'Road to Perdition' reveals boxing insights

8/16/2006 - Boxing

This Thursday, Teddy Atlas and I will fly to California to broadcast Friday Night Fights (ESPN2, 9 ET). Former cruiserweight champion Vassily Jirov will be on the card. The way our red-eye travel plans work, we'll be there for a mere 30 hours.

That's how our trips usually go. They're quick and purposeful. We fly. Let me repeat that key word -- FLY!

Then there are those other trips. Trips you'll remember years from now. Trips that become the stuff of legend. Trips that have labels attached to them. You know the ones.

Like the college road game you spent in the smelly RV. Or the time Dad locked the keys in the car on the side of the highway. Or in the case of my most recent journey, the trip now known as the Friday Night Fights Road to Perdition. Eternal damnation has nothing on four coworkers driving partway across the country. Let me repeat the new key word -- DRIVING!

Last week, we finished off the Wednesday Night Fights season at Foxwoods in Ledyard, Conn. The next day, the entire crew was heading to the airport to hurry off to Chester, W. Va., for Friday Night Fights.

It was early Thursday morning. The phone rang.

"Joe, it's Mike."

Our associate director doesn't call my house half past the rooster's crow just to exchange pleasantries.

"We're screwed. The security line at the airport is over three hours long. You guys are going to miss your flights!"

"What's the deal?" I asked.

As my wife turned on the TV, I learned the answer to my question. The terror plot uncovered in London was having a domino effect.

"Thanks Mike. Good heads up," I said. I paused for just a second and thought over my options.

Long delays. Tight security. Hoping to catch a later flight. Having my wife stressed over my travel during a terror threat.

"No choice," I said. "I'll drive."

It was a decision made, unfortunately, without any thought of what 577 miles in a car ride to West Virginia would feel like.

The next thing I knew, our producer Rob Beiner and video replay guru Matt Mills were at my house with Teddy Atlas reluctantly in tow. The rental car was as expected: stained cloth seats in a four-door box. But thanks to a laptop DVD, Teddy and I would turn the back row into our personal screening room.

We had just crossed over the New York border when I suggested our first movie, "Road to Perdition."

"Nah. There's one character that makes me too angry," Teddy said. "But you watch it, it's great. I want you to watch it."

Teddy knows movies. Teddy isn't just a boxing analyst. He analyzes everything he comes into contact with. He could break down the tendencies of his electric razor after a morning shave. He could tell you the mental makeup of a flight attendant just by the way the peanuts are served.

I know Teddy has been in and around films. When he has a feel for a director or story line, he can express it well. If a movie stirs Teddy to the point of anger, yet he says it's great, then it's a must-watch.

I convinced him to put on the split headsets and join in. It was either that or he was going to be playing license plate bingo for eight hours.

Not one minute into the flick and already, school was in session. I was asking Teddy about possible subplots and characters. I was taking stabs at predicting where the film was headed.

You would have thought we were watching the opening round of a potential Mayweather vs. De La Hoya super-fight. Little did I know that we may as well have been.

If you saw this award-winning Tom Hanks classic, then you'll understand what I mean. Teddy makes some amazing boxing parallels without necessarily killing the plot for you.

Hanks plays Michael Sullivan. Sullivan's personality pie chart is divided into loyal husband, dedicated father and professional hitman. The story is based in 1931 Chicago gangland times. Hanks nails this role the way DeNiro nailed Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull."

Michael Sullivan is flawed as a man, but flawless at his craft. Flawless that is, at being Michael Sullivan.

"Sullivan reminds me of a real fighter," Teddy said thoughtfully. "A guy whose greatest ability is his solidness, not technically, not physically, but simply his essence. His ability to be reliable, that's most important."

So true. I was in deep. The Sullivan character and Teddy's analysis were making me forget the fact that we were still only 100 miles into a long day on the road.

Somewhere on Interstate 80 east of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., we hit traffic. At the same time on the letterbox DVD screen, Michael Sullivan was hitting his stride. Our leading man's first spectacular moment of ring generalship was put forth.

It's a scene in the movie where Hank's character delivers a secret note to a debt-burdened nightclub owner. Something changes the moment the note is read. And Sullivan's instincts save his life by alerting him to the change.

Teddy loves that scene.

"His experience, obviously from the world that he had lived in, allowed him to intuitively, instinctively recognize certain signs, certain body language," Teddy said. "He has almost an ability to feel energy. He can sense change of disposition, much like a fighter knowing or sensing the legitimacy of an opponent or the falseness of the bravado."

I had never seen this movie before, yet I have watched this scene play out in front of my eyes many times, always ringside. I have watched a fighter quickly examine his opponent's walk out from the corner, an opponent's wince, an opponent's hesitancy to throw a certain punch.

This 1931 gangster had timeless skill in his way, the way James Toney does.

Movie interrupted. We needed gas.

"Robbie? How many miles have we gone since we reset the odometer?"

"About 67, Joe," I heard coming back.

"What? How can that be?"

Apparently, I was so engrossed in "Road to Perdition" that I didn't realize that our own trip from hell included going 25 miles per hour through construction sites for the past hour.

The character Teddy despises in this movie is named Connor Rooney. One reviewer describes Connor as the heir, vain and insecure. He is everything Sullivan isn't.

If Connor were a fighter, he'd quit on the stool. If he were a fighter, he'd be the kind who purposely fouls when the going gets tough. He isn't a fighter. He is a weak and thoughtless coward.

Connor resents success. He is jealous of another man's specialness. In this case, he is jealous of the relationship and standing Sullivan has with Connor's father, the head of the Irish-American mob. That wise sage is John Rooney, played by Paul Newman.

"In boxing, the Paul Newman character would be a good old-fashioned trainer who came up in very serious times, uncompromising times," Teddy said.

Visions of Cus D'Amato danced in my head. In reality, for our producer in the driver's seat, the visions were strictly of mile markers passing by more slowly than they should be.

It was now 6 p.m. and we were not even close to making it to Pittsburgh let alone West Virginia. The bad news -- the movie was over. We had so much time to kill, Teddy and I even watched the bonus deleted scenes on the DVD.

With stomachs rumbling, we found our way off an exit in Brookvale, Pa. The Gold Eagle Inn's prime rib would be the centerpiece of a meal filled with laughs based on our short-notice road trip. The meal also gave us the chance for our "Road to Perdition" postmortem chat.

In the deleted scenes, there is this outrageous moment that never made the film. It featured Al Capone and was over-the-top, with lighthearted comedic elements that contrasted with the uncompromisingly dark tone of the rest of the movie.

Director Sam Mendes chose to leave the Capone scene on the edit room floor. Teddy thought that move was brilliant.

"You could see his [Mendes'] fingerprints on the movie. You could see his beliefs and personality shadowing the movie much like you can see the personality and beliefs of a trainer shadowing a fighter. As far as that particular directing style of understatement, it would be the style of a fighter who doesn't waste anything. Economical with his punches, doesn't throw seven punches just to land one. Every punch he throws counts. Every move he makes means something."

I found that so interesting. It sounded like Teddy had just described the lead character. Maybe Mendes saw a little bit of himself in Michael Sullivan. But who does Teddy see in Sullivan?

"Joe Louis. If this guy was a fighter he would have been Joe Louis. Everything was short and to the mark and to eliminate the other guy. And he always finished the job. What he started, he finished."

Unlike Joe Louis, everything on this day wasn't short. We didn't get to our hotel in West Virginia until midnight. But at least we could say that we also finished what we started.

For the record Teddy and I flew back home Saturday. Not that I didn't enjoy my time in a rental car short on leg room and long on delays. Truth be told, it was one of the more extraordinary days in sports I've ever had.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."