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The Travelin’ Man Returns to IBHOF Induction Weekend – Pt. 1

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

Every June between 1993 and 2019, the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend not only had been a must-see event, it was a must-be event. At first, it was an opportunity for a longtime fan to meet the heroes of his youth, secure their autographs and create memories for a lifetime. As the years morphed into decades, my perspective shifted from that of a fan to that of a professional writer, a voter, and someone who provides assistance to Executive Director Ed Brophy and Mr. Everything Else Jeff Brophy in various capacities. I also became a “regular” who formed friendships with other perennial attendees, and while CompuBox responsibilities sometimes forced me to miss parts of the annual festivities, I always made sure to find my way back to the event staged in that little town in central New York – a place I now call my home away from home.

As I drove away from the museum grounds during the late afternoon hours of Sunday, June 9, 2019, I had every reason to believe that I, along with thousands of others, would be returning to “The Hometown of Champions” the following year. All that changed when the world was struck by a global pandemic that wreaked long-term devastation. Millions of lives were lost and every aspect of daily life was adversely affected. Among those were the cancellation of annual touchstone sporting events, including each of the last two Induction Weekends.

While disappointing at the time, the twin postponements set the stage for an unprecedented “Trilogy” celebration in which the Classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 will be honored. In all 36 people will be elevated and more than two dozen living inductees are expected to be on hand to experience their special day. Considering the overwhelming star power of those set to be honored – male inductees Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Wladimir Klitschko, Andre Ward, Roy Jones Jr., James Toney and Miguel Cotto along with female boxers Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker, Laila Ali, Ann Wolfe, Holly Holm, Regina Halmich and Trailblazer Barbara Buttrick – and the pent-up energy that comes with the return of a cherished event, one would think that this week’s event will draw enormous crowds crackling with energy and electricity.

The massive size and scope of this year’s event forced several changes in the schedule. The VIP Cocktail Party and the golf tournament were removed from the lineup while the Banquet of Champions, the Parade of Champions and the induction ceremony will start earlier than usual. Additionally, the location of this year’s induction festivities was shifted from the museum grounds to the Events Center inside the Turning Stone Casino in Verona to accommodate the expected throng and to account for the possibility of inclement weather. This turned out to be a most fortuitous move because the forecast for Sunday called for afternoon showers.



To me, the IBHOF’s challenge is similar to the one Sugar Ray Leonard faced when he challenged Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987. Leonard not only was coming back to the ring after nearly three years away, he was also challenging the sport’s reigning pound-for-pound best fighter. Likewise, those running this year’s festivities not only are experiencing the “ring rust” that comes from being away for three years, but they are being confronted with the challenges that come with organizing its biggest and most expansive event in history and applying a brand new template. But here’s the good news: Leonard did defeat Hagler, and I have every confidence that the Hall’s leadership, staff and volunteers will also conquer their adversities.

The three years away have also produced changes in my life, both personally and professionally:

*This is my first “Travelin’ Man” column since April 2020 and little did I know that my account of the ShoBox card in Hinckley, Minn. topped by Brandun Lee’s third-round TKO over Camilo Prieto would end up being the last I’d ever write as a frequent traveler. That ShoBox episode was the first sporting event to be conducted with COVID-19 in mind and the sustained ravages of the virus forced Showtime, the last CompuBox client to use live operators at ringside, to go “remote.” Little did I know that my flight from Charlotte to Pittsburgh that touched down at 7:38 p.m. on March 21, 2020 would be the last time I’d be on an airplane, and thus, “The Travelin’ Man,” in the classic sense, is no more after nearly 16 years of jetting across the globe. Now, I’m just someone who travels occasionally and far less expansively. Although I will miss it, I have adjusted nicely to my new reality, which, in fact, was my old reality for the first 42 years of my life.

*Since October 2020 I’ve served as a panelist for “In This Corner: The Podcast” on FITE.TV, a show hosted by the same James “Smitty” Smith who has emceed Induction Weekend since 2016. We have recorded nearly 50 episodes that have fulfilled the charge of providing “boxing’s biggest names, boxing’s biggest stories and boxing’s biggest fights,” and thanks to his tutelage I know I’ve gotten better. Of course, that final judgement solely belongs to the audience.

*On May 8, 2021 – specifically the afternoon of the Saul Alvarez-Billy Joe Saunders fight – I took the plunge and joined Twitter. I had long resisted joining because I felt “Boxing Twitter” was a sewer to be avoided at all costs, but Smitty as well as several other friends convinced me that this would be a beneficial move. As of today, I have 1,647 followers – more than some and less than most – but thanks to staying mostly in my lane and by keeping things mostly positive and information-based, my Twitter experience has been a very positive one. My twitter “handle” is included at the bottom of this article should you wish to “follow” me.

*Finally, I write this as a much healthier person than was the case three years ago. The isolation brought about by COVID-19 lockdowns combined with my own carelessness caused me to pack on about 30 pounds – and all of it was fat. My “come to Jesus” moment occurred last November when I was asked to serve as a pallbearer for the father of three childhood friends. The suit that had once fitted me perfectly was now much too small, and, to my chagrin, the suit I ended up purchasing for the funeral came from the “big and tall” section. The hard reality: At 5 feet 11 inches, I hardly qualified as “tall.”

This, along with a visit by one of the daughters of the deceased father who was incredibly fit, inspired me to begin a walking program that started very small – 500 steps on an old-fashioned, self-powered, modestly inclined flywheel treadmill in the basement that I’ve used from time to time since the mid-1990s – and has progressed incrementally ever since. Now, nearly seven months later, I am 15 pounds lighter and light years better in terms of cardiovascular conditioning. On the day I wrote this I walked 2,270 steps in 22 minutes 5 seconds and I feel the benefits of my work every moment of every day. I still can’t get into my previous suit, but I now can fit into pants that I previously couldn’t. At age 57, I am convinced that my journey to better health is nowhere near over, and I’m looking forward to experiencing the final results, whatever they may be.

Lee with Dr. Margaret Goodman at this year’s induction weekend. Photo by Lee Groves

With that backdrop, let’s begin the story of my return to Induction Weekend:

Tuesday, June 7: If there is one certainty about life, it is that change is inevitable. As I arose at 8 a.m., my first thought was that it has been exactly five years since my father died following a short bout with liver cancer. The greatest gift he gave to me in his final days was granting permission for me to fully enjoy my trip to that year’s Induction Weekend festivities as well as fulfill my CompuBox obligations without guilt.

“Go on the trip. Don’t worry about me,” he said in what would be our final conversation. “There’s nothing you can do for me here. By doing your job and having fun, you’re doing exactly what I want you to do.” A short time before that, he told me the words every son wants to hear from his father: “I’m proud of you.”

I thought I had arisen too late to see the unification rematch between Ring/ IBF/ WBA bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue and WBC counterpart Nonito Donaire, but when I logged into ESPN-Plus, I discovered I was just in time to see the ring walks. Although Donaire landed the first punch of the fight – a light left hook – it soon became clear that the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer no longer had the tools to cope with Inoue’s speed, footwork and crisply delivered power punches. A sharp right hand scored the first knockdown in the closing moments of the opening session while the fight ended with a sickeningly precise hook. The CompuBox numbers further illustrated the degree of Inoue’s dominance: “The Monster” connected on 49% of his total punches and 67% of his power shots and in round two alone he was 29 of 45 overall (64%) and 28 of 39 power (72%). For the record, Inoue prevailed 42-16 in total connects and 37-16 in landed power shots. Once again, Inoue produced a scintillating example of all-around fighting skills.

As for Donaire, he appeared to fight as well as his aging body could. He managed to get in several power shots but they lacked the power to deter Inoue from charging forward. Shortly before the stoppage Donaire proudly willed his legs to keep him upright after tasting a flush power shot, but it was clear he no longer had what it took to blunt Inoue’s attack. The final sequence was hard to watch, especially considering that Donaire was a guest on “In This Corner: The Podcast” shortly before his historic title-regaining victory over Nordine Oubaali in May 2021. Fortunately, my concern for his well-being was lessened moments later when he arose to his feet and congratulated Inoue with his typical grace.

Should Donaire choose to hang up the gloves for good, he should be a shoo-in for the IBHOF’s Class of 2026. If Manny Pacquiao is the greatest fighter ever produced by the Philippines, “The Filipino Flash” should be rated right behind him; he captured recognized titles in four weight classes, won championships deep into his 30s (he is both the oldest and second-oldest to win a share of the bantamweight title) and was once ranked in the upper reaches of the pound-for-pound ratings. His skill inside the ring is only exceeded by his class, dignity, humility and competitiveness.

After offering my thoughts on Twitter, I went about the business of getting ready for the big trip. I found that the concept of ring rust extended to travelers; it had been so long since I had to pack that I had trouble remembering everything I needed to gather. Loading up the boxes that contained 20 copies of “Tales from the Vault” and 10 copies of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” as well as the dolly I would use to transport them was as much of a workout as the steps I had completed on the treadmill a couple of hours earlier, but by the time I left the house at 1:20 p.m. I was satisfied I had checked off all the items on my list.

I used Google Maps to plot my route to Erie, and because of a potential logjam on Interstate 470 I was rerouted to a series of previously untraveled roads. The process of navigating them was complicated by several rounds of blinding rain as well as considerable road construction, but, in the end, I arrived at my hotel in Erie a little more than five hours after I left the house.

After checking into my room, I drove to a nearby Pilot outlet and purchased a foot-long Subway sandwich – half of it now, half of it later – and settled in for an evening of writing. Once I got to a good stopping point, I saved my work and spent the rest of my waking hours relaxing and watching TV. I switched off the light shortly after midnight – about two hours earlier than is usually the case at home – while it took some time for me to fall asleep, not an unusual occurrence.

The classic vehicle that carried Marvelous Marvin Hagler in the Parade of Champions was displayed underneath the pavilion to the right of the stage. Hagler, who assumed the role of most beloved boxer following the passing of Carmen Basilio, died in March 2021 at age 66. Photo by Lee Groves

Wednesday, June 8: I stirred awake shortly after 6:30 a.m., and, for the most part, I slept soundly. The morning shower, combined with the excitement that will likely occur over the next five days, was more than enough to energize me. Although I planned to start my drive toward Canastota around 10 a.m., I ended up departing shortly after 8:30 because (1) I was satisfied with the progress I made on this article, and (2) leaving now would allow me to be around the IBHOF Induction Weekend atmosphere even longer.

One aspect of this trip that did not thrill me was the trip to the gas station – a hard reality that thousands of other IBHOF attendees will experience. According to AAA, the national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in June 2019 was $2.66, two cents lower than the previous week and 18 cents less than was the case a month earlier. When I filled my tank yesterday, the price was $4.99 per gallon and several stations I passed had signs reading $5.09. The method I’ve been using to mitigate the sticker shock the last few months was to fill my tank when the gas gauge dipped below three-quarters of a tank. It helps that my car gets very good mileage (around 34 mpg) and I do my best to improve that number by coasting down West Virginia’s many steep hills. Because I don’t travel that much when I’m home (my twice-a-week shopping trips require a little more than 120 miles to complete), I only fill up once a week, but during the next five days, I’ll probably have to make four stops. Stop number one was yesterday afternoon while stop number two was this morning.

One of the first lessons I learned when I took Economics 101 at Fairmont State College was the law of supply and demand, and these past 18 months have proven just how true that law is. When the supply was allowed to flow freely enough to satisfy demand, the price remained low, the supply chain was sound and inflation was well under control, but when the supply was purposefully cut off during a time when demand remained high, the price soared and the final infusion of money under the name of COVID was so massive that those who predicted a spike in inflation were proven correct. The tentacles of the new policies extended to the world’s ability to distribute goods, which have led to reams of empty shelves. Complicating matters was the fact that the U.S. does not yet have sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the desired wholesale transition to electric vehicles, whose technology is still imperfect, whose reliability as compared to combustion-engine vehicles is inferior, and whose prices remain far out of reach for the masses, especially for those whose jobs were eliminated by COVID and whose dollars have far less purchasing power.

I strongly believe there will be a time and place when a transition to “green energy” vehicles will happen, but that time isn’t now. I compare the ideal process to the one I experienced regarding VHS home recorders. In the early 1970s, the technology was clunky, the tapes held only one hour of footage and the machines were prohibitively expensive. But the rough edges were eventually smoothed out because the innovators were given enough time to innovate. The quality of the recordings improved, the tapes now allowed up to eight hours of recording time, the machines operated perfectly and the quality of the recordings were pristine at the one-hour speed and eminently watchable at the lower speeds. Word of mouth combined with proof of performance enabled the industry to blossom and the powers-that-be to become prosperous. The demand for devices soared and the price became much more manageable for the masses. The same process played out when DVDs took over for VHS and I’m sure the same would happen for electric cars and other green energy resources if the process of improving the technology and the accompanying infrastructure were allowed to unfold naturally.

During my traveling years I had the opportunity to drive “hybrid” vehicles that combined gasoline and electric and they functioned quite well. But because that process is being artificially forced without a sufficient replacement structure already in place, the pain inflicted on the public has been far reaching and wrenching, and it appears that pain will continue – if not intensify — for some time to come.

Today’s drive was much smoother in terms of weather; the temperature ranged from the low to upper 60s and the skies were partly to mostly sunny. Another change in the protocol was that most of the fighters and celebrities who had stayed at the Days Inn across the street from the museum now were staying at the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, which, in turn, opened up a room for me at the Days Inn. I arrived shortly after 1 p.m. and a few minutes after settling in I received an e-mail from CompuBox president/co-creator Bob Canobbio, who informed me that two fights on Saturday night’s four-fight DAZN show had changed. Oscar Duarte, who had been scheduled to face Romero Duno, now was fighting Mark Bernaldez while an IBF minimumweight title fight between champion Yokasta Valle and challenger Lorraine Villalobos was inserted in place of another bout. Both needed my attention, and being the sort who puts work before pleasure I decided to tackle the research then and there. It took me two hours to finish but I was glad it did it because doing so allowed me to proceed with a clear mind.

I spent the next couple of hours hanging out in the lobby with “Damage” author Tris Dixon, longtime Induction Weekend attendee and Albany native Bob Rowe and event host James “Smitty” Smith, and later in the day I chatted with three of the nicest people I know – HOF photographer Pat Orr and superfans Eric Schmidt and Keith Stechman. For me, one of the greatest benefits of Induction Weekend is the opportunity to engage in extended face-to-face chats with people who love boxing as much – if not more – than I do. In fact, I tweeted that I had engaged in more live boxing conversation in the six hours I had been in Canastota than I had since the start of the year. And the good news was that much more talk was to come.

I returned to my room shortly after 11 p.m. and spent the rest of my waking hours catching up on my writing and winding down from the day’s events. If today’s events were to serve as a precursor for what’s to come, I could hardly wait for Thursday morning to come.

*

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 20 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2006. 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. as well as a panelist on “In This Corner: The Podcast” on FITE.TV. 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 use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook and Twitter (@leegrovesboxing).

 

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