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The Travelin’ Man goes to Induction Weekend 2019: Part One

The International Boxing Hall of Fame, Canastota, New York. Photo: Alex Menendez/Getty Images
10
Jun

Thursday, June 6: One of the many truisms in life is that greatness begins with a spark of inspiration. For Canastota native Ed Brophy, that spark was ignited in the mid-1980s when he and a group of local enthusiasts gathered to find a way to honor world champions (and Canastota natives) Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus. Following years of fund-raising and organizing, the International Boxing Hall of Fame became reality and, beginning in 1989, staged ceremonies to honor those who have been elected for induction.

Since then, 305 people have been enshrined in the Modern (136), Old Timers (127) and Pioneer (42) categories while 144 more have been honored as Non-Participants (102) and Observers (42) – including the Class of 2019 that consists of Donald Curry, James “Buddy” McGirt and Julian Jackson (Modern), Tony DeMarco (Old Timer); Don Elbaum, Guy Jutras and Lee Samuels (Non-Participant); Mario Rivera Martino and Teddy Atlas (Observer). But while the primary purpose of the IBHOF has been to honor excellence, the annual Induction Weekend has become much more than a vehicle to celebrate that excellence. For those fortunate enough to have experienced their own inductions, for those loved ones who got to enjoy the experience with them and for the tens of thousands of boxing fans who were touched by the unique magic that this annual four-day celebration produces, the most meaningful byproduct can be encapsulated by a single word: Memories.

With this being the 30th anniversary year, one can only imagine the staggering number of memories that have been created. Having attended every event since 1993, mine number in the hundreds, if not the thousands, and some of them have been chronicled in the Travelin’ Man series. But to get an idea of the actual figure, one must take that number and multiply it by the number of individuals who have attended the festivities over the past three decades. It is safe to say that billions – if not trillions – of individual memories have been produced through the years and each one of them is unique and meaningful.

One of the event’s most faithful attendees is 62-year-old David Baum, a dental technician who used his expertise to conduct the fist castings for nearly a decade and who has attended every Induction Weekend since 1991. While he has thousands of recollections stored away, the most powerful involved a member of his family.

“We were over at the high school for the card show that first year,” Baum said. “My daughter was five years old, at the time, while my younger son was just a baby. Neither they nor my wife had any interest in the card show but I still had my wife stand in line to get Alexis Arguello’s autograph.

“‘Who is he?’ my wife asked. ‘What if he asks me a question and I don’t know it?’ I told her, ‘He won’t ask any questions.’ Soon she had enough of standing in lines, so we decided to go back to the Hall. Before we did, we spotted Emile Griffith, who, in his own personable way, began playing with my daughter in the hallway at the high school. Somebody then told Emile, ‘We gotta go,’ and Emile said, ‘No, I’m having fun and so is she and I’m not going anywhere.’ He spent about 45 minutes playing little games with her…That was just the kind of guy he was. That’s one of my favorite memories and she remembers that time even though she’s 33 now. She didn’t realize who he was at the time but now she does and it’s very interesting that she remembers after all these years – a playful time in the hallway at the school with no one around them.

“What I couldn’t believe was that this was a guy I saw fight Nino Benvenuti on ‘ABC’s Wide World of Sports’ and now he’s standing right in front of me, playing with my daughter. I couldn’t believe it. It’s the informality of the place; the IBHOF is all the things that the other Halls of Fame are not, in terms of accessibility to the stars and the conversations between fans and fighters. This place brought us together and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Buffalo native Kevin Young started attending the festivities in 1997 and hasn’t missed since. He shared a pair of stories that perfectly encapsulate the nature of Hall of Fame Weekend:

“We showed up for our first year and we are standing inside the Boxing Hall of Fame itself watching a small TV playing a tape of Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s greatest knockouts,” Young said. “Over my right shoulder, I heard somebody say, ‘Watch this, I’m gonna get him here.’ And as I turned to look, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, my childhood hero, was standing just to my right. I shook his hand because I didn’t know you could bring things to autograph or take pictures or anything but the handshake meant the world to me. I’ve been hooked on the magic of the Boxing Hall of Fame ever since.

“Last year we were sitting outside the Days Inn having a cigar with James Toney and Michael Spinks came and sat with us,” he continued. (Young’s friend) “Brian said to Michael, ‘I have to tell you something: You got me bullied as a child because you made me cry.’ Michael asks, ‘How did I do that?’ Brian replied, ‘Growing up, my hero was Larry Holmes,’ to which Michael, knowing he defeated Holmes twice by decision, responded, ‘Well, that’ll do it.’ Then Michael gave him the most perfect answer. Michael said, ‘I had to get him back for Leon. A Russian beat me before and Leon got him back for me at the 1976 Olympics, so I had to do the same for Leon. Nobody can beat us both.’ Hearing that, Brian said, ‘Now I hate you even more because you’re so damn likeable, I can’t hate you.’“

Another longtime attendee is Winnipeg native Eric Schmidt, whose first visit occurred in 2002.

“The first time I came, I didn’t know anything about the Hall of Fame but I knew I wanted to go there,” Schmidt said. “The first thing I did when I arrived was go inside the McDonald’s across the street. The first person I saw was Matthew Saad Muhammad, who was wearing a blue track suit. I walked up to him and asked, ‘Matthew Saad Muhammad?’ His face broke into a bright smile and he said, ‘Yes,’ when I asked if I could join him. We sat and talked for a good half-hour about his life and the thrilling fights he was in and I thought, ‘Wow, how down-to-Earth he is, how easy he is to talk to,’ and I was hooked. I met him other times through the years and we became friends. Imagine, my greatest memory happened within my first hour here and all I did was walk into a McDonald’s.”

The first time Ottawa native Bill Johnston visited the Hall was in 2000 and, as he surveyed the scene he didn’t know exactly where to go first.

“I had seen many pictures of the Hall of Fame grounds but actually being on them, for me, was like being a kid in a candy store,” Johnston said. “The first person I ran into, within the first five minutes, was Ruben Olivares. What absolutely amazed me was the access and the availability of the fighters. It was great; Ruben was just walking around and I said, ‘Hey Ruben!’ and he gave me a thumbs-up. I took a picture with him and he had a picture taken with me. I was a paparazzi and an autograph hound at first but the second year, I started concentrating on pictures only.

“My best memory was when I finally got to meet, talk with and have a picture taken with Alexis Arguello,” he continued. “He was giving a Ring Talk and while it had to be 100 degrees in the shade, he still had a long-sleeve purple shirt and a blazer with a Texaco emblem. I waited in line and got both my autograph and photo. To me, it made the whole weekend. I got many others over the years – Emile Griffith, Ken Buchanan, Jimmy Ellis – the whole experience for me was a surreal one but a pleasant surreal one.”

Pemberton, New Jersey, native Bobby Morris – who looks far younger than his age of 67 – has attended every Induction Weekend but the very first and an artifact from a person who did attend persuaded him to take the plunge the following year.

“A co-worker of mine saw a story about the Hall of Fame on the Internet, so he drove up six hours (to attend the first induction) and, knowing I was a boxing fan, told me all about it and also brought me a hat with the signatures of the fighters who were there that year (1989). He ended up moving to Hawaii and I kept on coming,” Morris said. “What brings me back are the fans. Each year, most of the fighters change but the fans stay the same and it’s a thrill because we are friends. Even if there’s no fighters around, we still have a good time. The time is short – only four days – and while we go back to our regular lives, we still stay in touch.”

While most fans derive the most pleasure from meeting the fighters, Morris prefers referees such as Tony Weeks and Kenny Bayless.

“It’s a thrill for me every time I see the referees and they remember me as much as I remember them,” he said. “I see them (on TV) at every major fight and to know that I interact with these guys, like they’re my friends, is really something. They invited me out to Vegas but I don’t like to use their friendship in that way. To me, it’s just friendship and I enjoy it.”

But there is one fighter who Moore particularly enjoys – former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks.

“It’s a pleasure to walk into Graziano’s and see guys like Leon, who calls me a name that you can’t print here,” he said. “Here’s a clue – ‘M.F.’ – but he does it with a laugh.”

Professional photographer and Millersville, Maryland, native Mike Greenhill, 60, recalled a hilarious moment during the 1999 induction ceremony.

“When Khaosai Galaxy was being inducted, he was up on stage but his Thai interpreter was late,” he said. “(IBHOF President and emcee) Don Ackerman asked if there was anyone who could interpret for Galaxy and Lou Duva immediately raised his hand. The whole place cracked up.

“Another time happened when (writer) Michael Katz was inducted in 2012,” he said. “Katz said that when he found out he was inducted, he thought it was a terrible decision. He then turned to Marvelous Marvin Hagler and asked, ‘Was that the most terrible decision you’ve even seen or have you heard of a worse one?’ Everyone laughed because he was obviously referring to the (Sugar Ray) Leonard decision.

“But one of the great moments for me was when Arturo Gatti’s daughter stepped up to the microphone and said, ‘Thanks for inducting my daddy.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Seeing the same people every year is like a second family in that you don’t have to explain why you’re here or why you like the sport. I also like how nice the volunteers are as well as the people who work at the Hall. It’s a great atmosphere.”

For writer/podcaster Anthony George, a native of the Bronx, whose first appearance was in 2014, the first great memory involved 2004 inductee Dwight Muhammad Qawi.

“I met Qawi at the card show and he was the first fighter to speak back to me,” George recalled. “He asked me, ‘What are some of my best fights, in your opinion?’ I was taken aback but told him, ‘Well, first, your first fight with (Evander) Holyfield was one of the best fights I saw and I thought you did enough to win.’ He replied with a very sincere and heartfelt ‘Thank you.’ Then I also told him I loved his fight with Eddie Davis. Now he was taken aback and said, ‘Eddie Davis? You remember that fight?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ He then said, ‘I had a hard time getting to that cat,’ motioning with his fists, as he was speaking. I said, ‘Yeah, you did. That is why it was one of my favorite fights of yours.’ By now, I had to move on as I was holding up the line but it was a great moment.”

For Bob Rowe of Guilderland, New York – a suburb located west of Albany – he learned of the IBHOF through a customer at his place of employment.

“I was working on the night crew at Hannaford (a grocery chain based in Portland, Maine) and one time someone said, ‘You like boxing, right? You ever heard about the Boxing Hall of Fame?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘but I’ll check it out.’ This was in 1993, the year that Marvelous Marvin Hagler was inducted and my first memory is of seeing him being interviewed. When I saw him, I thought, ‘Wow! It’s Marvin Hagler!’ Just to see him was like a dream and, back then, it was a lot more laid back and you could mingle with the fighters a lot easier. But a very strong memory took place in 1996 when the Turning Stone was showing the first fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez. The casino only let so many people in but when the security people saw that I was wearing a Hall of Fame jacket and hat, they thought I was with the Hall and they let me sit with the fighters. We were shooting the breeze and they were signing autographs and posing for photos. That was a moment that made me feel special.”

Chicagoan Don Koss, who retired as the professor emeritus of library and information science at the City College of Chicago and has been a member of the IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization) since the mid-1990s, has attended every Induction Weekend since 2004. For him, the shirt he was wearing was the catalyst for his memory.

“I was in Graziano’s,” Koss began. “Somebody taps me on the shoulder and asks, ‘Excuse me; may I take a photograph of your shirt?’ The shirt was of the Nikolay Valuev-Monte Barrett heavyweight title fight and this person sent a photo of the shirt to Barrett. It turned out that this person was two-division champion Zab Judah and we spent the next couple of hours chatting. Until then, I had thought of Judah as a punk but he’s actually a really wonderful, nice, polite kid. The ‘punk’ stuff was just an act.

“For me, Induction Weekend is an immersion with boxing and you can run into people who have historical knowledge,” Koss continued. “I like that more than anything. My all-time heavyweight is Elmer ‘Violent’ Ray but my all-time favorite boxer is Sugar Boy Nando because, to me, he was the boxing Everyman. The fact he had a career spanning four decades drew me to him, as well as the fact that he was once the middleweight champion of Aruba. He was a ranked fighter at two different stages of his career but he never advanced beyond that because, while I saw him as a more talented and skilled version of Joey Giardello, he would run into people like Mauro Mina. He would give guys like Mina a good fight but end up losing to them.”

White Plains, New York, native Frederick Romano, author of “The Boxing Filmography: American Features 1920-2003” and “The Golden Age of Boxing on Radio and Television: A Blow by Blow History – 1921-1964,” has been attending every year since 1996 and his strongest memory was one that tugged at the heartstrings.

“It was the year that Sandy Saddler was inducted,” Romano recalled. “He was here with his daughter and, by this point, he was already pretty far along with his dementia. There was a crowd of people around him and when I got up to him and gave him my program, it was clear that his daughter was assisting him because he didn’t really remember his own name anymore. He took the pen and began what would become a long and swirling ‘S’ that looked like a race track. That ‘S’ was the entire signature but, because this appearance was like his ‘coming to say goodbye to the fans’ year, this was a profound and poignant moment. I have around 1,400 autographs in my collection but, because of the circumstances, it is one of my most cherished.”

As for me, there are too many stories to recount but here is my first: Soon after arriving on the grounds in 1993, I spotted a short single-file line of fans awaiting a signature from Alexis Arguello, who, along with Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran, was among my strongest childhood heroes. Like Rowe, seeing Arguello in three dimensions was somewhat surreal for me and, as I watched him sign for the others, I noticed he took the time to engage in brief conversation. He did the same for me as he signed my IBHOF program (a program I still have) and I walked away with a feeling of satisfaction, not only because of the autograph I had just received but also because he was the same classy, engaging person I had seen on TV, especially during the post-fight interview following the Ray Mancini victory in 1981.

Many years later, I interviewed Arguello as part of my Travelin’ Man series. Our time was brief because he had just finished a previously scheduled interview; the day was hot and muggy and Arguello was tired. However he was kind enough to grant me a few minutes. We discussed what the Hall of Fame meant to him and his answer was philosophically cryptic. Then, not long thereafter, he was gone and far too soon. His passing hit me harder than some because of what he meant to me as a young boxing fan – the epitome of class inside the ring and out as well as a symbol of athletic excellence. In my first boxing chat room, I chose the pseudonym “Arguello” in tribute to him and tried to conduct myself in a way that upheld the name and reputation. Now nearly two decades later, I still try to uphold that standard. That is just one of the many memories produced by my time at the IBHOF Induction Weekend and now it was time for me to make some more.

 

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As has been the case for many years, my journey began on Tuesday with my drive from Friendly, West Virginia, to Erie, Pennsylvania, a trip that took nearly five hours to complete (a half-hour longer than usual) because of a considerable bottleneck on Interstate 79 North, due to road construction. It was a good day to drive, a high in the mid-70s and a sun-drenched landscape. The overnight stay was uneventful, as was the drive to Syracuse the following morning.

I did make a major change, in terms of my hotel in Syracuse. The reason: I usually make my reservations in January and when I called the phone number of the hotel where I usually stayed, the person answered as if I were calling his personal phone. “Maybe I misdialed,” I thought, so I made sure I was calling the correct number (I was) before trying again. Same thing. The unprofessional nature of the call prompted me to contact other hotels in the general area and the hotel I picked represented a considerable upgrade in all respects.

As I approached the hotel early Wednesday afternoon, I received a possible explanation as to why my January phone call with the other hotel went as it did: The building was still there but it appeared as if it was no longer in operation. Too bad; I had stayed at that hotel for the better part of 20 consecutive years and it had become a reliable, if modest, base of operation. Now, however, I had a new base and although the property was undergoing renovations, the difference in quality was beyond debate.

Not long after checking in, I drove to the Hall of Fame to engage in my traditional “calm before the storm” visit. I purchased a couple of IBHOF t-shirts from the gift shop, talked Andy Ruiz vs. Anthony Joshua with Jeff Brophy, ate dinner with emcee James “Smitty” Smith (whose versatility, knowledge and achievements merit a plaque in Canastota) and spent quality time at the Days Inn located across the street from the Hall. Once back at the hotel, I bought a light snack from the lobby’s mini-mart and caught up on all the news and sports I had missed. Unusually, and for the second straight night, I turned out the lights shortly after midnight, about two hours earlier than is the case when I’m home.

 

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At last, the first day of the 2019 IBHOF Induction Weekend was here and I couldn’t wait to get started. Although the first official event wasn’t until 1 p.m., I customarily drove to the Hall well before that, not only to get a good parking space, but also to get a jump on the boxing-oriented conversation I so crave.

Just as I turned off Exit 34 on the New York State Thruway, a goose walked in front of my car. I slowed down and let the creature pass by and, as I did so, I thought, “I know it’s bad luck for a black cat to cross one’s path but what about a black-and-gray goose?”

If this day was any indicator, a goose crossing the road means good fortune, for this entire day lived up to expectations. I spent the majority of the next seven hours on the grounds chatting with my fellow fans and taking in the Ringside Lectures emceed by James “Smitty” Smith and delivered by Antonio Tarver, Jorge Arce, Julian Jackson and Don Elbaum.

It had been a few years since I worked several NBCSN shows with Tarver, so I was happy when he recognized me when I took the microphone.

“This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask you: You asked probably the most famous pre-fight instructions question of all time to Roy Jones – ‘You have any excuses tonight, Roy?’ Was that a spur-of-the-moment thing or was it premeditated?”

“It was premeditated but I didn’t know if I was going to do it until I did it,” he replied. “I was thinking ‘What if? What if?’ But I was locked in; I was so focused and the training camp was perfect. I told everybody, leading up to that fight, what was going to happen. I told everyone I was going to knock him out because I felt like there had been a tremendous injustice done (in our first fight, which Tarver lost on points) and I straightened out that decision in the second fight.”

The question I asked Arce was how he was able to successfully handle being a world champion at such a young age (at 19 years 136 days, Arce was the 10th youngest champion in boxing history – as well as the youngest ever from Mexico – when he dethroned WBO junior flyweight titlist Juan Domingo Cordoba in December 1998), while others could not. He responded thusly through interpreter Jorge Haack: “I just never deviated from the promise I made to my father, that I would become a world champion. I never did drugs or anything like that. I have a book out now called ‘The One Promise That Changed My Life,’ which is available on Amazon in Spanish but will be released in English.”

Not long after 5 p.m., I received a text from former BWAA President (and current Boxing News writer) Jack Hirsch, who was attending the weigh-in of the fighters who would compete at the Turning Stone Casino the following night. He asked me to meet him in the lobby of the Fairfield Inn across the street from the Turning Stone at 6:30 p.m. Me being me, I arrived at the hotel at 6 and spent the time polishing my copy. We were soon joined by another veteran writer in J.R. Jowett and by longtime fan Neil Terens.

A couple of years earlier, this group, along with the late great Jack Obermayer, invited me into their mini-fraternity, a group that expresses its solidarity by bestowing nicknames that either honor fighters from the past or recognize certain characteristics about the recipient. Hirsch’s nickname is “Mantequilla” while Jowett’s is “Jowett Boy” and Terens’ is “Mustafa.” Mine is “Hit Man,” an obvious reference to my job at CompuBox.

This year, we decided to have dinner at the Recovery Sports Bar and Grill located across the way from the Fairfield. Just before we left for the sports bar, Hirsch referenced Claressa Shields’ challenge to Gennady Golovkin shortly after she became the undisputed women’s middleweight champion by suggesting an alternative opponent: Adrien Broner. He said that the trash talk would be off the charts and, given Broner’s record in big fights recently, she has a chance of winning.

For the next three hours, “Mantequilla,” “Jowett Boy,” “Mustafa” and “the Hit Man” swapped stories and opinions that included long-forgotten names – one of the joys of such dinners for me. After dinner, I drove to Graziano’s and spent another hour there. While I had been struck by the larger-than-usual Thursday crowd on the grounds, the gathering at “Grazzie’s” was markedly thinner than in previous years. Still, the conversations were excellent and two of my conversation partners included veteran cornerman Richard Schwartz and Manchester, England’s Andrew “Boom Boom” Booth.

Knowing I needed to conduct some research, as well as clean up the day’s copy, I cut my visit short, drove back to the hotel, tended to my responsibilities and turned out the light shortly before 3 a.m. It was a long and fruitful day but with one day down at the IBHOF’s 30th annual Induction Weekend, I knew the fun was just getting started.

 

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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 newly released book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.

 

 

 

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