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The Travelin’ Man goes to Hinckley: Part One

Grand Casino Hinckley, Hinckley, Minnesota
16
Mar

Thursday, March 12: As a rule, we humans are comforted by the known, the routine and the expected. For most of us, there are certain aspects of life that can be counted on – the comforts of home, the joys of good health and the love of family among them. While we occasionally complain about the tedium of daily life, the reality is that we would prefer tedium over the alternative.

For the better part of a month – and especially in the days since I returned home from Las Vegas on March 1 – the globe has been gripped by the fear of the unknown, the stress caused by an unseen and unpredictable enemy and the dread powered by the prospect that someone we love, or perhaps ourselves, could be the next victim of an affliction that could strike at any moment and whose genesis could occur from the smallest, unintentional and most insignificant act.

The attrition from the avalanche of alarming headlines has exacted a terrible toll on millions of psyches and one expression of that toll has been the cratering of the world’s financial centers. For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which seemed destined to storm through the 30,000 threshold a few weeks earlier, has plummeted more than 8,000 points thanks to an ill-timed oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia as well as the medical malady that has become the time’s most ubiquitous word in the English language – coronavirus.

The world’s newest “C-word” was officially dubbed “Covid-19” as well as “severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2” (or “SARS-CoV-2”) by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses and the drive to stop its spread has resulted in a tidal wave of severe measures that have touched all aspects of daily life. The reasons behind these moves are obvious and fueled by good intent but the results, at least so far, have only intensified the specters of our worst-case scenarios.



While very few people have the power to influence global behavior, each of us is in full control of how we address our own situations. As I prepared to start my seventh outbound journey of 2020, I decided to adopt the following attitude concerning coronavirus: I will be vigilant but not paralyzed, cautious but not petrified and careful but not paranoid. I will do my best to heed the advice given by those in the know such as frequent hand-washing, getting the proper rest, carrying hand sanitizer, covering up sneezes, avoiding handshakes and so on, doing so with an attitude of prevention for myself and protection for others.

When I began what would become one of the most dangerous drives of my life this past January – a three-hour white-knuckler from Sioux City, Iowa, to Omaha, Nebraska, though blizzard conditions and on no sleep – I increased my awareness level to its maximum and adopted an emotional template that has long served me well: Respect the conditions. As I did then, I will do now.

 

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Today’s destination – Hinckley, Minnesota – is a new one for me and it will mark the first time I’ve worked a show in “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” in more than a decade. I recall working a 2007 ESPN “Wednesday Night Fights” show in Minneapolis but I couldn’t find a “Travelin’ Man” article associated with that visit following a quick look through my archives. In any case, this also will be my first visit to the Grand Casino Hinckley, which, according to BoxRec.com, was set to host its 48th boxing event since its inaugural show in October 1999. That card featured few names that were familiar even to the hardest of hardcores but I did recognize heavyweight Bill Corrigan (who stopped Brian Sergeant in two rounds in what would be his final professional fight) and junior middleweight Wayne Martell, who raised his record to 12-0 (with 10 knockouts) by blasting out the 0-11 Lonzie Pemberton in one round. Martell went on to defeat past-prime versions of Meldrick Taylor (UD 10) and Livingstone Bramble (UD 10) but was stopped in 128 seconds by a near-prime Zab Judah in October 2004. Martell fought on until September 2017 and the 43-year-old ended his career on a positive note as he scored a six-round split decision over the 2-5 (with 1 KO) Jacob Fox in New Town, Connecticut. As for Corrigan, he fought (and lost) to a host of heavyweight notables such as Mike Weaver (TKO by 2), Bruce Seldon (KO by 1), Francois Botha (TKO by 1), David Izon (KO by 1), Joe Hipp (KO by 1) and Wladimir Klitschko (TKO by 1).

Since then, several notables have fought at the Grand Casino Hinckley. They include Harold Brazier, Caleb Truax, Alfredo Angulo, Mickey Bey, Andre Dirrell, Sechew Powell, Antwun Echols, Fernando Guerrero, Gary Russell Jr., Jamal James, Rob Brant, Dennis Hogan, Ismael Barroso, Jarrell Miller, Mikaela Mayer, Joshua Greer Jr., Steven Nelson and Shawn Porter.

On Friday, a fresh roster of hopefuls will seek to make their mark inside the casino’s event center. Should the card proceed as scheduled, the main event would pit 20-year-old knockout artist Brandun Lee (18-0, with 16 KOs) against 33-year-old cutie Camilo Prieto in a scheduled 10-round junior welterweight bout while the undercard would pair junior welterweights Brian Norman Jr. (16-0, with 14 KOs) and Flavio Rodriguez (9-1-1, with 7 KOs), lightweights Alejandro Guerrero (11-0, with 9 KOs) and Jose Angulo (12-1, with 5 KOs) and featherweights Aram Avagyan (9-0-1, with 4 KOs) and Dago Aguero (15-0, with 10 KOs), all in scheduled eight-rounders.

But will the show go on? That turned out to be a viable question given what unfolded over the next few hours. More on that later.

I arose at 6 a.m. with an eye on departing the house by 7 and arriving at the airport by 9:30 in order to catch my first plane of the day – an American Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport that was scheduled to leave at 11:35 a.m. Even without the coronavirus threat, I entered this trip with some meteorological and logistical reservations. I originally sought to fly to Minneapolis through Dallas Fort-Worth to avoid possible weather issues but was advised to fly through O’Hare because it was a shorter flight, a more direct transition point in relation to Minneapolis and a markedly cheaper option. Given these reasons, I agreed to the switch, though I wasn’t sure what I was going to face in Chicago in terms of the conditions as well as my past difficulties traveling through there.

Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, the switch proved to be a good one as the forecast in Chicago was quite tame and very similar to Pittsburgh’s overcast, mid-40s conditions.

When I checked into my flights yesterday, I received an instant First-Class upgrade for my Chicago-to-Minneapolis leg while securing a window seat in row nine with extended leg room for the Pittsburgh-to-Chicago trip. But when I placed my mobile boarding pass onto the scanner for the first flight, it rejected the code. The reason: Between yesterday and now, I was bumped up to First-Class. The gate agent printed and scanned my new boarding pass, which placed me in the aisle of row two, and proceeded with the process.

My seatmate was a middle-aged woman who was closely connected to the NCAA women’s hockey tournament and though we were able to chat from time to time, she was keenly focused on her phone because the status of the game she was scheduled to work was in flux. She first was told that the contest was going to proceed but with only close family and staff being allowed into the arena but, later in the flight, she was informed the game was cancelled. Hers wasn’t the only one affected; it was later announced that all NCAA post-season tournaments involving winter and spring sports – including “March Madness” – would not take place this year due to the coronavirus threat.

As the day proceeded, virtually every sport followed suit. The NBA and NHL suspended their schedules until further notice while Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer announced it would delay the start of their regular seasons. The PGA Tour announced it would hold its first round of THE PLAYER’S Championship, then a few hours later, suspended play, then cancelled the tournament as well as all events through at least the Valero Open (April 2-5), bringing in the possibility that the Masters could be negatively affected. UEFA called off its Champions League and Europa League games while the Premier League and La Liga pushed back their schedules. The two major tennis associations (the ATP for the men, the WTA for the women) announced play would be halted; the ATP cancelled tournaments for the next six weeks while the WTA called off the next four events.

The scheduling chaos extended to boxing as Top Rank announced it would not stage cards at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater on Saturday and Tuesday while Saturday’s Premier Boxing Champions show topped by James Kirkland-Marcos Hernandez and Thompson Boxing’s “Night of Champions” card set for the same night were called off. Other casualties included Golden Boy Promotions events set for March 19 and March 28, the Broadway Boxing card that was to be streamed on UFC Fight Pass on March 19, the Murphy’s Boxing event set for March 14, a March 27 show in Puerto Rico…and on…and on…and on.

Some boxing events, such as Friday night’s Telemundo-televised show in Mexico City, shows in Buenos Aires and Bangkok and at the historic King’s Hall in Stoke-on-Trent England, were scheduled to proceed. That exclusive list, at least for now, also included this event in Hinckley, though future events – as well as public pressure – could cause a sudden reversal.

For decades, sports were viewed as an escape from the problems of the real world but for the first time in three-quarters of a century – World War II – the prospect of a world without elite-level professional sports for an extended period has become a very real prospect. With the tsunami of cancellations, there literally will be no escape from coronavirus.

The plane left Pittsburgh five minutes later than expected but touched down (or, rather, stomped down) in Chicago at 11:50 a.m. CDT, 29 minutes ahead of schedule. Even better: My connecting gate for the Minneapolis flight was less than 500 steps away from my arrival gate.

The Chicago-to-Minneapolis leg was mostly spent chatting with my seatmate, a business executive whom, like me, loves what he does. He grew up around boxing – his grandfather judged numerous club shows – and while he was aware of the happenings in today’s heavyweight division his focus has been centered on the demands of leadership – as it should be.

The plane landed in Minneapolis at 2:47 p.m. and I was pleased to see that the weather could not have been much better – a partly sunny sky and a temperature in the 40s. One could fairly say that instead of Minnesota Ice, I was blessed with Minnesota Nice.

After deplaning, I secured my rental vehicle from Avis – a white Ford Ranger. I haven’t driven many vehicles of this size but if one drives long enough (39 years for me) the proper adjustments will come quickly – and, for me, they did. I later learned through a story written by Sean Szymkowski on March 11 that 5,384 Ford Rangers would have to be returned to their respective dealers to address an issue with the HVAC blower motor. I wish I had known this before the AVIS person assigned this model to me, for I ended up experiencing my own episode.

About halfway into the 90-minute drive, the truck’s dashboard suddenly indicated a tire pressure irregularity, a development that prompted me to take the next exit, find the nearest gas station and determine whether I experienced a flattening tire or if the vehicle merely needed a quick injection of air.

Upon exiting the truck, I examined the tires and, to me, they appeared normal. In fact, they looked as if they were slightly overinflated. At that, I mentally shrugged, re-entered the truck and found my way back to Interstate 35E North. A few minutes later, the warning sensor vanished on its own and never reappeared. A theory: From time to time in my own vehicle, a sudden change in air temperature could trigger a false reading and because the temperature indicator inside the truck read it was in the mid-40s in Minneapolis but was in the 30s at the time the sensor reacted here, this theory appeared as good as any.

I arrived at the hotel without further incident and, after checking into my room, I headed downstairs to seek an early-evening meal. In doing so, I ran into ring announcer Thomas Treiber. Upon seeing me, he immediately extended his right elbow – our new world’s replacement for a handshake or a high-five – and informed me that he had just finished emceeing the weigh-in. Given today’s events, there was talk that the show could either be called off or be staged without a paying audience.

Upon hearing the second option, my mind immediately flashed back to two sporting events that were staged under a mandatory “no spectators” edict. The first occurred March 11, 1989 at Siena University, the site of the North Atlantic Conference championship game between Siena and Boston University. A measles outbreak on Siena’s campus that ended up spreading far beyond the campus environs caused the Saints to play nine consecutive games with no one in the stands and the final game was a buzzer-beating 68-67 victory over BU that vaulted Siena to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

The second happened April 28, 2015, when the Baltimore Orioles hosted the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards. Here, however, the cause was not medical but social – the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died nine days earlier due to various injuries suffered while in police custody. The public unrest – and the damage caused by that unrest – forced Major League Baseball to order the first closed-door game in MLB history. For the record, the O’s won 8-2.

I bumped into members of the technical crew and all the talk was about the tidal wave of sports-related cancellations, much of which would have a direct effect on their livelihoods. One told me that tens of thousands of dollars of potential income was lost in a matter of hours, bringing into doubt whether the next mortgage payment could be made. Multiply that situation by the dozens of support staff that make these shows work and one gets a mere sliver of the massive negative impact this crisis has already created on so many levels. Just imagine the chaos that would ensue if this trajectory stretches beyond weeks and into months and that prospect is one of the reasons why the panic over this pandemic has been so pronounced.

As for me, as stated earlier, I intended to focus on being safe in the here and now and address the future when the future comes. Until then, life goes on.

Tom and I had dinner at a diner inside the casino, after which I spent the remainder of the evening inside my room. I made sure to wear gloves while handling the TV remote (the same gloves I wore while driving the rental vehicle) and I washed my hands whenever I sensed I did something that could increase my risk. Shortly after 2 a.m. local time, I turned off the TV, then turned myself off to the rest of the world.

 

Friday, March 13: After rising at 8 a.m. and spending the next couple of hours crafting and polishing this travelogue, I headed downstairs to buy mid-morning refreshment. Here I heard a final decision had been made regarding tonight’s broadcast: Yes, it would go on but would do so without paid spectators.

Without diminishing the seriousness of the underlying reason, I couldn’t help but think that this most surreal scenario would come to pass on Friday the 13th.

Sure, I’ve been at ringside for very deep undercard fights that took place even before the doors were open to the public but I’ve never been present at a boxing show at which the general public was barred from entering the venue. One aspect that immediately came to mind concerned the on-air talent and how loudly they would be able to speak. Normally the excitement of the live audience would give them license to fully emote the ebbs and flows of a match but under these conditions, would they be forced to speak in the hushed tones of a golf announcer?

No, according to Hall of Fame writer/broadcaster Steve Farhood.

“I intend to speak totally normally,” he said. “I think muscle memory is going to dictate that I call a fight the way I always call a fight. Do I realize that my words will be heard by the fighters, corner men and referee? Yes. But I don’t plan on letting that influence my speech.”

He then posed a question that sparked a memory.

“How many times have I heard a corner man screaming at his fighter – and you know the fighter can’t hear him – but he does it anyway? It makes me think back to the early 1980s: Sands Hotel, Atlantic City, world championship fight. Perhaps because most of the fans in attendance were gamblers, not real boxing fans, the atmosphere was subdued. The fans were sitting on their hands and they seemed like they didn’t care because they probably were given the tickets. That’s something that could relate to tonight. You could hear everything (CBS blow-by-blow man) Tim Ryan and (Hall of Fame analyst) Gil Clancy were saying, even in the back rows. And you know what? It’s still a fight, no different than any other fight. An interesting question is to ask the fighters after the show if they heard us or were influenced by us. Raul (Marquez) is great with the Xs and Os; he knows his stuff and they might pick up on something he says.”

Then, with a wry smile, he concluded with this: “Any fighter worth his salt who is listening to what we say during the fight his halfway to losing in the first place.”

The interview concluded a couple of minutes before my 2 p.m. call time and as I walked into the event center, I noticed two concessions were made to the coronavirus situation. First, there would be people at ringside during the matches – fighters, family, support staff, media, commission officials, timekeepers, referees, round card girls, Showtime personnel and, of course, punch-counters – just not as many as would normally be the case. Excluding the seats reserved for event personnel and media, I counted 81 chairs inside the barrier, 62 seats in the three rows outside the barrier directly behind me, two sets of two-deep 22-seat rows beyond the barriers and two rows totaling 45 chairs. That means that if every seat inside the arena were occupied, the “sellout” figure would be 195, a far cry from the approximately 2,000 this room would normally hold.

Second, CompuBox’s work station is usually located at ringside near one of the neutral corners but here, our table was placed 15 feet away from the ring, which I saw as a precautionary measure. While this location was not the norm for the “ShoBox” cards I work, this is the customary viewpoint I have for the “Showtime Championship Boxing” cards, so CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak and I were well accustomed to this vantage point.

As the undercard fights began with a scheduled six-round welterweight fight between Detroit’s Joseph Bonas (7-0, 6 KOs) and Lancaster, Pennsylania’s Evincii Dixon (9-25-2, 4 KOs), it became clear that far fewer than 195 people would bear witness to this show. I estimated that figure to be between 50 and 70 but because several of those people had direct rooting interests, they generated their fair share of volume.

The Friday the 13th spirit resulted in a pair of blue-corner upsets to begin the show as Dixon registered three knockdowns en route to a second round TKO while heavyweight James Barnes of Pine City, Minnesota, began his pro career by halting Duluth’s Danyelle Williams, now 3-2 (1 KO), also in Round Two.

That string ended in bout No. 3 as heavyweight Colton Warner of Apple Valley, Minnesota, pitched a three-way 40-36 shutout over Kansas City, Missouri’s Preston King to raise his record to 2-0 (with 1 KO) while eroding King’s to 4-12 (with 4 KOs). Treiber, who was once a professional wrestler, told me that Warner is the son of onetime pro JW Storm, a native of Minneapolis who was with World Championship Wrestling at the same time as Treiber and who wrestled, among others, The Undertaker, Rick Martel, The Warlord, Hercules Hernandez and “Jumping” Jim Brunzell during his time with the WWF (now the WWE). He was also a successful boxer as he, now fighting under his real name of Jeff Warner, amassed a 22-2 (with 22 KOs) record between 1989-2000. Warner was one for short nights – win or lose – for his only two losses came against Bill Corrigan (KO by 2) and Lorenzo Boyd (KO by 2) while all of his 22 KO victories were completed within four rounds, including nine in the opening stanza.

The rest of the undercard continued as Duluth heavyweight Ryan Watson (6-1-2, with 2 KOs) out-pointed Topeka’s Lawrence Subelka (1-3) over four rounds; St. Cloud, Minnesota, lightweight Joe James (8-0, with 5 KOs) halted Milwaukee’s Mike Fowler (7-27, with 2 KOs) in two. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, middleweight Cruse Stewart (7-0, with 6 KOs) cruised to a points win over Maywood, Illinois’ Martez McGregor (8-4, with 6 KOs) and Minneapolis featherweight Marlon Sims (8-0, with 4 KOs) scored a majority decision over Dallas’ Charles Clark (3-7-1, with 1 KO).

With the non-TV fights completed, this most unusual episode of “ShoBox: The New Generation” was set to commence.

 

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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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