The Travelin’ Man returns to Omaha…again: Part two
Please click here for Part One.
Saturday, Dec. 10 (continued): Not long after John Molina Jr. failed to make weight for his THE RING magazine/WBC/WBO super lightweight title fight against champion Terence Crawford, the rugged Californian issued a public apology. At the end, however, he made this promise: “I will give
100 percent tomorrow night. The fans will definitely get their money’s worth.”
Although he didn’t scale what he needed to at weigh-in time, Molina emphatically proved he was a man of his word once the first bell rang. Facing a dynamic and versatile 29-year-old champion at the peak of his powers, Molina fearlessly walked in and absorbed a frightening percentage of flush power shots just for the opportunity to land his own bombs, which, from time to time, found the target. Despite landing a high percentage of his first few punches from the right-handed stance, Crawford chose to turn to southpaw and inflict his damage from that position. It more than worked, for, after seven rounds, Crawford had landed 153 of 358 of his total punches (43%), 69 of his 185 jabs (37%) as well as 84 of his 173 power shots (49%). Conversely, through seven rounds Molina connected on 35 of 246 overall (14%), 16 of 83 jabs (19%) and 19 of 163 power shots (12%).
Statistically and mathematically, it was a massacre. But Molina’s tenacity and boundless courage not only produced an exciting sporting environment, it also allowed Crawford to fully demonstrate his array of talents.
In round eight, however, that dynamic reached its breaking point. Just before the clock recorded the start of the round’s final minute, Crawford landed a left-right that caused the crowd to considerably raise its decibel level. Crawford’s connections also prompted Molina to defiantly beckon Crawford in a move that further jacked up the volume. With less than 40 seconds to go, Crawford finally loosed his hands and landed a body shot that forced the challenger to beat a rare retreat toward the neutral corner pad. There, Crawford unleashed a nine-punch volley of right hooks and left crosses to the head and body that finally felled Molina for the first and only time in the fight. The sight of Molina slumping to the floor cued referee Mark Nelson to mercifully stop the slaughter.
Even though I was busy tracking Crawford’s conclusive surge, I couldn’t help but hear the crowd’s cacophonous roar through my headset. Its emotionally-charged intensity was striking and, to me, it was the proper tribute not only to Crawford’s final flourish but also to Molina’s competitive spirit. Each showed the world they were what we thought they were: Crawford, the pound-for-pound superstar and the perennial “Fighter of the Year” candidate, and Molina, the persistent and passionate ring warrior. To me, this brought back memories of craft-versus-courage encounters such as Muhammad Ali versus Chuck Wepner, as well as Floyd Mayweather Jr. versus Arturo Gatti and Sugar Ray Robinson versus Jake LaMotta (though “The Raging Bull” possessed more subtle skills than his nickname suggested).
In round eight, Crawford landed 31 of his 61 punches overall (51%) and 25 of his 44 power shots (57%). In the final two rounds, Crawford connected on 42 of his 76 hooks, crosses and uppercuts, which translated to 55% accuracy. He also out-landed Molina 58-11 overall and 42-4 in power shots during that span. For the fight, Crawford led 184-41 overall, 75-19 jabs and 109-22 power, and the percentage gaps in “Bud’s” favor were almost obscene – 44%-14% overall, 37%-20% jabs and 50%-12% power.
“I showed everything in this fight,” an understated Crawford told HBO’s Max Kellerman moments after his triumph. “Credit to John Molina. He came. He fought. He did everything he could do but, at the same time, I’m just a fighter. I don’t make the fights. I just fight them.”
Raymundo Beltran is a fighter too but, at 35, one sensed that wouldn’t be the case for much longer – at least at the upper rungs of the sport – unless he took care of business against Mason Menard, a Louisiana lightweight with huge right hand power and a 30-fight winning streak. Many, including myself, thought Menard would take the measure of the star-crossed Beltran but the old pro showed the so-called “experts” – including this one – that experience and savvy combined with a sense of urgency can propel a fighter toward the preferred direction in the fork in the road while banishing his opponent to the less-desired one.
From the start, Beltran determinedly walked down Menard and pounded his ribs with heavy-handed blows that landed with impressive precision before a massive hook to the jaw – his only landed punch of round seven – left Menard flat on his back. Menard did his best to haul himself upright but he couldn’t beat Nelson’s 10-count.
The final numbers illustrated the impressiveness of Beltran’s performance as he out-landed Menard 136-81 overall and 117-65 power, led 41%-27% overall, 22%-15% jabs and 48%-34% power. Rounds four and five were particularly damaging as Beltran prevailed 41-17 overall and 43-13 power. Another telling stat from that stretch of time: Beltran landed 62% and 46% of his power shots in those rounds while Menard was limited to 36% and 20% respectively. That helped set the stage for the detonation that occurred in round seven, a hook that may lift Beltran into his fourth – and presumably final – title opportunity.
“It was very important for me to win this way to prove to the people I have natural punching power,” Beltran told Kellerman. “I want a title shot.”
This version of Beltran would be a menace to any lightweight, for, not only is he the owner of world-class skill, he is fortified by the angst of past failures. He knows well that the next chance will be his last. The guess is that WBO titlist Terry Flanagan is the preferred target and, though he’ll most likely have to travel to the United Kingdom to pursue that belt he showed against Burns in Glasgow, Beltran is a more-than-capable road warrior.
A few moments after the main event between Crawford and Molina ended, I was asked by a production assistant to obtain the partial scoring of the main event, which was a surprise to me because this task isn’t among the usual CompuBox duties. The reason: Our work station is usually “landlocked” by technical people on one side and television personnel (who often are still on the air) on the other. Jumping over the table is not a viable option, especially for this 52-year-old, whose legs no longer have the prodigious spring of his youth.
Fortunately for me, the side of the table to my left had a clear path out, so I was able to quickly maneuver through the swarm of ringsiders and find my way to the commission table, where an official had just finished doing the math: 70-60 and 70-63 twice for Crawford. I jotted the numbers on a scrap piece of paper, hurried to the other side of the ring and handed the information to the smiling production assistant.
Andy and I began to pack our things the moment the final stats vanished from view. My colleague Andy Kasprzak graciously carried my heavy bag as well as his own through the throng waiting for Roy Jones Jr. to pass by and, once we exited the arena area, we said our goodbyes. While Andy returned to the hotel, I walked to the room where we had our HBO crew meal and grabbed a diet soda as well as a dinner box containing a sandwich, a small bag of chips, a chocolate chip cookie and an apple. It was also here that I met production coordinator Tami Cotel, with whom I walked back to the hotel via the skywalk. Both of us were happy the duties connected with the show were finished but my work for the day wasn’t quite done because I still needed to input the data from the Showtime card in Los Angeles into the master database.
Once I finished that task, I headed downstairs to print my new boarding passes and was quite struck with the hundreds of people that packed the lobby. The collection of fighters, trainers, managers, TV people, promotional company employees, members of entourages and other sundry peripheral folks produced a manic energy that tempted this chronic conversationalist to join in. But the hour was late and there was still much to do.
Fortunately for me, the computers located at the far corner of the lobby were unoccupied and, for the second consecutive time, I printed my travel papers with no problem.
By the time I finished eating, I realized I was a little less than three hours away from my wake-up goal time of 4 a.m. I had a choice: Either get a jump on my writing and wait until I boarded the first plane to catch some shuteye or try to get some rest now and feel somewhat refreshed upon awakening. I chose the latter and clicked off the light.
Sunday, Dec. 11: I stirred awake for the final time less than 10 minutes before 4 a.m. I was a bit surprised that I actually slept about half of the time while resting for the remainder. All things considered, I felt decent enough to convince myself I had made the correct choice about shutting down for a few hours. I checked out of the room at 4:45 and boarded the airport shuttle, which left precisely at 5.
Of the five people inside the van, I was the only person flying on American and, compared to the masses that crowded the Pre-Check area last year, today’s gathering was markedly smaller. I settled into my seat at Gate A-10 and waited for Andy, who was rebooked on the same 7:05 a.m. flight to Charlotte as I was, to arrive. That happened a few minutes later and once we boarded, I realized he snagged a seat three rows closer to the front of the main cabin than I had. That’s probably because he changed flights several hours earlier than I did. That’s my buddy: Always on the ball.
I settled into my aisle seat in row 13 and waited for my seatmate to arrive. I couldn’t have guessed that he would be one of the more intriguing people I’ve yet encountered.
His jacket immediately caught my attention, for it was one that identified him as a member of a South Carolina chapter of the Hell’s Angels. He definitely looked the part: Heavyset, a long gray beard, hair tied into a small ponytail and a deep, rumbling voice. Some people might have shied away from speaking to him but because he laughed at my customary opening line for my window seat colleagues – “Oh, I’ve been waiting for you” – I perceived him to be a friendly sort.
I had originally planned to get a bit of rest on this flight but the more we talked, the even more interesting he became to me. Joe, a native of Washington D.C., was in Omaha to attend the 50th anniversary of the Omaha chapter of the Hell’s Angels and was flying back to Myrtle Beach. He said had completed two cross-country motorcycle rides and had also ridden in the Dominican Republic, Poland and Greece. But the most astonishing piece of information he revealed to me was this: He said he was the son-in-law of Dave Kindred.
Yes, that Dave Kindred: The sports columnist who had worked at the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Sporting News and The National sports daily. The member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and the recipient of the Red Smith Award for lifetime achievement in sports journalism. The author of several books, including “Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship” about the symbiotic relationship between Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. In short, he was a giant in my field.
Needless to say, I was blown away. When checking into my flights earlier in the morning, I had moved my seat across the aisle so that I could print it out OK. Never did I think that move would have ever netted this result.
I gave him my business card and he promised to ask his father-in-law about sending me one of his books. Inscribed, of course.
(Note: While I fully believed Joe, as a writer, I still needed to confirm his claim before committing it to publication. Thanks to several helpful people – my boss Bob Canobbio, writers Kevin Iole and Tim Dahlberg and, most of all, Melanie Hauser – the secretary treasurer of the Golf Writers Association of America, who forwarded my email to Kindred himself – Joe’s story was largely confirmed: He is married to Kindred’s former daughter-in-law. For the record, Kindred said he was OK with the “son-in-law” shorthand.)
Joe told me stories about attending Washington Redskins games and his father’s fateful encounter with luminaries that included Vince Lombardi when he coached the team late in his career. He told me about his career at a printing company in the nation’s capital, which reminded me of my 17 years at the Parkersburg News where I dealt daily with our excellent, if occasionally grouchy, press room personnel. We had more in common that I ever thought, which further illuminated the wisdom of not judging a book by its cover. In exchange for having an open mind and a friendly demeanor, he was willing to peel back some layers that would have remained hidden otherwise.
Joe and I chatted throughout the entire 90-minute flight, which landed 20 minutes earlier than scheduled. I was thankful for this because, otherwise, I would have had an extremely narrow connection window that I might have missed, had my connecting gate been in another concourse. Fortunately for me, it was in the same section of the airport, so I arrived at the gate with 34 minutes to spare.
However, my stay in Charlotte in general – and one of its airport’s runways in particular – was much longer than expected. A faulty sensor forced the plane to return toward the gate. Once the problem was resolved, the pilot had to submit a new flight plan along with figures that confirmed all problems were fixed. Then, once we returned to the runway, we sat in a long line with other aircraft.
Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. The window for me to get home in time to change clothes and make the Wetzel County Hall of Fame induction ceremony for my friend was closing quickly and, soon, it became clear that, even if all went well, from this point, I still would have to hustle. I updated the museum people via text and phone on my situation and I also called home a couple of times to do the same.
The plane finally took off at 1:45 p.m., 31 minutes after the aircraft was supposed to land in Pittsburgh. In total, the delay was two hours.
I turned to my window seat companion – an older onetime pilot’s wife named Gwen – and hopefully predicted we would land in Pittsburgh at 2:35. I was 13 minutes off on the late side but since I was seated near the front of the main cabin (row nine on the aisle) and because our connecting gate was the front-most in the B concourse, I had a nice starting point for the final sprint.
I walked as quickly as I could to my car, which by now was covered by an inch of snow. After clearing off the debris, I updated the museum and the home folks of my status and headed for the highway.
Though I was pressed for time, I refused to break any speed limits. Yet, I still made good time, probably because I skipped the usual food stop at Exit 41 on I-79 (Race Track Road in Meadow Lands, Pennsylvania). It soon became clear that not only was I going to make the 6 p.m. start of the Hall of Fame ceremony, I might still have enough time to change clothes as well.
I crossed the bridge into New Martinsville, West Virginia shortly after 5 p.m. and I reached the museum at 5:10. Once inside, however, it became clear that driving any further would be too risky time-wise, so the museum folks and I mutually decided to leave well enough alone. Yes, I was dressed in a blue winter jacket, dark-colored sweats and tennis shoes but as the guests began to roll in, I discovered that they were casually dressed as well. Only the museum curator and the guest of honor were adorned in somewhat more upscale style.
Three speakers preceded me, all of whom also were friends of honoree Keith Craycraft, a former PBA (Pro Bowlers Association) bowler and the longtime owner of Bruce Lanes, which closed in 2014 and was subsequently torn down. A Microtel Inn now occupies the property. Then, it was my turn to speak and, when I did, I delivered the following speech.
“A few months ago, the Wetzel County Hall of Fame inducted former WVU football coach Bill Stewart, a man whose talent and character impacted countless people throughout his life. The same can be said for tonight’s honoree, someone I am proud to call my friend and someone who Wetzel County should be proud to call a Hall-of-Famer.
“Through his ownership of Bruce Lanes, Keith Craycraft formed an unbreakable bond with the people of this region, not just those from Wetzel County. Speaking for myself, a native of Tyler County, Bruce Lanes was New Martinsville because it was the one place I visited most often. My first trip to Bruce Lanes occurred when members of my church arranged for a bowling get-together. I was just eight years old and the trip was so memorable that I even recall the score of my first game: 40. Mind you, we didn’t bowl with bumpers back then and, in retrospect, I was happy about that. After all, bowling without bumpers builds character!
“Throughout my teens and early-20s I would stop by and bowl a few games just to have some fun and pass the time. I also remember the friendly people behind the counter, especially the one with the thick mustache and the booming voice. Even though that guy owned the place and ran the pro shop, he knew how to do everything else that needed to be done. He was a hands-on owner armed with a lifetime of experience, experience that included time on the PBA Tour. He competed against some of the greatest bowlers who have ever lived and, based on their Facebook postings reacting to his induction, he more than earned their respect.
“I joined my first league in 1992 at age 27. It was called the ‘Monday Night NFL League’ and it had a really neat scoring system that rewarded team play as well as individual head-to-head match-ups. As usual, Keith was the leader who ran the show with the perfect mix of authority, knowledge and fun. I spent more than a decade in that league and, in that time, I had the pleasure of bowling with him as a teammate and competing against him. Never did I think that I’d get the chance to play against someone so accomplished. In the Monday Night league, he always bowled for the Steelers, his favorite team. Whenever he or his teammates got a big strike, I would hear him sing, ‘Here we go, Steelers; Here we go!’ He never did it to taunt anyone; he was just having fun. One thing about Keith: Wherever he was or whatever he was doing, he always had a good time.
“My average after my first year was just 112 and, most times, I didn’t bowl much better than 120 or 130. I knew I was capable of doing much better; all I needed to do was to seek the right help. Well, the right help was right there in the Bruce Lanes pro shop. When I approached Keith about lessons, he was more than happy to provide them. He gave me two video lessons that illustrated several flaws in my game. I did my best to implement his suggestions and, in a relatively short time, my average improved by 20 pins. In my final year of league bowling in 2014, I had an average in the high-160s and, during my years in various leagues, I topped 250 several times, with 263 being my all-time best score. Thanks to Keith, I became a much better bowler and, as a result, I enjoyed the sport so much more. Keith has helped many others the same way he helped me and they’ll tell you the same thing: That he is responsible for whatever success they achieved on the lanes. The effects of his work will be with me for the rest of my life. For that, I thank you.
“To me, Keith Craycraft is far more than the man who owned Bruce Lanes. He is a kind, intelligent person who loves God, who loves people and who loves this community. It is clear by the turnout that he is loved as well. Bruce Lanes may be no more and it will be missed but the man who made Bruce Lanes what it was is still with us and, tonight, he is receiving his just due. It is my honor and privilege to present the newest member of the Wetzel County Hall of Fame, Keith Craycraft.”
While I was more than comfortable with the words I wrote, my delivery of those words was occasionally faulty. Because there was no podium on which to rest my paper I had to hold the paper in my left hand, which I noticed was shaking a bit (though I wasn’t nervous in the least). I also tried to make eye contact with the overflow audience from time to time but, when I did, I sometimes lost my place in the text and thus took a second or two to regain my bearings. As a perfectionist, I left the stage with a feeling of “I could have done so much better,” but, afterward, Keith, as well as several others, made a point to offer compliments. Besides, the night wasn’t about me; it was about a particularly accomplished friend who was being rewarded for a lifetime of good work.
I was among the first to arrive and one of the last two to leave. I arrived home shortly before 9 p.m. – 16 hours after starting my day.
I should have been exhausted. After all, I had slept/rested just three hours over the last 39 ½. Most of the 13 hours I spent inside the arena on Saturday were stressful and, because of that, I ate sparingly. But when the time came to perform, I rose to each occasion and did the very best I could. Afterward, it was made clear to me that the work more than merited their praise. For that, I was grateful.
Despite everything I felt brilliant. I was alert, energized and ready for more. I emailed my receipts from the trip to Canobbio and executed a few more necessary tasks before finally going to bed at midnight, after which I would sleep for the next nine hours.
Unlike last time, I know exactly when and where my next trip will take me. Starting Jan. 19, I will trek to Bally’s in Atlantic City to work a “ShoBox” quadruple-header topped by super bantamweights Adam Lopez and Daniel Roman the following day.
Until then, happy trails!
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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