CANASTOTA, N.Y. — Before the largest Induction Day crowd in its 22-year history, the International Boxing Hall of Fame welcomed one of its most publicized and star-studded classes under overcast and occasionally rainy conditions Sunday.
Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez and Kostya Tszyu joined 112 predecessors in the Modern Class while trainer Ignacio "Nacho" Beristain and Joe Cortez were honored as Non-Participants and actor/director/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone entered as an Observer.
The 44-year-old Tyson, whose menacing in-ring persona obscured a deep respect for boxing history, seemed overwhelmed by his moment of immortality.
"I've got to be goofy about this or I'll get emotional up here," Tyson said before attempting to honor the two men who helped begin his road toward history. They were trainer/manager/legal guardian Cus D'Amato and social worker Bobby Stewart, who introduced him to D'Amato during Tyson's time at the Tryon School for Boys, located just 87 miles east of Canastota.
As he looked at his fellow Hall of Famers sitting behind him — a roster that included Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Carlos Ortiz, Ruben Olivares, Ken Norton, Azumah Nelson, Aaron Pryor, Carlos Zarate, Pipino Cuevas, Barry McGuigan, Humberto Gonzalez, Ricardo Lopez and Brian Mitchell — and spotted another outstanding fighter in the audience, Tyson was gripped by a sense of awe so overpowering that he could barely speak.
"Gaspar Ortega (a 176-fight veteran who campaigned during the 1950s and 1960s), I read a lot about you and I appreciate you being here," he said. "I wanted to be like these guys. Oh man, I have to take my time with this because there's other guys up here, you know? When I met Cus we talked a little bit about money, but we wanted to be great fighters."
He then scanned the scene, his mind unable to process the tidal wave of emotions swirling within him.
"Hey guys, I can't even finish this stuff," he finally said. "Thank you. Thank you."
Stallone, whose "Rocky" films inspired an entire generation of youngsters to try boxing, acknowledged the real-life toughness of the men seated behind him while also understanding the pain they endured beyond the squared circle.
"I've never pretended to be a boxer. I don't possess those skills,"
"There is special reverence for me," Stallone continued. "They are the greatest athletes in the world. They are our connection to the past and our way to the future. They are the guys that go in there and take the blows and show that if you really put it out there on the line, you are a champion. You may not be the champion of the world, but you'll be the champion of your life."
He closed his speech with one of the most recognizable lines of the "Rocky" series: "Yo, Adrian…I did it!" The crowd then showered Stallone with thunderous chants of "Rocky, Rocky" with which Tyson kept time by pumping his arms.
Chavez, who was always mindful of his Mexican fans during a phenomenal 25-year career, said they should also share in this honor.
"All of the sacrifices was really worth it because it wasn't five years but a lot more," he said. "My induction into the Hall of Fame is not for me, it's for all of you and all of Mexico."
Tszyu, whose 31-2 (25 KO) record included 15 title fight victories, was justifiably proud of his achievements but mindful of the lessons his opponents taught him.
“My first few fights I felt I could reach the top very, very quickly,”
"When I started my own promotional company, I invited Vince Phillips to Russia (Phillips stopped Tszyu in 10 rounds in May 1997). He was nervous about how he would be received by me, especially in Russia. I thanked him for the defeat because he changed my attitude towards boxing and I became a professional athlete."
Cortez used his speech to pay tribute to his fellow inductees as well as the people who guided him toward the sport.
"Boxing for me was a blessing in disguise," he said. "In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd be talking to you as an inductee. I first met Mike Tyson when he was an aspiring boxer at age 13 and I refereed many of his fights. Mike is well deserving of this award.
"Sylvester Stallone is Mister Boxing himself," he continued. "I was reffing in Vegas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. 'Joe, we have a show coming up and we want you to ref the championship fight in "The Contender." Six months later I felt another tap on my shoulder: 'Joe, I'm making "Rocky Balboa" and I want you to be the referee for that too.'”
At that point Stallone cracked that he should have been declared the winner against Antonio Tarver's fictional Mason Dixon character, which brought laughter from the giant throng.
He also paid tribute to Tszyu's fighting spirit, the high level of
Despite training so many world champions, Beristain was unsure whether he deserved Hall of Fame status at the time he was notified of his induction last December. After two more charges won belts — which raised his total to 22 — he received the desired self-validation.
The following were inducted posthumously: Memphis Pal Moore, Jack Root and Dave Shade (Old-Timer), bare-knuckler John Gully (Pioneer), National Sporting Club creator A.F. "Peggy" Bettinson (Non-Participant) and BBC commentator Harry Carpenter (Observer).