Friday: June 6: By the time I awoke at 7:45 a.m., I had managed to get six-and-a-half hours of decent slumber, a rarity for me at this event. I spent much of the morning conducting research for tomorrow night’s Sergio Martinez-Miguel Cotto card as well as catching up on some of the writing I had put aside. I couldn’t finish it all, however, because the time required to do so would have prevented me from experiencing the fullest day possible on the grounds.
Once I arrived there, my first stop was the ring set up underneath the pavilion. There, “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith was conducting an “in-ring” session with Class of 2014 inductee Joe Calzaghe, a segment that will appear later on his show. Smith got some laughs when, after taking a right to the short ribs, he asked, “Is there a kidney doctor in the house?” I smiled inwardly for during our own “in-ring” at Smitty’s house last month, he landed a similar punch on me. It’s funny how life can run in circles.
Not long after, Smith staged another session with former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titlist Dwight Muhammad Qawi. He was making his first appearance in Canastota since his induction 10 years earlier and he clearly looked nervous as he watched the Calzaghe session. But once he stepped between the ropes, that all changed. The tension drained from his face and the informal atmosphere enabled Qawi to show a lighter side of his personality.
As I was watching Smitty do his thing, another friend snuck up behind me and made his presence known: Steve Canton. We first met nearly 15 years earlier on these same grounds but for a variety of reasons this was Steve’s first visit to Canastota in quite a while. A few weeks earlier, I suggested to Steve that he should sell his new book (“Steve Canton’s Tributes, Memories and Observations of the Sweet Science”) during this particular weekend based on my own success in 2010 and not long after, he told me he was going to take my advice.
After getting a hamburger and Diet Pepsi at the concessions tent, I spotted a giant group of people congregated around the 25th anniversary sign erected on the grounds. I soon learned that Oscar De la Hoya was conducting a TV interview and once he finished, he signed all the autographs he could before being hustled off in a golf cart. As was the case three years earlier with Mike Tyson, a wave consisting of hundreds chased after the cart just to get a final glimpse.
De la Hoya was the subject of another memorable incident and this one took place during his fist casting. As De la Hoya sunk his left fist into the mixture, Chairman John Hunt informed the audience of two common questions fighters ask about the process. The first: Is the mixture cold? Oscar’s nodding smile confirmed the answer was yes. Second: How do you know when to remove the fighter’s hand? With De la Hoya’s hand still immersed, Hunt related the troubles Ken Buchanan experienced in 2000. The substance had hardened around the knuckles so quickly that once his fist was finally extricated they were bruised as if a “hickey” had been inflicted.
And wouldn’t you know it: De la Hoya had some difficulty removing his hand from the alginate.
“It wasn’t a matter of timing because each person leaves it in for the same amount of time,” said Aris Pina, who has participated in the ceremony 10 of the last 12 years. “The plaster reacts differently to each hand and weather conditions like humidity can also affect the process. Oscar has good-sized hands but very small wrists. The hole forms around the wrist and pulling his large hands out of that is difficult. There was nothing major; it was just one of those things that happened.”
Interacting with one of his early heroes was a significant moment for Pina and his proximity to the Hall-of-Famers during the fist castings afforded him several priceless memories, both in terms of personal fulfillment and witnessing episodes only insiders can see.
“I was excited about meeting De la Hoya because when I first got into boxing, the main guys I watched was Tyson, De la Hoya and [Muhammad] Ali,” Pina said. “To me, De la Hoya was like Hulk Hogan because I always got nervous for both of them. I didn’t want to see either of them get hurt because they were ‘my guys.’ So on stage, I got a chance to tell De la Hoya how I felt and he was very appreciative. He gave me a big smile and asked ‘Really? Thanks, that means a lot.’ One of the first fights I saw of him was against Jorge Paez and instantly he said, ‘Paez, oh, yeah!’ and he showed me the motion of the uppercut that knocked him out.
“At that moment, I heard another voice,” Aris said. “I turned around and it was [Felix] Trinidad. He then hugged De la Hoya and I was kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ They were right there and I didn’t know that was coming. They were so happy interacting and, to me, it appeared they genuinely enjoyed making it to this pinnacle. You could feel the excitement in the air and it was almost like being at a big fight and having both guys on your side. It was a surreal feeling as it always is when I’m on stage with these guys.”
Pina’s love for jazz created an instant rapport with Calzaghe’s father, Enzo, a musician in his pre-boxing life.
“His dad broke down Joe’s style for me as if it were a jazz piece,” Pina said. “He said the jabs were like the beginning cadence while the big combination was like the chorus. He would then alternate between the two but there would be some points where he might want to do a solo, which is totally improvisational. That background in music was what Enzo brought to the table with Joe’s career.”
Pina, by accident, instigated an interesting dust-up between the younger Calzaghe and Glen Johnson, who came to Canastota as a guest.
“Glen Johnson, who’s also a humble guy, sat down between me and Joe and I said, ‘I wish you guys had gotten it on,’” Pina said. “Joe kind of laughed it off but Glen got into it. ‘Joe, I really wanted that fight. We had an agreement. What’s up?’ Joe said, ‘My hand was hurt. I couldn’t do anything about that. It is what it is.’ Then Glen said, ‘Joe, let’s fight. We can still fight. I want to be able to say that I fought everybody and I want to fight you. Give me that honor.’ Joe smiled and played it off and they eventually hugged each other.
No matter how many times he has taken part in the ceremony, Pina’s enthusiasm and sense of wonder has never waned.
“What a privilege it is to experience scenes like that,” he said. “I’ve been in the audience watching it and envying everyone on stage, so the fact that I had the honor to be able to do the fist casting is something I treasure. It takes three minutes to rub Vaseline on the hands to get them ready for the casting and that’s the second longest time someone gets to hang out with the fighter besides the person doing the actual casting. So I take every chance I get to pick their brains and talk with them. It’s unbelievable.”
Following the fist-casting, where I acquired former heavyweight titlist John Ruiz’s signature for my book, I walked over to McDonald’s to grab a quick bite but over time, I was joined by veteran cutman Richard Schwartz, Florida boxing collector “Rockin’” Ron Roberts and Carole Myers, longtime companion of the late Hall of Fame historian Hank Kaplan. It was difficult to pull myself away but I needed to because a long evening at ringside awaited me.
My next destination was the Turning Stone Casino, where an ESPN-televised card featuring Yudel Jhonson’s workmanlike decision win over Norberto Gonzalez, Ievgen Khytrov’s three-round shootout win over Chris Chatman and Sammy Vasquez’s third-round demolition of Jay Krupp was staged. Boxing News editor Tris Dixon and British boxing historian George Zeleny were seated just outside the Cypress Room where media credentials were to be distributed and we soon were joined by Fightnews.com’s “Boxing” Bob Newman, a Syracuse native who assumed the role of guide for the rest of us outsiders.
Since we were the first scribes on scene – and because no press row spots were reserved by name – we had our choice of work stations. Of course, we went for front-row center. Bob, Tris and George were seated to my left while BWAA president Jack Hirsch and fellow writers J.R. Jowett and Jack Obermeyer, “The Original Travelin’ Man,” were to my right.
Numerically speaking, most of the nine fights on the card foreshadowed mismatches but the art of matchmaking goes far deeper than one can see on paper. Thanks to the sage Chris Middendorf, the majority of the matches were more competitive than the raw numbers indicated and the final off-TV bout sprung an upset when Charlotte, N.C.’s John Williams raised his record to 12-3-1 (5) at the expense of Holland, Mich.’s Johnny Garcia, 19-2 (11), via majority decision.
Without question, the knockout of the night belonged to Detroit light heavyweight Leo Hall, who scorched Akron’s Bob Wilder in just 49 seconds. A counter left hook violently snapped Wilder’s head, collapsed his legs, stiffened his body and caused the back of his head to strike the canvas with sickening force. Referee Dick Pakodzi rightfully waived the count and as a precautionary measure Wilder, 2-4 (1), was removed from the arena on a stretcher. A good sign: Wilder was talking and appeared alert even as the medical personnel tended to him. Hall’s explosive performance raised his record to 2-0 (2).
An interesting note was provided by longtime publicist Bob Trieger: Jhonson and Gonzalez each were celebrating their 33rd birthdays. “How many times do you see that?” Trieger asked as he walked up and down press row. Promoter (and IBHOF Class of 2011 member) Mike Tyson appeared in the ring between the untelevised and televised portions of the card to speak about his support for the Wounded Warrior Project and Trieger told us he was also going to appear at the post-fight press conference.
Because of the 10:30 p.m. start time precipitated by another live event beforehand on ESPN 2, the card didn’t end until after 1 a.m. While Bob, Tris and the others headed to the media room, I thought about driving back to the hotel because of the late hour but changed my mind in favor of saying hello to some of the guys on the ESPN crew – on-air talents Saul Avelar, Nigel Collins and Teddy Atlas as well as production assistant Aaron N. Thompson, with whom I exchanged countless emails but had not yet met face-to-face. Each of them couldn’t have been nicer to me and that made the long walk to my car in the casino’s parking garage a more pleasant experience.
By the time I returned to my hotel, it was well after 2:30 a.m. and the winding-down process took far longer than that. It’s yet another example of a common (but pleasant) problem at the induction weekend: too many things one wants to do but too little time to get the proper rest.
Saturday, June 7: I arose five hours after turning out the lights and once I got ready for the day, I felt an urgent need to catch up on the work I voluntarily neglected. Although I made a good deal of progress, I felt I still could have gotten much more done. But if I were to stay at the hotel and wrote everything to my satisfaction, I probably would have missed out on my very favorite event of the weekend, the memorabilia show at Canastota High School on Roberts Street. But before I went there, I completed an important piece of business: picking up a Hall of Fame t-shirt for Saul Avelar, who gave me the money for it at ringside the previous night.
Because I arrived more than 90 minutes after the show began, I thought I would have a difficult time finding a parking space but as fortune would have it, a car pulled out of a prime space the moment I wheeled into the area. Once I presented my ticket and had my hand stamped, I immediately walked over to THE RING’s booth where Editor Michael Rosenthal and a few others were selling a series of commemorative t-shirts honoring the trio of Modern inductees. The black-colored shirts feature the magazine’s logo and within it, the flags of the U.S. and Mexico (for De la Hoya), Great Britain (for Calzaghe) and Puerto Rico (for Trinidad). According to Rosenthal, business was solid. As I was chatting with Michael, a group that included author Alexandre Choko and Hall-of-Famer Don Chargin stopped by. I made sure to express belated birthday wishes to Chargin, for I didn’t have a chance to do so at Graziano’s.
I then wandered inside the gym and took more than a few laps around the premises before deciding to dip into my wallet. Thanks to my having several autographed copies of “Tales” inside my laptop bag, I was able to negotiate a couple of deals. For example, I swung by the booth of author Paige Stover, who was selling two of her books (“Confusing the Enemy: The Cus D’Amato Story” and “Rumble!: How Boxing’s Greatest Match Was Made”) for $50 as a bundle. Thanks to her willingness to get my book, I paid only $15. I also stopped at the British booth at the farthest left-hand corner of the gym and bought books on Les Darcy (“Home Before Dark: The Story of Les Darcy, a Great Australian Hero” by Ruth Park and Rafe Champion) and David Haye (“Making Haye” by Elliot Worsell) for $50.
Between purchases, I chatted with Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz – whose booth is a must-stop for any boxing fan – new author Steve Canton and his wife, who told me business was going pretty well, longtime friend Keith Stechman, perennial award-winning writer and newly-minted author Springs Toledo and several other past purchasers of my book who wanted to express their appreciation.
After carrying my bounty to the car, I stopped by the Hall of Fame grounds with an eye on getting to the Greystone at 4 p.m. to get a prime spot in line for the cocktail. However, I got so caught up in conversation (one of which was with talk show host C. Linwood Jackson) that I showed up 15 minutes late and thus I was the 15th person in line instead of in the top five. No matter: unlike some past years, the weather was pleasant and the shadows from the church saved me from the sun’s ravages. The time in line also was well spent as I chatted with “Boxing” Bob Newman and his wife, Wendy as well as with George Zeleny among others. When the doors swung open at 5:30, Bill Johnston and I fulfilled yet another annual ritual by declaring, “Release the hounds!”
Despite a battery of electric fans stationed around the perimeter, the room was still stiflingly hot. As blazing as the temperature was, the opportunities for autographs were even more so. Of all the events the induction weekend offers, the cocktail is the best place to collect tons of autographs and photos in a short period of time because the sardine-like conditions limit the number of people that can surround a single fighter. The closest thing to a mob scene was the throng around Andre Ward, who handled the situation with his typical aplomb. Somehow, I managed to position myself well enough to add his name to “The Book.”
The next 55 minutes were highly successful. I secured signatures from Ivan Calderon, Lucia Rijker, 2014 Hall of Famers Richard Steele, Graham Houston and Neil Leifer, Wilfredo Gomez, Zab Judah, Frank Tate and Michael Spinks. Of those, the effort to secure Spinks’ autograph was the most memorable. Although I had his signature on a program, he had yet to be in “The Book.” I walked up to him just before the hour ended and with members of his entourage urging him to leave, it looked for a moment that I would miss my chance. At the moment he began to make his way out, I made a last-ditch pitch that ended up working magic.
It was interesting what persuaded him to sign: a photo of fellow 175-pound titlist J.B. Williamson placed immediately by the picture I wanted him to sign. He told me he used to spar often with Williamson, whose toughness during those sessions must have created an imprint given the intense respect with which he spoke of him. The picture that Spinks did sign was of his fight with Oscar Rivadeneyra, who Spinks stopped in 10 rounds in March 1983. Although Spinks won nearly every round on the scorecards, the Peruvian’s abilities drew similar tributes from the Hall-of-Famer, who was whisked from the premises the moment after he signed my book.
As I headed out the door, I was still undecided about whether to attend the Banquet of Champions or skip it to watch the entire pay-per-view card at the Buffalo Wild Wings outlet in Cicero. It wasn’t until I reached my car that I decided to follow Newman’s vehicle to the Oncenter. It ended up being a wise decision.
I was seated at Table 39, three rows from the front and five tables from room center. It was, by far, the best table in terms of sight lines I’ve yet experienced. The night’s biggest highlight unfolded during the live auction when Item Number Seven was rolled out – three laminated 16-by-20-inch RING covers signed by De la Hoya, Calzaghe and Trinidad. When the bidding stalled, De la Hoya, who had already announced a $50,000 donation to the Hall’s expansion project, decided to up the ante not once but twice.
First, De la Hoya added two tickets to the July 12 Saul Alvarez-Erislandy Lara fight as well as a meet-and-greet with himself, sweeteners that lifted the bidding to $6,500. Then, when the action stalled again, De la Hoya electrified the audience a second time by taking the microphone and adding another enhancer – a photo-op with the “Golden Boy” inside the ring just before the main event. The lot was sold for $9,500 to Chicago-based businessman/gym owner/boxing manager Wasfi Tolaymat, also known as “The Cowboy” and perhaps the most prolific donor the IBHOF has ever known.
I added John John Molina’s autograph to “The Book” but didn’t even try to get Calzaghe’s given the masses that surrounded his area. The unruliness of some of the crowds prompted Joey Fiatto to issue a scolding but I didn’t stick around long enough to see if it was effective. After all, I had a restaurant to find.
Throughout the week, word had circulated around the grounds that two places were showing the fight, a bowling alley near Canastota or the Buffalo Wild Wings outlet in Cicero. I decided to go for the latter given its surefire availability of large flat-screen TVs, its proximity to the banquet and a promise from Smitty and his crew to save me a spot at his table. Earlier in the day, when I wasn’t sure whether I was going to the banquet, I had gotten an address and some thumbnail directions but those directions were based on the route from my hotel, not from the banquet. Not thinking I’d need a GPS because I knew the routes to and from everywhere I usually go, I was forced to rely on my own navigational skills – and regular readers of “The Travelin’ Man” know that usually means bad news.
I followed a group of cars from the parking lot in the hope they all were going to the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant but I soon discovered I made a mistake. As I wended through downtown Syracuse, I kept looking for signs that would indicate either I-90 or I-481 was nearby. I eventually ran into a bottleneck created by a street fair and the long red lights afforded me the opportunity to safely text my confusion to Smitty.
“Lost,” was the entirety of my text.
A few moments later, I spotted the highway sign I thirsted to see to my left and made the series of tight turns I needed to get on that road. Less than a minute later, Mark Folsome, who was helping Smitty shoot his segments, called my cell and gave me pristine directions to the restaurant. As I walked toward the entrance, I experienced a fortunate coincidence: Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Robert Diaz had just arrived with future Hall-of-Famer Erik Morales, so in a move that surely enhanced my reputation, we all walked in together.
The timing couldn’t have been better as Cotto and Martinez were moments away from leaving their dressing rooms. Smitty called out to let me know where he and his crew were sitting and asked if I wanted to score the fight with him. Of course, I did. After getting a large cup of Diet Pepsi, I settled in for what promised to be an intriguing and enjoyable late night/early morning.
Little did I know just how intriguing and enjoyable it would be.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.
Photo by Alex Menendez/Hogan Photos