The Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota (with a pit stop in NYC) – part 1
Between September 2003 (when I chronicled my experiences at a card topped by Joe Mesi’s first-round KO against DaVarryl Williamson inside the HSBC Arena in Buffalo) and March 2020 (a ShoBox show in Minneapolis that marked the world’s first sporting event conducted under what would become the foundation of COVID-19 complaint rules), I was known as boxing’s “Travelin’ Man,” not because I traveled more than anyone else (I couldn’t carry Jimmy Lennon Jr.’s tuxedo in that regard) but because editor Doug Fischer granted me the forum to write about my journeys from a first-person perspective, originally for MaxBoxing.com, then for RingTV.com. During that time, I set foot in 41 states as well as Canada, Germany, England, the Bahamas, Argentina and an accidental border crossing into Mexico during a trip to El Paso in June 2012. Many of my stories remain a few clicks away thanks to search engines, and in the process of assembling my travelogues, I culled material from every possible source beyond just the fight action I recorded as a CompuBox counter – ringside conversations, observations while seated at airport gates, seatmates during flights, and situations that, to me at least, had a “God-wink” vibe. I wanted readers to feel like they were along for the ride, and, given the feedback I’ve received, I was successful.
But as I’m typing this, I feel a bit self-conscious about still calling myself “The Travelin’ Man” because, frankly, I haven’t done much traveling lately. In fact, the last time I wrote under that persona was a five-part series about last June’s “Trilogy” celebration at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and that’s because trekking from show to show is no longer part of my job at CompuBox. The pandemic that gripped the globe for nearly two years forced Showtime to join DAZN, ESPN, the family of FOX channels during its PBC days and other clients as networks that use CompuBox remotely. The performance level has remained unchanged thanks to technological advances that allow the data compiled from the operators’ homes to be collected and presented by the production truck as well as the directors that give us counters the best angle to see the action at any given time. And because the networks no longer have to pay for hotel rooms, air fare and rental vehicles to secure that performance level, this paradigm is here to stay.
Therefore, my life has reverted to where it was nearly two decades earlier as far as my “sphere of familiarity” – a 50-mile strip of land between Parkersburg and New Martinsville, West Virginia. Now, as then, the only time I venture beyond that strip is in June when I trek to Canastota to take in the IBHOF Induction Weekend, which I will do for the 29th time as I have attended every available celebration since 1993. That year, the inductees were Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, Joey Giardello, Harold Johnson, Fritzie Zivic, Les Darcy, Theodore “Tiger” Flowers, Tommy Gibbons, “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, Hen Pearce, Teddy Brenner. Gil Clancy, Arthur Donovan, Don Dunphy and Jim Jacobs. Mr. T was the parade’s grand marshal, and the list of celebrities beyond the inductees included Alexis Arguello, Angelo Dundee, Bob Foster, Joe Frazier, Gene Fullmer, Emile Griffith, Ken Norton, Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep, Billy Backus, George Chuvalo, Bobby Czyz, Doug DeWitt, Dickie DiVeronica, James “Buddy” McGirt and Earnie Shavers. That year, I attended only the Friday and Saturday events because (1) that was when most of the events were staged, and (2) because of my work schedule at The Parkersburg News and Sentinel in Parkersburg, WV, where I worked on its copydesk starting in 1990. I made sure to stuff in as many activities – and create as many memories – as possible, and I still have the program from that year as well as the autographs I secured, which included Pep, Moore, Arguello, Giardello, Shavers, Norton, Backus, McGirt and Dunphy as well as a recently retired champ in Doug DeWitt and a future champion in Luis Santana (I am not sure who Alex Gonzalez was, but, at the time, I decided to get his autograph in case he went on to great things).
Based on advice given by fellow writer Ed Maloney (whose 1992 feature story made me aware of the IBHOF’s existence), I secured the cheapest lodging I could find – a roach-infested trailer with a cot and TV set – and while I had a good time at the events, I barely slept. Worse yet, because I wasn’t travel-savvy enough to secure a hotel room in Erie, Pa. on the way home – I assumed getting a room on the weekend was as easy as securing one was on a Thursday night – I ended up driving all the way home. The 11-hour trip wreaked havoc on my back, neck and legs because the car I was using then didn’t have the luxury of cruise control.
I have learned many lessons since then, but, as you can tell, I still remember those days fondly.
As I prepare for my latest journey to “Boxing’s Hometown,” I believe that while this will be the first “normal” IBHOF Induction Weekend since 2019 in that a single class will be honored, the event remains in a period of transition. Graziano’s no longer exists. The induction ceremony will take place inside the Turning Stone Casino for the second consecutive year, mostly to remove the possibility of inclement conditions affecting the ceremony. The VIP Cocktail that had been staged inside the Greystone and the golf tournament that was conducted at Casolwood Golf Course are no longer on the schedule – and may never be again. Longtime attendees are grumbling because (1) these events (and Graziano’s) offered the best opportunities for them to secure autographs and photographs from the boxing celebrities and (2) the remaining events restrict that treasured access.
Although the main objective of IBHOF Induction Weekend is to honor the legends and to generate as much revenue as possible to keep the museum operating, the vast majority of that revenue is generated by the fans who choose to attend. Their wishes can’t be ignored, for it is the collective mass of memories generated by these fans that make up a big part of the “magic” about which Executive Director Ed Brophy speaks. I know this because for many years I was one of those autograph-seeking fans. I remember how thrilled I was when I finally secured Hagler’s signature after eight years of trying, and I have a story for a fair share of the hundreds of autographs inside my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing,” which I brought with me starting in 1995. Because I spend most of my spare time gathering and chronicling material for these articles, my efforts to secure new autographs have ended, but that hasn’t stopped me from generating new memories – memories that I have been allowed to share here.
If the IBHOF is to remain viable for years to come, it must evolve. It must find a way to satisfy the fans in this new environment while also respecting the needs and wishes of the celebrities as well as fulfilling the Hall’s schedule of activities – always a difficult balancing act. For those who cannot attend the festivities, a rock-solid stream of events such as the ringside lectures, the fist castings, the Parade of Champions, the Banquet of Champions and the Induction Ceremony would be the next best thing, and, to the Hall’s credit, they are working on doing just that. The ability to witness these events online could inspire some viewers to travel to the following year’s event. And for those who are able to attend, a new after-hours gathering place to replace Graziano’s must be identified to keep the celebratory spirit going late into the night. Perhaps an enterprising business inside the Turning Stone or a nearby restaurant in Canastota could step up to the plate. Wherever that new place is, it must be determined organically by the fans.
One promising future addition to the IBHOF’s schedule took place last year at the Canastota Hi-Way Bowl bowling center where I and a few new friends spent the evening eating pizza and rolling a couple of games. According to Facebook, former ring rivals Michael Nunn and John Scully have been penciled in to take part in the event spawned by Brooklyn native/fellow video collector/Facebook friend Donovan Kasp and organized by Kasp and John Martin, an Irish boxing devotee from southern New Jersey who, like me, was also a league bowler. I later learned through Donovan that Hall of Famer Michael Spinks would join this year’s event along with Junior Jones (Update: Only Scully appeared, but he appeared to have a wonderful time). More than a few boxers – most notably Hall of Famers “Sugar” Shane Mosley and Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield – are avid bowlers, so perhaps the IBHOF could consider officially arranging for a Hall of Fame “Bowling with the Stars.”
Unfortunately, I won’t make this year’s outing. The reason: On Thursday I will fly from Syracuse to New York City in order to accept the 2022 Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award at the Boxing Writers Association of America’s annual dinner, an event about which I will write in Part II.
My schedule for this year’s pilgrimage, at least as I know it now, is quite involved:
*Tuesday – Drive from Friendly to my traditional mid-way point of Erie, Pa.
*Wednesday – Drive from Erie to Canastota, check into my room at the Days Inn and indulge in what I hope will become a new tradition: Eating pizza with “In This Corner: The Podcast” partner and IBHOF Induction Weekend host James “Smitty” Smith.
*Thursday – Fly from Syracuse to New York, take a cab from LaGuardia to the Edison Hotel where the BWAA dinner is being held, and deliver a short speech in accepting the Good Guy Award.
*Friday – Fly from New York to Syracuse and chronicle the “ShoBox: The New Generation” card at the Turning Stone Resort Casino’s event center.
*Saturday – Mingle with fans on the museum grounds, take in the boxing autograph card show at Canastota High School, conduct a boxing trivia session by myself (a first), and attend the Banquet of Champions (hardly a first).
*Sunday – Hopefully reunite with Hall of Famer Bernard Fernandez (who is scheduled to attend with his wife Anne) and engage in our traditional “Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit,” chronicle the Induction Ceremony at the Turning Stone Casino, and take in the event’s afterglow.
*Monday – Drive from Canastota to Friendly – using cruise control of course.
What memories will these events generate? Will this former frequent flier experience “road rust” like inactive fighters suffer through “ring rust”? Will I deliver my speech at the BWAA dinner flawlessly or will nerves cause me to produce an unintentional viral moment? These are only a few of the questions that will be answered in the days ahead. So, without further delay, let’s begin the journey.
Tuesday, June 6: During my “Travelin’ Man” days – especially during the peak years of 2007 and 2008 when I occasionally jetted to two ESPN shows per week – packing had become a routine process. Now, it took quite a while for me to identify and complete my check list – a sure sign of the “road rust” I spoke about in the last paragraph – but once I left the house at 1:10 p.m. (after spending most of the morning writing a 3,000-word CompuBox analysis for the July 24 Edgar Berlanga-Jason Quigley main event on DAZN) I was convinced I had all my bases covered.
Aside from a hazy sky reportedly produced by ongoing fires in Canada, it was a beautiful day for a long drive. The temperature was in the low 70s and no rain was in sight. In fact, aside from a brief sprinkle on Sunday, my area had been precipitation-free for the better part of a week and the extended forecast called for dry weather in my area until this Sunday. Another sign of “road rust” surfaced when I decided to use my GPS as a back-up for my drive to Erie because one year, I absent-mindedly took Exit 18 on Interstate 79 – the turn-off I used while driving to Pittsburgh International Airport – instead of proceeding straight through as I should have.
Because the GPS worked perfectly – and because traffic was relatively light – I arrived at the hotel in Erie less than four hours after I began, an impressive time given that I spent a few minutes refilling my tank, a far less expensive task than was the case at this time last year when the price per gallon soared above $5. Still, the $3.29 per gallon I paid was considerably more than what I paid a few years earlier, but, being a half-tank-full kind of guy, I opted to look on the bright side.
In fact, I made such good time that when I called home to report my safe arrival, the home folks initially thought I was calling to report car trouble because they believed I would be calling 90 minutes later. After settling in, I stopped by a nearby Pilot store and purchased my next two meals – a foot-long Subway in which I would eat one half now and the other half later, a bag of chips and a sugar-free, zero-calorie soda. As one Subway employee prepared my order, I mentioned last July’s story about how one Subway superfan from Colorado took the company up on its offer to provide free subs for life if he got a 12-inch by 12-inch tattoo depicting the new “Subway Series” menu. (https://nypost.com/2022/07/28/subway-superfan-gets-free-subs-for-life-after-getting-footlong-tattoo/). Interestingly, the other Subway employee mentioned that she would have been willing to get such a tattoo if Jersey Mike’s or Firehouse Subs had made a similar offer. Not exactly a glowing testimony for her current employer – or for the company making the sandwich I was about to consume.
I spent the remainder of the evening writing most of the words you’ve read thus far. Then, after reaching a good stopping point, I began my nightly winding-down process and turned out the lights shortly after 1 a.m.
Wednesday, June 7: During my traveling days I usually experienced sleep issues because of the unfamiliar surroundings, but this time my six-hour slumber was unusually sound. Following the morning routines I received an email from the Edison Hotel in New York, the site of this year’s BWAA annual awards dinner as well as my accommodations during my stay in “The Big Apple.” It invited me to complete the check-in process, an invitation I accepted in case I arrived later than anticipated and needed to hurry. With that task done, it was time for me to depart for Canastota, with the only planned stop being Syracuse Hancock International Airport. The reasons: To check into tomorrow’s flight (which is scheduled to depart at 12:15 p.m.) and to make sure that my TSA Pre-Check privileges are intact.
Believe it or not, it has been more than three years since my last plane ride, and while I have been able to maintain my frequent flier accounts, I wanted to make absolutely sure that I still had TSA Pre-Check, a Godsend in this era of extra-tight pre-flight security precautions. No invasive pat-downs. Shorter lines. The ability to keep one’s shoes on in many cases. In short, enhanced trust and dignity during a time when both are in short supply. And, just in case my Pre-Check claim was doubted, I have memorized my “Trusted Traveler” number and I still have my acceptance letter from TSA that indicated that my privileges would be in effect until October 2024.
I checked out of my room at 8:20 a.m. and was on the road a few minutes later. No need for the GPS this time as my entire route, aside from the airport visit, would be driven on Interstate 90. The temperature was a crisp 60 degrees and the sun was out. But not for long.
As I traveled east and crossed into New York state, the effects of the Canadian fires on American skies grew increasingly worse. In Rochester, what normally would have been a pretty late spring day had the appearance of dusk thanks to the “beige haze.” The coloring lightened as I approached Syracuse, but the air quality reports I heard on the radio painted an alarming picture.
A phone call from Smitty during my drive (which I heard through my hands-free Bluetooth device) confirmed that this supposedly “normal” IBHOF Induction Weekend would be anything but. He told me that many events that would have normally been staged outdoors such as the ringside lectures and the fist castings would be moved to the Turning Stone. I later learned that all the scheduled events for Thursday and Friday would be moved to the casino but that the Hall’s gift shop would remain open. The fates of Saturday and Sunday events such as the 5K run and the Parade of Champions would remain in flux.
Because I arrived at the airport in Syracuse inside of my 24-hour check-in period, I approached the Delta counter, explained my situation, and heard what I wanted to hear: My flight (and my seat) was confirmed, and my TSA Pre-Flight privileges were intact. No fuss. No muss. No problem. I would have breathed a sigh of relief but given the air quality issues I thought better of it.
I drove into the parking lot of the Days In at 1:20 p.m. and spent the next half hour chatting mostly about baseball with Doug Joslyn – the man behind the check-in desk — before moving my belongings into my second-floor room. Through all the years there has been one consistent thread with me and IBHOF Induction Weekend – long conversations that relegate sleeping, eating and other regular daily activities to secondary status.
After checking into my room, I met Smitty in the Days Inn lobby, then drove him to the New York Pizzeria at 200 South Peterboro Street. Because he had eaten a larger-than-anticipated meal, he opted to spring for mine – two large slices of pizza and a diet beverage. And how do I repay him? By accidentally spilling my soda all over the table. Once we cleaned up the mess, we spent the next hour chatting about life and boxing, the kind of quality face-to-face time that can’t be simulated on a Zoom screen or on one of our daily phone calls.
The conversations continued through the next several hours, first inside the IBHOF museum with longtime attendees Glenn Wilson, Jim Kernodle and Eric Schmidt, then inside the gift shop with the same group as well as Smitty, then inside the Days Inn lobby with Eric and Sam Winder, another veteran attendee. Daily life doesn’t provide many opportunities to converse with passionate and knowledgeable boxing fans, and, to me, this comprises a considerable part of the “magic” of Induction Weekend.
Just after I stopped at a nearby McDonald’s to purchase my final meal of the day, I received a text from Smitty regarding the big event in New York that will take place the following evening: “Good luck tomorrow. Take it all in and enjoy.”
I intend to do exactly that.
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 22 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) as well as the 2022 winner of the BWAA’s Marvin Kohn “Good Guy Award.” To contact Groves, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook and Twitter (@leegrovesboxing).