The Travelin’ Man goes to Corona: Part one
Thursday, Nov. 3: Over the years I’ve learned that attitude is the author of perception. If I had been a negative sort, I would have bemoaned the fact that boxing’s molasses-like October schedule (at least in the U.S.) kept me off the road and stuck in my home office the last six weeks. Thankfully, I don’t think that way. Instead, I saw the break as a terrific opportunity to get six weeks ahead on my CompuBox research, which, in turn, allowed me to tackle (and complete) several time-consuming projects that I wouldn’t have been able to perform otherwise. Thus, I began this travel day with a clear mind and an adventuresome spirit.
This day’s ultimate goal was to arrive at the crew hotel in Riverside, California, and, to get there, I would need to drive to Pittsburgh, catch a 2:39 p.m. American flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, board a 7:05 p.m. bird to Ontario, California, meet carpool mate (and punch-counting colleague) Andy Kasprzak and complete the approximately 20-minute drive to the hotel. The occasion: A “ShoBox” tripleheader in nearby Corona, California, kicked off by lightweights Vitor Jones Freitas and Manuel Mendez, supported by cruiserweights Constantin Bejenaru and Stivens (Steve) Bujaj and topped by welterweights Taras Shelestyuk and Jaime (Jamie) Herrera. As is almost always the case with ShoBox, the matchups, at least on paper, appear to be litmus tests that will peel back layers concealed by judicious early matchmaking. Ideally, flaws will be revealed; reputations will be enhanced and appetites for future outings against other successful prospects will be whetted.
Thanks to my mid-afternoon departure in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have to operate on short rest, although I did stay up late to watch the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series since 1908 at the expense of the Cleveland Indians, whose drought started in 1948 (and will continue for at least one more year). Their Game Seven classic, which the Cubs won 8-7 in 10 innings, featured epic plot twists and represented the first time in 37 years that a team overcame a three-games-to-one deficit by winning the final two on the road. The last team to pull off the feat: The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was one thing to watch Game Seven from the comfort of the Home Office but that can’t compare to the experience of being there. This is especially true of events that change the course of history. While TV does a terrific job of capturing an event’s flavor with close-ups, crowd shots, expert commentary and ever-present graphics, it can’t replace the three-dimensional thrill of drinking in the sights and sounds, feeding off the event’s raw energy, bonding with fellow fans and forming unique memories that will provide stories for the rest of one’s life. As a punch-counter, I have witnessed several such events – Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Marcos Maidana I in Las Vegas, Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler II in London and Sergio Martinez-Martin Murray in Buenos Aires to name three – but, because of the intense focus needed to perform my job properly, I couldn’t afford to completely appreciate the wonder of the action as it was happening. It wasn’t until I began writing about my experiences in the hotel room that I began to grasp what I had just seen. Being one who knows the value of delayed gratification, I was fine with that.
For me, one of the joys of travel days is the chance to meet new people and listen to different perspectives but one can’t indulge unless one is willing to take the first step. After arriving at my gate in Pittsburgh, I spotted several people sporting Cubs hats and jerseys as well as several empty seats near them. I’ve seldom had any problems finding a way to break the ice with strangers and it didn’t take me long to formulate the perfect way to kick off the hoped-for conversation.
“I understand congratulations are in order,” I said to one as I settled into a seat directly across from him while a couple of others were seated to my left. I learned quickly that not only were they Cubs fans; they were Cubs fans who had witnessed the death of their team’s curse with their own eyes.
The fellow with whom I conversed most – Paul Mobley, who was on his way home to Seattle – was seated in the left center field bleachers, not far from where the Indians’ Rajai Davis’ eighth inning, game-tying homer landed. He told me about his interactions with the Cleveland fans in his section (they were mostly friendly) and showed me several pictures of his vantage point, of his young son holding a batting practice ball that was given to him and of his post-game celebration shots. I also learned how serious a Cubs fan he was, for he showed me photos of his “man cave” that includes autographed jerseys and pictures with Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg and other Cubs immortals. Memories such as these can only be acquired by making the effort – and paying the price – to be there.
One can accurately say that the “Travelin’ Man” series is the vehicle by which I preserve my own unique experiences. Because I have saved virtually everything I’ve ever written since graduating from college 29 years ago, the ability to resuscitate long-forgotten episodes is within easy reach. From time to time, I’ll leaf through the binders, re-read what I’ve written and be briefly transported back in time.
Time, however, marches on and the start of the boarding process marked the end of my conversation with Paul, which was most enjoyable. I settled into my 23rd row aisle seat and continued reading my latest library acquisition – “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” by John U. Bacon. As someone who has followed WVU football for decades, I, along with legions of other devotees, felt betrayed by the way Rodriguez had left Morgantown for Ann Arbor just a year after West Virginia’s highly successful basketball coach John Beilein left for the same destination. For this reason, Rodriguez, once a beloved native son, is still despised by many West Virginia sports fans. A September 2013 Public Policy Polling survey revealed that, even years after his departure, his approval rating was just 11 percent while his unfavorable status stood at 47 percent.
Still, I approached this book with an open mind and, thanks to the extraordinary access Rodriguez and his staff granted to Bacon, one is transported inside the coach’s tumultuous tenure, warts and all. Those seeking a different perspective than the one forwarded by the university (and the state’s mainstream media) will find Bacon’s book entertaining, educational and maybe even mind-changing.
After leaving Michigan, Rodriguez, credited by most as the inventor of the spread offense that is now used by most teams, was hired by Arizona in November 2011 and, since then, his teams have recorded 35 wins and four bowl appearances. According to a story posted last month by Matt Wall of The Daily Wildcat, Rodriguez and his family have been embraced by the school. His daughter is the female captain of the cheer and mascots program while his son, a quarterback, is poised to join the team next season. After years of turbulence, everything in “Rich Rod’s” life appears to be in excellent order. For the record, I’m happy for him and hope he will achieve the success he seeks.
I landed in Dallas-Fort Worth at 4:42 p.m. CDT, just one minute later than advertised. It took quite a while for me to deplane because the hundreds ahead of me took their time retrieving their luggage from the overhead bins, a peeve of mine. Thanks to DFW’s Skylink tram, the trip from Terminal C to Terminal A was brief, so brief that I nearly missed my stop because I was fiddling with my new smart phone, something I thought I’d never be doing even as recently as three weeks ago.
Here’s the story: Tracfone, my phone provider, sent me an email announcing it would be phasing out its 2G phone towers, which would soon render my trusted LG flip phone inoperable. Since I’m one who still uses his phone primarily for making calls as well as for sending and receiving texts – and also because I only use my phone when I’m away from home – I had little use for a smart phone’s bells and whistles, especially for the big-time expense that is linked to the technological advances (hundreds of dollars for the phone itself, then hundreds more for the various data plans). The email, however, gave me a number to order a new phone at no cost. When I called, I asked whether I would be getting a similar model as my current phone. “Yes,” I was told, except that it would operate with the new towers. Fine and dandy.
But when I opened the package a few days later, I saw a smart phone staring back at me. I wasn’t happy but, because I had no other viable alternative, I began digging into the instruction manual and, with the help of my tech-savvy sister, initiated the necessary steps to start my transition into the 21st Century.
The best part about Tracfone, for intermittent users like me, is its “pay-as-you-go” system. Whenever I need to add airtime – which, for me, happens every few months – I simply drive to Wal-Mart to buy a card and enter the pin number that is revealed only after scratching off the gray matter concealing it. Within minutes, my account is refreshed. I’m not bound by any set-in-stone contracts or per-month payments. In order to maintain my account, I simply have to add airtime by a certain date. If I still have tons of minutes remaining by that deadline (which is usually the case with me) I can purchase a “time only” card that extends my deadline by as little as 90 days and as much as a year.
To my delight, I learned this system applied to my new phone, so my concerns about massive increases to my per-month expenses were allayed. Other anxieties were settled once I set up and tested my voice mail, instant messaging and email accounts, as well as familiarized myself with the various icons on my screen. The calculator could be of particular use at ringside when I need to do quick math (although I’m quite adept at doing it in my head) and it would be nice not to have to wait until I get to the hotel before being able to access my email on outgoing travel days like this.
I am still having trouble with my keyboard, however. While I can easily top 100 words per minute on my laptop, I am currently a one-finger hunt-and-peck typist with my phone because my fingertips are too large for the tiny letter keys on my screen. However, I am trying to learn the two-thumb method used by most and I’m convinced that, with time and practice, I’ll become proficient enough to be passable.
I suppose the best thing about owning a smart phone is that I will no longer feel the self-conscious pang that comes with using a flip phone in public. A recent commercial campaign depicted a flip-phone user as awkward, physically unattractive, backward and the cause of everyone else’s streaming problems, a cause-and-effect association that is puzzling to me. Peer pressure is a powerful weapon that can be used for good but is most often used to steer individuals toward bad choices. Of course, I don’t think shifting to a smart phone is a bad choice but I still felt that ad unnecessarily impugned us flip-phone users. We’re not bad people, just ones who loyally stick with products that work for us and are not governed by fads that now come and go with accelerating frequency. Although I am a freshly-minted member of the smart phone universe, I still have sympathy for my former telephonic colleagues, the most famous of which, by the way, is sportscaster Bob Costas.
CompuBox president Bob Canobbio was particularly overjoyed at this turn of events, for he had been encouraging me to acquire a smart phone for some time. He had long said it would serve me well while working shows and now I’ll have the chance to see how right he is.
My plane landed in Ontario, California, shortly before 8 p.m. PDT, well before the advertised 8:13 arrival. Just after deplaning, I received a text from Andy saying he was waiting to leave his Denver-to-Ontario aircraft and wanted to know where we could meet. I told him to meet me at the Avis counter, where he arrived just before I stepped up to acquire the rental car, which turned out to be a white Mazda 6. After packing our belongings, I turned on the Magellan – which “found” me quickly – and took our place in a fairly long line out of the parking lot. The reason the queue was so lengthy: An elderly but very diligent gentleman who went through the same checklist in the same order with everyone who passed through. Being someone who prefers order, I can relate.
The Magellan perfectly guided us to the crew hotel and, after checking in and settling in, I sought out the room service menu, which, of course, I couldn’t find.
I took the elevator down to the lobby and the person behind the desk not only called the man in charge of room service at the time; that person actually showed up with a copy of the menu in hand. He even invited me to place my order, after which I gave him my room number. Within 20 minutes, I was eating my only real meal of the day. It took me quite a while to consume the larger-than-expected portions, so I didn’t turn out the lights until shortly after midnight local time.
Friday, Nov. 4: For me, this day began following five-and-a-half hours of mostly fitful sleep. I decided to remain on Eastern Time because I chose to book an 8:25 a.m. flight out of Ontario in the hopes of arriving home just in time to catch the start of tomorrow night’s Jessie Vargas-Manny Pacquiao pay-per-view. I spent most of the morning catching up on my writing and after printing my boarding pass and, reaching a good stopping point, I met Andy in the lobby, packed my laptop bag in the trunk and began the drive toward the venue, which, according to the production memo, was the Omega Products International Event Center.
In reality, however, the venue was the event center’s outdoor parking lot, which caught both of us by surprise. Although the site was bathed in sunshine and a temperature in the low-80s, my nearly all-black dress was ill-suited for my surroundings because dark clothing absorbs heat. But, being a bright-side type, I was fortunate on two fronts. First, the area beyond ringside was well shaded, and second, I still had my 100 SPF sunscreen – a.k.a. Lobster Insurance – inside my laptop bag. Still, like the StubHub Center in Carson, the intense sunlight caused all of us to keep equipment covered under a blue tarp for several hours. That didn’t stop me from completing the usual pre-card electronic check, which, this time, was finished with Joe Carnicelli-like speed.
(For those new to the Travelin’ Man, Carnicelli, CompuBox’s longest-tenured punch counter not named Bob Canobbio, rarely experiences problems getting the treasured green light on the first try. In fact, it happens so often for him that “getting a Carnicelli” has become a shorthand phrase.)
The biggest news was the absence of analyst Steve Farhood, who, to this point, had worked every ShoBox episode in its 15-year history. Farhood, said to be too under the weather to make the cross-country trip, was proud of his Ripken-esque streak but one couldn’t have asked for a better sub than Hall-of-Famer Al Bernstein. When Al arrived at ringside during the undercard, I approached the long-suffering Cubs fan, shook his hand and said, “Congratulations. Your long national nightmare is finally over.” Al, also a politics junkie, laughed, for he instantly recognized my reference to former President Gerald Ford’s inaugural remarks following the resignation of Richard Nixon.
After eating the crew meal with Andy, Executive Producer Gordon Hall and Director Rick Phillips, I returned to ringside, uncovered the tarp and readied myself for the action, which began a bit after 5 p.m. During the introductions of the first fight between junior welterweights Jerry Larios and Jose Gonzalez, the sun was shining directly into Larios’ corner but, by the third, it had dipped below the visible horizon. With that, the temperature dropped to a far more comfortable level, which I’m sure the fighters also appreciated. By the way, the shorter and more aggressive Larios won his pro debut by unanimous decision as Jerry Cantu and Jack Reiss saw it 40-36, while Ernie Hernandez turned in a 39-37 card. The loss dropped Gonzalez’s record to 1-2.
Next up was a six-rounder between undefeated super flyweights Saul Sanchez of Indio and Danny Andujo of Temecula, who bore a slight facial resemblance to Arturo Gatti and boasted one of the most interesting nicknames I’ve seen in my four decades in boxing – “Donkey Sack.” While aggressive, the 5-foot-4 Andujo lacked mule-kick power and his bloody nose left a vertical stain down the left leg of his white trunks. His swollen eyes made him look even more like the late Hall-of-Famer but Sanchez’s sharper punching and command of range enabled him to take the unanimous decision (59-55 by Hernandez and Reiss, 58-56 by Cantu).
Andy and I chose the next fight to conduct our pre-show test count because it was a 10-rounder featuring South African Xolisani Ndongeni (22-0, 11 knockouts), the WBA’s third-ranked lightweight contender, against Mexicali’s Juan Garcia Mendez, who entered the fight with a 19-1-1 (12 KOs) record. Despite being the taller man, Ndongeni bent his upper body forward to the point where his head was on the same plane as Mendez’s. But while Ndongeni often surrendered his height advantage, he fully exploited his reach and mobility by repeatedly landing jabs and single-strike counters. The fifth saw Ndongeni turn on the jets and land a fight-high 42 punches to Mendez’s five but the Mexican’s chin tellingly held firm. Mendez’s jolting right to the chin midway through the eighth produced a brief moment of drama but Ndongeni recovered quickly and breezed to the unanimous decision win in his U.S. debut (99-91 Cantu, 98-92 Reiss, 98-93 Hernandez).
Statistically speaking, Ndongeni’s jab was the fight’s definitive weapon as he averaged 7.9 connects per round, including an unusually high 4.9 to the body. His work rate was strong (75.9 per round to Mendez’s 53.3) and his late-round strength was encouraging as he out-landed Mendez 58-13 overall in rounds nine and 10, including a 33 of 101 burst in the final three minutes. That extended the final connect margins to 218-88 overall, 79-24 jabs and 139-64 power as well as 29%-17% overall, 20%-15% jabs and 37%-17% power.
The final untelevised bout saw Salinas, California featherweight Ruben Villa IV earn a four-round unanimous decision over Guanajuato, Mexico’s Aaron Echeveste Lopez, which raised the former’s record to 3-0 (2 KOs) and lowered the latter’s to 4-1 (2 KOs). That fight finished less than 15 minutes before airtime and, by now, the blazing heat of a few hours earlier had given way to a pleasant, if occasionally breezy, evening.
A final note: I’m not sure when this occurred (although Donkey Sack’s bloody nose was a likely culprit) but my audio link to the production truck picked up a little ringside souvenir near one of the volume knobs:
It also marked my first-ever smart phone photo. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
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 email [email protected].
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