The Finger Post Travel: Panama City, Panama…more than a hub? (October 29-November 2, 2018)

The Finger Post Travel (November 19, 2018)

 

PTY…Tocumen International Airport just outside of Panama City, Panama.  Nobody who flies anywhere in Latin America can avoid it.  It’s the major hub for Copa Airlines (which makes it the major hub for United Airlines for anyone flying anywhere in Latin America with United).

Needless to say, I have had more than my share of layovers in Panama City.  But the city, and the country, had always escaped me.  Back in 2012 with an overnight layover at PTY I was able to explore the city somewhat.  But it was a rush job, and I didn’t really feel that I really saw the city (although my cab driver did show me a few sites that were off the beaten track like the house John McCain use to live in).  I saw the Panama Canal from the side of the road at a rest stop and the rest of the sites…well, I saw those from the taxi cab.

But with the 31st Annual WBO Boxing Convention being held in Panama City this year I was given a rare opportunity: the chance to really visit the elusive city whose charm I always brushed up against but had yet to experienced.

And my take?

Well, it’s one hell of an airport.

I know, I know…I usually am not such a Debbie Downer.  And right off the bat, the WBO Convention was an absolute knockout.  Hosted by the Hotel El Panama I couldn’t ask for a better locale for a boxing convention.  And seeing local boy Jason Sanchez win the WBO Youth Title in Panama City while sitting a row over from “Manos De Piedra” Roberto Duran was a memory that I won’t forget anytime soon.

But at the end of the day Panama City itself felt a little like an Epcot Center exhibit of what a Latin American city was suppose to feel like.  Panama was clean…too clean.  It was prosperous…but somewhere between the Trump Towers and the skyscrapers and international banks I couldn’t help but wonder is something had been lost.  Because in some ways Panama City felt like Miami.  A big, thriving economic powerhouse with a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every corner and lots of traffic.  A typical big city.  But a city that in many ways was a cookie cutter copy of so many other big cities.

But then again, it is easy for me to say that.  For the Panamanians who are benefiting from  the economic prosperity and growth there is probably no complaints.  After all, Panama and Costa Rica are the two most successful and prosperous Central American nations.  While Nicaragua teeters on Civil War and Honduras sees thousands of refugees flee their nation Panama sits back and enjoys nearly 6% annual growth and a GDP per capita of over $24,000 per citizen according to the IMF.  Considering both Honduras and Nicaragua are hovering around $5,000 you can understand how Panama is a nation on the rise and an economic powerhouse of the region.

Maybe that is the price to pay for economic growth and one of the highest standards of living in Latin America: a certain loss of uniqueness.

My time in Panama City was admittedly spent mostly at the Hotel El Panama where I covered the events associated with the World Boxing Organization convention, but I did get an opportunity to visit some of the sites in the city.  Most notably I had two visits to the Miraflores Locks and the Panama Canal.  I went with my father and I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather when we went.  It was well known in my family how my grandfather loved to see the Soo Locks whenever he was up in   Sault Sainte Marie. Michigan.  He would find a bench on the river and sit down and just enjoy the modern marvel that was the locks.  I couldn’t help but feel like my grandfather was with us as we made our way to the Miraflores Locks…to the worlds most famous locks.

Until we got there and we discovered that at least half of Panama was with us at the locks.  Sadly, the Miraflores Locks are designed for functionality…not tourism.  And the small museum, theater, and viewing deck just can’t handle the number of tourist wanting to see one of the great wonders of the world.

We paid $30 for dual tickets which allowed us to also see the Biomuseo (Biomuseum) located near the Amador Causeway, which was also listed as one of Panama City’s “must see” attractions.  Sadly, I was tied up with my report on the third day of the convention and we didn’t get to the Biomuseo until five minutes after they closed.  Still, the guide gave us a nice tour of the outside of the building and some of the history of the region.  And from the museum we were able to briefly walk down the causeway and take in an amazing view of both the Bridge of the America’s and of the City itself.

With the sun coming down we made a quick stop to the old town (Casco Viejo) which ultimately  felt like a somewhat less impressive version of dozens of other old towns I visited in Latin America.

Even our visit to the Multicentro Mall seemed underwhelming.  The Mall was deserted, as was the one Casino we went inside…and I couldn’t help but wonder if Panama City had reached that point in economic development where Amazon replaced Best Buy.

But still, I was glad I got the chance to see Panama City up close.  I met Roberto Duran there and saw a side of Latin America that we don’t often see: the prosperous and vibrant Latin American city.  The Latin America that has, much like us, found comfort in uniformity.

 

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The Finger Post Travel: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Mostar, Bosnia (July, 2004)

The Finger Post Travel (November 18, 2018)

I realize I may be two weeks late, but it occurred to me that we just passed a very dubious anniversary earlier this month.  November 9, 1993…twenty five years ago.  On that date we witnessed what would go on to be perhaps the most iconic image of the Bosnian Civil War: the destruction of the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar.

Admittedly I’ve already posted about my view that we sometimes ignore the suffering of people in a civil war when it doesn’t affect us.  In those instances it is the destruction of a building, a historic site, or a bridge, that seems to rile us into action…or at least get us to care.

It was Bosnia where I first noticed this phenomenon.  As a youth I remembered a photo of what appeared to be a Nazi concentration camp on the cover of a 1992 issue of Time Magazine.  And yes there was anger and outrage…but ultimately it was followed by inaction.

But when Croat rebels destroyed the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar the following year it seemed to be a turning point.  A moment in which the world collectively started to say “we have to do something.”  Sure it took three more years for the war to actually end (and less than one year for the Croats and Bosniaks to reach a settlement) but there was something different about the outrage over that bridge.

As a kid I suddenly knew about the legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, whose student (Mimar Hayruddin) who built the bridge in the 1560s.  I suddenly became a student of that bridge.  And yet it wasn’t until years after the war that I would learn the history of Harush Ziberi, whose fearful face in an iconic photo would haunted me for years.   I didn’t know his name or his story, but to me this was the face of the Bosnian Civil War…and sadly his story, unlike the story of the Bridge in Mostar, would not have a happy ending.  Ziberi, I would discover years later, was executed by the Serb paramilitaries that captured him shortly after this photo was taken.

Photo by Ron Haviv
Photo by Ron Haviv

But the Bridge would be rebuilt.  The tourist would come back to watch young men jump into the Neretva River below.  The city of Mostar would again be forever joined at the hip with the bridge that connected it’s Croat and Bosniak citizens across the river below.  Yes, there would be scars…but unlike with Ziberi there would a future for Mostar and the bridge.

For me, my internship in Bosnia in 2004  after my first year in Law School did give me a rare opportunity to  witness the return of the Stari Most Bridge.  I was living in Sarajevo in the summer of 2004 and although I didn’t get a chance to go to Mostar on July 23rd, 2004 for the official opening of the rebuilt bridge, I was able to visit later that month with a handful of my fellow NGOs from Denver, Colorado.

Right off the bat I could tell that the bridge was very much an integral part of the city and I had trouble imagining how they got by over the last eleven years without it.  Dozens of young men stood in swimsuits on the bridge offering to jump into the shallow river below (for a small fee).  Although the bridge stands less than 80 feet from the river below you learn to appreciate how high 78 feet really is as you watch the young man crawl over side and jump feet first into the river.

 

We had an NGO with us named Ben Porter who possessed an adventurers spirit and he did attempt to do the jump himself, but he was strongly discouraged by the locals, who probably didn’t want to deal with having to fish a dead American out of the river.  I’m sure there is a method to the jump, one that your typical American thrill seeker would be unaware of…but I wouldn’t have bet  against Ben pulling it off.  He seemed to have a knack for being able to do the impossible when it came to things like jumping off bridges.

The city of Mostar itself was a beautiful place, but the scars were still ever present.  Sure a lot of the main streets were cleaned up nicely, but all you had to do was go down a quiet ally or side street to see the bullet holes in the side of the buildings.  To see a stark reminder of the war that seemed to define the nation to many foreigners.  Bosnia is, and probably will remain, a word associated with war to many people.  Even those who were born after the war, the word itself has developed a new meaning.  Lebanon.  Chechnya.  And Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 

Then again, that was almost fifteen years ago.  Mostar, it appeared to me in 2004, would be a city that found a way to overcome.  I could tell that if Bosnia-Herzegovina would spend decades trying to heal the wounds of the conflict…and fix the endemic corruption that was birthed from that conflict and which seemed to hold the nation back.  But Mostar seemed different.  It would not be a city that let the war define them.  They would not forget…but they would overcome.  As long as they had that bridge they would overcome.

But a recent visit to Tripadvisor seems to indicate that maybe that was a little too optimistic.  I hoped that maybe by now the scars of war have been plastered over.  But it appears that the bullet holes still can be seen on the side of the old shopping mall in Mostar.

Maybe in another decade the city will have covered up all of the ugly memories of the war.  Maybe in another decade the last remnants of the conflict will be the Catholic Church tower, which appears to have been built at an unusual and unnatural height for one purpose only: to ensure is higher than the minaret of the local mosque mosque.

There are no shortages of memories of the war in Bosnia, and cities like Sarajevo and Srebrenica  are yes even Mostar don’t want to let anyone forget what transpired from 1991-1996.  But Mostar seemed to want to give tourist another image of Bosnia i Herzegovina as well…a more hopeful image.  I can’t blame them for that,  Mostar was a nice change of pace when visiting Bosnia.  It is a beautiful city whose identity doesn’t seem to have been molded by the war even after her most historic landmark was destroyed by it.

I just wish Harush Ziberi could have seen what it became.

 

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The Finger Post Boxing: Sanchez Stuns Rivera in Panama City (October 31, 2018)

The Finger Post Boxing (November 18, 2018)

 

For boxing fans in Panama City, Panama there was little question that they were watching a pugilistic surgeon in the ring last night in undefeated Puerto Rican Jean Carlos Rivera. The only problem was that the surgeon was standing in front of a New Mexican freight train in Albuquerque’s Jason Sanchez. Sanchez, the prohibitive underdog going into the fight, refused to ever take a backward step against the undefeated prospect and never let Rivera derail his unrelenting pressure. Rivera seemed to have an effective strategy in the opening round, letting Sanchez come on strong but making him pay for his aggression with hard overhand rights. In round two it appeared that Rivera had even rattled the New Mexican when he landed a hard left that appeared to affect Sanchez’s balance. But even as he landed hard counter punches, Rivera could never get the New Mexican to ease up off of him, and soon the relentless pressure of Sanchez began to take its toll. Rivera began to wilt from the pressure by round four and by round six there was no question that Sanchez was now in control. Rivera, who was never able to keep up with Sanchez’s punch output even in the early rounds, continued to slowly fade in the late rounds as his picture perfect counter right became less pronounced and his punch output, always lagging Sanchez’s, began to drop off as well.

By round ten it appeared that Sanchez was ahead, but the Albuquerque fighter wisely elected to fight it out and not leave anything to chance. His aggression and perseverance paid off when he badly rattled Rivera with a left hook that sent the Puerto Rican stumbling into the corner where referee Ken Chevalier correctly ruled a knockdown, noting that the corner and ropes was the only thing that prevented Rivera from hitting the canvas.

But the freight train was not about to let up, even with the decision all but in the bag. Sanchez pressed forward for the knockout against his foe, winning over the Panamanian fight fans and closing the round in dominant fashion, All three judges has Sanchez the winner by scores of 96-93, 97-92, and 97-92. With the win Sanchez captures the WBO Youth Featherweight title, while also improving his record to 13-0, 6 KOs. For Sanchez, it was a perfect night that ended in a perfect victory. With the World Boxing Organization hosting their annual convention in Panama City, Sanchez’s fight was attended by some of the most important power brokers in the sport including Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, Panama’s most famous citizen. Also, as the original main event fight fell through at the last minute, Jason Sanchez found himself now fighting for a WBO title in the main event.

The acquisition of the Youth title is expected to propel Sanchez into the WBO world rankings as well. Currently there are seven Youth Champions ranked by the WBO, with the highest Youth Champion being ranked #1 in the mini-flyweight division.

“This is a dream come true,” Sanchez said after the fight. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my whole life. I worked hard for it and thank God everything went good.”

The Finger Post Boxing: Albuquerque’s Jason Sanchez makes weight in Panama

The Finger Post Boxing (October 31, 2018)

Undefeated Albuquerque featherweight Jason Sanchez (12-0, 6 KOs) made weight for his WBO Youth title fight tonight after weighing in a half pound under the featherweight limit yesterday at the Hotel El Panama in Panama City.
Jason Sanchez made weight at 125 1/2. His opponent, Juan Carlos Rivera, also made weight coming in at 125 3/4.  The fight will be for the vacant WBO Youth Featherweight title.

“I feel good, I feel strong.” Sanchez said after making weight. “Ready to bring the belt home. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since I was a little kid. It finally came through and I’m going  to take advantage of it.”

The Finger Post Boxing: Former WBO champ Katsunari Takayama clears hurdle to compete in 2020 Olympics

The Finger Post Boxing (October 18, 2018)
Retired six time minimumweight champion Katsunari Takayama (31-8, 12 KOs) was just approved an amateur boxing license by the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation, clearing his way to fight for Japan in the 2020 Olympics.
“After examination and an interview with him that we conducted on October 9 we, the JABF, came to the decision to permit him an amateur registration,” JABF attorney Yusuke Toda was quoted as saying by the English language Japan Times.
The move was hardly routine for the only Japanese fighter to win world titles in all four major sanctioning organizations.  The 35-year old Takayama retired in 2017 in an effort to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics only to have his boxing license denied.  This despite the fact that the International boxing Association (AIBA) allowed professional boxers to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics.  The subsequent battle for his amateur license proved to be one of Takayama’s most difficult, but against formidable odds Takayama was able to weather the storm and prevail after allegations of misconduct led to the resignation of former JABF president Akira Yamane.  Yamane’s opposition to granting the professional boxer a license was ultimately the biggest hurdle of Takayama’s dream of becoming the first boxing champion to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
“There has been many Olympic medalists throughout the world from many countries who have gone on to become world champions as professional boxers,” Takayama told Fightnews in an interview back in August of 2017.  “But there have been no world champions in professional boxing who have gone on to win the gold medal in the Olympics.”
Although Takayama will probably be the most accomplished fighter in the 2020 Olympics and one of Japan’s most promising medal contenders, he still needs to qualify for the Olympics in an amateur tournament.  Although Takayama is expected to resume his amateur career as early as April of 2019, there is a recognition by many in boxing that his path to a gold medal will still be a formidable one.  In 2016 three professional boxers competed in the Rio Olympics, and all failed to win a medal despite concerns early on that their experience would give them an unfair advantage.

“I’ve fought all these amateur boxers before. I’m not surprised I lost to an amateur because I used to be one. ” former WBA and WBO middleweight champion Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam told SB Nation after he was shockingly upset in the opening round of the 2016 Olympics to little known Brazilian named Michel Borges.  “Professionals don’t have an advantage because the characteristics of the fight are different.”

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Travel: The search for the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia (October 8, 2018)

The Finger Post Travel: October 18, 2018

 

So I spent the Columbus Day weekend visiting my aunt and mom in Philadelphia. Well, Norristown technically, but close enough. And although I didn’t get nearly enough time to revisit the City of Brotherly Love, a city I had not visited in well over twenty years (Lions lost to the Eagles in the wildcard when I was last in Philly, with Scott Mitchell as our QB and Barry Sanders as our running back. It was a simpler time before cell phones and the internet…when I still had hope that I would someday witness the Lions win a playoff game).  Although I enjoyed my time in Philadelphia back in the mid-90s, I have to admit, those pre-internet days resulted in a lot of missed stops. I had no clue that Benjamin Franklin’s grave was in Philadelphia at the time, or that the debate between where the greatest Philly Cheesesteak on the planet was a unassuming intersection at Passyunk and Wharton. It was there where 2018’s internet promised me was the culinary Subway Series between two powerhouses.  It was at that intersection where I would find, right next to each other, the top two places to get a Philly Cheesesteak on earth: Pat’s King of Steaks and Gino’s.

With an afternoon flight on Columbus Day I decided to give in and try one of these legendary sandwich shops. I wasn’t sure which one, but I was leaning towards Pat’s. After all, they were the place where the legendary Philly Cheesesteak was “invented” (although let’s be honest, I can’t help but think that at some point in the great history of cuisine someone put grilled onions, steak, and cheese together in a hoagie roll before 1933). Rival Gino’s next door was nonetheless inviting. I tend to find that any restaurant that has police patches hanging up on the walls tends to have good food.  I never met a police officer who wasn’t a steak connoisseur, and that seemed a good sign.

But then again…Pat’s invented the sandwich.  How could I say no to that selling point?

In the end I went with Pat’s over Gino’s…and I hate to say this, but it’s like the Citizen Kane of Philly Cheesesteaks. You sort of understand how it opened a lot of doors and how it redefined the field…but it has long since been surpassed by younger, fresher competitors.  The sandwich was OK, I ordered it with cheese wiz as was recommended.  But it hardly seems like the sandwich that could redefine a city. In the end, it just tasted like steak sandwich with cheese.

Maybe it can’t live up to the hype anymore. I had hundreds of Philly cheesesteaks over the years and some folks tweaked with the formula to make something really special…but also really not a “Philly” Cheesesteak. But my last time in Philadelphia produced a cheesesteak that seemed to put almost all others to shame (oddly enough a place in Taos New Mexico had the best one I ever had, which probably has some folks in Philadelphia reading this fit to be tied).

But as for Pat’s…well, I suppose you should still try it. But the peppers were bland and the steak sandwich ultimately was a little salty. No it wasn’t terrible, in fact it was good.  But it wasn’t legendary.  And with that being said maybe if you’re about to try your first Philly Cheesesteak you should start with Gino’s. I can’t say if they are better,  but I just don’t think Pat’s is going to blow you away. At the end of the day, Pat’s is just a sled from a long gone era.  It’s Philadelphia’s Rosebud.  Important, yes.  But it just doesn’t stand the test of time.

 

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Travel: Accra, Ghana and my first taste of Africa (July 20-22, 2017)

 

The Finger Post Travel (October 10, 2018)

 

The moment I stepped off the plane I could feel it…Africa.  I was finally here.  The one elusive destination had finally become a reality when I was asked to come out and cover the Isaac Dogboe vs. Juan Chacon fight in July of 2017.  I had been to Egypt and Morocco, but as I often heard in both countries: “Africa…but not really.”

But Ghana was different.  There was no question whatsoever that this was Africa.

After passing through customs I met up with Charles Dogboe, uncle of the main even fighter and right hand man to promoter and trainer Paul Dogboe.  It was late and I was hungry…and we had a busy day tomorrow at the weigh-ins.  I hoped in his car and we made our way to my hotel: the Oceanic Resort in Accra.  Although the Oceanic was a bit out of the way it made up for it in charm and the simple fact that it had a kickin’ pool and an amazing view of the ocean.  It also had great service.  Although late at night they opened up the restaurant for me and cooked me up a traditional Ghanaian meal of jollof rice and goat stew.

Now let me say this: there are a lot of cultures across the globe that take pride in their ability to dial up the spicy to 11 when preparing a dish.  As a Korean-American I often took pride in my ability to out-spice most of my Anglo friends in Michigan and I couldn’t help but notice Mexicans sort of took a similar approach with their food as well.  I quickly concluded that everyone outside of the British, Irish, Germans, and a few others had some local phrase that roughly translated into “Thai hot.”

Well, I don’t use the phrase “Thai hot” anymore.  No.  There is hot…and then there is Ghana hot.

In one of Isaac Dogboe’s earlier fights in Ghana his opponent, an undefeated Ugandan named Edward Kekembo, blamed his loss to Isaac in Accra on the “peppers” of Ghana, citing the spicy food.  It earned a round of chuckles with a few of my boxing associates and myself, as we ranked it up there with “I was poisoned by my hairspray” as one of the more interesting excuses for a loss in the boxing ring.

But at that moment I have to admit, the theory held a little bit of water.  This rice had a serious kick to it.

But damn if it wasn’t the best spicy rice I ever had…and I have to say, we Koreans know spicy rice.  I felt like a French wine snob who just tasted his first Malbec from Argentina…my world view had forever changed as I tasted jollif for the first time.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

The following morning I discovered that several of the referees and the main event fighter, Javier Chacon, were staying in the same hotel.  Charles picked us up where we made our way to the luxurious Kempinski Hotel, where the weigh in was set to take place.  There were quite a few people with both the promotion and with the World Boxing Organization (WBO) who were staying there and I would become a frequent visitor of the Kempinski Hotel in Accra over the next few days…and all I can say is wow.  I was able to use their gym, which was one of the better ones I’ve seen in a hotel, and their pool was absolutely amazing.  I won’t lie, everything there sort of blew me away…I felt like that old white guy from the barber shop in Coming To America admiring King Jaffe Joffer’s shawl.

“This is beautiful, what is that, mouthwash dispensers in the bathrooms?”

The weigh-in had an energy that was refreshing for those of us in boxing.  It felt like the nation (and the nation’s media) wanted to be part of the Issac Dogboe story early on and I couldn’t help but feel a little bad.  Those of us in the States only jumped on bandwagons long after the train had left the station.  Covering fights in Michigan in the early 2000s I knew that most of my fellow boxing writers tended to watch with curious interest in the rise of Floyd Mayweather.  He was a champion but we were waiting to see just how big he would become.  When he fought Phillip Ndou in Grand Rapids back in 2003 we were interested….but we weren’t passionate.  In Ghana they had an young future world champion and with it they brought an energy that we didn’t.  It wasn’t an improper bias they had, no, it was something else.  A determination to absorb everything that would make this story of Isaac Dogboe complete, regardless of how it ends.  The Ghanaian sports writers were invested in the story in a way that really impressed me.

But alas, this isn’t a boxing story, it is a story of Accra.

I finished covering the weigh-in and in the process got what may be the best boxing photo I ever took, of a stoic Javier Chacon in enemy territory as a nation looked on.

A warrior in enemy territory

By the end of the weigh in I discovered I would be in for a rare treat.  The fighters, media, and boxing officials would be heading to the home of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, one of the most respected former leaders in all of Africa and a well known boxing fan.  Rawlings was a former flight lieutenant of the Ghanaian Air Force who seized power in a coup in 1979 and proceeded to purge (i.e. execute) two former presidents (i.e. generals who also seized power by way of a coup) by way of firing squad.  Rawlings also purged other leaders of the Supreme Military Council (the junta that ruled Ghana from 1975-1979).  It was, as Wikipedia described, one of the bloodiest incidents in Ghana’s history.  But from that bloody beginning was something the world was not expecting.  Rawlings, many assumed, would simply be another Mobutu like dictator.  A military man who would rule with brutality, force, and possibly a cult of personality.  But Rawlings would ultimately surprise many when he built the foundation of a true democracy in Ghana.  Many remained skeptical when he formed a “National Commission on Democracy” and some opposition leaders complained loudly when he ran, and won, in the 1992 Ghanaian presidential election.

Rawlings would win re-election in 1996 but it wasn’t what transpired from 1992-2000 there that cemented his status as a beloved former president.  It was what happened in 2001.  Rawlings could have easily “suggested” that the constitution (that he pushed for) be amended to allow him to run for a third term.  He refused.  And when his vice-president lost the 2000 election to opposition leader John Kufuor Rawlings could have somehow stepped in and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Kufuor’s victory.  Rawlings didn’t do that either.

No, instead Rawlings stepped down, and that simple act planted a seed of democracy that is still growing in Ghana.

And I was about to meet the man who emerged as not just the father of democracy in Ghana, but as one of the father’s of democracy in Africa.

Rawlings came out and met with the fighters, referee Tony Weeks, and several WBO officials before I was introduced to him.  I won’t lie, I was a bit star struck.  I’ve met a lot of fighters from Canelo Alvarez to Manny Pacquiao…but Jerry Rawlings was the first man who had me star struck.

After we left I realized I had the entire day off and I decided to use it to explore Accra.  I started to wander down the streets of Accra, where I emerged as something of a minor celebrity.  I wasn’t in the tourist section…I can’t even say where I was.  All I know is it teemed with life.  As I walked down the beach I was greeted by, well, by everyone.  From the kids waiting for the school bus to the fishermen wondering where I was going and what I was doing.  And of course by the hucksters and hustlers who tried to sell me whatever it was I was shopping for.

I soon made my way to what I was told was one of the more bustling marketplaces in Ghana, and although I didn’t stand out as much as I did on the way down, I wasn’t exactly blending in.  Gringos tend to be seen as a profitable mark in most marketplaces the world over and I got the sense Ghana was no exception.  But with that being said, after buying a homemade Africa dress for a reasonable $7 I assumed that if I was being ripped off I was still doing OK.




But as much as I enjoyed window shopping, there was something I really was interested and that was the street food in Accra. I knew fufu was high on my list and I did get the opportunity to see it made by hand, well, see it getting made by hand.  I was told it was a long and difficult process that required endurance and dedication.  But that the reward was very much worth it.

but I wasn’t really ready to sit down and experience it just yet.  No, watching fufu getting made was like watching a carpenter make a table.  You had to be ready to appreciate the process…and the labor of love that went into it.

Instead I decided to get some grilled meat on a stick from a street vendor.  After all, I seldom am disappointed from grilled meat on a stick wherever I am, and I assumed Accra would be no exception.  There were several choices and most look familiar…so naturally I picked the one that didn’t.  But as I bit into my skewer I quickly came to a disturbing conclusion: it tasted like someone emptied an ashtray in a bowl of cottage cheese…and whatever I was eating was the intestines of some small mammal.

Yeah, needless to say I don’t want to think about it too much.  As I made my way into what I quickly concluded was something of a “food ally” of Accra I soon discovered a woman and man running a small homemade stand in a particularly tight alleyway.   I was a little gun-shy over trying something new again but this looked different…it appeared to be a spicy fish stew…and there was no way the Korean in me was about to pass up on some spicy fish stew.

“What is this called?” I asked the man.

“Shito.” he replied with a smile, one that gave me the sense that he was messing with me.  After all, the first syllable of that word didn’t instill me with confidence, especially considering I could still taste the rat intestine in my mouth.

“Seriously?” I said suspiciously.  “You call this shito?”

“Yes, he said with unmistakable pride and enthusiasm.  “Please, try some.  It is very good!”

I decided to take him up on his offer.  Yeah, I was nervous, but I wasn’t about to let one grilled rat ruin my favorite part of travelling: the experience of trying something completely out of my comfort zone.

And I am glad I did…because shito is the bomb.  I bought a bottle for the road and then sat down and chatted for about half an hour with the shito salesman and his wife.

As I headed back I couldn’t help but notice that Ghana was above all a boxing country.  Now don’t get me wrong, Ghana is a football country first and foremost…but from the former president to the shito salesman I got the sense that every Ghanaian was more than just a casual fan of the Sweet Science.

I made a few more stops on my way to my hotel…tonight would be the fight and I wouldn’t have time to spend in Accra tomorrow, where I had hitched a ride with Tony Weeks to visit the Cape Coast Castle.  So this would be it…my time in Accra.  As I made my way back to the coast I noticed a small beach front village near the lighthouse and wanted very much to explore it.  But I also recognized I was out of time.

Before catching my flight to Ethiopia I was able to squeeze in one more stop thanks to Charles Dogboe: the Independence Arch.  One of Ghana’s most famous monuments I had seen it almost every day in Accra…but I hadn’t had a chance to see it up close.  Charles stopped long enough to allow me to explore…and yeah I suppose I can check that one off the list of things I saw in Ghana.  But deep down I know I’ll have to go back.  I only scratched the surface of Accra…but it still left a mark.  There is still so much more to see in Accra, and Ghana, and someday soon I plan to check a few more of those places off my list.

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The Finger Post Boxing: Looking for the next Freddie Pendleton or Mike Weaver (September 29, 2018)

The Finger Post Boxing (September 29, 2018)

 

Scouting is an inexact science in sports and boxing is no exception.  But with that being said, there are those can’t miss prospects…and usually they don’t miss.

Usually, not always. Photo (Ricardo Williams Jr.) via boxrec.com

Sure a lot of people are predicting a world title in the near future for 2012 Olympic bantamweight silver medalist Shakur Stevenson or welterweight gold medalist Robson Conceicao and I happen to think those are two really safe picks.   Both men have shown absolute brilliance in the ring as professionals and I feel there is a better than 50% chance that both will have world title belts around their waist by the end of 2019 or 2020.

Recently MTK Global signed 2012 Olympic flyweight gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov to a managerial contract.  Well, if I had any questions about Zoirov’s future as a pro I don’t now.  Although a lot of fighters from Central Asia make a splash in the Olympics, many often elect to remain amateurs.  This is one of the reason that so many Kazakh fighters don’t get the attention they deserve.  And for the Uzbek gold medalist Zoirov, I think the main reason he isn’t considered #1 draft pick in boxing is because he’s Uzbek.  Fighters from Central Asia just don’t get the attention they deserve unless they have the right team behind them.  It isn’t fair, but hey, that’s boxing.

But when all is said and done, just because Zoirov is flying under the radar doesn’t mean he isn’t a future world champion, and now that he has the right managerial team behind him I am assuming he will start turning heads right away.  Picking him to win a world title is still like picking a can’t miss prospect…just one that came out of some obscure European league as opposed to some high profile power forward from Duke

Now with that being said, the real challenge is trying to find a diamond in the rough when that diamond comes out of a club circuit and started off as a journeyman.  It happens, but it’s rare.  Perhaps the two most famous examples of fighters whose career started off in the club circuit and somehow, against all odds, became world champions were Freddie Pendleton and Mike Weaver.  Weaver is probably best remembered for his war with Larry Holmes in a WBC world title fight back in 1979.  He gave as good as he got but was ultimately felled by the undefeated champion in round 12.  It wasn’t just that he rattled Holmes and kept the fight reasonably close on two of the judges scorecards going into round 12 that shocked fans.  He was considered a very weak opponent by casual fans…the kind of fighter who an established champion gets to sharpen his blades on in between tough fights.  Weaver stated his career 1-3 and two years into his professional career he looked like the farthest thing from a world class contender, having lost by knockout to Duane Bobick and sitting on a less than glamorous record of 6-6, 4 KOs.  But a handful of boxing insiders predicted big things from Weaver and before long he was fighting for an NABF title…and soon after that he was brawling with Larry Holmes.  In 1980 the Cinderella story finally hit it’s pinnacle when Weaver scored a knockout over Gerrie Coetzee, winning the WBA World Heavyweight title.

Pendleton had a similar story, although a lot of boxing fans got on the bandwagon before his world title victory over Tracy Spann in January of 1993.  Pendleton started his career with a horrible record of 14-13-1, 6 KOs and he probably was hearing whispers of “hang ’em up, kid” from a lot of folks in the sport.  But those who were really paying attention started noticing that Pendleton was actually getting better with each fight.  In March of 1986 Pendleton was brought in as a sacrificial lamb for former super featherweight champion Roger Mayweather.  After all, it was Pendleton’s first trip to Vegas and with a 14-13-1 record against the 24-year old former champion there was no reason to assume he would be able to pull off an upset.  But some boxing insiders, such as ESPN commentator Al Bernstein, recognized that Pendleton’s record was somewhat “deceptive.”  The end result?  Pendleton scored a stunning sixth round knockout in one of the biggest upsets of the 1980s.

It was a nice moment but it didn’t turn around Pendleton’s career overnight.  Still, it put him on the radar and although there were still setbacks, he continued to keep winning big fights.  By 1993 he was seen as a slight favorite over Tracy Spann in their fight for the vacant IBF lightweight title and he looked all the part of a world champion in winning a twelve round decision over Spann.

So yeah, picking out a future world champion from the Freddie Pendleton/Mike Weaver circuit is a lot harder than picking one out of the Olympics.

So is there anyone I think could be another Freddie Pendleton/Mike Weaver in the making?  A hard luck young kid who never raised an eyebrow as an amateur but who is starting to put it all together as a pro?

Well, again, this is an inexact science, but right now I would keep an eye out on Lansing, Michigan’s Kevin Shacks (3-2-3, 3 KOs).

Shacks started his career in 2015 with a pair of losses in Ohio and Detroit respectively before winning his first professional fight in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan in 2017.  His win came against a debuting fighter named Chad Coons and the fight had all the makings of pickup win for a club fighter en route to his next paycheck against a world class prospect.  By the end of 2017 his record stood at 2-2-1 and nobody was taking about him.

And in 2018 he seemed to be following the club fighter script.  He fought in hostile territory three times in 2018 against three undefeated fighters with a combined record of 20-0-1.

The thing is…he hasn’t lost any of those fights.

The club fighter from Lansing Michigan has been brought to California three straight times to lose, and he’s given it to the undefeated fighter all three times.  In March he held undefeated Greek born prospect Stylianos Papadopoulos to a six round draw.  Shacks followed that up with another draw against 4-0 Salvador Perez before deciding to take his next fight out of the judges hands on Saturday, September 29, 2018.  Shacks crushed a touted prospect named Ricardo Valdovinos in the opening round.  Valdovinos, a San Diego native, came into the fight with a 7-0 record and was needless to say a heavy favorite against Shacks.  Sure it wasn’t exactly a knockout over a 24-year old Roger Mayweather…but it’s still a big win for a kid who wasn’t expected to be more than a regional club fighter.  Shacks seems to have a good trainer but it is clearly time for him to get a manager and promoter behind him that can help him get to that next level.  Back in the early 1990s Lionel Butler was earning a reputation as a tough journeyman with an emphasis on journeyman.  With a 6-10-1 record and only three amateur fights he wasn’t really turning any heads in the heavyweight division but Butler turned his career around in large part due to the fact that he stumbled into Joe Goossen’s gym in California.   Goossen helped turn Butler into one of the most unlikely heavyweight contenders in the 1990s and matched him perfectly en route to a top ten ranking (there was a lot of boxing drama involved in his reign as a contender which I won’t get into here, but the point remains, he went from club circuit to contender because of finding the right team).  Maybe Shacks should pay Goossen a visit while in California…or someone else who can properly move his career.

Because he is on the cusp of something really special..contention.

 

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Travel: Before Machu Picchu, Spending a day in Cusco, Peru (October 17, 2012)

The Finger Post Travel (August 19, 2018)

 

Well, it’s official.  My dad and I will be travelling to Peru after the WBO convention in October.  It’ll be an exciting trip, and although I had already visited Peru I was keen on going back.  Peru was really something special and I couldn’t argue with my father’s logic when he said “I’ve never been to South America before and I don’t know if I’ll go again, and if this is my only trip I really would like to see Machu Picchu.”

I couldn’t disagree, and to be honest, I wanted to go back myself.  Machu Picchu was the kind of place that you have to see once in your life…unless you get the chance to go twice.

But like a lot of people who visited Machu Picchu, I ignored the gem that was Cusco.  Everyone stops in Cusco en route to Machu Picchu and few truly take in it’s wonders.

I know I didn’t.

Although my hostel was just a ten minute walk to the Plaza de Armas I knew after I returned from Peru that I should have spent more time exploring the plaza.  Much of what I saw was in passing, and it was clear there was much more to offer.

But one thing I did take advantage of was spending a few hours wandering through the San Pedro Market, which was advertised as “by Peruvians for Peruvians” on Wikitravel.  I found it to be a very appropriate description.  This felt like true Peru (even though some tourist shops sprinkled the marketplace).  And like many local marketplaces it had no shortage of examples of local cuisine.

 

Of course, as I mentioned, there was also no shortage of local vendors targeting tourists…only with prices that were much more attractive than those in Lima or at the Plaza de Armas.  I ended up buying a poncho, which proved the perfect addition to my wardrobe for Machu Picchu the following day.

Unfortunately I passed on the matching hat, which was a shame since it reminded me of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes.  But such is life…I’m sure I’ll get a second bite of the apple when I go back to Cusco in October.

In hindsight I should have got the matching hat.

 

Before we left I ended up stopping at a local vendor to purchase a snack that seemed appropriate: maize.  I had seen Peru’s colorful ears of corn back in Lima and I was determined to give it a try.  With fat kernels and darker colors it looked like something worth checking off on my bucket list, and although it was ultimately just corn, I still couldn’t complain (although the New Mexican in me wanted to try it as elode, but again, maybe next time).

 

In the end, Cusco deserves more than a day, and one would be wise to take advantage of their time there to explore one of Peru’s most historic cities en route to Machu Picchu.

 

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Travel: When you have a layover in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport

The Finger Post Travel (August 13, 2018)

 

Every traveler dreads the infamous overnight layover.  You can’t be a world traveler without having at least one restless night sleeping on a bench waiting for a connecting flight.  I use to try and get around those with my free United Club passes but United Clubs tend to be closed at night and to be honest, I have never been blown away by them during the day time.  If you want to hang out in a waiting area with cheese and crackers then yeah, they are OK.  But at $50 a pop I never really understood the appeal.  But if there is one airport that I don’t mind long layovers in it is Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

Right off the bat, it has one really big thing going for it.  Showers in Terminal 1.

Seriously, why don’t more airports have these.  I mean, truck stops do.  If you are getting off a ten hour flight from Houston and you have a nine hour wait till your connecting flight, a shower would really hit the spot.  But it seems like showers are a rare commodity…except in Tokyo where a mere $10 can get you a hot shower in between flights.

Sure, it was no truck stop shower: it was small as most showers in Japan are.  But the water was hot and the pressure was great.

And if you wanted, you could even get a day room and get a few hours of sleep, which I passed on.  Admittadly this was not as impressive as the showers to me, there is a Marriott inside the Houston airport and I have seen a similar setup inside of the Dallas airport.

But still, the showers…that was just amazing.

Next to the showers in Terminal 1 was a display of traditional Japanese clothing, which in the big picture wasn’t anything that special…but still, after a hot shower everything looks better.

The other thing that blew me away about Tokyo’s airport was the food.  To be honest, Japanese food is amazing, but it actually felt like they had some of the best Japanese food in the country in Narita Airport.  One of my favorite Japanese dishes is deep fried pork cutlet: Katsu.  And in February of 2017 I had what I thought would be the best katsu I ever had inside of Tokyo’s main train station.  I wanted to go back there but elected to get a dish of katsu from the airport instead.  I was not disappointed with my decision.  A stop off at Tonkatsu Shinjuku Saboten in the Narita dining terrace was something every visitor to Japan should experience.  Although they have branches in various locations, I couldn’t help but wonder if Narita had the best of the bunch.  According to their webpage they’ve been doing it for over 50 years…and I could certainly understand why.  It was simply amazing.

It wasn’t my only authentic Japanese meal that day as my previous layover in Haneda Airport allowed me to try authentic Japanese dip noodles as well.  I was down to try something new, although I didn’t find it to be anything extraordinary.

But hey, one airport at a time.  Shopping in Japan isn’t cheap, and shopping at any airport anywhere isn’t cheap either, so it goes without saying that I didn’t spend a lot in Narita.  I did pick up some Kit Kat bars, for whatever reason Japan seems to love Kit Kats and have a lot of unique and local flavors.  Yeah, Kit Kat is Japan’s Lays Potato chips.

Although I wanted to get a XL Ninja t-shirt, a giant Godzilla flag and a Yomiuri Giants baseball jersey, that was out of my price range and I elected to pass.  Still, it was a fun way to spend a few hours window shopping in Narita.

 

Instead I elected to dump the last of my pocket change on the toy vending machines and get a tiny storm trooper figure, which seemed the best way to dump off a few bucks worth of yen.

 

At the end of the day, I actually really enjoyed my time spend wandering around the Narita Airport.  Sure it doesn’t make many people’s list of “Things you have to see in Japan” but it is still one of the better airports to kill a few hours.  And if there is one lesson for other airports the world over that can be gleaned from Narita it is this:

Never underestimate the power of a hot shower.

 

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