Travelin’ Man goes to Verona – Part I
Friday, August 31: Following several hours of fitful sleep I arose at 8 a.m. and prepared for the day’s demands. Perhaps “demands” is an inaccurate description, for visiting the International Boxing Hall of Fame is always pure pleasure, even though this visit has a work aspect to it. You know the old saying – if you enjoy what you do you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
After catching up on my writing I called media relations director Jeff Brophy to let him know I was coming (I initially brought up the idea of visiting via e-mail last week). Since an HBO crew was filming at the time I was asked to arrive around 1 p.m., so to pass the time I decided to have lunch at a Subway outlet a short distance from the Hall.
Although my initial visit to Canastota took place nearly two decades earlier, this was the first to take place outside the environs of Induction Weekend. As I drove up Peterboro Street I saw that Canastota was much like my hometown on a sun-drenched late-summer day, especially when one considers all the flags. Not only was Peterboro flanked with American flags on both sides, almost every other house had an occupied flag pole. Most had U.S. flags but there was an occasional Italian one as well. Heck, even the wheelchair-bound veteran seeking to cross the street had a flag mounted on the back of his chair. The demonstration of patriotism was great to see.
The details of the Hall of Fame grounds matched the memories of all those Induction Weekends but the overall picture was starkly different without the hustle and bustle. The pavilion, built in 2003 and christened with the wedding of Aaron and Frankie Pryor, appeared somewhat smaller without the hundreds of white chairs occupying every inch of pavement. The potted plants that mirrored the concrete curves were still in full bloom and the flags that serve as a backdrop to the stage still stood sentry. The podium that acted as the epicenter of attention as dozens of legends accepted induction was stored elsewhere, ready to be used again next June.
Amidst all the quiet I couldn’t help but reflect on what these eyes had witnessed on these grounds over the years. Seeing legends ranging from Ali to Zapata, standing amongst the clumps of fans seeking to acquire new autographs, conversations and debates with fellow fans, the tsunami of people that followed Mike Tyson’s golf cart as he was whisked away, getting Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s autograph after eight years of pursuit and eating Basilio Sausage Sandwiches with Bernard Fernandez. Those were just six of innumerable mind flashes that occurred as I drank in the sights.
That process was interrupted in a most pleasing manner – with a hearty greeting from Ed and Jeff Brophy. After catching up for a bit, they invited me inside the Hall of Fame building and for the next hour I talked with Ed in his office about what occurs during the other 51¾ weeks at the Hall, a subject that often piqued my curiosity and one that I hope to write about very soon.
Following our conversation Ed and I walked toward the gift shop where we were met by Jeff and perennial IBHOF weekend emcee Joey Fiatto, who was visiting from Florida, and Charlie Fitch, who was to referee the fights at the Turning Stone. Fitch’s passion for boxing is unmistakable, as was his reverence for its history. As is the case with me, Fitch draws inspiration from being on the grounds and the resident of Macedon, N.Y. (which is near Rochester) often stops by to soak in the atmosphere and recharge his batteries. One of his rituals is to touch the gloves of the Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus statues inside the museum.
Afterwards, Jeff showed me an area of the building that is rarely accessed – the research archives. Currently located in the museum’s basement, it is hoped that within five years they can be made available to the public either inside an annex to the current museum or a separate building on the grounds.
The contents stored within this small area were almost beyond description, but I’ll try: More than two dozen beige file cabinets, each with four drawers, contain photos and newspaper clippings of thousands of fighters and fights. If there is a query regarding a particular fight, say Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott, every available piece of information regarding the bout would be stored in its own file with the winner’s name listed first.
The bookshelves are crammed with biographies, instruction books and reference items. Not only is every Ring Record Book from 1941 to 1987 available but, thanks to a donation from legendary boxing writer Jack Fiske, every issue of THE RING from the first one in February 1922 through 1993 is stored within beautiful black bindings. For the first time I was able to lay eyes on the very first issue, which, of course, was in impeccable condition. It was interesting to read the ads within, which were mostly purchased by managers peddling their services. One was bought by William Gibson, manager of Benny Leonard, whose name currently reverberates through history but at the time was still in the midst of his lightweight championship reign. One hopeful manager, James J. Johnson, purchased an ad but instead of a list of fighters he represented there is a giant question mark.
Elsewhere on the shelves were record books from Japan, Italy and England as well as the Everlast record books from 1923-1936 that was a predecessor of THE RING Record Book. Photo albums containing rare tickets, trading cards and priceless programs were stored, as well as hundreds of video tapes and DVDs.
“Everything in the collection has been donated by fans, historians, boxers and their families and it continues to grow every week,” Jeff Brophy said. To illustrate this fact, he directed me to a freshly opened package of items that included a book on Jack Dempsey by THE RING’s founder Nat Fleischer. He said he does whatever he can to organize the collection, but the time demands of his job as well as the sheer volume of items to sort makes that task an overwhelming one. Even someone with my organizational skills would require several months of uninterrupted focus to assemble everything into perfect order but from what I saw Jeff has done well.
Because I was so immersed I nearly overstayed my welcome. I needed to arrive at the Turning Stone at 4 p.m. to test the equipment and before I knew it, it was 3:15. I got back to the hotel by 3:40 and was back on the road at 3:45. Because of parking issues – I wasn’t able to leave my rental anywhere near the TV truck as is the custom at most other venues – and because I had trouble finding the arena within the casino, I arrived about 10 minutes later than I wanted. No matter – the crew wasn’t ready for me yet.
I returned to the hotel a little after 9, but more work awaited me: Jonathan Gonzalez came in outrageously overweight, so I was asked to assemble a list of recent notable fights in which weight was a major story line (Adrien Broner-Vicente Escobedo, Erik Morales-Danny Garcia, etc.). I also assembled and updated profiles of the judges working the card and got in a little writing before turning in shortly after midnight. It had been a long, eventful and occasionally frustrating day but despite the ups and downs I was happy to have the chance to live it.
Photos / Lee Groves
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 seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. 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.