Pontiac Redux, Part 1
By Bart Barry
This week brings an ignominious anniversary for our beloved sport. Sunday will mark a year since “The Super Fight” – Timothy Bradley versus Devon Alexander – happened in Pontiac, Mich. The fight itself was inconsequential; neither man has done anything in the junior welterweight division since. But the consequences for HBO Sports were noteworthy, and perhaps more importantly, it still feels as though there is more to impart about the event, its city and arena, and Detroit.
A week or so before “The Super Fight,” sources learned Showtime would broadcast Manny Pacquiao’s next match. HBO had lost Pacquiao. The brass at HBO, who’d ignored the toy department for much of the preceding half-decade, suddenly went on notice. Their antennae went up. And with those antennae erect and tingling, “The Super Fight” went off in an abandoned airport hangar of a building in a depressed city.
What follows is a brief memoir of snow, dilapidated edifices, hidden service elevators, endless concrete expanses, a hopped chainlink fence, more snow, and an encounter in the Southwest terminal of Metro Airport. It will include some boxing.
About 10 days before “The Super Fight,” circumstances converged to make my trip possible. I procured a weird tangle of crisscrossed flights and rental car accommodations and wrote a preview of Bradley-Alexander that included a first-person conclusion assuring readers I would be there to see it. In the two days that followed, a goodish number of persons whose minds I admire called or wrote to ask me what the hell I was doing. I had two reasons for my trip to Pontiac in January: To honor Timothy Bradley – who was and remains one of my favorite active fighters – and to see if Detroit could be bad as accounts said it was.
My rental car was a Kia that when loaded with my laptop case and travel bag weighed perhaps a hundred pounds more than I did. The Kia and I set off for Pontiac in quickly accumulating snow. I had learned to drive in snow as a native New Englander, but in the 18 years since my departure for the Southwest I had not improved at the craft. The car slid all over the road, occasionally even working the oncoming side of where the yellow line would be found in April.
Friday morning I arrived on the outskirts of what my phone’s GPS said was Pontiac and surveyed the local FM dial in search of local flavor. One Motown station featured The Supremes followed by a familiar cackle and faux interview in which promoter Don King rattled off a handful of other Detroit-founded groups and invited locals to come to Silverdome tomorrow night for a super fight.
There was King, later that afternoon, in a private club on the end of Silverdome opposite where the ring would be constructed for Saturday’s fight. Or was the ring already constructed? A few of us gathered at the enormous glass wall where the weigh-in was held, and we peered and squinted at what could have been a black pocket square floating in a gray blazer. That was the curtain that both hid Saturday’s ring and marked the nearest point of Saturday’s converted arena – across hundreds of yards of empty concrete. Boxing’s chutzpah is at times extraordinary; who else would prod a hibernating venue to life then cordon off 90 percent of it?
King was alive if tired. When you speak with him he violates personal space till you realize how enormous a man he is. Your ears fit between his eyebrows, and his voice shakes your hair and scarf. He knew you would be there because you appreciate what is great in this sport, nay this land, and it thrills him the love he has for you, my brother, because as Shakespeare said, in his grandiloquence of verbositous garrulity, “If she say I am not fourteen pence on the score for sheer fisticuffs, score me up for the lyingest knave in Michigan!”
Promoter Gary Shaw, shorter and paler and rounder, was there too. A study of contrasts, King and Shaw. King is twice himself in person as he is on television, while Shaw is half. Shaw is softspoken and reasonable and willing to explain his talent lies in logistics more than spectacle. In his prime, King would have treated Shaw as an employee – Alan Hopper as publicist, Shaw as matchmaker – but King was by then far from his prime as he could be and still renew a promoter’s license.
Friday night brought an ill-advised drive to Detroit proper, a few bars, a rave, and an early morning Coney dog at the second-best Coney dog eatery in the city because the very best was being used that night as a set for some cop show starring Tony Soprano’s tequila-sipping protégé. The night is a not a blur for the reasons you think. It is a blur because of what followed: Somewhere just north of 8 Mile Road on I-75, when my phone’s battery died with its GPS and the falling snow became a white wall seen from the driver’s side window as my Kia went sideways toward Pontiac, I became suddenly aware of how easy it would be to get lost, run out of gas and not be found till springtime.
And like that I was lost. Snow was accumulated on the freeway signs. The sky was a dark pillow gently shaking one feather-like flake after the next. I had been driving 30 miles per hour for an hour but knew I had not gone 30 miles. The entire episode was not frightful in its actuality – I located the Marriott village in Pontiac before the gas light went out – but frightful in its manufacturing. A terrible time to have an imagination.
Saturday morning I went looking for downtown Pontiac.
Editor’s note: Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, Feb. 1.