The Travelin’ Man goes to Brooklyn, NY: Part One

Friday, March 1: At one point, I believed my mid-February journey to Mulvane, Kansas would be my last until mid-April. But, in a boxing year filled with unexpected plot twists and last-minute changes to televised rosters, my own professional calendar soon experienced its own reshuffling. 

That shuffle came in the form of an e-mail from CompuBox president Bob Canobbio, who asked me if I could work a Showtime Championship Boxing tripleheader in Brooklyn on March 2 topped by a WBA “regular” super welterweight title fight between titlist Brian Castano and challenger Erislandy Lara and supported by a heavyweight fight between Luis Ortiz and Christian Hammer, and a late addition pitting Bryan De Gracia and Eduardo Ramirez for something called the WBA “gold” featherweight title. 

Being a self-respecting Travelin’ Man, I said I would, but, knowing that the Long Island-based Canobbio family – which, in CompuBox’s world at least, consists of Bob and sons Nic and Dan – usually worked all New York City shows for obvious reasons, I wondered why I was being summoned from the bench. I hoped nothing bad had happened.

Quite the contrary: Dan, the host of CompuBox TV’s “Inside Boxing Live” and a burgeoning broadcaster, was asked to do play-by-play for a special edition of Broadway Boxing emanating from the Voinovich Center in Columbus, Ohio on the same night as the Showtime card. That show, topped by heavyweights Junior Fa and Newfel Ouatah, will be taking place under the umbrella of the Arnold Sports Festival, a celebration of bodybuilding and fitness associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Why wouldn’t Dan jump at that opportunity? Based on his work on IBL and as a roving reporter on a few past Broadway Boxing shows, he is more than capable of handling the on-air demands. As for Bob and Nic, their absence is attributed to a happy family occasion – a birthday party for one of Nic’s daughters. So, with this collection of good news, granddad Bob, being the boss that he is, decided to give colleague Andy Kasprzak and me an extra show. 

It has been almost exactly a year since I last worked a show in Brooklyn. On March 3, 2018, Ortiz lost a slow-to-percolate thriller against WBC champion Deontay Wilder, but, as great as that fight was, my strongest memory of that trip was my own journey getting there, which ranks as the most epic in-bound trip I’ve ever taken. All the details can be found in this link (https://www.ringtv.com/530545-travelin-man-goes-brooklyn-part-one-rigors-riley/), but, to make a very long story short, the effects of a massive Nor’easter caused my itinerary to change multiple times, prompted me to stay awake all night at Washington, D.C.’s historic Union Station, and, thanks to a chance meeting with a fellow stranded passenger named Elaine, I found a way to fly into New York just hours before working the show. 

Would you believe that weather may again play a factor on this year’s trip to Brooklyn? I don’t know why, but just about every day I’d been at home this winter the weather had been relatively mild and calm – just two days earlier it was 57 degrees – but, as of this writing, three winter systems were either bearing down on the East Coast or were already wreaking havoc with travelers. The forecast for Thursday night called for a mix of rain, sleet and snow, and, after arising at 7 a.m., I found it had come true. Thankfully, I parked my car in the garage and thus was spared the hassle of clearing off an inch of snow as well as a thin layer of ice that was underneath, a fate suffered by our other vehicle.

One prediction that didn’t pan out was that the roads would be so hazardous that travelers were told to give themselves extra time to get from Point A to Point B, advice that prompted me to change my departure time from 8:15 a.m. to 7:45. Not only was my own ice-prone driveway free of snow, so was every road I used to get to Pittsburgh International Airport, where I was to catch a scheduled 12:45 p.m. Delta flight to LaGuardia. 

The better-than-expected conditions allowed me to make excellent time (even after making a brief pit stop to pick up lock de-icer at a local NAPA outlet), but, for the third consecutive trip, I was forced to park in the farthest reaches of the extended parking lot, a section I’ve dubbed “the hinterlands.” Even there, empty spaces were tough to find, and I felt lucky to find one that was close to the 19E sign, a locale that provided an almost direct walk from parking space to terminal entrance. 

During my drive I received a text from Sports Media’s Andy Vanderford that the electronics check was being postponed until tomorrow, meaning I could take a taxi directly to our crew hotel instead of first stopping at Barclay’s. This was a most positive development because, minutes later, I received a text from Delta stating that, due to weather issues, my departure time from Pittsburgh was being pushed back from 12:45 p.m. to 2:05, just one of many flights bound for the Northeast that either were altered or canceled. One I arrived at the gate, the departure time was readjusted to 2 p.m., but the bottom line was that, one way or another, I was all but certain to get to my destination without any major issues.

It didn’t look that way for a while once the aircraft was airborne, however. Shortly after beginning the initial descent, the captain of this all-female flight crew informed us that air traffic control in New York had asked this aircraft to circle for about 30 minutes due to an emergency situation on the ground. Although my schedule was clear, I was a bit worried for the woman seated across the aisle from me in row 17, an attractive blonde named Yanit (pronounced yah-NEET). She said she had an extremely close connection window for her flight to Fort Lauderdale, so much so that she had asked a flight attendant to ask passengers over the loudspeaker to remain seated so that those like her could exit the plane more quickly. 

Less than five minutes after the initial announcement was made, the pilot returned to the intercom to tell us that the “emergency” had been resolved and that we’d be landing in less than 20 minutes. My fellow passenger then said her situation had been nicely resolved; not only was her flight delayed, her connection gate was just a few hundred feet from our arrival gate. 

It was a good thing her situation had improved so much, for the flight attendant did not make the requested announcement, and, as a result, she had to wait several minutes before she could exit the plane. Upon deplaning, I walked toward the ground transportation area in the hopes of securing a taxi to the crew hotel, the Marriott Brooklyn Bridge on Adams Street. The line numbered in the dozens, and a sign to my right set the bar right away: Due to recent construction, the wait time for a taxi will be longer than usual. 

The sign proved correct, but, all things considered, the personnel at the taxi station did a good job of managing traffic within the constricted area as well as keeping the line moving at a fair pace. Still, the process tested one’s ability to remain patient, as did the process of leaving LaGuardia once I entered the taxi assigned to me. 

My driver was an older gentleman who sported a long white beard, wore a black turban, and spoke with an accent suggesting his native land was India. The construction had shrunk a normally six-lane area to just two, and the swarm of buses, taxis and passenger vehicles strained to wedge themselves into the active lanes like thirsty piglets seeking an available teat. One young taxi driver to my right was particularly eager as he tried to force his way into an impossibly small space, then, after twice failing to do so, honked his horn in frustration, then tried a third time to no avail. 

“Wow that guy was aggressive,” I said to the driver.

“There are two kinds of aggressive,” the driver replied. “There’s aggressiveness that is smart and patient and aggressiveness that is reckless and stupid. I try my best to be like the first.”

He then proceeded to live up to his words; the entire drive consisted of bumper-to-bumper traffic that moved no faster than 20 mph most of the way, but my driver was judicious in his choices of when to make lane changes and when to back off. All the while he maintained an even temperament and while he honked his horn once, he didn’t blare it like the others around us. Upon arriving at the hotel, I complemented him on his demeanor, and he replied by stating an attitude that I try to apply when things go sideways for me: It doesn’t do any good to get angry at situations that can’t be helped (or changed) because all that does is make things worse, not just for yourself but for the people around you. 

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Photo by Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME

Upon checking into my 10th floor room, I was told room service wasn’t available but that there were plenty of restaurants in the immediate vicinity. The truth of her statement was confirmed by a map she handed to me that detailed the numerous food outlets, attractions and shopping options. After unpacking, I headed out in search of dinner, and it didn’t take long for me to make my choice: The Potbelly Sandwich Shop, which is located a few dozen steps from the Marriott. My timing was excellent; the outlet was set to close in a little more than 30 minutes and I was the only customer present. I ordered a regular-sized Italian sandwich (capicola, mortadella, pepperoni and salami with provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo on white bread), two small bags of baked chips and a bottle of Diet Coke, all of which helped me feel better at the end of a travel day.

As I consumed my bounty, I did some channel surfing, and, upon flipping onto ESPN, I saw a “bottom line” item stating that Hall of Famer Eusebio Pedroza had died of pancreatic cancer at age 62. 

THE RING’s Ryan Songalia did a good job of detailing the nuts and bolts of Pedroza’s career – his 41-6-1 (25) record spread over a 19-year career, his featherweight record 19 title defenses, his seven-year reign, his impressive title-fight success on the road (13 victories away from Panama) and his considerable abilities – so I’d like to expand on Pedroza’s impact during my early years as a boxing fan, and my impressions of him as a more mature follower. 

The first time I recall seeing Pedroza fight was when he first fought Rocky Lockridge on October 4, 1980 at the Great Gorge Resort in McAfee, N.J. It was a Saturday afternoon, and, during those years, I tagged along with my mother and older sister on their weekend shopping trips to New Martinsville going northwest or to Parkersburg and Vienna to the southwest. While we were inside one of the department stores in New Martinsville, this 15-year-old wandered over to a battery of televisions that happened to be showing Pedroza-Lockridge on CBS, and, me being me, I stayed put until the very end. The upstart 21-year-old Lockridge gave the 24-year-old champion all he could handle, and the broadcast team of Tim Ryan and Gil Clancy thought him to be a resounding 145-140 winner. But while judge Harold Lederman agreed by scoring the fight 145-142 for Lockridge, he was overruled by referee Stanley Christodoulou and judge Rodolfo Hill, whose scores of 147-141 and 149-139 for Pedroza ignited a firestorm of controversy, not just because of the winner’s identity, but because of the margin of victory. Based on the combination of the CBS commentary and on Lockridge’s aggression and heavier hitting, I also thought the challenger had done enough to score the big upset win and was irked when Pedroza retained his crown. 

The negative feelings over the decision were intensified in the aftermath when video surfaced of Pedroza’s manager Santiago del Rio placing something in the champion’s mouth following round five. Promoter Bob Arum contended that “something” was pills (“I saw them,” he said) while Pedroza said it was ice. The two would fight again in April 23, 1983 in San Remo, Italy (this time on ABC), and, while the action again was a nip-and-tuck affair that went the distance, Pedroza’s victory was more well received thanks to his trademark surge in rounds 11-15, then dubbed “the championship rounds.” 

When I think of Pedroza, I think about his long, lean physique, his satin red trunks, his constant movement, his darting jabs, his ferocious body punching, his extraordinary stamina, his immense pride and competitive drive, and his mastery of the darker arts of the sport. If ever there was a fight that captured all these elements, it was his January 24, 1982 defense against Juan LaPorte at the Sands Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. The 25-year-old Pedroza was risking his WBA featherweight title for the 14th time against the 22-year-old LaPorte, who acquitted himself well in a loss to WBC king Salvador Sanchez 13 months earlier but who had vaulted himself to this second chance thanks to a shocking one-punch KO over Lockridge in August 1981. 

The young Puerto Rican bomber electrified the crowd in round three when a trademark right hand nearly floored the champion, a threat that forced Pedroza to dig deeply into his bag of tricks – legal and illegal – to keep the young challenger from overwhelming him. That bag was prodigious – low blows, kidney punches, forearms and elbows among them – and referee Guy Jutras did his best to keep the fight within the bounds of the Marquess of Queensberry rules by issuing warnings and point penalties. At the end of a ferociously fought fourth round, the fighters sparked a post-round riot that somehow was quelled to the point that the fight could continue. By fight’s end, Jutras justifiably had deducted three points from Pedroza’s score but his dominance, especially in the late rounds, was such that he still won by scores of 144-141, 144-142 and 145-143. 

“We knew he was a dirty fighter,” LaPorte said. “But I’m not saying the low blows beat me because I don’t think he won.”

Pedroza, while praising LaPorte’s ability, wasn’t impressed by what he viewed as LaPorte’s whining. 

“You’re a pro; you don’t cry,” he said. “That’s professional boxing.”

Pedroza’s combination of expert long-range boxing and gutter-fighting grit helped extend his reign for another three-plus years and six defenses, but when he signed to meet 24-year-old Irishman Barry McGuigan on June 8, 1985 inside an open-air stadium in London, the thought among many – including myself – was that the stage was set for the birth of a new vibrant superstar. Before a crowd of 26,000 that sounded like 260,000, a TV audience that numbered in the tens of millions, and inspired by the rendering of “Danny Boy” by father Pat McGuigan, “The Clones Cyclone” more than lived up to his nickname and produced a performance of a lifetime. He scored the fight’s only knockdown with a right hand in round seven, and he staggered the longtime champion on several other occasions. But while McGuigan pulled away on the scorecards, Pedroza continued to fight as hard as he could for as long as he could, and, at times, he managed to keep the McGuigan avalanche from burying him. Like Ken Buchanan against Roberto Duran 13 years earlier, Pedroza remained defiant in the face of a decisive beating, and, unlike Buchanan, Pedroza made it to the final bell, defeated but never conquered. 

Pedroza was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999, his second year of eligibility, and his Modern class included living members Khaosai Galaxy and Jimmy Bivins as well as the late Lew Jenkins and Vicente Saldivar. I easily secured the autographs of Galaxy and Bivins but Pedroza’s was tougher for me to get. I finally got Pedroza to sign my “big book” on Saturday before the fist casting ceremony and when I looked at his signature I was surprised by the thin, delicate, elegant and perfectly legible script. I also was struck by the dignified and regal manner with which he carried himself, which, along with the elements of his autograph, was in stark contrast to the no-holds-barred competitor he was inside the squared circle. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the first and last time I would ever be in Pedroza’s presence. 

Boxing politics being what they are, he never met the likes of Sanchez, Danny “Little Red” Lopez or longtime 122-pound titlist Wilfredo Gomez. But despite the absence of these legacy-making showdowns, Pedroza’s achievements as WBA featherweight champion cement his status as a landmark figure in one of boxing’s most history-rich weight classes. 

Pedroza died just one day before his 63rd birthday, but his achievements will live on until the end of time. Rest in peace. 

Saturday, March 1: As is usually the case, my six-hour “sleep” was fitful and interrupted by my stirring awake at least a half-dozen times. The proverbial hamster wheel inside my head simply wouldn’t stop spinning long enough for me to settle down, but once I awakened for good at 7 a.m., the morning routines helped me regain the energy I had lost. 

In looking at the televised lineup, the combination of instincts and statistical study told me that we could be in for a compelling night at the fights. The opening contest between De Gracia and Ramirez was elevated on short notice after Edner Cherry (who was to fight Ricardo Nunez in the original opener) suffered an undisclosed medical emergency. There was precious little recent footage on De Gracia, but the one fight that was available – his two-round TKO over Sergio Perales in December 2017 – showed he could counteract the lefty stance with genuine one-punch power in the right hand. Ramirez, like Perales, is a southpaw, but he appears to occupy a higher level. Ramirez’s only loss was a decision to then-IBF featherweight titlist Lee Selby and he was good enough to draw with Leduan Barthelemy in a fight I thought he should have won. Based on the limited footage of De Gracia, I believe the Panamanian will need to inflict heavy damage in the first five rounds, for if he doesn’t, Ramirez has the capacity to close the gap, drag De Gracia into the later rounds and expose any and all flaws. Twelve rounds can feel very long for those who aren’t used to that length in live action, but the guess here is that De Gracia, while he will be pushed, will have what it takes to take what Ramirez has got and get the “W.”

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Photo by Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME

As for Ortiz and Hammer, I see it as potential highlight-reel material for Ortiz’s next world title shot. Yes, Hammer comes in off an upset over the 19-0 Michael Wallisch, but I don’t think the method of victory produced the confidence boost such a win would ordinarily generate. Here’s why: Early in round four, as the pair were exchanging blows, Wallisch suddenly fell to a knee. The referee counted Wallisch out, but complaints from Wallish’s corner prompted a four minute and 13 second time-out in which the video was apparently reviewed. The video revealed that the knockdown was caused by a clash of heads, not an exchange of punches. Hammer, who had already celebrated his apparent victory, was told he had to resume the fight after officials correctly pieced together the chain of events. Then, early in the fifth, Hammer lightly pulled down Wallisch’s head and landed a right uppercut to the jaw. Wallisch, who acted as if he wanted to draw a DQ for Hammer’s hold-and-hit maneuver, fell backward, sat on the bottom rope and waited for the time-out to be called. Instead, he was counted out and Hammer was declared the KO winner — for the second time.

Whenever Hammer stepped up against better competition on other occasions, he not only fell short, but woefully so. Against Tyson Fury (KO by 8 in February 2015) and Alexander Povetkin (L 12 in December 2017), Hammer offered little resistance (he averaged 24.9 punches per round to Fury’s 63.3 and a puny 20 per round to Povetkin’s 42.8), and the connect gaps between he and his superiors were definitive (152-44 overall, 44-7 jabs, 108-37 power versus Fury; 145-59 overall, 26-19 jabs, 119-40 against Povetkin). Worse yet, Fury landed 46% of his power punches to Hammer’s 28% while Povetkin connected on 43% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts to Hammer’s 26%. Can Hammer defy his own history and perform better against Ortiz? Given the numbers against Fury and Povetkin, Hammer will have to execute a quantum leap upward just to compete with the Cuban, who hits far harder than Povetkin and Fury and would give Hammer even more reason to withdraw into his shell. It will surprise me if this fight goes past five rounds. 

As for the main event, Castano may not be well-known in the U.S., but based on what I’ve seen, an upset is definitely possible, especially since he fights a lot like Jarrett Hurd (who defeated Lara in the Cuban’s most recent bout nearly 11 months ago) and because his last two fights were victories in France over Frenchmen Michel Soro (a split W 12) and Cedric Vitu (TKO 12). Of the two, the Vitu fight offered a potential preview for the Lara fight because Vitu, like Lara, is a textbook southpaw with an excellent record (46-2). 

Against Vitu, Castano did everything a right-hander should do to combat the lefty style: He initiated every skirmish, cut the distance between himself and Vitu, bullied him against the ropes and fired combinations from all angles. He averaged 94.3 punches per round to Vitu’s 38.4, won the battle of the jabs (32.5 attempts/4.8 connects per round to Vitu’s 10.2/0.6), pounded the body hard (92 connects to Vitu’s 27) and came on even stronger down the stretch as he out-landed Vitu 104-10 overall and 97-10 power in rounds 9-12. A big part of Castano’s success in draining Vitu’s energy was his surges in the final 60 seconds; 46.6% of his total output and 47.8% of his total connects occurred in the final 60 seconds, and his 26 of 88 outburst in the last 60 seconds of round eight was his most extraordinary. All of the elements of Castano’s plan came to fruition in the 12th when he scored the fight’s only knockdown with a flurry, then, after Vitu shakily arose, ended the bout with another series of unanswered blows. The final numbers further illustrated Castano’s dominance: Connect gaps of 347-72 overall, 57-7 jabs and 290-65 power, and percentage leads of 31%-16% overall, 15%-6% jabs and 39%-19% power. Can he do the same against an even more accomplished and skilled left-hander in Lara?

I say yes. Castano is a proven road warrior in that he is 6-0 (3) away from Argentina, including 4-0 (2) in the U.S. He also showed against Vitu that he can execute well against a skilled left-hander on the southpaw’s home ground and not be hypnotized by lefty wiles. Hurd proved that the tactics Castano practiced against Vitu can work against Lara, and if he can generate the same level of pressure and initiative here, he will pull off the upset, especially against a 35-year-old fighter coming off a physically draining loss and a long layoff. The only question is whether Castano can adjust to Lara’s level, which, I think, is still considerable. My guess: He will. Castano on points. 

It isn’t often that I go out on a limb in terms of predictions, but, every so often, I have to go by what I see instead of what the oddsmakers say. This is one of those times. Will I be proven right in this year of the upset? Will Lara confirm the chalk and get back on the winning track? Or will something outside the mainstream happen, like a disqualification, no-contest or a draw? All I can do is offer a prediction based on their statistical profiles, their past habits and the style mixture I perceive, but I’ve been in the game long enough to know that it is the fighters who will have the final say. 

*

Shortly after 2 p.m. I went downstairs to meet my ride-mates for the scheduled 2:10 shuttle to the venue, Andy Kasprzak and Mary Swinson, who I affectionally call “Mary Queen of Stats” because she is in charge of the live graphics that include our punch numbers. When I told the doorman I was with Showtime, he told me to look for either a gray or white minivan, and, once Andy and Mary arrived a few minutes later, we kept a sharp eye on the vehicle to come.

Except it never came. Mary called production manager Angie Sztejn, who advised us to get an Uber or a cab. We chose the cab, and within a few minutes we were at Barclay’s. 

After passing through security, Andy and I went to our work station and quickly got all the green lights and production truck connections we needed to confirm we were ready for the show – a show that was nearly six hours from going on the air. 

It isn’t often that the crew meal yields a chance to do something really neat, but that opportunity happened here. The dinner was held on the Brooklyn Nets’ practice court, and, as I was finishing my meal, one Showtime crew member decided to start an impromptu shootaround at the far end of the gym. He went behind the curtain, grabbed a ball from the rack, and started shooting – and no one in the room moved to stop him. Upon realizing this, I couldn’t resist; I wandered onto the court with the intent of being his rebounder, but, after retrieving a few errant shots, he insisted that I shoot as well.

It had been nearly a decade – maybe more – since I shot a basketball and I certainly had never done it on a court belonging to an NBA franchise. But shoot it I did, and, at first, my aim was quite off. The reason: With so many people watching us, I tried to adhere to what I perceived to be proper shooting form. My failures, however, prompted me to think “forget it; I’ll shoot it like I want to shoot it.” For mid-range shots, I used a wristy one-handed push and for longer distances, I flung it with both hands at chest level. 

I won’t say I instantly became Stephen Curry, but I began making some baskets from between 10 and 15 feet. By this time, a few other members of the Showtime crew joined us – including a PR person who was coached in high school by Bill Belichick’s daughter. After making another 12-footer from the right side, I decided to get adventurous and positioned myself behind the three-point line. I set my feet, flung the ball at the basket – and watched it bank in. 

A little cheer went up from the other players, and, at that point, I decided that was the best way to end my brush with the NBA. You can’t ask for better than one-for-one from the three-point line – even if I was unguarded at the time. 

Making a three-pointer on an NBA team’s court may not have been on my, ahem, bucket list, but it certainly will be part of my “really great things I got to do because of my job” list for the rest of my life. 

After returning to ringside, Andy and I counted three untelevised fights involving Leduan Barthelemy, Edwin Rodriguez and Gary Antonio Russell on the belief that we may see them featured in future TV bouts. All three won their bouts; Barthelemy won an eight-round unanimous decision over Tijuana’s Miguel Angel Aispuro, Rodriguez won a 10-round nod over southpaw Mitch Williams, and Russell stopped Jose Maria Cardenas in round six. They out-landed their foes by a combined 178 total connects (101-30 for Barthelemy, 164-117 for Rodriguez and 100-40 for Russell), though Rodriguez – a longtime super middleweight now campaigning at cruiserweight – won by only 96-94 on two scorecards while prevailing 98-92 on the third. 

In terms of the electronics, everything worked perfectly during the warm-up fights, and, because we chronicled 24 rounds of action, Andy and I were more than ready for the final three fights of the night to get going. 

*

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 honors, including two first-place awards in 2011 and 2013. 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  use the email l.groves@frontier.com or send him a message via Facebook.

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