The Travelin’ Man at IBHOF Weekend 2017: Part three
Friday, June 9: Another sun-soaked day was granted to Syracuse and I spent much of the morning hours grinding away on the laptop. Over the years, I’ve discovered I do my best writing in the first part of the day because that’s when I’m the most alert. I also don’t begrudge the hours I spend at the keyboard because (1) it’s my job; (2) I love my job and (3) it’s a good way to stay engaged during the long hours before a task.
Once I reached a good stopping point, I packed my belongings and began my latest trip to the Hall of Fame grounds. For the second consecutive day, my time will be split between the personal and the professional. At 1 p.m., I was set to be part of a Ringside Lecture about the “Boxing Year in 2017,” then, at 2:15 p.m., I would be off to the Turning Stone Resort and Casino to prepare for the 10:30 p.m. ShoBox tripleheader featuring Regis Prograis-Joel Diaz Jr., Steve Rolls-Demond Nicholson and Jon Fernandez-Juan Reyes.
Some days, however, do not go as planned. First, I had intended to arrive on the grounds at 10 a.m. but everything changed when I got on one of my “writer’s rolls,” in which the words flowed even better and more voluminously than usual. As a result, I didn’t leave the hotel until 11:30 and it was nearly noon by the time I walked onto the grounds. Then, an impromptu workout by former IBF welterweight king Shawn Porter and his father canceled my ringside lecture. I was happy to cede the spotlight to the Porters because they’ve done more to earn it than I ever will. Besides, if all goes well, Bob Canobbio and I will share the stage with our CompuBox ringside lecture at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Speaking of Canobbio, he and son Dan greeted me during the workout and we soon were joined by fellow punch-counter/historian Aris Pina. Because of conflicting work responsibilities, this was Bob’s first visit to Canastota while Aris, a longtime attendee, was making his first appearance in three years. Dan, also an IBHOF weekend debutante, was there primarily to chronicle the weekend via words and film for CompuBoxTV, where he has worked behind the scenes for a while but is now gaining experience in front of the camera. This rare gathering of CompuBox personnel warranted a group photo; after all, we’re not sure when – or if – Bob, Aris and I will ever again be in the same place at the same time.
Once I arrived at the Turning Stone, everything at our ringside work station was in place: Credentials for Bob, Dan and me, a readily available and fully operational power source and all the wires we needed to connect with the production truck. Soon enough, I got all the green lights I needed to confirm that all was ready for the show. The downside: This was achieved nearly five hours before airtime.
As I waited for the show to begin, I was approached by several notable ringsiders and friends: Judges Don Ackerman, John McKaie and Tom Schreck (a fellow author who recently created a Ali-related theatrical venture); writer/photographer/boxing hobbyist/longtime friend “Boxing” Bob Newman of Fightnews.com (who gave me a pair of autographed photos), superlative ring announcers Jimmy Lennon Jr. and David Diamante, as well as fellow West Virginian Todd Snyder, an associate professor of English at Siena College in Albany, New York, and son of trainer/gym owner Mike “Lo” Snyder, with whom Todd traveled. I also approached 2017 IBHOF class member Barry Tompkins for an autograph for the “big book,” a.k.a. my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing,” which I have taken with me since 1995 and has amassed hundreds of signatures. Barry, of course, happily honored my request.
Those who knew of my father’s passing through Facebook made a point of expressing their condolences and those who didn’t weren’t faulted because, at this point, I had told only a few people. I kept the news under wraps because I didn’t want outsiders to think my CompuBox work was disturbed in any way, due to my family issues. But thanks to Dad’s final words to me, my mind and spirit were freed and perfectly aligned. With the word now out even among Showtime personnel/Facebook friends, I went about the task of informing others connected with the show. Without exception, they offered kind words and sympathies.
Once Bob reported to ringside, he had a surprise waiting for me: An executive decision. He removed himself from the show, inserted Dan as the second operator and elevated me into the “lead dog” position. Thankfully I had enough spare slips of paper from previous shows to assemble the “stats notes” I usually pass onto the talent and, following a bit of quick research on the master database, I put together several “next generation” stats that I hoped would brighten the broadcast. Here were a couple: In four previously tracked fights by CompuBox, Jon Fernandez averaged 109.6 punches per round, nearly double the 58.8 junior welterweight average. Would he match that work rate against Juan Reyes? Then, in five past CompuBox fights, Prograis landed 55.2% of his power punches. Could he perform similarly against Diaz Jr., who, at 23-0 (19), was his best opponent yet?
The answers: Yes and yes.
Fernandez’s second round blast-out of Reyes is among the reasons why I consider him boxing’s equivalent of a wood-chipper. Opponents may try to go toe-to-toe with him but it doesn’t take long for his slashing combinations to tear up faces and erode fighting spirits. The pair exchanged 240 punches in round one as Fernandez fired 107 and Reyes unleashed an incredible 133, including 100 power shots. Because Fernandez was far more accurate (38%-20% overall, 52%-23% power), he established leads of 41-27 overall and 32-23 power as well as a cut under Reyes’ left eye. Like Ernesto Garza III, this past February, Reyes’ ultra aggression eventually melted under the weight of Fernandez’s assault. Again, Reyes tried hard by throwing 73 punches but Fernandez’s ceaseless combinations took their toll and set up the final punch, a right to the ear that caused Reyes to fall backward, as if in slow motion. Referee Charlie Fitch, seeing the back of Reyes’ head slam against the canvas, correctly waved off the fight at the 2:36 mark. If ShoBox is looking to add even more highlights for its new opening, this is one of the endings they should use.
The numbers further illustrated the Spaniard’s level of destructiveness. His performance in round two (42 of 103 overall, 35 of 60 power) resulted in connect leads of 83-40 overall, 166 jabs and 67-34 power as percentage gaps that were even more impressive (40%-19% overall, 18%-10% jabs, 55%-23% power).
As impressive as Fernandez looked against the overmatched Reyes, Prograis’ second-round stoppage of Diaz Jr. was even more so. Following an action-packed first that saw Diaz forge a narrow 21-20 connect lead only because he out-threw Prograis 87-62, the Houston-based native of New Orleans throttled up his attack in the second to a level Diaz Jr. couldn’t match. Prograis’ potent left crosses accounted for all four knockdowns as well as the 24 power connects that came from just 36 attempts. In all, he landed 62% of his power punches in the fight, well above what he had done previously. The raw numbers weren’t indicative of the dominance Prograis showed, as he led just 46-38 overall, 9-6 jabs and 37-32 power, but the percentage gaps between them were more telling: 38%-23% overall and 62%-24% power. (Reyes prevailed 19%-15% in jab accuracy but, in the end, that stat didn’t matter much.)
Following the bout, Prograis declared himself the bane of the super lightweight division, then declared himself ready for bigger and better things.
“Tonight I proved I graduated from ShoBox,” he said. “I’m ready for the bigger stage. I’m ready for the big show. I want to fight the best in the division. I want (THE RING Magazine/WBC/WBO champion Terence) Crawford, (Viktor) Postol, (Adrien) Broner; I want them all. None of these guys have fought anybody like me. The boogeyman is coming. They’d better get ready.”
It’s a good sign that Prograis is aiming high and, at least so far, he has plenty of reason to feel good about himself and his future. While Postol and Broner may be future foes, “Bud” is operating on a different plane in terms of trajectory. He’s looking for his own career-enhancing fights against two-belt counterpart Julius Indongo, as well as welterweight titlists Keith Thurman, Manny Pacquiao and Errol Spence Jr. For this reason, by the time Prograis is ready for his close-up with Crawford, Crawford will probably be beyond his reach. As for me, if Prograis is on the card, I’ll make sure to watch him one way or the other. While watching him on TV is great, seeing him live is better and counting him even more so.
Sandwiched between the pyrotechnics was Rolls’ eight-round split decision win over Nicholson, a good scrap that suffered by comparison. The pace was considerably slower (51.5 per round for Rolls, 48.8 for Nicholson) but the action pulsated back-and-forth, as they took turns hurting one another. Rolls scored the fight’s only knockdown in round one with a hook but the momentum shifted in the third when Nicholson stunned Rolls in the final minute with a clubbing right to the temple. Nicholson dominated the fourth and appeared to have the better of things throughout the remainder of the contest but, when the scorecards were added up, Rolls emerged with two 77-74 cards in his favor (Don Trella and Glenn Feldman) while Nicholson received a 77-75 score from Wynn Kintz.
The raw numbers favored Nicholson, as he led 134-117 overall, but while he prevailed 35-11 in landed jabs, Rolls led 106-99 in power connects Another interesting stat: Rolls led by only 37.72%-37.64% in power accuracy.
“I’m not going to make any excuses. He won the fight,” Nicholson said later. “That’s what the judges saw but I don’t agree. He hurt me in the first round. He hit me viciously in the head. I was dizzy but I recovered and I went on. I think I did a very good job but clearly not enough. I can’t fight at 160; I’m a 168-pounder. Fighting at that weight drained me. I wasn’t at my best.”
Conversely, Rolls believed his talent and cerebral approach won him the fight.
“What made the difference for me tonight was my jab, my patience, my overall boxing ability,” he said. “I came into this fight having no doubts. Nicholson was talking beforehand about my last fight. He was talking about my footwork and I knew he was going to be in for a big surprise. I adapt for each fight. I knew I had him from the first round. My corner calmed me down and told me to take my time.”
As soon as I got the final “all clear” from the truck, Dan, Bob and I packed our equipment and readied to leave ringside. Before I did that, however, I added the signatures of 2017 Hall of Fame inductee Steve Farhood and future Hall-of-Famer Bob Canobbio to “the big book,” whose binding finally collapsed earlier in the day (I used some tape from the crew to temporarily keep everything in place). I have approached several people about having the book repaired and restored but, in the end, I decided I would leave the book with the Hall’s Jeff Brophy. After all, the IBHOF will be the book’s eventual home.
Between the lingering at ringside and the post-telecast pizza-fest, I didn’t leave the Turning Stone until after 1 a.m. The 35-minute drive back to the hotel in Syracuse, the need to enter the stats into the master database and the process of winding down resulted in my not turning out the lights until 3.
Saturday, June 10: I logged only four-and-a-half hours of sleep because, not only did I need to catch up on my writing, I needed to finish in time to arrive at Canastota High School by 10 a.m. for the beginning of my favorite event on the IBHOF schedule – the card and memorabilia show. It is the one place in the world where I spend money freely and guiltlessly.
During most years, I would wander the perimeter of the gym at Canastota High School and engage in impulse buying. This time, I approached the event with two specific purposes: First, distribute more of the “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” postcards to everyone I encounter and, second, purchase back issues of THE RING and KO featuring Ali, in the hopes of adding flavor to the book’s manuscript.
While I successfully fulfilled the first part of my mission, I needed help to complete the second. That help came in the form of Kevin M. Bandel, the president and owner of “Mr. Magazine,” which specializes in vintage wrestling and boxing magazines, as well as wrestling action figures. His table at this show boasted dozens of boxes of potential source material, all of which was arranged in chronological order and neatly packed inside plastic sleeves. In many cases, there were multiple copies of the same issue and each was meticulously priced, according to its condition. I made sure to buy those issues that were in better shape.
Starting in 1961, I gleefully ruffled through the boxes, removing those I intended to buy and stacking them in front of me. When Bandel’s son approached me, I explained to him (and eventually his father) what I was doing and why. Once they grasped my mission, they did everything they could to help me.
It took me more than a half-hour to assemble my order and when the stack got too high, the Bandels placed by soon-to-be-purchased bounty inside a box underneath their table. Another reason for the lengthy shopping session was that I was occasionally recognized and approached by fellow boxing fans. When they asked me why I was purchasing so many magazines, I told them, then gave them postcards. In all, I purchased 113 magazines and the bill came to $386, a reasonable price, given the size, scope and rarity of my order. Once the transaction was completed, a new problem emerged: Getting my stuff to the car.
My order was so large that it required a sizable box as well a smaller plastic bag. The solution: I used my laptop bag and its extended handle to act as a dolly. Also, because I arrived at the high school shortly after the 10 a.m. opening, I was forced to park on the other side of the high school and there was no short way to get back to my car.
It took quite a while for me to complete the journey. The first reason was that I ran into Jay Deas, the manager and trainer of WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (and a Facebook friend), as well as master researcher, Chicagoan and longtime friend Don Koss. Following our lengthy talk – one which I thoroughly enjoyed – Don, who I learned was parked less than 200 feet away from me, carried my smaller plastic bag while I slowly rolled my heavy and delicately balanced box of magazines behind me. Surprisingly, the laptop bag held up well for the entirety of the trip, though the box did tumble to the ground when the wheels struck a sidewalk crack at the wrong angle.
I arrived at the Hall of Fame grounds in time to hear the 1 p.m. ringside lecture that featured four Showtime Hall-of-Famers – Jimmy Lennon Jr., Al Bernstein, Steve Farhood and Barry Tompkins. The quartet thoroughly entertained the crowd during their one-hour question-and-answer session. Near the end of the talk, Farhood made a point to mention the presence of two particular people he had helped along the way: Brian Doogan, who Farhood didn’t know was 15 at the time he submitted his first story, and me. Needless to say, I was gratified by his gesture and made sure to thank him once he left the stage. “You deserve it,” he replied.
Their ringside lecture was so well done that I thought to myself, “How can Bob and I possibly follow this?” I need not have worried, for our 2:30 p.m. talk couldn’t have gone much better. Thanks to Smitty’s keen interviewing skills and several excellent questions from the audience, Bob and I not only made clear how CompuBox works but also were able to make an effective sales pitch for the upcoming book. Bob and Dan left for home after the lecture, while I lingered around the stage for a half-hour longer to engage in follow-up conversations with audience members.
The next stop for me was the VIP “Gala” Cocktail at the Greystone on Chapel Street. Although I arrived a few minutes later than in previous years, the line was still relatively short. My line-mates – Canadian buddy Bill Johnston (who wants to become an elector), Vermont’s Rick Gagne, England’s Glen Wilson and autograph/celebrity photo maven Stephen Bumball, among others – made the time pass quickly. As our wait passed the one-hour mark, my lower back began to stiffen, a stark reminder that I am now 52 years old. I literally ached for the security personnel to “release the hounds” and enter the building.
For the uninitiated, the “cocktail” is the very best place to secure autographs because most of the celebrities are present and the space is so tightly packed that long lines can’t congregate around a single person. As long as one can work his way inside a clump, a signature would soon be acquired. Year after year, the cocktail proved to be worth every penny.
It took less than three minutes to snag my first signature because 2017 inductee Marco Antonio Barrera opted to situate himself against the wall just beyond the main entrance. Soon after putting my book back inside the laptop case, writer/buddy “Boxing” Bob Newman handed me his camera and attempted to have me shoot a picture but, by the time we were in place, Barrera had moved away. I later learned that “Boxing Bob” and “The Baby-Faced Assassin” did get to pose together, so all was well.
A few minutes later, I spotted 2017 honoree Evander Holyfield moving around the perimeter. He was at the epicenter of a constant and shifting clump and it took a bit of effort to get close to him. As I did so, I moved toward the man accompanying Holyfield, who made it clear that he was willing to pose for photographs but not sign any items.
I explained to Holyfield’s associate that my book was eventually going to be donated to the Hall of Fame, that it contained hundreds of historic signatures and that I believed Holyfield’s would only be an enhancement. As we exchanged business cards, he assured me that “I’ll take care of you.”
I approached Fernando Vargas for his signature but as I pointed to the spot where I wanted him to sign – the lead page of the chapter chronicling the junior middleweight champions – he pointed out the signature I had gotten from him several years earlier. I usually affix a tiny notation underneath particularly hard-to-read signatures but, in his case, I had failed to so. Slightly embarrassed, I thanked Vargas, then did what I should have done the first time around and made the notation.
I nearly did the same thing as I approached the scrum around Wilder but, as I turned to the heavyweight champions page, I saw I had gotten his John Hancock during his first appearance in 2009. That time, I had done my due diligence.
In all, I acquired only one more signature at the event before moving upstairs and purchasing a cup of Sierra Mist. The warm late spring day and the massive body heat inside the Greystone made conditions so oppressive that I decided to leave the event 15 minutes early.
I asked a local for directions to the Banquet of Champions, which, for the past several years, has been held at the Oncenter Complex in Syracuse, but because I had nothing handy to write on, I had him repeat it to me a couple of times, as I tried to commit it to memory. By the time I got to my car, I decided to let Google Maps lead the way. And, of course, it led me there perfectly.
I was seated at Table 55, located on the far right side of the room and about five rows from the front of the stage. No one else from my table had yet arrived, so I claimed the seat that offered the best view of the stage. While I waited for my tablemates to arrive, I spoke with various well-wishers, all of which received a “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” postcard and sales pitch. One of them was former RING editor-in-chief and current broadcaster/SiriusXM 93 host Randy Gordon, who will be coming out with his own book soon.
As Smitty was introducing the celebrities, I noticed that Andrew Golota and Riddick Bowe were announced back-to-back, which indicated to me that they might be seated next to each other. Anyone who saw their two foul-filled fights – both won by Bowe via low-blow disqualification – would think this was an ironic seating arrangement but, once they sat down, it became clear that they were a safe distance from each other. The reason: Junior Jones and Bert Cooper, who were slated to be seated between them, were no shows. Through posts by my Facebook friends, I saw photos of the pair having breakfast together, so the awkwardness I thought was there was a false assumption.
Following the meal, former welterweight champion John H. Stracey conducted the auction and the most notable winner was former middleweight titlist Daniel Jacobs, whose $1,300 bid won him 10 giant autographed RING covers.
As the proceedings continued, I was suddenly gripped by a wave of fatigue that caused me to close my eyes during a couple of the speeches. I drifted dangerously toward outright slumber on at least three occasions, so, after the third one, I went to the cash bar and purchased a diet Pepsi. Although I’ve dramatically cut back on my consumption in recent weeks, this occasion was done with a purpose. Soon enough the caffeine kicked in and, with that, I was fine again.
Near the end of the speeches, I spotted Doogan and grabbed his attention. Once I introduced myself, we engaged in a wonderful 20-minute conversation that made clear our mutual personal and professional respect.
When the fans approached the stage, I had hoped to get James Toney’s signature but, by this time, he had left the stage. Instead, I walked up and said hello to Hall-of-Fame referee Stanley Christodoulou (whose signature I got during his induction year of 2004) and waved to referee Steve Smoger (a 2015 inductee), then decided to leave the event. As I’ve aged, my thirst for acquiring autographs has waned precipitously, mostly because the scrums have grown tiring, as well as tiresome.
Thanks to Google Maps, I returned to my hotel just 20 minutes later and it didn’t take long for the fatigue that nearly overcame me at the banquet to return. After a short stint on the laptop, I caught up on the latest sports news and turned out the lights shortly after 1 a.m.
Sunday, June 11: My six-hour slumber was rudely and irreparably ended by a calf cramp, an increasingly common occurrence as I’ve aged. Once I rubbed it out, I commenced the morning routines and then spent the next couple of hours catching up on the writing I wasn’t able to do the previous evening. Fortunately, the memories and the words flowed from brain to fingertips with such dispatch that I reached a good stopping point shortly before my goal time of 9:30 a.m. With that, I emailed home with an update, packed my belongings, checked out of the hotel and headed east toward Canastota – and Induction Sunday.
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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