The Travelin Man’ goes back to Miami, Oklahoma: Part one
Thursday, Feb. 9: When I first began working full-time for CompuBox 10 years ago this month, my travel schedule was beyond hectic. Back then, ESPN consistently aired matches on Wednesdays to go along with its “Friday Night Fights” series and, from time to time, I pitched both ends of the doubleheader. That meant traveling to show one on Tuesday, working the show on Wednesday, flying to Show Two on Thursday, working Show Two on Friday and trekking home on Saturday. Mix in the occasional HBO telecast or a card aired by the channel formerly known as Versus, and one could say I had a very full travel life in the early years.
In 2016, I averaged a little more than a show per month, which, given the responsibilities I’ve picked up since I started full-time, provides a pleasing balance between time spent in the Home Office and away from it. But now, as former WWE announcer Jim Ross would say, business is about to pick up.
For the first time in nearly three years, I will be working three shows in a calendar month and they will occur on consecutive weekends. First up is a trip to “Good Ol’ JR’s” home state of Oklahoma (Miami, to be exact) to work a “ShoBox” tripleheader topped by a scheduled 10-rounder between super lightweights Ivan Baranchyk and Abel Ramos and supported by eight-rounders, pitting cruiserweights Lenin Castillo and Joseph Williams Jr. and super featherweights Jon Fernandez and Ernesto Garza.
This card was originally a quadruple-header that included heavyweight Trey Lippe-Morrison but, after Scott Alexander was replaced by Daniel Martz, the fight was called off when Lippe-Morrison was cut over the left eye, while sparring at the Wild Card Boxing Club. Lippe-Morrison will be on the shelf for a few weeks, as a result, after which his boxing life will go on.
As for my boxing life, six days after flying home from Oklahoma, I am scheduled to drive five-and-a-half hours to Cincinnati, Ohio, to chronicle (alongside veteran punch-counter Dennis Allen) a “Showtime Championship Boxing” tripleheader whose main event will be Adrien Broner vs. Adrian Granados. Co-features will include David Avanesyan defending his subordinate WBA welterweight title against former IBF/WBA super lightweight titlist Lamont Peterson and light heavyweight prospect Marcus Browne fighting one-time title challenger Thomas Williams Jr.
My personal tripleheader will conclude the following week when I trek to Temecula, California, to work another episode of ShoBox. One treat to which I’m looking forward: Working alongside Joe Carnicelli, the dean of all punch-counters not named Bob Canobbio.
Even after more than a decade of dedicated air travel and dealing with its vagaries, I still get a charge from hitting the road. That’s because, up until my first trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend in 1993, I had set foot in just three other states beside my native West Virginia – Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. In the intervening years, I’ve more than made up for lost time: Nearly 40 states plus Canada, England, Argentina, Germany, the Bahamas and, more than four-and-a-half years ago, an accidental border crossing into Mexico when working an HBO show in El Paso, Texas.
Speaking of Texas, it will be one of the five states in which I will be on this day, as I will drive in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania en route to Pittsburgh International Airport, then fly into Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth to be exact) and Oklahoma. Once I land in Tulsa, I’ll wind up the journey with a nearly two-hour drive to Miami, which is located in the northeast corner of the state.
Miami (pronounced “my-am-MUH”) is not the easiest place to access on the best of days but a major snowstorm that struck the East Coast complicated matters. My area got four inches of snow – a relatively mild total – but the foot-plus dumping on the Eastern Seaboard forced punch-counting partner and Massachusetts native Andy Kasprzak to delay his departure until early Friday morning. While not ideal, this situation is manageable because only one operator is necessary to perform the early-afternoon electronic setup. And, if all went well, that operator would be me.
Even before I got out of bed at 7:45 a.m., I had already assembled my pre-trip “to-do” list: Finish research on one of the four March 18 pay-per-view fights, scrape the snow off my car and complete the packing process. I wanted to complete this list before 10:10 a.m., which would ideally place me at the airport by 12:40 p.m., 80 minutes before boarding. The first part of the list was executed without much trouble but I had issues completing the other two portions.
I ventured into the low-20s chill to warm up my car and retrieve my combination brush/ice scraper from the front seat. I quickly realized that my Subaru not only was buried in several inches of snow, it also was encased in a layer of ice that was so difficult to dislodge that it ended up breaking all but two teeth on the scraper. With time starting to run short, I rushed back into the house to finish packing. I placed my “work horse” Toshiba laptop and its plugs in the Targus double-laptop bag, along with my “show computer” Dell that was already packed, then was ready to stow my Magellan GPS and its plug-in charger.
The previous evening, I had left the device and the charger on the couch beside my clothes bag. But while the Magellan was exactly where I left it, the charger was nowhere to be seen.
If there’s one thing I detest, it is disorder. If there’s something I detest more, it is disorder accompanied by time pressure.
With road conditions a question mark, I needed a time cushion to account for any unanticipated traffic jams or other hazards caused by the storm. The missing plug, if not found quickly, would eat into that cushion.
Of course, I had enough juice in the Magellan to get me through this trip but since my device is more than a decade old, it’s unlikely that I would be able to purchase a replacement charger. Thus, I had to find this one, and find it quickly.
I looked in the most likely places first. Nothing. Then I searched marginal long-shots. Nothing again. Now hurried and desperate, I grabbed at straws and briefly searched extremely unlikely locales. Of course, nothing. Finally, I enlisted help.
Just when it looked as if all was lost, it was found. Sometime between last night and now, the charger had tumbled off the couch and into the laundry basket, buried underneath some stray clothing. It didn’t matter how it got there or who caused it to be displaced; what mattered was that this source of anxiety was instantaneously removed from the equation.
Awash with relief, I grabbed my belongings and headed toward the car, which, by now, was nice and toasty. The time: 10:10 a.m.
It was the perfect ending to a most imperfect morning.
The previous night I had thought about leaving the house at 10:30 or 10:45 a.m. But, once I heard the forecast, I moved up the departure time. It was a good thing I did because, shortly before arriving at Exit 10 on Interstate 70 East – a stretch of highway called “Two Mile Hill” for its continuous eastbound incline and its dramatic descent when traveling west – all traffic in both directions suddenly stopped. I didn’t know the source of the bottleneck but I knew it had to be serious when my fellow motorists and I peeled off to the side to create an access lane for the half-dozen police vehicles that needed to speed to the scene.
Following a half-hour of stop-and-go traffic that was mostly in stop mode, the reason for the trouble became clear. On the downhill side of Two Mile Hill, a Federal Express truck with two trailers was stopped because the rear trailer had flipped onto its side. According to the Wheeling Intelligencer’s website, it was one of four commercial trucks and five vehicles involved in a pileup that occurred shortly before noon and whose crash scene reportedly stretched two miles. Police blockaded the passing lane on our side of the highway to give medical personnel room to do their life-saving work. Unfortunately, that work was made necessary, for, as I passed by, I saw an injured man – presumably the driver of the Fed Ex truck – laying on his back in the snow-covered median while several people tended to him.
His fearful, pain-creased face instantly altered my perspective. Less than 90 minutes earlier, my mind was consumed with finding a missing GPS charger and, when it was found, I couldn’t have been more relieved. Now, I was bearing witness to a potential life-and-death situation. That driver, no doubt, was focused on completing his delivery when he pulled out of the Fed Ex facility to begin his run, just as I was intent on completing my drive to Pittsburgh and boarding my first plane of the day. But now, for whatever reason, life threw him a crushing curveball and he was forced to confront his mortality. Given the occasional white-out conditions and snow-covered highway, the same thing could have happened to me. In that moment, the selfishness of my previous mindset was powerfully driven home.
As I slowly rolled, by I said a silent prayer for the man I saw in the snow, after which I thanked the Good Lord for keeping me safe and sound.
The website reported that the accident closed I-70 West for more than three hours and that five people were hospitalized for injuries that were not life-threatening. Given what I saw, the results could have been far deadlier.
Two Mile Hill has been a part of my route for more than a decade and I can understand why the downhill portion has been the site of numerous fatal accidents. I usually set the cruise control at 65 miles-per-hour but I stopped doing that, once I discovered that once I hit that descent the speed could zoom up to near 80. If my modest Subaru could generate that sort of momentum from Two Mile Hill, just imagine the force an 18-wheeler could produce. That section also has two gentle, rightward curves that do little to slow the forces of gravity. The West Virginia Department of Highways lowered the speed limit from 70 to 65 mph a few years earlier, according to the Intelligencer’s report and former Sheriff Pat Butler has lobbied the department to drop it to 55. That sounds like a good idea to me.
As for me, I handle Two Mile Hill this way: I tap off the cruise control, remain in the slow lane and, if there’s no one behind me, let the car drift down the hill. The downward angle is so steep that I only have to tap the accelerator a few times to maintain my speed. Not only has this method kept me safe all these years, it also allows me to enhance my gas mileage.
The accident’s aftermath caused me to arrive at the airport an hour later than anticipated. Based on the cars that had been parked overnight, the storm hit Pittsburgh a little harder than my area had been but, by now, the worst of it had moved eastward. I found a parking spot rather quickly and, once I looked at the flight monitor, I saw that my 2:31 p.m. flight to Dallas had been moved back to 2:55. Just like that, my time cushion expanded and, once I cleared security, I walked to Gate B-37, settled in, got out my laptop and did my best to chronicle all I had just experienced.
It took quite a while for me to get out of Pittsburgh. The departure time was pushed back to 3:10 and was, in reality, even later than that because the plane needed to be de-iced. While waiting to board, I received an email from American that said that my 6:55 p.m. CST flight from Dallas to Tulsa would be pushed back an hour. So, an already long day was made even longer. But because I’m a positive soul, I chose to focus on the fact that, once I got out of Pittsburgh, weather would no longer be a direct hindrance.
The flight to Dallas was smooth and uneventful, as was the Dallas-to-Tulsa leg. After landing in Tulsa at 8:27 p.m., I walked to the Avis counter and secured a silver-colored Nissan Rogue that had just 60 miles on the odometer. The “new van smell” was prominent as I punched in the crew hotel’s address in the Magellan and, within minutes, I was back on the road.
Aside from a food stop at a plaza a half-hour outside Miami, the drive proceeded without interruption – a far cry from the tense trip I experienced during the morning hours. I arrived at the crew hotel shortly after 11 p.m. And, once I checked into my second-floor room, I didn’t want to do anything else but relax and watch TV, which I did until I turned out the lights shortly after 12:30 a.m.
Friday, Feb. 10: Even though the bed was extremely comfortable, I still alternated between rest and sleep for the next seven-plus hours. After getting ready for the day, I pulled back the curtain and saw sunshine, a rare sight during winter back home but pretty common in Oklahoma. Better yet, there wasn’t a snowflake to be seen.
I spent much of the morning polishing my writing and conducting some historical research for HBO. Once I finished that, I had a chance to roll tonight’s matches in my head.
Boxing has had its share of tall vs. short matchups – Dave McAuley vs. Jake Matlala, Jess Willard vs. Jack Dempsey, Nikolay Valuev vs. Everybody – and the opening match between Jon Fernandez and Ernesto Garza will feature that dynamic. At 5-foot-11, Fernandez is one of the world’s tallest 130-pound fighters while the 5-foot-4 ½ Garza is diminutive for the weight class. Another major contrast will be Fernandez’s extreme volume-punching against Garza’s prodigious body attack. Fernandez averaged an insane 135.1 punches per round in stopping Naciff Martinez last September (nearly triple the 57.7 division average), while he recorded 111.6 per round in stopping Mikael Mkrtchyan in four rounds 37 days later. As one would expect, Fernandez’s excellent jab is used often and accurately and that blend has helped the Spaniard assemble a 10-0 record with eight stoppages.
Meanwhile, Garza, win or lose, will attack the ribs. In losing a six-round decision to Neslan Machado in February 2015, he landed 56 body shots, while, in stopping tall Thomas DeLeon, he recorded 21 body connects in round two and 33 for the fight. Because his defensive numbers are inconsistent (38% overall and 47% power against Machado but 10% and 25% power versus DeLeon) and because of Fernandez’s command of range, I saw Fernandez winning an action fight on points.
As for Castillo vs. Williams, it was noteworthy that Castillo had successfully fought often away from his native Dominican Republic (6-0-1 with two knockout wins) while Williams had fought most of his fights in Brooklyn or Queens and had never had a fight away from the East Coast. But while geography may favor Castillo, Williams, a three-time New York Golden Gloves champion, had fought as heavy as 220 pounds and had demonstrated terrific power at those higher weights. After notching six wins at cruiserweight, Williams was to fight at light heavyweight for the second straight fight and would boast a definitive power advantage.
With all things being equal, which they never truly are, two factors influenced my prediction. I’ve already touched on the first – the ability to fight well away from home – while the second is versatility. To me, Castillo had shown he could win at long range and in the trenches, while Williams had mostly won with his power game. Therefore, I thought if Castillo could avoid the big bomb with his reach and mobility, he’d take away Williams’ only real chance of winning.
As for the main event between Baranchyk and Ramos, I saw two fighters at different stages of their careers. Baranchyk is still testing the limits of his talent and, at least so far, he had shown himself to be much more than a banger that gets guys out early. In going the 10-round distance with Zhimin Wang against Wilberth Lopez, Barnanchyk showed he could overcome adversity and still perform well. Against Wang, Baranchyk went past round four for the first time and did so with a gash over the left eye from round five onward. Moreover, despite the obstacles, he accelerated his work rate from 83 punches per round in the first five to 85 in the second half, while also not letting Wang’s toughness frustrate him. That mental strength could serve him well in more meaningful fights, like this one against Ramos. Against Lopez, Baranchyk rose from a third-round knockdown and, while his work rate was much lower than usual (41.6 per round), he was still much more accurate (38%-14% overall, 22%-7% jabs, 47%-205 power). Thus, Baranchyk prevailed 156-72 overall, 33-16 jabs and 123-56 power.
Although Ramos had won his last three fights, including a fifth round KO over the 13-0 Dario Ferman, my lasting image of him was the extensive beating he absorbed against Regis Prograis in December 2015. In rounds 6-8 alone, Prograis accelerated his pace from 70.2 per round to 93.3 and prevailed 126-24 overall and 116-18 power. He landed 53% of his power shots in the fight to Ramos’ 28% and, despite the pounding, his corner was extremely reluctant to stop the slaughter. If one wants to view it from a half-full perspective, Ramos showed he could stand up to vicious punishment and come back for more. Given Baranchyk’s high work rate, underrated jab and persistence, I thought Ramos’ limits will be tested again…and again…and again. Unless Ramos could unearth more shortcomings in Baranchyk, I foresaw a lopsided decision victory for the Brooklyn-based Russian.
With Andy making excellent progress – he was in Dallas by 9:35 a.m. and Tulsa by 11:53 a.m. – I packed my Toshiba laptop, threw on my light IBHOF jacket and set out for the nearby Buffalo Run Casino. As I was nearing the hotel exit, I spotted stage manager Bob Spurck finishing his lunch. It turned out he needed a ride to the casino. I was more than happy to provide one.
Once I arrived at ringside, all was ready for the pre-fight testing, which went well. All the electronic loose ends were squared away after the crew meal at the casino’s Trailer Park Bar and Grill. Meanwhile, Andy texted to let me know he had arrived at the crew hotel and would catch up with me at ringside in a few hours.
So, nearly five hours before airtime, all was well inside the arena. As was the case last September, each seat had a glow-in-the-dark hockey mask that would be worn during Baranchyk’s theatrical ring walk, which added a few wrinkles, such as four large screens surrounding the cage and a green-and-white hockey mask with giant glowing bloodshot animal eyes. After all, Baranchyk is nicknamed “The Beast.”
The bout sheet indicated that the three TV fights made up three-fifths of entire card. The two non-TV fights pitted unbeaten heavyweight McKenzie Morrison against 9-8 journeyman Dieuly Aristilde in a scheduled six-rounder and Brookyn-based Russian Ruslan Shamalov taking on 300-pound Anthony Johnson Jr., of Nashville, in a four-rounder.
A hook-right to the temple registered Morrison’s first knockdown and, as the son of former WBO heavyweight titlist Tommy “The Duke” Morrison moved in, Aristilde landed a pair of stiff counter rights. Moments later, however, one of my worst nightmares at ringside nearly came to fruition.
Almost without fail, whenever the big men step inside the ring, I keep saying to myself, “Please don’t fall this way…please don’t fall this way.” Well, Morrison landed a combination and Aristilde tottered back toward the section of the ropes directly above me. For a moment, I envisioned Aristilde going through the ropes and crushing our laptops. I briefly held out my hands and began to stand up as the large figure approached but, at the last moment, he backed a bit to his right and out of range.
Andy, of course, chided me on my futile-looking, preventative measures. And, of course, he was probably right; it was crazy for me to think I could stop the momentum of a falling 300-pounder but thank God I was able to insert the word “probably” instead of “definitely.”
As for Shamalov, he won by unanimous decision (40-36, 39-37 twice) but Johnson produced a better showing than many thought going in.
With the prelims over, it was time to count the three TV fights. Andy predicted the bouts would go 16 rounds while Joe Jacovino, in a wave of wishful thinking, guessed eight. Showtime’s Steve Farhood, ever the sage, put the number at 20. As for me, I thought it would go the maximum 26.
So who was right? Read Part Two and 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 email [email protected].
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