The Travelin’ Man returns to Las Vegas: Part One
Thursday, February 27: The nearly 12-day break since returning home from Philadelphia has been most welcomed because the heavy travel schedule that kicked off 2020 (five trips in 36 days) caused me to fall behind in other aspects of my boxing life. I had four weeks’ worth of programs on the DVR that needed to be edited and transferred to DVD and the to-do list in terms of the fights I needed to research for CompuBox was a bit longer (and nearer to the deadlines) than I wanted, so once I submitted Part Two of my most recent installment of “The Travelin’ Man Chronicles,” I determined which tasks needed to be addressed first, then put my head down, steeled my focus and went to work.
Procrastination is a behavior I’ll never understand. Why wait until the last minute to complete a necessary task when starting it the moment it is assigned will provide a maximum of time as well as a minimum of pressure? When I was a kid, I sometimes took that mindset to an extreme; if a teacher gave us a homework assignment before the end of class – and if there was sufficient time remaining before we were dismissed – I would challenge myself to finish the work before I walked out of the classroom. If I couldn’t do that, then my other goal was to complete as much of my night’s homework as I could during the 30-minute bus ride home. I didn’t always get a jump on the homework but when I did, it felt very satisfying. That’s because I always wanted to feel as if I was ahead of the game and I used the possibility of more free time at home as my motivation.
Also, as someone who believes in the merits of delayed gratification, I always tackle the task I least want to do first so I can earn the reward of doing those jobs I like more. These two philosophies have served me well through the years as well as during this break from the road; I cleared out my DVR and got a firm handle on the research by the time I began this journey.
Today’s destination is one to which I’ve looked forward since I was told about it more than a month ago: Sam’s Town Resort & Gambling Hall in Las Vegas. I felt this way because (1) Vegas is the boxing capital of America – if not the world – and I’m a boxing guy; (2) Vegas’ winter climate is much more tolerable than that of my hometown of Friendly, W.Virginia.; (3) I was connecting to “Sin City” through Charlotte, North Carolina., hardly a “snow belt” city; (4) it was a chance to re-connect with CompuBox colleague Dennis Allen, a former boxer who is the most experienced punch-counter of the current roster not named Canobbio; (5) our lodging is on the Sam’s Town property; (6) it has a 24-hour food court that is just an elevator ride and a few dozen steps from my hotel room and (7) one of the property’s non-gambling amenities is a 56-lane bowling center, which, for someone who competed in a local league for more than two decades, is a surefire magnet. Since Bruce Lanes in New Martinsville, West Virginia, closed nearly five years ago – and because the next nearest facility is almost an hour away by car – Sam’s Town has become my new bowling home. I’m probably the only bowler in America whose “house facility” is located 2,157 miles via highway from his actual house.
Because my initial flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte was set to depart at 12:08 p.m., I awakened with a start at 6:25 a.m. and left the house at 7:02 because I wanted to beat the school buses onto West Virginia Route 2 North. Just like two weeks earlier, my area was “blessed” with a dusting of snow but, unlike then, the layer on my 150-foot inclined driveway was minuscule and thus was safe to drive down without any extra care. Better yet, District Six of the West Virginia Department of Highways had already cindered Friendly Hill and Route 2 was devoid of precipitation.
Not only were the roads in great shape, my timing was excellent in terms of hitting green lights and traffic was pleasingly light. As a result, I made terrific time and arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport at around 9:15. However once I entered the airport’s “extended stay” parking lot, I noticed several other cars were sifting the various rows for a parking space – a relatively unusual occurrence in my experience. Knowing that a given row would have no more than one open slot available, I skipped to the next row only to see another car doing the same thing – with no success. That also happened when I tried to scan the spaces on the other side of the terminal entrance, a development that made me decide to cut my losses and drive toward the “hinterlands” – those lots farthest away from the terminal entrance – and try my luck there. I found a spot near a landmark sign, unloaded my belongings and began the long walk toward the terminal. Although the air temperature was 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the biting wind made it feel much colder. My right hand, in particular, felt as if it were in immediate need of warmth but I gritted through the five-minute walk and made it indoors, happy that this would be my final exposure to cold air on this day.
I made such good time that I played with the idea of finding out whether I could switch to a 10:26 a.m. flight to Charlotte and seeing if there were an earlier flight to Vegas from there. After a few moments, I decided to let things be and to enjoy a low-stress breakfast at the food court while reading my latest library acquisition, “Once More Around the Park, A Baseball Reader” by Roger Angell, a celebrated essayist who is set to celebrate his 100th birthday September 19. With the satisfaction of a fully sated appetite, I walked to gate B-32 and waited to board American Airlines Flight 1171 to Charlotte.
Unlike several of my more recent flights, the aircraft was not affected by mechanical issues, arrived at the gate in a timely manner and ascended into the sky on schedule. Considering my connection window in Charlotte was narrow, that was a good thing.
Following a descent that was quite swirly, the plane touched down at 1:22 p.m. – 17 minutes sooner than the advertised time. However the slow taxi to the gate, a longer-than-usual wait to deplane and a considerable walk from the end of my arrival terminal to the cluster of gates at the end of Terminal B resulted in my arriving just six minutes before my flight to Vegas was to begin boarding.
When I handed my boarding pass to the gate agent, the scanner emitted a buzzing sound. The reason: The airline switched planes and the 6A on this flight was in First-Class instead of the second row of the main cabin. No matter; I was re-assigned to seat 9A – this plane’s second row of the main cabin.
Thanks to conversations with my seatmates – Howard, the middle-seat occupant who is as avid about camping and off-roading as I am about boxing, and Heather, who was traveling to Las Vegas with her husband Gifford, who was seated across from her in the other aisle – the nearly five-hour flight felt considerably shorter. Once the plane touched down at 4:13 p.m. PST – 26 minutes earlier than expected – I texted the person who graciously offered to drive me from the airport to Sam’s Town: James “Smitty” Smith.
The longtime Las Vegas resident, two-time Hall of Fame Inductee (Florida and Nevada), “In This Corner” host and emcee at the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend also happens to be one of my best friends, not only in boxing but also in life. At 61, “Smitty” still has the energy of three men and the only reason that figure isn’t 10 is because of the boxer puppy he dubbed “Charley Burley” in honor of the Hall-of-Famer. Now 12 weeks old, Charley already weighs 19 pounds and Smitty projects that he will grow to be even larger than his previous dog Ernesto, a boxer who scaled 70 pounds and passed away at age eight during last year’s IBHOF Induction Weekend. Based on the stories he’s told me about Charley – and based on what I know about Smitty – a perfect match was made.
Adorned in a bright red track suit, Smitty greeted me with a big smile and the machine-gun twang that belies his birthplace of Miami but accentuates his mother’s native Georgia. Just before entering his car, he directed me to read the front license plate: “TVSTAR.”
Another measure of Smitty’s kindness was that he picked me up at the airport despite having a meeting scheduled for that evening. There wasn’t much time to catch up during the drive but he assured me there would be more since he would be attending tomorrow night’s show.
After saying our goodbyes, I checked into my third-floor room and caught up on the news I missed. Of course, the week’s big story was the coronavirus that has affixed a global grip physically, emotionally and psychologically. While I saw a few people wearing face masks, I did not spot any undue concern among my fellow passengers. As for me, I managed to escape a household cold whose initial trigger was a sore throat and entered this trip respectful but not paralyzed. I washed my hands frequently, avoided touching my face and went about my business. That approach won’t change unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
A few weeks earlier, the big travel story was a viral video…
This video has the internet legitimately divided .
Dude is in the last seat on the plane. Seat doesn’t recline.
Hers does. And she reclines.
He’s upset, and is punching her seat incessantly— so she records.
Who is right?!
Who is wrong?!
— Marina Marraco (@MarinaMarraco) February 12, 2020
…in which a tall man in the very back row of an American Airlines flight repeatedly hit the reclined seat of the woman directly in front of him – the person who also was making the video. At 5-feet-11, I am two inches taller than the average American man, so whenever the person in front of me decides to recline, I definitely feel it. Given the stresses of airplane travel these days – and the short fuses that can result from them – my policy is twofold; I don’t recline my own seat and I don’t issue any objections to those who do. One never knows the temperament of the other person or the circumstances that led up to the moment, so adopting a “Live and let live so I can live” attitude provides the path of least resistance. But as for the general debate, my tendency would be to first ask the person behind me if it would be OK to recline. If the answer is no, I would happily refrain. I would hope – but not expect – that I would be extended the same courtesy from the passenger seated directly ahead of me.
After picking up an early-evening meal at the food court and consuming it in my room, I prepared to leave for the bowling alley. However a work-related email that required my immediate attention delayed my departure for about 30 minutes because, once again, I am a work-first/pleasure-later kind of guy. Once I arrived at the lanes, I was told it would be wiser for me to return at 9 p.m. to take advantage of their weekly offer: Unlimited games between 9 p.m. and midnight as well as shoes for $10. Knowing a good deal when I heard one, I returned to my room and kept myself busy before returning to the facility.
The last time I bowled at all was during my last visit to Sam’s Town last Halloween Night. Following a game plan that was formulated by my first visit on April 4, 2019, I experienced a marked improvement (a 151-182-157 series for a 490 total and a 163.3 average, right in line with the 165 average I carried in my final year of league bowling). But given that I was fresh from a 13-hour travel cycle that included a five-hour cross-country flight, my expectations for tonight weren’t very high.
Although my first shot resulted in a strike, the process of adjusting to the 13-pound house ball I chose as well as identifying where on the lane I needed to aim my shots resulted in a middling 139 game – not bad, but not great either. Another factor that could have negatively affected my score was the twenty-somethings that bowled in the lane to my immediate right. It was clear their only objective was to have fun; they didn’t much care about the people on the adjoining lanes and they didn’t know about allowing the person next to them to bowl first before stepping onto the lane. Therefore it was up to me to observe proper etiquette but one positive byproduct was that the long intervals between shots enabled me to bowl longer – and ultimately better – than I might have otherwise.
That’s because I produced a pair of 168 scores in games two and three and, unlike my previous two visits to the lanes, I experienced no pain in my left quadricep or my lower back. Not only that, the strikes I bowled in frames eight, nine and 10 of game three suggested I was catching a second wind because while my ball speed (as chronicled by sensors on these lanes) usually ranged from the high-14s to low-15s, these were achieved with speeds in the high-15s and low-16s. With these factors in mind, I decided to bowl a fourth game.
I was off and running thanks to resounding strikes in frames one, three and four as well as a simple one-pin spare in the second frame. My jets were cooled a bit by an unconverted split in frame five but the score line the rest of the way was strike, strike, three-pin spare, three-pin spare, strike, strike, strike. The second three-pin spare in frame nine was actually a split – the challenging 3-5-10 – but by treating it like a 3-10 split, one I’ve been pretty good at converting over the years by imagining I was shooting at the missing six pin, I was able to convert it and maintain my momentum, a momentum that led to the three straight strikes in the final frame. The final ball was measured at 15.53 miles-per-hour, suggesting I was still generating plenty of force.
The final score: 209.
Not bad for a 55-year-old guy who spent most of the day traveling cross-country.
Given how dialed in I was, I was tempted to begin a fifth game. But with the time being 10:30 p.m. – 1:30 a.m. body clock time – I decided to walk away on a high, glass-shattering note.
Although that note was not voiced, my throat was still parched, so I stopped by the gift shop to buy a diet soda. I then took the elevator up to my room, spent some down time channel surfing and turned out the light shortly after midnight.
Friday, February 28: The bowling did my body good, for I slept fairly soundly for the next six hours. I spent most of the morning catching up on my writing as well as tackling more CompuBox-related research. Once I reached a decent stopping point, my thoughts turned to tonight’s show inside Sam’s Town Live.
As has been the case lately – and as is the nature of boxing – tonight’s slate of matches wasn’t the same as the one that was originally drawn up. The main event was to have pitted junior welterweight Malik Hawkins against Keith “The Bounty” Hunter – the younger brother of heavyweight Michael “The Bounty” Hunter and the son of Mike “The Bounty” Hunter. The story line would have been centered on Hawkins’ quest to advance up the ladder against a man who has become expert at spoiling dreams as the perceived “B-side.” In his last two fights – both staged at Sam’s Town Live – Hunter scored an eight-round split decision over Sanjarbek Rakhmanov and a 10-round unanimous decision against Cameron Krael and he did so with a busy but inaccurate jab that kept his opponents at long range as well as with extreme volume (92.3 punches per round against Rakhmanov and an extraordinary 123.8 versus Krael, who averaged just 30). But Hawkins was forced to bow out after being hospitalized for dehydration.
His substitute opponent: Rakhmanov. Given the stats of their first meeting nearly 11 months earlier – Rakhmanov out-landed Hunter 136-110 overall, 43-38 jabs and 93-72 power and was the more accurate puncher overall (42%-15%) and in power shots (51%-25%) – the split decision in Hunter’s favor was somewhat debatable. Add to that the 5-3 lead Rakhmanov built in the CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects and his 49-18 lead in landed body shots and the compelling nature of this rematch becomes heightened. But Hunter scored the fight’s only knockdown in Round 2 and that moment gave him the necessary optical command to earn 77-74 and 76-75 scores by Adalaide Byrd and Patricia Morse Jarman that overruled Tim Cheatham’s 76-75 score for Rakhmanov. For the rematch, Hunter will be portrayed by Showtime as the “A-side” fighter while Rakhmanov will be the “opponent.”
The opening bout was to have paired super middleweights Kevin Newman II and Kalvin Henderson but Henderson was forced to withdraw due to a medical issue. In his place was Genc Pllana, a Kosovo native who nevertheless is known as “The Sexy Albanian.” Armed with a 7-1-1 (with 4 knockouts) record – and a herky-jerky, fast-twitch, lean-back style that Hall-of-Famer Larry Holmes would term as “awkwardox” – Pllana entered the fight off an eight-round majority draw against Henderson in his most recent bout that he should have won.
His chin-up, hands-down stance and his flailing off-kilter combinations left Henderson in knots until the final two rounds (27-21 overall, 23-11 jabs), a surge that evidently allowed him to seal the draw. The numbers suggest otherwise as Pllana led 117-68 overall, 57-45 jabs and 60-23 power as well as 17.9%-17.7% overall and 26%-18% power. Pllana out-landed Henderson in six of the eight rounds and his ring generalship was such that he was able to induce the jab-heavy battle that suited him more (jabs made up 64.7% of Pllana’s total output while comprising 67.5% of Henderson’s).
Newman, for his part, was about to make his second consecutive appearance on “ShoBox,” thanks to his loss-avenging eight-round decision against Marcos Hernandez last November. Completing eight rounds for the first time, Newman’s dominant second-half (82-46 overall in Rounds 5 through 8), superb body punching (79-10 in connects) and superior marksmanship (38%-22% overall, 48%-23% power) resulted in leads of 152-97 overall and 114-57 power as well as commanding gaps of 7-0-1 in the CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects and on the scorecards of Glenn Trowbridge (80-72), Kermit Bayless (79-73) and Max DeLuca (79-73).
The only fight that remained intact was the co-feature pitting junior welterweights Richardson Hitchins and Nick DeLomba. Like Newman, Hitchins will be making his second straight appearance on ShoBox and while his debut against Kevin Johnson paired two scientific boxers, Hitchins-DeLomba offered a pleasing boxer-aggressor contrast. Against Johnson, Hitchins built small but decisive statistical leads (116-86 overall, 30-17 jabs, 86-69 power, 46-30 body connects and percentage gaps of 23%-16% overall, 14%-10% jabs and 30%-19% power) because he was slightly better in every category while DeLomba overwhelmed Chris Singleton with heavy leather (94.8 punches per round to Singleton’s 54.8) that also landed more precisely (31%-25% overall, 11%-7% jabs, 43%-34% power). The result was connection leads of 236-108 overall, 33-11 jabs and 203-97 power, a 75-67 edge in landed body shots and a near-shutout on the scorecards (79-73 twice, 78-74). DeLomba exhibited excellent second-half strength as he out-landed Singleton 116-42 overall and 97-37 power in Rounds 6 through 8 and, given this history, he had to hope that he could inflict enough damage in the early rounds to set up a strong finishing kick.
I reached ringside shortly before my 12:30 p.m. call time and it didn’t take long for the necessary green lights to be produced. Following the crew meal at the Firelight Buffet, I spent some down time chatting with the two timekeepers seated to my left, veteran referee Jay Nady (who I interviewed for a feature on Mills Lane for a RING magazine feature nearly three decades ago), ring announcer “Rambling” Ralph Velez, judge Max DeLuca and, of course, my CompuBox compatriot Dennis Allen.
During the undercard, Dennis informed me that a name from the distant past was in the lobby awaiting entry to the venue – Dale Stewart.
I had not seen Dale for more than a decade and our most memorable encounter took place in 2007 when he and I took part in a charity “fight night” arranged by ESPN blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore that pitted members of the ESPN crew against one another – truck guys versus truck guys and, in our case, punch counter versus punch counter. ESPN even went to the trouble of shooting a promotional video that included face-offs featuring the six combatants.
A complete rendering of the back story leading up to fight night would require several thousand more words but, suffice it to say, fight night did not turn out as I expected – or wanted. Ours was the first fight on the three-fight show held in a gym in Glastonbury, Connecticut (which was not far from the location of the following night’s show), and our contest was scheduled for two two-minute rounds. We wore head gear and protective cups – though my gear was terribly ill-fitting – and, for a change, the people outside the ring boasted far more star power than the two of us inside the ring: Dale’s chief second was 1996 U.S. Olympian Lawrence Clay-Bey; mine was light heavyweight title challenger “Iceman” John Scully and our referee was future Hall-of-Famer Steve Smoger. The audience of several hundred included NBA players, NFL stars and two-division titlist Vinny Paz.
Because of a hip issue Dale incurred even before we agreed to do the bout – and because our fight was decidedly not the main event – I agreed to his suggestion that we leave the real fighting to the other two matches. “I won’t hurt you; you won’t hurt me and that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said. In my eyes, it wouldn’t have been sporting to take advantage of an opponent I knew was injured, so my focus was to compete but not at full intensity.
That all changed when Dale roared out of his corner, nailed me with a big right hand and began blasting away at my ribs. To me, it was an ambush and it took everything I had just to remain upright. Every time he hit the side of my head, my too-large headgear spun around and left me with vision on only one side. He knocked out my mouthpiece on at least two occasions and I banged my left knee on the canvas after falling into a clinch. Given the circumstances, I could have chosen to find a soft spot on the floor, take a 10-count and leave with my brain cells intact but my pride and competitive streak wouldn’t dare permit that. Instead, I lasted out the round and made it back to my corner, where Scully awaited me.
After squirting cold water on the back of my neck, my chief second gave me basic instructions and I did my best to follow them. I managed to get in a decent right or two and I mustered a mini-rally in the final 30 seconds when Dale finally got a little tired. However when the final bell sounded, I felt terribly disappointed in myself. I was exhausted, hurt and humbled.
The first score was 20-18 for Dale, which I thought was a correctly rendered verdict. The second, however, was 19-19, which brought in the possibility of a majority draw. But that hope was dashed when the third ballot read 20-18 for the deserved winner.
Incidentally whenever Scully and I meet, he makes a point to say how proud he is of me and that my effort was much better than I thought it was. I appreciate the kind words but I believe that had I been in a more combative state of mind I would have performed better – much better.
For this reason, one part of me dearly wanted a rematch. However my more pragmatic side said that if I had no business being in the ring at 42, I had less business being inside the ropes at 55. When I told Smoger this story years later, he said the following: “If anyone ever approaches you about doing something like this again, tell them that Steve Smoger has officially retired you.” Who am I to argue with a Hall-of-Famer – especially one who was known for giving fighters every possible chance to recover from a crisis? Besides, I like my brain cells and I want to keep them.
Once the adrenaline began to subside, I began to feel the effects of combat – a bruise on the left knee, the numbness in my face, the inability to open my mouth as widely as I normally could, the pain in my ribs and the combination of multi-colored specks in my field of vision and the compromised equilibrium that I later learned was the result of a mild concussion. When I reached out to Dale on Facebook a few years later and asked why he did what he did, his answer was simple yet illustrative: “All’s fair in love, war and boxing.”
And now, Dale was here.
I stepped outside the venue and scanned the faces in the hopes of picking out the one that matched my memory of Dale, who, in his younger years, bore a slight resemblance to baseball Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson. I spotted him an instant before he spotted me and when our eyes locked, both our faces broke out in wide smiles. Despite what happened so many years ago, I never bore any ill will toward him and it was apparent he felt no awkwardness around me. We spent the next several minutes catching up, then I asked him about his knee: Was it really hurt the day of our fight or was he play-acting?
“It was really hurt,” he said. “The only reason I charged toward you was because that was the only direction I could move. I couldn’t go from side to side and I couldn’t back up. Not only that, it never got better.” I knew this to be the truth because even before I asked him about it, I noticed he walked with a limp.
I still have the trophy he was awarded for winning our fight – he offered it to me because he had too many other trophies at home – as well as the medallion given to me for taking part in the event. Best of all, we still have our friendship. He didn’t know about the concussion he gave me and he offered a sincere apology that I accepted.
We parted with a hug – one of several we had during our visit – and promised to keep in touch.
I returned to ringside and watched much of the undercard. The best fight in terms of plot twists was the scheduled 10-round super middleweight fight between Las Vegas’ Lanell Bellows and Indianapolis’ Malcolm Jones. Both men had to rise from knockdowns; a combination capped by a left hook sent an off-balanced Bellows staggering across the ring before hitting the canvas early in Round 2 while a crunching overhand right dropped Jones in Round 3. This war ended in the fourth; moments after a right to the temple and a hook to the body caused Jones to wobble, Bellows connected with a crushing right to the jaw that left Jones flat on his back. Jones’ head hit the canvas with a scary thud and referee Kenny Bayless, seeing Jones’ semi-conscious body spread-eagled underneath the ropes, waved off the fight. The time: 2:55 of Round 4.
The non-TV undercard began with welterweight Micky Scala (2-0, 1 KO) scoring a third round TKO over Nathaniel Morrow (2-3, 2 KOs), which was followed by Kevin Johnson’s eight-round decision victory over fellow welterweight Ryan Pino that raised Johnson’s mark to 8-2 (with 5 KOs) and lowered Pino’s to 8-5-2 (with 4 KOs). Southpaw junior welterweight Frank Martin (11-0, 8 KOs) impressively picked apart the willing but outclassed Reymond Yanong (10-5-1, 9 KOs) before scoring the fourth round TKO victory, after which welterweight Rock Myrthil upped his record to 17-0 (14 with KOs) at the expense of Johnny Rodriguez, who lost an eight-round unanimous decision to decline to 9-6-1 (with 5 KOs).
A cruiserweight match between Viddal Riley and Muhammad Adullah immediately followed the Bellows-Jones war, and, as is often the case, youth won out over age as the 22-year-old Riley scored a three-way 40-36 decision over the 34-year-old Abdullah to raise his ledger to 4-0 (with 2 KOs) while the southpaw Adbullah’s mark eroded to 4-2-1 (with 2 KOs).
The final fight of the non-TV portion of the card saw “Memphis” Ladarius Miller – a Las Vegas-based southpaw hailing from Memphis – score a unanimous decision victory over Marcos Jimenez to advance his record to 21-1 (with 6 KOs) and drop Jimenez’s to 24-10 (with 16 KOs). A questionable point penalty assessed against Miller in Round 8 negated the third round knockdown he scored, thanks to a solid left cross but, in the end, Miller’s superior technique and sharper strikes earned him the nod from the judges (96-92 twice, 95-93).
The Miller-Jimenez decision was announced just three minutes before the start of the Showtime telecast. All in all, the eight fights that made up the non-TV undercard were entertaining; would the three set to follow continue the pattern?
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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