The Travelin’ Man (and The Good Guy) goes to the BWAA dinner
Thursday, June 8: Although I clicked off the light at midnight, it took me more than an hour to fall asleep because my brain refused to shut off. My mind was bombarded with thoughts about the BWAA’s annual awards dinner, which, because of the global pandemic, will honor the 2021 winners as well as the recipients for 2022, of which I am one. I was voted last year’s winner of the Marvin Kohn Good Guy award, a designation originally given to those who were particularly helpful to the boxing media but has morphed into one bestowed to someone perceived to possess excellent character.
I was surprised and humbled that I was chosen among a field consisting of John Scully (who I nominated and voted for), the duo of Sam Jackson and Andrew Roberts, Jose Carlos Ramirez and Gary Russell Jr., not just because of the worthiness of my fellow nominees but also because while other award winners are being recognized for their professional achievements, I am being honored because of how I am viewed as a human being. One look at the list of past winners – Don Dunphy, George Foreman, Harold Lederman, Teddy Atlas, Alexis Arguello, Steve Farhood, Don Chargin, Nonito Donaire and 2021 winner David Diamante among them – illustrated the depth, breadth and quality of this designation.
Although I had written my speech a few months ago, my mind was consumed by how I would deliver it because it included several laugh lines that I hope will get the desired response. Adding to the weight of the moment is that I will be mingling with a high-grade group of athletes and insiders and during that mingling process I will be creating powerful first impressions, especially since I was doing so as an award winner in this category Thankfully, I’ve always been able to make friends easily and I anticipate that will be the case here.
Yes, there are other potential stresses associated with this event – flying for the first time in more than three years, wearing a suit for one of the few times in my life, and engaging in what had been one of the strongest phobias of my life, public speaking – but they are superseded by the overwhelmingly positive reason I’m experiencing them. So, after issuing a short prayer addressing these concerns, Romans 8:31 kept coming to mind: “If God is with us, who can be against us?” With that, I left everything in His hands and began going about the business of experiencing this very special day.
The suit I am wearing is the same one I purchased more than a year-and-a-half ago, and because I have lost 20 pounds since then it fits much more comfortably. I have greatly benefited from a cardio program that has included 395 sessions on a self-powered, slightly inclined 1990s-style treadmill on which I have logged more than 1 million steps. Not only am I noticeably slimmer after I incrementally built up to the 30-minute, five-days-per-week sessions I’ve been producing since the start of this year, I feel immeasurably stronger and healthier. At 58, I am in the best condition of my life and I fully intend to continue that upward trajectory for as long as I am able.
With my flight from Syracuse to LaGuardia scheduled to board at 11:45 a.m. and depart at 12:15 p.m., I opted to check out of the Days Inn in Canastota at 8:40 a.m. so I would give myself plenty of leeway in case unexpected issues arise. That was one of the biggest lessons I learned from my Travelin’ Man days, and, at times, those lessons were administered the hard way.
The drive from Canastota to Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport was pleasingly uneventful and the process of finding an easy-to-remember spot in the parking garage was successful, although the one I chose was a tight fit because of a rather large black truck situated to my left. I might not have been able to squeeze out of my car two years earlier, but now, I did so with relative ease. I jotted the location on my parking stub (Level 2, Aisle L, Space 3), stowed it in my wallet and began the walk toward the terminal entrance. Once there, I checked the flight monitor to make sure Delta Flight 5099 from Syracuse to LaGuardia was still listed as being on time. I was concerned because news reports indicated the ongoing air quality issues caused by hundreds of fires in Canada as well as stubbornly stable weather patterns were causing delays at the New York City airports and might affect flights like mine that will be coming into “The Big Apple.” To my relief, the flight departing from Gate 25 was still intact; in fact, of all the flights listed on that particular monitor, only one was listed as being delayed.
For me, the process of passing through security was clunky. One reason was that the protocols for TSA Pre-Check customers had changed. I misidentified the metal detector through which I needed to walk and I wasn’t as quick or as fluid emptying my pockets as I once had been. On the good side, my two laptops were allowed to remain in its carrier bag (which wasn’t the case in 2020), I didn’t need to take out the baggies containing my small liquids and my belt (which I had forgotten to remove) didn’t contain any metal that would have set off the detector. Good thing, because I wasn’t sure whether my pants would have stayed up if I had to remove it.
After retrieving my luggage, I stopped at a convenience store to purchase a diet soda, then walked toward Gate 25. As I did so, passengers for the aircraft departing for Detroit were in the process of boarding, another sure sign that I had done well in terms of time management. Two long tables complete with electrical outlets was a particularly welcome sight given that I usually spend my down time writing the words you are now reading.
With my flight set to board in a little less than two hours, I smiled at the irony of the series of songs that played over the loudspeakers – “Too Much Time on My Hands” by Styx, “Solid as a Rock” by Ashford & Simpson (a reassuring title given I was about to enter a hollow metal tube that will travel upward of 600 mph), and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” by Aretha Franklin. The latter tune is particularly significant to me because the title of the first feature article I ever wrote for The Ring was titled “The Alphabet War: Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” that appeared starting on Page 12 of the December 1988 issue.
At 10:40 a.m., the day’s pristine trend changed when I glanced up at the gate monitor and saw that my 12:15 p.m. departure was now being pushed back to 1 p.m., a development that was quickly confirmed by a text message and email by Delta. I still had nothing to worry about since the cocktail wasn’t set to start for several more hours, but this still was a troubling trend.
A subsequent announcement at 11:15 p.m. provided more clarity: The plane assigned to take us to New York arrived safely in Syracuse but the advertised departure of 1 p.m. would remain. LaGuardia was voluntarily slowing the pace of arrivals to accommodate issues related to the smoke-filled sky. The new approximate arrival time: 2:14 p.m. – a little more than three hours before the 5:30 p.m. goal.
Once I reached a good stopping point on my writing, I settled into a large comfortable chair at the gate and allowed my mind to project forward to what the dinner might be like. I wondered who would be at my table and whether one of my bosses – CompuBox president Bob Canobbio – would actually be seated at the same table as I hoped he would be. Although Bob and I e-mail each other constantly and talk on the phone occasionally, we rarely see each other in person and I was hoping we would get plenty of face time. I also looked forward to reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen in years. I wondered if they would remember me after all this time.
As I was doing this, the gate monitor suddenly flashed everyone’s favorite eight-letter word of the moment: “Boarding.” Since I don’t fly Delta often, I was placed in the “Main Cabin 2” group, fifth in the pecking order behind physically challenged passengers, active-duty military, first class patrons and “Main Cabin 1” passengers. Once I entered the cabin, I immediately noticed how narrow the aisle was beyond the first-class seats. My theory: Delta apparently added a row of seats on either side in order to generate more per-flight revenue and the tiny space between the outermost seats eliminated the possibility of a beverage service. Moreover, the seats were markedly skinnier; despite losing 20 pounds, my physique barely fit into the available space and the seat belt almost didn’t have enough length for me to click it closed. Had I been at my previous weight, I probably would not have been able to complete that task.
As is my habit, I struck up a conversation with people seated near me. Across the aisle were two young women; one was a mother of two while the other was a college student working as a server to help pay for tuition. Their flight to New York was the first leg of a journey that would take them to Fort Lauderdale, where they would be part of a 14-person bachelorette party. The mother said this was her first flight in five years and, as such, she expressed mild anxiety. I told her about two ways I dealt with my own issues about flying.
The first was, if possible, to constantly look out the window, which addressed my mild acrophobia (fear of heights). By keeping my eyes fixed on the landscape I maintained my equilibrium and my sense of where I was in relation to my surroundings, which, in turn, calmed my mind. Once I landed, my fears were resolved and they never returned. The second method was to tell myself that the people licensed to navigate these roads were trained professionals with thousands of hours of training while the highways on the ground were often populated by yahoos. That joke helped her to relax as well as enjoy the flight a bit more.
For the record, the plane pulled out of the gate at 1:01, began taxiing toward the runway at 1:06, reached the end of the runway at 1:09 and became airborne at 1:26. At 1:45 – just 19 minutes after lift-off, the pilot announced we had started our descent into New York. It was clear to me the pilot was given permission to execute the aeronautical equivalent of stomping the accelerator and shortening the flight path in order to get closer to the original touchdown time.
The flight was free of turbulence and we landed at 2:03, 11 minutes before the advertised time. All in all, it was the perfect reintroduction to the “friendly skies” for this man from Friendly.
Just as I had done in Syracuse yesterday, I walked to the Delta ticket counter to secure my boarding pass for tomorrow’s 11:29 a.m. flight from LaGuardia to Syracuse, and, just like yesterday, that process was seamless. What wasn’t so seamless was the taxi ride to the Edison Hotel, a 45-minute trek through streets so clogged that I was assessed a $2.50 “congestion surcharge.” Although I had the option of challenging the fee with the driver, I opted not to because I was so grateful that it was him, not me, that had to drive these roads.
After arriving at the hotel at 3:30 p.m., I took my place in the check-in line to secure my room key. Once I did, I dropped my bags in the room, then immediately sought to find the location of the dinner. One member of the hotel staff recommended that I call one of the event’s organizers and my choice was the ultimate source – BWAA president Joe Santoliquito. Despite the myriad of last-minute headaches associated with organizing the dinner, he graciously met me in the lobby and showed me where the cocktail (fourth floor) and the dinner (second floor) would be staged. I didn’t care that I was 90 minutes early; all that mattered to me at that moment was that I was where I needed to be well before I needed to be there. We all have quirks that make us who we are, and being an extreme early bird is one of mine.
For quite a while, I was the only person on the guest list in the room, but I didn’t mind because I like my own company. I was soon joined by ultra-historian Henry Hascup and his wife as well as former BWAA president Jack Hirsch. As the room gradually filled, I saw more familiar faces, one of which belonged to longtime ESPN broadcaster Bernardo Osuna, who I first saw two decades ago when he was part of Telefutura’s “Solo Boxeo” series with Ricardo Celis. The subsequent years have seen Osuna become one of the industry’s best, and while I already knew he was a quality person, I experienced it for myself. Upon seeing my tie’s rather unkempt knot – a knot which made straightening the tie an almost impossible chore, he volunteered to create a new, much better-looking knot. I might have been getting the Good Guy award on this night, but with this act, Bernardo certainly earned a future vote from me.
As an award winner, Santoloquito asked me to pose for several pictures with various people, and more than a few guests instantly recognized me and offered their congratulations. Perhaps that’s because the program included a photo of me as well as a wonderful feature story written by good friend (and fellow historian) Cliff Rold. Or maybe it’s just the red hair, glasses and big toothy smile. Being someone who is most comfortable behind the scenes, this was a lot for me to take in. Yes, it was great. Yes, it was a very nice ego boost. But it also was surreal.
I was asked to stop by a nearby table to collect a card bearing my name as well as the location of my table (table 14 to be exact), and, once there, I made sure to grab a chair that was facing the stage. As my table-mates filed in – and, just as I hoped, Bob Canobbio was one of them – I continued to mentally recite my speech so that I could perfect the inflections needed to accurately convey not only my words but my intent. I was so focused on my task – and I was so keyed up by the reality of what was about to unfold – that I simply could not eat. This is another one of my quirks: Although I can juggle multiple assignments when the occasion called for it, my preference is to invest total attention to a single task.
One particularly welcome visitor to our table was veteran ESPN blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore, who not only offered hearty congratulations, but also communicated his supreme confidence that I would produce the best presentation possible. This brief encounter would later prove to be critical.
A little after 8 p.m., my moment of truth had arrived. Osuna gave me a rousing introduction but also made sure to slyly reference that my tie had a particularly outstanding knot. As I made my way up to the stage and stood behind the microphone, I thought to myself “this is it; it’s now or never.”
“Let me begin my remarks by delivering some good news,” I began. “My entire speech is written on one side of one piece of paper.” After getting the hoped-for laugh, I started to read the text that was before me:
After it was announced that I was going to receive this award, more than one person has told me: “isn’t it fitting that a guy from Friendly, West Virginia ended up winning the Good Guy award?” I’ve got to admit – they have a point. In retrospect, it almost seemed meant to be.
I can tell you this: If someone is lucky enough, that person will get to experience moments that they will remember for the rest of their lives. For me, winning this award has produced three:
The first occurred in the Zoom meeting in which the nominees for this year’s awards were chosen. Moments after I successfully nominated John Scully for the Good Guy award, Tris Dixon spoke up and said, “what about Lee Groves?” Now, this could have been awkward for me because the Good Guy award has morphed into one in which a person of good character is honored, and of the five people who would make the ballot, I was the only one who was present at the time of his own nomination. What if the 20 or so people in the room had said, “naw, he doesn’t deserve to be on the Good Guy ballot”? Thank goodness that didn’t happen.
The second happened in January when BWAA president Joe Santoliquito called to inform me that I had won. Now this call happened on the same day that entries for the writing contest were due, and a few hours earlier I texted Joe to make sure that everything had arrived safely. Joe said they did, but now, a few hours later, he was calling me. At first, I thought, “uh-oh, something must have gone wrong with the entries, but it’s really nice of him to call me personally to let me know about it and possibly help me fix it.” But as we were talking, it dawned on me that the award winners were about to be announced and that my entries weren’t the reason why he was calling me. So, at that point, I asked him, “wait a minute; is this call what I think it is?” I don’t remember exactly what Joe said in response, but It was something like, “geez, Lee, do I need to spell it out for you?” I replied “yes, you do. I want to make sure I’m right.” And, thankfully, I was.
The third moment is the one we are all experiencing now: Me, on this stage, delivering this speech in front of the largest and most important audience of my life. I wouldn’t have dared to think that this moment would ever happen, but here it is. While I’m trying my best to drink all of this in, all I’m thinking about right now is a paraphrase of what Angelo Dundee told Sugar Ray Leonard during that famous fight in September 1981: “Don’t blow it son! Don’t blow it!”
There are several people I wish to thank. First and foremost, I want to thank God for being such a strong influence in how I conduct my life. I am nowhere near perfect – none of us are – but He helps me every day in my quest to be the best person I can possibly be. I want to thank my mother Linda, my older sister Cindy, and my father Gary, who passed away in 2017 (in fact, the anniversary of his passing was yesterday). They have been the rocks of my life here on earth. I also want to thank all the people who saw fit to make my professional dreams come true, and they include Nigel Collins, Steve Farhood, Doug Fischer, my podcast partner James “Smitty” Smith and CompuBox president Bob Canobbio, who happens to be sitting at the same table as I am. Finally, I’d like to thank Tris Dixon for nominating me as well as all those who saw fit to vote for me. And, for the record, that did not include me – I nominated John Scully and I voted for John Scully.
After finishing the phone call with Joe, I logged onto the BWAA’s website and looked at the list of past winners. More than a few of them are enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and because I have met many of them during my nearly 50 years in boxing, I knew they were worthy of this honor. I am truly humbled that my name will be listed with theirs for the rest of time.
Allow me to close my remarks with a joke that will be delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Everyone can claim to be a good guy, and even though one can ask his family, his friends and his co-workers about what kind of person he is, the final opinion is usually just that – an opinion. An informed opinion, but still an opinion. But thanks to the Boxing Writers Association of America, to Tris Dixon who nominated me, the people who voted for me, and the award that I will be taking home with me, I now have PROOF that I’m a pretty good guy. Thank you all and good night!”
Throughout the speech I was trying my best to strike a balance between reading the text and engaging with the audience. At one point, I lost my place and was quiet for a few uncomfortable seconds. As I searched for my next words I looked up and saw Tessitore in my direct line of sight. Remembering the confidence he expressed in me, I relaxed, and after that my thoughts snapped back into place. The rest of the speech was delivered with strength and confidence and the moment I stepped away and posed for pictures I knew my prayers had just been answered in the most positive way possible. Samantha, the model with whom all the award winners would pose, was the first to congratulate me on the quality of my speech, and the second was newly crowned two-time WBA featherweight champion Leigh Wood, who was being honored as the winning half of 2022’s BWAA Fight of the Year. Once I returned to my table, I finally was able to start eating – at least a little bit. When I opened the box and looked at the award I had just been given – a beautifully crafted piece of crystal that weighed a lot heavier than it looked – I was left awe-struck.
Throughout the remainder of the evening, dozens of luminaries not only congratulated me on winning the award, but also expressed in the strongest terms how much I deserved it. One even suggested that the award should be renamed for me. To me that is a bridge too far (Harold Lederman, the man who alerted Canobbio of my existence and whose act eventually led to my hiring as a full-timer in 2007, would be a great choice) but it was great to hear.
How can I possibly describe the emotions that swirled within me? For one, it was the most life-affirming event of my life. We all have doubts about our worth, and while some of us develop a strong self-confidence, the vast majority of us use other people to determine our place in this world. After tonight, I have no doubt that, at least so far, I have successfully created an emphatically positive imprint on the industry and the people in it. I can’t count the number of times that I responded with “thank you so much, I appreciate that” and I often said it with a mix of wonder, gratitude and humility. The best way I could describe the dynamic I experienced is to equate it to the final scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Jimmy Stewart’s character, now fully aware of the impact his life has had, is joyously re-inserted into his proper timeline. His guardian angel, Clarence, gifted him with a copy of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” that included the following inscription: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
For all the compliments and the congratulations that I received at the dinner, it would have been easy for me to develop a swelled head and to have an overly inflated opinion of myself. But I’m not built that way – at least I haven’t been for the last several decades. Throughout the years I’ve tried my best to live by the admonition that “pride comes before a fall,” and as a rather cocky child who thought he knew everything when he really knew nothing at all, I experienced the sting of failure and embarrassment enough times to drive home the lesson that it’s much better to treat every success with humility and grace. To me, last night’s event was an invitation to plant my feet even more firmly into the ground, to put my head down and work even harder, and to treat others with even more respect and honor. As I said in the speech, I am not perfect, but I will do my level best to live up to these principles.
When I returned to my room, I dug out my flight itinerary and saw that tomorrow’s flight from LaGuardia to Syracuse was scheduled to depart at 11:29 a.m. I instantly started to do the math and realized that I would have to turn out the lights immediately if I was to have any kind of energy for tomorrow. With that, this most momentous day came to an end.
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 22 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2006. 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. as well as a panelist on “In This Corner: The Podcast” on FITE.TV. 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) as well as the 2022 winner of the BWAA’s Marvin Kohn “Good Guy Award.” To contact Groves, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook and Twitter (@leegrovesboxing).