This old dog can learn new tricks

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I woke up Saturday, Aug. 6 knowing I had two events to cover for daily newspaper here in Albuquerque. I also was acutely aware of how disparate those two sports were.

For two decades working for a small-town daily paper, I shifted gears on a moment-to-moment basis.  As a sports writer almost exclusively covering high school sports – and the only full-time staffer – one call might come from a soccer coach, the next report from a tennis coach, then I might have an email report or a fax from a volleyball or field hockey coach.

And on and on.

The job was fluid, but the details were typically similar:  Coaches, teen-aged athletes, and scholastic competition.

There were days in which I had game reports for eight different sports.  Sure, we had the stories that resided beyond the typical standard deviation. In my last year working for an Upstate New York daily, we did sports stories on synchronized swimming, shuffleboard, a nonagenarian table tennis champion, and even had a suggestion to cover American Legion’s weekly cornhole league.

While I wasn’t particularly enterprising in my pursuit of the cornhole story, I did suggest to the league secretary – who approached me while I was covering another sporting event – to send me weekly standings and scores.

In the age of email, and where the fax machine is quickly becoming a relic, I gave the guy my email address.  All he had to do was take a picture of the standings with his smart phone, and email me the results. Easy peasy, but he never did send those standings.

So I made my way to the scheduled event – a junior baseball regional playoff game. It was boys, ages 12-14, competing for the Southwest region title.  The competition falls under the auspices of Little League, and this is the next level of competition after kids age out of traditional Little League.

The winner of the Southwest region moved on to the national championship level. It was fun, wholesome sports competition featuring young boys competing in America’s national pastime. It was family-oriented stuff that is the fabric on which youth sports are built.

The game wasn’t close, and it fell into the category of what  I called the sports obituaries.  It was a one-way story where one team was vastly superior to the other, and even the staunchest optimist would have trouble coaxing a positive out of the losing team’s performance.

When reporting a sports obituary, my standard practice is to fill the article with as many quotes as possible, and sprinkle in a few game action notes. We also try to get quote from the losing coach. Surprisingly, I’ve never had any trouble eliciting a cogent response from the coach on the losing end of a blowout.

The simple strategy is to frame your questions in a manner that allows the coach to speak positively about the opposition. In a championship-type game, it’s also prudent to allow the coach to speak on his team’s performances prior to the loss.

The idea, for me, is when the coach has nothing positive to say about the game at hand, let him – or her – rewind to better days earlier in the season.

Carlsbad’s junior baseball team easily won the game I covered, and eventually advanced to the regional final before losing to a team from Texas by one run.

After pounding out that quote-heavy story, I had a few hours before traveling to my next assignment:  Professional mixed martial arts.

For years, I have professed to nearly every friend and family member — many times in fact — that if I specialized my sports writing, it would be either golf or mixed martial arts. The former sport, I have written hundreds of articles, the latter; less than a handful, and nothing other than blog commentary.

This was my first paying gig covering professional mixed martial arts. No, I wasn’t reporting on the UFC or her competitors. This was a regional promotion headed up by Lenny Fresquez, who is better known as Holly Holm’s manager.

Nine fights were on the card, five of those featuring amateurs, and of the four professional fights, I had only heard of one fighter: Isaac Vallie-Flagg, a longtime member of the Jackson-Winklejohn stable.

I arrived about an hour before the fights, and had a small desk and my laptop abutting the cage. It was a slow-arriving crowd that continued to build as the amateur bouts were contested.

Immediately to my right – and on what looked like a barstool – sat one of the three ringside judges. Directly behind me were the two ring card girls. The girls were wrapped in robes most of night, and early on, one tapped me on the shoulder.

She wondered if she needed to go to the ring to carry the round number card. I told her, “no, the fight is over – stopped in the first round.”

She smiled, and I told her and her partner that I would keep them updated for when they needed to ‘work.'”

Of the fights contested, I believe only two of them went past the first round. I told the ring card girls it was probably their easiest pay day ever.

Back in my daily newspaper days, our paper printed mornings, not in the evening. I didn’t have a hard deadline or even a hard story-length requirement.

Working under deadline with a constrained word count, I was advised by the paper’s usual MMA reporter to write as I go, and write from the bottom up filling in the feature bout with quotes at the end.

Speaking of quotes, I was also told to write down what the fighters said in their in-ring post-fight interview.  Otherwise, I had to hustle after a fighter to the locker room to get a quick quote.

The fight card moved at a brisk pace, so the time for personal interviews with fighters was minimal. I actually interviewed just one guy that night, and instead did what I was told – I transcribed the ring interview comments.

As I mentioned above, only two of the nine fights on the card went past the first round, so I was way ahead of schedule by the time Vallie-Flagg stepped into the ring.

To that point, I had a couple instances where fighters were up against the cage in front of me, and beads of sweat spilled onto my laptop. Another time, I heard the traditional trash talking, although it came from a person in no position to spew false confidence.

A debuting fighter, one who called Albuquerque home, was planted on his back and he received four or five unanswered elbows to the face.  The fighter exclaimed through his mouthpiece, “is that all you got?”

To his credit, the opposing fighter dominating from top position said nothing in response, and he rolled to a clear unanimous decision victory.

The co-main event ended in a flash. I barely had time to spell the names of the fighters before a late-replacement fighter from Orange County, Calif. stopped the local favorite in a mere 13 seconds.

I wasn’t entirely sure what punch did the deed. Was it a left? Was it a right?  I chose the former, and no one was the wiser.

Within a few moments, the main event fighters were introduced. Vallie-Flagg was roundly cheered by the home faithful, and as the fight was billed as his swan song, emotions were high in the crowd.

Jonathan Gary, the sacrificial lamb (er opponent) never had a chance.  Gary, a solid journeyman fighter on the regional fight scene, made an ill-advised move midway through the first round, and found himself on the bottom side of Vallie-Flagg’s ground and pound.

Vallie-Flagg softened him up for a couple of minutes before seizing an opening to cinch in the rear naked choke submission win.

Surprisingly, to me, Vallie-Flagg was disappointed in victory. He planned to wing haymakers until he stopped his opponent or he was stopped. Plan B, while not quite as sexy, proved effective against Gary.

Following the fight, Vallie-Flagg was soft-spoken and difficult to understand with his post-fight quotes. I picked up a couple of critical utterances, added them to my nearly-finished story to wrap up the 650-word piece.

Of those 650 words, about 480 of them were completed before Vallie-Flagg stepped into the ring.  After nearly 21 years writing sports, I was truly learning what it meant to write under a tight deadline.

The way the fights played out had a hand in my completion of the assignment. The schedule for the MMA card forecasted a 10 p.m. finish. My deadline with the Journal:  10:30 p.m.  That’s not a lot of time to complete 17 inches of edited news copy, but fortunately, this old dog was receptive to new tricks, and the fighters closed the deal in efficient fashion.

Nearly 12 hours from the start of my first assignment, I had completed the most distinctly different back-to-back assignments in my career.

What’s next?  Polo and rhythmic gymnastics?  Bring it on.

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