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The Travelin’ Man goes to Reading, Pennsylvania: Part One

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Thursday, October 25: If you travel often enough – and I, as the self-described “Travelin’ Man,” have done more than my share over the past 15 years – you’ll learn that travel days have a way of producing the unforeseen. When you expect a zig, you are given a zag. When you expect a zag, you end up having to address a zig. And if you try to prepare for the zig and the zag, you’ll end up getting a donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (which, by the way, is a 41-letter German word for a Danube steamship company captain). As onetime New Orleans Saints coach Jim Mora famously declared when calmly berating sportswriters who had been critical of him and his team’s play, “You think you know but you don’t know. And you never will.” That’s what I have long believed about travel days.

Thankfully I didn’t have to consult a German steamship captain about how to navigate through my latest travel day, which, if successful, would end with me arriving at the Crowne Plaza in Reading, Pennsylvania. Tomorrow night, I, along with CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak and a cast of dozens, will work a “Showtime Championship Boxing Special Edition” telecast that will see heavyweights Frank Sanchez and Jack Mulowayi compete, junior welterweights Robert Easter Jr. and Adrian Granados throw down and, in the main event, junior middleweights Erickson Lubin and Nathaniel Gallimore vie for a higher slot on the divisional ladder.

This particular show, as has been the case with many televised shows as of late, required plenty of last-minute card shuffling. Lubin was originally scheduled to face 2012 U.S. Olympian Terrell Gausha (who was forced to withdraw due to a hand injury) while Mulowayi was slated to fight Efe Ajagba (who suffered a back injury). Of course, any matchmaker with tenure will tell you that few original lineups on a given card will remain intact until fight night and participants are well-trained to deal with last-minute shifts in opponent. We shall soon see how well Lubin and Mulowayi will adjust to their new assignments.

As for me, I had every reason to expect a lengthy slog on the highway, both on my way to Pittsburgh International Airport and from Philadelphia International Airport to Reading. Shortly after returning from Flint, Michigan, one of my local news stations reported about road construction that could cause long delays on Interstate 470, one of the main roads I take when driving to Pittsburgh. The report was complete with footage that painted a foreboding picture: Two lines of cars stretching back as far as the eye could see moving at less than 5 miles per hour. I experienced this dreadful scenario several times earlier this year due to a different road project on I-470 that has since been completed, so I wondered why a second round of work had to be done. Wonderings aside, I mentally added 30 minutes to today’s drive.



I also anticipated issues with getting from Philadelphia to Reading, mostly because of the time of day I would be landing in “The City of Brotherly Love” (shortly after 11 a.m.) and when I would be starting my drive (close to noon). In order to safely arrive in Reading by 4 p.m. – the time I needed to be inside the production truck to conduct our customary day-before testing – I needed to take a 10:15 a.m. flight. That, in turn, would have me in Philly just in time for midday traffic jams that are as bad as in any city in the U.S. Usually the drive from Philadelphia to Reading would take about 1 hour 20 minutes to complete but when I looked at MapQuest yesterday around the time I would be driving, the graphic portrayed a journey that would last more than two hours.

If those factors weren’t complicating enough, there was the matter of the 10:15 a.m. departure time. Because of my two-and-a-half-hour drive to Pittsburgh, and because I like to be at the gate well before departure, I try to leave the house five hours before the plane is to leave, which, in this case, would be 5:15 a.m. That meant I would need to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and, for this night owl, that’s about two hours after I go to sleep most nights.

Since I usually get around five hours of sleep per night – and because my eyes get heavy between 7 and 8 p.m. most days – I tricked myself into turning out the lights at 11 p.m. by staying awake, then starting my pre-bed routines at 10 p.m. The trick worked; I felt tired enough to click the switch at 11 and my eyes popped open shortly after 4. I rested until the clock hit 4:25 and by 4:30, I had started my morning routines feeling unexpectedly refreshed.

As I left the driveway at 5:15, I braced myself for the delays to come. Shortly before 6:30, I arrived at the I-470 on-ramp fully expecting to see hundreds of cars crossing the pavement at a snail’s pace. Instead I saw traffic flowing at highway speeds. Yes, there was an electronic sign indicating a project was in progress but, at least here, it had no effect on anyone’s ability to get from Point A to Point B in a timely manner. Better yet, there were no detours or delays for the rest of my drive on I-470, nor along my routes on I-79 and I-376.

Who would have thought? Certainly not me. At least this time, the Travel Fates smiled on me.

I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport just before my target time of 7:45 and, despite having to park in the furthermost reaches of the extended lot, I was inside the airport shortly after 8. Because of my very early rising time, I spent most of the 50-minute flight resting my eyes so I would be fully alert for the long drive to come.

After touching down in Philly, I walked to the pickup zone for rental car buses and waited for one bearing Avis’ name to arrive. I waited…and waited…and waited some more. I did spot a couple of Avis buses at another part of the airport property but here, all I saw were ones from other companies. I briefly considered vacating this location in favor of trying another but I decided to remain where I was and stick it out – at least for a little while longer.

Finally, 15 minutes later, an Avis bus arrived at our location and within 10 minutes, we were at the facility. After waiting in line for a while, I was assigned a silver Ford Escalade in space R 18. Once I arrived, I saw that a car was parked lengthwise directly in front of my space – the only one in the lot with such an impediment. Luckily for me, a couple who was assigned the car in space R 19 was about to leave and, once they did, I had just enough room to wriggle out without having to ask anyone to move the car that was blocking me.

As that episode was going on, I thought to myself that this was the perfect preparation for the patience I would have to show to make it through my drive from Philadelphia to Reading. Once I got on Interstate 76, however, traffic, while typically voluminous, was moving at a good clip. Such was also the case on I-176 and the rest of the roads I used on my way to Reading. The only hold-up I experienced was on a single off-ramp and that backup lasted less than three minutes.

For the second time today, I was the beneficiary of a highway travel blessing.

I arrived at the Crowne Plaza shortly before 2 p.m. – about 45 minutes before I thought I would. I had some time to rest before setting out to complete my only official task of the day: Confirming the connection between laptop and production truck.

In my early years with CompuBox, this process was quite troublesome. Almost every show I worked suffered a different issue that required hours of troubleshooting before getting resolved. Sometimes these troubles would extend to fight day and, on a couple of occasions, they continued until mere minutes before airtime. But when CompuBox legend Joe Carnicelli was at the helm, these checks were completed in less than five minutes, so much so that I dubbed these trouble-free tests “Carnicellis.” He seemed to have the magic touch when it came to this part of the job and I hoped that one day I would be granted that touch as well.

It has been a little more than two years since Joe passed away from cancer at age 75 and I still think of him often. That is especially true on days like today, when the electronics check inside the production truck was completed in less than 90 seconds. This has been happening more often for me in recent years and while some may chalk it up to technological improvements, I’d like to think that Joe might have passed on some of his magic to the rest of us.

Back at the hotel, I walked toward my room, glanced down toward the pool area and saw two young men playing table tennis. That immediately piqued my interest because, during my college years, I was quite good at the sport. How good? Consider: One night at the men’s dorm at Fairmont State College (now Fairmont State University), I held the table for more than seven hours, thanks to my lightning quick reflexes, array of extreme spins and a wide variety of serves that often ticked the corners and lines. One year at FSC, I entered a table tennis tournament to see how I stacked up against the best on campus. I lost my first three matches, then won eight in a row to conclude the tournament and finished fourth. The three men who defeated me finished first, second and third.

Not long after I began working at the Parkersburg News, a fellow table tennis devotee, reporter Jess Mancini (now a city editor and the man who persuaded me to call the sport “table tennis” instead of “ping-pong”), recommended I join him in his recreational area league. Those few months in 1991 were the last times I had played the game with any regularity, mostly because of my late hours at the newspaper that too often coincided with when the league met. However on Mancini’s advice, I had a customized bat (otherwise known as a paddle) made for me – one I still have.

The last time I played the game at all was in April 2007 when I traveled to the Bahamas for an ESPN show topped by Chris Byrd- vs. Paul Marinaccio – my third as a full-time CompuBox employee. On the beach outside our hotel sat a table and this one fellow, a lean 20-something, was defeating challenger after challenger. Remembering how good I had been in college, I decided to step up to the table and give it a go. Given the odds against me – an unfamiliar bat, the fact my opponent was warmed up and 16 years of rust – I did well to lose by just 21-17.

With that back story in mind, I decided to walk down to the pool area to see if I could get the next game. The man holding the table – a young African-American named Chase – was dominating his opponent with shots that had speed, spin and placement. He was in such command that, on several occasions, he served the ball only after flipping it behind his back and over his shoulder. Still, during my best days, I would have beaten him with ease.

However I learned quickly that, at age 54 and having played only one game since 1991, I was in way over my head. Our “game” began only after three brief practice rallies and, in losing 21-2, I was fortunate to return about a half-dozen shots. The bat felt unsteady in my hand, my shots were tentative and my body, as a whole, felt uncoordinated. I didn’t have the confidence or the capability to try any of the tricky serves that had defined my best game, though one serve I did execute earned his notice. The ball came at me at an uncomfortable speed and I lacked the muscle memory to do much more than to block the ball back to him – or, more often, in his general direction.

The game was over in less than five minutes and, despite the embarrassingly lopsided score, he was classy enough to smile, shake my hand and say, “Good game.”

As I walked toward my room, I couldn’t help but think about something the late Dr. Ferdie Pacheco said about Muhammad Ali’s ring rust upon his return from exile. To paraphrase, he said that after three years away from anything, whether you’re a championship fighter or a “ping-pong champion,” you’re not going to be the same. That certainly was the case with me but my rust in table tennis had been collecting for more than half my life.

Feeling a bit chastened, I returned to my room, ordered room service and turned out the light shortly after 11 p.m.

 

Saturday, October 26: I used the next eight-and-a-half hours to recharge my batteries and spent the most of the morning catching up on my work. Once I reached a good stopping point, I wandered out of the room to see if anyone else was playing table tennis. No one was but I stopped by the breakfast area to get a glass of orange juice and chat with some of the Showtime team.

After getting some more work done and getting a small bite of lunch, I drove to the Doubletree Hotel across the street to park my rental vehicle, walked across the street to the Santander Arena and went through the usual pre-telecast routines – getting credentials for Andy and me, double-checking the names with graphics man Mike Teodoru, re-establishing the connection between my laptop and the production truck and making sure all the rest of the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed. Usually these tasks are completed hours before airtime, so there’s plenty of downtime to burn before we are pressed into action. That’s OK with me; as long as we’re where we’re supposed to be long before we have to be there, life is good. That mindset has served me well in terms of traveling and I prefer it be that way when I’m working.

Santander Arena, Reading, Pennsylvania

Santander Arena, Reading, Pennsylvania

One side benefit to all this extra time is to let my mind wander and, as you know, my mind is never far from boxing history. In fact, 49 years ago today, Muhammad Ali ended his exile by fighting Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, a fight I recounted in “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” which, by the way, is available on Amazon and would make an amazing gift for anyone in the family. I may be biased but this book chronicles a side of Ali that had never been previously addressed and, thanks to reviewing hundreds of back issues of boxing magazines, opponents’ autobiographies, YouTube videos and other resources, readers will be transported back to the time of the fights, which are recounted in a fashion never before rendered – information accompanied by statistics. As Amazon reviewer “Scott Y.” noted, “This book is far more interesting and informative than it has any right to be since it’s based on fight stats. Well-researched and written, it will give boxing fans young and old a new perspective from which to view Ali and the sport of boxing.”

As is the case with many Premier Boxing Champions cards, the non-televised portion of the show was deep in terms of numbers – 12 fights in all, including one “walk-out” match. The start of the crew meal coincided with the start of this portion of the show, so I was unable to keep meticulous track of what was happening. Instead after returning to ringside, I chatted with several members of press row as well as other ringsiders and members of the Showtime broadcast talent. As I scanned the arena, I saw many familiar faces and, thanks to my years of working shows, those familiar faces also knew me, a fact that amazes me even now.

There is something about boxing-oriented conversation that makes the time pass so much more quickly and, before I knew it, it was almost time for the televised portion of the card to begin. On paper, the three TV fights promised action as well as contrasts of styles but would those styles mix well? That is the eternal mystery of boxing and it’s one of the many reasons I remain fascinated by “The Sweet Science” more than 45 years after my maiden viewing.

So, in another way, Jim Mora Sr. was correct – when it comes to how boxing matches will unfold, “You think you know but you don’t know – and you never will.”

 

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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 16 writing awards, including 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” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of  “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.

 

 

 

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