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The Travelin’ Man returns to Sam’s Town: Part One

Sam's Town Hotel and Gambling Hall, Las Vegas, Nevada
06
Nov

Thursday, October 31: A little more than three-and-a-half days after returning home from Reading, Pennsylvania, this Travelin’ Man embarked on his next journey, a journey whose dynamics were at odds. On the positive side, I was trekking to Las Vegas, a glamorous city which also happens to be this country’s epicenter of big-time boxing. There, punch-counting partner (and Las Vegas resident) Dennis Allen and I will be chronicling the hits and misses of a “ShoBox: The New Generation” quadrupleheader topped by junior lightweights Xavier Martinez and Jessie Cris Rosales and supported by junior welterweights Richardson Hitchins and Kevin Johnson, middleweights Kevin Newman II and Marcos Hernandez and lightweights Rolando Romero and Juan Carlos Cordones. Another positive is that I and the rest of the Showtime crew will be staying at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall for the second time since April 5, when the venue hosted a ShoBox card highlighted by Martinez’s third round KO of John Vincent Moralde, Andres Cortes’ up-from-the-floor decision win over Jahmal Dyer and, in the main event, Angelo Leo’s 10-round decision over Neil John Tabanao.

On the negative side, I began my return to Sam’s Town on All Hallow’s Eve – also known as Halloween – a day that, in part, celebrates the creatures and spirits of the netherworld and all the spookiness they represent. I consider the “Travel Gods” to be part of this netherworld and, considering the good fortune I was granted last week, the odds suggested an unfavorable turn. If the “Gods” boast any one trait, it is mischievousness – not an overtly malicious brand of it but an impish, twinkle-in-the-eye-type embodied by the fictional Dennis the Menace or the very real Jorge Arce.

Complicating matters was the weather in my area as I began my latest travel day – a gray overcast sky, light but constant rainfall, patches of fog and a slight chill in the air, despite the otherwise mild 64-degree temperature. All that was missing from this scene set was the graveyard, a howling wolf and the almost subliminal groans emitted by village zombies.

If all went well, my journey to Las Vegas would be completed in four parts – the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Pittsburgh, the 11:39 a.m. EDT flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas Fort-Worth, a 2:30 CDT bird from DFW to “Sin City” and the taxi ride from McCarron International Airport to Sam’s Town. The most challenging part may well be completing the very short connection window between steps two and three – 19 minutes if all the marks were hit. Any delay would doom my chances and the occasion of Halloween provided the perfect opening for the Fates to have some fun with me.

Thanks to my newly acquired “Gold” status with American Airlines – a status that regrettably will go away for me and everyone else on January 1 – I was assigned an aisle seat just four rows back from first-class, a location that surely will help me make my tight connection.

The drive to Pittsburgh was trouble-free and I caught a major break once I arrived in the extended parking lot when I spotted a car pulling out of a spot that was close to the terminal entrance. I stopped my sifting, set my sights on that space and grabbed it just 15 seconds after it was vacated. While getting such a spot is always great, this stroke of fortune was even more appreciated because I spent much less time exposed to the chilly drizzle.

Following a leisurely brunch at the food court, I walked to Gate B-34, boarded the first plane and hoped it would get there at the advertised time of 1:41 p.m. CDT.

The plane reached the gate at 1:44.

Uh-oh.

Even worse: We deplaned in Terminal A but I needed to get to Terminal C.

One of the reasons DFW is one of my favorite airports is the Skylink tram that quickly takes passengers from terminal to terminal and today it was a godsend. I boarded Skylink at 1:50 p.m. and by looking at the map near the ceiling, I saw that I needed to wait through two stops before reaching the one closest to my connecting gate (C-26). I reached my stop at 1:56 and by the time I reached the bottom of the long, downward escalator and arrived at C-26, I saw that the gate agent had already started the boarding process. Thankfully he was shuttling through Group 1 passengers, which, for those who aren’t familiar, include first-class ticketholders, military personnel and other priority passengers. My group – Group 4 – was summoned less than three minutes later. In all, I spent less than 20 minutes inside DFW but was happy that this ticklish portion of the journey was over.

I landed at McCarron International Airport at 3:17 p.m. PDT – seven minutes earlier than advertised – and save for some brief bumps at the start and finish, the flight was smooth and uneventful. Some of the flight attendants dressed up for Halloween – one wore pink fuzzy cat ears with a matching tail – while others opted to dress as American Airlines flight attendants.

Once outdoors, it took me less than a minute to secure a taxi driver but thanks to snarled mid-afternoon traffic, the trip to Sam’s Town took longer than usual to complete. Given everything that could have gone wrong, I was satisfied with the way this travel day went. Even better: Las Vegas was a sun-drenched 70 degrees – a far cry from the misty, gloomy and appropriately eerie meteorological backdrop I left behind.

Shortly after paying the driver, I received a text from longtime friend – and fellow author – Dan Sisneros. The man behind “Mat Tales: True Stories from the Bizarre, Brutal World of Boxing” had driven to Vegas from his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with his wife Tammy, hoping to catch the weigh-in, only to learn it had taken place several hours earlier. The ceremony proved to be eventful, for, moments earlier, I learned that Cordones had missed the contracted weight by several pounds but that the fight would still take place after a deal was struck. Although Dan and I have known each other for many years – I have more than a few of his episodes of “The 8-Count Boxing Hour” on VHS and he graciously asked me to offer quotes for “Mat Tales” – this was our first face-to-face meeting. At Dan’s suggestion, Tammy took a photo to memorialize the meeting.

Dan Sisneros (left) and Lee Groves. Photo credit: Tammy Sisneros

Dan Sisneros (left) and Lee Groves. Photo credit: Tammy Sisneros

Once I found my place in line at the hotel registration desk – and noticed how slowly that line moved – I commented to the couple in front of me, “The wheels of progress are often square.” The woman replied, “That’s true, especially the square part.” Noticing our situation, the desk supervisor emerged from his office to join his two co-workers and because I led the line at the time, he waved me over to his work station to get me checked into what would be my sixth-floor non-smoking room.

After I unpacked and settled in, I took an elevator down to the ground floor, walked over to The Sports Deli located inside the sports book, bought a turkey sandwich, potato salad and a large Diet Pepsi, returned to my room and spent part of the next couple of hours watching, among other programs, the college football game between the Baylor Bears and West Virginia Mountaineers at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas, on ESPN. As I watched WVU give the undefeated home team all it could want before losing 17-14, I thought about the two women with whom I flew to Dallas earlier today. Teresa and Elizabeth – both West Virginia natives – told me they would be sitting in two of the end-zone seats. Neither had high hopes for the now 3-5 ‘Eers, who were listed as 18 ½-point underdogs but while they had to be disappointed by the loss, they had to be heartened that the team made a fight of it.

As soon as I learned I would be returning to Sam’s Town a few weeks earlier, I began looking forward to my return visit to the property’s bowling alley – a 56-lane facility with all of the modern amenities, including synthetic lanes, automatic scoring, “lane chatter” (the ability to chat and text with bowlers on other lanes), a video intercom and 18 animated themed backgrounds in which the three pictures of your face that you snap before you bowl (a “silly” expression, your “best side” and a “sad face”) are inserted into the various scenes based on how you bowled that frame.

Back in April, I, with a bit of whimsy and curiosity, bowled for the first time in more than four years and experienced mixed results, thanks to my corrosive “lane rust,” an ill-fitting house ball, shoes that were more slippery than my custom-made ones and a lane surface with which I was totally unfamiliar. Still, I had reason to hope, for, while I bowled hideous scores of 100 and 110 in games one and three, I rolled a robust 210 in the second, thanks to five consecutive strikes to the start that game. Because of that middle game, I was convinced I still had the ability to perform well and now that I had three games on these lanes under my belt, I formulated a game plan that not only would improve my scores but also minimize the soreness that affected me the next day.

But before I could head down to the lanes, I received an email from ESPN’s research department and from CompuBox president Bob Canobbio: Saturday’s title fight between Filipino IBF junior bantamweight king Jerwin Ancajas and Mexican challenger Jonathan Rodriguez was canceled due to Rodriguez not being able to secure a visa. The new co-feature would pit junior welterweights Javier Molina and Hiroki Okada and I was asked to put together a new statistical package for the on-air talent and the ESPN production team.

Having always been a “work before pleasure” sort, I chose to assemble and email the necessary information, a process that took a little under an hour to complete. With that job done, my mind was free to focus on what Bob – and Fred Flintstone – likes to call “keggling.”

My objective was to correct the many mistakes I committed in April. The first positive step I took was to moderate my expectations; at the time my local center closed, I was a league bowler with a respectable 165 average who was capable of producing a fair share of 200-plus games, thanks to my ability to analyze and adjust on the fly, my knowledge of what I can do well and what I can’t, my consistent arm swing and pre-shot routine, my above-average focus and knowing where to stand and where to throw in order to make most of the simpler spares. However I was wrong to think I could perform the same way on a different type of lane with unfamiliar equipment after years of inactivity. April’s experience told me that I should expect to average between 140 and 150 on this night – if everything went right.

Second, I bowled way too quickly back in April. The temptation to race through games when bowling alone is natural, so I ended up taking much less time between shots than was the case in my local league that consisted of three- and five-man teams. Because I also rushed my delivery in the hopes of generating more speed and power (these electronic lanes also measured ball speed), I threw myself off-balance and yanked the ball wildly to the left time and again. Moreover the strain of my flawed delivery produced soreness in my right quadriceps and lower back that further hampered my game. Tonight I planned to bowl only two games instead of three and I made a conscious decision to take at least a minute between each shot in every frame.

Third, the space between the back of the approach and the foul line is much greater here than was the case back home and I made the mistake of standing at the very back part of the Sam’s Town lane, which messed up the timing of my five-step delivery. Here, I began at the midway point of the lane and crept back six inches at a time until I found my ideal starting point. That process ended up taking just four shots and once I found my spot, I never deviated from it.

Finally I knew these lanes were much different that the old-school oiled ones back home and the house balls weren’t nearly the same as the ones I own (I didn’t bring them with me because I didn’t want to deal with baggage claim). Before, I would roll somewhere between the second and third arrow on the right side of the lane and hoped my gentle hook would drive toward the 1-3 pocket but here I picked a target between the third and fourth arrows and focused on a straight arm swing, a quick but natural follow-through and executing these tasks while maintaining proper balance.

By applying all these principles, I quickly found my optimal target as well as much better form. During my best years in the league, I learned that once I identified where I needed to stand and where I needed to throw it on the lane, I could produce a very repeatable swing, throw at a consistent speed and produce good scores most of the time.

So how did I do?

Much better, thank you.

I began the night with a strike and two manageable spares but thanks to my very straight ball that hit through the nose,I produced three consecutive unmakeable splits in frames four through six. Game One ended with me bowling a solid 151.

Game Two was even better. I did “the splits” in frames two and seven but produced strikes and spares in the other frames, including a 10-pin on the game’s final shot to complete a 182. Making that final 10-pin was significant for me, not only because it confirmed that I mentally mapped these lanes and this ball well enough to make a corner spare but also because the 10-pin-spare was my most reliable shot during my days in the league.

I felt so good following Game Two -my quad was in good shape and my lower back wasn’t nearly as sore as it was a few months back -that I decided to bowl a third and final game. It proved to be an excellent move, for I totaled 113 through six and 141 through eight to bring 200 into play with a strike in the ninth and 29 pins in the 10th. Unfortunately fatigue and very mild quad tightness resulted in unmade splits in frames nine and 10 to polish off a 157.

In all, I bowled a 490 series, which translates to an average of 163.3 – right in line with where I had been four years ago. After last week’s table tennis debacle, this felt especially good. And here’s a bonus: Only two of my shots went into the gutter, which is also in line with the consistency I showed in my best years.

The reason I went into such detail is to (1) show that my knack for analysis extends to other parts of my life besides boxing; (2) parallel – but not equate – my painstaking process with that of the boxers and trainers I cover, especially those who want to overcome setbacks, (3) illustrate that, at nearly 55, I am not all washed-up athletically and (4) I am a storyteller and I like to tell stories – even ones in which I fare well. While “The Travelin’ Man” series mostly talks about travel, boxing and history, storytelling lies at the core of it all.

Once I retrieved my left tennis shoe (which I had to give to the person behind the counter to guarantee my return – as if I were going to leave the facility wearing their shoes), I felt quite good – both physically and mentally.

Another great aspect about Sam’s Town is that its food court is open 24 hours a day. I took advantage of that a couple of hours later, then turned out the light shortly before 1 a.m.

 

Friday, November 1: Remaining on East Coast time, I stirred awake at 5 a.m. and, to my surprise, I felt little of the soreness I experienced the morning after I bowled in April. In fact, I briefly considered returning to the lanes once they opened at 9 a.m. to log three more games but the traces of stiffness in my legs convinced me to leave well enough alone.

Instead I took the elevator down to the ground floor and planned to ask the front desk about the location of the business center from where I would print my boarding passes. That plan changed when I happened to spot ShoBox analyst (and Hall-of-Famer) Steve Farhood chatting with stage manager (and collegiate quarter-miler) Bob Spurck. Steve told me there was no business center, just a computer with a printer that charges for time spent surfing the web. Thanks to Andy Kasprzak showing me how to produce a screen shot on my phone last week, I returned to my room, checked into my flight and had my mobile boarding passes emailed to me.

I had planned to eat lunch around 11:30, then go over to the venue to report for my call time but just as I was about to pack my equipment, I received emails from Bob about research that needed immediate attention – a statistical package for a just-announced “swing fight” on tomorrow’s FS2 show between junior middleweights Shyngyskhan Tazhibay and Nicolas Velasquez and some “siblings” research from ESPN. The package took about 40 minutes to complete while the ESPN question was addressed by research I had compiled before last December’s FOX card featuring the Charlo brothers.

I may have been a Boy Scout for only one meeting – to my knowledge, my local chapter broke up after that one appearance – but I know well the virtues of being prepared.

I arrived at ringside a few minutes before my 12:30 p.m. call time – seven hours before we would go on the air – and I spent the down time doing what I normally do: Conversing with everyone that dared to talk with me. Besides, Dennis – who arrived moments after I did – I said hello to several ringsiders that included judge Max DeLuca, the two timekeepers whom would be seated to my left during the show, Dan and Tammy Sisneros and Las Vegas-based broadcaster James “Smitty” Smith – longtime friend, current emcee at the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend and, in my opinion, future IBHOF inductee.

One interesting conversation involved ShoBox analyst Raul Marquez, a 1992 U.S. Olympian whose son Giovanni is hoping to earn a spot on the 2020 team. He asked me if there ever was a father-son tandem on the U.S. boxing team. After doing some quick research I learned that one duo was one fight away from achieving that distinction: Joe and Marvis Frazier. Joe won the heavyweight gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games while Marvis lost by TKO to James Broad in the final of the 1980 Olympic Trials.

However one father-son pairing not only managed to earn spots on an Olympic boxing team, they went on to win medals. The Philippines’ Jose Villanueva was a bronze medalist at bantamweight at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles while featherweight son Anthony won silver at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

The first fight of the show saw Seattle lightweight Cris Reyes overcome a shaky moment late in round one to floor Filipino Recky Dulay with a straight right to the stomach late in round three, then make him turn away from the action with a hook to the body in the fourth, an action that prompted referee Tony Weeks to intervene. The win lifted Reyes’ record to 9-0 (with 8 knockouts) while Dulay’s declined to 11-7 (with 8 KOs) due to his fourth consecutive loss.

Dennis and I counted the next fight between Philadelphia junior bantamweight prospect Dylan Price and California-based Filipino Elias Joaquino and, in scoring a sixth round TKO, Price showed all the ingredients of a young fighter to watch: Speed, power, patience and technique. A delayed reaction shot to the belly late in round three scored the first knockdown while a hook to the body amid a combination registered the second in round four. Joaquino weathered the storm in round five but a flurry of unanswered power punches to the head prompted referee Robert Hoyle to intervene at 1:48 of round six. The numbers further illustrated Price’s level of control, for he averaged 68.9 punches per round to Joaquino’s 58.2, dominated with the jab (26.4 attempts/7.1 connects per round to Joaquino’s 29.6/2.5), out-landed him 188-43 overall, 40-14 jabs and 148-29 power and prevailed 49%-13% overall, 27%-8% jabs and 62%-18% power. Moreover 70 of Price’s 188 total connects were to the body, a 37.2% figure that is well above the 29.5% CompuBox average. With the win, Price raised his record to 10-0 (with 7 KOs) while Joaquino’s fell to 12-5-2 (with 6 KOs).

Baltimore junior lightweight Malik Warren upped his ledger to 2-0 (with 2 KOs) with a second round stoppage of debuting Arkansan Shauncy Perry while Las Vegas-based Californian Ava Knight out-classed Argentina-based Colombian Luna Torroba over eight rounds to raise her mark to 19-2-5 (with 5 KOs) at the expense of Torroba, who is now 12-10-3 (with 2 KOs).

With that, Dennis and I readied ourselves for the televised portion of the show and while I had some idea of who would win the main event between Martinez and Rosales, I was flying blind on the other three bouts due to the lack of pre-fight data. The scuttlebutt around ringside called for 25 rounds of action of a possible 34, which sounded reasonable. But boxing being boxing, the unexpected is always lurking around the corner.

 

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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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