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The Travelin’ Man goes to Rochester: Part One

Photo by Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME
04
Feb

Thursday, January 31: Bone chilling. Record-breaking. Life threatening. These were some of the phrases used to describe the weather of the past couple of days, and all of them understated the physical reality. In weather circles, the reason for this extraordinary injection of frigid air is known as a “polar vortex,” an upper-level low-pressure area that usually rotates around the Earth’s poles. A few days ago, the North Pole’s vortex dramatically expanded its sphere of influence by dipping much farther south than usual, and, as a result, we Americans are now feeling its wrath. 

The upper Midwest of the U.S. has been hardest hit as wind chills in several areas approached minus-70 degrees Fahrenheit, prompting some to report that portions of America were colder than the current temperatures on Mars. As for my area, the “feels-like” reading dropped to negative-12 degrees Fahrenheit, not the worst I’ve experienced, even in the last few years, but bad enough. While watching the news, I saw, from time to time, field reporters throwing pans of boiling water into the air and having the liquid instantly turn into vapor. To me, that was enough of a warning to make me stay indoors until the last possible moment. Others, unfortunately, had to venture out, and, for some, the conditions proved lethal as, to date, 21 have perished. For the millions who have to travel, the weather presented yet another obstacle: Thousands of flight delays and cancellations whose ripple effects could tear apart millions of other itineraries. One report said 2,700 flights were canceled on Wednesday and that 2,300 more were possible today. 

Thanks to a ShoBox double-header being staged at the Main Street Armory in Rochester, N.Y., I will be one of those travelers who will be trekking into the teeth of this polar vortex. The following is my story.

As I prepared for today’s journey, I couldn’t help but think the following: two weeks earlier, this Travelin’ Man experienced the most glamorous aspects of my professional life. Big-time main eventers in Manny Pacquiao and Adrien Broner, a big-time venue (and crew hotel) in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and a big-time atmosphere from start to finish – the grand arrivals of the fighters, the buzz and bustle of fight week, the weigh-in attended by thousands, the massive security measures employed inside the arena and out, the abundant fight talk and the gradual buildup to the moment of truth on Saturday night. The weather – at least in Vegas – couldn’t have been much better compared to that back home, and, for someone whose hate of winter is a matter of public record, the respite was most welcome. This was another manifestation of my life’s dream becoming real; being ringside at a headline-making fight and being granted the platforms (and the freedom) to chronicle what I saw the way I saw it. 

But every dream job has its flip side, and attempting to travel to a fight card in upstate New York in the midst of a late-January polar vortex is that flip side. Even so, I am approaching this journey as a happy warrior for three reasons: (1) I’ll be around boxing; (2) I’ll be around boxing people, and (3) I’ll be doing the jobs I feel I was born to do. No matter how unfavorable the exterior circumstances may be, those facts allow my interior to remain in a positive state of mind. 

Photo by Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME

That power of positivity will be tested, however. Especially during the winter months, I usually (1) request flights that would guide me away from chronically cluttered eastern corridor airports (LaGuardia and JFK in New York City, Newark in New Jersey, Dulles and Reagan in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia among them) and away from the two Chicago airports (O’Hare and Midway) due to the high probability of delays and/or cancellations, and (2) request flights on airlines for which I have plenty of frequent flier clout (American, and, increasingly, Southwest). That was the case here as I asked for American Airlines flights that would connect me to Rochester through Charlotte and back to Pittsburgh through Charlotte.

From time to time, however, I am asked to take alternate, less expensive routes, and that’s what happened here. The path offered was Pittsburgh to Rochester through Newark on Thursday, and Rochester to Pittsburgh through Washington, D.C. (Dulles) on Saturday, and, instead of American or Southwest, I was booked on United. I agreed because I am a team player, and the initial flight on Thursday was set to leave at 2:44 p.m., which afforded me a full night’s sleep as well as an extra hour at home before having to depart. As I approach my mid-50s, maintaining my circadian rhythm has become a more important consideration, and, for this trip at least, it was important enough for me to break two of my “rules” concerning travel. 

I kept a sharp eye on the forecast throughout Wednesday, and, after checking into my flights and printing my boarding passes, I monitored my phone for any texts United would send if my flights were negatively affected. When I arose at 7:45 a.m., the temperature hovered just above zero but the sky was clear and the wind was still. Better yet, my phone was free of bad-news texts. 

Many concessions were made to the conditions. I kept my car in the garage overnight and, after opening the garage door, I allowed it to warm up for 15 minutes. I packed extra clothing to combat the cold such as sweaters, a heavy jacket, a touque and thick gloves. Last week I purchased a spray can of de-icer for my windows and wipers, and, a few days later, I topped off my car’s gas tank (to prevent condensation from freezing it) and bought a miniature container of de-icer to squirt directly into my locks if needed. Finally, I placed a blanket in the back seat in the unlikely event I was stranded. 

I left the house a half-hour earlier than usual to account for potentially eroded road conditions or other unforeseen delays. I even toyed with the idea of parking in the “long term” lot at Pittsburgh International Airport instead of the usual “extended” section so that I could guarantee myself a spot closer to the terminal entrance and lessen my exposure to the bitter cold.

I was prepared for the worst, but, happily, the worst-case scenarios never happened. 

While the air temperature was 2 degrees at the start of my drive at 9:15 a.m., the roads were navigable and the traffic relatively light, factors that allowed me to arrive at the Pittsburgh airport more than a half-hour ahead of schedule. On a whim, I pulled into the “extended” lot and found a spot that was less than a three-minute walk away from the terminal entrance.

As I proceeded toward the entrance, I knew I had made the right choice. Here’s why: I noticed there were many more cars than usual in the “long term” lot, and most of them occupied the spaces that were closest to the terminal entrance. Therefore, it wouldn’t have done me much good to park there, and the charges would have been far higher ($16 per day and $3 per hour as opposed to $8 per day in the extended lot and a more modest hourly fee). Yes, I would be reimbursed, but, along with virtually everyone else, I try to minimize expenses to the company whenever possible. Even better for me: All those occupied long-term spaces provided more spots in the extended lot, and I was lucky enough to find a space that was reasonably close to the entrance. Finally, my layered clothing, gloves and knitted cap made the walk very comfortable.

Best yet, my flight to Newark was still listed as being “on time.” In fact, the only two flights on the monitor that were adversely affected by the weather were a pair of cancelled flights to – you guessed it – Chicago. 

I passed through security with ease and, because I made such good time, I was able to each lunch at a leisurely pace while reading the first pages of a book I received as a Christmas gift – Lou Piniella’s autobiography. Given I was scheduled to board a flight to the New York City area, I suppose that was most appropriate because Piniella is best remembered for his playing and managing stints with the New York Yankees. And, believe it or not, Piniella nearly had a connection to Rochester: When he was playing for the Baltimore Orioles early in his career, he was slated to play some Triple-A ball for the club’s Rochester affiliate. But before he could do so, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians. 

The flight from Pittsburgh to Newark departed about 15 minutes later than listed, but brisk tail winds allowed the aircraft to arrive 21 minutes ahead of schedule. If my connecting flight to Rochester was on time – which, according to the monitor, it was – then I was happy to have the extra minutes because while the plane arrived at Gate C-116, I needed to get to Gate A-25A, which, if the map was correct, would be quite the long walk. A sign indicated that a shuttle bus to Terminals A and B was available at C-71, and, once there, I was told to go down the escalator and take a right. I, along with a dozen others, waited several minutes for the bus to arrive, and, once it did, it stopped first at Terminal B, then waited for another load of passengers to board. 

All the while, my connection window was tightening and my boarding time was quickly approaching. Thankfully, the bus began moving within a couple of minutes and the next stop was indeed Terminal A. As I exited the bus, I said “thank you” to the bus driver. As I did so, an airline employee remarked “you’re smokin’.” I was a bit confused – and, with the employee being a male, a bit more confused — but then he made clear he was referencing he vapor that exited my mouth as I spoke. 

Yes indeed…it was cold…very cold.

I arrived at Gate A-25A with 12 minutes to spare and, as I looked out the window, I saw an aircraft was parked and appeared ready to go. Unfortunately, it wasn’t our aircraft. That plane soon pulled out of the space and it was replaced with a much larger aircraft, one that arrived later than scheduled due to the backlog the vortex caused. The flight was originally scheduled to depart at 5:10 p.m., but I ended up boarding it at 5:30. 

Although I hadn’t flown United in quite a while, I was pleasantly surprised to see that, for both flights, my Mileage Plus miles were still in play, which helped place me in the third boarding group of five. As I entered the plane in Newark, I received another good surprise: I spotted Hall of Famer Steve Farhood in his first-class seat studying notes. After saying hello to him, I saw several other members of the Showtime team – mostly audio and video people and support staff — scattered about the cabin. Unusually, the cold weather rendered the bathroom inoperable while also cutting coffee and tea from the beverage service. 

The production memo stated that our crew hotel had a shuttle to and from the airport as well as from the hotel to the venue on Friday, and, assuming I was the only Showtime person on this flight, I believed I would need to arrange for the shuttle to pick me up once I landed. But, now knowing other Showtime people were on the plane, I figured another member of the crew would take the lead – and one did by calling the hotel on his cell and alerting the staff we had arrived. 

The hotel’s van arrived about 20 minutes later, and it barely had enough room to accommodate our group. Once it pulled up to the Strathallan on Main Street, I, along with everyone else, felt a sense of relief to go along with a most welcome infusion of warmth. 

After checking into my sixth-floor room, I completed my “I’m all right” calls, ordered room service, and relaxed for the remainder of the evening, which ended shortly after midnight.

Friday, February 1: Unfortunately, the turn of the month didn’t result in a turn of the weather – the temperature remained the single digits, and, as I tapped away on the laptop, I felt, from time to time, a chill in my toes, fingers and the tip of my nose. After reaching a good stopping point, I took the elevator down to the lobby and spotted broadcasters Farhood and Barry Tompkins in a booth having breakfast with producer Richard Gaughan and senior production manager Joie Silva. Following a brief chat, I walked to the registration desk and asked where I could print my boarding passes (the business center was on the second floor) and to inquire about shuttles to the Main Street Armory (they left every half hour). I later learned that punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak was driving in from Massachusetts, and, Andy being Andy, he graciously offered to drive us to and from the venue. 

Originally, this telecast was to feature three fights, but it was reduced to two after the opponent for Albany lightweight Abraham Nova, Ghana-based Nigerian Oluwaseun Wahab, was unable to gain entry into the U.S. There wasn’t enough time to nail down a new opponent for Nova, so the fight was scrapped. Too bad: Nova-Wahab was to have pitted an undefeated (14-0, 10 KOs) regional product in Nova (who turned 25 on January 14 and was a five-time New York Golden Gloves champion) with a scrapper in Wahab (16-0, 10 KOs), a protégé of Hall of Famer Azumah Nelson who was set to make his U.S. debut and was two days away from his 21st birthday. In other words, a quintessential ShoBox fight. 

With Nova-Wahab gone, the remaining two contests paired a couple of fighters making their fourth ShoBox appearance – lightweight Thomas Mattice and super middleweight Ronald Ellis – with DeAndre Ware (who lost a bomb-throwing war to Cem Kilic as a late-sub on ShoBox) and the 12-0-2 Will Madera respectively. 

Both Ellis and Mattice have absorbed lumps to their ledgers in their three previous ShoBox appearances. Ellis (15-0-2, 10 KOs) picked up the two draws against Jerry Odom and Junior Younan (both of which should have been wins for Ellis in my eyes) while Mattice (13-0-1, 10 KOs) scored a come-from-behind KO over Rolando Chinea, a split-decision win over Zhora Hamazaryan that many thought he should have lost, and a rematch draw against Hamazaryan that was much better received by most. The feeling is that if Ellis and Mattice are to make their mark and advance to the next level, they must provide the proof tonight. 

As for Ware and Madera, this is the night they can build the foundation for bigger fights and bigger pay checks. Ware fought Kilic only after Kilic’s original opponent (Donnie Marshall) withdrew after learning Kilic would not be able to make the contracted weight of 160. Ware was asked to step up, and, to his credit, he risked his 12-0-2 (8 KOs) record and did just that – in a big way.

The pair exchanged 1,418 total punches and landed a combined 494 total punches in their eight-round war. Yes, Kilic was deemed a wide winner on the scorecards (79-73 twice, 78-74), but the numbers suggested a far more competitive fight as Kilic led by only 253-241 in total connects and was outdone by Ware in terms of total accuracy (35.2%-34.5%) and in jab precision (34%-23%). Kilic, on the other hand, prevailed 43%-36% in power accuracy and led 6-2 in the CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects, useful because clean punching is a major factor in judging rounds. If Ware could perform this well – and this pugnaciously — on short notice, will he do even better with the benefit of a full training cycle designed to combat a specific, unchanging opponent?

Like Ware against Kilic, Madera enters the fight with Mattice with a 12-0-2 mark, and, being from Albany, he has a regional connection. While doing research on Madera, I read an interview in which he stated that he loved the challenge of figuring out opponents’ styles and using his brain power to cash in on his reconnaissance. If the one fight I counted for him is any indicator – his draw against the switch-hitting Wesley Ferrer in December 2017 – then he might have a tendency to take his thinking-man’s game a bit too far. 

The bout may have been billed as a turf war between Brooklyn (Ferrer) and Albany (Madera), but, in reality, it was a scratch-and-sniff chess match in which neither threw often (35.5 punches per round by Ferrer, 35.4 for Madera) and both landed sparsely (Madera led 22%-17% overall and 30%-29% power while Ferrer prevailed 7%-5% in jab accuracy). I thought this dynamic favored the slicker Madera and against the more aggressive Ferrer, a sign of “ring generalship” in my eyes. Madera was limited to single-digit total connects in six of the eight rounds while Ferrer was held to single-digit total connects in all but one round, but because Madera landed 10 in the second and 15 in the seventh to Ferrer’s 15 in the seventh, Madera ended the fight with leads of 61-49 overall and 56-38 power to off-set Ferrer’s 11-5 lead in landed jabs. The CompuBox round-by-round breakdown in terms of total punches had Madera up 5-2-1, including a sweep of the first four rounds.  

Given that Mattice is tall for the weight class (5-foot-9) and sports a lengthy 73-inch reach, Madera will be forced to become the aggressor and pick up his work rate, factors that seemingly go against his cerebral nature. Can Madera do that? If he can, then, based on Mattice’s two fights with Hamazardyan, Madera will give himself his best chance to win. But experience tells me that fighters, like the rest of us, have a difficult time changing who we are on the fly, and by the time we reach Madera’s age (28), most of us have established who we are and what we’ll be like for the remainder of our lives.  

My feeling is that both fights will go the distance, with the two perceived “A-sides” in Ellis and Mattice coming away with “W’s”. 

*

I met Andy in the lobby at 2:50 – 10 minutes before our call time – and, once we established our electronic links to the production truck, all appeared well. 

Until the lights went out. Twice.

Thankfully, both incidents were short-lived and both occurred well before the doors were opened to the public. To prevent any problems during the live show, technical manager Paul Tarter linked our power supply at ringside to the generator inside the truck, a move that certainly eased my mind. 

During the leadup to the show, parking apparently was a big deal. On at least four occasions, the undercard ring announcer – Rochester’s own Henry “Discombobulating” Jones – told owners of certain vehicles to move their property or else be towed. One unlucky soul tried his best to obey, but, as Jones reported with a humorous lilt, he “moved his van from one illegal spot to another.” 

Besides Jones (who calls me “Loquacious Lee” – I wonder why?), I also chatted with judge Tom Schreck and said brief hellos to referee Charlie Fitch, judge Don Ackerman (who is also the president of the International Boxing Hall of Fame) and “Boxing Bob” Newman, who recently added a new role to his many duties – WBC supervisor. Adorned in a sharp-looking gray suit, he explained the many tasks a supervisor must execute, and much of it is detail-oriented paperwork. I couldn’t help but smile when the telecast’s ring announcer – the recently married Thomas Treiber – announced my longtime friend as “supervisor Robert Newman.” 

For most of the live audience, the first two untelevised fights were the reason they came – and they did not leave the arena disappointed. Rochester welterweight Tracey McGruder (with former champion Charles “The Natural” Murray in his corner) and local super middleweight Lawrence King Jr. completed successful professional debuts at the expense of Puerto Rico’s Michael Lee, now 2-1 (1 KO), and fellow debutante Octavious Webb of Cleveland. McGruder nearly floored Lee with a right to the chin in round one, after which it was a hunter-versus-hunted situation until someone from the commission stepped onto the ring apron and stopped the fight at the 1:05 mark of round four. King, who towered over Webb, boxed his way to a 40-36 (twice), 39-37 decision. 

Just before the next bout – a scheduled four-round heavyweight bout between Cleveland’s Roney Hines and Seven, Maryland’s Sherman Artis Jr., I noticed the stark difference in physiques favoring Hines, turned to Andy, and said, “in about two minutes, we’ll need to get ready to set up our test fight.” It was intended as a joke, but Hines made it reality thanks to a pair of body-shot knockdowns. The time of the TKO: 1:46. 

The brevity of the Hines-Artis match – which lifted Hines’ record to 4-0 (4 KOs) and eroded Artis’ to 3-4 (0 KOs) – prompted a lengthy intermission. By this point, Jones had passed the baton to Treiber, and I felt the fight he was about to announce – a scheduled eight-round light heavyweight match between Maryland’s Dominic Wade and Argentina’s Martin Fidel Rios – would be worthy of counting because the 28-year-old Wade was emerging from a 33 ½ month layoff following a two-round blowout loss to then-middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin and, if successful, might be featured in a future televised bout; and Rios, who I’ve seen often on Argentina’s TyC channel on DirecTV, may have sported a record of 23-18-4 (13) according to Boxrec, but, of those 18 defeats, only three were by KO. He lasted the distance with Ezequiel Maderna, Isidro Prieto, Jamie Cox, Sebastian Heiland, Jimmy “Kilrain” Kelly and Yamaguchi Falcao, among others, and I thought he might go rounds with a potentially ring-rusty Wade.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rios came out as cold as the weather, and Wade took advantage as he shook the Argentine with virtually every punch he landed. Wade scored the first knockdown with a combination capped by a hook to the short ribs, then finished the fight with a hook to the jaw that left Rios sprawled on the canvas. Rios tried to push himself up, but his stricken equilibrium prevented him from elevating more than a couple of inches before falling back to the floor. At that, referee Paul Brown stopped the fight at the 1:48 mark of round one. 

The stats further illustrated how dominant Wade had been; he out-threw Rios 30-16 overall and 21-8 power, out-landed him 16-3 overall, 5-1 jabs and 11-2 power, and created accuracy gaps of 53%-19% overall, 56%-12% jabs and 52%-25% power. 

With that, the untelevised portion of the show ended, and we all prepared for the truncated two-fight telecast to begin. Will these fights follow conventional wisdom, or will the results jolt us with the intensity of a polar vortex? We shall soon see. 

*

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 16 writing honors, including two first-place awards in 2011 and 2013. 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” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves  use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.

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