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The Travelin’ Man’s World Tour – Oxon Hill, Maryland: Part one

WBC featherweight titlist - and trainer - Gary Russell Jr. Photo credit: Tom Casino/Showtime
22
May

 

 

Friday, May 19: In recent years, this Travelin’ Man’s schedule struck a comfortable balance between time inside the Home Office and road trips to work the CompuBox keys at ringside. But this travel year, at least so far, has been one of peaks and valleys – one show in Atlantic City in January, back-to-back-to-back trips to Miami, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Temecula, California, in February, one show in Detroit in March and one more in Oxon Hill, Maryland, in April. Starting today, I will begin what may be my most ambitious schedule in years – four shows in three countries and two continents over the next 24 days.

The “Travelin’ Man World Tour” will begin where the last journey ended – Oxon Hill and its sprawling MGM National Harbor facility. There, punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak and I will count three scheduled 12-rounders between super lightweights Rances Barthelemy and Kiryl Relikh, super middleweights Andre Dirrell and Jose Uzcategui and, in the Showtime main event, the thrice-delayed match between WBC featherweight titlist Gary Russell Jr. and Oscar Escandon.

Then, just two full days after returning home, I will fly to England to chronicle, along with fellow counter Dennis Allen, the highly anticipated showdown between IBF welterweight king Kell Brook and 2012 U.S. Olympian Errol Spence Jr., my first overseas trip in nearly four years. The venue for Brook-Spence – the open-air Bramall Lane Football Grounds in Sheffield – promises an electric atmosphere, a potent lift for hometown hero Brook and a formidable test of composure for Spence, who will be fighting in the most hostile environment of his pro career for the highest stakes yet. Spence’s billing as the “next potential boxing superstar” in the U.S. hinges on how he performs against Brook, a welterweight who, given his chronic issues with making 147, may well be a super middleweight by fight time.

After that, Andy and I will jet to Montreal to count a light heavyweight doubleheader that could produce a quasi-domestic showdown later in the year – if conventional wisdom holds. Eleider Alvarez (a Canada-based Colombian) will face former titlist Jean Pascal (a Haitian who has long lived in Canada) and, barring a draw, the survivor could meet the winner of the main event between longtime WBC champ Adonis Stevenson (another Haitian based in Canada) and American-based Pole Andrzej Fonfara, a rematch of their rollicking May 2014 meeting that saw both men hit the canvas before Stevenson prevailed on points. The odds say Stevenson and Alvarez will move on to the next round but, boxing being boxing, anything can happen. Just ask Fonfara, who was heavily favored to blast out Joe Smith Jr., last June 18 before his adopted home fans in Chicago. It took Smith just 152 seconds to turn that narrative – and Fonfara – on their respective heads.

Finally, less than 48 hours after returning home from Canada, I will begin my 25th consecutive trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend, which will also include a “ShoBox” telecast from the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York, for a card topped by undefeated super lightweights Regis Prograis and Joel Diaz Jr.

For me the “weekend” is actually a six-day odyssey that has grown more enjoyable with each passing year. At first it was an opportunity to meet the heroes I grew up watching but, in subsequent years, the event has become much more meaningful on a personal and professional level. Thanks to my CompuBox gig, I have gotten to know my fair share of big names in boxing and, in recent years, I have seen fighters whose causes I’ve championed on various boxing websites (including RingTV.com) as well as industry people I now consider friends receive their deserved immortality in Canastota. This year, two of them – ShoBox commentators Barry Tompkins and Steve Farhood – will be enshrined and I look forward to June 11 when, God willing, I’ll be chronicling it all from the front row of press row.

But before I get there, I’ll need to navigate the rest of the schedule. Right off the bat, I was challenged. Because I have a long drive to the airport, and because passengers are advised to arrive well before boarding time, I almost always request an early-afternoon outbound flight but, from time to time, financial considerations result in my being booked onto alternate flights. Such was the case here, as I was locked into a 10:09 a.m. flight from Pittsburgh to DCA, also known as Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. With rush-hour traffic in Pittsburgh a strong possibility, I felt I needed to arise at 4 a.m. in order to leave the house by 5 and arrive at the airport sometime between 7:30 and 8 a.m.

To lessen the shock to my circadian rhythm, I had arisen one hour earlier than normal on Wednesday and two hours earlier on Thursday in the hope that I would be sleepier earlier in the evening. Did my plan work?

Like a charm. I went to bed at 10:30 p.m. and awakened within minutes of my 4 a.m. goal time. Because I was still leery about possible Pittsburgh traffic jams, I left the driveway at 4:53. The pre-dawn driving conditions were ideal: A starry sky highlighted by a last-quarter moon and an unusually mild 64 degrees. Better yet, traffic was sparse for most of the drive, so I was able to make excellent time – as well as avoid the anticipated bottleneck.

I arrived at the airport at 7:15 a.m. but had issues finding a parking spot. After unsuccessfully sifting the two lots nearest the terminal entrance as well as halfway through the next farthest lot, I decided to cut my losses and headed straight for “the hinterlands,” the farthest section that always has plenty of spaces from which to choose. I opted for a slot three spots to the right of the 18C sign, which wasn’t against the very back fence but close enough to the rear of the property to give me a nice impromptu workout.

I cleared TSA Pre-Check security without any random searches and arrived at my gate a little less than two hours before boarding. I was the first to arrive at Gate B 29, which enabled me to pick a good seat and get some work done. After I reached a good stopping point, I decided to get a small breakfast.

Because I don’t get hungry for at least a few hours after awakening, I’m not a frequent consumer of breakfast foods (although I do have cereal and toast every so often when I eat at noon). Because the lines at the brand name places were long, I decided to grab a banana for now and an energy bar for later at a small side stand. Once I returned to my gate, I began reading my latest “take-along” book – Gary Pomerantz’s “Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers.”

One of the benefits of being born in the western part of West Virginia is we have three cities from which to pick our teams: Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Because my local TV stations showed Pittsburgh games more than the others, I became a supporter of the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, with the Steelers, of course, being the most successful of the trio. That era’s cast of characters were among the most compelling in sports history – quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, the offensive line anchored by center Mike Webster, and, of course, the Steel Curtain defense of Mean Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White as well as other defensive stars such as Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, J.T. Thomas, Donnie Shell (who should be in the Hall), Mike Wagner, Tony Dungy (yes, that Tony Dungy) and many others.

Perhaps this is my bias showing but I believe the Steelers of the 1970s would have beaten any other dynasty in NFL history. In Pomerantz’s book, Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers during their greatest years, said the same thing. Who I am to argue with him? In fact, those two teams advanced to ESPN’s mythical “Matchup of the Millennium” and, according to their findings, the Steelers came out on top, albeit on another “immaculate reception.” Plus, the 1970s Steelers won ESPN’s Dream Bowl and Dream Bowl II. And who I am to argue with them? So I won’t.

Debates about teams of different eras are big parts of the NFL’s appeal, though I believe gaming interests (legal and otherwise) are the No. 1 driver of the sport’s current popularity. Mythical matchups are also at the center of many boxing debates; Muhammad Ali-Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson-Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Frazier-Rocky Marciano were the hot topics during my formative years as a fan and Doug Fischer’s mailbags prove beyond doubt that fantasy fights remain on today’s front burner. Cynics would say this phenomenon is a pleasing distraction from the reality of today’s boxing environment but that might be changing, given the excellent matches we’ve seen in the first half of 2017 and will see going into the summer and fall months.

As for my reality, my aircraft landed – and rather heavily so – in Washington, D.C. at 10:55 a.m., a bit earlier than advertised. I caught a cab to the Westin National Harbor, which is located much closer to the fight venue than last month’s hotel. The pre-fight testing went perfectly, after which I attended the format meeting, which, because of the length of the show and the logistics involved, went longer than usual.

I caught a ride back to the hotel with a crew member who was assigned a large van. After ordering a corned beef Reuben from room service, I prepared to watch Game Four of the Eastern Conference finals between the Penguins and Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately, the hotel didn’t carry that channel, so I ended up watching another Eastern Conference final game in a different league. There, the Cleveland Cavaliers delivered a historic 130-86 beat-down of the Boston Celtics. At the stroke of midnight, the official end of this day, I decided to end my day as well.

Saturday, May 20: Following six-and-a-half hours of rest, I got ready for the day and settled in for another long day of pre-show work. That involved catching up on my writing, as well as continuing a long-term project for CompuBox. For whatever reason, I seem to work well in hotel rooms.

Andy and I took a cab to the MGM and the good folks at Sports Media – Jeremy Thelen and Andy Vanderford – had our work area ready to go. The testing was beautifully uneventful and, after securing our credentials, we were ready to get to work.

Following the crew meal in one of the hotel’s giant meeting rooms, Andy and I settled in and waited for the Gervonta Davis-Liam Walsh fight to be fed into our monitors. Although it wasn’t part of our official job duties, we counted it anyway because it would certify that all was working well electronically (and would spare me the task of counting both sides off video later). The IBF super featherweight titlist Davis, fighting on Walsh’s home turf in London, hurt the challenger with a series of overhand lefts in round three, floored him with a follow-up flurry and prompted the stoppage with his brief follow-up salvo.

Davis out-landed Walsh 44-13 overall (including 30-5 power) and crafted percentage gulfs of 39%-18% overall and 54%-16% power. In the climactic third, Davis landed a stunning 70% of his power punches (19 of 27), while Walsh could only launch two, both of which missed. At 22, Davis is the youngest American titlist and the second-youngest in the sport behind 21-year-old Kosei Tanaka, who, earlier in the day, successfully defended his WBO junior flyweight belt with a wide 12-round decision over Angel Acosta in Nagoya, Japan.

The length of the crew meal – and my tendency to ignite gabfests – caused Andy and me to miss the first two undercard fights, one of which saw 2016 U.S. Olympian Gary Antuanne Russell blow away Louisiana’s Joshua Ross at 2:25 of round one to win his professional debut and drop Ross to 2-4-4. We did arrive just in time to watch the other Russell brother, Gary Antonio, score a third round TKO over Puerto Rican Jovany Fuentes to advance to 8-0 (5) and erode Fuentes’ ledger to 7-9 (6). Acting as chief second for both fights was tonight’s card-topper Gary Russell Jr. I can’t think of another time when a defending world champion worked a corner, much less two, just hours before putting his title on the line. This unusual act is just more proof that familial love knows few bounds.

The final undercard bout saw Maryland-based Romanian bantamweight Alexandru Marin spin a 60-54 sweep over 101-fight veteran German Meraz of Mexico to raise his mark to 13-0 (9) and dropping Meraz’s to 55-44-1 (32) with one no-contest . To me, the between rounds contrast between the 25-year-old prospect and the 30-year-old journeyman was intriguing; Marin, who never took the stool, was energy personified as he danced on his toes while Meraz maximized his rest time by leaning back and stretching his legs to full length. If ever there was an illustration of youth and age, this was it. When I pointed out this contrast to Andy, he replied with a typical witticism: “We’ll see if Marin will be bouncing on his toes in his 101st fight.”

As the televised portion of the card neared, I said hello to several ringsiders. To my left sat Raul Marquez and Alejandro Luna – Showtime’s Spanish-language announce team – Dave Bontempo, the blow-by-blow man for the international feed and award-winning ESPN writer Dan Rafael, who was working an increasingly more common home game. When the production truck asked for results of the two Russell fights, I checked with Dan to confirm the round and times. Thanks, Dan.

With that, Andy and I – and the thousands of others inside the arena – prepared for the three big fights to come. None of us had any idea that an emotional cyclone was about to strike.

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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 seven 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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