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The Travelin’ Man returns to IBHOF Induction Weekend: Part one

Photo credit: Alex Menendez




13
Jun

Tuesday, June 5: Everyone has an official hometown but those of us who are more sentimental assign equal affection to locales that touch our souls. For me, the former is Friendly, West Virginia, population 132, while the latter is Canastota, New York, home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. While I’ve harbored an affinity for the village ever since I first read Ed Maloney’s story in 1992 – three years after the Hall’s grand opening – my affection grew exponentially, thanks to the IBHOF’s annual Induction Weekend, a four-day celebration of boxing’s past, present and future that has grown into a must-see/never-miss event.

It’s difficult to believe it has been 25 years since my first visit, and it’s even harder to fathom that my place in life has grown into places I couldn’t have imagined. In 1993, I was a 28-year-old copy editor at a West Virginia newspaper who enjoyed a “cup of coffee” in the big leagues of boxing writing, thanks to the dozen feature stories I had written for THE RING Magazine, KO Magazine and other sister publications. But after being told that no full-time slots were available at the magazines – nor would there be in the foreseeable future – I had chosen to retreat into obscurity. Now I am more than 11 years into my life as a full-time “boxing person,” thanks to my jobs with CompuBox and THE RING, am now known as boxing’s “Travelin’ Man” (although my frequent flier miles are dwarfed by many other industry people) and am a newly-minted two-time author.

Just seven days earlier, CompuBox President Bob Canobbio and I released “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” a statistical study of 47 of Ali’s 61 professional fights (all the available complete footage), including 43 of his final 44 fights and 474 of his 548 professional rounds. For all of the projects related to Ali, none have ever examined a vital part of the Ali story – the number of punches with which he struck opponents and – even, more importantly, given the health issues that marked the second half of his life – the punches with which he was struck, especially in his final nine fights.

But while the book boasts many charts (67, to be exact) and offers Top 10 performance lists for Ali and his opponents in 12 categories, “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” is far more than a rendering of cold, hard numbers. It also takes readers through Ali’s life inside the professional ring, and the richly researched narrative revives little-known facts about Ali and his opponents that even the most knowledgeable fans might not have known. For example, I didn’t know that Oscar Bonavena had been disqualified from the gold medal match at the 1963 Pan American Games for biting his opponent’s forearm or that Jimmy Young took part in an Ali exhibition more than two years before challenging him for the heavyweight championship.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book is the judges’ scorecards from 47 of Ali’s fights, especially the 29 that reveal complete round-by-round renderings. They were provided by legendary researcher Bob Yalen (a good friend of Canobbio’s and who, along with Canobbio, should be a candidate for Hall of Fame enshrinement). He took time from his busy schedule to dig into his vast archives, after which he graciously allowed us to publish them in our book. He’s certainly one of the book’s MVCs (Most Valuable Contributors).

Five other men deserve to take a bow: The quartet of Hall-of-Famer Steve Farhood, onetime light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, CompuBox co-creator Logan Hobson and broadcaster/IBHOF Induction Weekend host/Ali friend James “Smitty” Smith, all of whom granted interviews for the book, and the late Joe Carnicelli, who, shortly before his death last year, allowed me to borrow his original copy rolls containing Associated Press write-ups of the Larry Holmes-Ali fight.

For these reasons, and more, “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” is unlike any other book ever written about “The Greatest.” For the first time since 2011 (the year after I released “Tales from the Vault”), my primary mission was to sell a book I had written (or, in this case, co-written), and, based on the response so far, I had good reason to believe that the second verse will be far better than the first.

 

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For me, the anticipation for this year’s induction weekend began the moment I left last year’s event, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. The reasons are many but one includes the star power that is scheduled to gather. That list begins with this year’s inductees – boxers Vitali Klitschko, Erik Morales and Ronald “Winky” Wright, promoter Klaus-Peter Kohl and broadcasters Steve Albert and Jim Gray – and is further expanded by past inductees (most notably Don Chargin, husband of 2018 honoree Lorraine Chargin, but others include Riddick Bowe, J Russell Peltz, Michael Carbajal, Michael Spinks, Don King and Mike Tyson), as well as other boxing notables such as Wladimir Klitschko, Miguel Cotto, Jessie Vargas, Christy Martin, Sirius XM hosts Randy Gordon and Gerry Cooney, Daniel Jacobs, Julian Jackson, Shelly Finkel, Marvin Camel, John H. Stracey, Billy Backus, Micky Ward, Dicky Ecklund, Kelly Pavlik, Jarrett Hurd, Robert Guerrero, Christy Martin, Sergio Martinez and Leon Spinks. Moreover this year’s parade marshal is one of the highest profile figures yet – longtime Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a shoo-in for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Another reason I point toward Induction Weekend is rekindling the friendships I’ve formed over the past quarter-century, while also getting the chance to form new ones. The great thing about boxing is that once two people realize they share a passion for the sport, all the barriers that usually separate strangers are vaporized. That has certainly been the case with me, and, as a result, the ensuing succession of conversations ends up lasting hours that seem like minutes. No other place or time on this Earth has produced this effect, and it’s an effect I enjoy to the fullest.

 

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Because the book was released so close to Induction Weekend – May 29 to be exact – and because CreateSpace estimated today as the delivery date for my 75 copies of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” – I sought (and received) permission to have the books shipped directly to the Hall of Fame. Although I was nervous that such a large shipment would push back the arrival until Thursday, Friday or, horrors, Saturday, I need not have worried, as the books shipped out late June 4 and were set to be delivered sometime later today (a text and a photo by Jeff Brophy later in the day confirmed that fact). As a result – as well as my successful effort to finish all available CompuBox research for the rest of the month – I began my two-day journey to Canastota with a light spirit and a clear mind.

As has been the case since 1993, my route has remained the same: Friendly to Erie, Pennsylvania, on day one, and Erie to my longtime hotel in Syracuse on day two. The weather upon my departure at 12:18 p.m. was decent – cloudy and 64 degrees – but improved the further north I drove. By the time I arrived in Erie, the sun shone brightly but the temperature had fallen to 60. Good thing I brought my Hall of Fame windbreaker.

The only stop I made during the four-hour 15-minute drive was a gas station in Sistersville, so I made excellent time. After checking into my room, I walked to the nearby Pilot outlet and purchased a foot-long Subway that ended up being my dinner as well as a late-night snack. The remainder of the evening was serene – mostly channel surfing and web browsing – and I turned out the lights at 12:30 a.m.

 

Wednesday, June 6: I awakened at 7 a.m. and spent most of the next two hours modifying two upcoming stories for THE RING, stories I believe will break new ground on a familiar subject. Once you see them, you’ll know what I mean.

I departed for Syracuse a little after 9:15 a.m., and, once again, driving conditions were terrific: Sunny and a temperature in the low-60s. This time I drove directly to the destination without making any stops, and I spent most of the time either listening to the radio or playing one of the many CDs that make up my “road trip tunes.” My taste in music is hardly modern – Fleetwood Mac, Chicago, Bob Seger, Huey Lewis and the News, Juice Newton among them – but, as Lewis once sung, “I Know What I Like.”

Buoyed by the upcoming occasion, as well as by my tunes, I arrived at the hotel around 1:20 p.m. After checking into the room, making a few “I’m OK” calls, I sent a text to Jeff Brophy about my impending arrival. Once I did, I walked toward the gift shop with dolly in tow to donate several signed gloves to the Hall (Roy Jones, Miguel Cotto, Mike Tyson, Wladmir and Vitali Klitschko and John Duddy among them) and to claim the remainder of my books, which now numbered 51 after the Hall agreed to purchase 24 copies for the gift shop. Moments after I received a warm welcome from the gift shop employees and settling matters with Jeff, longtime friend and IBHOF host James “Smitty” Smith made his usual energetic entrance. Instead of his customary “Miami Vice” suits, he wore a baggy black track suit designed to sweat off weight. The results are undeniable: Even as he nears his 60th birthday, “Smitty” is a trim 143 pounds.

After catching up, Smitty asked me to be his “camera man” as he shot a promo from inside the ring on the grounds, and it was completed in two takes. With that work done, I drove him to a local Rite Aid to pick up some throat spray to preserve his powerful voice and, at Smitty’s suggestion, to eat dinner at the Hometown Pizzeria Canastota at 3400 Seneca Turnpike. As I tried to find a parking spot, I mentioned that this is something that the late Jack Obermayer – the original “Travelin’ Man” – would have done. Although Jack has been gone for nearly two years, I, along with others in the boxing family, still miss him terribly. I look forward to the day when our spirits will reunite but, until that time – which I hope will be many years from now – I have a life to live.

Sometimes that life takes a roundabout path, and that was the case here. Because I turned right instead of left, we ended up taking the back way to Verona instead of going back to the Days Inn. My malfunctioning gyroscope was repaired once I reached the entrance to Interstate 90 – which was within my “sphere of familiarity” – and we soon arrived back at the Days Inn.

I hung out in the lobby for a couple of hours, and, in that time, I gave Smitty his copy of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” while also selling two more to Winnipeg native (and Spinks family friend) Eric Schmidt and Albany’s Bob Rowe. When I told Eric that Leon Spinks landed the most total punches of any Ali opponent in the book’s 47-fight study (419 in their first fight), Eric left the lobby and summoned Leon, who arrived a few minutes later. When I told him of the stat, his already smiling face further brightened as he asked, “Did I?” I opened the book to page 314 and showed him the corresponding Top 10 list that had his name in the No. 1 spot. The glow of satisfaction on his face was further evidence that writing this book was a worthwhile pursuit.

I also spent considerable time with former welterweight champion Stracey, a natural left-hander who was convinced to fight as a righty to amplify the power of his jab. Stracey said he never felt comfortable fighting in the orthodox stance but the fact that he did it for his entire boxing life speaks well of his discipline under combat conditions.

After saying my goodbyes at the Days Inn, I drove over to Graziano’s in search of conversations and, potentially, further book sales. I thought it tacky to walk inside with a load of books in tow but, if someone asked, I was more than willing to walk out to the car and grab a copy or two. While that didn’t happen, the time at Grazzie’s was a conversational cornucopia, as I spoke with longtime attendees Erik Killin and Andrew Booth (whose trip in from the U.K. included four canceled flights and other logistical horrors). Later on, I sat down with Graziano’s proprietor Tony Graziano, a 96-year-old wonder whose memory remains as sharp as a prime Ali jab. Although Tony knew of me from my many years of attending Induction Weekend, this was my first chance to sit down and have an extended conversation with him. I peppered him with questions about training techniques, as well as his memories of fighters he knew, such as Willie Pep, Cus D’Amato and Mike Tyson. The World War II veteran also volunteered stories about his part in the Battle of the Bulge, which included a tale of carrying a wounded colleague five miles on his shoulders.

Before I knew it, it was 10:45 p.m., and, because I needed to get back to the hotel to catch up on some of my writing, I thanked Tony for his time and left the restaurant. I bought a late-night snack at a drive-thru, in the hopes of winding down in my hotel room with a working TV. But when I hit the power button on the remote, nothing happened. Everything was plugged in but, for some reason, the TV remained nonfunctional. With it being near midnight, I decided to wait until morning to address the issue and went to bed at 1:30 a.m.

 

Thursday, June 7: Induction Day has finally arrived, and, for me, the waking cycle began at 6 a.m. Following the morning routines, I spent the next two-and-a-half hours catching up on all the writing I neglected, and, once I reached a good stopping point, I headed downstairs in the hope of rectifying my issues with the non-working TV, as well as one of the lights above my bed.

I arrived on the grounds shortly after 10:15 a.m. Those who read my IBHOF chronicles know that one of two men are counted as the first “familiar face” I meet: Retired dentist and photography aficionado David Baum and Canadian buddy Bill Johnston. This year Johnston “won” the “honor,” as we spotted one another simultaneously. David arrived about 45 minutes later, as I was eating a sausage sandwich served by one of the two food trucks situated in the back lot (a change from the food tent that had occupied that spot for as long as I recall).

While I had planned to witness the “opening ceremony” and the first two ringside lectures, my time was occupied with numerous one-on-one conversation with a succession of friends, some of which resulted in on-the-spot book sales. One fellow who recognized me asked me to sign a photo of a boxing glove, one of about a dozen signatures I was requested to give. It was a most unusual day because it was the first I can remember when I signed autographs, while seeking out none for myself.

Little by little, I’ve become a boxing “celebrity” of sorts and because I feel like the same person I have always been, it’s a strange but ego-enhancing feeling. Because I know that “pride comes before the fall,” I choose to appreciate the attention without making it out to be more than it is. For me, the true joy is in the jobs I’m so lucky to have and the pursuit of doing all of them as well as I can.

Once the day’s final two lectures were delivered by James “Lights Out” Toney and Julian “The Hawk” Jackson, I received an invitation by text from onetime BWAA President Jack Hirsch to have dinner with him, his wife Audrey and friends JR Jowett and Neil Terens. In past years, this tightly-knit group included Obermayer and one expression of their solidarity was the bestowing of nicknames. Obermayer’s moniker was “KO JO” while Hirsch was known as “Mantequilla,” Jowett as “Jowett Boy” and Terens as “Mustafa.” While I’ve spent time with the group over the years, it was only in the last two years that they accepted me enough to contemplate granting me a nickname. Earlier this year, I was given word that I would be known as “Hit Man,” an obvious reference to my job with CompuBox.

Perhaps in honor of Obermayer and his penchant for eating at out-of-the-way diners, the group decided to have dinner at the Knotty Pine Diner. While we had to wait 15 minutes for a table to accommodate our group to be made available, the never-ending stream of fascinating boxing talk more than kept us entertained. Given the vast years of experience between the trio of Mantequilla, Jowett Boy and Mustafa, I was happy that this Hit Man could hang with them. The subjects included various fights from Ali’s career (thanks to Mantequilla’s recent purchase of the book) and how Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier would fare against the Klitschkos (I thought Marciano would be unable to get inside the long arms while Frazier, heavier and even more fearless than “The Rock,” would get in more than his share of punishment).

After finishing dessert, our group left the restaurant (thank you Mustafa for picking up the tab) and Mantequilla drove me back to my car, which I drove back to the hotel to polish off my writing. Unfortunately the issues regarding my TV remote and the lamp above the clock radio remained unresolved but the night clerk acted immediately and rectified both issues.

I spent the next 90 minutes chronicling the day’s events on the laptop, after which I spent the remainder of the evening relaxing and recharging. I turned out the light at 12:15 a.m.

As enjoyable as the first two days in the Syracuse/Canastota area were, I knew that the next two days would be even more so because even more potential conversation partners – and potential book purchasers – will be flooding into town.

 

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Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 16 writing awards, including 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 (available on Amazon) and the co-author of the upcoming book Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers. To contact Groves, use the e-mail [email protected].

 

 

 

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