The Travelin’ Man’s World Tour – Sheffield, England: Part one
Wednesday, May 24: The three days since returning home from Oxon Hill, Maryland, have been a whirlwind of activity and preparation but the intensity surrounding the second leg of this Travelin’ Man’s “World Tour” – the showdown between IBF welterweight titlist Kell Brook and Errol Spence Jr., in Sheffield, England – was raised exponentially by the terror attack that killed 22 and injured nearly 120 more in nearby Manchester, two days earlier. All but the worst of us felt the fusion of anger, confusion and empathy that accompanies tragedies such as this, and the fact that I would be landing in Manchester’s airport in just a few days’ time added another layer of context and relevance for me.
That said, I never considered withdrawing from the assignment because I knew enhanced protection measures would be utilized in Manchester and its surrounding cities, making those areas among the safest on Earth. That contention was supported by a report detailing the security plan for Brook-Spence, which would include searches for everyone entering the stadium, road closures around Bramall Park, a no-bags policy for all spectators, no re-entry policy after admittance to the event, and visible armed personnel with bomb-sniffing dogs surrounding the venue. Add to that the chance to be ringside for one of the year’s best matchups and my answer was obvious: Yes, yes and yes again.
My route to Sheffield, on the surface, was to be relatively straightforward: Drive from home to Pittsburgh to board a 6 p.m. flight to Philadelphia as well as an 8:50 p.m. bird to Manchester. Ideally, I would then meet Hall-of-Famer Al Bernstein, Sports Media’s Jeremy Thelen and lead utility man Angel Vazquez – all of whom flew in from Chicago – at a designated meeting point and catch a van that would take us the 40 miles to our Sheffield hotel.
It has been four years since I’ve traveled overseas – my last such trip took place in May 2013, when I worked the Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler rematch in London – but that experience (as well as two trips to Germany in 2007 and 2008) taught me how to handle another potential problem: Jet lag. For those who haven’t traveled internationally, flying eastward at night disrupts one’s circadian rhythm because the night-day cycle is greatly shortened due to the plane’s flying toward sunrise. What would normally be the middle of the night suddenly becomes morning as one nears European air space and that disoriented feeling continues upon deplaning because while it’s 8:50 a.m. local time, it is 3:50 a.m. body clock time, a time in which virtually no one sees sunlight.
Some neutralize this disorientation by sleeping on the airplane but that’s not an option for me because I’ve never been able to fully fall asleep while aboard aircraft. I can rest my eyes and drift into what I believe is semi-consciousness but I have a mental block that prevents me from going any deeper. A theory: I’ve been told I talk in my sleep and I know this to be true because, from time to time, I’ve awakened during mid-sentence. Maybe I’m afraid that, if I achieve full sleep, I’ll say or do something that would profoundly embarrass me. So, the mental block is, in reality, my reputation insurance policy.
With sleep not realistic (at least without sleeping pills), I’ve learned that staying awake until at least 10 p.m. the day I land overseas is the best way to quickly adjust to a new time zone. By doing this, one’s body would easily achieve the 8-to-10 hours of deep sleep neccessary to fully recover from the previous day’s stress, while also slipping into the rhythms of the new time zone.
It’s too bad I didn’t know this in 2007, when I made the huge mistake of drifting off to sleep while watching TV in my hotel room during mid-evening. I woke up at midnight, slept until 3:15 and gave up trying after three more hours of tossing and turning. I struggled for the remainder of the trip (although not during the show, which was topped by the first fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Tony Thompson).
To increase my chances of a decent rest on the Philadelphia-Manchester leg, I got up at 6:30 a.m. – 90 minutes earlier than usual – and spent the next few hours doing some CompuBox research on a June 17 card, as well as addressing final packing details. To accommodate the extra two days’ worth of clothes and the multiple voltage meters I brought to address England’s stronger current, I had planned to use a regulation-sized roller board but I changed gears once I found a soft red canvas bag that was slightly larger than the green one I’d been using. Amazingly, everything fit. As soon as I finished zipping up the bag, I felt the brief rush of satisfaction that comes with “beating the system.”
I left the driveway at 1 p.m. sharp and arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport at 3:15 p.m. The parking spot search yielded a better result than last week (two spots from the 13C sign, which cut my walk to the terminal entrance by at least three minutes over last time) and, once again, I avoided the “random search” pat-down at the TSA Pre-Check station, which usually happens to me with peculiar frequency.
A few minutes after settling into my seat at Gate B 32, I heard someone call out my name. I looked up and received a most pleasant surprise: Angela (last name withheld), who sat next to me on a flight from Dallas to Pittsburgh last November, was walking toward me with a big smile on her face. We had hit it off during the flight last fall and, while we exchanged emails briefly, the rigors of daily life caused us to lose touch. Hopefully that won’t happen a second time.
I also passed the time by calling my sister as well as CompuBox president Bob Canobbio, after which I got a small snack at a nearby food stand. The boarding process went well and, after settling into my aisle seat in row 11, so did the flight. In fact, we landed so early that we remained in place for nearly 15 minutes to allow traffic on the runway and the arrival gate to clear.
Upon deplaning, I checked the flight monitor and saw the 8:50 p.m. flight to Manchester had been pushed back to 10:15, which meant I would not be part of my originally assigned bus pickup group. I emailed Jeremy to let him know that he, Angel and Al wouldn’t have to wait for me. I then contacted production coordinator Angie Sztejn and asked whether I now would be part of the seven-person bus pickup group at 11:30 a.m., which, luckily for me, included Angie herself. A few minutes later, she gave me her one-word answer: “Yes.”
With that, a new logistical plan was in place, and, with a little extra time on my hands, I spent it making several phone calls to update my family, as well as Canobbio, and going a few rounds on the laptop.
I was so deep in thought that I nearly missed the first boarding call for Manchester, which, to my surprise, was starting more than an hour before our scheduled departure time and was taking place at the same time the flight to Lisbon was boarding to our immediate right. Thanks to my frequent flier “juice,” I was seated in 8H, the third row window seat in coach. A bonus: Because the flight was not full, my assigned seatmate opted to move to a vacant spot in the four-seat middle row in front of me. That allowed me room to stretch out, as well as to have access to both tray tables, which would prove to be a plus during meal time.
For whatever reason, the Manchester flight left Philadelphia at 9:42 p.m. instead of 10:15. I spent the first 75 minutes reading the book I began last week (Gary Pomerantz’s “Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers”), after which we were given the choice of chicken or pasta as our evening meal. I chose the chicken, which was also served with rice, crackers, Swiss cheese, a roll, a brownie, a can of Canada Dry and a small container of bottled water. At a few minutes after 11, I attempted to begin what I hoped would be five hours of shuteye.
Thursday, May 25: No matter how much I wanted to, I simply couldn’t sleep while sitting upright. Even with the extra legroom, I couldn’t find the perfect position to totally relax, so I ended up shifting and stretching every few minutes. Then, at about 1:30 a.m. body clock time, I saw the first beams of impending daylight in the sky, which, at 35,000 feet, look as if the stars were at the same altitude. By the time the flight attendants began serving breakfast, I was feeling so dreadful that I wondered how I could possibly stay awake for another 12-to-15 hours.
I don’t know what American Airlines puts in its strawberry yogurt but, even before I finished it (along with my glass of orange juice and other assorted breakfast knick-knacks), I was feeling much better. The sleepiness had left my eyes and my thought processes were once again sharp. How sharp? I spent the last 30 minutes of the flight crushing the previous high score on a plane-wide trivia game, entering my name just as the wheels smoothly touched ground.
Thanks to a strong tailwind, we landed earlier than expected and, after getting my passport stamped, I walked toward baggage claim to see where I would meet my 11:30 a.m. group. I scanned the signs being held up by various drivers but, as expected, I didn’t see any that read “Showtime.” After all, I was almost two hours early. As I was looking for a place to sit and wait for our driver to arrive, I heard the inimitable voice of Al Bernstein, who I thought would have been long gone by now. The reason he wasn’t: He grabbed an earlier flight out of Las Vegas but didn’t do so in time to get his checked bag moved over with him. Thus, he was forced to navigate some prodigious paperwork in order to set things right. While the situation wasn’t positive for Al, I at least had found a familiar face who confirmed I was on the right track.
A Showtime van driver showed up a few minutes later and informed me that the 9 a.m. shuttle had never left. Because my phone had neither phone service or internet access outside the U.S., I asked the driver to inform Angie Sztejn via text that I wouldn’t be included in her 11:30 a.m. group after all. That done, we waited for Al to resolve his red tape and hopefully retrieve his lost bag. That didn’t happen; he was told it would be sent to him the next day but we were able to begin the 40-mile journey to Sheffield.
The van was stuffed to its maximum – three in front (including the driver), three in the back seat facing the highway and three in the back facing the rear of the vehicle. I was part of the latter group and, as the van wended through narrow hairpin turns that cut through breathtaking natural scenery of Peak District National Park (all of which, to me, resembled many of the back roads in my home state, save for the multitudes of sheep), I remembered a little-known fact about my constitution: If I am on a narrow, curvy road, I either have to be driving myself or in the front seat or else my stomach will become unsettled. Not enough to cause an embarrassing mess but enough to feel definite discomfort. That was the case here.
The slow speeds necessitated by the terrain and the nausea I was feeling made the ride seem much longer than it really was and I couldn’t have been happier when someone said, “That’s our hotel.” I was the last of our group to check into his room and, following a much-needed shower, I ventured out in order to complete two tasks: Exchange my dollars for sterling and purchase t-shirts to fill in for the ones I somehow forgot to pack, something I found out only after unpacking.
The front desk clerk gave me a map of the Sheffield Centre and did her best to explain to me where I needed to go. I tried to execute her suggestions but, me being me, my gyroscope eventually led me off course. Thanks to a half-dozen helpful locals, I made my way to the Marks and Spencer’s clothing store, where I completed both objectives. The money exchangers were particularly intrigued by the name of my hometown (Friendly, West Virginia) and I learned that the classic opening question, upon hearing it was not limited to America. (“So is everyone in Friendly friendly?” My answer: “Most of us are but we do have a few rogues.”)
I couldn’t have picked a better day to explore, in terms of the weather. The area was bathed in sunshine and the temperature topped 80 degrees Fahrenheit, an unusually warm reading for the region. Unfortunately, the great conditions were not expected to last; a look at the three-day forecast indicated a 90 percent chance of rain during the Brook-Spence card, not good news for punch-counters using laptops at an open-air soccer pitch.
My longer-than-expected walk left me hot and sweaty and, to my dismay, the room didn’t have a thermostat. The front desk’s solution was to bring an oscillating fan, which fulfilled the need quite nicely. I continued to pound away at the laptop but my mounting fatigue was making it difficult to maintain my concentration and, more importantly, to stay awake.
To combat this, I headed downstairs in search of an early-evening meal and if someone else would join me, it would be that much better. I couldn’t have ended up with a better trio with whom to dine: A pair of Hall-of-Famers – Steve Farhood and Al Bernstein – and an Emmy Award winner (Showtime’s creative director Jody Heaps, who joined us later). Al, Steve and I walked to an Italian restaurant directly across from the hotel and the man who took our order was a verbal doppelganger of tennis legend Rafael Nadal. While a lot of our conversation was boxing-related, it also ventured into movies, TV, books and other far-flung subjects.
Not only was our time well spent, it also helped me reach my goal of staying up past 10 p.m. local time. In fact, I did so with ease as I turned out the lights at 11:41.
Friday, May 26: The toll of being awake for nearly 37 hours was illustrated by how long I remained asleep – almost 11 hours. That’s nearly twice as long as I usually sleep but the long slumber worked its magic. I felt rejuvenated, refreshed and ready to work. My official duties on this day would be light: Conduct an electronic check with the production truck and attend a format meeting, which, given that Showtime is only going to broadcast one fight, should be much shorter than last week’s confab, which covered four bouts. Thankfully, only one CompuBox operator is required to fulfill these tasks because that would allow colleague Dennis Allen, who opted to fly in one day later, to get all the rest he needed following a very demanding journey from Las Vegas.
As I awaited an email from Sports Media’s Thelen, regarding when I should report to the Bramall Lane Football Ground, I spent the time polishing my copy and continuing work on a long-term CompuBox statistical project. Once I got the email, I headed downstairs, had the front desk arrange for a cab, then, once it arrived 15 minutes later, headed for the venue.
The testing went well, while the format meeting mostly centered on weather-related contingencies. Most websites predicted rain but the probability ranged from 30 percent to 90 percent and the intensity from drizzle to downpour. One soothsayer had the rain stopping at 3 p.m., which would be the ideal. As for CompuBox, the plan was to deal with whatever comes from our work station. I brought a hat and an umbrella in anticipation of the worst but, one way or another, the job will get done.
I got a ride back to the hotel via the Showtime shuttle, then decided to take a walk to further enjoy the pleasant conditions. Once I returned, I decided to have my evening meal – the only one of the day – at the lobby restaurant. I fully expected to eat alone but that changed a moment after placing my order as punch-counting colleague Dennis Allen, now refreshed and recovered from his arduous inward trip, suddenly appeared to my left and said hello. Over the next 90 minutes, we caught up on everything that had happened since we last worked together, while also watching the final eight rounds of Andrew Selby’s off-the-floor points win over Cristofer Rosales on Channel 5. After Dennis and I said our goodbyes, I returned to my room and was glad to see that Channel 5 aired a second fight, a scheduled 12-rounder between Matty Askin and Craig Kennedy for the British cruiserweight title vacated by the retiring Ovill McKenzie.
Askin was perceived as the underdog, not only because he was fighting in the undefeated Kennedy’s hometown of Cardiff, Wales, but also because Askin lost a majority decision to McKenzie for the same belt more than two years earlier. In many minds, Askin’s career was on the line and he fought like it, as he dropped Kennedy with a booming right in the first, dominated rounds two through five and applied the finisher in the sixth to win the treasured Lonsdale belt. Once again, boxing proved itself to be the ultimate reality show, as well as the vehicle by which dreams are created – as well as shattered. One must wonder if Errol Spence Jr. was watching, and, if so, could he draw inspiration from Askin’s title-winning road triumph?
It soon became clear that I had overshot my body clock because, even as the clock neared 1 a.m. I still felt highly energized and nowhere near ready to go to sleep. That happened nearly two hours later and, even then, it still took a while for me to descend into dreamland.
Saturday, May 27: This time, my slumber lasted just four-and-a-half hours and, though I tried to get in more shuteye, I simply couldn’t pull it off. Resigned to the fact that I would probably need to remain awake for most of the next two days – our pickup shuttle for the airport Sunday morning was set to leave the hotel just a few hours after the end of the Brook-Spence show – I thought about how to navigate it. My conclusion: Go with whatever flows.
An encouraging sign: When I peeked through the curtain, I saw sunshine instead of storm clouds. I was further heartened by the new weather forecast, which called for clear skies and just a 20 percent chance of precipitation. The predicted high: A comfortable 22 degrees Celsius (71.6 degrees F) and the low 12 degrees Celsius (53.6 degrees F). Good thing I brought my windbreaker.
However, an hour later, the skies darkened and the first heavy drops of rain hit my third-floor window, instantly elevating the 20 percent chance of rain to 100 percent. Thankfully, that mini-wave lasted only 10 minutes and, soon after, the skies brightened once more.
To be truthful, I never thought Brook-Spence would ever happen. Given Brook’s long-term weight-making woes at 147 and his decisive defeat to three-belt middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin last time out, it would have been much easier for the Briton to vacate his belt and rebuild his career at 154. However, Brook opted to accept the challenge of making welterweight one more time, doing so against his mandatory challenger, a fighter many say has the talent to become a megastar. Yes, the fight will be staged in Brook’s hometown, but that’s a champion’s privilege. No matter the result, Brook should be applauded for taking this multi-pronged challenge and seeing it through to the end.
Spence was also taking a massive leap of faith in the name of achieving his ultimate professional dream. Not only was he facing his best opponent to date by far, he was fighting overseas for the first time as a pro and would be forced to ply his trade before a universally hostile crowd. British fans support their fighters with their full hearts and they have the power to make life very difficult for interlopers, especially those who present the greatest threat, such as Spence. Spence knew this well, for his final amateur fights unfolded at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Still, for the first time in his professional career, Spence was engaging in a 50/50 fight against a proud and undefeated veteran determined to shine in front of his family, friends and supporters. While Spence remained the betting favorite, the fact that an impressively cut Brook scaled 146.7 to Spence’s equally sculpted 146.5 suggested we would see the best version of the champion inside the ring. If Spence could handle the weight of the occasion and the swirl of negative noise that was sure to envelop him, we could be in for a whale of a contest, a contest that was just hours away from becoming reality.
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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