Part II: Reflections on the International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend ‘04
25.01.06 - by Eric B. Thompson: Day Two: Yargh. Yargh and yargh again. Didn’t really need that double whiskey nightcap in the lobby with your Welsh mates, did you? Bit of a hangover looming over me as I massaged my temples, made my way down to the breakfast buffet at the Miracle Isle Gaming Resort hotel in Vernon. With seasonal harness racing and soon to be added video gaming machines, the Miracle Isle’s one of the select establishments in the area, but as I’d spend maybe one or two waking hours there all weekend, my thrifty self, if traveling alone, will probably end up at a Motel 6 this year.
Article posted on 25.01.2006
The only logistical problem of note all weekend was the parking situation at the IBHOF grounds—nowhere to park on the first full day for late comers such as myself. No problem, though. The local merchants across the street are more than happy to oblige, having roped off, reserved the outer reaches of their lots for the IBHOF visitors. I found a spot on my first try, at the McDonald’s..
As with yesterday, all of the formal activities will be held here on the IBHOF grounds. Save for the indoor IBHOF Museum itself (as opposed to the outdoor pavilion) and the actual Induction Ceremony on Sunday, admission to everything on the IBHOF grounds is free, and that includes the ringside lectures, celebrity workouts and fist castings. Come this evening, though, beginning with the Fame & Fortune Celebrity Boxing at the Turning Stone Casino Resort, there will be paid admission, ticketed events as well at different locations throughout the community, throughout the weekend; best to pay up, order well in advance as some of these do sell out.
With only a few of the expected many more celebrities on the scene, I decided it was a good time to check out the museum. It’s a small but growing collection of bronze fist castings, championship belts, robes and boxing shoes. On the far wall, the hallowed Hall of Fame wall, are commemorative plaques for each of the inductees. Perhaps the most striking feature inside is a life-sized bronze of Carmen Basilio, hunched over, ready to deliver one of his lethal hooks. Signed memorabilia and tee shirts are available for sale, the proceeds of which are applied towards the growth of the museum. The IBHOF has various fund raising events throughout the year, including raffling off major fight card packages (travel and accommodations included), but Induction Weekend is by far the grandest affair.
Back in the pavilion, I’m watching a clip of Marciano / Walcott 1, one of the greatest heavyweight title fights of all time.
“The Rock didn’t have much use for the jab, did he?”
I turn and there’s a very imposing guy standing next to me, probably six feet four, two sixty or seventy, tattooed, bearded and girded like a road warrior in leather, biceps as big as my thighs—not the sort of guy you’d want to cross in a dark alley. He spoke meltingly with me for the next twenty minutes about his favorite fighters and how they would have fared in what-if, mythical matchups with other greats from different eras as I threw in my two cents. We exchanged contact information and promised to keep in touch.
A few minutes later I struck up a conversation with a memorabilia collector who had a booth in tomorrow’s Autograph and Card Show. Within fifteen minutes we’d developed a significant enough bond that he entrusted me to watch his stuff sack full of gloves, training mitts, ring post pads and day planner long enough for him to go over to Graziano’s for a drink.
The fighters are beginning to setup their individual shops for signing, so I survey the scene and decide I’ll go for Matthew Saad Muhammad first, former light heavyweight champion and one of the most exciting, crowd-pleasing action fighters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. No, the line’s just too long for LaMotta, not a sure bet and, truth to tell, the “Raging Bull” would have to turnback many a fan that day as he just couldn’t accommodate them all in one sitting.
My turn now with Saad Muhammad. He looked great at 49, still taut and buff.
“Did you ever get your belt back?”, I asked, referring to a web newsbrief I’d read a month or so ago indicating that his championship belt had been “misappropriated”, ended up on eBay, and had been sold to a collector who was offering to donate it to the IBHOF.
“Nah”, he said as he signed my Ring annual. Then he looked up, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Why, you got it?”
His quizzical, “c’mon now” frown spread into a grin as he stood up and posed arm in arm with me for the camera.
Current champions Cory Spinks and Winky Wright put on celebrity workouts, providing an excellent photo op for the crowd as they snapped away at them skipping rope and hitting the bags.
Of the ringside lectures that afternoon, the one which intrigued me the most was delivered by Ron Ross, author of Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter. In a nutshell, the author related how, quoting the dust jacket blurb:
“Bummy’s life was intertwined with the Great Depression, the survival of the Brooklyn Jewish immigrant population during Prohibition, and the inevitable offshoot of Prohibition—Murder, Inc., one of American history’s most notorious band of killers.”
Furthermore, he went on to describe how his book, “portrays an important historical time period, an enigmatic Jewish subculture, and the surprising juxtaposition of a generation of Jews and their talent for boxing.”
I had Ron sign my copy afterwards and pose for a picture for the scrapbook.
Book signings are an unofficial event at the IBHOF grounds, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see which authors and titles show up.
More autographs, more photos, more exchanges with the celebs. Middleweight great Gene Fullmer, murderous-punching light heavyweight Bob Foster, referee Arthur Mercante. Before I know it it’s late afternoon, time to get a shower back at the hotel, grab a bite to eat and head over to the Casino for the fight card.
I take a generous pull of scotch from my flask in the parking lot as Turning Stone, like many of the U.S. casinos outside of Atlantic City and Nevada, aren’t licensed to sell alcoholic beverages.
The card, to be broadcast live as an installment of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights, is entitled Summer of Sosa as Victoriano Sosa, lightweight contender perhaps best known for his contests with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Miguel Cotto, is featured in the main event.
First up is Lou Duva heavyweight protégé Mike Marrone of Vero Beach, FL who knocks out his overmatched opponent, Rodney Collins, sending him crashing to the canvas in the first round. Marrone is a dead ringer for a young Jack Dempsey circa Dempsey / Willard with his whitewall haircut and handsome, chiseled features and, from what I can tell, might even have more than a soupcon of the legendary Hall-of-Famer’s punching power as I would joke with Duva the following night.
I’m not an animated, vocal fight fan. I usually sit rapt, mesmerized by the violence, the brutality; the impact of the punches, the spray of sweat and blood, the reverberating crash of a fighter hitting the canvas from a knockdown are just too palpable, too surreal for words. I can’t bring myself to boo or call a fighter a bum who plays it safe—there are no cowards in the ring.
And in the back of the mind for every bout looms the specter of ring fatality; though rare, it does happen…year after year…every year…somewhere...
I like to think that any fallen warrior, whether celebrated champion or marginal contender, will have an honored place reserved for him at the banquet table in Valhalla.
But enough of that from me, your ever-conscionable, sometimes apologetic fight fan. Let’s move on.
Unfortunately, much of the crowd’s focus during the evening is on the dais off to the side where Hagler, Pryor, Arguello and other legends are being interviewed for the following week’s broadcast on ESPN, everyone wondering who’s going to show up next.
Harold Rodriguez and Shannon Miller follow later in a highly entertaining scrap between two big, burly heavyweights throwing heavy leather. Rodriguez is disqualified after repeated fouls and warnings.
In the main event, Sosa plays it safe, settling for a unanimous decision.
Another raucous round of merrymaking, swapping fight lore and trivia at Graziano’s before I head back to the hotel and turn in.
On tap this day are the 8:30 a.m. 5K Run / Walk (don’t get up early enough for that when I’m on vacation, plus I don’t know in advance whether or not I’m gonna have a slight hangover), the Golf Tournament (don’t golf), and more ringside lectures. Hate to give up the lectures, but I have to see what memorabilia’s on offer.
I arrived at the Autograph and Card show, the largest such boxing-exclusive show worldwide, around 10:30 a.m. and expected to find everything already well picked over. Such was not the case. To my delight, I picked up copies of the out-of-print, hard-to-find books Victory Over Myself , the story of Floyd Patterson, and Dempsey, an authorized account of the “Manassa Mauler” penned by his daughter. Disappointingly, none of the vendors in attendance this year had fight tapes for sale, but I did manage to find rare VHS copies of The Pittsburgh Kid and Keep Punching, stylized autobiographical flicks released back in the day to capitalize off the ring successes of Billy Conn and Henry Armstrong, respectively. The bulk of the memorabilia consists of signed items—primarily photos, gloves, punching bags—and rare and not so rare printed matter—The Ring and other magazines, books.
You wouldn’t believe the zeal of some of these collectors, some of whom appeared to be more-than-willing to second-mortgage the home and back a moving van up to the door of the gymnasium. If you’re not buying for resell, what are you going to do with all this stuff? Dedicate an entire room or wing of the house as a shrine? At what point does the wife say enough is enough and I’m outta here?
While waiting for Jeff Fenech to arrive and sign my copy of his career retrospective DVD, Fenech, I had a great chat with Aussie boxing journalist Paul Upham, affectionately known as “Uppie”, about the Down Under boxing scene, reigning junior welterweight king Kostya Tszyu—his recent spate of injuries and impending return to the ring—and the joys of covering the Sweet Science for a livelihood.
A relative of Marciano opponent Phil Muscato wanted to know if any footage of their fight was ever taken and, if so, does it still exist. I told him that I wasn’t aware of any but that walking sports almanac Bert Sugar, seated nearby signing autographs, would be the go-to guy on that one. Bert wasn’t aware of any, having actually pursued that one himself.
Next stop was Philly-based promoter Russell Peltz’s booth where I leafed through the stacks of Ring magazine in search of the issues with features such as “Top Twenty Middleweights of All Time”, “Top Twenty Heavyweight Championship Fights of All Time” to add to my collection. I must somewhat ashamedly admit to having had a preconceived rather dim view of promoters, viewing them as altogether manipulative, self-serving, callous to the core, and I expected Peltz, Class of ’04, to be no different. Though he’s undoubtedly a very shrewd businessman, he struck me as being eminently engaging and extremely personable as others would attest. He helped me find the Ring issues I was looking for and when I was ready to checkout he would genially inform me that a better deal was to be had with multiples of threes rather than twos, so back I went to the stacks.
Okay, almost 4:00 p.m., time to head back to the hotel for a brief nap, get a shower and head over to the VIP “Gala” Cocktail reception at, of all places, the Greystone Catholic Church in downtown Canastota.
I took one look at the line which stretched for what seemed a block outside the church and decided no way, have been in too many lines already for one day, chalk it up as a donation and head on over, settle on in at the Rusty Rail Party House for the Banquet of Champions which begins in just over an hour. I must say, though, that those who did attend the Cocktail Party would report that they had no problem getting a drink and that their quests for celebrity contacts there were indeed fruitful; word, too, was that Hagler had signed freely.
Setup in the banquet hall was still in progress when I arrived, so I meandered into the hallway, sipping a martini, and hung out with some perennial volunteers who shared their past experiences with the celebrities who had come and gone over the years.
One of the male volunteers had a crush on Christy Martin, the only female boxing star who regularly attends. When asked about her good looks, he shrugged somewhat sheepishly and replied:
“Well, you know, that doesn’t hurt either.”
The minutes ticked away, more and more attendees arrived and the Banquet was on the verge of getting underway when I inquired as to the whereabouts of the men’s room before taking my seat. There was a men’s room behind the stage but I was informed that I couldn’t use it because they were getting ready to introduce the celebrities and that I couldn’t cut across the stage area in front of them. I’d have to go use the men’s room in the back hall where all of the celebrities were lined up for their introductions.
As with the first day at the pavilion, I must have appeared star struck, overly self-conscious as I stood before the pugilistic pantheon forming a long, unbroken line in the hallway. Former Ali nemesis Ken Norton and Carmen Basilio accosted me, having a little fun at my expense.
“Whadda yah doin’?” Carmen bellowed, even at his advanced age eager to pit his 5’6” self against a 6’2”, 200 lb, reasonably-in-shape 40 yr.older. “You better get outta the way or I’m gonna punch you in the b*lls!!!”
And believe-you-me, I heard a sharp whistle and felt a cringe-inducing breeze below the belt as I returned fire, countering his mock flurry.
We both broke into laughter, slapping one another on the back.
“I love youse guys!”, I declared, borrowing a line from Jeff Fenech.
Carmen’s response was to look away with a sobering expression that seemed to say “Awright now, let’s not get maudlin.”
Really deep in the spirit of it all and with a couple of martinis under my belt, I paused on the way back to my table to place my hands buddy-like on the shoulders of both Lou Duva and Angelo Dundee and inquired as to whether or not they’d be going to Graziano’s afterwards. Rather than look at each other with “Who the hell’s he?” expressions, they both simply smiled and nodded yes.
We were served straightaway and as the dishes were being taken up the celebrities began to welcome the fans’ attention once again. I approached former welterweight champion Tony DeMarco who refused to sign a magazine page dedicated to Basilio / DeMarco 2, Ring magazine’s choice for best welterweight fight in the magazine’s eighty year history. Instead, he flipped the magazine over and signed the back.
“I didn’t win that one”, he grumbled.
“This is the best. I look forward to this every year”, DeMarco would say that weekend. “I can’t wait for it. The week before it, I can’t get any sleep because I’m so excited. It’s the show of a lifetime.”
Legendary screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, The Harder They Fall) encouraged me in my writing endeavors, wishing me the best.
I’d never gotten an answer as to the whereabouts of journalist W.C. Heinz, Class of ’04, so I approached Bert Sugar who was busy turning on the charm with a couple of young female volunteers. I needlessly apologized for interrupting as Bert was apparently more interested in talking about boxing.
“Do you know he wrote M.A.S.H.?”, Bert gushed, enumerating the man’s other journalistic accomplishments.
“Yes, yes,” I nodded emphatically, wide-eyed, listening attentively. I brought up that I’d just finished Heinz’s classic fight novel, The Professional, and that I’d been greatly influenced by the economy of his writing style. Heinz, incidentally, now lives in an assisted living home in Vermont and was represented during the Induction Ceremony by his daughter.
“Actually, you could probably have a wing in the Hall of Fame for all the fighters I turned down”, Peltz said, eliciting laughter during his after dinner address as he referred to eventual champions Buster Douglas, Antonio Tarver and Marvin Hagler to name but a few.
Bert Sugar quickly jumped all over that one, wondering “After he told us how he turned down Hagler, Douglas and Tarver, Ed Brophy (IBHOF Executive Director), is there a recount on this induction?”
Questioning the merit of casting the fist of a promoter who can’t “knock the ashes off a cigar” with a punch, Peltz suggested that it might be more appropriate to have his own hand cast “signing a check—or maybe even bouncing one!”
In a riotous reprise of classic fight jokes, Jake LaMotta, himself a one-time standup comedian, stole from featherweight wizard Willie Pep:
“Fighter says to his trainer (affecting a soft, high-pitched lisp) ‘I wanna fight Mike Tyson, I wanna fight Mike Tyson’. “
“The trainer roars back ‘You are Mike Tyson!!!’”
Lou Duva stole from Golden Age sportswriter Damon Runyon in a line originally directed towards trainer Ray Arcel:
“Angelo (Dundee) is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s the only man I ever knew who would say ‘yes m’am’, and ‘no m’am,’ in a house of prostitution.”
Everyone let loose over that one, and that must have been the end of the festivities at the Rusty Rail.
Back at Graziano’s for one last late evening of it. The back room was cordoned off for the VIPs, but recently-retired Mickey Ward and others hung out with the crowd at large.
I always had the highest regard for Mickey Ward and told him so. He drove a steamroller for a road-paving crew by day, trained by night, for cripes sake. Though “Irish” Mick always came up short against the A-list fighters in his division, he always showed up ready to fight, in peak condition. Long heralded as one of the best of the so-called club fighters, I was glad to see him gross seven figures for his retirement nest egg in three of the most popular fights in HBO history, his celebrated trilogy with “Human Highlight Reel” Arturo Gatti.
But the defining moment of the weekend occurred when, shortly before calling it an evening, I attempted to frame former welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas for a photo as he and his beautiful wife strode hurriedly towards the VIP room. She noticed me out of the corner of her eye and, beaming sweetly, collared her husband, shoved him towards me and beckoned for the camera. As I leaned in, I heard him growl, winking at me to put up my fists as he’d done. Hands down, it was the pick of the lot.
Alas, there was to be no fourth day for me, but what a blast, what a boxing extravaganza it had been—one of the best party weekend’s in this man’s experience—and I was sure I’d be coming back again next year. Having a long drive ahead and being compromised for vacation for the year, I awoke, packed up the car and headed for home, skipping altogether the Breakfast of Champions, Parade of Champions through Canastota hosted by Tony Orlando and the concluding Induction Ceremony. I encourage all attendees, though, to attend the Induction Ceremony and other closing-day events if at all possible, for these are indeed the most meaningful for the current-year inductees.
Look forward to seeing you all in “Boxing’s Hometown” this June!
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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