The Travelin’ Man returns to IBHOF induction weekend-part III
Sunday, June 14 (continued): Induction Sunday at the International Boxing Hall of Fame is one of those rare occasions in which boxing fans can return to their idealistic roots. For a precious few hours, all the political and administrative sewage that swirls about this great sport fades into the background and is replaced by a celebration of the people who helped author boxing’s rich history.
On this day, the 12 Hall-of-Famers seated behind the podium – Carlos Palomino, Pipino Cuevas, Nino Benvenuti, Ruben Olivares, J Russell Peltz, Don Chargin, Richard Steele, Joe Cortez, Larry Hazzard Sr., Aaron Pryor, Jeff Chandler and Michael Spinks – presided over the entry of seven more living inductees. For Rafael Mendoza, Nigel Collins, Jim Lampley, Yoko Gushiken, Riddick Bowe and Ray Mancini, their entry into immortality was witnessed before hundreds in the audience as well as 15 more non-Hall of Fame boxing luminaries on stage. Naseem Hamed, who couldn’t attend due to unforeseen circumstances, will have to wait until at least next year to experience the rush of accomplishment his classmates felt here but his plaque and, with it, his legacy, are safely tucked away inside the Hall of Fame building. For deceased honorees Masao Ohba, Ken Overlin and John F.X. Condon, their elevation is the final notation to boxing lives well lived.
The scenes just before the ceremony began offered flashes of personality. Bowe strode onto the stage with his WBC belt on his shoulder while the ever-observant and searching Collins shaded his eyes and scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Mendoza briefly walked down to the front row of seats to exchange his checkered jacket for a matching blue blazer while a smiling Lampley energetically waved to faces that sparked his formidable memory.
Hall of Fame President Don Ackerman kicked off the festivities by honoring the memories of two Hall-of-Famers who had died since last year’s ceremony – Harold Johnson and Gene Fullmer. Following the ceremonial 10-count, parade Grand Marshal Jon Seda (a 21-1 amateur boxer who had advanced to the 1989 New Jersey Golden Gloves and is now the star of the NBC drama “Chicago P.D.”) couldn’t have been happier to be there.
“It’s an absolute honor,” he said. “Words can’t expressed how honored I am to be here. I thank Ed Brophy and all involved in putting this event together. This is my first time in Canastota and I definitely want to come back. It means so much to me and I’m sure it means a lot to them [the boxers sitting behind him].”
For the first time in all my years attending Induction Sundays, historian Herb Goldman wasn’t present to read the resumes of the deceased inductees. His staccato delivery mirrored that of the old-time radio announcers but, in recent years, that voice was increasingly slurred as various health issues slowly overcame him. On this day, Ackerman took over those duties.
Legendary broadcaster Sam Rosen – who I remember best as the play-by-play man on numerous MSG Network-televised boxing cards emanating from Madison Square Garden – accepted for his old boss Condon.
“I got to work with Condon for four years when I signed with MSG in 1982,” Rosen recalled. “My first assignment was to work alongside an icon at the Garden and a lover of boxing like no other person. It was clear how much he loved the sport and above all, he loved the boxers.”
One particularly strong memory was championship night at the 1984 New York Golden Gloves.
“There were over 15,000 in the main arena and there were all these boxers,” Rosen said. “John knew all of them and wished them well. The card began at 7 p.m. and finished at 1 a.m. John and I did more than 25 bouts and he had as much energy at the end as he did in the beginning. I congratulate all of the Hall of Fame inductees up here and it’s a proud moment to be among all the other Hall-of-Famers. I know that John is looking down and writing down great things about you.”
Gushiken, the 108-pound legend, was well under the pound-per-word mark but the intensity of the moment shone through as he triumphantly raised his now-ringed fist in the air.
“Hello,” he began in English. “I want to say thank you to everyone. I had a good time in Canastota, total.” Then, shifting to Japanese, he added, “I will never forget this wonderful day. I am honored to be inducted with these great champions and I would like to go back to Japan and tell them how great it was here.”
After Gushiken sat down, Bowe couldn’t resist the urge to be playful as he tried to switch his monstrous ring with his classmate’s tiny one, a move that got the hoped-for laugh.
“It has been 60 years for me inside the ropes in the wonderful world of boxing,” Mendoza began. “Maybe I don’t deserve to be here in the International Boxing Hall of Fame but I’m enjoying every minute of it. Many good friends of mine are here and all of them are telling me that I am welcome. I represented over 26 world champions and five of them are here in the Hall of Fame: Pipino Cuevas, Miguel Canto, Alexis Arguello, Humberto ‘Chiquita’ Gonzalez and Daniel Zaragoza. This ring is for my mother who is waiting and is still alive. She is waiting for the photos of this event.”
Mendoza said one of the secrets of his success was the bond of trust he had with his fighters.
“I never signed a contract with my fighters in my life,” he said. “It was a handshake and that’s it. The only contract that I signed was with a beautiful lady in the second row, my wife. She has been my trainer, manager and adviser for the past 50 years and the mother of my beautiful daughters. I want to make a special dedication to the great friend of mine in boxing who was a promoter and co-promoter with me. He’s been in a tough fight, not for 12 rounds but for more than 20 years. The problem is that he is still fighting but I know he will never quit: my friend [Felix] ‘Tuto’ Zavala.”
Smoger gave the day’s longest speech and, during it, he tied together the various threads of his career. For instance, he told the story of how he got his nickname.
“People ask me where the ‘Double-S’ comes in,” he said. “It comes from the Tropicana Hotel in 1982 when [ring announcer] Ed Derian said that he wanted to give me a catch phrase. When he announced Frank Cappuccino’s name, he said ‘Frank Cappoocheeeeeeeeno.’ ‘And I’m going to find something for you.’ It’s been 34 years but it stuck.”
The theme of his speech – and his career – was being at the right place at the right time.
“As time and luck would have it, casino gaming comes to Atlantic City and, literally the day after that happened, the fight community of Philadelphia and New York comes to Atlantic City and the first shows began at Resorts International. For a long time, it was the only game in town. Late in 1978 or 1979, the phone rings at the Police Athletic League Center. I was at an old fire house and we’d go up the winding staircase to the gym.
He then recounted the phone conversation that kick-started his career.
“PAL Center, Steve speaking; may I help you?”
“Is there anyone there who knows anything about boxing?”
“I think I can be of some service.”
“This is Jersey Joe Walcott, commissioner of the state of New Jersey. We have a pro card and we’re short one inspector. We need to have someone to watch the wrapping of the hands.”
“What time do you want me to be there?”
“In one hour.”
That was the beginning for Smoger, who suddenly was thrust in the middle of the action. He asked veteran cornerman Eddie Aliano to help fill in any blanks he might have had and, in time, he was issued an inspector’s license, was refereeing amateur fights in the Philadelphia area, then, after getting his pro license, officiating at cards almost every night of the week. With the advent of multi-state licensures, Smoger eventually became the most licensed referee in boxing history.
When Joe Cortez was the first referee inducted into the Hall in 2011 and was followed by Mills Lane in 2013 and Richard Steele in 2014, Smoger suspected his time might be nearing.
“Listen, they’re running out of Nevada officials,” Smoger said he thought to himself. “Through the process of elimination, maybe Ed Brophy may take notice of referees east of the Mississippi. You’re staying active and, by the grace of God, it happened.
“I’m thrilled and I love my new ring,” Smoger concluded. Then, referencing his wife, he said, “but, darling, you can’t have this ring.”
When Collins was introduced, writer J.R. Jowett, who was seated directly to my right, emitted an ear-splitting “Yaaaaaay!” Though I stayed silent – I was working and therefore had to maintain some decorum – my innards echoed that sentiment.
“I think Steve took up all my time,” Collins joked. “I have to thank a lot of people who are actually here and are Hall-of-Famers. Bert Sugar, who we all love, he’s gone now. He gave me my first full-time job in boxing. I wouldn’t have gone that far, save for J Russell Peltz. He hated to do it because he lost a paying customer. Another was Graham Houston. He helped me along and you don’t forget those people.”
Collins then made special mention of two people who were very near my proximity.
“J.R. Jowett used to loan me money and Jack Obermayer used to take me to the supermarket,” he said. Both men beamed at the special mention at this seminal moment. He also honored other writers who showed him immense respect and loyalty during the lowest of times.
“When I became the editor of THE RING, you couldn’t pay many people,” he said. “I can get some of the best writers, something for nothing and some for a little bit. Eric Raskin, Don Stradley and Bill Dettloff – who just published the first biography of Ezzard Charles – were among them. I also had the best art director, Debbie Harrison, but none of this would be possible without the fighters. They took the punches; they suffered the consequences. I just chronicled what they did.”
He then tried to explain the appeal of boxing, which has lasted generations despite numerous attempts to ban it as well as survived more than a few self-inflicted wounds.
“I want to say something about boxing,” Collins said. “It gets a lot of criticism during good times and bad times. Many people don’t think about it but every one of you is a predator. Human beings are predators and that’s why we’ve survived as long as he did. We had to be tough; we had to be mean and we had to do a lot of nasty stuff. We needed a way to express that in more civilized times and boxing was the most noble and wonderful way to express that side. Sometimes people get hurt and there’s tragedy in boxing. But think of how boxing is compared to war, where millions die. Boxing is a wonderful thing and it’s never going to die until human nature changes. And I see no sign of that.”
Next up was Lampley, who, in a nod to technology, read his speech off a small tablet. As usual, the longtime HBO announcer eloquently chronicled his decades-long love for “The Sweet Science,” which began at a Christmas party and produced a “thunderbolt moment” similar to the one I experienced nearly 19 years later when I saw the second fight between Roberto Duran and Esteban DeJesus.
“I was introduced to boxing at the age of six by my mother in Hendersonville, N.C.,” he said. “My father had died of cancer the year before. In December 1955, my mother took me to a Christmas party at a friend’s home, marched me out of the living room down a hallway to the hostess’ bedroom, turned on a black-and-white television set and told me, ‘Sit down; you are going to watch the ‘Friday Night Fights,’ Sugar Ray Robinson versus Bobo Olson. This is what you and your father would be doing if he were still here.
“Don Dunphy called the fight. Robinson scored a knockout win. I was enthralled and immediately began familiarizing myself with Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Yama Bahama, Dick Tiger, Joey Giardello, Hurricane Carter and all the star television fighters of that era. I watched all the Friday Night Fights for years, then, in 1960, I watched the Rome Olympics and fell in love with Cassius Clay. All through the 1960s and into the 1970s, boxing was my favorite sport.”
His immersion was fortified by several visits to the Fifth Street Gym in Miami, which was just a 25-mile drive from his home and he witnessed Clay’s monumental upset of Charles “Sonny” Liston.
After joining ABC as one of the first-ever college football sideline analysts, he worked a variety of sports except for the one he loved most. During that era, boxing was the exclusive province of Howard Cosell and he didn’t want to share the microphone with anyone else. But that seemingly closed door flew open after Cosell quit the pro game in disgust after Larry Holmes-Randall “Tex” Cobb in 1982 and, a few years later, he was at ringside calling the first nationally-televised fights of a rising star named Mike Tyson.
He then went on to HBO, where he faced the daunting challenge of replacing longtime voice Barry Tompkins. His polished and literate delivery combined with his deep respect and knowledge of the sport stamped him as a unique talent and his skills established the foundation for a career that has seen him the highest of the highs (13 RING Fights of the Year), the lowest of the lows (the riots at MSG following Bowe-Andrew Golota I and countless horribly rendered decisions) and the weirdest of the weird (“Fan Man”). No matter how a fight evolved, Lampley’s standards never wavered nor his regard for boxing.
“Boxing is a canvas on which an endless stream of artists paint indelible images,” he said. “I get the privilege of knowing them and attempting to describe what they do.”
More than a dozen members of the extended Lampley family made the trip to Canastota and he made special note of his 94-year-old uncle, Dr. Bill Lampley, and his wife Mary Ann.
“My mom and dad are long since gone but having Bill and Mary Ann here from Hendersonville is the living equivalent of having [Lampley’s parents] here,” Lampley said, his voice and chin quivering with emotion, “so you can imagine what this means to me.”
Bowe was known for his infectious sense of humor but like fellow Brownsville native Mike Tyson, three years earlier, the weight of the moment left him stumped in terms of expressing his emotions.
“I got what I came for,” Bowe said as he held up his ring. “I’m finally here and guess what? I don’t know what to say. What I will say is I had a wonderful career. God is good and he helped me when I needed a lot of help. My wife is so wonderful; I never met a more wonderful person – except when she’s giving me a hard time.”
He then looked behind him and scanned faces that sparked memories. When his eyes landed on Cortez, he immediately conjured a story.
“Joe Cortez, he was so great,” he said. “[Evander] Holyfield knocked me down [in their third fight] and, I swear to God, this is what [Cortez] said to me: ‘One, two, three – get your punk ass up.’ So I listened to him and I got up. I got up and I won the fight. Thank God for him. If I fight again, he needs to be the referee.”
Mancini, never one to be conventional, requested that his sons, Leo and Ray Jr. present him instead of Ackerman.
“You’re a lovely man, Don, but I’ve known you for about 10 minutes,” he said. “You had no shot to induct me today.”
For a man whose boxing career was ignited by the love of his father and a desire to win the championship that was denied him by World War II, it was fitting that Mancini’s own sons would close the loop on their father’s boxing life. Their words, and especially their demeanor, spoke volumes as to how they feel about him. When it was Mancini’s turn to talk, he addressed the subjects he knew best – family, the city of his birth and how both fueled his success.
“Everything I am, everything I’ve ever been and everything I ever will be is because of two things: My family and my city of Youngstown,” he said. “I am a product of that city. I love my city. I love the people. They carried me a lot further than I wanted to go at times; believe me. They were there for every fight. Those people are the reason for where I am today. They carried me through my amateur and pro career; no doubt about that. My father was everything I wanted to be as a man, person and father. I accept this award today on behalf of my father. I’ll be wearing this [ring] for a while but, tomorrow, this will be for my boys. It’ll be theirs. I want it to be a reminder to them to dream big, to remember to chase those dreams and realize that those dreams can come true. I’m living proof of that.”
Thanks to Jeff Brophy, I was allowed inside the Hall of Fame building to personally congratulate most of the honorees. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to express one final kudo to Nigel, who, at the precise moment I was about to step forward, was whisked away to pose for a photo in front of his plaque. Before I knew it, he was not to be found. I also spoke with parade Marshal Sena, who was overwhelmed by his first visit to the Hall. I know the feeling; my 23rd was even more enjoyable than my first.
Lampley marveled at my ability to type fast enough to keep up with the speakers but since I sacrifice spelling for speed, I eagerly accepted his offer to email his speech to me.
Just before I left the building, I briefly talked with Jeff. I marveled at how fortunate the Hall organizers were with Mother Nature; it was as if the storms chose to hold back until this immortality-based activity had reached its natural conclusion. In fact, the moment Mancini’s speech ended, it was announced over the P.A. system that, according to radar, a line of thunderstorms was poised to strike the area in 15-to-20 minutes. Because of that, I decided to forgo the “afterglow” at Graziano’s in favor of hitting the road. I feel a twinge of sadness each time I drive toward I-90 West and look over my left shoulder at the now-vacant Hall of Fame grounds but that feeling goes away at the thought that, God willing, it will be waiting for my arrival next June.
Other than the occasionally heavy rain, the nearly five-hour drive was routine and I pulled into my hotel in Erie a little before 9:30 p.m. I watched the second half of Game Five between the Cavaliers and Warriors before hitting the sack three hours after I arrived.
Monday, June 15: I awoke from a sound sleep six-and-a-half hours after I turned out the lights and went several rounds with the laptop before packing my things and beginning the final leg of my six-day odyssey – Erie to Friendly. Judging from my email, plenty of time-sensitive work awaited my attention and before I left, I asked Bob Canobbio to assemble a “to-do” list that put all my projects in order of priority. My life over the past several years has become like a conveyor belt that’s always running but at various speeds. Given that I’ve been away so long, I sensed that, at least for a while, the belt will be running full tilt.
The drive home wasn’t entirely smooth. A tree had fallen on the highway a couple of miles north of Slippery Rock, Penn. (maybe it should have been renamed Slippery Tree, at least for a few hours). Then a couple of hours later, a guard rail project narrowed the interstate from two lanes to one and it took me nearly an hour to work my way through the snarl. Once I did, however, all was well.
I pulled into the driveway and, as expected, a mountain of work, mostly related to CompuBox’s “Throwdown Fantasy” game, awaited my attention. I also had some last-minute research to conduct for cards that were occurring in just a few days’ time. I did what I could, then turned in for the evening.
I’ll only have a few days to finish my business, for, by the time you read this, I already will be on my next trip. Shelton, Wash., is a new city for me and there, a “ShoBox” telecast topped by middleweights Dominic Wade and Sam Soliman will be staged.
Until next time, happy trails!
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.