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IBHOF weekend 2020: What would have been, and what may be again

The International Boxing Hall of Fame, Canastota, New York. Photo: Alex Menendez/Getty Images
11
Jun

If this had been a normal year, today would have marked the start of this year’s International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in Canastota, N.Y. As would have been the case in recent years, my journey would have begun on Tuesday when I would have driven from Friendly, W.Va. to my usual midway stop in Erie, Pa. After staying overnight and spending my evening writing the first installment of what would have been a three-part “Travelin’ Man” article, I would have departed early Wednesday morning to complete the second half of my inbound journey.

Had I left on Tuesday as planned, I would have been greeted with brilliant sunshine. Had I opted to depart in the morning, the temperature would have been in the low 70s while it would have been in the upper 80s had I left in the early afternoon. Either way, it would have been a beautiful day to take a long drive.

While some would have chafed at the idea of a multi-hour drive – much less the two I take on consecutive days in order to get to Canastota – I relish them, especially because of the final destination and what would have awaited me there. Because my route includes long stretches of interstate driving, my mind is freed enough to engage in creative thinking, and that thinking has resulted in some of my better ideas. Not only would I have been taking in my surroundings, I would have been listening to a variety of Sirius XM stations, CDs of “my road music,” or sampling the local AM radio fare.

Along with my week’s worth of clothes, I would have brought copies of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” and “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (I co-wrote the latter with CompuBox president Bob Canobbio) in the hopes of selling a few autographed copies. Given the makeup of this year’s class – Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez and Shane Mosley in the male Modern class; Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker in the inaugural female Modern category; Barbara Buttrick as the first female “Trailblazer” honoree; Non-Participants Lou DiBella, Kathy Duva and Dan Goossen;  and Observers Bernard Fernandez and Thomas Hauser – I’m sure there would have been a larger-than-average turnout that would have included a few first-time visitors, and hopefully a few of them would have been willing to buy what I would have been selling.



During these twin drives, I would have paid silent tribute to those honorees who were unable to celebrate their day in the Canastota sun in person – Goossen, Pioneer Paddy Ryan and “Early Era” Old-Timer Frank Erne. I also would have thought about my father, who died following a brief battle with liver cancer on the Wednesday of 2017’s induction week. I also would have looked forward to congratulating those healthy enough to experience the full “Hall of Fame Weekend Treatment.”

Thanks to the fact that I have attended every IBHOF Induction weekend since 1993 – and thanks to my jobs with Ring Magazine, RingTV.com and CompuBox – I have had the pleasure of meeting virtually every one of this year’s celebrants, a fact that would have further heightened my enjoyment of this year’s event.

Hopkins was 35 years old and 13 years into his career before he scored his first truly significant victory vs. Felix Trinidad. Photo credit: Al Bello/Getty Images

Of the three male Moderns, I have interacted with Hopkins most often, and all of my encounters with him have been positive. My first took place during a past IBHOF weekend when he was still middleweight champion; he was standing in front of the Days Inn, in a light drizzle, interacting with everyone who sought his signature and practicing the patience that would define his later career. Because I was between incarnations as a boxing writer – it would be several years before I would re-enter the fray through MaxBoxing.com – I was one of the many fans for whom he signed. Many years later, I was in Philadelphia awaiting the start of a boxing card and was catching up with another future Class of 2020 inductee, fellow scribe Bernard Fernandez, when Hopkins joined the conversation. While Hopkins is justifiably proud of his achievements – especially those earned in his late-40s – he loved the fact that he was the youngest man in this conversational trio, for I was just six weeks older than “The Executioner.”

“Whenever we get together,” he said of being with Fernandez, more than 17 years his elder, “he is ‘older Bernard’ and I am ‘younger Bernard.'” Who would have guessed that these two Bernards will eventually be seated on the same stage to commemorate their mutual fistic immortality? What a sight that would have been , but because this is not a normal year, that sight won’t take place this Sunday.

As for Mosley, my memories are more peripheral. One year, I was one of a small group of people who watched a prime “Sugar Shane” pound a heavy bag that was set up on the museum grounds. The lightweight champion who would go on to defeat Oscar De La Hoya for belts at 147 and 154 struck the bag with such lightning speed and breathtaking force that I thought, “Thank God I grew out of the 135-pound weight class during high school.” The vast majority of my time that year was spent with father/trainer Jack, who I met, by chance, at the Saturday golf tournament. We spent hours getting to know one another, and by evening we were very friendly. Later, at Graziano’s, Jack introduced me to Shane, who flashed his trademark smile. We weren’t able to talk further because he was besieged with people seeking his autograph, and because I had my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing” with me, I was able to add Shane’s signature to the dozens that already adorned the back of the front cover.

Speaking of Mullan’s book, I was seldom seen without my copy either tucked under my arm, or, in later years, inside the laptop bag I took with me everywhere I went. But the book I carried between 1995 and 2017 incurred such wear and tear that the front cover was nearly torn off. That’s the reason why I hadn’t brought it with me the last few years, but the good news is that it has been fully restored thanks to middle school art teacher Heather Royer, the owner of A Stitch in Time Bookbindery in Parkersburg, W.Va. God willing, it will be with me next time, good as new.

My encounter with Marquez was even more brief than my interaction with Mosley. I recall being at a boxing show in which he also was in attendance, and between rounds I asked for, and received, his signature inside “the big book.”

Christy Martin (right) lands a blow on Deidre Gogarty during a bout in Las Vegas, Nevada. Martin won the fight with a decision in the sixth round. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello /Allsport

Of the female honorees, Martin is the one I know best. I first met her (as well as then-husband/trainer/publicist Jim) at a past Induction Weekend and our shared West Virginia roots and our mutual love of boxing created an instant and long-lasting bond. She was one of my father’s favorite boxers regardless of gender, and not just because of her Mountain State association. He loved her aggressiveness, her punching power, her skill and her courage — everything he valued in fighters.

I have long and proudly declared that West Virginia is the only U.S. state to claim a woman as its greatest boxer, and now the legacy of “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” will be immortalized in Canastota.

She will share the stage with rival Rijker (I was with her just long enough at the VIP “Gala” Cocktail to get her autograph for the book) and hopefully with Buttrick, who is now 90. Believe it or not, I met Buttrick during the 2010 Florida Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, the year she was enshrined. We met in the lobby of the hotel where we both were staying  and by the end of our talk I had sold her an autographed copy of “Tales From the Vault.” Although she was 80 at the time, she was a sharp, personable and feisty delight.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Goossen, who died of cancer in September 2014, but he indirectly led to my meeting publicist Rachel Charles, who worked for Goossen-Tutor Promotions at the time. When my CompuBox duties called for me to assemble “training camp notes” for HBO, I would call Rachel to get contact information for the trainers, a task she fulfilled with her typical mix of enthusiasm and professionalism. As for DiBella and Duva, I’m on good terms with both. DiBella is a close friend of CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and I have worked several of his shows over the years while I compiled data for several episodes of Duva’s NBCSN series that ran in the early 2010s. Thanks to my being ringside for their shows I got a small glimpse into why a majority of the voters chose to honor them – they are smart, driven, detail-oriented, hands-on operators who know all the ins and outs of their business, including how to identify stars and to move the fighters they sign.

As for the Observers, I have had limited dealings with Hauser, the most recent of which was linked to the release of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” in 2018. By the end of our conversation, he offered a token of his appreciation — an authenticated bookplate signed by both himself and Muhammad Ali (I asked him to include his own signature to the nameplate Ali had already signed after presenting that option to me). It is now inside “the morgue,” which, in large part, contains printouts of my articles dating back to 1985 as well as autographed photos of various boxers and other memorabilia.

As for Fernandez, who I mentioned earlier in this essay, he is the person in this class with whom I’ve interacted most often. In fact, he and I created our own Induction Day tradition called “The Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit” in which we would dine underneath a shaded table on the museum grounds and shoot the breeze about anything and everything. Most times it was a one-on-one event but as the years went on we would be joined by passers-by who wanted in on the fun. After consuming our meal, we then would take our side-by-side seats under the pavilion on “press row” and continue the conversation until the official induction ceremony began.

CANASTOTA, NY – JUNE 09: The International Boxing Hall of Fame is seen during the Weekend of Champions induction events on June 9, 2018 in Canastota, New York. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

For various reasons, Fernandez and I haven’t been together for a Summit for several years, and while he tells me we’ll have another one down the line, it’ll have to take a different form. First, the Basilio Sausage Sandwich stand has been replaced by food trucks, and second, his tightly packed schedule as an inductee will make the logistics more difficult to pull off.

If this had been a normal year, the thought of reuniting with my friends under these happy circumstances would have given me all the fuel I needed to complete my long drives with more than a little energy to spare. But thanks to these unique times and unforeseen circumstances, those drives have been cancelled.

Yesterday would have marked a ritual I will now call “Quiet Wednesday.” Immediately after settling into my hotel room in Syracuse, I would have called Jeff Brophy at the museum to let him know I was going to stop by and pay a visit. After completing the 20-minute drive, I would have found a parking space, exited the car and taken in the often sun-soaked surroundings — the silence before the storm, if you will. I knew that in less than 24 hours this area would have been packed with fellow boxing lovers, including dozens of people I’ve gotten to know over the years who I only see in this place during this week. Their associations with Canastota are so strong that when I see some of them in other locales, they seem out of place.

After chatting with Jeff and Executive Director Ed Brophy, I sometimes would meet event emcee James “Smitty” Smith, who has become one of my very best friends, and have dinner with him. The hours would have passed by quickly, and only the need to finish my day’s writing would cause me to say my goodbyes and return to the hotel.

If this had been a normal year, I probably would have been on the museum grounds by the time you are reading this article because that’s pretty much where I would have spent most of the time between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. EDT. I would have made sure to spray my 100 SPF sunscreen to protect me from the summer sun whose sole mission was to turn unprotected redheads to cancer-prone lobster clones.

I would have sat underneath the pavilion chatting with the regulars, typing notes on the Ringside Lectures and taking things as they came. Later, I would have had dinner at Graziano’s and engaged in conversations with whomever I see or anyone who approached me for a chat.

During my early years, gathering autographs for my “big book” was the main objective but as my place in life transitioned from hardcore fan to professional scribe, Hall of Fame voter and professional punch counter/researcher, my main source of joy became visiting with my fellow aficionados. As the years have passed, more people have treated me as if I were some sort of celebrity. Yes, I’m a two-time author and my work is regularly featured on RingTV.com or Ring magazine, but I still don’t see myself as anything other than a boxing fan who just happens to know a lot about the sport’s history and who just happens to be blessed with platforms to express that knowledge. Sure, the attention is nice, but that’s not why I do what I do. I do this because I love it immensely and because it gives me the sense that I am fulfilling my purpose in life – to inform and entertain others about my chosen slice of sporting life.

Tomorrow probably would have been a combination of work and play for me because Showtime had talked about airing an episode of “ShoBox: The New Generation” at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona. Had that been the case, I would have spent the first half of the day engaging in my usual chat-fests, after which I would have driven to Verona, confirmed that all was well electronically, consumed the crew meal, took in the undercard fights and counted the punches for my slate of fighters during the televised portion of the show, all the while passing notes to Hall of Famer Steve Farhood, who would have been broadcasting with fellow Hall of Famer Barry Tompkins. Yes, the show would have ended sometime after midnight, and yes, the hour-long return trip to the hotel would have made it a very late night for me, but I would have appreciated it all the same.

Lee Groves. Photo credit: Jeff Julian

Saturday is, by far, the busiest day of Induction Weekend year in and year out, and of all the events I could have taken in, my personal top choice will always be the “Boxing Autograph Card Show” at Canastota High School. For avid readers like myself, the card show is the place to be every year, not just because of the wide variety of books and magazines available for sale but also because those books and magazines would have provided fresh material for all the long plane rides I would have taken had life proceeded apace.

In past years I would have left the card show around 3:30 p.m. in order to take an early place in line for the cocktail reception at the Greystone Castle, after which I would have attended the Banquet of Champions at the Turning Stone. But that itinerary has changed in recent years because (1) the main reason for attending the cocktail was to chase down the autographs I didn’t already have, and, in recent years, I had already collected the signatures I wanted long before that event, and (2) I skipped the banquet because I was graciously invited to dinner by former BWAA president Jack “Mantequilla” Hirsch and his wife Audrey, Neil “Mustafa” Terens, J.R. “Jowett Boy” Jowett and Jack “KO JO” Obermayer — the original “Travelin’ Man.” Jack’s passing in 2016 hasn’t deterred us from gathering each year, and, in time, the group gave me my own nickname (“Hit Man”) which melds an obvious reference to the button-hitting I do for CompuBox with the moniker proudly earned by Hall of Famer Thomas Hearns.

For all the fun and frivolity Thursday, Friday and Saturday would have provided, the crescendo would have taken place this Sunday with the Induction Ceremony. Given that Fernandez would have been part of the “Parade of Champions,” I probably would have asked a fellow scribe to take his place at the Summit, and once the 2:30 p.m. ceremony began, the happiness I would have felt because of the associations I described above would have been hard for me to contain. Professional that I strive to be, I would have maintained a straight face while typing away on press row, but I think that had my internal glow been released, it would have powered New York City for a month.

Once the ceremony concluded, I would have found my way out of the crush that usually accompanied the customary group photo of the inductees and their rings, then walked over to the museum, where I would have been granted entry by Jeff Brophy. There, I would have congratulated the new honorees while also basking in the afterglow that usually comes with such an achievement-rich event.

I then would have departed the museum, climbed into my car, made my “I’m about to start for Erie” phone call and drove toward I-90 West. I then would have engaged in one final ritual — glancing back toward the Hall of Fame museum building with a mixture of sadness that the fun for this year had ended and with an ember of anticipation that I would be back next June.

That’s what I believe would have happened this week had the course of history followed its usual path. But thanks to the pandemic that has resulted in more than seven million cases and 400,000 deaths worldwide, this year’s festivities were cancelled – and rightly so. For the first time since the George H.W. Bush presidency, the IBHOF Induction Weekend won’t be part of my year.

Instead, I am inside my Home Office, doing what I normally do during most weeks – compiling CompuBox research, tending to my ever-expanding DVD collection and writing articles for RingTV.com and The Ring whenever sufficient time to do so occurs. One new aspect of my life has been participating in Zoom rooms; it was there that I became the first “Boxing Jeopardy” champion and over the past several weeks I have taken part in hours-long “shoot the breeze” sessions on Friday nights. Yes, I won’t be in Canastota this week, but my life remains full – and quite fulfilling.

But while today’s situation has created a tinge of sadness and a feeling of void, I believe that this will be a one-time instance.

I believe that a vaccine will be discovered and perfected before next year’s event.

I believe that we eventually will return to a semblance of normalcy in terms of attending events featuring large groups of people.

I believe that I will begin my next pilgrimage to the IBHOF’s Induction Weekend on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, that I will engage in my “Quiet Wednesday” ritual the following day, that all of us will once again experience the exhilaration of the long Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and that we will absorb the sights of what may well be one of the most memorable Induction Days in the hall’s history on Sunday, June 13, 2021.

That’s because the star-studded Class of 2020 will be honored alongside the Class of 2021, and if the names that are being bandied about for the latter class gain entry, it will be the largest and star-rich gathering of honorees since the inaugural celebration in 1989 when a century’s worth of legends were honored and the greatest collection of boxing celebrities since 1997 when inductee Don King brought approximately 50 of his world champions to the event.

I believe that if what I envision comes to pass, the 2021 celebration may well break all previous attendance records – if no social distancing or capacity limits are in effect, that is. With that possibility in mind, I changed my hotel reservations to lock in the dates for 2021 on the very day the IBHOF announced the cancellation of this year’s event. That’s how sure I am that it will happen.

And when it does, I believe that Induction Weekend 2021 will be animated by an overwhelming spirit of thankfulness and appreciation for the activities we had previously taken for granted. The collective euphoria will be off the charts, and the promise of feeling that jubilation will give all of us who love Hall of Fame weekend even more reason to take our medicine now, soldier onward and persevere.

Even more than before, I can’t wait for June 2021. Can you?

 

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 19 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  “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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