“You’d better be the next Stephen King … otherwise your kids will starve.” The comment has stuck with me since the 6th grade. I didn’t flaunt my ambitions back in those days. I was the son of a coal miner, more class clown than teacher’s pet. Why did I tell Mrs. Brown that I wanted to become a writer? That part of the story has faded away over the years. As a professor of rhetoric, writing, and oral communication, I view it all from a much different vantage point these days. Mrs. Brown’s homespun pragmatism says more about the socioeconomic realities that surrounded our rural mountain town than it does her ability to offer career advice to 6th graders. I am from a region where gender-specific attitudes toward the concept of “work” are heavily influenced by the extractive industries. In my neck of the woods, young men have very few role models when it comes to writing-intensive professions. I offer the following interview, the story of an Appalachian boy from Friendly, West Virginia, as an example to the young men of my home state. It can be done.
He is a longtime feature writer for Ring Magazine, The Bible of Boxing. You know him as “The Travelin’ Man” from his widely read Ring TV column. You’ll see him ringside at the big fights as a punch counter for CompuBox, the computerized scoring system that brought statistics into the sport of boxing. During his 2017 International Boxing Hall of Fame induction speech, Showtime analyst Steve Farhood credited this man as being his “go-to” source for boxing history. In anticipation for the release of “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym,” we followed Mr. Farhood’s advice and checked in with West Virginia’s #1 boxing writer – Lee Groves.
As both a boxing fan and a writer, your story is such an inspiration to me. Tell my readers how a boy from Friendly, West Virginia ends up working with the likes of Ring Magazine and CompuBox.
It’s a pretty long and involved story, but I’ll do the best I can to condense it. Everything that has led up to what has happened in the last 10-plus years has been the result of identifying an opportunity, then taking the initiative and acting on it. For example, the RING magazine dream actually came true twice. The first time was shortly after I graduated from Fairmont State College in 1987. I read in the Parkersburg News that a boxing card was going to happen that weekend and I noticed that THE RING did not have a West Virginia correspondent for its “Rings Around the World” section, a back-of-the-magazine rundown of various fights from all parts of the globe. I decided to dial the number listed in the magazine and asked the person who answered if they would like me to attend the show and report on the card. I’m sure they were bemused that someone would call their office out of the blue and volunteer to write an article for their publication, but after I explained that I had just graduated magna cum laude from FSC with an English major and a double minor in journalism and technical writing I’m sure they felt a bit better about the prospect. They mailed me a press pass and I called the promoter to let him know I was coming. I attended the show and submitted a very detailed fight report complete with quotes and very descriptive prose.
After reporting on a few more local shows — and after volunteering to write more fight reports off TV — I mentioned to the RING editors that if the opportunity came up I would be willing to write a feature for them. I figured it might be a year or two before that chance would come but little did I know that opportunity would come sooner — much sooner. In the lead-up to the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks superfight in 1988, I received a phone call from managing editor Phill Marder. He said that veteran feature writer Wes Moon was working on a story detailing the infighting between the WBA, WBC and IBF but, for whatever reason, he had to stop midway through. He wanted to know if I would pick up the ball and run with it. At first, I was stunned into silence…”what an opportunity this is!” I thought. After taking about 30 seconds to take it all in, Phill broke the spell by barking “well, are you going to do it or not?” “Of course, of course,” I replied. He gave me some phone numbers to try and while the WBC and IBF presidents (Jose Sulaiman and Bob Lee) were cooperative, the WBA stonewalled me. So, along with the main story, I ended up writing a sidebar about their unwillingness to talk entitled WBA: Why Bother Answering.” The writer, after all, gets the final word. Anyway, the guys at THE RING loved it and over the next several years I wrote about a dozen feature articles for it and its sister publications.
I decided to go for the home run one day by calling them up and asking them if they had any full-time openings at THE RING, adding that I would be willing to move in order to make my dream come true. They said that not only were there no jobs available now, they didn’t see any in the foreseeable future. I was crushed, and because I now was working full-time as a copy-editor/paginator at The Parkersburg News, the dream was effectively dead for more than a decade. Aside from a few columns in the local paper, I didn’t write about boxing at all.
But then the dream came alive again one night, and it came from a most unexpected source — a joke by Friday Night Fights studio analyst Max Kellerman. During one segment he made mention of a boxing website called MaxBoxing.com and Kellerman said, “and yes, this is not a website devoted entirely to me.” The next morning I logged into MaxBoxing and saw a boxing trivia column by “The Gym Rat,” who turned out to be Marty Mulcahey. I noticed that one of the answers he gave to a questioner was in error, so I wrote him a gentle and corrective e-mail. Instead of being brusque like most writers would be, Marty replied he would provide a correction in his next column. This sparked an e-mail exchange in which I told him about my previous writing experience (as well as my large video collection), which led to an introduction (via e-mail) to site editor Doug Fischer, who hired me as an unpaid columnist.
My first test took place in the very early morning hours of February 14, 2003 when we learned Kid Gavilan had passed away. Doug had sent a joint e-mail to Marty and me asking who would write the obituary. Marty had to work so it was either me or no one. So, for the next couple of hours — from 2 to 4 a.m. — I cranked out a detailed and heartfelt tribute to Gavilan, which was posted the next morning. This was an important moment in my revival as a boxing writer because I was given an assignment and I answered it by not only completing it but by also going the extra mile. Two years later I became a paid columnist for MaxBoxing and my niche quickly became boxing history. It was there that I began the “Closet Classics” series about great but obscure fights from the past that eventually became my first book: “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.”
Doug moved on from MaxBoxing to RingTV.com, and the new ownership of the website eventually stopped paying me. I briefly worked at BoxingScene.com, who, after a few months, also stopped paying me. In 2010 I reached out to Doug and let him know I was available. His reply: “When can you start?” My reply: “How about now?” And I’ve been there ever since. Because of my association with RingTV.com — THE RING’s sister web site — I also had the opportunity to write a few pieces for the magazine, which signified my second stint.
Now, as for my association with CompuBox, that story has even more improbable threads than the RING story. I am the possessor of one of the largest private sports video collections on earth, and that includes more than 50,000 fights. One day I was watching a tape of Danny “Little Red” Lopez’s 10-round decision win over Genzo Kurosawa in 1974. I noticed that, in the first three rounds, Lopez was throwing a TON of punches. Armed with my journalist’s curiosity, I decided to silently count the number of blows he threw in round four. I was stunned by the number I ended up with: 197, which is more than triple the number of punches a fighter usually throws. I wrote the number down in a notebook, watched rounds five through 10 then re-watched the first three rounds. It turned out that Lopez, in 10 rounds, had thrown 1,781 punches, which, had CompuBox existed in 1974, would have shattered records. I then hopped on the Internet, logged into the page for a private boxing chat group of which I was a member, and let them know about my little discovery. One of the other members of the group was HBO’s “Unofficial Official” Harold Lederman, who forwarded my note to Bob Canobbio, the owner and president of CompuBox, Inc. and said something to the effect of “check this guy out…I think you’d want him to work for you.” I didn’t learn that until years later, however. As it was, Harold e-mailed me to say Bob wanted to talk with me while giving him Bob’s phone number.
After introducing ourselves, Bob said, “I understand you have a large boxing video collection. Do you have the following 12 fights in your collection?” After giving me the list, I told him I did. He then asked me to run numbers on those 12 fights and e-mail the results back to him.
I saw this as a profound opportunity to show off my work ethic. In order to do these counts — which were only total punches thrown and total punches landed for both fighters — I had to watch each fight four times since I didn’t have the proper program on my laptop. If I got these fights done quickly, I thought that would create a positive impression. Here’s the back story on where my head was at the time: While I liked the people I worked with at the Parkersburg News and I liked where I lived, I HATED my job on the copydesk. It was a very high stress job with little positive feedback, plus I was a word person in a graphics job…square peg, meet round role. I was miserable. I would have been perfectly happy had I been a sportswriter, but it was not to be. So, as I tackled this assignment, I saw it as the first step toward an eventual job with CompuBox. I knew that first impressions are extremely powerful, and I wanted to make the best first impression possible.
So, I spent every free hour over the next three days counting these fights, and I e-mailed the results back to Bob. Unbeknownst to me, Bob already had his own numbers for one of the fights he assigned to me: The “Thrilla in Manila” rubber match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Although my numbers were slightly higher than his, they were close enough to indicate to him that I had an aptitude for punch counting. So, he asked me to drive to Atlantic City to attend the David Tua-Michael Moorer card. There, I “worked the keys” on the official CompuBox program for the first time during the untelevised undercard bouts, and over the next nine months I diligently practiced what I learned. My next ringside training session took place in Pittsburgh, where HBO televised a card topped by Paul Spadafora-Leonard Dorin. I not only wrote a two-part travelogue (not yet entitled “The Travelin’ Man” — that would come later), I also wrote a multi-part feature on CompuBox for MaxBoxing and, some time later, I officially became part of the CompuBox punch-counting team. Because of my researching skills and knowledge of boxing history, I also became Bob’s part-time research guy. I helped him put together the statistical packages and compiled “training camp notes” for the HBO telecasts.
I let Bob know about my disenchantment with my job at The News and asked him if there was a chance that he would ever hire me full time. He said “yes, but not yet.” He said he would hire me only when it got to the point where he could pay me enough money to make up for the income I would lose by quitting the newspaper job. Over the next three years I asked him so often about hiring me that we came up with a shorthand phrase for it — “pull the trigger.” I would ask “are you going to pull the trigger?” and he would say “we’re not pulling the trigger yet.” Then, just before noon on February 19, 2007 he pulled the trigger via e-mail…and he boldfaced the phrase “pull the trigger” in the note. He said at the time that this gig could last two years or it could last 20 or more. So far it has lasted nearly 11 and it the future looks bright.
Your lecture on CompuBox at the International Boxing Hall of Fame last June was incredibly insightful. How would you describe CompuBox’s importance to the sport of boxing?
I think Jim Lampley put it best when he said that for the first 90-plus years of modern boxing, there was no box-score for the sport like there is with baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer or any of the other major sports. CompuBox, ever since the Livingstone Bramble-Ray Mancini rematch in 1986, has served as that box score. One major component of its success is its reputation for producing numbers that mirror the perception of the public at large, especially when it comes to controversial fights. For example many people believe Lennox Lewis was robbed in his first fight against Evander Holyfield, and while the judges saw it as a draw the numbers had Lewis winning big. This phenomenon has occurred numerous times over the years, and because our numbers reflect what many people thought happened in the fight, the company has earned tremendous credibility. Of course, CompuBox has its critics, but if CompuBox was as incompetent as its critics allege, we would have been out of business many years ago. The fact we are still here speaks volumes.
I hear that you have a new book coming out about Muhammad Ali and CompuBox. Tell us about it.
The book is actually entitled “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers.” Many books have been written about Ali and his life, but one aspect of his ring existence that has never been covered is the statistical side. How many punches did he throw in his career and how many did he take? Did those punches, especially late in his career, contribute to his bad health later on? And, if so, how severe were the beatings he took? As it turned out, I would say they did contribute to his ill health and the numbers, especially late in his career, are astonishingly bad.
I counted 47 of Ali’s 61 professional fights, which was all the complete footage that is available on Ali. One good thing is that 43 of his final 44 fights are covered, so we do have a very representative sample of his career. We also have round-by-round scorecards for many of his fights thanks to Bob Yalen, one of the greatest research men the sport has ever known, and my boss Bob Canobbio has done a terrific job of assembling statistical nuggets we call “Inside the Numbers” that will be featured throughout the manuscript.
“Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” is far more than a book of statistics, however. Thanks to sifting through hundreds of back issues of various magazines and other resources, this book will provide a detailing retelling of Ali’s boxing life that will feature factoids that even I, a devoted Ali fan, didn’t know about. For instance, I didn’t know that Oscar Bonavena, who was Ali’s second comeback opponent following his three-and-a-half year exile, had taken part in a Tyson-style “bite fight” during his amateur career. I also didn’t know that Jimmy Young was one of Ali’s opponents in an exhibition a few years before they fought in 1976. So there’s plenty of interesting material in this book, which, I believe, may be the “final frontier” in terms of original material about the man called “The Greatest.”
Your Ring Magazine online column “The Travelin’ Man” has always been one of my favorites. Tell us about how it all came together.
Along with the “Closet Classics” series, one of my “things” with MaxBoxing was the “Travelin’ Man” columns, which allow me to flex my storytelling abilities, which, I believe, I inherited from my dad. I don’t know what it is, but weirdness has a way of finding me on these trips. Because I have a self-deprecating nature, these weird things perfectly dovetail with my temperament, which, in turn, comes out in my articles. People have told me that my columns allow them to tag along with me on my trips. The first story I did for MaxBoxing was a trip to Buffalo to see Joe Mesi fight DaVarryl Williamson as well as Dominic Guinn-Duncan Dokiwari and Juan Carlos Gomez-Sinan Samil Sam. The feedback I received from that article was positive so once I began traveling regularly for CompuBox I provided travelogues for every journey. Since becoming full-time in 2007 I have been to 40 states plus Canada, England, Argentina, the Bahamas and Germany. I also had an accidental border crossing into Mexico during one trip to El Paso, and that was one of the many colorful stories I told in the Travelin’ Man series.
To quote the late Johnny Cash, you’ve been everywhere man. Do you have a favorite fight city or fight venue?
The city outside the U.S. I have traveled most often to is Montreal. The Canadians really know how to put on a great show, not only in terms of the fights but also the atmospherics around the event. The single loudest crowd I’ve ever heard was in Montreal when Lucian Bute fought Sakio Bika in June 2007. The organizers had a live band playing during Bute’s ring walk, a band whose volume was amplified by loudspeakers. The cheers that met Bute drowned out the band and the loudspeakers! I remember turning to one of my colleagues and shouting in his ear “this is great!” and he said “what?” Although many of the main event fighters aren’t natives of Montreal — Bute is from Romania while Jean Pascal and Adonis Stevenson hail from Haiti — the locals have adopted them as their own, and I think that’s terrific.
What advice do you have for any of the young West Virginia sports writers that might read this interview? Your words of wisdom and encouragement will be greatly appreciated.
Know your subject and know it very well. When you write, provide lots of detail and use tons of active verbs. Be funny if you can, and if you can poke fun at yourself in the process, do so — that helps endear you to your audience. Also, don’t be political. It’s too easy these days to poke fun at one party or the other over one thing or another, but while doing that may make you feel good, you are also alienating half of your audience, which makes terrible business sense for your employers. Boxing fans go to boxing web site to read about boxing, not to read some screed about Bush, Obama or Trump. If you do that, it ruins your brand. The object of good writing is to please your audience, because it is your audience that will determine whether you are worthy of their time. When you write, do it with them in mind.
When you are given an assignment, do it quickly, do it well and do it right. If you see an opportunity to go the extra mile, do it. Be on time. Be reliable. And make yourself indispensible. That equation means job security. When you finish writing your article, read it over. Edit it. Clean up whatever mistakes you see so that the editors will have an easier time once you pass it on to them. I usually re-read my stuff at least three times before submitting it, and I know my editors appreciate the extra effort. One time, in one of his Mailbags, Doug Fischer said that my copy was as clean as a Joe Louis combination. That, to me, is the highest praise because “The Brown Bomber” was one of the most technically beautiful fighters I’ve ever watched. If you don’t know what I mean, watch him on YouTube…especially the Max Baer fight.
The biggest piece of advice as far as achieving your dreams is concerned is to identify your talent and find a way to monetize it so you can make your passion your profession. My road was interrupted for more than a decade but through a series of unlikely threads I was able to make my dreams come true at the relatively advanced age of 42. Along the way, I had to accept unpaid gigs but I did so because I knew that it was one play in a very long game. I trusted my talent and my work ethic to see me through to the finish line.
I sometimes wish that my dreams came true earlier in life…42 is a rather ripe age to reach one’s personal mountaintop. But then I realize that had I achieved my success in my late 20s, I wouldn’t have appreciated the long and arduous road I had to take in order to get here. Many people would grouse if their flight was delayed or canceled or if they got lost driving in tightly packed city streets. But, most of the time, I take everything in stride because I realize how lucky I am. Had it not been for several unrelated events coming together, there was a 99.99999% chance that I would still be working at the Parkersburg News in relative anonymity — as well as profound misery. People have told me that I look 10 years younger than my real age — I turned 53 in late November — but that’s because I love what I do. When I wake up in the morning — and there’s no set time for me to do so — I look forward to tackling the day’s tasks because I love doing them. I am a numbers freak in a stats-driven occupation. And that occupation has everything to do with boxing — my favorite sport! I am also a writer for one of the oldest and most celebrated boxing franchises on earth, and I have been a voter for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001. How fortunate am I?
When I was striving to achieve full-time work with CompuBox, I often prayed during my one-hour drive home. I told God that if you make my dreams come true, I will give thanks to you every single day for the rest of my life. Nearly 11 years after it came true, I have yet to miss a day. God has been wonderful to me and I give him the credit for helping me recognize the chances that were before me, helping me to have the courage and will to reach out to the people who could further my dreams, and having the drive to follow through with passion and purpose. I am living a dream, and I hope that those who are reading this will be able to do so as well.
To learn more about Lee’s upcoming book, click Here
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