The Travelin’ Man returns to IBHOF induction weekend – Pt. 4
Saturday, June 11: Saturday has traditionally been the busiest and most diverse day of the Induction Weekend calendar, but, for me, two events will serve as the day’s centerpieces – the Boxing Autograph Card Show staged at Canastota High School (specifically the basketball court named for Jim Dimao) that begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m., and the Banquet of Champions, which will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the same events center that hosted last night’s ShoBox card. I had skipped the banquet the last few times because I accepted dinner invitations from the group consisting of former BWAA president Jack Hirsch, his wife Audrey, scribes Jack Obermayer and J.R. Jowett, and super fan Neil “Mustafa” Terens. Death, chronic illness and circumstance steadily cut into our group to the point that Jack and I will attend the banquet, which, given this year’s unique situation, promises to be quite the spectacle.
Is it possible to be a night owl and an early bird? I ask because this has often been the case with me, at home and especially during Induction Weekend. Last night I went to bed shortly after 2 a.m. and awakened just four-and-a-half hours later. Despite the string of days featuring short rest, all I’ve needed to extinguish the negative effects is a hot shower, blow-dried hair, brushed teeth, a swig of mouthwash and a fresh change of clothes. No coffee or breakfast are necessary to give me the boost I need, and the events of today will certainly test my salesmanship and stamina, for my objective at the card show is to sell my eight remaining copies of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (I executed two “on the fly” sales during my stay here) and the 19 copies of “Tales from the Vault” that were left after completing one impromptu sale.
Although I’ve never been formally trained in sales, I’ve learned that part of the art of salesmanship is the ability to articulate the merits of one’s product in an entertaining way while also providing plenty of bang for the customer’s buck – especially in these extremely inflationary times. My pitch for both books were informative and well-honed and I felt the deal I presented to potential customers was solid:
*For $25, a buyer not only would get a personalized autographed copy of either “Tales” or “Numbers,” they would also receive an autographed promotional postcard for “Numbers” that could serve as a future bookmark as well as the choice of the writing instrument I would use – red, black, blue or green Sharpies as well as the regular ink pen.
I left the Days Inn at 8 a.m. – two hours before the start of the event – in the hope that I could snag a parking space close to the high school’s entrance. Happily, I achieved that goal by finding a spot less than 150 feet from the door, which greatly eased the task of transporting my three heavy boxes of books from place to place. To that end, I used a dolly that I stored in the back seat of my car to tow all of them at once to my table, which ended up being the third one to the right upon entering the gym – an excellent spot.
Once the doors opened to the public, it was time to get to work – and, from my standpoint, things couldn’t have gone much better. During my gabfests I had generated plenty of “pre-sale promises” and the people who made those promises came through. I closed my first sale just four minutes after the event started and more than a few buyers were impressed by my sales pitch as well as all the empowering options I presented to them in terms of the autographs I would provide them. Sales were so brisk that on at least two occasions I was tending to two customers simultaneously. One notable buyer was West Virginia pro Perry Ballard, who, at age 54, raised his record to 27-2-1 (20) April 30 with a 54-second knockout over the 9-11 Josh Hammock at the Jamil Shrine Temple in Columbia, South Carolina, his first outing since July 2017. One of his two losses was a seventh-round TKO against Hall of Famer Hector Camacho in July 2008.
Along with the flurry of sales, my workstation served as the backdrop for several celebrity sightings. IBHOF Class of 2022 Inductee Miguel Cotto passed by the table accompanied by a TV crew while fellow honorees Barbara Buttrick, Dr. Margaret Goodman and Bob Yalen (who provided Bob Canobbio and me the round-by-round scorecards for “Numbers”) made pit stops. A very pleasant surprise was produced by 2015 IBHOF inductee Nigel Collins – the man who gave me my shot at writing my first feature story for RING at age 23. I had hoped to meet Nigel, not just because he’s a great guy, but also because I wanted him to sign my copy of his book “Boxing Babylon” that I stowed inside my laptop bag. His inscription was heartwarming and validating: “To Lee, a good friend and a real boxing guy, Nigel.”
Another cool moment was provided by Sean O’Grady, who instantly recognized me as the person who shouted out “Ghana” when he asked during his ringside lecture where his Hall of Fame conqueror Danny “Little Red” Lopez won the WBC featherweight title from David Kotey. Not only did we speak for several minutes, my cornucopia of colored pens came in handy.
An admirer of O’Grady’s seeking an autographed photo asked the onetime champ what color pen he’d like to use in signing it. O’Grady, who often wore green trunks in the ring in honor of his Irish heritage, jokingly answered “green, of course!” At that I point I said, “I have that!” and handed that Sharpie to him. This never would have happened had I not chosen to stop by the Wal-Mart in New Martinsville, W.Va. a few days earlier to purchase the multi-pack of Sharpies.
All the while the sales continued to mount, and in the end, my success was phenomenal – all 19 copies of “Tales” found new homes (the first sell-out of my card show career) while just four copies of “Numbers” remained. That greatly eased the reloading process because I now was able to find ample space in the back seat to store the dolly and put my single quarter-filled box in the trunk.
I drove back to the hotel to freshen up as well as leave my laptop bag at the hotel, then headed out to the Turning Stone Casino and Resort shortly afterward to prepare for the Banquet of Champions. Because I didn’t want to lug anything around, I opted to go “old school” and bring a spiral notebook and pen to jot down any thoughts that came to mind.
After parking my car in the casino’s garage and taking the elevator down to the second floor, I found a spot near the hallway that led to the events center and did what writers do. When it became clear that a line was forming, I found my place (number seven) and waited for the event personnel to give us the green light to proceed. The three people directly behind me ended up to be Vincent D’Andrea – a man with whom I often sat during past Banquets and who purchased a book a few hours earlier – and fellow West Virginians Mike and Todd Snyder.
A few minutes before we got the green light, a woman behind us became light-headed and fell to the ground – the second consecutive day in which someone required extra attention. Thankfully she received what she needed and was mostly OK a few minutes later.
The banquet was the most sought-after ticket of the program, and demand was such that the upper bowl seats of the event center was opened up for those who paid a lower price. They didn’t get to eat dinner, but they were able to bear witness to all the festivities.
I was assigned a spot at Table 48, and my seatmates included Ring Magazine editor-in-chief Doug Fischer and longtime friends Keith Stechman (super fan and onetime corner man) and John Gay (ace memorabilia guy whose record book is filled with hundreds of historic autographs). During his impromptu speech about the 100th anniversary of Ring a couple of hours later, Dougie mentioned both men to illustrate the extreme devotion of the type of boxing fans who attend Induction Weekend.
Also attending was another one of my bosses, CompuBox president and co-creator Bob Canobbio. Accompanying him was his son Dan, whose burgeoning broadcasting career has hit a new peak since becoming part of Jomboy Media. It was a rare meeting of CompuBox mavens, and it was one we all relished.
Normally, one would become stressed about being at a semi-formal event in which your boss is also present. Now, imagine yourself being at the same event with all your bosses. As for me, I was more than cool with it because Bob Canobbio and Doug Fischer are not only great employers, they are wonderful people who give me all the freedom and flexibility I need to complete my tasks In the most effective manner.
Another reason I skipped the Banquet for several years was that my steak preference is medium, not rare as has always been the case here, so when dinner was served following the playing of the national anthem and the invocation, I eyed my meal with a “trust but verify” mindset. Although the meat was still red on the inside, the taste was pleasing and I proceeded to clean the plate – an easy task considering this was the first food I’ve consumed since before I went to bed last night.
For me, there’s something about Hall of Fame Weekend that causes me to not feel any ill effects despite not eating or drinking anything for far longer than normal periods. Perhaps my mind is so occupied with all the event’s sights and sounds that I can’t think about anything else. Only when I return to the room do I remember that I need to eat something. It’s an odd phenomenon.
Given the “Trilogy Weekend’s” dynamics, it was expected that the banquet was going to be much more marathon than sprint, and that was the case as it lasted more than four hours. But in those four hours, there were plenty of interesting and occasionally poignant moments:
* The audience broke into applause when the photos of Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko in military uniform were flashed on the overhead screens. As valiant and accomplished as “Dr. Ironfist” and “Dr. Steelhammer” were in the ring – their combined heavyweight championship reigns spanned nearly 20 years – their bravery in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been truly inspirational and, as such, has enhanced their legends.
* Emotions ran high during the video tribute to Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and they rose a notch or two when Hagler’s widow Kay spoke. Executive Director Ed Brophy, whose passion for the IBHOF runs deep but who is usually composed and stoic, could barely contain his own tears as he rendered his introduction.
* Miriam “Lady Tyger” Trimiar – the IBHOF’s 2021 Trailblazer inductee – is now confined to a wheelchair, but when she was given the microphone, she spoke with a strong and powerful voice. Her words radiated the conviction she needed when she and compatriots Cathy “Cat” Davis and fellow 2021 honoree Jackie Tonawanda successfully sued the New York State Athletic Commission, a verdict that opened the door for the two booms in women’s boxing that followed.
* The surprised and gratified look on Christy Martin’s face when the original “Coal Miner’s Daughter” Loretta Lynn offered her congratulations via video. Martin is right – although the 90-year-old Lynn is a native of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, she boasts a special place in the hearts of West Virginians, and for Lynn to take the time to honor Christy’s elevation into the Hall of Fame was particularly moving. Adding to the moment was Smitty’s perfect introduction that completely concealed the nature of what was to come.
* Although the speakers were instructed to keep their remarks to a few minutes, Class of 2021 member Floyd Mayweather could not hold back his appreciation – or his tears. As he was introduced, a few members of the crowd shouted encouraging and congratulatory words. Those words, combined with the historic meaning of this weekend and his own deep-seated desire for approval, caused tears to roll down Mayweather’s face and it was everything he could do to tamp down the wellspring of his emotions. Once he felt strong enough to speak, he let everything go.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said softly. “It’s been 45 years. I told myself I wouldn’t cry, but this is one of the best days of my life. To all these legendary champions up here, you motivated me to be who I am today. Without them, there is no me. Should I be able to cry on a day like this? These are tears of joy!”
He warned everyone that although everyone was asked to be brief, he was going to break the rules because he simply could not hold back the appreciation he felt for the event, for the men and women with whom he shared the stage, and the magnitude of the moment. After breaking down, Mayweather proceeded to break the clock as his speech was far longer than everyone else’s. But instead of the “Money” character that helped him generate nine-figure purses, we were treated to the sensitive family man who treated vanquished opponents and appreciative fans warmly. Being from a family that is steeped in boxing history, Mayweather surely grasped the gravity of what will occur Sunday afternoon.
The event ended a little after 10:30 p.m. and I spent some time hanging out with Smitty and other members of the event staff. Since Smitty and I were staying at the same hotel, I stuck around just in case he needed a ride back to Canastota but once he assured me that he had adequate transportation, I departed the premises, returned to the Days Inn, got in some writing and turned out the lights.
The first three days of the official event and the two days that preceded it have at least met expectations – if not exceeded them. Will that trend continue on Induction Sunday? We shall soon see.
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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 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).