The Travelin’ Man Chronicles: The Winter Wars begin in Sloan – Part One
Thursday, January 16: Following an extremely productive four-plus days at the Home Office, the second installment of this Travelin’ Man’s eight-week, six-trip swing was set to begin. Of all the scheduled journeys, this was the one with which I was most concerned.
Reason One: Every location involved in today’s attempt to get from Point A to Point B was subject to all kinds of logistical and meteorological havoc. Although I would be working at the WinnaVegas Casino & Resort in Sloan, Iowa, today’s route would have me drive from my home in Friendly, West Virginia, to Pittsburgh International Airport, fly from Pittsburgh to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, catch a bird headed for Sioux City, Iowa, roughly 75 minutes later, then board a shuttle bus from that airport to the crew hotel, the Marriott Sioux City Riverfront in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Granted, this is the path I followed the last time I worked in Sloan but there’s a big difference between doing it in mid-November and attempting it in mid-January. Although my part of the country is subject to the whims of Mother Nature, Old Man Winter and Jack Frost from time to time, the U.S. Midwest is even more vulnerable to below-zero temperatures, ice-covered roadways and blizzard conditions, all of which could strike any day at any time between December and March (and sometimes beyond). Because we who work Showtime cards are asked to request flights a month in advance, all we can do is break out our crystal balls, make our best guesses, then wish for the best.
Reason Two: Longtime readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know O’Hare is one of the airports I try to avoid because, as one of the nation’s busiest airports, it is prone to multiple gate changes that aren’t always announced, delays, cancellations and other headaches. However as I looked at my options, Chicago was at the heart of all of them, so, despite all the issues I just detailed, I submitted my flight requests and hoped all would go well once the time arrived.
Reason Three: I did have the choice of flying into Omaha instead of Sioux City but due to the factors detailed in the opening paragraph, I chose the short trip from Sioux City to the crew hotel via the hotel’s shuttle over a 98-mile drive over potentially slippery and snow-covered highways. But while I would benefit from the shorter trek from airport to hotel and back, I also subjected myself to the regional airport’s limited weekend flight schedule and, on Saturday, the only flight to Chicago was scheduled to depart at 5:36 a.m.
That’s right: 5.36 a.m.
Being one who prefers to take late-morning and early-afternoon birds to ensure I get a decent night’s sleep following a show, this was a jolting reality. Worse yet: Once inside O’Hare, its earliest flight to Pittsburgh on a Saturday was not until 12:03 p.m. CST. What all this meant was that on Saturday, I not only would be working on short sleep – or even no sleep – thanks to the short time window between the end of my official duties on Friday night and when I needed to leave the hotel for the airport, I also would have to remain awake through a nearly five-hour layover in order to guarantee that I would not sleep through the boarding process.
When I reported my itinerary to CompuBox President Bob Canobbio, he said, “Oh, God.” I thought the same thing but, being the eternal optimist, I vowed to make the best of it.
I had reason to believe I could make good on that vow. First, the weather forecasts in Sioux City, Chicago and Pittsburgh for today and Saturday were free of major trouble but Friday in Sloan called for a major snowstorm (the snow was supposed to stop falling around mid-evening, meaning my prospects for getting out on Saturday were looking good). Second, if I chose to stay awake following the show – and if I were able to catch a quick rest on the first flight and remain alert enough through the long wait in Chicago – I could get virtually all of my writing done before leaving for Pittsburgh. That, in turn, would give me the mental release to rest comfortably during the flight, recharge my batteries for the drive back to West Virginia and allow me to get a head start on the CompuBox research I’ll need to tackle once I returned home.
It would have been easy for me to moan and groan about my situation – and I could understand why other people would do just that – but, for me, brooding and worrying would be a waste of time and energy because doing either wouldn’t change anything. So as long as I have to live through it, I might as well try to make it work in my favor and, if I’m successful, the joy of conquest would supersede everything else.
In my previous incarnation as a copy desk person at the Parkersburg News, I spent most of my 17 years there in a near constant state of angst due to the demands of the job as well as the accountability that came with it. (We were the last line of defense against errors getting into the final product and if any got in, we were the ones who were called to the carpet.) The memories of those years remain fresh nearly 13 years after leaving that job to come work full-time for CompuBox and the scars from those years have helped me put my occasional travel troubles into proper perspective. Why get worked up over unfavorable itineraries, snowstorms or the vagaries of modern aviation when I easily could still have been working at the Parkersburg News all these years? Had it not been for a string of events clicking into place, that’s exactly how my life would have turned out and that realization has greatly helped me in terms of my attitude.
What better way for this rabid boxing fan with a love for travel and statistics to spend his professional life than to fly to and from boxing shows as a member of CompuBox? That overwhelming and undying sense of good fortune is what has animated me for all these years and I don’t see that feeling ending anytime soon.
While checking into my flights on Wednesday, I discovered that American Airlines had upgraded me to First-Class on the Pittsburgh-to-Chicago leg, which was set to depart at 11:35 a.m. EST and land at 12:30 p.m. CST. The only glitch was that I was placed in the first row, which required me to stow both pieces of luggage in the overhead bin instead of my usual one bag above-one bag under the seat configuration. A “first-world problem” if ever there were one.
I left the house at 7:15 with the mercury hovering in the 30s and, aside from a school bus in Powhattan Point, Ohio, that made two stops within a 30-foot distance nothing impeded my progress and I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport in just 2 hours 15 minutes. I lucked into a parking spot just 145 steps from the terminal entrance because I arrived seconds after the previous occupant had departed, cleared security in routine fashion and had enough time to have a stress-free breakfast at the food court. My seatmate in First-Class – a portly middle-aged woman – opted to put on her noise-cancelling headphones and doze, so I spent most of the flight finishing the book I had begun last week (“Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling’s Living Legend” by Sammartino, Bob Michelucci and Paul McCollough).
The flight’s only noteworthy moment occurred during the descent. I glanced out the window to my right and spotted another American Airlines plane descending at nearly the same altitude less than 1,000 feet away – a measure of just how busy O’Hare is and how demanding it must be to be an air traffic controller there. Our planes touched down within 15 seconds of one another and, by doing so at 11:54, we had landed 36 minutes ahead of schedule. As a result, we had to wait for a gate to be made available to us. Still, I was happy to see that the weather in Chicago couldn’t have been much better; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, much less a flake on the ground.
As we waited for the plane to move toward the gate, the flight attendant who had been working First-Class approached me, then provided me information on my connecting flight to Sioux City, Iowa: It was still listed as being on time and it would be departing from Gate G-3. But O’Hare being O’Hare, the gate location changed twice during my walk from Terminal L to Terminal G; first, it shifted from Gate G-3 to G-12, then from G-12 to G-14A located in the downstairs area.
After settling into my seat at the gate I spotted senior audio man Joe McSorley and spent the remainder of our time there chatting with him. Because I wasn’t assigned a rental car, my original plan had been to take the hotel shuttle but Joe, who did have a car, graciously offered to drive me to the Marriott – and he did so even though he was going to be staying at the WinnaVegas a few miles up the road.
While I’ve worked with many crews over the years – and all of them were proficient, knowledgeable and good-natured people – I have a particular affinity for the “ShoBox crew” and Joe’s generosity toward me is just one example why. Maybe because this series was perceived to be an underdog when it started in 2001, there is a fusion of low-key professionalism and family-like closeness. While all of us have tasks to perform and are held to a high standard, the sense of friendship and humanity is unmistakable. That certainly was the case when, not long after checking into my third floor room and unpacking, I walked to Kahill’s Chophouse on the second floor to attend a celebration to mark the series’ 250th episode.
I was there to mark ShoBox’s 200th installment in July 2014 but I was only able to attend the event’s final 15 minutes, thanks to my late arrival at the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York. Here, however, I was the first to arrive and nearly the last to leave. While the event served appetizers and beverages, the main course was the opportunity to reminisce and to pay tribute to the show’s success.
And what success it has enjoyed. Hall-of-Famer Steve Farhood provided me with factoids he and graphics man Joe Jacovino compiled regarding what has transpired since the show’s debut:
* 593 total fights
* 81 fighters who went on to win world titles
* 275 knockouts (46% of the series total)
* 19 draws
* 611 undefeated fighters showcased
* 127 contests featuring a pair of undefeated fighters
* 188 fighters who lost their undefeated records
* 29 states
* 8 countries
Tomorrow night’s show represents the fifth time “ShoBox: The New Generation” has visited Sloan, vaulting the WinnaVegas Resort Casino into a tie for fifth-most in the number of telecasts, with Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Connecticut, the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas and the Palace Indian Casino/Tachi Casino in Lemoore, California. The Chumash Casino in Santa Ana, California, Is first with 33, with the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, second with 11, a tie between Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California, and Bally’s in Atlantic City with nine and a tie between the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York and the Pechanga Resort Casino in Pechanga, California, with six.
Several members of the ShoBox team offered remarks but Executive Producer Gordon Hall – the driving force behind the series – spoke most extensively because he made certain that everyone in the room was recognized for his or her contributions. Near the end of the two-hour event, Senior Production Manager Joie Silva gave each of us a commemorative ShoBox 250 pullover zip-up jacket and I’m happy to say that she correctly guessed that I was an XL.
Shortly before the event’s conclusion, we posed for a group photo.
Yours Truly is in the back row, fourth from the right, next to Mary “Queen of Stats” Swinson and replay man Dave Lilling, a 250-episode veteran whose face is somewhat obscured.
I spent the remainder of the evening in my room, either writing, consuming my room service order and catching up on all the news and sports I had missed. I turned out the light shortly after midnight local time.
Friday, January 17: With an eye on the potentially sleepless night ahead of me, I slumbered for nearly seven hours. One of the few good things about having a 5:36 a.m. flight is the ability to check in online moments after arising but that positive feeling was tempered once I looked at what was going on outside. Several inches of snow had already fallen and the newest flakes were falling more sideways than downward.
After completing the morning routines and spending some time on the laptop, I took an elevator down to the lobby in the hopes of buying an orange juice from its small coffee shop. Instead, I purchased a bottle of Diet Pepsi and chatted with Hall, Farhood, Barry Tompkins and public relations man Steve Pratt. The increasingly nasty weather and the uncertainty it presented on several levels was the focal point, not just in terms of altering accommodations and transportation needs but also making certain the satellite truck could produce a strong enough signal to cut through the blowing snow and seeing to it that all the local members of the technical crew made it to ringside. As for me, tomorrow’s flight was still listed as being on time and I hoped it would leave the area quickly enough to avoid any more weather issues should they arise.
I met Andy and veteran cameraman Gene Samuels in the lobby at 1:30 in the hopes of making our 2 p.m. call time. Driving conditions were marginal but Gene, a Chicago native who also spent years living in the Northeast, was well-equipped to handle them. The electronic checks were completed without any trouble and I spent the considerable down time in the usual way: Chatting with passing ringsiders such as judge Steve Weisfeld, who was working his first show in Iowa.
Andy and I collected data for three of the five undercard fights and moments after lightweight Alejandro Guerrero lifted his record to 11-0 (with 9 knockouts) by stopping the 9-5-2 (with 3 KOs) southpaw Darnell Jiles Jr. in the waning moments of round two in the card’s opening contest, I received a most unwelcome text from American Airlines – my 5:36 a.m. flight to Chicago, the way out for everyone who chose to fly into Sioux City, had just been cancelled.
As I was counting the next contest – Atlanta junior middleweight Brian Norman Jr.’s six-round unanimous decision victory over Pennsylvania journeyman Evincii Dixon – I received another, much more welcome text: “Would you like a GBT Travel Counselor to contact you to assist (with your cancelled flight)?” – clearly a benefit for having “status” with American Airlines. After the scores were announced, I responded that I would and, within five minutes, my cell phone rang. At the other end was a live agent, whom, in the next 20 minutes, produced a new itinerary – a 6 a.m. CST flight from Omaha to Philadelphia, then a 12:55 EST bird from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh that, if all went well, would land at 2:14 p.m. After thanking the agent, I made sure to confirm that my reservations were indeed in the system and that I would be receiving a confirmation email. She assured me all was well and, about an hour later, all indeed was well.
With my new flights nailed down, my next issue was securing transportation from Sioux City to Omaha because I was not assigned a rental car. Production Supervisor Nikki Ferry was on it and it wasn’t long before I was told that I would be returning the car assigned to Joie Silva back to Omaha.
All this had taken place as Kansas heavyweight Colton Hill won a four-round split decision over debutante Shaylyn Joseph of Nebraska. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, for all was completed just before junior welterweight Brandun Lee scorched Mexican journeyman Miguel Zamudio in 131 seconds.
Now that my travel schedule for Saturday was locked in – and the same could be said for CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak – we were ready to count the televised tripleheader topped by super middleweights Vladimir Shishkin and Ulises Sierra and supported by bantamweights Jarico O’Quinn and Oscar Vasquez as well as junior welterweights Shojahon Ergashev and Adrian Estrella.
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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