The Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota Part V – Induction ceremony and epilogue

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The International Boxing Hall of Fame, Canastota, New York. Photo: Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Sunday, June 9: When I stirred awake at 7 a.m., I did so with a strong urge to catch up on the work I failed to finish due to the relatively late hour I returned to the Days Inn and the even later hour that I chose to turn out the lights. Such is the work ethic that has been ingrained in me, and that ethic has been made necessary by the constant conveyor belt of tasks that require my attention on a daily basis between my work at CompuBox, the podcast with IBHOF host James “Smitty” Smith, my outside research duties and the responsibilities I have in my home life and in other areas. Believe me, boredom is never an issue.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve morphed into a morning person whose best energy and highest creativity is achieved almost the instant I get out of bed. It hasn’t always been this way; when I worked at The Parkersburg News and Sentinel between 1990 and 2007, I arose at noon and remained awake until around 4 a.m. due to my 4 p.m.-1 a.m. shift and the one-hour commute each way. Back then, I was fine with it because of my “night owl” tendencies, but now, not so much. Thanks to sometimes involuntary mid-afternoon and early evening siestas, I am both a morning person and a night owl.

But there is something special about Induction Day at the International Boxing Hall of Fame that injects extra energy into me. I can feel the gratitude, appreciation and sense of accomplishment the inductees must feel as their life’s work receives the ultimate public affirmation. It’s an elaborate “well done” that is witnessed by friends, family and fans, and, in turn, it’s an opportunity for the recipients to recognize those who paved the paths for that life’s work. In this vein, it can truly be said that while lives are lived individually, a Hall of Fame-level life is a team effort.

I spent the first two hours of this day writing a large portion of Part IV, after which I hustled through the morning routines because I wanted to arrive at the museum grounds by 10 a.m. Just before I left the Days Inn, Smitty texted me to meet him on stage, and as I walked out the door, I immediately noticed the chill in the air and the sprinkles of rain. My first thought was that I might be bearing witness to a piece of negative IBHOF history: The first time the Parade of Champions would be cancelled due to inclement weather. I had asked Jeff Brophy about the contingency plan and his answer was simple: “The parade would be canceled altogether and we’d move on to the next event on the schedule.”

But as the morning proceeded, the gray was replaced by patches of blue, then by rays of sunlight, then by full-on sunshine. Over the years, especially recently, the Parade of Champions had faced seemingly formidable meteorological obstacles only to pivot away from them like a prime Vasiliy Lomachenko. This was the case here, and as a result, the unblemished record was preserved for another year.

I’ve never been one for parades because I’d rather be doing something rather than watching others pass by. I usually spend this part of Induction Day on the museum grounds chatting with my fellow fans, but today there weren’t many people with which to converse. In terms of attendance, I think this year’s event should be pegged in the lower portion of middle range. Decent, but noticeably down. I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I got. That should change next year should Manny Pacquiao remain retired because if he does so, he will be the headline inductee for the Class of 2025.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I can manage to strike up a conversation with just about anyone who speaks English, and that’s especially true when I encounter someone who has an interesting story.

Case in point: Nick Nichols, an 84-year-old native of Schuylerville, N.Y., approached the stage to show Smitty and me a couple of photos preserved inside a large plastic bag that depicted the very first induction ceremony. The scene was Spartan but the quality of the luminaries on stage was beyond debate. 

Lee Groves (left) with Nick Nichols

“I’ve attended every ceremony except for the year Joe Brown was inducted (1996) so I could see my son graduate from the University of Washington,” he said. “The (inaugural) event was very informal (in that) we could get much closer to the fighters at that time. One year I sat next to Ed Brophy’s mother, but now I’d be lucky if I got to sit on the grass. That’s not meant to be a bad thing; it’s a sign of how much it has grown.

“I’ve been a longtime boxing fan,” he continued, “I got my first boxing cards in 1951 and I still have some of them,” he continued.

When Smitty asked who his favorite fighter was, he replied, “you’re going to laugh: Lee Savold.” We didn’t laugh because we knew who he was. That is especially true for me because he was the answer to one of the trivia questions I missed in a “Ringside Rapidfire” segment that was filmed during the card show in 2010.  His distinction: He was Joe Louis’ final knockout victim. Nichols liked Savold because he was able to follow his entire career, and “he also had a rural upbringing, and I could relate to that.”

Realizing there was nothing more to accomplish on the museum grounds, I returned to my room to polish my copy. When I’m writing, my focus tightens to the point that I am often surprised by the passage of time, and, before I realized it, it was nearly 12:30 and about time to leave for the Turning Stone Resort Casino, where, for the third consecutive year (and probably every year for the foreseeable future) the induction ceremony will be staged.

Because I possessed a black VIP ticket reserved for family, my line was considerably shorter than for others, but, for reasons unknown to me, the doors were opened well past the advertised time of 1:30. It was a relief to sit down and even better to be able to chat with neighbors like former BWAA president Jack Hirsch, who sat to my immediate right, and Hall of Famer Teddy Atlas, who was seated to Jack’s right. It had been 15 years since I last saw Teddy, but, like Wally Matthews on Saturday, he instantly recognized me and congratulated me on my being able to expand my professional horizons.

The ceremony began at 2:37 p.m. with Smitty introducing the parade of luminaries that emerged from a nearby hallway. They included WBA president Gilberto Mendoza Jr., WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman and WBO president Francisco “Paco” Valcarcel, past Hall of Famers Julian Jackson, Alicia Ashley, Ann Wolfe, Jim Lampley, Erik Morales, Michael Spinks, Marco Antonio Barrera and Marc Ratner, current world titlists Oscar Collazo, Sebastian Fundora and Gabriela Fundora, past world champions Jesse James Leija, Ray Mercer, Lamon Brewster, Jorge Linares, Cecilia Comunales and Kelly Pavlik, recently retired referee Kenny Bayless and the inspirational “King of the Four-Rounders” Eric “Butterbean” Esch.

At this point, the recording of “Gonna Fly Now,” from the Rocky movie franchise that had been playing over the loudspeaker suddenly stopped, but Smitty, being the veteran host, handled the glitch with his usual humor. “Cue up the music!” he yelled. After a few more seconds of awkward silence, he began singing the song’s opening bars, and the music returned just as a few members of the audience were joining him.

It was here that the living members of the current class who made it to Canastota were introduced: Ricky Hatton, Jackie Kallen, Jane Couch, Ivan Calderon (who got the biggest ovation), Ana Maria Torres, Wally Matthews, Fred Sternburg and Michael Moorer.

Smitty then handed the hosting baton to Hall of Famer Jimmy Lennon Jr., who handled his duties with his usual grace. This year, he debuted a new element to his presentation: Introducing the freshly inducted Hall of Fame fighters as if they were about to engage in combat. Calderon was particularly receptive to this approach as he bounced lightly on his toes, did a little bit of shadowboxing and raised his arms over his head.

The Hall’s tribute video to the new class was, as always, expertly produced. Watching the highlights of each person’s career combined with the overlaying music and observing the inductees’ reaction to seeing themselves in their moments of glory never fails to move me.

For me, notable moments included:

*Cory Charles, the widow of Nick Charles, made note that her husband was twice voted “the sexiest sportscaster in America…and boy, was he sexy!” She spoke lovingly of her spouse, who is one of the rare individuals in boxing who earned universal respect not just for the professional he was, but also for the person he was.

*Lennon’s in-ring style introduction of the late Diego Corrales earned a standing ovation whose quality was only exceeded by the brief but emotional tribute offered by 18-year-old daughter Daylia, who was joined on stage by her 16-year-old brother Diego Jr. and her uncle, Diego’s younger brother.

“My father has an amazing legacy,” she said. “He was known for his drive, his spirit, his passion and his undeniable perseverance. This is a legacy that should inspire everybody. It inspires me. I am a daughter of a warrior, a great fighter. That’s something that everybody should hold dear to their heart. You guys can all push down to one more round, no matter what. Don’t put your head down, and keep it up. Thank you.”

*Matthews saw Induction Weekend as his opportunity to re-connect with his boxing roots, saying that his days covering “The Sweet Science,” were among the happiest days of his life.

“Being around boxing people gave me the opportunity to introduce my dad, who was a great fight fan, to his favorite fighter, Floyd Patterson,” he said. “They got a picture together; they were both smiling and he looked so happy. I could have retired that day; that would have been reward enough for me. Another weird thing: I had the pleasure of seeing my mother, who knew nothing about boxing, engrossed in a conversation with Emanuel Steward at a boxing writers’ dinner. They were talking for two hours and I had no idea what they were talking about, but they are going at it. For the rest of his life when I saw Emanuel, he would ask me, ‘how’s your mom doing?’ You don’t meet those people in other sports. There’s nothing like boxing and there’s nothing like boxing people.”

*“What lady doesn’t like a little bling, right?” Kallen asked as she looked over her Hall of Fame ring. As for the movie based on her life (“Against the Ropes”), she joked that “it was as accurate as you (Jimmy Lennon Jr.) portraying Michael Moorer,” making sure to point at them as she mentioned their names.

*Sternburg recalled the days he was working for future Hall of Famer Ronald “Winky” Wright, a skillful fighter but whose style wasn’t the most marketable or the most attractive to future star opponents. Borrowing from the Austin Powers franchise, he called the Florida southpaw “The International Man of Misery” because of what he did to his opponents while fighting on the road.

He also told a story concerning the third and final meeting between Wright and Bronco McKart, who was in the audience to support Kallen. After the fight, which ended with McKart being disqualified in round eight for low blows following the loss of a fifth point, Wright and Sternburg were plotting public relations strategy.

“We’re in the locker room waiting for Roy Jones to fight his fight and Winky’s like, ‘what do I say?’ And I said, ‘well, they’re going to ask you about the DQ, what are you going to say?’ He said, ‘I’m not sure, what are you going to say?’ So, I gave him a suggestion and we go to the post-fight press conference. Sure enough, the question comes up – ‘what were you thinking with those low blows?’ – and he said, ‘I thought that one more low blow and I think I would’ve had to audition for ‘The Sopranos.’”

*“I got my ring! I got my ring!” Torres exclaimed with a wide smile. “It’s an honor to be here. It’s been a bumpy road. We’ve fought hard to get to this place; it hasn’t been easy. I want to thank Jane Couch, Ann Wolfe and Alicia Ashley because we fought together to make women’s boxing a reality. You can dream, and if you work hard, dreams can come true.” An additional twist was her inviting husband Cristobal and her two sons Julio and Cristobal Jr. onto the stage with her so that they could share her moment of glory.

*In previous days, Moorer had teased about providing “some excitement” during his induction speech, but he immediately recanted upon settling behind the podium. Instead, he struck a serious tone by revealing he had undergone 28 surgeries over his boxing life and that he has lost his sense of smell and taste. He urged attention on the physical, mental and emotional plight of former fighters.

“The toll on a fighter’s body persists long after they hang up their gloves,” Moorer said. “I am just one of the many retired fighters who have been left to deal with a long list of injuries without any meaningful insurance assistance.”

The speech was not without humor, however. Speaking of conqueror George Foreman, he said with a chuckle, “George, you still have outstanding obligations to fill. I believe some reparations are in order. A modest 10 percent royalty check from those damn burger machines would do some comfort to my emotions.”

*Couch, as has been her wont, spoke from the heart, saying that “I was right and England was wrong (for denying women the right to box). I really owe America a real big debt for what you did for me and all the girls who fought in the 1990s. I just want to thank the people of Canastota since I’ve been here. I’ve never known people who have made us feel so welcome. You’ve been so absolutely amazing. Ed Brophy and his brilliant team; you should have your own rings and your own medals because you’ve been so f***ing brilliant.”

*A portion of Calderon’s speech struck an “I told you so” tone as he jokingly chastised Valcarcel and trainer Felix Pintor.

“Paco, you made a mistake with me,” he said. “Look where I am right now. Thanks for those (critical) words. Pintor! You made a mistake with me, too. Thanks for telling me I was a bum. Today, I am the world champion.”

He also paid tribute to loved ones who passed away, including his older sister who “was like a mother to me” that recently died after a battle with cancer.

“I don’t have my father, my mother; I wanted to be in this (Hall of Fame) in 2017 when they called me the first time so I could have both of them with me. But I got my sisters, I got my wife, I got my daughter, I got my trainer, I got my promoter (and) I got my manager.”

*The final speaker was Hatton, who sprinkled several well-honed comedic lines into his remarks.

“God, I’ve had some wars,” he said. “I think back to the Kostya Tszyu fight, the Floyd Mayweather fight, the Manny Pacquiao fight, and my toughest fight: The divorce.” When he went back to the corner during a later round of the Tszyu bout, he asked his trainer Billy Graham how he was doing. The answer: “You’re doing great; he hasn’t laid a glove on you.” At that, Hatton told Graham, “then you’d better keep an eye on the referee because somebody’s beating the s**t out of me.” In speaking of the fact that the Tszyu bout was staged at 2 a.m. local time in Manchester, England in order to accommodate Australian and U.S. television, he was asked how he would adjust to fighting at that hour. He replied, “everybody in Manchester fights at two in the morning.”

Finally, he asked the audience if they saw his fight with Pacquiao. After pausing, he said, “I didn’t.”

He concluded his speech by expressing how thankful he was that he did not give in to his urges to commit suicide after his life fell apart several years earlier.

“I thank God I didn’t take my life because of all the things I would have missed out on,” Hatton, now an ambassador for mental health, said. “I saw my son Campbell turn professional. I’m now Grandad Hitman. And I’m now receiving this. If I had taken my own life, I wouldn’t be here to thank these great champions and receive this ring. I feel very humbled. I cried when I went into the museum and saw that my plaque on the wall was just two frames away from Roberto Duran, and Roberto Duran is my hero. I’ve had a great career, and I’ve had a great life.”

The ceremony ended at 4:59 p.m., and after spending time with newfound friends and at a private party staged by the Hall, I drove back to the hotel, recounted the events of today on the laptop and did my best to wind down from what has happened over the last five days. Satisfied with my stopping point, I clicked off the lights and officially ended another memorable Induction Sunday.

Monday, June 10: This day began much differently than most as I was jolted awake by a huge cramp in my left calf. The intense pain lessened as I rubbed out the cramp, but I knew that for at least the next few hours I will walk very gingerly. I took solace in the fact that I won’t need my left calf to complete the long drive home that awaits me. Unlike last week’s trip to Canastota that was split over two days, I will drive straight home, a custom I’ve adopted over the last several years so I’d be able to soak in as much of the Induction Weekend vibe as I could.

Another Monday ritual has been to pay one last visit to the museum grounds to say goodbye and thank you to Ed, Jeff and other familiar faces. They’ve been so kind to me over the past 31 years and have granted opportunities that I otherwise would not have experienced. One can such opportunity can be seen in the form of my Facebook and “X” avatar, me posing with Roberto Duran inside the museum the day he was inducted in 2007. There, I presented to him a binder containing DVDs of all the fight footage I could find of him. It was my way of saying “thank you” for winning the fight that ignited my interest in boxing, his second meeting with previous conqueror Esteban DeJesus. The photo was snapped by longtime friend “Boxing” Bob Newman, and when I signed up for Facebook in 2009, I asked him to forward me the photo. Thankfully, he still had it.

I, too, have done my best to help the Hall in the form of writing stories for the program, providing video footage from my collection and using my editing skills and boxing knowledge to sharpen the press releases whenever asked. Because I believe in the IBHOF’s overall mission – to honor the deeds of those who have served the sport so well – it is my pleasure and my honor to help out however I can, and I intend to keep doing so for as long as I am able.

The visit went smoothly, and as I entered my car and drove onto the ramp that would lead me to Interstate 90 West, I thought my usual thoughts about the week that was and the hopes about being able to come next June. While the gulf between the joys of Induction Weekend and the often mundane routines of daily life are usually large, this year’s gap is even larger because of what awaits me the day after I arrive home.

What may that be, you may be asking?

Jury duty.

*

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 YouTube. 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).

 

 

 

 

 



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