sena arrived to tackle the problem, which we learned was not emanating from ringside but from somewhere inside the truck. Within minutes, everything was back to normal and we were ready to begin our work.

Only thing was, it was still three hours before airtime.

We busied ourselves by watching some of the undercard action. The first bout of the evening was an explosive affair that saw junior featherweights Brent Venegas, in his debut, and Christian Foster exchange three knockdowns in round one (Foster’s two trips bracketed Venegas’), after which Venegas finished the job in round two. After junior bantamweight Leroy Davila scored a four-round unanimous decision over fellow southpaw Edgar Cortes, middleweights David Wilson and Kendrick Ball Jr. produced the best action fight of the night as they traded bombs throughout their four-rounder. After the final bell, I turned to Andy and said, “This would be a great draw – and the rematch should be on ShoBox.” The first part of that sentence came true as the judges scored it a majority draw and here’s hoping Hall will make the second part come to fruition. After all, Wilson’s record now stands at 5-0-1 (1 knockout) while Ball’s is 2-0-1 (2 KOs).

The two bouts that followed paled in comparison to Wilson-Ball as welterweight Jimmy Williams pounded out a six-round decision over the 7-28-4 (2 KOs) Antonio Chaves Fernandez, to raise his record to 12-0-1 (5 KOs), and lightweight Divante Jones raised his record to 9-0 (6 KOs) at the expense of the 9-2 (2 KOs) Anthony Burgin via unanimous decision.

With that, only the four televised bouts remained. Would they uphold the best traditions of the now 15-year-old ShoBox series? Read Part Two to find out.

*

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].

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