The Travelin’ Man returns to IBHOF induction weekend-part II
Friday, June 12: Knowing I had a lot of work to finish before returning to the Hall, I awakened just five hours after turning out the lights. It took me nearly two-and-a-half hours to chronicle Thursday’s whirlwind of activity as well as amplify some research HBO had done regarding notable fights at the Theater at Madison Square Garden – where tomorrow night’s HBO doubleheader would take place. Once those tasks were finished to my satisfaction, I slathered on my SPF 100 sunscreen (a redhead’s best friend in this heavily outdoor event), jumped in the car and hauled tail down I-90 East.
Though the woman manning the check-in desk said, “It’s supposed to rain all day” – I heard this through the door since my room is so close to the lobby – the weather remained sunny until late afternoon. My first stop was the tent reserved for “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith and producer Jon Hait, among others. A busy day awaited them and their first interview was with Class of 2015 inductee Nigel Collins, with whom I wanted to speak for reasons detailed in part one. Of course, this Hall of Fame writer also proved to be a Hall of Fame talker and afterward, he signed his name in the Big Book next to (but slightly below that) of Hugh McIlvanney’s, whose signature I secured when he was inducted six years earlier. Though I chose the location because they are two of my favorite writers, he picked the proximity because he didn’t feel worthy of signing directly across from McIlvanney’s, a typically thoughtful gesture.
I spent most of the next few hours conversing with friends underneath the tents situated at the back of the Hall’s property. My lunch was Spartan – a hot dog with ketchup and mustard and a can of generic diet soda – and my conversation partners included brothers Brian and Kevin Young, who, in terms of appearance, I previously equated to Penn Jillette and Kevin James. Brian and I engaged in a good-natured and informative debate about the best in a variety of sports while Kevin graciously bought me a diet soda “for all the hours of entertainment you gave us through your articles.”
We noticed a considerable line forming around one of the back tents and Brian noted that whomever was there must have been important because “When you see an extremely fat guy jogging to get there, it must be someone big.” He was right: Amir Khan was busily – and engagingly – signing away. The queue moved quickly and, when I reached the head of it less than 10 minutes later, I posed this theory to him: “It must be nice in this situation to have an extremely short name.” He laughed and when cameraman Jon Hait pointed out who I was and my link to CompuBox, his face brightened even more and we shook hands.
After engaging in more boxing talk at the tents with a group that included longtime friend, fellow scribe and avid video collector “Boxing” Bob Newman (who gave me an autographed color photo of Matthew Hilton) I wandered back to the pavilion to take in the latter stages of the fist casting. Like Oscar De La Hoya the year before, Fernando Vargas expressed lighthearted concern about whether the alginate (the mold-making material) would damage his hands. Chairman John Hunt assured Vargas all would be well, though he retold the story about what happened to Ken Buchanan during his fist-casting in 2000: The alginate hardened around his knuckles so quickly that one would have thought he was given a “hickey.” That didn’t exactly lift Vargas’ spirits but, in the end, all proceeded without incident.
Just before Class of 2015 inductee Riddick Bowe placed his giant fist inside the goop, I was approached by Facebook friend Steve Hyde, a native of Montoursville, Penn. now living in Florida. He messaged me earlier in the morning that he would be looking for me on the grounds and soon I learned why – he asked me to sign his copy of the most recent issue of THE RING that published my tribute to Gene Fullmer upon his passing. That particular article has received considerable positive feedback and I was told the Fullmer family also was looking to contact me because they loved it as well. It’s difficult to write about someone immediately after they died but since I had several personal encounters with Fullmer over the years, it made the task even more meaningful. I was happy that those who read it felt I had given him his just due, which was my objective from the start.
Steve originally wanted me to sign the article in ballpoint pen but when I offered to do it with a Sharpie, he was more than agreeable. I wrote, “Thanks for the kind words,” along with my signature, which I hoped was satisfactorily legible.
Newman invited me to dinner at Graziano’s while also introducing me to his colleague, Tracy Morin, who, like Newman, writes for FightNews.com and freelances for a number of other outlets. The personal pizza with pepperoni, green peppers and mushrooms I ordered was delicious and just as fulfilling as our talk around the table. Just before we were about to leave for the Rusty Rail – which was to host the “Night of the 15-Rounders” – the predicted storm finally arrived. At points, the rain came down in sheets and the wind only worsened the scene. Like most cloudbursts, the event was short-lived and, at that point, we went our separate ways.
I found a fairly decent spot in the long queue that always begins to form at least two hours before the scheduled 7:30 p.m. start but, because my flat feet tire easily, I spent much of the time sitting against the wall and chatting with my line-mates. They included Rick Gagne, a native of Vermont (when I used to forget his name, I called him “Vermont”), who was making his first appearance at the Hall in four years. Thanks to the great boxing talk, the time passed quickly and soon we were allowed to take our first-come, first-serve seats. I grabbed a chair at the first table located (from my point of view) just 15 feet to the right of the podium, which provided an excellent view for the events that followed.
Using video footage to introduce the speakers (some of which came from my own collection), each celebrity described what it was like to train for, and sometimes fight, the entire 15-round distance. The first two speakers, first-time attendees Maurice “Termite” Watkins and Marvin Camel, took questions from the audience while the others – Ruben Olivares, Carlos Palomino, Pipino Cuevas, Yoko Gushiken, Nino Benvenuti, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks, George Chuvalo, Jeff Chandler and Ray Mancini – all spoke without prepared remarks. This seemed fitting because boxing, more than most sports, is one that depends greatly on one’s ability to think on his feet and use his heart to emote. Most who broached the subject said the same thing -15-round championship fights should be restored.
“When they reduced championship fights from 15 rounds to 12, they took something away from me,” said Camel, who prided himself on his extraordinary stamina.
“The 13th, 14th and 15th rounds was one of the hardest things I could think of and I was concerned about it when I fought Alexis Arguello because he was such a great 13th and 14th round fighter,” Pryor said, referencing Arguello’s 13th round title-winning knockouts of Ruben Olivares and Alfredo Escalera as well as his 14th round stoppage of Mancini. “But I eventually caught on [as far as how to do it well]. If you know you can do it and if you practice it, you can excite yourself about doing it. When I realized that, I found out that the 13th and 14th rounds are a great place to be.”
Hall-of-Famer Michael Spinks, a gentle and shy man by nature, expressed his nervousness several times during his remarks. But once he realized he was speaking before friends who wanted him to do well, he relaxed and revealed something previously unknown to me.
“The only fun time I ever had in the ring was when I fought Larry Holmes [the first time],” he said. “I had a wonderful time. I was having my way with him and I was moving to the point where he barely touched me. I was doing everything right that night. But don’t tell Larry I said anything.”
Following expansive remarks by Chandler, Mancini ended the speech-making with comments that mirrored his fighting style – concise, energetic and satisfying.
Even as emcee Joey Fiatto read the names of the raffle winners, hundreds began surging toward our area of the stage to seek autographs. For me, I only wanted to get one signature – Gushiken’s. From a security standpoint, the original plan was to establish clearly defined queues but the massive wave caused the lines to fork chaotically. I spotted Gushiken, who was wearing a bright pink jacket and who looked remarkably similar to his prime in terms of physique and appearance at age 59, standing near the podium to the right of Benvenuti. Once I received some direction from a security man regarding which line I needed to be in to get his autograph, the queue, cramped as it was, moved fairly quickly and smoothly. Within five minutes, I was in front of “The Fierce Eagle” and had him sign a nice black-and-white photo of him striking Tito Abella with a right uppercut to the jaw.
My primary objective completed, I exited the building and drove back to the hotel in Syracuse to tackle some time-sensitive research for HBO (the judges’ profiles for tomorrow night’s doubleheader), answer some pressing emails and write out a thumbnail sketch of this day’s events before turning out the lights at 1:30 a.m.
Saturday, June 13: The next five-and-a-half hours were restful and the rain that had fallen throughout the previous evening was long gone. I spent most of the next 90 minutes catching up on my writing because I knew that this, the third day of the IBHOF weekend, would be the busiest of all.
The schedule was daunting – the card and memorabilia show at Canastota High School’s gym at 10 a.m., a stop by the golf tournament (I had a non-playing ticket, which, given I hadn’t swung a club in several years, was fine by me), the VIP cocktail and, potentially, the banquet. I say “potentially” because I hadn’t decided whether I’d make an appearance there or if I would sell my ticket and take up Smitty’s offer to watch the fights with him at his hotel in Verona.
I reached a good stopping point shortly after 9 a.m., which afforded me plenty of time to plot out my day. After paying the 85-cent toll at Canastota’s booth at Exit 34, I drove straight to the high school on Roberts Street. I was pleasantly surprised to find a parking spot less than 300 feet from the entrance. However, I didn’t have the same luck once I got inside because the queue stretched roughly 100 feet and would grow to nearly double that by the time it began to move some time later.
The card and memorabilia show is the only place where, for a couple of hours, I feel like spending as if I were the US government. The only difference is I spend money I actually have.
The first booth at which I stopped was one shared by Steve Hyde and scribe Springs Toledo, who, this year, became one of a handful of writers ever to win multiple first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual “Bernie” competition. I already owned Toledo’s book, “The Gods of War,” so we just exchanged hellos and, within a few minutes, I added all six of the vintage RING magazines Hyde had for sale. At $10 a pop, the issues that ranged from Dec. 1948 to Oct. 1974 struck me as a fair deal.
The spree continued at other booths. I said hello to longtime friend Keith Stechman before purchasing 14 issues of THE RING between Sept. 1948 to Feb. 1970 at $5 each, then to the spot occupied by Chas Taylor and his wife, Kymberly, where I acquired eight more from Feb. 1936 to Oct. 1945 at $10 each as well as a copy of Jim Watt’s autobiography, “Watt’s My Name?” I greeted Delaware-based author Richard Pagano and bought his book, “The Baron of Leiperville: The Life and Times of James F. Dougherty. I also stopped by Hall-of-Famer J Russell Peltz’s booth, where I purchased a t-shirt depicting a vintage fight card.
After chatting with veteran writer Bernard Fernandez and World Boxing Hall of Fame publicist Bill Caplan (both of whom I think should be inducted into the IBHOF someday soon), I stopped by the table of William Dettloff, who was selling copies of his new book, “A Boxing Life: Ezzard Charles.” William and I had exchanged emails from time to time but this was our first face-to-face meeting. I had hoped Eric Raskin, another former RING writer with whom Dettloff shares a podcast, would also be there but William told me he was on his way.
I also spoke with Randy Gordon – former RING writer and editor, New York State Athletic Commissioner, current Sirius Radio host and soon-to-be author – as well as his wife, Roni and they offered to drive me to their next stop, the Casolwood Golf Club, where the annual tournament was being held. I definitely considered their proposition – I hadn’t been there in more than a decade and didn’t know the way – but reconsidered once I got directions from one of the volunteers manning the ticket table, who happened to work at the course.
When I arrived at Casolwood, the parking gods again smiled on me. Despite the event being five hours old, I managed to find an empty space less than 100 feet from the entrance. That was significant because, as I drove toward the clubhouse, I saw a line of parked cars along the path that stretched hundreds of feet. My first stop was the clubhouse, where a buffet highlighted by barbecue chicken was being served. I grabbed a plate and loaded it with two legs and servings of coleslaw and corn, after which I washed it down with a can of generic diet soda, provided free of charge.
I was told the golf tournament was one of the best venues to get autographs and, though I chose not to get any there, the format the Hall uses is a good one – a pair of queues in which one can get three celebrities sitting side-by-side. The line-ups for both autograph stations are reported frequently to ensure everyone is aware of whom is available.
While that was going on, I received a wonderful surprise. Though I was told no one from the Fullmer family was at the Days Inn, I encountered two people wearing badges indicating they were associated with that clan. One was Larry Fullmer, son of Don, and the other was Nick Butterfield, who now runs the family’s gym. When I told them I was the one who wrote the tribute to Gene in the most recent issue of THE RING, their faces broke into broad smiles and their already friendly demeanors became even more so. Fittingly, a relative of Carmen Basilio’s, whose name escapes me, joined our little scrum and, for the next several minutes, we swapped stories about the two great champions, who eventually formed a strong friendship. Larry asked me to sign the article and I happily obliged, writing, “To a great fighter and a great man.”
I also spent considerable time talking with former BWAA President Jack “Mantequilla” Hirsch, historian, memorabilia collector and New York Boxing Hall of Fame board member Neil “Mustafa” Terens and veteran writers J.R. “Jowett Boy” Jowett and the “Original Travelin’ Man” Jack Obermayer, also known as “KO JO.” Although these men have seen far more boxing and boast superior experiences than I, they have always treated me with respect, respect for which I am deeply appreciative. As one would expect with this group, stories were swapped with frequency and relish and it was difficult to pull myself away. Three hours after I arrived at the course, we said our goodbyes and headed for my next stop – the VIP cocktail at the Greystone.
I was just the third person in line, which allowed me to remain in the shade and sit on the handrail to rest my aching feet. I spent most of the next 90 minutes talking with other perennial early birds “Boxing” Bob Newman and Bill Johnston (among others) and, when the doors opened, Bill and I yelled out our customary phrase – “Release the Hounds!,” which was first coined when a popular Jerry Seinfeld credit card ad was running. In previous years, the initial surge resembled that of dogs at the start of a fox hunt but now the start of the event from the fan’s perspective commenced with a more controlled entry.
Before that, however, I had decided I would take Smitty up on his offer to watch the fights with him at the hotel instead of attending the banquet. At the card show, I spoke with onetime writer and current DiBella Entertainment employee Sean Sullivan, who informed me he was interested in purchasing the ticket at the slightly discounted price I was offering. Because his decision would be based on what the rest of his group was doing, he promised to call me when his plans were finalized. That call came shortly before the doors were opened and, after considerable trouble finding each other by sight, the transaction was completed.
As usual, the cocktail proved to be the best place to quickly acquire signatures. In less than five minutes’ time, I had that of Fernando Vargas, who was signing and posing for photos at a table near the entrance. After that, I stopped by the side room and spotted Steve Smoger, who was seated with three members of his family. He warmed my heart when he introduced me as a “dear, dear friend” who “fought his heart out” during the previously mentioned crew fight night eight years earlier. Before leaving, I added William Joppy’s signature as well as that of Maurice “Termite” Watkins, who spoke so energetically at the previous night’s event at the Rusty Rail. I had hoped to get Class of 2015 member Rafael Mendoza but I couldn’t find him.
Between autographs, I talked with fellow fans, more of whom increasingly recognize me either as a frequent attendee or from my writing. Several times on this trip – and this line of thinking hadn’t been broached before now – a few have posited the notion that I may earn enshrinement someday. That’s nice to hear but honestly I can’t see it because 1) my resume at present is nowhere near full enough to merit serious consideration; 2) enshrinement is so dependent on others’ opinions; (3) all the names on any given ballot are deserving and, barring ties, only the top three vote-getters earn the nod each year and 4) there is a long line of “Observers” that should get in long before me, some of which include Steve Farhood, Ron Borges, Harold Lederman, Thomas Hauser, Barry Tompkins, Jack Obermayer, Colonel Bob Sheridan, James “Smitty” Smith and CompuBox president Bob Canobbio. Only Sheridan is currently on the ballot and, as for the others, I hope they will be added soon. It would be a pleasure to affix checks by their names and that short list doesn’t include dozens more whom I believe should be immortalized.
Once the cocktail ended, I enjoyed a leisurely dinner at the McDonald’s across the street and drove to Smitty’s hotel in Verona to watch the competing cards on Showtime and HBO. As is always the case with Smitty and me, we indulged in plenty of conversation that often addressed the most technical aspects of the sport. Hall-of-Famer Bert Randolph Sugar was right when he said Smitty has an excellent eye for detail and, more than once, he illustrated his points by having me strike a stance, then demonstrating the punches he described.
By giving up my banquet ticket, however, I lost the chance to sit in on history. The final speech of the night was delivered by former RING middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, who announced his retirement from boxing. Because “Maravilla” hadn’t fought since losing to Miguel Cotto during last year’s Hall of Fame weekend, he likely will be on the ballot for the first time when the Class of 2020 is considered. I believe, not only will he be elected, he will probably be given top billing. As for next year, expect Hector Camacho Sr.’s name to be prominent among the first-timers.
As is usually the case with Smitty and me, our conversation lasted long after the shows signed off and, after completing the 45-minute drive back to Syracuse, I returned to my hotel room and clicked off the lights shortly after 2:30 a.m.
Sunday, June 14: Meteorologically, the IBHOF Induction Weekend successfully drew into an inside straight. Despite fears of rain on at least two of the four days, all the wet stuff fell during times when most were indoors and this morning featured brilliant sunshine. I spent the first three hours catching up on all the writing I simply couldn’t do the previous night and, though I left the hotel an hour later than I would have liked, I happily exchanged that disappointment for the feeling of accomplishment I felt when I completed my mandatory work. I’ve always been a delayed-gratification guy and I consider that trait a cornerstone to whatever success I’ve achieved in my professional life.
I arrived on the grounds shortly before 11 a.m. and, once I spotted Harold Lederman seated under the back tent, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. For the next hour or so we – along with Top Rank Promotions matchmaker Bruce Trampler and others – discussed topics far and wide while also saying hello to various passersby.
All the while I wondered where Bernard Fernandez was located. For the past several years, we have indulged in an annual tradition we’ve dubbed, “The Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit,” in which he and I would buy our food (this time, I insisted that I’d pay for both of us), find a comfortable spot and gab about boxing as well as other subjects. For me, it’s a chance to converse with a knowledgeable, experienced and respected colleague who has become a terrific friend but, for Bernard, our ritual is far more significant. Basilio was his father’s favorite fighter and by buying something that bears his name, he is paying tribute to his parent and to an athlete whose spirit will forever consume this event.
I kept looking for Bernard but couldn’t find him until I saw him sitting in the press row under the pavilion. The crush of people prevented me from easily reaching him, so one of the female ticket takers offered to fetch him for me. At first, he seemed confused about why he was being summoned but, as soon as he spotted me, all became clear.
As is usually the case with us, our talk covered the gamut – serious, historic, humorous and occasionally irreverent. But no matter the subject, it was a delight.
The induction ceremony was slated to begin at 2:30, so, a little after 2, we arose from our chairs in the back of the grounds and walked toward the pavilion to find our assigned seats on press row. We continued our conversation there and, soon, we were joined by seatmates Jowett and Obermayer. At 2:37, emcee Joey Fiatto began introducing everyone who was to occupy the stage and, with that, the main event of the four-day extravaganza commenced.
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 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five 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 email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.