The Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota (with a pit stop in NYC) – Part IV
Sunday, June 11: It took a while for the adrenaline from the events of Saturday that stretched into the early-morning hours of Sunday to wear off, but I still managed to get four-and-a-half hours of solid slumber. Following the completion of morning routines, I spent an hour-and-half polishing Part III and writing the opening bars of this, the final installment of my 2023 IBHOF Induction Weekend travelog.
One of the reasons I really enjoy this annual pilgrimage are the countless conversations I have with my fellow boxing fans, but as I awakened this morning, I was made aware of a potential problem: A somewhat froggy voice. In retrospect, it was no wonder because I’ve probably done more talking in the last three days than I have in the last two weeks. However, by resting my voice – and by taking one of the throat lozenges Smitty gave me yesterday before my first solo “Trivia with the Travelin’ Man” session – the vocal cords felt much better by the time I reached a good stopping point in the writing and began preparing for the culminating event of each year’s celebration — Induction Sunday.
Although the official schedule read that the Parade of Champions was to begin at noon, my habit has long been to hang around the museum grounds and engage in gab sessions, a process that eventually led to the “Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit” after I met future Hall of Fame writer Bernard Fernandez under one of the umbrella-shaded tables one year. For some reason, I’ve never been a fan of watching parades because of its passivity; I’d rather be doing something more productive like swapping stories over a sandwich and soda or learning a new perspective about a well-known event.
While chatting with five fans underneath the pavilion, host James “Smitty” Smith, resplendent in a blue suit with matching pointy-toed dress shoes, spoke my name into the microphone. As I approached the stage I wondered if he was going to have me engage in another impromptu activity because he likes to throw curveballs at me to see how I would react. Sure enough, he motioned me onto the stage and asked me to sit in one of the chairs in front of the microphones, but as the minutes ticked by nothing had changed. Forty-five minutes passed before I asked, “uh, Smitty, why am I up here?”
“Just to be my friend,” he replied.
Good enough for me.
After he left the grounds to prepare for the induction ceremony inside the Turning Stone Resort Casino’s Showroom (which also served as the site for Friday’s fist casting), I continued to float from group to group until a little after 1:30 p.m. The drive to the casino was uneventful but the initial seconds standing in line to enter the Showroom brought forth two surprises. The first was reuniting with Brian McDonald, with whom I worked during the days when HBO traveled us CompuBox operators, while the second involved the soda I had purchased at one of the casino’s convenience stores.
“You need to remove the cap and pour the liquid into this plastic cup,” I was told. I chugged enough of my sugar-free Pepsi Zero so that I could completely fill the cup, an act that received the hoped-for nod of approval. “When near Rome (New York), do as the near-Romans do,” I thought.
The Showroom’s configuration was markedly different than was the case for last year’s ceremony at the sprawling Events Center. The seats reserved for media was much closer to the stage (my seat was on the aisle of the third and final row of the section), and the layout inhibited the autograph seekers’ trademark rush toward the stage during the final group pose by the newly-minted inductees, another positive development given that I’ve been in the middle of the crush on several occasions, one of which threatened the safety of Carmen Basilio’s wife Josie.
Other changes included a reduced role for IBHOF president Don Ackerman (handing out rings upon completion of the speeches) and Smitty, who introduced everyone who would be seated onstage (Bob Arum, Tim Ryan, Ron Borges, Bernard Fernandez, Michael Nunn, Zhilei Zhang, Zab Judah, Ann Wolfe, Junior Jones, Sebastian and Gabriela Fundora, Ronald “Winky” Wright, Ray Mercer, Michael Spinks, Riddick Bowe, James “Buddy” McGirt, Robert Garcia, Michael Carbajal, Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez, Roberto Duran, Bruce Trampler, Lucia Rijker, Seth Abraham, Joe Goossen, Brad Jacobs, Brad Goodman, Alicia Ashley, Rafael Marquez, Timothy Bradley and Carl Froch, in that order) before handing the baton to Hall of Famer Jimmy Lennon Jr..
The process began with a ceremonial 10-count for the Hall of Famers who had passed away since last year’s ceremony – Bobby Goodman, Jerry Roth, Steve Smoger, Mills Lane, Mogens Palle, Eder Jofre, Carlos Ortiz, Ken Buchanan, and the somber mood was lifted by the well-produced video showcasing the members of the Class of 2023 as well as Bradley’s ebullient reaction after Ackerman showed him the Hall of Fame ring he was going to receive later (a big smile and an extended “yeeeeaaaaaahhhhh!”).
The induction ceremony began at 2:46 p.m. and ended at 4:57, and the following is some moments that grabbed my attention:
*Fernandez and Rijker were unable to attend last year’s Trilogy celebration, the former because he chose to remain home with his wife Anne after she received a Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis (she was present at this year’s event and is doing well, though she told me she will need to undergo chemotherapy for the rest of her life) and Rijker because of COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by the government in her native Netherlands. For the first time in my memory, the two IBHOF alumni were able to deliver their induction speeches and experience the one-of-a-kind moment that was denied them for reasons beyond their control. It was a nice touch, and a practice I believe the Hall should continue, because while the plaque will be inside the museum for all time and while the inductees will have their rings and certificates, the act of standing on stage delivering a speech before fans, family and friends is a unique experience that can’t be replicated.
*The most electrifying moment was provided by matchmaker Brad Goodman, who used this defining professional moment as a catalyst for what he hoped would be a defining personal moment.
“When people ask me what was the best match that I ever made, she’s sitting me with me today, and for the rest of my life,” he said with a quiver in his voice. “Vivian Fierro-Rojas, will you marry me?”
Rojas, who was busy recording the speech on her phone, was seated two rows up and across the aisle from my location, and based on her reaction she had no earthly idea she was about to be issued a public marriage proposal. Nevertheless, her answer was robustly communicated without saying a single word as she and Brad sealed their engagement with not just one kiss, but three. She spent the next several minutes fanning herself and chatting excitedly with her seatmates, the very picture of a future blushing bride.
Although Goodman was the first to propose marriage during his induction speech, it was not the Induction Weekend’s first wedding-related event. On June 5, 2003, Hall of Famer Aaron Pryor married Frankie Lynn Wagner under the newly erected pavilion on the museum grounds in a ceremony officiated by Todd Rouse, who was Canastota’s mayor at the time. I know this because I was among the hundreds who witnessed the event, but, unlike most of those hundreds, I saved the wedding program that was distributed on that day.
Brad Jacobs, who was set to speak after Goodman, produced the perfect transition by remarking, “Brad, that’s a little hard to follow.”
* One class member who could have stood on stage but chose not to was Laura Serrano, who explained via video that she felt that accepting this honor amidst the pomp and circumstance of an induction ceremony would present an irreconcilable conflict within her.
“I humbly and respectfully accept this induction,” she said. “I’m sorry I’m not there. The reason why is because of my religious beliefs. I’ve always been very consistent with my convictions, first as a fighter, now as a Jehovah’s Witness. So that’s why I’m not there celebrating with you. But, from the bottom of my heart, I want to say to everyone responsible for my induction thank you, thank you, thank you.”
*Emcee Jimmy Lennon Jr. honored the posthumous Class of 2023 inductees (Jo Ann Hagen, Tiger Jack Fox and Pone Kingpetch) by reciting their resumes, and this part of the ceremony concluded with Thailand’s secretary general congratulating Kingpetch via video.
*Joe Goossen has always been renowned for his coolness under fire and such was the case here as he worked without notes and spent much of his speech paying tribute to his older brother Dan, who was part of the IBHOF Class of 2020, as well as fellow inductee Seth Abraham, who hired him for TVKO, his first broadcasting job. Of Dan, he said he “was the man who made it happen, and I was along for the ride,” while mentioning that Evander Holyfield-George Foreman was the first main event he ever called.
*Speaking of Abraham, he remarked that Bob Arum’s name, to that point, had been mentioned 16 times, making him one of the stars of this year’s ceremony even though he didn’t have to utter one word. The irony of it wasn’t lost on Abraham as he stated that he never thought that he would begin his Hall of Fame induction speech by stating that Arum was “the patriarch of boxing” and “one of the most important figures in the history of professional boxing.” The fact that Abraham, who also noted that he was the 13th inductee associated with HBO, would be keeping count of such an esoteric aspect of the ceremony might explain why he rolled the dice on hiring Bob Canobbio, Logan Hobson, and their creation, CompuBox, virtually on the spot in 1985.
*Despite turning 84 last month, Tim Ryan’s crisp speaking voice remains a pleasure to listen to, and he used the opportunity to express his appreciation for fellow inductee Gil Clancy as well as give voice to two long-held desires of writers, historians and fans – one world champion in each weight class, and more oversight by an overarching administrative entity.
*It is worthy to note that Alicia Ashley, who fought professionally in 13 countries, is now living in Shanghai, China. Her unorthodox path in life was further illustrated by her boxing career, which didn’t begin until age 28, but what wasn’t typical for the era was her struggle to establish herself.
“I trained to be a pro dancer like my father, and in the midst of achieving my dream I had a devastating injury that curtailed my future. It took me a while to pivot; I started boxing at 28 and turned pro at 32. No one would take a chance on me. I never expected my career to last two years, much less nearly 20. I traveled the world, and I was the underdog in most of my fights, even when I was a champion. I fought practically everyplace before I was able to fight in my hometown of New York. A lot of people look at my record on paper without context and wonder why I got here, but in doing that, they are missing the bigger picture. The road that I took to get here was akin to climbing Mount Everest; there are twists and turns such as ageism and the hostilities with limited support. I had to work harder, persevering through injuries, a lack of financial support, working full time, going to school part time to earn a bachelor’s degree, but, eventually, I was able to get this pro career that started late going. I can’t imagine what the road would have been like if I started with a promoter or manager. I guess that path was what brought me here.” By doing so, she joins Mike McCallum as Jamaicans who have been elected to the Hall.
*Rafael Marquez’s speech, which was delivered through an interpreter, was notable for two things: It’s brevity, and the fact that while he thanked his parents, wife and children, all of whom were in the audience, he failed to mention his older brother Juan Manuel Marquez, who was elected as part of the Class of 2020 and who did not attend this year’s celebration.
“It is a sacrifice of 30 years to be here today, which is very difficult, but very beautiful,” he said.
* Froch originally planned to “wing” his acceptance speech, but thought better of it when he spotted Bradley, who he called “the consummate professional,” diligently typing away on his phone and going through a thorough pre-speech ritual that persuaded “The Cobra” to up his game and treat the event like the serious moment it is.
A strong argument can be made that Froch produced the best swan song in boxing history: A one-punch KO victory over an arch rival in George Groves, and doing so inside the cavernous Wembley Stadium. As he had earlier in the week, he noted that the attendance for his first world title fight against Jean Pascal for the vacant WBC super middleweight title was 8,000, and that his final title contest was witnessed by 80,000.
“It was the biggest grudge match in ages, and after that, I decided that was it for me,” he said. “It was the crest of the wave that I was going to be retiring on.”
He also noted that he and Bradley won their first world titles in Nottingham (Froch against Pascal in December 2008 and Bradley against Junior Witter in May 2008) and that they each ended their careers with 33 wins and two defeats (Bradley did have the draw against Diego Chaves and had 13 KOs compared to Froch’s 24, which Bradley classily pointed out).
“I’m going to fly back to England tomorrow; I want to step foot on U.K. soil (and when I do so) I will be the proudest man in the West because of this,” he concluded.
*Bradley, the ceremony’s final speaker, recalled the extraordinary pressure he felt before his fight with Witter, which not only included the typical need to succeed, but also the necessity of winning in order to stabilize his family’s fragile financial state.
“Every honest man knows the pressure of providing for his family, and his wife looking at him like ‘what are we going to do?’” he said. “You either become suffocated by it all or you fight hard to get back onto your feet. That same pressure came heavy on May 10, 2008 in England. During the early morning before the battle with Junior Witter, later that evening, I remember my wife getting to the hotel around 4 a.m. At first glance, I heard, “Tim…Tim…” This “Tim” had pain and worry; concern. It wasn’t like a “hello, Tim,” I knew something was up and she said ‘we only have $11 in our bank account. I spent our last $300 to get here. You must win. You got to win.’ I looked at her and I said, ‘I’m going to win’ and that day, I vowed that my family was never going to be broke again. And every fight after that, these hardships stayed in my heart and in my mind, fueling me, and giving me an edge because I wasn’t the most talented out there. Still, I was the hungriest.”
It was that grit that drove Bradley to complete 35,900 push-ups and sit-ups in a year and it was that determination that pulled Bradley through his 2013 Fight of the Year war with Ruslan Provodnikov, a fight in which he was nearly knocked out in rounds one and two, dropped in the final round and left with a concussion that caused him to slur his words and walk with an unsteady gait (the symptoms reportedly vanished two months later). He was motivated by those who thought he should have lost his first fight with Manny Pacquiao and others who said he didn’t have an exciting style. He addressed both against Provodnikov, and that fight, combined with his subsequent victory over Juan Manuel Marquez, established the foundation for his eventual Hall of Fame elevation. He is the first one to tell you that he wasn’t the fastest or strongest, but he made up for it with world-class intangibles that helped him earn the ultimate professional affirmation.
Smitty worked his way off stage and because I opted to follow him, we spent much of the evening at a private after-party in which he and I mixed with a number of the people who hours earlier sat on the Showroom stage as well as other boxing notables and their families. The atmosphere was free, easy and fun, and I’m happy to say new friendships were formed. As I drove back to the Days Inn on Interstate 90 West, the thoughts and fresh memories caused my mind to buzz with excitement and wonder, a mix that could only be produced by experiencing the greatest four consecutive days of my lifetime.
Monday, June 12: The events of last evening had no effect on my circadian rhythm as I arose at my normal time of 7:30 a.m., and after finishing the morning routines, I planned to stop by the museum, visit with Ed and Jeff Brophy and begin the eight-and-a-half-hour drive home. That plan changed when I received a text from Smitty, who asked me to pick him (and his luggage) up at the Turning Stone Resort Casino and have breakfast with him at the Dunkin’ Donuts outlet after we dropped off his belongings at the Days Inn. I’m not normally a breakfast person, but I somehow worked up enough of an appetite to have a breakfast sandwich and a small bottle of orange juice.
My traditional day-after visits with Ed and Jeff were pleasant and productive, and at 11 a.m. I began the long drive home toward Friendly. With every passing mile, I was transitioning from the fantasy world associated with Hall of Fame Weekend – constant boxing talk, brushes with celebrities and Hall of Famers, and, this year, receiving a major award from the Boxing Writers Association of America in the heart of New York City – to my day-to-day life that involves my work as a full-time researcher with CompuBox, a podcaster, a boxing historian, and the owner of one of the largest sports video collections in the world.
In fact, I received a text from CompuBox president Bob Canobbio regarding an analysis for a fight that was to take place in six days’ time. It needed to be e-mailed so he could complete the work required to send our research to Showtime, and though he said it could wait until I got home, I opted to nip it in the bud by stopping at the next rest stop with WiFi capability and completing the task so that my mind would be fully invested in the drive home. Yes, it was raining, and yes, the temperature was in the upper 50s, but once I received confirmation from Bob that all was well, I was glad I went the extra mile.
Speaking of miles, I arrived home at 7:20 p.m. – 10 minutes ahead of schedule – and this journey saw me add 1,152 miles to my car’s odometer. After unpacking my belongings, I did my best to tell the folks at home as many stories as I could remember. But my off-the-top-of-my-head recollections were insufficient in terms of telling the whole story, and that’s why I’ve spent the last two decades writing “The Travelin’ Man Chronicles.”
Now that this year’s pilgrimage to Canastota is now history, I will now return to my regularly scheduled life. And, since I referenced a certain legendary Christmas movie in Part II, that regularly scheduled life has been a most wonderful one.
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).