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The Travelin’ Man returns to Miami, Oklahoma…again: Part I

03
Oct

Thursday, Sept. 22: A little more than a month after my last trip to Rochester, New York, this Travelin’ Man was ready to return to the road. The destination was one I’d visited often over the past decade: The Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, from which a “ShoBox” quadruple-header was set to air.

As usual, each fight had its provocative story line. For instance, the main event between light heavyweights Radivoje Kalajdzic and Travis Peterkin would pair a fighter fresh off a controversial points loss to 2012 U.S. Olympian Marcus Browne in Kalajdzic with an unbeaten New York City southpaw appearing outside New York State for the first time in his 18-fight career in Peterkin. Meanwhile, super lightweight Ivan Baranchyk, who achieved CompuBox perfection by going three-for-three, while not taking a punch in return, during his 21-second blowout of Nicholas Ghivan, the last time I visited Miami in March, was set to meet Chinese product Wang Zhimin, for which I could find no previous footage and thus was a mystery to me. Would he be the first to extend “The Beast” past round four? Could he actually win?

The first televised fight of the evening would pair welterweights Ivan Golub, a boxer-puncher with 11 knockouts in his 13-0 record, and James Stevenson, who was mired in a 2-2 stretch after starting his career with 21 consecutive victories but still represented a marked step up in competition. But the fight virtually everyone inside the Buffalo Run Casino wanted to see was Trey Lippe-Morrison’s national TV debut against Ed Latimore, who, at 13-0, was Lippe-Morrison’s first undefeated foe since his pro debut, in which the 1-0 Kris Renty dropped him twice in round one before getting starched in the second. Morrison was also coming off a tendon injury in his right hand that prompted a career-long eight-month layoff.

Perhaps anxious to begin the journey, I awakened 10 minutes before my target time of 6:25 a.m., which was a little more than an hour earlier than I had been arising in recent weeks. The day’s schedule was fairly straightforward: Drive to Pittsburgh, catch a 11:35 a.m. flight to Dallas, a 2:40 p.m. bird to Tulsa, meet up with stage manager Bob Spurck (who was set to land in Tulsa about an hour after me) and complete the 90-minute drive to Miami, which, for the uninitiated, is pronounced “my-am-MUH.” The locals say their Floridian counterparts’ “my-am-MEE” is in error and I have no basis to contradict them. So, when in My-am-MUH…



I intended to leave the house sometime between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m. but I moved that up a few minutes because I wanted to avoid a life circumstance that I detest: Getting stuck behind school buses.

While I understand and agree with the law stipulating that vehicles in both directions must stop whenever a bus prepares to pick up its precious cargo, it still imposes preventable inconveniences on us motorists. At least on Friendly Hill, the pick-up points are very close together; in some cases, they are less than 100 feet apart. Also, the road is so narrow that there aren’t many places for buses to pull off and allow backed-up traffic to pass. That’s why I do my best to time my departure to avoid the buses, but, just as I was loading up my belongings, I saw a bus rolling toward its first stop in my area. At this, I let out a groan.

One possible solution to this problem would be to have one or two centrally located pickup spots so that the bus drivers can do their jobs while the drivers behind them won’t be unduly delayed. But since my area is technically outside the purview of Friendly’s local government – I actually live in an unincorporated area called Home City – I know of no avenue to lodge an official grievance.

Worse yet, I ran into another bus-inspired logjam 10 miles up the road in Paden City. That line stretched nearly a quarter-mile and, as a result, I reached the halfway point approximately 15 minutes behind schedule. Thanks to adhering to the 70 miles-per-hour speed limit on West Virginia’s interstate, to the 65 m.p.h limit while in Pennsylvania and lighter-than-usual traffic, I arrived at the airport about five minutes behind my target time.
My recent troubles finding a parking spot continued on this day because every space was filled in the two lots nearest the terminal entrance. After sifting through a few rows of the third lot, I realized I’d probably save time (and gas) if I just gave up and retreated to the farthest lot where spaces are plentiful. Of course, they’re plentiful because no one wants to park there and be forced to make a lengthy walk. Today, I made that choice and, as soon as I found a spot directly under the 19C sign in the extended lot, I knew that option was the right one. Being one who seeks the bright side, I said to myself, “At least it’s a sunny day and it’s not that humid yet.”

The TSA Pre-Check line was shorter than has been the case in recent trips but I had to look twice before retrieving my laptop bag from the conveyor belt because the woman directly in front of me used the same brand and model. The difference: Her wheels were much less worn down than mine.
My initial flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas departed later than advertised but touched down 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The catch: The plane taxied for 10 minutes before reaching the gate but I still deplaned with plenty of time to reach my connecting gate. Good: That gate was inside the same terminal. Better: A food court was located directly across from said gate, so I ended up getting a quick lunch.

I experienced a neat moment just before boarding the Tulsa flight. Recognizing my ShoBox t-shirt, a mixed-martial arts trainer tapped me on the shoulder just to say hello.

“I had to do it because I love what you guys do,” he said, mentioning that his female fighter was about to challenge for a world title. To me, it’s just more proof that there is plenty of room for goodwill within various factions of the combat sports world. As a longtime boxing fan, I certainly felt the “us vs. them” tension that accompanied mixed-martial arts’ gigantic push into prominence a decade ago, a push that was the result of UFC’s masterful marketing model. That feeling may still be there in many quarters but as for me, I prefer respectful co-existence.

That wasn’t always the case with me, for I’ve told people that MMA “was an inferior sport with superior marketing, while boxing was a superior sport with inferior marketing.” While it was a clever turn of phrase, it was wholly inaccurate and wrong-headed. I’ve changed my tune about MMA in the intervening years as I’ve occasionally watched cards and learned to appreciate the extraordinary athleticism and dedication required as well as the courage necessary to engage in it at all. I still don’t understand the nuances of MMA but I’m willing to learn. While boxing is still a victim of inferior marketing (partly due to reasons beyond the marketers’ control such as negative attitudes toward boxing by mainstream media decision-makers), I now know that MMA is hardly an inferior sport.

Like the Pittsburgh-Dallas flight, the Dallas-Tulsa leg was unusually free of turbulence, plus it left and landed five minutes ahead of schedule. After deplaning, I headed to the Avis counter, reserved a gray Nissan Altima, texted Bob Spurck about my whereabouts and waited for him to arrive, which he did much earlier than expected because his Denver-to-Tulsa flight landed 25 minutes on the good side.

Since the car reservation was in my name, I did the driving while Bob – armed with map and phone GPS – served as navigator. At first, we were perplexed by the set of directions Bob’s phone provided but we still decided to stay the course. It’s a good thing we did because his GPS deftly maneuvered us around several massive construction projects and the traffic jams they surely created.

We arrived at the crew hotel with no trouble, ending a travel day that was serenely uneventful. Regular readers know that such days for me are newsworthy, so I went on Facebook to let everyone know all was well. I also acknowledged that my run of good luck was unlikely to continue and that the “Travel Gods” would probably mess with me somehow.

Of course, I was right.

After unpacking my belongings, I returned to the rental car and headed out in search of an early-evening meal. One piece of information I didn’t know: One shouldn’t drive west on Steve Owens Boulevard at certain times of the day because the setting sun will shine directly into one’s eyes. The sunlight on this day was intense, which made seeing other cars and traffic signals very difficult. Thanks to peering around my sun-shield, I still managed to spot a Subway to my left and, after ducking into its parking lot, I tried to shake out the sun spots that dotted my line of sight.

By the time I returned to my car, the sun had set behind the skyline and I returned to the hotel without any trouble. With a cold drink in one hand and a bag of food in the other, I took the elevator to my second floor room and attempted to regain entry. Instead of a green light and the click of an unlocking door, I instead got two seconds’ worth of red-and-green lights.

“OK, so this one key card must be bad,” I thought. “Let’s try the other one.”

More red-and-green lights flashed in my face.

This was strange. Just a half-hour earlier, I had no issues and I made sure to keep my room keys away from my cell phone because past trips taught me that phones demagnetize key cards. So, with food and drink still in hand, I headed downstairs to get a new set. The hotel clerk acted as if this were a common problem, a bad sign if ever there was one.

With two newly-minted key cards in hand, I returned upstairs and tried again.

Red-and-green lights on key one. Red-and-green lights on key two. I tried them both again. Same thing.

Now this was getting weird. I’ve run into stubborn locks before but rarely has the trouble gotten to this point. By now the cold from the soda cup had numbed my right hand while the muscles in the left one holding the food bag began to cramp. This time the clerk accompanied me with her own key card, which gave her the red-and-green treatment.

After excusing herself for a few minutes she returned with a final card, which eventually opened the door. She then gave it to me. I don’t know if it was a special card that opens every door in the hotel and I didn’t want to try. As long as it opened my door, that was good enough for me.

Once I finished the meal, I spent the next few hours relaxing and channel surfing. Not long before I turned out the lights, I received a call from punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak, who was still waiting for his ride to arrive in Tulsa. (It turned out the Las Vegas airport, from which his traveling companion was traveling, was shut down due to sandstorms and thus didn’t arrive in Tulsa until after 1 a.m.) I gave him the number he needed off the production memo and I later learned he arrived safely. It was a good thing I still had my phone on, or else I wouldn’t have known Andy needed my help. That’s the thing about the fates; sometimes they work for you and, other times, they have their fun with you.

 

Friday, Sept. 23: Although I remained in bed for nearly eight hours, the quality of sleep was spotty at best. After spending a couple of hours catching up on my writing, I headed downstairs to get a light breakfast. I ran into several members of the Showtime crew and I ended up dining with ace audio man Kevin White and graphics person Mary Swinson, who I’ve dubbed, “Mary Queen of Stats.” Of course, I told them the story about my hotel keys and both said they’ve experienced the same issue on past trips. If one travels often enough, I suppose that’s inevitable.

Because I had some time to burn and because it’s been a few months since my last trip to Miami, I conducted a “drive-rehearsal” to the Buffalo Run Casino in order to regain my bearings. I used the directions provided on the Showtime production memo but once I made the left turn from Steve Owens Boulevard onto Route 69A, the internal GPS kicked in and all went perfectly. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Not long after, I got a call from Andy, who said he now had his own car and didn’t need me to take him there. Also, stage manager Bob Spurck, who asked me during yesterday’s check-in if he could ride with me to the venue, had his own vehicle, thanks to the Showtime rental car merry-go-round. So, I was free to come and go as I pleased, a status which would extend to the next day, since I had no one assigned to ride with me to Tulsa.

Freedom…Don’t you love it? I certainly do.

I headed down to the lobby to print out my boarding passes (I was able to move up from row 32 to 17 on my first flight, always a plus when one’s connection window is somewhat thin) and, though my call time wasn’t until 1:30, I decided to leave a bit earlier because I had caught up on my writing.

Like most ShoBox cards as of late, this was a quadruple-header, featuring eight fighters with a combined record of 114-3-1, but the difference here is that one was a six-rounder; one was an eight-rounder and two were slated for 10 rounds. (Recent cards strung together a series of longer fights.) Unusually, the six-rounder between Lippe-Morrison and Latimore was the bout for which I was looking most forward because of the potential explosiveness, as well as the personalities involved. Of course, Lippe-Morrison’s status as a son of one-time WBO heavyweight titlist Tommy “The Duke” Morrison makes him a curiosity but Latimore, the perceived “other guy” in this equation, has an equally interesting story.

I knew nothing of Latimore before starting the research for the CompuBox statistical package a few weeks ago. What I discovered was more than intriguing: Born and raised in Pittsburgh (a plus for this Steel City sports fan), the 31-year-old Latimore boasted amateur wins over 2012 U.S. Olympian Dominic Breazeale and future IBF heavyweight titlist Charles Martin. One could say Latimore is a late bloomer. Consider: He began boxing at 22, turned pro at 27, enlisted in the National Guard at 28 (in which he served as a radio technician specialist), enrolled at Duquesne University at 29 to major in physics and electrical engineering and is about to self-publish his third book. On his Facebook page, the man with a quoted 152 I.Q. listed his personal interests as “boxing, writing, chess and coffee.” Another plus for me: Ten of his 13 fights were staged in my home state of West Virginia.

Lippe-Morrison is also quite the story. His Fight Fax record lists his name as “Lippe” because that is his mother’s name and, like most American boxers these days, his sporting roots were in football. He was good enough at it to play defensive end at Central Arkansas but bad grades and a penchant for showing up late to meetings got him kicked off the team during his senior year, a development that prompted him to seek out the squared circle. His talent was good enough to convince Hall-of-Famer Freddie Roach to invest his time and knowledge, a stamp of approval that prompted some potential critics to assume a “wait-and-see” attitude. After all, if Freddie sees talent in a fighter, there must be some there.

The last time I worked a card in Miami this past March, Trey’s name came up several times as his brother James McKenzie Morrison (also known as James Kenzie Witt Morrison) scored a second round TKO over Kris Renty (the aforementioned Trey victim, who was stopped in off-the-floor fashion in his pro debut). The word was Trey had inherited his father’s power and, though his level of opposition thus far had been moderate (46-30-6, a .561 winning percentage), he came into the Latimore fight with a pristine record of 11 wins, no losses and 11 knockouts – the same record his father had at this point. If Trey’s ability is anywhere close to that of “The Duke” – whose left hook I rated as the third best in boxing history – then he should be someone to watch.

The green light that signaled all was well between CompuBox and the production truck was achieved with dispatch and with a full six-and-a-half hours before airtime. With plenty of time to burn, I spent part of that time indulging in the crew meal at the casino’s Trailer Park Bar and Grill (which had a definite Mexican theme), talking a few minutes with Roach and later with his able aide-de-camp Marie MacKillop. Other conversation partners included John Beyrooty, Eric Bottjer, Thomas Treiber and retired sportswriter Ron Copher.

One lap around the arena floor indicated plenty of show business – and audience participation – was on tap. Behind a black curtain stood a large steel cage that Baranchyk would use during his ring entrance, which revived memories of Sharif Bogere’s ring entrance a few years back. Meanwhile, every seat included two items: A glow-in-the dark mask and a sign with the word “Trey.” Every other seat the signs’ color scheme changed: Half had black letters on a white background while the others had white letters on a black background.

Taped inside each mask were the the following instructions:

* Do not put mask on until Ivan Baranchyk fight entrance.

* Put mask on when lights go out for Ivan Baranchyk’s ring entrance.

* Take mask off when lights come on AND Ivan is in the ring.

* Do not wear mask inside casino.

In this age of vastly diverse entertainment options and abbreviated attention spans, boxing must do what it can to command the focus of those inside the arena as well as those who choose to tune in. The more fun the method, the better. Kudos must be given to Tony Holden and his team at Tony Holden Productions for their imagination. Boxing needs all the imagination it can get.

The undercard action began with Brooklyn-based Uzbek southpaw Hurshidbek Nurmatov scoring a second-round TKO over Jeremiah Page, a very late sub for Bernard Thomas. Nurmatov scored two knockdowns in the first, thanks to a right hook and a pair of left crosses and he finished the job with another left cross that produced a nine-count. The willowy Page arose at nine but referee Gary Ritter wisely halted the lopsided contest at the 1:50 mark.

Next up was junior middleweight Dillon Cook, who hadn’t fought since his destructive fourth round KO loss to Justin DeLoach last March. His opponent was grizzled veteran Ryan Davis, who was riding an eight-fight losing streak against opponents with a combined 157-15-2 record. The difference in speed was graphic and it didn’t take long for Cook’s slashing punches to open a small cut over Davis’ right eye. A hook to the body, whose impact produced a loud smack around ringside, caused Davis to turn away and take the 10-count. This clearly was a “get-well” fight for the local attraction, who showed off the speed and skill that had generated plenty of excitement prior to the DeLoach fight. The question now is whether those assets will be as prominent the next time he steps up the degree of difficulty.

The final pre-television bout saw Brooklyn-based Russian Gaybatulla Gadzhialiyev thoroughly out-box and out-speed Honduran Jorge Luis Munguia over six rounds. Gadzhialiyev’s singular pot-shots regularly rifled through Munguia’s guard and, on several occasions, the Central American spat out the mouthpiece to gain a brief respite. It was clear that Munguia was doing everything he could to last the distance and the crowd was quite fed up with those tactics by the final round, which saw Munguia lose a point for his mouthpiece gambit, then suffer a knockdown in the bout’s waning moments (a development that brought rueful cheers from the patrons).

The undercard fights were completed a half-hour before airtime and it was time to settle in for what could be a night of highlight-reel quality action. Would potential be transformed into reality?

 

*

 

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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