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The Travelin’ Man stays home

"The Travelin' Man," Lee Groves' Home Office
21
Apr

If life had proceeded in the expected way after I returned home from Hinckley, Minnesota, on March 14, this Travelin’ Man would have worked scheduled shows in Las Vegas on March 28 and April 24, in Grand Island, Nebraska, on April 10, in Phoenix on April 24 and in Flint, Michigan on May 9. I would have written about the many adventures I experienced while getting from Point A to Point B and back, about the fights that unfolded during those shows, about the people I was lucky enough to meet on the flights and at ringside and about whatever extraneous thoughts and issues that came to mind along the way. However thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, all of those dates (and potential experiences) were cancelled and in their place was a path that humankind hadn’t been asked to walk in more than a century.

Following the advice of medical experts, lawmakers enacted rules designed to limit the spread of this airborne malady, rules that have paralyzed the economy, resulted in considerable loss of income for countless millions and forced the vast majority of us to transform the way we live, the way we interact with other people and the manner in which we perceive the world. New habits have been formed – wearing masks in public, washing our hands far more frequently to protect ourselves and the ones we love, being mindful of remaining at least six feet from another person at all times, wearing gloves and having hand sanitizer within easy reach – and these rules of engagement (or non-engagement) will likely stick until we are given the assurance of a vaccine.

Like everyone else, I have absorbed a sizable financial hit but thanks to the benevolence and loyalty of editor-in-chief Doug Fischer, I have been given the opportunity to generate fresh income. This is the fourth story I’ve written for RingTV.com since posting my articles about Hinckley and another article will appear in an upcoming issue of The Ring. As a result, I still have a sense of purpose and I still feel the rush of accomplishment that comes from completing a fresh task.

Those articles have also helped me occupy the many hours of free time that have been thrust upon me due to the absence of necessary CompuBox research. Some of those hours have been spent on twice-a-week grocery runs – runs that are legal in West Virginia – but the vast majority of them have seen me inside my Home Office, where the entirety of my DVD collection and nearly every magazine I’ve ever purchased is located.



I’ve long been an amateur student of human nature and one aspect I’ve experienced time and again is that those of us who are blessed with the passion to be productive usually find a way to feed that passion whenever possible. Sometimes, however, the opportunities came to me.

This past week, I was asked by former Ring editor-in-chief and current SiriusXM broadcaster Randy Gordon to be interviewed for “Randy’s Ringside,” his Facebook Live show that expanded from three days to five days per week during the pandemic. Before that, I received an email from matchmaker Eric Bottjer with only his phone number and a request to call him. During that call, he proposed that I be one of the first three contestants on a “Jeopardy”-style game show on the Zoom platform. My scheduled opponents: Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz and writer/historian Don Majeski.

Upon hearing this, I thought the following: “If I’m going to be at the pool, I might as well be in the deep end.” To be honest, I thought myself to be the third wheel; I’ve been a fan of the sport for 46 years but Peltz has been a promoter for a half-century and Majeski was covering “The Rumble in the Jungle” a few months after I became acquainted with the sport. But I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge and, in my mind, I had nothing to lose – these guys are supposed to defeat me…right?

Oddsmaker Charles Jay produced preliminary figures for this showdown: Peltz was a -180 favorite while Majeski’s price was +170 and mine +450. Some people in my position would have bristled at being discounted but I was honest enough to realize that while I know more about boxing history than the average bear, these were no average bears – they were Kodiaks.

I was a bit heartened by Jay’s pre-match assessment: “Groves may be classified as an up-and-comer who could be ready to carry the torch. Lee is a writer for Ring Magazine who also works with CompuBox, which compiles ‘punch stats’ for televised fights. He is also co-author (with CompuBox co-founder Bob Canobbio) of ‘Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,’ a terrific book based on his statistical research. ‘I would not count Lee out of this at all,’ says Jay. ‘He loves to research the sport’s history and you’ve got to remember that, as someone who has to be quick enough to hit those punch stat buttons during a fight, he’s got the reflexes that might be a key in responding to the questions – or the answers, as they were. Maybe that’s something to factor in.’”

My attitude was similar to that of Rocky Balboa’s before his first fight with Apollo Creed: I just wanted to go the distance, not embarrass myself and show everyone that I at least belonged in the same ring as them. I also knew I was at the mercy of those who were assembling the questions and no amount of preparation could adequately steel me for what was to come. In other words, I had to go with what I know.

After downloading the Zoom program and being given a tutorial last Saturday, we competed on Monday. Peltz and I were at the ready well before the 4 p.m. start but Majeski was unable to compete due to computer problems. Veteran promoter Roy Englebrecht – who checked into the Zoom Room as a spectator – came out of the audience to take Majeski’s place. As Bottjer – who was our equivalent of Alex Trebek – prepared to ask the first question, I definitely felt the butterflies. Even Russell said his hand was shaking.

Since his name was drawn from the hat, Englebrecht won the honor of choosing the first category – “nicknames” for 100 points. The question: Who was known as the “Hispanic Causing Panic”? I instantly “raised my hand” by clicking the appropriate icon and correctly answered “Juan Lazcano.” Just like the football player coming off an injury who needed the first hit to settle in, I felt the same sensation about having drawn first mathematical blood.

By the end of the first round of questions, I was actually ahead – 1,500 points to Peltz’s 1,100 and Englebrecht’s minus-100. The competition was largely a match play between Russell and me and by the time we got to “Final Jeopardy,” the game was still up for grabs as he led 5,400 to 4.500.

The final category was “Joe Louis Title Defenses,” a category for which I had modest confidence. I wagered 2,500 points and hoped Russell would either miss or to bet too little.

The last question was, “against which opponent did Louis fight the last scheduled 20-rounder?” I errantly scribbled down, “Arturo Godoy,” while Russell correctly responded “Abe Simon.” As expected, Russell won the match but I’m glad I made him work for it.

“Congratulations to J Russell Peltz on being the Round One winner,” Jay wrote on his Facebook page following the event. “Lee Groves – you did kick a little ass out there, my friend.” Although I lost, I had tons of fun and I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the competition from the virtual peanut gallery.

Other ways I spent my shelter-in-place was chatting on the phone with friends in the boxing world – most notably IBHOF emcee and “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith, longtime boxing judge Steve Weisfeld and Jeff Brophy, a vital cog in the operations of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The lion’s share of my waking hours during the last month was to tackle the biggest undone project of all: Transferring my VHS collection to DVD.

Between January 1986 and mid-2004, I accumulated more than 2,500 VHS tapes and over the next 15 years, I found time to transfer some of them to the more modern (and space-saving) format. However between my work responsibilities at various newspapers and the beginning of my second incarnation as a boxing writer in 2003, I had little time to devote to the changeover. In fact, my Home Office space was littered with tapes that I intended to switch over for one reason or another but, for various reasons, I relegated that task to the back burner.

Until now.

It took me about 10 days to transfer, edit, burn and catalog those tapes and the sense of accomplishment I felt as I returned the final tape to its previous place in the collection felt great. I then turned my focus to identifying the tape from which I could resume my chronological transfer. I believed that was around Tape 150 and while there were fights on various tapes that I had previously skipped for one reason or another, it turned out that I had, for the most part, transferred most of my first 268 tapes to DVD. As I started work on Tape 269 – which began with a show aired May 23, 1992 on Galavision – I mentally treated it as a “first-viewing” because I probably hadn’t watched it since I recorded it. That illusion was amplified by the fact that the video quality was very close to what it was during the final year of the George H.W. Bush administration. To date, I have added 87 DVDs’ worth of old material to my collection.

This past Saturday evening I began transferring the contents of Tape 272 and, seeing that it was a Prime Network-televised card from the Great Western Forum, I decided to turn my attention away from live TV and re-live the proceedings. And what proceedings they ended up being!

Allow me to take you back to Monday, June 15, 1992. I was a 27-year-old who was two-and-a-half years into my career as a copydesk person at The Parkersburg News in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a position I would hold until being hired by CompuBox president Bob Canobbio nearly 15 years later. I had already invested 18 years of fandom into “The Sweet Science” and, by now, the price of blank VHS tapes had dropped enough for me to feel comfortable recording every show I could receive. Because I worked at night, I set the timer on my VCR and the channel on my C-band dish before leaving for work and once I returned home, I would spend the first few hours watching the night’s action. This was a ritual I faithfully followed night after night, week after week and year after year.

Forum Boxing was a thriving entity and I looked forward to their twice-a-month shows emanating from the historic site in Inglewood, California. The ringside commentators were Hall of Fame basketball announcer Chick Hearn and four-time world title challenger Ruben Castillo and the televised portion of the card consisted of four fights: A scheduled 10-round heavyweight contest between heavyweights Levi Billups and Joel Humm, a six-round “swing fight” between cruiserweights Tony Willingham and Billy Mitrus, a 10-round featherweight contest between Gabriel Castro and Johnny Chavez and, in the main event, a 12-rounder between NABF bantamweight titlist Cecilio Espino and onetime world title challenger Jose “Pepillo” Valdez.

Billups-Humm opened the telecast and Billups, a former professional football player, was four months removed from a 10-round decision loss to Lennox Lewis that dropped his record to 16-6 (with 9 knockouts). At 232, Billups outweighed Humm, an Erie, Pennsylvania, native with a 13-4-1 (with 10 KOs) record, by 32 pounds. Humm was on a three-fight winning streak but whatever confidence that run had built evaporated once he felt the weight of Billups’ fists. A smashing lead right to the jaw dropped Humm like a shot just 53 seconds into the fight and after unsteadily regaining his feet at seven, a sweeping hook drove him into the neutral corner post, from where he slid down to the floor. Referee Robert Byrd stopped the fight without a count at the 1:24 mark.

But as impressive as Billups’ knockout was, the one scored by “911” Willingham against “Bang Bang” Mitrus was worthy of being “the best little KO of the year.” This was the quintessential “filler fight” that was hurried into the ring due to Billups’ early KO as Willingham entered the ring with a 4-4-1 (with 3 KOs) record and a TKO loss to Kenny Keene seven months earlier while Mitrus, a native of Greece who lived in Australia before moving to Reseda, California, entered this fight off a six-round decision over the 7-1 (with 5 KOs) Gary Willis in Perth three months earlier.

Moments after Hearn stated that “Willingham is said to be a big puncher,” the fighter proved him right in most emphatic fashion. A crushing right to the chin caused Mitrus to freeze in his tracks, his legs bent but somehow still strong enough to keep him upright. Recognizing a crouching duck when he saw one, Willingham fired another flush right to the jaw that left Mitrus unconscious and spread-eagled on the canvas. Referee Marty Denkin, who witnessed the final blow from across the ring, desperately dove in between the fighters in a failed effort to stop the fight before the last punch was landed. Denkin had difficulty removing Mitrus’ mouthpiece and the fighter remained on the canvas for 72 seconds before being lifted onto a stool – four seconds shorter than the fight lasted. Happily he had fully recovered less than a minute later.

With the quick ending of fight No. 2, one of the Forum’s most popular features began: Budweiser’s “Miss Ringsider” contest. During every show during this period, the show’s six round card girls would be introduced to the crowd, who then voted for their favorites. I did the same from my easy chair and my pick on this night was contestant No. 1, a statuesque big-haired brunette named Tanya, who was described as a UCLA-educated student, a winner of the Miss Tropicana and Miss English Leather competitions and a recording artist sponsored by A & A Ready Mix in Gardena, California. In a nod to the politically incorrect times, Hearn dutifully reported that her measurements were 36-23-34. Her competitors included Linda, a onetime L.A. Raiders cheerleader, Billie, an aspiring model/actress/fashion designer, Kelly, a raven-haired music/theater major; Gina, a college junior hoping to become a TV reporter; and Tammy, whose career goal was to become a “high fashion model.” When the results were announced approximately an hour later, Billee was awarded second place (a $200 prize) while Tanya – my choice – won the first-prize check of $1,000 as well as a place in the Miss Ringsider finals.

My first book – “Tales From the Vault” – chronicled 100 fights that qualified as “closet classics,” fights that had all the action and drama of their more famous brethren but somehow fell through the cracks of history. The main event between the 21-year-old Espino and the 27-year-old Valdez would have been one such fight, for it featured vicious two-way action, multiple shifts of momentum and a dramatic stretch drive.

The southpaw Valdez – who fought then-WBC bantamweight champion Raul Perez to a draw in September 1990 – further proved his pedigree by scoring a second round knockdown with a crisp right-left to the chin. He then lost a point for hitting on the break in Round 4, opened a cut over Espino’s left eye in Round 5 and gashed the NABF titlist’s right eye in Round 6. Despite the adversities, the 5-foot-1 Espino – nicknamed “El Torito” – continued to push the fight and, entering the ninth round, Castillo, the ringside scorer, had the fight scored 75-75.

Hearn, arguably the best basketball announcer ever to live, was not held in such esteem as a blow-by-blow man. He did his best to set the stage for what looked to be a dramatic final third by stating the following: “If you’re in Augusta, Florida, and playing in the Masters, this is Amen Corner,” pronouncing “Amen” as “Ah-men” instead of “Ay-men.” I, like virtually everyone listening to the commentary, said out loud to the TV, “Chick, that’s Augusta, Georgia!” Apparently the staffers inside the truck were saying the same thing to Hearn, for moments later, he stated, “If I didn’t say Augusta, Georgia I apologize.” Then, with a mix of disgust and humor in his voice, he added, “That makes one mistake in two years and they holler at me.”

However for Espino, this was his Amen Corner and he produced the rally he needed. He logged two knockdowns in Round 10 thanks to a pair of scorching right uppercuts, nearly scored the TKO in the 11th with a series of flush power shots and won the 12th with room to spare. And yet, the decision was split: Robert Byrd saw Espino ahead 115-110 while Chuck Hassett viewed Valdez a 113-111 victor. The deciding vote belonged to Dalby Shirley, who turned in a 113-112 scorecard for the winner – and still – NABF champion, Cecilio Espino.

The final fight of the telecast saw Castro and Chavez battle to a 10-round draw, which led to a rematch four-and-a-half months later at the Forum. That fight saw Chavez win an eight-round decision to lift his record to 17-1-1 (with 6 KOs) but also suffer detached retinas in both eyes, a development that forced him to retire. While interviewing Castillo for another magazine feature, he told me about Chavez’s story, which, in turn, led to another story.

Two additional events were chronicled during the telecast. The first was a final 10-count for Chuck Minker, the executive director for the Nevada State Athletic Commission since 1987, who died at just 42 following a year-long fight with a rare form of lung cancer. The man who presided over that tribute – ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. – was just five days away from a much happier event, his wedding to the former Christine Heinzelmann, who Hearn said was a resident of Tulsa who had learned about Lennon by watching the “Fight Night at the Forum” series.

One of the more common phrases used to emphasize one’s level of experience in this sport is “I’ve forgotten more about boxing than you have ever learned.” Although I would never demean someone else in that manner, the meaning behind that phrase was driven home by this show. I know I had watched it a few hours after it aired live but these details have been long relegated to the deepest and most inaccessible recesses of my memory. Thanks to this transferring process, those details have been revived and through this platform, I have been able to report them to a new generation of readers.

As for me, I was informed that I earned an honorable mention for a “feature under 1,500 words” from the Boxing Writers Association of America for my Ring Magazine article that paid tribute to “Smokin’“ Bert Cooper. This marks my 19th writing honor but against competitors such as Mark Kriegel (three first places), Don Stradley (two seconds), Ron Borges (the all-time Bernies leader), Lance Pugmire (a first and a second), Mike Coppinger (two first places), Don Stradley (two second places), Jorge Corpas (a second and a third) and perennial placers Thomas Hauser (a 2020 IBHOF honoree), Springs Toledo, Joe Santoliquito, Norm Frauenheim and award namesake (and 2020 IBHOF Hall-of-Famer) Bernard Fernandez, the roster is extremely deep.

No one knows how long this enforced shutdown will last, nor what form the sports world will assume once the phased-in restrictions are completed. Until then, I will continue to relive my boxing past through the transferring process and if I come across more blasts from the past, I will let you know.

Until then, happy trails!

 

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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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