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The Travelin’ Man returns to Omaha…again: Part one

Fighters Network
15
Dec

Friday, Dec. 9: When last I left you, I had every reason to believe my travel for 2016 was finished. After all, other CompuBox operators were set to handle the shows for December and because I had plenty of research to conduct, I happily prepared for another lengthy stint inside the Home Office. In the meantime, I also received an unexpected – but most welcome – surprise: Former PBA bowler and longtime Bruce Lanes owner Keith Craycraft, who had recently been chosen as the second-ever inductee into the Wetzel County Hall of Fame, asked me to deliver his introductory speech. With no pressing engagements on the schedule, I eagerly committed to attending the event, which was set for 6 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Wetzel County Museum in New Martinsville, West Virginia, located about 15 miles north of my hometown of Friendly.

But, as we all know, the best laid plans can be altered in an instant. Mine came in the form of an email from CompuBox president Bob Canobbio that arrived in my mailbox shortly before noon on Nov. 21. In it, he asked if I, along with colleague Andy Kasprzak, would be willing to travel to Omaha, Nebraska to work an HBO tripleheader featuring the tape-delayed showing of Joseph Parker-Andy Ruiz Jr. and two live fights between Raymundo Beltran and Mason Menard as well as Terence Crawford and John Molina for Crawford’s THE RING magazine, WBC and WBO super lightweight titles. This was just one part of what would be a very busy CompuBox weekend as Joe Carnicelli and Saul Avelar were set to be in Los Angeles to work a Showtime-televised card topped by Jermall Charlo-Julian Williams for Charlo’s IBF super welterweight title and Jesus Cuellar-Abner Mares at featherweight.

Of course, Andy and I said yes. But, by saying yes, I voluntarily added several complicated layers. First, as the lead operator, I was committed to being at the venue (the CenturyLink Center) by 1 p.m. today to conduct the customary electronic testing, which, ideally, doesn’t take long to complete. Because there are no direct flights from Pittsburgh to Omaha, my best option was to request an 8:26 a.m. bird to Chicago, which meant I needed to arise at 3 a.m. in order to get ready for the trip and to arrive at the airport with enough time to address unforeseen circumstances. Since I usually go to bed between 1 and 2 a.m. most nights, this would require an almost complete reversal of my circadian rhythm. Not an easy task but doable. If everything went well with the Chicago-to-Omaha flight, as well as with securing a ride on the hotel shuttle, I estimated I would arrive at the hotel by 12:30 p.m., just enough time to check into my room and arrive at the CenturyLink just before my call time.

Second, after working the show, I needed to get home early enough to get ready for the Hall of Fame ceremony and still be sharp enough to deliver the five-minute speech. Thus, I booked a 6 a.m. flight out of Omaha which, if all went well, would get me into Pittsburgh by 11:14 a.m. and home by 2:15 p.m. After a brief rest, a change of clothes and the 30-minute drive north, I felt I would be more than fine, time-wise.



But that’s not all I did to maximize my chances of successfully completing this rather ambitious schedule. A couple of weeks earlier, I met with the men who run the Wetzel County Museum, exchanged cell numbers to alert them of any problems coming home (because traveling in December – and especially through Chicago – can be dicey) and, if the worst happened, gave them a copy of my speech to read in my absence.

I may have been a Cub Scout for less than a week (our troop folded after the first meeting) but at least I remembered the part about being prepared.

Thanks to my newly-minted Gold status on American Airlines, I was able to snag much better seats during check-in. Plus, I was automatically added to the upgrade list, which meant I might move up to First Class on one, or even both, flights. With an hour between flights, I knew the closer I was to the front door, the better my chances of making the connection if the distance between my arrival and departure gates was particularly far – which it often was.

As far as changing my body clock, my midlife status is an ally. Since my mid-30s, for whatever reason, I have gotten drowsy between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. The weariness was so strong that I would want nothing more than to take a two-hour power nap. Sometimes I submitted to the urge; most times I fought through it. But now, if the Sandman decided to make a visit Thursday night, I’ll immediately go to bed in the hopes of waking up refreshed and ready to roll.

The usual sleepiness didn’t set in because I had to address a few last-minute packing details but I still turned out the lights at 9 p.m. and hoped for the best. Unfortunately for me, the best wasn’t what I got.

I tossed and turned until about midnight and I probably didn’t get more than 90 minutes of true sleep. However, the final result was a good one: I stirred awake at 2:30 a.m. and arose at 2:55, feeling pretty decent. Once I finished my morning routines, I went outside to warm up the car, which was encased in light snow.

The sky continued to spit flurries as I pulled out of the driveway at 4:08 a.m. but, thankfully, that was the only snow I saw. Once I exited Friendly Hill and turned north onto West Virginia Route 2, the sky was calm and the roads were clear – in more ways than one. Over the first 16 miles, I only saw three cars coming the other way and it would be 75 miles before I even had to follow another car in front of me. For that reason, pre-dawn driving is both surreal and serene.

I arrived at the airport at 6:15 a.m. and I was surprised by how many parking spaces were available. Usually it takes me several minutes to sift through the two “extended parking” lots nearest to the terminal entrance before finding a single space but, this time, there were as many as four consecutive slots for the choosing. I settled for one just four spaces before the 13C sign, which meant I had to brave the elements for only three minutes.

The TSA Pre-Check line was nearly devoid of customers and, after arriving at my gate in the B terminal (B-37 to be exact), I checked my smart phone for new emails. One of them was from American Airlines, which informed me I had been upgraded to First Class on the Chicago-to-Omaha leg. I acquired my new ticket at the counter and the boarding process began a few minutes later.

That process didn’t go well, maybe because I was blearier than I cared to admit. Because my seat was at the very front of the main cabin, I anticipated having to put both of my bags in the overhead bin. By the time I reached my seat, the bins’ easiest-to-access spaces were already taken and, in my haste to give way to the people behind me, the heaviest of the bags slipped out of my hands. It tumbled onto the seats in front of me, which, thank goodness, were unoccupied. I was glad my fellow passengers didn’t laugh at me – maybe it was too early in the morning for them to invest that much energy.

Though somewhat embarrassed at my clumsiness, I quickly regained my bearings (and belongings) and found spaces for my luggage, one in the bin to my left and the other across the aisle from it. Then, after sitting down, I realized I could stow my luggage behind the back row of First Class seats – a surprise to me because on most of the planes I’ve been on, the First Class seats are sectioned off from the rest of the cabin – so, at the first opportunity, I retrieved my smaller bag from overhead storage, placed it in its new spot and tried to blend in.

A ground stop order from Chicago forced our bird to remain on the runway for 15 minutes but, once we got the green light, the flight was smooth in every respect. Even the landing was feather-soft. Once we touched down, however, our deplaning was delayed another 15 minutes because the plane occupying our gate needed to be de-iced. I caught a break once I entered the terminal because my connecting gate was just a few dozen steps away, which allowed me to arrive with 30 minutes to spare.

Of course, Chicago’s O’Hare being Chicago’s O’Hare, delay is the norm, so I shouldn’t have been so concerned about making my connection. The plane that was to take us to Omaha was tardy getting to the gate so the departure time was pushed back considerably. That meant I wouldn’t be at the arena by the 1 p.m. call time, so I texted the proper people to let them know what was happening. “Take your time,” one said. “It’s too cold to do anything here anyway.”

Good thing he said that because the need to de-ice our plane added to the delay, which eventually grew to an hour. The flight, however, was virtually free of turbulence and it was made nicer by the plusher seats in First Class, as well as the multiple glasses of diet soda and their accompanying caffeine.

I called for the hotel shuttle moments after entering the terminal and it arrived just as I reached the airport building exit. Less than 15 minutes later, I was at the crew hotel and, not long afterward, I was inside my room on the sixth floor.

With the temperature hovering in the mid-teens, I chose to use the skywalk linking the fourth floor of the Hilton Omaha with the CenturyLink and, within minutes, I was standing outside the HBO production truck. The crew didn’t have access to the arena floor because of the upcoming college basketball game between Creighton (the home team) and Longwood University – a game that reportedly was moved from Saturday afternoon to Friday night after Top Rank Promotions struck a deal with Creighton when the fight was announced a few weeks earlier – so the tests were conducted inside the truck. They couldn’t have gone better – they took just 10 minutes from start to finish – and, just like that, my official duties for HBO this day were done.

The testing was completed about 15 minutes before the weigh-ins were set to begin but, because I needed to complete several more research-oriented tasks in the hotel room, I couldn’t stick around. However, before I left, the scuttlebutt was that Molina was going to miss weight – and by quite a lot. The rumors proved correct as Molina scaled 144, four pounds over the championship poundage, and was given two hours to sweat off the excess weight. When he returned, his final weight was 143.4. Crawford, who knows the ravages of drying out very well, came in at 139.6.

“I apologize to the fans,” Molina said later in a statement. “No excuses. I should’ve made the weight. By no mistake did we not prepare. My body just rejected the cut. Everyone knows me; I’ve never missed weight before. From me to you, I apologize. We did everything the same in camp, prepared just like the (Ruslan) Provodnikov fight (which Molina won to justify the shot against Crawford). My body just can’t make 140 any longer. I’m 33 years old now and I squeezed every drop out but my body just would not cooperate. I take full consequences and I will give 100% tomorrow night. The fans will definitely get their money’s worth.”

As has been the case in recent years, the two camps renegotiated financial terms to ensure the fight would proceed (Crawford reportedly received $45,000 of Molina’s $400,000 purse) and the parameters of victory and defeat were set: Crawford would keep his belts with a victory, while a loss would result in his titles being vacated.

Statistically speaking, Crawford would have been a heavy favorite, even if Molina had comfortably made weight. Here’s why: Among world-class fighters counted by CompuBox, Crawford’s plus/minus rating (the difference between his total connect percentage and that of his opponents), of plus-12.1 over his last seven fights, is sixth-best behind Vasyl Lomachenko (plus-20.9 in seven fights), Andre Ward (plus-15.1 in 11 fights), Gennady Golovkin (plus-15.1 in 12 fights), Erislandy Lara (plus-14.5 in 12 fights) and Naoya Inoue (plus-14 in six fights). Additionally, Crawford’s 45.7% power accuracy is 10th best (Adonis Stevenson’s 54.6% accuracy tops that category), while his opponents’ total connect percentage of 20.9% is fourth best behind Lara, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Lomachenko. Conversely, Molina is third-worst in two key defensive categories: Opponents’ power punch percentage (43.6%) and total connect percentage (36.2%), trailing just behind Jesus Soto Karass and Andrzej Fonfara on both lists.

In other words, one of boxing’s best sharpshooters was about to zero in on one of the sport’s most leaky defenses.

The co-feature between Beltran and Menard was expected to be a classic crossroads fight between a hard-luck veteran in Beltran and a once-beaten up-and-comer in Menard, a late sub for injured former three-belt lightweight titlist Juan Diaz, as well as a fighter on a 30-bout winning streak.

Menard vaulted into prominence with a frightening one-punch knockout over Eudy Bernardo last April, and his ninth-round KO over tricky southpaw Bahodir Mamadjonov proved he could hang with a somewhat higher grade of opponent. Beltran, however, represents yet another leap in quality, for circumstances – one unfairly imposed on him and the other self-inflicted – twice prevented him from winning a world title. Many thought Beltran did more than enough to dethrone then-WBO lightweight belt-holder Ricky Burns in September 2013, by breaking Burns’ jaw and scoring an eighth round knockdown but, because the fight was staged in Burns’ home country of Scotland, Burns escaped with a draw. After losing a wide decision to Burns’ official successor Crawford in November 2014, Beltran had a chance in his very next fight to win the WBO belt Crawford vacated to chase titles at 140. The opponent was former WBC super featherweight titlist Takahiro Ao but Beltran squandered this opportunity in two ways. First, he missed the 135-pound limit by a half-pound. Second, even had he made the limit, his second-round TKO victory would have been voided by the post-fight urine test that revealed the presence of the anabolic steroid stanozolol.

The British have a harsh but descriptive term for hard-luck athletes like Beltran: The “nearly-man.” To this point, Beltran has been good enough to earn his way onto the biggest stages but not good enough to stand victorious in that final spotlight. For him, the Menard fight represents another step toward a final chance at the brass ring, while, for Menard, it will determine whether he can advance toward his first ultimate spotlight, a title fight. Given the styles, the story they’ll tell will be compelling.

Once I wrapped up the research, I bundled up and made the five-minute walk to the Blatt Beer and Table restaurant on North 12th Street. It was here that, on my 50th birthday, I ate what I considered the single best-tasting hamburger of my life. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, for Omaha is renowned for the quality of its steaks. One employee at the Hilton Omaha told me that area restaurants make their hamburgers from the excess shavings of steaks that needed to meet a specified weight in order to fulfill certain orders. That’s quite the testimony – even the leftovers are judged to be of high pedigree.

The restaurant was packed, so much so that the only place I could sit was at a four-chair table near the door. Two of the three large screen TVs were tuned to a women’s volleyball match on ESPNU and I marveled at how quickly and efficiently the servers operated amid the seeming chaos. Considering the circumstances, the service was prompt and the food was quite good. However, as tasty as this hamburger was, it didn’t displace the memory of two years ago.

With my appetite thoroughly satisfied, the additional belly fat kept me warm as I waddled back to the hotel. I spent the remainder of the evening catching up, either on the keyboard or on the TV as far as the day’s news and sports I missed. Shortly after midnight, I decided to turn out the light.

Saturday, Dec. 10: Knowing I’ll have to arise at an insanely early hour to catch my scheduled 6 a.m. flight from Omaha to Chicago on Sunday, I stirred awake at 5:30 a.m. and hoped the adrenaline from working a live show would keep me alert for the duration. One good thing about having a 6 a.m. flight was that I could check into my flight without waiting and, for the first time in my three Omaha visits, I printed out my boarding passes without the printer jamming or the airline’s website malfunctioning.

My call time to the arena was 11:30 a.m. because Andy and I were set to count the Parker-Ruiz fight off a monitor approximately 10 hours after it actually took place. With our equipment and fingers at the ready, the fight began about three-and-a-half hours after I arrived at the CenturyLink.

But about a half-hour before the count was set to start, I received a startling email: My flight from Omaha to Chicago was canceled due to the perilous weather forecast for the Windy City. I called HBO Travel to reconstruct my trip home, while still getting back in time to make the HOF speech. They conjured the following itinerary: A 7:05 a.m. flight from Omaha to Charlotte that will arrive at 10:47 a.m., then a 11:40 a.m. bird to Pittsburgh set to land at 1:14 p.m. Giving myself a half-hour to get to my car and two-and-a-half hours to get home, I estimated I would arrive home at 4:14 p.m. – just enough time to change clothes and arrive at the museum an hour before the ceremony.

As for Parker-Ruiz, the fight was a close statistical affair as Parker out-landed Ruiz 119-107 overall and 67-56 power but, in order for him to do so, he had to overcome an early numerical and strategic deficit. In the first five rounds, the more aggressive and accurate Ruiz out-landed the more active Parker 46-40 overall. Parker’s jabs were mere throwaway punches that rarely landed (20 of 180, 11% during that span) while Ruiz’s landed far more accurately (29 of 104, 28%). The most critical juncture took place in rounds six-through-10 when Parker out-landed Ruiz 56-41 overall and 32-22 power to take over the lead in total connects, as well as seize the strategic momentum. The final two rounds saw them trade almost evenly (23 of 82 overall for Parker, 20 of 76 for Ruiz), which allowed the hometown hero to hold on for the razor-thin decision. Some described Parker-Ruiz is a smaller-case Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev but, unlike that fight, I felt the judges rendered a proper verdict.

Following a light crew meal, I returned to ringside to wait for the night’s action to begin. I passed part of the time talking with the Top Rank.TV broadcast crew – Rich Marotta and newly minted IBHOF inductee Barry Tompkins, who was subbing for another Canastota Hall-of-Famer in Colonel Bob Sheridan, who was the blow-by-blow man for Parker-Ruiz.

The undercard fights saw 33-year-old Mexican super middleweight Manuel Medrano (5-4, 2 knockouts) earn a 40-35 sweep over Denver’s Chris Arguello (1-2-1, 1 KO) while Omaha light heavyweight Steven Nelson advanced his record to 5-0 (4 KOs) with a unanimous decision (40-35 three times) over Kansas City, Kansas product Chris Harris, whose record was, to quote the recently retired Vin Scully, a true “deuces wild” – 2-2-2 with two knockouts. Lightweight Kevin Ceja Ventura remained undefeated (4-0, 3 KOs) by stopping Gregorio Perez Herrera (4-2-1, 1 KO) in round five and light heavyweight Sean Monaghan (28-0, 17 KOs) scored a 10-round unanimous decision over rugged and defiant Mexican trial horse Fernando Castaneda (24-12, 15 KOs). Our rehearsal fight was a super lightweight tussle between Washington D.C. southpaw Mike Reed against 39-year-old Brazilian Sidney Siqueira. The 23-year-old Reed, who was compared favorably to WBC featherweight titlist Gary Russell Jr., in terms of appearance and approach, advanced to 21-0 (12 KOs) with an eight-round unanimous decision win. Siqueira, who lost his fourth straight fight by decision, dropped to 26-12-1 (17).

With that, only the two HBO-televised bouts were left and both promised to reveal much about what spot in the boxing firmament the four men will occupy.

*

 

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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