By Lee Groves
Nearly 11 years since becoming a full-time “boxing person,” I have stated repeatedly how much I love my jobs. For someone who already had been a fan for decades, I couldn’t have asked for a better conglomeration of roles in my professional life – writer, punch-counter, researcher, fact-checker, historian, Hall of Fame voter – that have also resulted in opportunities beyond the workplace, such as consultant, book editor and soon-to-be two-time author.
Sometime during the first quarter of this year, CompuBox President Bob Canobbio and I will release “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” in which data from 47 of his 61 pro fights (including 43 of his last 44) will be presented for the first time in full, much of which will also be accompanied by round-by-round scorecards, provided by renowned researcher Bob Yalen, as well as a richly researched narrative that includes factoids that could not have been resuscitated by web searches alone. As Bob and I head into the homestretch on this project, both of us couldn’t be more pleased with the results of our work. As well-received as my first book “Tales From the Vault” was by readers, we hope “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” will evoke even stronger favorability from readers. For these reasons, and more, 2018 could be a very important and vital year.
That said, even dream jobs have their peaks and valleys and, while the prospects for 2018 represent the peaks, the travelogue you are about to read chronicles some of the valleys. The cause for these valleys are meteorological; as powerful as we humans are perceived to be, we can’t control the combination of Mother Nature, Old Man Winter and Jack Frost, when they decide to unleash their collective fury. All we can do is the best we can and nothing more. If misadventures happen – and regular readers know that, with me, they are a near-certainty – I can comfort myself in the fact that they do give me writing material.
So without further delay, allow me to start the story of my first fistic journey of 2018, a year that promises to be extremely busy and, hopefully, extremely fulfilling.
Thursday, January 11: At the end of the most recent installment of the “Travelin’ Man Chronicles,” which saw me cover Yuandale Evans’ sensational 10-round split decision over Luis Rosa in Cleveland two months ago, I mentioned the possibility of encountering challenging weather due to the date (January 12) and the location of the next show, the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York. For the uninitiated, Verona is located 36 miles east of Syracuse, dubbed by one YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8dFEq8a6FA) as the “snowiest big city in America,” due to the area’s propensity for absorbing Nor’easters, Alberta Clippers and lake effect snow. Just last week, the city added one more winter weather phenomenon to its list, the bombogenesis, also known as the “bomb cyclone,” where a storm system’s barometric pressure must drop by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours to qualify.
Therefore I was on my guard, as I arose at 6:05 a.m. to begin this travel day. Even before starting the morning routines, I logged onto the Weather Channel’s website and looked up the forecast for Syracuse (to where I would be flying via Philadelphia). While this day would be stunningly spring-like – overcast and a high in the upper 50s – the outlook for the trip home Saturday was alarming: a 100-percent chance of snow and a high in the mid-teens. The only questions were “When would the snow hit?” and “Would it hit with the intensity of ‘Slapsie Maxie’ Rosenbloom or ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson?” With a mindset of expecting the worst but hoping for the best, I finished my pre-trip preparations (which included packing a toboggan, heavy gloves and a thicker jacket) and left the house at 6:48 a.m.
The drive to Pittsburgh International Airport was uneventful but I encountered issues, once I entered the “extended stay” parking lot. After unsuccessfully sifting through the first major lot closest to the terminal entrance, I thought I spotted a space near the 12D sign of the second lot. I did indeed but the owner of the vehicle occupying the space next to it – an enormous white SUV with a Wisconsin license plate on the front bumper – prevented me from taking it. The reason: In his attempt to back into the space, so he could leave it by driving forward, he took up three-quarters of his own allotment as well as one-quarter of the space I wanted to use. I still attempted to wedge my way in but, as I did so, it became clear that, even if I succeeded, (1) the space between our doors would be so small that I wouldn’t be able to exit the car and, (2) because of that extremely small gap, I risked having my vehicle damaged by Mr. Monster Truck, upon his departure. After all, if he was this bad a driver, when he originally parked, he’ll probably be just as bad leaving it. Plus, he’d probably be cursing me while doing so because, due to the tight gap between our respective driver’s side doors, he’d have to enter his truck from the other side. With all these negative scenarios flashing through my mind, I decided the space wasn’t worth all that trouble and moved on.
The rest of the search yielded no more openings, so I was forced to retreat to “the hinterlands,” the outermost set of lots where spaces are usually plentiful because no one really wants to park there. But even here, at least in the last few months, spaces were harder to find because construction had closed off at least one entire section. Thankfully that work had been completed since my last visit in November and, as a result, I settled into a space directly under the 19B sign. After all, if I’m going to park in a faraway space, at least I want it to be in an easy-to-find location.
I scribbled that location on my parking lot pass, took out my luggage, locked the car and began the long walk to the terminal entrance. With a temperature in the mid-40s – and because I was five-and-a-half weeks into an ongoing walking regimen that has resulted in a seven-pound weight loss and much better stamina – the trip was, at least, a pleasant one. Plus being a “half-glass-full” guy, it was, if done briskly, a long enough walk to qualify as a mini-workout.
Once I arrived at the security area, I noticed the TSA Pre-Check line extended 100 feet back, while the area for other passengers was nearly empty. For me, the original appeals of Pre-Check were the shorter lines, as well as the less stringent security protocol (especially the ability to keep my two laptops inside my luggage) but, if the majority of fliers end up getting Pre-Check, would TSA then have to create a new program to restore the shorter queues? That’s a question for another time.
After clearing security, taking the tram to the “secure” part of the airport and settling into my seat, at Gate B-30, I looked up at the gate monitor and saw my name was the only one shown on the “upgrade request” list. Just five minutes before boarding, that request was granted. Not only that, I had my choice of seats: Either first row on the aisle or fourth row on the window. I chose the latter for two reasons: First, everyone seated in row one of all cabins is required to stow all luggage in the overhead bin and I’d rather have my laptop bag under the seat in front of me. Second, by sitting near the window, I don’t have to wait until my seatmate arrives to buckle up.
The one-hour flight to Philadelphia was smooth but the landing certainly was not. A possible cause: A forceful crosswind at our landing strip.
My itinerary indicated my connecting gate might be in Terminal F – which, in Philadelphia, meant having to take a bus in order to avoid a second security screening – but, upon looking at the master monitor, I discovered my connecting gate was the same as my arrival gate. Not only that, I learned the identical plane and crew would be used on the Philly-to-Syracuse flight. How convenient.
As I took my seat at Gate B-6, I hardly recognized my surroundings. Before, the gate area looked like a lot of others I’ve encountered in my travels: Long rows of seats along the area’s perimeter, as well as shorter rows in the center. Now I saw several elevated tables of varying lengths – seven seats on each side at one station, others with two and four seats on each side and several restaurant-style booths in the center area. The seats at each station were noticeably plusher and, at each location, there was an iPad from which one, with a swipe of a credit card, can play games or order food from a nearby restaurant. At this gate, the restaurant was the Cibo Bistro and Wine Bar and the wait staff there both brought out orders to the patrons’ locations and disposed the refuse, once the meal was finished.
According to the gate agent, this program began at LaGuardia Airport in New York City and, although the transformation in Philadelphia began six months ago, the effects became most evident in the last two – right around the time of my last trip. He also said the entirety of the B concourse will be so equipped and that work on Concourse C will also take place. Truly this is an airport gate made for the modern age, as well as for the modern consumer. It almost makes me want to arrive at the airport even earlier – almost, that is.
Because I was already assigned a first-class seat for the Philadelphia-to-Syracuse leg – and because I had a third-row window seat and was flying with the same crew – this flight had a “second verse, same as the first” feel. Even the landing was unusually hard.
After deplaning, I approached the Avis counter to secure my rental car, which turned out to be a gray Nissan Altima. Once again, the wheels of progress – also known as construction – blocked the usual route to the parking garage, so I walked an extra 300 feet to get to the nearest exit. Once I drove out of the garage, the familiar sights and sounds from a quarter-century of Hall of Fame weekend trips kicked in and I had no trouble finding the New York Thruway (also known as Interstate 90) and the Turning Stone Resort Casino on Exit 33.
As I approached the check-in desk, I heard a voice call out my name. That voice belonged to Richard Schwartz, a veteran cornerman with whom I formed a friendship, during my many trips to the IBHOF Induction Weekend. He told me he would be working with Sonny Fredrickson, a freakishly tall (6-foot-2) junior welterweight with an 18-0 (12 knockouts) record, slated to fight fellow unbeaten Shohjahon Ergashev (10-0, 10 KOs, including nine in the first two rounds) in the opening TV fight, which, on paper, appeared to be the most evenly-matched bout on the three-fight telecast. We chatted for several minutes and, though I was willing to talk with him a bit longer, he advised me to go on and check into my room – which I did.
While looking for the proper elevator, I ran into Showtime’s Joe Jacovino, to whom I pitch stats during most ShoBox telecasts. Before I saw him, I had toyed with the idea of visiting the Hall of Fame after settling in but,when he told me the weigh-in was set to begin in less than an hour, on the second floor near the event center, my plan changed instantly.
Once I arrived at the weigh-in area, I was greeted with a host of friendly faces. The first of them belonged to Ernie Brown, a 40-year veteran of the sport, known in boxing circles as “the hardest working man in boxing no one knows.” The 61-year-old was known enough by his peers to be inducted into the Illinois Boxing Hall of Fame, last October. As a fighter, he furthered his boxing technique under the watchful eye of Archie Moore, while serving in the Navy in San Diego and, after his boxing career ended at age 43, learned about corner work under Jim Strickland. He was in David Diaz’s corner, when the the former WBC lightweight king faced Humberto Soto at Cowboys Stadium on the Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey undercard, in March 2010. Diaz lost the decision but the experience still overwhelmed Brown.
“It was an honor to walk out in front of 50,000 fans,” Brown told LaMond Pope of the Lake County News Sun upon his induction. “I almost passed out, walking out.”
Like me, Brown can hardly believe his good fortune in the sport he loves. He’s deeply connected within the Kronk orbit (he wore a black-and-red Kronk jacket while I spoke to him and, during our conversation, he mentioned a recent encounter with Thomas Hearns). My assessment of Ernie: While he may be the hardest working man no one knows in boxing, he is definitely one of the nicest people everyone in boxing should get to know.
After saying goodbye to Ernie and his wife Antoinette, I chatted with ring announcer Thomas Treiber and ShoBox Executive Producer Gordon Hall, then with commentators Steve Farhood and Raul Marquez, as well as with well-known judge (and IBHOF president) Don Ackerman and longtime friend and FightNews.com writer “Boxing” Bob Newman. During the weigh-in, I hung out with veteran referees Benjy Esteves Jr., Charlie Fitch and Randy Neumann.
The weigh-in began with the main event between IBF/WBC super middleweight titlist Claressa Shields and challenger Tori Nelson. Both made weight comfortably; the 41-year-old Nelson scaled 164 ¾, while Shields, who, at 22, is the same age as Wilson’s son, weighed 167, one pound under the championship limit. Meanwhile, WBC/WBO middleweight champion Christina Hammer observed the proceedings from a spot in the back of the area. She was supposed to fight on the untelevised undercard but that plan was scuttled because she was unable to secure the proper work visa. I was told she had the option to fight anyway but, without the visa, she wouldn’t have been paid. Wisely she opted to sit out.
The only real fireworks occurred after the Ergashev-Fredrickson weigh-in, where their face-to-face turned into a nose-to-nose. From there, they began shouting at each other and had to be separated. As I previously mentioned, this fight should be the most competitive of the three-fight show (which also includes an excellent 10-rounder between Jesse Angel Hernandez and Ernesto Garza III, both of whom scaled 122 1/2). Although I knew little about Ergashev, beyond his record and his string of early knockouts, an insider told me he thought the Uzbekistani could be “something special” but that this fight would either confirm or debunk his instinct.
I left the weigh-in with Bob, his wife Wendy and a stepdaughter, after which I walked toward the food court to purchase an early-evening meal. Once there, I discovered the lineup of restaurants had changed, so, after scanning the new choices, I opted to get my food at Sam’s Delicatessen, whose fare proved to be more than filling, given the unexpectedly large portions. After consuming the meal, I didn’t feel much like doing anything more than resting and watching TV, which I did until I turned out the light shortly after midnight.
Friday, January 12: As is usually the case, I rested more than I slept. At 6 a.m., I decided to rise for good and I spent much of the morning catching up on the work I probably should have done the previous evening. While the rain came down hard and heavy in the pre-dawn hours, by 10, it had stopped completely and a bit of sunshine even poked through the otherwise gray sky. Still I kept a strong eye on the weather forecast, which had changed overnight. Instead of five-to-10 inches of snow, Syracuse now was in the 10-to-15-inch zone. The potential good news was twofold; one, most of the precipitation was expected to fall during the overnight hours and, two, I was told by locals that Interstate 90 was constantly plowed during big storms and I-90 was the road I would be using most to get to Syracuse’s airport.
As is almost always the case whenever I’m in the area, I planned to visit the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, not just to look at the exhibits once more but also to also reconnect with old friends, which include the men who run the museum, Ed and Jeff Brophy. But first I needed to check into my flights, the first of which was set to leave at 10:45 a.m., from Syracuse to Philadelphia. I was pleasantly surprised my flight was still available to check into because I was told by other Showtime crew members that their flights had been canceled. With boarding passes in hand, I walked back to my room, after which I returned downstairs toward the lobby and the escalator that would take me to the parking garage.
On nearly every trip, I experience a neat coincidence. Here I got two. The first took place after this elevator ride to the floor level. I spoke with a white-haired gentleman about the impending bad weather and how it affected flights. I asked him when his flight was scheduled and, when he told me, I said it was the same as mine. It turned out the gentleman was the telecast’s senior audio man Joe McSorley, the man with whom I was scheduled to drive to the airport. After setting a time and place to meet (7:30 a.m. at the lobby), the second coincidence occurred. As I neared the escalator, I spotted Schwartz, the first familiar face I met upon arriving at the Turning Stone the previous day, Ed Brown and his wife, the first friends I spotted at the weigh-in, speaking together. They happened to be waiting for someone else to take them to the Hall of Fame but that someone was running late. When I told them where I was headed, they asked to tag along, a request I quickly accepted.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, we talked with other visitors, swapped stories ignited by the various exhibits and stopped by the gift shop. I hadn’t planned on buying anything but, once I saw a double-autographed action shot of Michael Carbajal and Humberto Gonzalez, as well as a signed photo of Chico Vejar selling for $15 each, I couldn’t resist reaching into my wallet. I almost felt guilty about paying so little for items I thought were worthy of a higher price tag. Still being a fan at heart, I had no intention of “flipping” the photos anytime soon – if ever.
Once back at the hotel, I arrived at the Turning Stone’s event center, set up the laptop at the work station and, after attending the crew meal at the Season’s Buffet, got the necessary green lights that told me everything was in working order.
The untelevised four-bout undercard began a half-hour later and, in the first fight, once-beaten cruiserweight Alexey Zubov, a Kronk-connected Russian, won a tougher-than-expected majority decision over Hawley, Pennsylvania’s Lamont Capers, who entered the bout with a record of 8-10-3, with no knockout victories but also only two knockout losses. Capers managed to open cuts under the left eye and over the right o and judge Don Trella deemed it competitive enough to score it 57-57. Judges Tom Schreck (59-56) and Glenn Feldman (58-56) saw it for Zubov.
The next bout was a six-round light heavyweight contest between the 2-1 (1) Franchon Crews Dezurn (best known as Claressa Shields’ pro debut opponent) and the 4-9-3 (3) Tiffany Woodard, which delivered plenty of action, both legal and otherwise. Crews Dezurn (the wife of super bantamweight Glenn Dezurn Jr.) shoved Woodard to the canvas in round two and was penalized a point in the sixth for throwing the North Carolinian to the floor. Meanwhile the smaller Woodard more than reciprocated, in terms of rough stuff, and the result was an energetic but messy affair. At one point, in the fifth, they fell into a clinch and wrestled each other to the canvas with a surprisingly loud thud. Because Crews Dezurn proved superior, during their frequent exchanges, she emerged with a lopsided decision victory (59-54 by Wynn Kintz and Don Ackerman and 59-53 by John McKaie).
Because I felt we may be seeing undefeated super lightweight Bakhtiyar Eyubov down the road, punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak and I counted his scheduled six-rounder with 14-13-1 (8) journeyman Maurice Chalmers. We didn’t get much of a workout, for, at the 1:59 mark of round one,an accidental clash of heads opened a small gash directly over Chalmers’ right eyebrow, an injury whose location prompted the stoppage and the no-contest verdict that followed. For the record, each fighter landed 13 total punches but Eyubov needed just 27 to do so, while the energetic Chalmers threw 67. As is usually the case with Eyubov, whose style is marked by an incredibly kinetic bob-and-weave, the jab was a virtual non-entity, as he went 0 for 3, while also going 13 of 24 in power shots (54%). A good sign for Eyubov is that he was struck by only 19% of Chalmers’ total punches (13 of 67), 2 of his 12 jabs (17%) and 11 of his 55 power attempts (20%).
The brevity of Eyubov-Chalmers prompted Andy and I to count the next fight between the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Russian Apti Davtaev and the 5-foot-8, 210-pound Garrett Wilson, a late-sub for West Virginia’s Jeremy Bates. The fight unfolded, as expected, with Davtaev setting a heavy pace (73.2 punches per round to Wilson’s 44.3) and occasionally pasting the American with combinations, capped by crisp right hands, while Wilson smartly jabbed to the body (28 of his 39 landed jabs connected there) and connected with several jarring overhand rights that ignited waves of cheers.
Despite his journeyman status, the 18-13-1 (9) Wilson, who had lost three of his last five, appeared to be the fresher and more successful fighter, in rounds five and six, in which he out-landed Davtaev 38-32 overall and 31-23 power, to close his deficits to 136-100 overall, 39-38 jabs and 97-62 power. But just as the seventh bell round rang, everything stopped. The reason: Although the bout sheet listed Davtaev-Wilson as being an eight-rounder, the fight was contracted for six. The proof: A cell phone photo of the contract that was snapped by one of Wilson’s corner people. Once that evidence was presented to the referee and the commissioners, the fight officially ended and was sent to the scorecards. All three officials – Feldman, McKaie and Kintz – saw the fight 58-56 for Davtaev. Given Wilson’s success in rounds five and six, one has to wonder what would have happened had rounds seven and eight been fought.
With that unique piece of business completed, all that was left were the three TV bouts: Ergashev-Fredrickson, Hernandez-Garza and Shields-Wilson. Just before the telecast began, Andy and I made our customary guesses on how many combined rounds the TV fights would last. I guessed 17 (three for Ergashev-Fredrickson, 10 for Hernandez-Garza and four for Shields-Wilson), while Andy, who admitted to wishful thinking because he was going to start his drive home immediately after the show, to beat the storm, guessed 11. Would either of us be proven correct or would our prognostications again fall victim to boxing’s “Theater of the Unexpected?” We, along with everyone else, were about to find out.
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 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last seven years and 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 the upcoming book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers.” To contact Groves, use the email email@example.com.
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