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The Travelin’ Man returns to the IBHOF induction weekend – Pt. 2

Photo by Alex Menendez/ Getty Images
12
Jun

Thursday, June 9: As has often been the case during my travels, sleep was an elusive commodity. That’s because despite this being my 28th appearance, the excitement and fulfillment I receive during the IBHOF’s Induction Weekend has yet to diminish. There’s a good reason for that: Although the cast of characters change on the celebrity side from year to year, there’s plenty of sameness when it comes to the event’s unique brand of “magic.” To a small-town boy like me – Friendly, West Virginia’s population is currently 121 – Canastota owns that personal touch fostered by well-honed universal values, but for one weekend a year it plays host to a United Nations of boxing fandom.

The prospects of what might come kept my mind firing deep into the night, and, as a result, I awakened after just three-and-a-half hours of intermittent slumber. Despite the short rest, the morning routines still did the trick in terms of increasing my energy level. Once those tasks were completed, I opened the curtain and found that the local weather forecasters had been correct on their Wednesday forecast: Light gray skies, occasional showers and a temperature in the upper 50s.

The continuous wave of conversations that marked yesterday’s arrival continued the moment I reached the Days Inn lobby. Reynold Cabigting, a Winnipeg native of Filipino heritage who was part of the group that traveled with longtime attendee Eric Schmidt, was the first person with whom I conversed, after which my attention shifted to Argentine TV broadcaster Osvaldo Principi, who was waiting for an Uber to take him to the museum grounds. When the Uber driver didn’t arrive in a timely fashion, I offered to drive him over myself – an invitation he instantly accepted.

My kindness was repaid several times over; not only did Osvaldo record an interview with me for his TV network regarding the chapters covering Frazier-Ali I and Ali-Bonavena in “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” he also purchased an autographed copy for himself – the first of what I hope will be many sales. The profit I made from that sale was immediately nullified by my purchase of a “Trilogy”-themed IBHOF T-shirt from the gift shop.



I then walked to the registration table to collect my IBHOF credential as well as an envelope containing several complementary passes for the museum and tickets to the Boxing Autograph Card Show (general admission and dealer display table) and the Banquet of Champions.

One can say I am a certified conversation magnet; I’ve found that the mere sight of me prompts many of my fellow visitors to smile broadly, shout out my name and commence chatting. Just seconds after exiting my car I was greeted by longtime attendee David Baum, who asked if he was the first “regular” to see me upon my arrival in Canastota. When I told him no, his face briefly dropped in disappointment before regaining its usual brightness (The context: For several years I mentioned the first regular to meet me in print and it usually came down to the same two or three people. Somehow, this became somewhat of a light-hearted and humorous competition between them and the person who ended up being first acted as if this was a triumph while the others considered it a defeat. Don’t ask me why that is because I don’t know if I’m worth all that). Others with which I spoke included longtime Canadian buddy Bill Johnston, veteran photographers Mike Greenhill and “Boxing” Bob Newman, fellow West Virginians Todd Snyder (an author four times over) and his father Mike “Lo” Snyder (the subject of Todd’s first book “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym”), author/RingTV.com colleague Tris Dixon, and a new friend in longtime trainer Aaron Snowell, who sat to my immediate left as emcee James “Smitty” Smith spoke with onetime charge (and Hall of Famer) Julian Jackson. Later, Class of 2020 inductee Lou DiBella and longtime friend Keith Stechman stopped by to say hello.

For me and so many others, the three years away from Induction Weekend was an unwelcome interruption and like all the others I was eager to dive back in. As for other longtime attendees, the reaction was mixed; on the one hand they were happy to return to familiar territory but that happiness was tempered largely because of the changes that have occurred since 2019. The most striking one was that the land previously occupied by Graziano’s was now being used as an overflow parking lot while some visitors chafed at their more limited access to celebrities as compared to previous years.

“I’m anticipating this year to feature a very large crowd because we have so many people being inducted,” said Baum, who has attended every event since 1991. “The parts I don’t like is that we fans are excluded from many of these activities. Everything has been moved to the Turning Stone and because of that the fighters are progressively being made less accessible to the fans. I don’t want to be a downer, but it seems that way.”

Grazianos was a fixture of the IBHOF induction weekend for decades.

The absence of Graziano’s hit particularly hard.

“Graziano’s was the glue that held everyone together after the events were done, and its absence is going to have a big effect,” Baum observed. “People are going to be like bees around a hive that had been knocked down; they’re not sure what they are going to do afterward. Everyone seems lost. As for alternatives, there was talk about a place called The Pines, but who knows? It’s going to be an unfolding thing and we’ll see where things go.”

The disappointment over Graziano’s was mitigated by the chance to reunite with longtime pals.

“At this point in my life – I’m 65 years old – seeing old friends is the most important thing. Although I keep in contact with these people all year around – we have a group called “The Boxing Family” that consists of about nine people – we make it a point of coming here every year and spending a lot of time with each other. Induction Weekend is just a beautiful thing. It’s like Bert Sugar used to say: ‘It’s a boxing lovefest.’”

Johnson, a native of Ottawa who has attended every weekend since 2000, expressed similar sentiments.

“While I was disappointed about (the cancellation of the 2020 event), it was the right decision,” he said. “I am hoping to see familiar faces to see that they made it through the pandemic,” he said. “Although it remains to be seen, it’s been easy mingling with the celebrities and the fighters so far and I’m looking forward to more of that. But security has been over-managed; (this event) is not about them, it’s about us. I’m not sure why they do that. What I am also disappointed in – and I know the Hall has nothing to do with this – but I think Canastota is losing its character. Graziano’s is gone and a lot of the events are being moved to the Turning Stone. The character and the atmosphere of Canastota is being lost.”

Todd Snyder, who was seated next to his father at the back of the pavilion during the ringside lectures, felt as bad for the inductees as for himself concerning the twin cancellations.

“In 2020 the whole world was upside down and I hated it for the inductees because I wanted them to have their day in the sun,” he said. “The second cancellation was harder because it looked like things were getting better. It was a real gut punch. It felt like if you moved away from your family as an adult and miss that first Christmas, but when you get to attend that next Christmas, you are so glad to be back. The best thing about being here are the ringside lectures and the side conversations you can have with trainers, promoters and other boxing people that you can never have at the fights because you are so far removed from them. Here, you can go to Dunkin’ Donuts, on the grounds, or other places and hear priceless stories. I once sat beside Andrew Golota and ate pizza with him. It’s something you can’t replicate by going to a fight; there’s only one place like that and I missed those happenstance moments the most.”

“(Missing the last two years) was very disappointing because it’s like a family reunion,” Lo added. “Boxing has been a big part of my life, and the thing I’m most anxious to see is Christy Martin, a fellow West Virginian, getting recognized. It’s great for women’s boxing, it’s great for boxing in general and it’s great for West Virginia. Emanuel Steward, another West Virginia native, had to really go above and beyond to get recognized because when you come from such a small state it’s a very hard road. After the second cancellation I asked myself if we were ever going to go back. I’m so glad that we get to go this year and I hope everyone has a fun and safe time.”

Although he was not on the official schedule, referee Russell Mora was the first celebrity Smitty interviewed on stage, and by this time a little more than 100 people had gathered under the pavilion. The crowd grew steadily as the hours went on, and after Smitty finished with Mora he silently motioned for me to approach him. Once there, he asked me to get on stage, take a seat and offer some impromptu remarks about what returning to Canastota meant to me as well as ask several of the trivia questions I wrote the previous evening.

Though caught by surprise, I handled the situation pretty well. During a break in the action, Smitty walked to where I was sitting and asked with an impish smile “I threw you a few curveballs there, didn’t I?” This is part of his continuing mentoring process; it’s one thing to prepare for a podcast and have those notes within reach, but it’s quite another to think on one’s feet in front of a live audience.  It’s like most other aspects of life: The more reps, the better.

Former two-division titleholder Julian Jackson. Photo courtesy of the International Boxing Hall of Fame

Former two-division titleholder Julian Jackson. Photo courtesy of the International Boxing Hall of Fame

IBHOF Class of 2019 member Julian Jackson, who said he arrived in town around 1 this morning, was the first official ringside lecture subject, and he revealed that his toughest opponent wasn’t world champions like Mike McCallum, or Gerald McClellan, but rather Milton “Cuda” Leaks, the man who Jackson fought immediately before he won his first title against In Chul Baek. Jackson said their April 1987 war at the Civic Center in Hartford saw both men suffer knockdowns, but, happily for “The Hawk,” he won the fight by 10th round TKO.

As Smitty was preparing to speak with IBHOF Class of 2022 inductee James “Lights Out” Toney, I walked toward the tent-covered tables near the back of the lot and spoke to two more longtime attendees about what the return of Induction Weekend meant to them.

“I’m glad to be back,” said North Carolina’s Jim Smith. “I see all of us as being part of a boxing brotherhood and I’m looking forward to the card show. My thing now is to buy memorabilia like gloves and trunks. Gloves take too much room so I’m now trying to get smaller stuff. When you first come out you get five or 10 items, but after 17 or 20 years you now have 300 things.”

Rochester native Bill Shade, an “original” who has attended every event ever held, was sorely disappointed the second cancellation happened.

“I think they should have had it last year because we went to the Indiana Boxing Hall of Fame in 2021,” he said. “I think they were a little too cautious in New York last year because it seemed like a lot of things were opening back up. As for now, it’s about time. Let’s get it going again. To hell with all this quarantine and staying six feet apart!”

As the afternoon proceeded, the blustery conditions made the temperature in the low 60s feel more like the upper 40s. The wind also wreaked havoc with my hair (which, thankfully, is still mostly red), and by the time I left the grounds it was so unkempt that even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have said “get a comb!”

A couple of weeks earlier, Facebook friend, Brooklyn native and fellow boxing video collector Donovan Kasp invited me to take part in a bowling outing with five of his friends:

*Darren Shabbat, a DJ from New Brunswick, NJ who goes by the name “DJ Absurd”

*John Martin, a devotee of Irish boxing from southern New Jersey.

*Jimmy Lopez, a Jersey guy who served in the U.S. Marines and who is nicknamed “Tsunami,” perhaps because of his gregarious personality.

*Dan and Matthew Ramirez, brothers from Geneva, N.Y.

I gladly accepted the invitation, and though my cell phone’s power was getting extremely low, I was able to get the details of when and where our excursion would take place: Canastota Hi-Way Bowl at 3314 Seneca Turnpike, located about a mile-and-a-half from the Days Inn, between 7 and 7:30 p.m.

Because I’m an early bird by nature – and just in case my GPS somehow guided me off course – I left the hotel at 6:45 p.m. with an eye on arriving shortly before 7. As I pulled into the parking lot at my hoped-for time, I noticed an unused beach volleyball court to my left and an energetic game of Cornhole to my right. Once everyone else arrived a little after 7:30, we went inside and noticed the business had a pool table, a bustling bar and 12 available lanes. Our group of seven was assigned lanes five and six, and, at least in terms of equipment, I was well prepared as I brought two bowling balls – one with which to attempt to throw strikes and a urethane ball that I use to shoot at spares. I also brought my own shoes and several towels to wipe away potential oil buildup.

Those towels were unnecessary, for one of the employees informed us that the lanes were almost bone dry, meaning that our shots would probably veer wildly to the left for our group of right-handed bowlers.

This was my first time on the lanes since I visited Sam’s Town in Las Vegas in November 2019 and this was the first time I used my personalized equipment (including shoes) since my area establishment – Bruce Lanes in New Martinsville, WV – closed in April 2015. Shortly before the closure, I asked the owner, former PBA professional Keith Craycraft, to apply a final polish to the strike ball, and now, more than seven years later and nearly a month after Keith passed away at age 71, I was finally going to use it. Finally, this was the first time I attempted to bowl after modestly reshaping my physique, so I had no idea how I would perform. The fact that everyone agreed that this outing would be purely for fun and not for competition took some of the pressure off.

The participants are (front row) Dan Ramirez, Lee Groves, Jimmy “Tsunami” Lopez, (back row) Matthew Ramirez, Darren “DJ Absurd” Shabbat, John Martin and Donovan Kasp. The group hopes that a bowling outing will become a new unofficial annual event, but only time will tell. Photo by Lee Groves

And what fun we had! Yes, we all fired tons of gutter balls at the start as we tried to adjust to the funky lane condition, but, over time, some of us were better able to ascertain what we needed to do to perform better while the others reveled in the moment no matter how they scored. I didn’t produce my first “mark” until the sixth frame when I knocked down the seven pin, and matters improved substantially when I struck in the seventh and 10th frames. John, who, like me, was a league bowler but who had undergone surgery on his throwing shoulder, registered the highest score of the group in Game One, but I was not far behind with a 115. As a point of reference, I maintained a 165 average during my final year of league bowling and my last series at Sam’s Town was a 151, 182 and 157, which translates to a 490 series and a 163.3 average. In short, I was caked with the bowling equivalent of ring rust, but the good news was that the rust was flaking off little by little.

Because there were seven of us, we had to have four guys in the left-hand lane and three on the right-hand lane, and those of us in the four-man group couldn’t keep up with the three across from us, especially since they were producing more strikes and spares than we were.

Thanks to Jimmy Lopez’s generosity, the group munched on pizza and consumed beverages between games, a most welcome sight given that all I had eaten in the last 24 hours was a Philly cheesesteak from the PB and J’s Lunch Box Cafe around noontime. Granted, my experience with cheesesteaks is woefully incomplete, I say the product they make is the best I’ve yet tasted. If I’m so blessed as to meet up with Bernard Fernandez – New Orleans native, IBHOF Class of 2020 member, co-founder of the Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit and Philadelphia transplant – I’d be happy to sample the fare he considers to be the best.

For me, game two represented a considerable improvement as I achieved the following in the first five frames: Strike, spare, spare, strike and spare. Meanwhile John began to struggle and it soon became clear that I was going to post the group’s best score by far. I failed to mark in frames six through nine as conditions changed but I finished the night with a four-pin spare to wrap up a 146 game.

I thought about bowling a third game, but seeing that it was nearly 10 p.m. I decided to call it a night with the rest of the guys and drove back to the Days Inn. I switched off the lights shortly after 1 a.m.

YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

THE TRAVELIN’ MAN RETURNS TO IBHOF INDUCTION WEEKEND – PT. 1

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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