It is a time-honored boxing tradition. It is as routine and standard as two fighters touching gloves before the bell rings. But this occurs long before the action starts. I am referring to the obligatory press caravan to training camp.
In the 1930s, they traveled to the camps by railroad. By the 1970s, when the trek to Muhammad Ali’s Deer Lake, Pennsylvania training camp was mandatory for every boxing beat writer, the mode of transportation was bus.
On Wednesday, September 14, we departed Manhattan in a black SUV. Intrepid PR man John Cirillo dispatched two of his assistants to make sure the media arrived at Wladimir Klitschko’s training camp at Caesars Resort in the Poconos. One vehicle left from the Big Apple, the other from New Jersey.
President George W. Bush also happened to be in Manhattan, visiting the U.N. the very same morning. This made leaving the city difficult. Roads were closed, some vehicles were rerouted and the traffic, chaotic on a good day, was crawling. Nonetheless, Cirillo’s man Joe, myself, two writers from competing web sites and members of a Russian television crew – plus equipment – departed for the 90-mile journey slightly behind schedule.
The State of Boxing. It doesn’t exactly say much for the state of boxing that we leave the city and not a single newspaper writer (OK, I’m half-newspaper, half-web) is along for the ride. It doesn’t exactly say much for the state of boxing that we are well across the George Washington Bridge before the sport of boxing even enters the conversation.
We talk about baseball’s wild card races, fantasy football teams (this was lost on me because most of my fantasies have nothing to do with football) and what is more exciting, college basketball or the NBA. I’m not quite sure what the Russians were talking about since they slept a lot. And when they were awake, they didn’t speak much English.
Training camp. Once we arrive at Caesars we are stopped by security. With the threat of terrorism very real in our world, there are varying measures of security now taken at sporting events. At a Stanley Cup playoff game, I’ve witness uniformed SWAT members carrying machine guns. At Yankee Stadium, you nearly have to submit to a search before entering the Hallowed Ground of the Bronx Bombers.
At Caesars, a pleasant woman with a clipboard stops the SUV. She peers in the driver’s side window and asks each one of us to recite our names. We get waived through after each named corresponded with her list. Once, a similar press junket, a Newsday colleague, Mark, who blogs for their sports page, lamented the tedious drill of submitting to security checks.
“Doesn’t anyone realize that a sportswriter would never make good terrorist. All we want to do is get into games for free, eat for free and do as little work as possible. As a group, we are pretty lazy.”
He has a point.
We depart the SUV and are greeted by a sign that reads, “Welcome to the Land of Love.”
The workout. As the city traffic put us slightly behind, Wladimir Klitschko is one round into his perfunctory workout. We enter the gym and trainer Emanuel Steward informs us that Wednesday is usually the fighter’s day off, so the workout will be light. Somehow, on media day, the workout is always light.
Klitschko goes three fairly intense rounds with Steward on the pads. He then hits the speed bag for two rounds and jumps rope for two more rounds. He cools down by doing about 10 minutes of stretching.
Klitschko, who is probably not 6-7, closer to 6-5, is nonetheless a stunning physical specimen. He will weigh in the neighborhood of 245 and looks as if there is not an ounce of fat on his body. If you are a sportswriter, or sports fans, there will always be something exciting about standing five feet away from a world-class athlete as he trains. Klitschko’s physicality dominates the room. All eyes focus on the fighter as veins begin to protrude from his arms. Say what you will about him as a fighter, but the man is in shape.
Steward also informed us that there will be no sparring but added that Klitschko would spar 10 rounds the next day and is closing in on 120 rounds of sparring for the fight. “The most I’ve ever had a fighter spar before a fight.”
And yes, there was lunch. Sandwiches, fruit, chips, soda and bottled water. We in the media are called many things, just don’t call us late to the lunch table.
Training Camp part 2. Klitschko’s opponent, Samuel Peter, is promoted by Duva Boxing. What does it say about the state of boxing that I didn’t mention the opponent until the 16th paragraph of the story? For the record, Klitschko and Peter will meet on September 24 in Atlantic City. It is an IBF title-fight eliminator. Also on the card, WBO junior welterweight champion Miguel Cotto will defend his title.
Because Peter is promoted by Duva boxing, Lou Duva was on hand. He will likely work Peter’s corner on fight night. Always one of the best quotes in boxing, the presence of Duva reminds one of the training camps of yesteryear. He tells a great story about how, as a young man, he would visit as many camps as possible in a single day.
“I used to caddy at the Preakness Hills Country Club in Wayne, New Jersey,” said Duva. “I used to go up there around 6:30, 7:00 in the morning to grab a double. A double means two bags. Two players playing. They were usually doctors or lawyers getting an early round of golf in.
“From there, as soon as I got done, about 11 o’clock, I would go out on the highway and hitch-hike up to Pompton Lakes, to Doc Beard’s camp, to see Joe Louis train. He used to get done probably around 1:00 or 1:30. I got to know all the newspaper guys like, Al Buck, Jim Cannon, Lester Bromberg. Then what they would do, they would all journey up to Greenwood Lake to see Rocky Marciano up there. I used to know Rocky. Then when Rocky got done, I’d hitch another ride with one of the newspaper guys and go up to Cabin in the Sky and see Sugar Ray Robinson. He usually trained around 4:00, 4:30. By the time I got done, I used to get home around 9:00 at night.
“That’s how I learned my craft. It’s not so much the fighters; I learned it from the newspaper guys, I learned it from the trainers. To sit down and listen to the stories of the managers and of the newspaper guys who covered up in New Bedford, or down in Elizabeth or in Newark. That’s how I learned it was all about promoting.”
Training Camp part 3. As Klitschko performed his stretching routine, Steward gathers the Kronk crew – trainer James Ali Bashir and two fighters (I know this because all four are wearing the standard yellow Kronk t-shirts) step onto the makeshift basketball court near the gym and begin shooting hoops. Suffice it to say that the pride of Detroit boxing is not a threat to the Detroit Pistons. Barely a shot is made. However, the Kronk crew might want to suit up the next time the Pistons play the Pacers.
The best of the bunch, heavyweight Malik Scott, drains a few long-range jumpers.
Questions and Answers. Finally, Klitschko holds court with the media. He says all the right things. He insists he is extremely confident. He says he is in a great shape (this does not appear to be a fib). He says he is comfortable with Steward and considers him a friend. He says he is glad that he went through his setbacks because it has made him more focused and made him appreciate boxing more. He complimented Peter, particularly his strength.
Here are the two best things he said. He recalled a fight commentator criticizing him once. “The commentator, he says, this guy (Wladimir) got no chin at all. Unfortunately for that commentator, two fights in a row, he lost by KO. He was very successful this guy, this commentator.”
He was speaking of Roy Jones.
Then, when asked what he learned about the setbacks in his career, he said: “From nothing to everything is a long way. But from everything to nothing is one step.”
Parting shot. On the way out, Ali Bashir spoke with reporters and related a tale of his boxing days. He said he fought in the New York Golden Gloves against a fighter named Christy Elliott. “This guy was a pretty good fighter. He became a good pro. And I’m fighting him in the semifinals. And it’s going well and I’m feeling great about the fight. Later on, I’m eating dinner back in Newark with my mom and my brother. And I’m feeling good because now I’m in the finals. My brother looked at me and said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I was like, yeah, I’m great. Then he said. ‘You lost the fight.’ I got knocked out in the second round and don’t remember a thing about it.”
(For the record, Elliott fought for Ireland in the 1972 Olympics. As a pro, he was managed by Duva and once drew with future 175-pound champ Mike Rossman. He also lost a 10-round decision to TSS boxing analyst, my father, Bobby Cassidy. I was 12 years old and ringside for that one.)
A cautionary tale. Steward said we (the media) have made a monster out of Samuel Peter. “He’s a 10-month sensation.” He says we’ve over hyped him and at the same time dismissed Klitschko too soon. Don’t forget, he warned, that Wladimir decisioned Chris Byrd and knocked out Monte Barrett, Jameel McCline and Ray Mercer. Their common opponent – Charles Shufford — was knocked out by Klitschko with one punch in six rounds. Peter looked less than stellar in scoring a 10-round decision against Shufford.
Food for thought. Exactly what we reporters love.