Bernard Fernandez

Hall of Fame: Even the stars can be starstruck in Canastota

(Left to right), Virgil Hill, Myung-Woo Yuh, Jimmy Lennon, Jr., Colin Hart and Mills Lane show off their International Boxing Hall of Fame rings during the Class of 2013 inductee ceremony. Arturo Gatti was also inducted posthumously.

 

CANASTOTA, N.Y. – Former light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion Virgil “Quicksilver” Hill was the last member of the Class of 2013 to step to the microphone, an honor usually reserved in any given year for the highest-profile inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

But Hill’s aw-shucks attitude seemingly indicated that he didn’t feel like he was the star on a stage packed with so many of his ring heroes. Hill’s humility seemed as genuine as the strong, accurate left jab he used to make 20 successful defenses over two 175-pound title reigns.

“Just because you became a world champion doesn’t mean you automatically know these guys,” Hill said as he glanced around at such legendary fighters as Jake La Motta, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Pipino Cuevas, Michael Spinks, Aaron Pryor and one of Hill’s role models as an amateur boxer growing up in the small-town backwaters of North Dakota, the great Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who again had come all the way from Italy.

Peering over his left shoulder at “Irish” Micky Ward, Hill seemed particularly impressed to be in such close proximity to a feisty scrapper he admired, and not just because of Ward’s three classic bouts with Arturo Gatti, another member of the IBHOF Class of 2013 who was inducted posthumously.

“I saw Micky’s movie,” Hill said of the 2010 film, The Fighter, which won two Academy Awards, was nominated for Best Picture and whose cast was topped by marquee idol Mark Wahlberg as Ward.

Despite the abundance of stars that converge on this picturesque central New York village every year to celebrate the best of fights and fighters, Hill might have been the logical choice to receive top billing this year. Canastota might be a long way from Hill’s childhood hometown of Williston, S.D., but only in terms of miles. There are just 5,000 year-round residents of Canastota, whose population for several days in June since 1990 multiplies several times over with the influx of adoring boxing fans.

“How you were able to transform a small town like this into the Hall of Fame is truly remarkable,” Hill said in tribute to the dedicated staff and volunteers who have made Canastota into the pugilistic equivalent of Cooperstown, N.Y., about an hour’s drive away, which is the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hill’s sincere sense of wonderment to have made it to what passes for boxing immortality should come as no surprise. Although he posted a 288-11 record before turning pro, Hill noted that boxers from North Dakota seldom advanced to any of the major amateur tournaments, much less to the Olympics. But Hill not only made it to Los Angeles in 1984, he came away with a silver medal. Not that it made him feel like a big deal; that ’84 squad was the most decorated in USA boxing history, with nine gold medalists and a bronze medalist, Evander Holyfield, who got stiffed out of a probable gold on a bad call by a referee in his semifinal match.

That relegated Hill, who is part Native American, to consolation-prize status, which is a mindset he never was completely able to shed, even as he became North Dakota’s winningest warrior since Sitting Bull.

“To me, a city was a place with 45,000 people, like Grand Forks,” Hill – who was elected in his first year of eligibility, as was Gatti – told an international audience that had come from near and very far. “In my heart of hearts, (induction into the IBHOF) means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

Receiving their Hall of Fame ring, and the knowledge that plaques commemorating their achievements would be hung on the same walls as those saluting the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Henry Armstrong, also meant quite a bit to former WBA junior flyweight champion Myung-Woo Yuh, Showtime ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr., “Let’s get it on!” referee Mills Lane, British journalist Colin Hart and friends and members of the Gatti family, who stood in for the human highlight reel who died under mysterious circumstances in 2009.

Lennon had a bit of fun in his acceptance speech, referencing the record-length of the remarks made the year before by Michael Buffer, his HBO counterpart and the only other ring announcer to pass through the IBHOF’s hallowed gates.

“Last year I understand that my colleague had the longest speech ever – 30 minutes,” a smiling Lennon said. “Michael Buffer must not have received the memo from Ed Brophy (the IBHOF’s longtime executive director) to keep his comments brief. I’m not the competitive type, but … I plan to speak 31 minutes.”

Lennon’s turn at the podium in fact was a compact seven minutes, much of which centered on his famous ring-announcer father, Jimmy Lennon Sr., and the large footsteps he left for his son and namesake to fill.

Lane’s voice has been all but silenced by the stroke he suffered in 2002, which left it to his son, Tommy, to speak for his dad, who struggles to stand and whose right arm was in a sling.

“He’s a man’s man,” Tommy Lane said of Mills, a onetime district attorney and Washoe County (Nev.) judge who had no qualms about laying down the lay inside the ropes.

Gatti was represented at the podium by his longtime manager, Pat Lynch; his promoter, Main Events president Kathy Duva, and his 7-year-old daughter, Sofia, who was lifted up to the microphone and said, “Thank you for my daddy.”

Hart contributed to the Hollywood theme, which included the presence of actress Rosie Perez, who served as grand marshal for the Parade of Champions down Canastota’s main thoroughfare, by saying, “Now I know what it’s like to win an Oscar.”

As Hill would do later, Hart, who has covered boxing matches in the U.S. since the first Ali-Joe Frazier showdown in 1971, acknowledged the many boxing greats on the stage and he said he had been ringside for bouts in which most of them had appeared.

“All but one, and that’s Jake La Motta,” Hart said of the 91-year-old “Raging Bull,” the only Hall of Famer from the inaugural induction class of 1990 present. “I’m old, but not that old.”

Also inducted into the IBHOF, all posthumously, were Arturo Hernandez, Wesley Ramey and Jeff Smith in the old-timers category, Joe Coburn in the pioneer category and cartoonist Ted Carroll in the observer category.

           

         

 Photos / Mike Greenhill, Holly Stein-Getty Images, Ken Levine-Getty Images, THE RING

                   

 

 

 

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