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

(From left to right) Ronald "Winky" Wright, Steve Albert, Vitali Klitschko, Jim Gray and Erik Morales. Photo courtesy of IBHOF
14
Jun

Please click here to read Part One.

 

Please click here to read Part Two.

 

Sunday, June 10: For one of the few times in my 26 trips to the IBHOF’s Induction Weekend, I decided to skip both the VIP “Gala” Cocktail Reception at the Greystone Castle and the Banquet of Champions, now being staged at the Turning Stone Casino, after several years at the Oncenter, in Syracuse. I didn’t attend the former because I did not have my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing” (the IBHOF is having its broken spine repaired) and I bypassed the latter because I accepted former BWAA President Jack Hirsch’s dinner invitation several weeks earlier.

Who knew that a viral event between Hall-of-Famers Mike Tyson and Don King would break out during the banquet? Following brief remarks from King, at the dais (he was asked to limit his speech to five minutes), he patted the shoulder of IBHOF curator Ed Brophy, while doing the same with Tyson, as he walked toward his own seat. Tyson, apparently angered by King thinking he was friendly enough with Tyson to do such a thing, took umbrage, said something to King, picked up his glass and threw its contents at the 86-year-old promoter, who was inducted in 1997.

In an interview conducted this morning following the Parade of Champions, by Sirius XM hosts Randy Gordon and Gerry Cooney, Tyson regretted the immaturity of his spur-of-the-moment action, while not forgetting the tumultuous nature of their well-chronicled relationship.

“That was me being immature; I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “He touched me. He tapped me on the shoulder; he talked to me, as if he is my friend and that was just bull crap. I just got to get rid of my bitterness; I have to let all of that go,” adding that, if he had to relive his career, “I wouldn’t be with Don King; somebody else would have to get me.”

Because I was otherwise occupied the previous evening, I hadn’t heard about any of this until I arrived at the Days Inn shortly before 10 a.m. I was told King had included several positive remarks about President Trump during his speech, and, given the President’s polarizing reputation, I thought that (and the rather large button of a smiling Trump on his blue jean jacket) might have also fueled Tyson’s reaction. However upon viewing the video later, their tumultuous history and King’s daring to be friendly despite it was probably the real cause.

Randy, his wife Roni and I walked to the grounds, and, after taping a 13-minute interview about the book (which is now up on Sirius XM’s website in the On Demand section), I spent the rest of the morning chatting with fellow fans about anything and everything boxing. Yes, I knew the Parade of Champions was on the schedule but I have never been one to stand on the sidelines and watch other people go past me. Still, I saw a picture of 2018 inductee Vitali Klitschko standing in the back seat of his parade car and shadowboxing, an act of pure joy that surely will be reprinted in future IBHOF programs for decades to come.

 

Vitali Klitschko. Photo courtesy of IBHOF on Twitter

 

 

One Induction Sunday fixture for me has been the “Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit,” an informal bull session about boxing and life I shared with veteran boxing writer Bernard Fernandez for more than a decade. Most of these sessions took place under one of the tents near the back of the grounds but, a couple of months earlier, he informed me that he probably wouldn’t make it to Canastota this year. So if I were to continue this little tradition, I needed to find another colleague.

Shortly before 11 a.m. I spotted that colleague sitting in the same back tent that Bernard and I conducted our chat: Veteran writer Eric Armit, with whom I shared dinner the previous evening. After taking a seat, I explained the summit’s rather simple concept and he agreed to take part. As the “host,” I offered to buy him a sausage sandwich and a beverage, to which he jokingly replied, “Know that you’re making this offer to a Scotsman.” I’m not exactly sure what that meant but when it came time to buy lunch, our orders were identical.

Shortly after 2 p.m., we parted ways and I sought out my seat on press row. Unlike the Friday night boxing card, the sticker on my chair had my last name spelled correctly.

Because 2018 inductee Jim Gray’s contingent was so large – and because his guest list included stars such as parade marshal Larry Fitzgerald (a future NFL Hall-of-Famer), sportscaster Bob Costas (who will receive the 2018 Ford C. Frick award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, next month, and was fresh off working the Belmont Stakes, that saw Justify win the Triple Crown) and NBA legend Julius Erving, a Hall-of-Famer since 1993 – an entire section was reserved for it. As a result, additional seats, shaded by tents, were made available to the public. WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, seated on the main stage, also flew in from Alabama specifically to honor Gray. In terms of guests with star power, only Don King in 1997 brought forth such a sizable and prominent collection of guests, and that speaks well of Gray’s reach as a broadcaster, the respect he has earned from his peers and his ability to forge strong relationships with his interview subjects.

Although the weather forecast called for rain, the event (and the entire four-day celebration) was blessed with abundant sunshine as well as a comfortable temperature. As emcee James “Smitty” Smith was introducing the various boxing dignitaries and 2018 inductees, Hirsch and I were stunned by the sight of 2012 inductee Thomas Hearns being directed to the side stage instead of the main stage, where past Hall-of-Famers are usually seated. Hearns, for his part, didn’t seem upset, and during one of the speeches, the reason, which I later confirmed with Jeff Brophy, became clear.

“Tommy asked to be placed there because he had to catch a flight, and he didn’t want to make a scene leaving the stage,” Brophy said. I thought the same thing, as soon as I spotted Hearns departing during one of the speeches but I wanted to talk to Jeff to make sure. For the record, 2010 Hall of Fame inductee Shelly Finkel was also seated on the side stage (perhaps for the same reason), perhaps creating more room for star non-inductees Wilder, Antonio Tarver, Miguel Cotto and Wladimir Klitschko to be on the main stage.

Following a ceremonial 10-count to honor inductees who passed away since the last ceremony – Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos, Rafael Mendoza and Jake LaMotta – and speeches by Canastota mayor Carla DeShaw and parade marshal Fitzgerald, the induction process began with a speech by WBO Vice President John Duggan, who accepted the honor in place of the ailing Klaus-Peter Kohl.

“Peter asked me to express his profound, deep and humble appreciation to the IBHOF, the entire boxing community, to his family and especially to the boxing fans around the world for this honor,” Duggan said. “Klaus-Peter Kohl is a Hall-of-Fame promoter, not just because of the hundreds of championship events and scores of champions he promoted. Peter’s great contribution to boxing is how he promoted boxing – with epic pageantry, triumphant music, monumental style and spectacular showmanship. Ultimately Klaus-Peter Kohl’s great contribution to boxing is that he loved boxing and all of its participants, and he promoted with the understanding that boxing is a great and glorious sport contested by heroes.”

Many in the boxing community felt Lorraine Chargin should have been inducted simultaneously with husband Don in 2001 because they were such a symbiotic unit – Don was the visionary who saw the big picture, while Lorraine handled the details. Before she died in 2010, she told Don that, while she didn’t think she’d ever be inducted, she wanted, if elected, to have promoter J Russell Peltz (a 2004 honoree who had known Lorraine since 1977) to deliver the induction speech. That he did, and he did so masterfully.

“I don’t know if it was love at first sight when she was looking at him,” Peltz said after describing how they met – Don bloodied and lumped up by an angry mob chasing him, when a closed-circuit viewing of a 1957 NFL playoff game went wrong, when, by chance, he ran into the restaurant where Lorraine was employed as a banquet manager – “but from that day on, they were inseparable – one of the great love stories of all time. Imagine 24/7 for more than 52 years, forming one of the great one-two promotional teams in the history of boxing. They were more efficient than some promotional groups today that have 20 or 25 employees. Sure, Don made the matches but that’s what he did. Lorraine did everything else: She rented the arenas; she hired the security, the ushers, the ticket takers, the ticket sellers. She took care of the liability insurance, the hotel accommodations, the travel arrangements, the food vouchers, the publicity, the posters, the flyers…She did it all.”

Her thoroughness was only exceeded by her toughness, an asset that Peltz vividly illustrated in several ways.

“It’s funny: When a man is tough in business, he’s known as a tough businessman. When a woman is tough in business, she’s known as a nasty bitch.” he said. “Or sometimes they are known as ‘The Dragon Lady,’ which Aileen Eaton (the only other woman enshrined in Canastota) eventually passed down to Lorraine.”

Then there was Lorraine’s famous confrontation with Don King, at a 1995 show at the Arco Arena, topped by Lennox Lewis-Lionel Butler.

“I was sitting with Don (Chargin) and Lorraine was at the back door checking in the fighters and the people who needed credentials and Don King came in,” Peltz recalled. “He was representing Lionel Butler and Don (King) came in with an entourage. And you just didn’t do this with Lorraine Chargin. She said, ‘I can let you in, Don, and somebody with you, but the rest of the people will have to get tickets.’ Well, words were exchanged and the entourage left and somehow Don King got in. And I’m sitting with Don Chargin and you see Don King coming out of the chute going over to the press section. Right behind him, breathing fire, is Lorraine Chargin. So Don’s got his back to her and she goes up to Don, taps him on the back, Don turns around – and Don can be an intimidating person – but Lorraine Chargin was no shrinking violet. And they went at it.

“The head of security comes over to Don Chargin, who’s intently watching the fights, and is told, ‘There’s a problem at ringside. I think you should go over there; Lorraine and Don King are getting into an argument,” Peltz continued. “Don kept looking right at the fights and said, ‘No, it’s OK,’ and the head of security says, ‘Don, aren’t you worried about Lorraine?’ And Don turned, looked at the head of security, and said, ‘No, I’m worried about King.’” At this point, I looked at King, who was seated about 15 feet away, and he was smiling like everyone else.

Peltz called the Chargins his best friends in boxing because “their word was better than anybody’s signature, especially today, when the negotiations don’t start until after the contracts are signed.” In a business in which honor and integrity are at a premium, the Chargins, because they had it in abundance, inspired the deepest of loyalty, a quality that Peltz demonstrated to Lorraine in exceptional fashion.

For a generation of boxing fans, Steve Albert was the voice of “Showtime Championship Boxing,” thanks to the approximately 300 title fights he called in his 200-telecast career. Given that brothers Al (“USA Tuesday Night Fights”) and Marv (NBC’s “SportsWorld” series) also covered boxing, Steve started his speech by asking, “Are you sure you’ve got the right Albert?” IBHOF President Don Ackerman responded, “We’re sure,” and the electors that checked his name on their ballots – of whom I am one – were sure as well (in fact, Albert was elected on his second time through the voting process, and I voted for him both times).

“Simply put, all I ever wanted to be was a sportscaster,” he said. “There was no Plan B, and I got to do it for nearly five decades. I’ve never taken for granted how fortunate I was; I grew up in a broadcasting family, three brothers who had the same dream. Why? I really don’t know; it just felt natural.”

Incredibly, Albert’s first boxing broadcast on TV was the second fight he ever saw live. The first, Joe Frazier’s 11th round stoppage of Buster Mathis Sr., on March 4, 1968, at Madison Square Garden, was memorable for a different reason: During the night of the bout, Steve’s grandfather was ill enough for his father Max to call home to check on him. When Max returned, he matter-of-factly informed Steve that his grandfather – and Max’s own father – had just passed away. When Steve said they should go home, his father replied that they won’t do so until after Frazier-Mathis.

“That’s when I first discovered the true power of boxing,” Albert concluded.

The next story he told tied into the previous one: In April 2000, Albert was in China to call Andrew Golota-Marcus Rhode. When Albert checked into the hotel, he was told by the local boxing promoter that Max had just died.

“The first thing that went through my mind was that night he took me to my first fight, when his father passed away. The parallel was surreal.”

During Albert’s formative years, he recalled watching “The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,” in which ring announcer Johnny Addie would introduce the fighters and Don Dunphy called the action.

“I never met Johnny but what a thrill to be inducted into the same class,” Albert said. “Then I’d be mesmerized by the voice of blow-by-blow announcer Don Dunphy. I didn’t just want to be like Don Dunphy; I wanted to be Don Dunphy. I wanted to sound just like him. I wanted to describe the action just like him. At the time, the notion of eventually doing what he was doing seemed as unrealistic as my landing on Mars. What seemed even more impossible was that my father was sitting next to this shy, skinny little kid with a pipsqueak voice, who would someday be alongside Don Dunphy in the Hall of Fame. I hope my father is looking down right now with a big smile on his face saying, ‘I’m proud of you, kid.’”

 

Steve Albert, Jim Gray and Mike Tyson. Image courtesy of IBHOF on Twitter

(From left to right) Steve Albert, Jim Gray and Mike Tyson. Image courtesy of IBHOF on Twitter

 

Jim Gray’s segment of the program was as memorable as any in the Hall’s nearly three-decade history because of the person who was moved enough by his friend’s big day to deliver a heartfelt, off-the-cuff testimonial: Mike Tyson.

“Hi, my name is Mike Tyson and I am here to talk on behalf of my friend Jim Gray,” he said in a quiet, respectful voice that occasionally cracked with emotion. “I’ve known him for more than 20 years, and he’s always been honest. He was a straight-shooter with me, even when I was wrong – and I was wrong most of the time. The award he is receiving is way, way overdue, and what I really would have liked to see happen was his father being able to see this day. He would have been very proud…and I’m very proud of you.”

A clearly moved Gray certainly grasped the irony of the situation.

“Mike and I have a long history together,” he said. “It’s somewhat ironic that the man who threatened to kill me in public is now inducting me into the Hall of Fame. That’s only half the story: Forty-five seconds later, he kissed me on my cheek, and, 25 years later, I’m still trying to figure out what’s more disturbing. You know, I never once contemplated in my life that I’d be standing in the ring next to somebody who bit another man’s ear and that that same man would become one of my very close and dear friends. That he would, in so many ways, make me famous, so much so that when I interviewed President George W. Bush in the White House, the first thing he asked was, ‘What’s it like to be around Mike Tyson?’ When I told him it’s wonderful, it brought a big smile to the president’s face.”

Gray forwarded a powerful justification by Bob Costas for the inclusion of observers, writers, broadcasters and artists in Halls of Fame, saying the great accomplishments of athletes are, in part, forever enhanced and celebrated by how they were captured.

“We all know that Muhammad Ali was a great boxer, and an incredible, towering global figure, but we got to know him better and had a much keener insight to him because of all the interviews that he did with Howard Cosell,” Gray said. “The incredible calls of Cosell, Don Dunphy, Barry Tompkins and Steve Albert become the indelible images and sounds that leave the lasting impressions that allow us never to forget these great champions. For a fighter to be painted on a canvas by LeRoy Neiman, written about by Bert Sugar, to have forever been captured through the lens so brilliantly by Neil Leifer, these moments, these interviews, this artistry lives forever and will always be reflected on by the fans who love the sport.”

Unlike the other honorees, Ronald “Winky” Wright chose to speak mostly off the cuff, and he jokingly resented his being placed after Gray’s eloquent address.

“They always put me behind the writers and commentators; they have the best speeches,” he said. “I didn’t write a speech because I wanted to come out here and give this speech straight from the heart. I never wanted to be a professional boxer. I loved boxing and I always wanted to fight but I never wanted to be a boxer because I didn’t think I could do it. A champion, Mark Breland, came down to Florida for a training camp and he came to my gym. When I saw how everybody respected him and gave him so much love, I was like, ‘Man, I think I can do this.’ I was 17 at the time, so I thought I knew everything and stepped in there with him and had my fun and he said, ‘Look, if you really put some effort into this, you could be a good boxer and make some money at this.’ And look at me now.”

Look at him now, indeed. For years Wright had been avoided by the best but when it came time for the Hall of Fame voters to judge his career for the first time, a second vote wasn’t necessary.

How popular and powerful is Erik Morales, both as a fighter and as a legend? His interpreter, summoned from the audience, was WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman. But while Morales’ story had plenty of crescendos, his beginnings were more than humbling.

“My first amateur bout was only one minute long,” Morales said through Sulaiman. “I was bleeding from the nose, so the referee stopped it. I was six years old; I lost the fight. I went to a corner and I could not stop crying. My professional debut wasn’t a major card with television; I was the opening bout and they made me warm up but they said, ‘No, hold on a second.’ The card began and they told me to warm up once again, and once again, and once again. The main event went on, and when that was over, they just told me to ‘Take off your gloves; you’re not fighting tonight.’

“But I kept dreaming,” he continued. “I knew I wanted something: I wanted to be a great fighter; I wanted to be a great champion and I knew I was going to get there. As time went by, I made it through. I really had to work very hard and sacrifice to make 122 (pounds), to make 126, to make 130 – I believe I won at 135, the decision didn’t go my way – and then I won the 140-pound title. I have moved on from boxing – inspired by Vitali Klitschko (the current mayor of Kiev, Ukraine) – I’m in politics because I want to change the lives of many, as mine has been changed.”

After adjusting the microphone to accommodate his 6-foot-7 height, Vitali Klitschko put the surreal nature that comes with a Hall of Fame Induction speech into words.

“It’s a fairy tale. It’s not reality. It’s a dream. I never expected that I would be elected to the Hall of Fame,” he said. “Professional boxing was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Everybody listened to Muhammad Ali’s name but nobody saw his fights. We had a dream to travel outside of the country but I never expected that, one day, I would become world champion – in the United States.”

As Morales was determined to improve on his humiliating first encounter with boxing, Klitschko was determined to prove skeptics wrong.

“One day when I was 14 years old, a boxing coach came to our class and asked, ‘Boys, who wants to be a boxer?’ Of course, everyone raised their hands. The coach looked at me, being tall and skinny, and said, ‘You know what? This (body) is not good for boxing; you’d better go for swimming.’ It was painful to listen to that: Everybody’s good for boxing and I’m not.

 

Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko and WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder. Photo courtesy of IBHOF on Twitter

(From left to right) Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko and WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder. Photo courtesy of IBHOF on Twitter

 

“First competition, I lost,” he continued. “I was upset but I wanted to show that, like my friends, I can be a boxer. Perestroika came, and the Iron Curtain slowly came down. We actually have a chance to see broadcasting from the west. The fight we saw was Mike Tyson and Trevor Berbick. We were so impressed by Mike Tyson. It was the first time I ever saw a professional fight, and Mike knocked out Berbick to win the title. I was so impressed, as he held the world title belt over his head. There were so many emotions that I turned to my friends and said, ‘You know what? I am boxer also, and, one day, I will be world champion and I will beat Mike Tyson.’”

As the audience laughed, Klitschko said, “Exactly the same (reaction). ‘Who? You want to beat Mike Tyson? You are so skinny.’ They started kidding me, and it was so painful to listen to that. But they don’t know that I have a good memory! Eighteen years later, I remembered everyone who was kidding me, and I invited them to a restaurant. I reached into a bag I had with me and took out the same green belt Mike Tyson held up 18 years earlier. It was his belt then; it was my belt now.”

While his older brother was speaking, Wladimir Klitschko tapped Morales on the shoulder and asked to see his Hall of Fame ring as well as his certificate. Perhaps he was getting a preview of what will be given to him just before he delivers his own induction speech in 2023. He certainly will have my vote.

Thanks to Jeff Brophy, I was allowed access inside the Hall of Fame building, following the ceremony. I saw Wladimir Klitschko taking selfies and making mini-videos, while the inductees posed for photos beside their respective plaques, as well as for group shots. Parade marshal Fitzgerald chatted with other lucky people, and I had the chance to congratulate some of the newly minted Hall-of-Famers. I knew Jim Gray from our Showtime Championship Boxing shows and I had the chance to congratulate him and tell him that, “For the rest of your life, you will be introduced as a Hall of-Famer.”

I was one of the last to leave the museum building because I wanted the event to last as long as possible. However because of the long drive ahead, and because I needed to get work done, once I arrived in Erie, I headed toward Interstate 90 West at 6 p.m., bringing a close to my 26th Induction Weekend experience.

For me, every year boasts a pleasing fusion of familiarity and freshness. While I see many recognizable faces – faces I only see in Canastota – the main cast of characters changes and, with it, a new set of circumstances. This year was particularly gratifying, given the great rollout of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” and it will take a lot to top that experience. All we can do is try our best.

As is the case every time I take the I-90 West ramp, I feel a tinge of sadness because another IBHOF Weekend has come to an end but, in the next instant, I feel a tiny surge of hope that I will be privileged enough to be able to attend the next one.

As busy as these last six days have been, the next two weeks will be just as industrious. Next Friday morning, I will head to Frisco, Texas, to work a Showtime Championship Boxing card topped by Errol Spence Jr.’s IBF welterweight title defense against mandatory challenger Carlos Ocampo, while, the following Thursday, I will trek to Detroit to run the numbers on a “ShoBox” card featuring female title fights involving IBF/WBC super middleweight titlist Claressa Shields and WBC/WBO beltholder Christina Hammer.

Until then, happy trails!

 

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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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