The Travelin’ Man goes to Temecula, California: Part one
Thursday, Feb. 23: Since completing the drive home from Cincinnati four days ago, the activity level at the Home Office, especially this past Monday and Tuesday, was even more hectic than usual because the “to-do” list, regarding two Saturday night cards on FOX and Showtime, was unexpectedly expanded. Although the additional FS1 fight ultimately didn’t take place (Tugstost Nyambayar, a late sub for Jorge Lara, would stop Jhon Gemino in round 10), the added fight on Showtime did.
Up until then, few knew who would oppose unbeaten super featherweight Saul Rodriguez, a former Top Rank Promotions fighter, who had just been signed by Mayweather Promotions. That opponent would be Chilean Oscar Bravo, a relatively light-punching (11 knockouts in 29 fights) but iron-chinned (no KO losses among his six defeats) journeyman, who also was competing for the first time in 13 months. Three telling stats: First, Bravo withstood the blows of Felix Verdejo and Mason Menard, among others, without hitting the canvas. Second, the combined record of his last five opponents was 80-4. Finally, Bravo was 23-0 when fighting in his native Chile but 0-6 when competing away from home. For the record, this fight card will be staged in Temecula, California, approximately 5,530 miles from his native Santiago and about 41 miles away from Rodriguez’s home in Riverside.
Rodriguez-Bravo will be one of three fights that I, along with punch-counting dean Joe Carnicelli, will count as part of the latest installment of “ShoBox: The New Generation.” The main event will pair once-beaten super welterweights (and ShoBox alums) Chris Pearson and Justin DeLoach, while the co-feature pits undefeated cruiserweight Andrew Tabiti (who is coming off an important points win over Keith Tapia last May) with 11-0-2 Quantis Graves, a 34-year-old Texan who is fighting for just the second time since November 2014.
As longtime readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know, a recurring theme is the challenges I face, getting from Point A to Point B. Little did I know that the first leg of my journey from Friendly, West Virginia to Temecula, California, would sternly test my ability to handle an unexpected plot twist.
I had originally planned to leave the house at 9 a.m., with an eye of arriving at the airport at 11:30, so I could catch the 12:55 p.m. Southwest flight from Pittsburgh to Phoenix. But as I prepared to leave, I felt an unexplained urge to leave earlier. Maybe because I had made better-than-anticipated progress with my packing or perhaps it was because I had encountered unforeseen traffic issues the past two weeks. Whatever the reason, I decided to go with my gut.
That turned out to be a pivotal decision.
Before explaining why, allow me to provide a bit of background regarding my route to Pittsburgh International Airport. For me, two viable pathways exist as far as getting to Interstate 470 near Wheeling, which leads me to I-70 East, I-79 North, I-376 West and the airport at Exit 53: The West Virginia option and the Ohio option. For me, the West Virginia route is the worse of the two because one must drive through several small towns with strict speed restrictions and multiple traffic lights, while on the Ohio side, only one such town – Powhatan Point – offered similar obstacles. Therefore, the Ohio route is so ingrained that it has become part of my “sphere of familiarity,” while those roads on the West Virginia side are all but alien to me.
I pulled out of the driveway at 8:47 a.m. and all seemed normal until I was nearly out of Powhatan Point. Suddenly, all traffic ahead of me stopped and didn’t move. As was the case, two weeks earlier, while encountering the multiple-vehicle wreck on Two Mile Hill, I figured the best move was to wait for the congestion to unclog and move on. After 10 minutes, however, it became clear something major had happened because none of the vehicles in front of me had moved whatsoever. Still, I had a view of the road leading out of town and I saw that all would be well, if only I could move another 150 yards or so.
With the clock ticking, I had a decision to make: Hope the bottleneck clears in a few minutes or backtrack, re-cross the bridge into New Martinsville, West Virginia, and haul tail up the West Virginia side. The decision was made for me when, after rolling down the window and craning my neck to check out the scene, a passing motorist who had chosen to reverse course told me – in no uncertain terms – “Turn around.”
I later learned why: Several hours earlier, a pick-up truck was smashed head-on by a tractor-trailer that was trying to pass in a no-passing zone. It took personnel more than two hours to extract the victim from his vehicle and the road was shut down as a result. Thankfully, the driver was freed and was reported to be in stable condition at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh. According to the same report posted by the Martins Ferry, Ohio Times-Leader, Ohio 7 was shut down until 11 a.m., which meant, had I chosen to stay put, I would have missed my flight.
The other option confronting me still presented a considerable hurdle because, not only would I have to drive 36 miles out of my way, I also faced potential delays with the previously described lower speed limits and red lights. The one-hour cushion I had given myself had suddenly evaporated and a lot would have to go right if I were to get where I needed to go.
The West Virginia route to I-470 East was so unfamiliar to me that I needed to break out the Magellan GPS but I didn’t know what address to punch in for Pittsburgh International Airport. So, after turning around and pulling off the highway, I called my sister and had her look up the address. I scribbled it down, entered the address in the GPS for future reference and took off.
Driving quickly but safely, I crossed the bridge and then headed north on Route 2. I turned on the GPS a few miles before reaching Moundsville but the first command I heard was, “When possible, make a legal U-turn” because it was still fixated on the Ohio route, which, under normal circumstances, would have been best. I shut it down and fired it up again a few miles later. The same thing happened, so I was resigned to the reality that, for at least a few more miles, I would be on my own.
The third time proved to be the charm, for I was far enough away from the previous route for the GPS to recalculate. It turned out I was just a few miles away from accessing I-470 East, which would return me to my sphere of familiarity. Meanwhile I was extremely fortunate in timing the traffic lights, for, of the nearly dozen signals I encountered, just one was red at the time I reached it.
Once I hit I-470 East, I realized I still had a fighting chance of reaching the airport in time to make my flight. That said, much work still had to be done and there could not be another delay of any kind.
On interstates, I usually remain in the slow lane, drive at the speed limit and pass only when necessary but, here, I spent most of my time in the passing lane and mirrored the speed of those in front of me. The only times I veered into the other lane was when I saw a maniacal motorist speeding toward my back bumper.
The combination of fortunate circumstances allowed me to arrive at the airport at 11:55 a.m., a half-hour before my scheduled boarding time. I even found a parking space that was just a few dozen steps from the terminal entrance. After making a couple of “I’m all right” phone calls, I gathered my gear, locked up the car and power-walked toward the terminal.
But my worries weren’t quite over, for the TSA Pre-Check line was longer than usual. Once I reached the head of the queue, I breezed through security, caught the tram to the “secure” part of the airport and reached my gate – with just five minutes to spare. My fellow Southwest passengers were already lining up to begin the boarding process.
Just imagine: Had I not been told to “turn around” when I had, had I not been as lucky with the green lights, had I run into any other delays, I wouldn’t have made it. Instead, everything fell into place and thus I got in under the wire. The prayers I silently made at the onset couldn’t have been answered more positively and, for that, I gave thanks.
For those who have never flown Southwest Airlines, there are no assigned seats. Instead passengers are divided into three groups of 60 and those with status are placed in Group A, while the others are shunted into Groups B and C. Because I don’t fly Southwest often, I was deep in the C group, which meant, by the time I got on the plane, I would probably occupy a middle seat and I might not have sufficient overhead space to even stow my small clothes bag.
But there was an “out”: For $40, I could purchase an upgrade that would instantly move me up from Group C to anywhere between A-1 and A-15. I jumped at the chance and, luckily for me, a space was still available, even at this late stage of the process. Within moments, I had a new boarding pass with “A-14” printed on it and happily took my place in line. My new status enabled me to grab a window seat in row two.
From time to time, I experience neat coincidences and my husband-and-wife seatmates provided the latest example. The wife, Mitza, was raised just 11 miles north of Temecula (my ultimate destination for this day), while the husband Marco had worked as an editor and feature writer at several big-city newspapers (my former profession).
To pass the time on the long flights that lay ahead of me, I brought plenty of reading material. For this four-plus-hour flight to Phoenix, I began reading Christian Giudice’s “A Fire Burns Within: The Miraculous Journey of Wilfredo ‘Bazooka’ Gomez.” For those of us who lived through Gomez’s prime, Giudice’s book is a treat because it not only relives the fights with which we are familiar but it also covers his childhood, his stellar amateur career and insider stories surrounding important fights, such as his pre-title win over Albert Davila, his title-winning triumph over Dong Kyun Yum and his legacy-making encounters with Carlos Zarate and Lupe Pintor. The stickler in me found a few flaws in the copy – something I see in most boxing books – but, in comparison to others, they are few and far between and that’s to Giudice’s credit. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed “A Fire Burns Within,” so much so that I burned through more than 200 pages during the flight and actually finished it while waiting for my 5:35 p.m. Phoenix-to-San Diego flight.
I took a risk by not upgrading my B-39 ticket for this flight but it paid off, as I got a window seat in row 21, about two-thirds of the way back in the cabin. My seatmate happened to be the gentleman I sat beside at the gate, an older fellow who was constantly working on his laptop while also plugged into his smart phone. He pretty much did the same throughout the hour-long flight, which, because of our shift from Mountain Time to Pacific Time, departed at 5:35 p.m. and landed at 5:40.
That reminds me of a story, one which is probably apocryphal: During one training camp, many years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals were scheduled to scrimmage in Indiana, which is located in the Central Time zone. Looking at the itinerary, which called for the plane to leave at 9 a.m. and land at 8:55, one player refused to board the team plane. When asked why, he exclaimed, “I ain’t getting in no damn time machine!”
Up until now, I0 had never flown into San Diego, California, which has a well-earned reputation for perfect year-round weather and beautiful scenery. CompuBox president Bob Canobbio made a point of telling me how wonderful the one-hour drive to Temecula would be and, even though the sun was about to dip below the horizon, I could tell it would have been the case, had I arrived a few hours earlier.
But, by the time I secured my rental car, a dark gray Chevy Malibu (an appropriate model, considering I was driving in California), the sky was shrouded in darkness and all I could see were thousands of red tail lights that sped past me on both sides.
Driving on unfamiliar roads at night is a situation that usually gives me pause and the tension was heightened a bit when the GPS didn’t “find” me, until just before my first major turn. From there, however, all was well once I got past the congestion near the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park and I pulled into the crew hotel shortly before 8 p.m.
Up until now, the only food I had eaten was some gluten-free chips and a slice of cheese Mitza had offered me on the Pittsburgh-to-Phoenix flight, so I was understandably famished. While the crew hotel lacked room service, they did have a mini-market that was open 24 hours. The fare didn’t look sufficient to sate my appetite, so I asked the woman at the check-in desk about other options. She handed me a pamphlet for Rosati’s Pizza, which provides delivery to the hotel. After settling in, I called the number but, after placing my order (an Italian sub, fries and a diet soda), I was told their policy dictated my delivery order had to total at least $20. So, I ordered a second sub and soda with the intent of consuming them the next day, an act that lifted the bill to an “appropriate” level.
The food arrived about 45 minutes later and I gratefully gobbled it down, while watching SportsCenter. I didn’t feel much like writing at this point, so I spent the remainder of the time winding down. Shortly after 10 p.m., local time (and 1 a.m. body clock time), I turned out the lights.
Friday, Feb. 24: I stirred awake shortly before 4:30 a.m. And, because I needed to get up at that time to make tomorrow’s 8:30 a.m. flight to Houston, I decided not to go back to sleep.
While still waiting for my food the previous night, Carnicelli texted me his travel plans and agreed to meet in the lobby at 11:40 a.m. because our call time at the Pechanga Resort and Casino was noon, for a show set to begin at 7 p.m. The seven-hour gap between the time we are asked to report and air time is normal, for that gives the technical crew plenty of time to address any issues that may arise. The good news is all issues, even those that occur minutes before we go on the air, have always been resolved, and that’s because the people who work behind the scenes are top-notch. I, for one, appreciate the difficulty of their various jobs and, without them, there would be no numbers – and no ShoBox – to be seen.
I spent most of the morning writing most of the words you have read so far and, when I reached a good stopping point, I retrieved my other Italian sub and diet soda and indulged in an impromptu (if somewhat unorthodox) breakfast, which, to my body clock, was actually lunch.
Because Joe was the lead operator – or “lead dog” – and because he had worked previous shows there, we agreed he should be the one to drive. It had been several years since ShoBox had worked a card in Temecula and, as we drove on Interstate 15, he noted how much development had taken place.
Once on the property, a security guard told us we had to park in a nearby garage, and, after taking note of our parking space, we walked to the venue, secured our credentials and arrived at our work station near one of the neutral corners. After the crew meal at a casino buffet, the pre-card electronic checks were completed and, at 4:47 p.m., the fighters for the first contest entered the ring.
Nigerian super welterweight Oluwafemi Oyeleye raised his record to 2-0 with a withering two-fisted body assault that steadily wore down the physique, if not the fighting spirit, of Mexico’s Adan Ahumada, whose record slipped to 0-2, after Oyeleye won 40-36 on all three scorecards. The shorter Ahumada was forced to retreat almost constantly and, as a result, he picked up scratches on the left side of his ribcage and his right shoulder blade, from the ropes. Meanwhile, Oyeleye’s body shots, especially rights from the southpaw stance, connected with impressive (if not fight-ending) force and, by the third, Ahumada’s rallies were more infrequent and delivered with ebbing energy. Between rounds, Jackie Kallen, who most famously managed James “Lights Out” Toney, arose from her ringside seat to more closely observe the activities in Oyeleye’s corner. In the end, she seemed happy with the final result.
Next up was an eight-round welterweight war between Uzbekistan’s Sanjarbek Rakhmanov and Phoenix’s Jose Marrufo, easily the fight of the night, in terms of two-way action. While it helped Rakhmanov’s cause that his protector was pulled up past his solar plexus, the switch-hitting prospect was still the more powerful puncher in the trenches. Marrufo suffered a long cut over the right eye in round three, while Rakhmanov’s nose was bloodied in the fifth, which was also when the fight recorded its first clinch.
Though ahead on the scorecards, Rakhmanov flirted with disqualification after he lost two points for low blows in the seventh. To prevent that, he spent most of the eighth landing head-rattling combinations, though the valiant Marrufo got the better of the final, lengthy exchange.
Rakhmanov won a unanimous decision. I agreed most with the 76-74 margin while the 78-72 score – which meant it would have been a shutout, had it not been for the point penalties – was head-scratching, to say the least. The third score, 77-73, was wide but a bit more justifiable.
The next fight pitted a pair of journeymen welterweights, the 9-12-2 (1) Cameron Kreal of Las Vegas and the 12-12-1 Todd Manuel of Rayne, Louisiana. Kreal, fresh off a six-round win over the 7-0 Maurice Lee, was victorious again, as he stopped Manuel with one second remaining in round two to send to his ninth defeat in his last 11 fights and the fifth by stoppage.
Joe and I decided to use the final untelevised bout, a scheduled 10-round light heavyweight contest between Buffalo’s Lionell Thompson and Australia’s Steve Lovett, as our rehearsal fight. The shorter Thompson skillfully blunted Lovett’s advances with hard and accurate jabs that eventually reddened the area around his opponent’s right eye. A right to the temple stunned Lovett in the fourth and a follow-up barrage prompted the Australian’s corner to ask that the fight be stopped.
The final numbers were illustrative; Thompson out-landed Lovett 78-17 overall, 41-9 jabs and 37-8 power and the percentage gaps were enormous (49%-10% overall, 41%-8% jabs, 61%-14% power). The fourth round figures were particularly striking as Thompson landed 27 of 50 punches overall (54%), 13 of 28 jabs (46%) and 13 of 28 power shots (46%), while Lovett could only muster 6 of 50 overall (12%), 3 of 32 jabs (9%) and 3 of 18 power (17%).
The win was Thompson’s second since losing an eight-round split decision to Paul Parker a year-and-a-week earlier, while the defeat was Lovett’s second in a row following a 15-0 start.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his retinue entered the venue just after the Thompson-Lovett fight ended and, as usual, he was surrounded by fans and other well-wishers. While most envisioned spectacular in-ring success for Mayweather, upon his entry into the pro ranks in October 1996, few could have ever foreseen the unprecedented financial success and global celebrity he eventually achieved. While he is at the sunset of his in-ring life, Mayweather, who was celebrating his 40th birthday, will still have plenty of opportunities to make news and further expand his brand.
With the undercard now complete, Joe and I – as well as the rest of the Showtime crew – prepared for the final three fights of the night, fights that surely will unearth flaws, confirm strengths and alter career paths.
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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