Part I: Reflections on the International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend ‘04
“You know, fight guys are the most free-hearted people in the world” (Angelo Dundee, trainer, 1990 Hall-of-Fame Inductee)
Article posted on 25.01.2006
“I love you all. Whether you were for me, or you betted against me, you bought a ticket to see me and I love you for that” (Carlos Palomino, former welterweight champion, 2004 Hall-of-Fame Inductee)
24.01.06 - by Eric B. Thompson: Okay, like most of you out there who are reading this and who’d be willing to own up, I confess to being a boxing junkie. Yes, I’m one of those breed of fans who just can’t get enough, borderline obsession so it seems. I confess to an unquenchable adrenaline rush at the sight of two sculpted, finely-tuned fighters dodging and parrying in the ring, all the more heightened by the roar of a crowd. Though I don’t have ESPN, Showtime or HBO, I confess to having the fight of the year for virtually every year since 1950 as well as a multitude of great runners-up. I confess to having a bookshelf full of good, literate boxing journalism, both classic and contemporary and that I savor each new addition to my library word for word over a martini, a glass of cognac, or a nice single malt. I confess to poring over statistics and pitting fighters of different eras and their legacies against each other. I confess to loving fight people on the whole and revel in the pleasure of their company, recognizing all the crass hype and trash talk for just what it is. I confess to an utter fascination with the immortals of the ring and their legendary stories…
The stylish flair of a Sugar Ray Robinson, both inside and outside the ring and his unshakeable hold on the all-time pound-for-pound list…
The matchless work ethic of a Rocky Marciano and his unbeaten career record…
The Latin machismo of a Roberto Duran and that competitive fire which drove him to brand his mark on several different weight classes…
The broodingly-handsome good looks and cool ring generalship of a Carlos Monzon, never stopped, unbeaten in his last eighty-odd fights despite his reputed habit of training on booze, cigarettes and women…
The global charisma of a Muhammad Ali, one of the most widely-recognized men in the world, truly an international citizen…
The quiet humility of a Joe Louis whose image, whose example helped galvanize the resolve of a racially-divided United States during the war effort. Throughout his heyday not just the most popular black athlete and public figure in his country’s history but, moreover, the first black American to be universally revered by his fellow citizens...
So naturally, with such an all-consuming passion for the sport, I just had to make the trek to Canastota (rhymes with “canna soda”), N.Y. for the annual International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) Induction Weekend at my earliest opportunity. Originally intended as a museum for the careers of its two most famous native sons, world champions Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus, the organization would soon outgrow, outstrip its original vision to become a showplace for all illustrious fighters and fight game figures worldwide, both past and present. Having heard nothing but overwhelmingly laudatory accounts of the goings-on, I was braced for at least some disappointment. I was not to be disappointed in any respect—indeed, my expectations were exceeded by far and then some.
Carlos Palomino’s quote seems as perfect a keynote pitch for the IBHOF as one could imagine. A far cry from Cooperstown, Canton and Springfield and their annual offerings which afford little fan-athlete interaction, the emphasis of the IBHOF Induction Weekend is as much on the fan as the inductee and other retired and active boxers in attendance. Established in 1990, Induction Weekend is an opportunity for the fan to meet his favorite fighter or fight game personality, to get an autograph, to have a picture taken, to ask a burning question (not to mention catch a fight card featuring world-class talent). Induction Weekend leaves one with a warm glow of close-knit fraternity—fans, fighters, trainers, managers, cornermen, promoters and journalists all intermingling freely, devoid of pomp and pretense, an unforgettable bonding fest every hardcore fight fan must experience for himself.
I rolled in to the Hall-of-Fame grounds around 4:30 p.m., three hours after the opening bell for the ceremonies, having driven the seven hundred-odd miles from my home in North Carolina alone (my brother backed out on me at the last minute). I can’t imagine a better place for a gathering of this sort than a relaxed, rural setting such as upstate central New York, once the largest onion-producing region in the Northeast. No big-city bustle. “Village of Canastota”, “Village of Vernon”, so the signs read as you pass from community to community. Though attendance is in the thousands, you can freely come and go without undo delay from your hotel and back, from one event to another.
Regrettably, I’d missed the celebrity workout sessions and the ringside lectures of Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Carlos Palomino and Daniel Zaragoza, all 2004 inductees., but the formal welcome to the weekend’s festivities, the Hall of Fame Cookout and the late-night partying all lay just ahead.
The moment I stepped out of my car, Stanley Christodoulou, South African referee and Class of 2004 Inductee perhaps best know for officiating during the first Pryor-Arguello classic, approached and asked for directions; ever the gentleman, he was overly gracious, almost apologetic.
Star struck, electricity in the air, I approached Bert Randolph Sugar, former Ring editor, raconteur and colorful fight game personality as he spoke with a reporter for the Chicago Tribune under the pavilion. A throwback to the sportswriters of yore, he owns no computer, has no email address and types out all his musings on a manual typewriter. Perhaps no one loves or cares about the state of boxing more than Bert. He had his ever-present fedora and stogie with him though was sans cocktail as the IBHOF prohibits alcohol on its premises; he would, as expected, make note of this glaring omission at day’s end and invite all to join him at Graziano’s neighborhood restaurant and bar across the street in due course for libations and good cheer.
Bert immediately beckoned for my copy of his recently released Bert Sugar On Boxing: The Best of the Sport’s Most Notable Writer both to sign it for me and to underscore a point in his conversation. He and the reporter were discussing a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson proposed by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns which Bert, some fighters, Senator John McCain and other key politicians and figures were endorsing.
“Pardon? For what?”, I asked. As I said, I was star struck, not thinking clearly.
Bert looked at me wide-eyed, though by no means condescendingly. “Why, the Mann Act.”
The Mann Act. You dolt, I thought. I knew full well about the Mann Act. How the white establishment in this country had unjustly convicted the black Jack Johnson in 1913 of taking a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes (i.e., prostitution) as a means of punishing him for openly, brazenly going around with white women. I was just too glazed over at the moment to think straight, recall.
Crestfallen sigh. Off to a bad start, I thought. I was sure there wouldn’t be an opportunity for more exchanges with Bert as he couldn’t possibly respect my knowledge of boxing history what with that initial impression. I did get a great photo with him though, arm-in-arm.
Shortly thereafter, everyone took a seat under the pavilion as the celebrities were introduced onstage and given the opportunity to say a few words. Bert gave the keynote address, declaring Induction Weekend a celebration of the fan. Fighters are a different breed from other athletes, no team to hide behind, genuine, down-to-earth (don’t remember the exact wording or words he used). And they’re here for you.
The opening ceremony concluded with John Stracey, former welterweight champion and sometime cabaret singer belting out “Fly Me To the Moon” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, much to the delight of everyone.
As the fighters and other professional fight people retreated for an exclusive, private Hall of Fame Dinner prior to a late-nighter at Graziano’s, I lined up at the booth for one of the famous Carmen Basilio Italian sausage, pepper and onion sandwiches, a dietary staple for most of us throughout the weekend as they would be trucked from event to event.
Ah, knew there was one crucial item I’d left off my packing list. I inquired as to the availability of hot sauce, the greatest flavor enhancer known to man (I believe I could handle any physical malady except heartburn—if I can’t have my food hot and spicy, might as well give me an IV). My man behind the counter fixed me up, what a relief.
Now that’s Italian! Great stuff, the sausage. Understand it’s sold in stores locally, will have to pick some up and bring it home with me.
Okay, it’s about 6:30, time to head over to Graziano’s for a drink. And though the sausage sandwich hit the spot, I like to indulge my rather large appetite when on vacation. Maybe a plate of veal parmigiana and spaghetti with salad and a glass of cabernet for starters. An appetizer later on.
I took a seat and, admittedly, began to feel a bit lonely. I was wondering if I’d made a mistake coming all the way up here by myself, having arrived a couple of hours ago and not having spoken to anyone at length yet. I was being overly harsh on myself for that muddleheaded episode earlier, the Mann Act bit. And how many of the fighters would actually show up here tonight after their exclusive dinner?
All was not lost. At a neighboring table, there was a lull in the conversation between a young guy and a fellow I rightly guessed to be his father, both up from Fort Myers, FL. I immediately struck up conversation and a rapport; the son and I ended up talking incessantly for the next half hour about our favorite fighters, what fights we had in our collections and what we hoped to get out of the weekend. Turns out he was an amateur fighter himself, a junior welterweight, and this was to be his big family weekend of the year. We exchanged addresses, ran into each other again and again throughout the course of events and, indeed, have kept in regular touch, exchanging fight tapes throughout the year.
“Serious boxing fans are few and far between, but I guess that’s what makes it—this—special ”, he would comment.
As I was finishing up my dinner, the celebrities began to appear on the scene, one-by-one. Alexis Arguello. Ken Buchanan. Rueben Olivares. Emile Griffith. Carlos Palomino. On and on as the lines for the autographs began to form.
I was struck by the unfailing courtesy of the fans towards each other throughout the weekend; though the lines were often long, everyone waited patiently for others to have their turn with the fighters. I must say I was also struck by the blatant discourtesy of some of the fans toward the fighters; taking advantage of their generous nature, some fans would approach boxers with stacks of photos to sign—quite often multiples of the same pose.
“I don’t care, I’ll sign all night”, John Stracey commented as he indulged one particularly egregious offender, knowing full well that the items before him would end up being sold without his profiting in boxing autograph card shows such as the one scheduled for Saturday at the Canastota High School Gym. Jeff Fenech, bantamweight, featherweight pressure fighter extraordinaire, would also give his blessing to the fans, the collectors to hawk his signature; it was the least he could do to repay them, he’d say in so many words.
Aaron Pryor, two-fisted swarmer and arguably the greatest junior welter ever, is a perennially popular figure on Induction Weekend and no matter what he’d be doing, he’d drop it long enough to make sure he’d satisfied a fan. He and his wife, Frankie, were married on the grounds the year before and intend to celebrate their anniversary here for many years to come. I had just finished his authorized biography, Flight of the Hawk, the week before and presented him with my copy to sign.
“Aw man, I got a movie comin’ out about this—watch for it”, he remarked as he reached for my Sharpie.
Aaron and I had a couple of great photos taken together which I’ve enlarged and intend to have him sign this year so I can frame and mount them over my bar, forever after conversation pieces.
Pryor’s story is an all-too-familiar one for many a figher—he did what he had to escape the plight of his upbringing, in his case a Cincinnati ghetto, and burned brightly for a few short years before succumbing to the allure of drugs and drug addiction, his very existence in danger before he ultimately managed to pull himself out. Though his career ended prematurely and he had little monetarily speaking to show for it, he’s now happy as ever, much in demand as a trainer.
Carmen Basilio, all-time great welterweight and still feisty and game as ever at seventy-seven, signed a magazine for a fan then, handing it back, eyed him with stern appraisal over his spectacles as though sizing up an adversary. Quick as lightning, Carmen playfully flicked a jab out at the man who cowered back in mock fear.
As it turned out I would have another audience with Bert. I caught him as he stepped away from the bar, and we had an amiable chat over a gin and tonic about racial politics in the early days, picking up where we’d left off with Jack Johnson earlier. Joe Louis’s bum-of-the-month club. The color line during Dempsey’s days and did Jack fight any black fighters before he became champion? The answer was yes, and I would later learn that one of them, John Lester Johnson (who’d broken three of Dempsey’s ribs with a single punch), had several bit parts in Hollywood, including a well-remembered turn as a menacing harem guard in a Three Stooges short.
And what of Harry Wills, the number one challenger throughout much of Dempsey’s reign who never got his shot at the title for whatever reason?
Leaving no doubt as to who would have been the victor in that bout had it come off, Bert, gazing off into the distance, eyes narrowed as if trying to imagine the two men locked in furious combat, replied:
“Dempsey would have killed Wills.”
I soon realized that I was much better off having come to Induction Weekend alone, for the sometime or casual boxing fan just doesn’t have the background, the foundation to fully appreciate the sport’s rich heritage and what these living legends have to offer.
Then “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, all-time middleweight great and 1993 inductee walked in, waved off an approaching child and immediately took up a seat at the bar, his back to the proceedings for the rest of the night as he remained glued to an NBA playoff game. Without looking twice, one might have never recognized him; dressed in a ball cap, jacket and slacks all of which were navy blue, he had the appearance of a utility worker who’d just gotten off the job rather than a wealthy, celebrated ex-fighter.
Arguably the most popular fighter in attendance this year along with middleweight great Jake “The Raging Bull” LaMotta, Hagler had been one of my favorites growing up. I remember as a teenager being on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at my grandparents’ when he took the title from Alan Minter in brutal fashion but was denied his celebration in the ring, his moment of glory by an irate London crowd that went berserk over the early stoppage. Beer bottles were being hurled into the ring and Hagler and his cornermen had to be escorted to safety by the bobbies. I’d left the beach on that gorgeous Saturday afternoon to go inside and catch the fight by myself on an eight inch black and white T.V. on CBS’s Sports Spectacular. I’d seen Hagler robbed in an earlier shot at the title with Vito Antuofermo and knew that he’d soon be back with a vengeance, that nothing would stand between him and his fistic immortality.
Word was that Hagler wasn’t signing tonight, didn’t want to be bothered.
Okay, no problem. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Might be grumpy from too many flight delays on his way over from Italy where he now lives. As it turned out he’d remain largely inaccessible to the fans throughout most of the weekend—to my knowledge, the only fight game figure in attendance who remained so aloof.
One fan would tell me a couple days later, bummed out, that he’d given up on Hagler after repeated attempts to get his autograph, “He used to be one of my favorites, but not anymore,” he fumed.
I can certainly empathize with Hagler and the other fighters who have issues with collectors making money off of them. I understand they receive little or no residuals from their fights—be they re-broadcast on TV or pirated illegally on the internet—and that each item they sign represents a potential profit for someone hawking memorabilia. I Shook Up the World, The Rumble In the Jungle and The Thrilla in Manila, all Muhammad Ali classics, are probably the only three fights commercially available in their entirety in this country. Until servers, PCs and internet connections become faster and more powerful and fights can be legally posted on a pay-per-download basis (should that ever happen), the only recourse for the fight fan is to purchase tapes and DVDs from copyists out there who hold no rights. At last check on the web, a career DVD set of Hagler including interactive menu and a smart full color package insert goes for well over $100. Empathize indeed.
But, hey, what does it hurt to sign the occasional mag or book for a fan’s library (by all means personalize it and thereby diminish its commercial value) or have a photo taken with a fan? Reputedly, Holyfield can’t freely autograph due to his licensing agreement but is more than willing to have his picture taken with his admirers.
“I mean, would you ever want to buy a photo of me with (former Scottish lightweight champion) Ken Buchanan? ”, I put it to a newfound chum, a member of the British Boxing Board of Control all the way from Wales.
“Well not this weekend, anyway”, he chuckled.
It was like all of these guys were my long lost friends. And I say guys because it was predominantly guys all weekend with the occasional sporting or indulgent significant other in tow (at least that’s the way I saw it—go easy on me, ladies!).
I looked at my watch. 12:00 a.m. Hey, what a great first day it had been but it was time to head back to the hotel, have a nightcap and turn in. I chuckled at the thought that just a few hours before I was feeling lonely up here in Canastota by myself—that sure passed quickly. Only a fraction of the fighters had appeared on the scene so far and the first full day lay ahead. As I handed my credit card to the waitress, she asked me if I’d gotten all the autographs I’d sought.
“All but one. Couldn’t get the gentleman at the end of the bar”, I replied, gesturing towards Hagler.
“Want me to get it for you?”
“Oh no, that’s okay. He probably had a rough time of it on the flight over, apparently doesn’t want to be bothered tonight.”
“Are you sure?”
Hmmm. “Well, okay.”
I watched her exchange words with him from the other end of the bar and by the expression on his face he appeared reluctant, ready to balk. She spoke a few more words to him and then, in open-mouthed, you-gotta-be-kiddin’ disbelief he slowly turned his head in my direction as if expecting to see the visage of a beaming, expectant male looking on, a male who had put her, probably all of seventeen or eighteen, up to this. Quick as a flash, I ducked behind a neighboring bar patron.
A moment later, she returned triumphantly, my Ring 80th Anniversary Collector’s Special: The 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years inscribed with the following:
“To Amy,’Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler”.
Stay tuned for Part II
For more information on the IBHOF and Induction Weekend ’06 events,, checkout the International Boxing Hall of Fame website (www.ibhof.com)
Eric B. Thompson is a sometime freelance writer and an all the time, 24-hr. armchair boxing historian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2005, Eric B. Thompson. All Rights Reserved.
NOTE: This article originally appeared on Rival Boxing Gear’s “Talking Boxing” website
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