The Travelin’ Man goes to Sloan, Iowa: Part 1

By Lee Groves

Thursday, February 1: Since returning from Verona, N.Y., less than three weeks ago, the Home Office has been abuzz with activity. Many observers judge the state of boxing by how the heavyweight division is performing, but, for me, I do so by the intensity of my CompuBox workload. By that measure, “the sweet science” not only is thriving, it’s about to shift into overdrive.

In terms of doing the research, my goal is to stay about a month ahead of schedule. Thus, I have been working my way through early March, which will feature no less than six televised cards within seven days – two each on March 3 (HBO and Showtime), March 9 (Showtime and ESPN for Golden Boy) and March 10 (Showtime and ESPN for Top Rank). Each show has multiple fights and more than a few will showcase boxers whose data needs to be either created for the first time or updated. Therefore, my days away from the nation’s airports are often jam-packed, but, unlike my previous jobs in the newspaper industry, I’m having tons of fun. Why, you may ask? Because the punch counts I conduct not only appeal to my lifelong affinity for numbers, they also give me a chance to assess styles, analyze trends, figure how both will affect the in-ring dynamic, and, at least hopefully, allow me to formulate an accurate outcome.

Many boxing fans are armchair analysts at heart, and, being a scientific sort anyway, I am definitely part of this group. But while watching video and compiling punch numbers help me get a better feel for how a given match may unfold, no system is foolproof. That’s because boxing – the Wild West of the sports world – has a knack for turning conventional wisdom on its head while doing the same to an endless line of betting favorites.

Boxing’s unpredictability isn’t limited to the action inside the ring. Because any given fight card is heavily dependent on so many moving parts, it is relatively rare that the original bout sheet from top to bottom remains intact from fruition to completion. Such was certainly the case for the fight card that will be the subject of this installment of the “Travelin’ Man Chronicles,” a ShoBox telecast emanating from the Winnavegas Resort Casino in Sloan, Iowa, a town of 973 located 76 miles north-northwest of Omaha. According to Hall of Famer Steve Farhood, Sloan now replaces Newtown, North Dakota, (population 1,925) as the smallest town, in terms of population, to stage a ShoBox telecast. That record might stand for a while, and I don’t think anyone would try to stage a fight show in my hometown of Friendly, which, at 132, has a population exactly seven-and-a-quarter times smaller than Sloan.

When this card was announced, it was slated to be a quadruple-header featuring super lightweights Devin Haney and Harmonito dela Torre, 140-pounders Wellington Romero and Samuel Teah, welterweights Thomas Mattice and Rolando Chinea and, in the main event, super middleweights Ronald Ellis and Junior Younan. But while the Mattice-Chinea and Ellis-Younan fights held firm, the other two bouts underwent significant shuffling just days before the opening bell. First, Dela Torre had to drop out due to visa issues, and a deal to bring in Argentine Leandro Amitrano had seemingly been reached. Unfortunately, that deal unraveled and, as a result, Haney’s ShoBox debut was canceled. Then, the next day, Romero suffered a back injury during training, so he was replaced by fellow southpaw Montana Love, who was slated to fight Avery Montes on the untelevised undercard.

“The process (of assembling a card) starts two months out, and it is generally centered around a promoter that has a few top prospects in his stable and is willing to match them tough,” explained executive producer Gordon Hall, the BWAA’s 2018 winner of the Sam Taub award for excellence in broadcasting. “Having fighters fall out is the nature of boxing. It happens to the biggest fights and it can happen to ShoBox cards. In this particular case we had two fall-outs that occurred within a week of air, and I’d like to think in this case we made a great save (with Love vs. Teah).

“As for Haney-dela Torre, I asked Vito Mielnicki, the promoter of this card, to work out a deal to bring Haney on the show because he’s unattached, he’s very talented, and he’s the type of fighter we want on ShoBox,” Hall said. “I spoke with Bill Haney, Devin’s father. We talked about a few opponents in the beginning, and there was a little bit of a difference in opinion as far as how tough Devin should be matched, but we did agree on Harmonito dela Torre, who was the Haney camp’s choice of an opponent and one that I approved. Dela Torre is a Filipino fighter whose only loss was a quality loss, if there’s such a thing in boxing (an eight-round unanimous decision loss against the 8-0 Tugstsogt Nyambayar in November 2017, dela Torre’s most recent outing). I thought that for where Devin Haney is in his career and who he’s fought, Harmonito would be a good choice. Normally, I would have looked for tougher, but in this case, in order to secure Devin, who I felt would be good for our series, we went ahead with that. But dela Torre had visa problems in getting into the country, which was extremely disappointing because of the fact that if I was told four weeks earlier…if you’re bringing anyone into the country, I would hope that you would have some sort of indication that it’s not going to be a problem or, if the timing’s going to be a little short, we could have had somebody on hold. So, long story short, (dela Torre’s) out.

“Then we have an issue with trying to match Devin with another fighter on short notice.” Hall continued. “On January 26, I was told Amitrano would take the fight, so I sent out a notice to everybody we had a fight made, that Haney would fight Amitrano and that everything had been agreed upon. We were paying Amitrano almost twice the amount that any opening bout opponent would ever get and we expanded the contracted weight from 135 to 138. Then, the next day, I was told he’s out; either they wanted to hold us up and drive up the cost even more – we were not going to play that game – or I wouldn’t be surprised if they did their research on Haney after taking the match and saying, ‘I don’t think we’re going to take the fight.’ We worked until Monday morning to find an opponent, but we weren’t successful. So, at the end of the day, instead of doing something I felt would really hurt the card, I just decided to eliminate that fight, knowing that we still had three other fights on the card.”

Not long after the Haney cancelation, that assumption was jeopardized.

“A day later, I get a call that Wellington Romero has a back injury and he’s going to the doctor,” Hall said. “When you get in those situations, it looks like, ‘it’s not looking good; this is a jinxed card.’ We tried to make Haney and Teah before but it didn’t work out and we went with Harmonito dela Torre. When Romero fell out Haney was now interested in fighting Teah, but Teah declined the fight because he had been training for the last six weeks for a southpaw.”

It was then that fate stepped in.

“We then looked at the card and Montana Love, a fighter I never heard of, was proposed to me,” Hall recalled. “He’s 8-0 with six knockouts, he’s a southpaw, and he’s on the card, so he’s prepared to go. I did my research: I found that he had 187 amateur fights, that he beat Erickson Lubin once in the amateurs, but there’s very limited footage, including a video in which Lubin got the better of him in sparring. But if you look at his body of work as an 8-0 fighter and you look at his amateur pedigree, his credentials fit a ShoBox fighter. There was no hesitation in Montana Love when he got the call. He said, right away, ‘I’ll take the fight.’ And Teah, to his credit, said, ‘I’ll fight him, I’ve been training for a southpaw, he is a southpaw, and he’s only 8-0 with six KOs. I mean, there isn’t anyone this kid has faced that is as tough as me, so, I’ll take the fight.’ So, because of everything said before, this is turning out to be an intriguing little fight for us. We started out with a four-fight card, we ended up with a three-fight card, we had two cancellations on a week’s notice and we made what I think is going to be a very solid and entertaining night of boxing for our ShoBox fans.”

*

After my struggles getting home last month due to the snowstorm, I was concerned the same might happen going to Iowa in early February. I did what I could to minimize my exposure to trouble by asking for (and receiving) connecting flights to and from Omaha through Charlotte – which is south of most snow lines — but as for the rest, it was a roll of the dice.

Happily, neither of the forecasts for Omaha and Sloan included any snow, though the high temperatures would be in the teens and the lows in the low single-digits. As for Friendly, the mercury was in the low 40s when I left the driveway at 7:35 a.m. and remained there after I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport.

After entering the “extended stay” parking lot, I noticed the signage discouraged entry into the lot nearest the terminal entrance, claiming it was full. This is a fairly common occurrence in Pittsburgh, and experience has taught me to ignore the sign and sift the lot anyway. Good thing I did, because less than two minutes into my search I spotted a space just eight slots from the front. Empty spaces so close to the entrance are as rare as a dull Orlando Salido fight, so when I spotted it I nearly drove past because I thought it was an optical illusion. It seemed too good to be true, so I had to make sure all was right before choosing to take it.

Was it a handicapped space? No. Was this space reserved for employees or other personnel? No. Was this a walkway for pedestrians? No. Were there any other prohibitive markings? No. So, as I pulled in, I couldn’t believe my good luck.

But while I prospered with the parking, I was perplexed by changes in the security screening. I usually travel with two laptops inside my carrying case, and, since getting TSA Pre-Check a few years ago, there were no problems with leaving both in the bag while it was X-rayed. But after I walked under the metal detector and waited for my items to exit the X-ray, a TSA agent asked if I had two laptops in my bag. After saying yes, I was told that, from now on, I would have to take out one of the laptops and place it in a separate bin.

“Hmph,” I thought. “Yes, it’ll be a minor inconvenience, but I did pay for the privilege of a less complicated security screening process. Go with the flow, I guess.”

More puzzling was the boarding process for my Charlotte-to-Omaha leg. A female TSA agent stood between us and the gate agent, and she asked us to show our photo ID as well as our boarding pass before allowing us to see the agent. We thought this strange because our very presence in this area indicates we had already been successfully screened. Moreover, as we entered the jetway, we saw two more TSA agents conducting additional bag searches as well as using special equipment designed to scan electronics.

More than a few of us wondered if some sort of alert had been issued. I was told nothing was awry; our flight had been randomly selected for additional screening. Whether that’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth is a matter of conjecture.

According to the memo I was to be part of a three-man carpool with stage manager JT Townsend and video ace Jim Delano. Townsend and I were on the same Charlotte-to-Omaha flight while Delano flew in from Los Angeles through Minneapolis. JT and I thought we would need to wait more than an hour for his arrival because that was what the memo said, but our wait ended up being minimal because Delano had changed his itinerary earlier in the day.

As JT drove us up Interstate 29, Delano entertained us with stories about the places and people he’s met in his lengthy career. Too bad the drive lasted a little more than an hour.

By the way, today’s trip marks the first time I’ve set foot in six states in a given day – West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania on the way to the airport, North Carolina to catch the connecting flight, and Nebraska and Iowa for the trip to the hotel.

While we checked into our rooms at the Winnavegas Inn – a five-minute drive from the fight venue – Mary Swinson, who I call “Mary, Queen of Stats” because her graphics work includes posting our punch numbers, was toiling away on her laptop. We soon were joined by ring announcer Thomas Treiber, who, despite being just 44, has been in the business 27 years. Despite his many years in the game, his career path is surging upward. That’s because this past September, the native of Hammond, Indiana was named the exclusive ring announcer for British promoter Frank Warren and BT Sport, a reward for his past work on other British networks. In fact, his next gig after Sloan will be a non-televised show in San Antonio, after which he’ll fly to London for a Feb. 24 card at the historic York Hall.

“Last September I got the call to do the Billy Joe Saunders-Willie Monroe Jr. fight at the Copperbox Arena in London,” Treiber said. “It came only a week-and-a-half before the fight, and, before I knew it, I was on a plane. For an international event it was quick notice; though there’s no exact time, usually you get about a month, especially with the cost of flights and hotel rooms so you can get the best rates. It was presented to me that they had this new deal with BT Sport and that there was an interest in having me be the exclusive announcer for that series, which runs monthly and sometimes twice a month. I was excited because there was more potential than just a one-shot show. It was a nice call to get. Now, since accepting the deal in September, I’ve been there five times – two in London, one In Leeds, one in Newcastle and one in Belfast. After the show Feb. 24, there are two shows in April and another in May with Lee Selby fighting Josh Warrington inside Leeds’ soccer stadium. To be working for Hall of Famer Frank Warren, who I’ve admired for years, is an honor. Everybody in boxing knows that Warren is a top promoter in the UK, and for me, as an American, to be working their show exclusively, is great.”

Treiber is no stranger to UK audiences, for he worked the “Big Fight Live” shows on ITV 4 for two years, then appeared on Channel 5 for another year-and-a-half. But under this deal, his exposure will be exponentially increased.

“Frank Warren also has BoxNation, so our shows will also be shown there as well as on BT Sport,” he said. “The exposure is phenomenal. And one of the beautiful things about this is that Gordon Hall and Showtime have a great relationship with BT Sport. In fact, they carried BT Sport’s broadcast of Caleb Truax-James DeGale on Showtime’s Facebook page and on its website. So it’s nice that, because of my relationship with Showtime and my frequent appearances on ShoBox, Showtime has a relationship with a network I’m working for internationally so that, at times, I’ll be on BT Sport, BoxNation and Showtime at the same time. That’s a unique scenario.”

Needless to say, Treiber is pleased with his career trajectory.

“It’s going the direction I want it to go,” he said. “Anybody who’s been involved with entertainment, or the boxing industry in particular, it’s a rollercoaster. There are going to be good years and bad years, but you just have to stay positive, learn from the bad and good, and stay positive. You just got to keep pushing. I’m thankful that the stars have lined up and 2018 is looking very promising. I’ll be doing fights at a higher level on a regular basis that I hope will lift me to another level.”

Regular readers know that I’m a bit of a ring announcing aficionado, and of the next generation of practitioners beyond Michael Buffer and Jimmy Lennon Jr., Treiber is near the top of the ladder – if not at the top – due to his delivery, preparation and attention to detail, traits shared by all the top ring announcers. When one includes Lupe Contreras, David Diamante, Ray Flores, Joe Martinez and a few others, the ring announcing game will have strong voices that will resonate far into the future.

While conversing with him about his stint as a pro wrestler – while wrestling as “Tommy Tana,” he once engaged in a tag match against Steve Austin and Brian Pillman when they were the Hollywood Blondes – he invited me to continue the conversation at the buffet inside the Winnavegas Resort Casino, a offer I immediately accepted because, to this point, all I had eaten so far was airplane snacks. We soon were joined by Marc Abrams, one of the hardest working and most versatile people in the boxing business. Since joining the game in 2003, the 44-year-old Abrams has made his mark by going above and beyond the usual bounds of his various jobs.

“I’m a jack-of-all-trades publicist that does the normal things a publicist does in terms of writing press releases, setting up interviews for my fighters with the different media outlets, but I also take my own pictures, do my own video interviews, do video-based and internet-based ads, and I’m also a blow-by-blow announcer for Comcast Sports Network, Sports New York, Channel 11 (on DirecTV), AWE, Wealth TV and now Fight Night Live,” Abrams said. “I was a licensed matchmaker for three shows – I’ve done a show in New Jersey and a couple in Pennsylvania – and tonight I’m doing PR for GH3 Promotions and I’m also streaming the undercard via GH3’s Facebook page.

“I currently host ‘The Abrams Boxing Hour’ on Wildfireradio.com (which airs at 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time every Monday), and I also have a YouTube channel that houses my videos,” Abrams continued. “Between being in my office and all the other things I do, I work around 15 to 16 hours a day at least six days a week, and sometimes on Sunday, when I’m watching a football game or something, I write a press release on my computer or do anything else that I need to do.”

Other past credits on his resume include “The Boxing Show,” a weekly internet radio broadcast, articles on 15rounds.com, working at the legendary Blue Horizon in Philadelphia and work on GoFightLive.com.

Like me, Abrams’ passion for the sport was ignited at an early age, and it was an extension of his fandom for other sports.

“I was always a huge sports fan,” he said. “I kept stats of games off TV before the Internet age and I used to keep notebooks on NFL and NBA draft prospects. I subscribed to high school basketball newsletters and kept up on all the prospects, and I went to a lot of high school games with a friend. My dad kept stats for the Philadelphia 76ers’ NBA radio broadcasts and he also worked for the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. I watched him do all the stat sheets, so that’s where I picked it up.

“I also always liked boxing, but then I read a couple of books that heightened my interest, especially Jack Newfield’s ‘Only in America: The Life & Crimes of Don King,’ ” Abrams continued. “As for the start of my career, I e-mailed a couple of websites as I thought I could write about the fights from home. A couple of websites answered my e-mails; 15Rounds.com said they needed a guy in Philly and I could get credentialed for fights, which I had no idea websites got credentialed. The rest is history. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would do what I’ve been doing. I have been seeing the world because of it.”

He’s not kidding. His various roles have made him quite the traveling man, as he has worked shows in Russia, China, Germany, England, Canada, Mexico, and all over the U.S. And yet, it wasn’t until fairly recently that he began collecting frequent flier miles.

“You know why? Because an idiot like me never got a number,” Abrams said. “Soon as I met my wife, she cleaned my whole life out in terms of getting me signed up on the various airlines. I got numbers for everyone now.”

As is the case with all of us, the never-ending mountain of work can test the limits of one’s ethic, but while fatigue sets in, the baseline love of the sport and of the jobs within it keeps the fire burning strong.

“All I can control is how hard I work,” Abrams said. “So I work very hard on everything I do.”

Hall, Treiber and Abrams not only are united by their love of boxing, their formidable work ethics and their overall professionalism; they are also good people who have never forgotten their roots or their routes to success.

After driving back to the Winnavegas Inn with Treiber, I retreated to my room, assembled some of my notes, and spent the remainder of the evening winding down from a long and rather stimulating day. How stimulating was it? I didn’t turn out the light until nearly 2 a.m.

Saturday, February 2: Although I only got four-and-a-half hours of sleep, the quality of it was deeper than usual. Therefore, I had the energy to get some significant work done during the morning hours and was in a decent place in the process by the time I met JT Townsend, who was to drive punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak and me to the venue. Thankfully, the walk to Townsend’s rental car was a short one, for the icy conditions were made worse by wind that seemingly sliced into my shin’s capillaries.

The pre-show routines were completed without trouble, and we got our tell-tale green lights hours before the show. Although my bout sheet indicated that only two four-round fights would precede the televised triple-header, the reality was that four four-rounders were to be staged.

The opening bout was a scheduled four rounder between Sioux City’s Jorge Serrano, who was making his pro debut, and Frank Young of the Quad Cities in Illinois. Serrano appeared on the verge of a first-round knockout after scoring early knockdowns off right crosses, but the round ran a little more than 90 seconds because, after Young stumbled to the floor for a third time, a fall that was not counted as a knockdown, the young timekeeper, thinking the fight was now over due to the three-knockdown rule, inadvertently tapped the bell with his hammer. No matter; Young needed only 52 more seconds to score the TKO victory.

Next up was a light heavyweight bout between DeShawn Webster of Kansas City, Kansas and Minnesota-based Liberian Mengistu Zarzar. Both had their moments, but Webster’s ability to keep the southpaw Zarzar at range with his jab proved pivotal in his split decision victory (39-37, 39-38, 38-39). With the win, Webster, who reportedly took the bout on short notice, raised his record to 10-1 (6) while Zarzar declined to 6-2-1 (5).

The night’s most powerful performance was produced in bout number three as local super lightweight Drako Rodriguez uncorked a huge left hook to floor Kansas City’s Shannen McCray early in round two, after which he used another in the midst of a follow-up combination to score a second knockdown moments later. McCray regained his feet, but Rodriguez’s surge prompted referee Adam Pollock to intervene at the 1:33 mark. The stoppage was Rodriguez’s second in two pro fights while McCray’s record fell to 1-2-1 (1).

The final non-TV bout was a four-round lightweight contest featuring the debut of New Jersey amateur Joel Flores, who was paired with jitterbug switch-hitter Charles Johnson of St. Louis, who entered the ring with a 0-0-1 record. Johnson’s moves disrupted Flores at times, but Flores’ body attack and aggression scored his share of points. In the end, the fight was scored a majority draw that left no one happy. For the record, judge Fran Bechan’s 39-37 card for Johnson was overruled by the 38-38 scores submitted by Mike Contreras and Jeff Sinett.

As the start of the televised triple-header neared, Andy and I agreed that we were in for a long night at the fights. Of the 26 scheduled rounds, I thought we would see 24 while Andy changed his initial pick of 25 to 23 to improve his chances of winning our little guessing game. Would his change of heart prove fortuitous?

*

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. 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 e-mail l.groves@frontier.com.

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