Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota – Part I

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Former junior flyweight champ Myung Woo Yuh signs gloves for a fan at the recent International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, N.Y. Yuh was one of the Class of 2013 inductees. Photo / Mike Greenhill

Click here for Part II

Click here for Part III

 

Monday, June 3: Can I really pull this off again?

That’s what I was thinking as I pondered the ambitious schedule I was about to undertake. My first 13 trips to the International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend were straightforward – split the 500-plus mile drive over two days, attend the festivities, then drive home. Once I worked my way into the boxing industry as a writer (and later

a CompuBox punch-counter), the work-related trips that were mixed in made the itineraries much more complex. Consider the juggling I’ve done in recent years:

* 2006 – Worked two ESPN shows in Atlantic City, one at the Borgata on Wednesday (where the usually light-hitting Demetrius Hopkins flattened Michael Warrick with a right that still ranks as one of the hardest I’ve ever seen live) and one at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino two days later to count separate fights featuring Brian Minto and Audley Harrison among others. I arose early Saturday morning to drive to Canastota and catch the rest of the IBHOF action.

* 2007 – Traveled to Montreal to count a “Friday Night Fights” show topped by Herman Ngoudjo’s split decision over Randall Bailey, a fight highlighted by a torrential downpour that neared Biblical proportions. This was much worse than the drenching I absorbed in Buenos Aires in late April and I was shocked I didn’t catch cold in either instance.

* 2008 – Journeyed to Brooklyn’s Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn to do an ESPN Wednesday Night Fights show headlined by Yusaf Mack’s decision win over Daniel Judah, then jetted to Montreal to work a FNF show whose main event was Ngoudjo’s 12-round points win over former titlist Souleymane M’Baye. After a typically short post-fight night, I caught a plane to Syracuse, drove to Canastota and took in Saturday’s and Sunday’s festivities.

* 2009 – Perhaps the most ambitious – and exhausting – slate to date: Drove to Syracuse, took in the first day of IBHOF festivities, flew to San Francisco to work an ESPN card in San Jose, drove 45 minutes to San Francisco’s airport immediately after the show went off the air and just beat the clock in catching the red-eye to Syracuse, all because I otherwise couldn’t have attended my all-time favorite event, the card and memorabilia show. Weary and bleary? Absolutely. But happy? Even more so.

* 2010-2011 – It was all Hall all the time but I kept myself extremely busy by writing “Travelin’ Man”-style articles for Ring magazine as well as pieces for RingTV.com while also hawking my book “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” For the record, sales were pleasingly brisk. And (gratuitous plug time) it’s still available on Amazon.com and personalized autographed copies can be obtained by first e-mailing me. I look forward to hearing from you.

* 2012 – Drove directly to New York City to pick up my first-place plaque at the annual BWAA awards dinner on Friday night, then took a 90-minute catnap so I could drive out of the Big Apple without the usual traffic drama and attend as many of the weekend’s events as possible.

So here I am, about to experience my 21st consecutive induction weekend, and my schedule is stuffed once again. This year, the plan is to drive to Erie, stay overnight, trek to Syracuse to take in the day-before quiet before the mania begins, enjoy Thursday’s opening-day (and night) activities, arise early Friday morning to catch a plane to Montreal (through Philadelphia) to work Saturday night’s Yuriorkis Gamboa-Darley Perez/Chad Dawson-Adonis Stevenson doubleheader for HBO, wake up (or stay up until) early Sunday morning to return to Syracuse (via Philly) and hopefully arrive in time to see the induction ceremony and enjoy the afterglow. Finally, if all works out, I’ll experience an unprecedented bonus – driving to Cooperstown with “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith and his producer Jon Hait and making my first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Am I nuts? Of course I am; I’m nuts for boxing (and baseball’s not bad either).

When I described my itinerary to a recent visitor, all he could do was shake his head in amazement. Sometimes I wonder how I continue to do it year after year. At 48 I’m no spring chicken (maybe a late summer/early autumn one compete with gristle) but there’s something about the IBHOF induction weekend that still causes a profound adrenaline rush that mirrors those of my youth.

Despite nearing my 40th year as a boxing fan, my 13th year since meeting CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and my 12th year of my current writing incarnation, being around boxing never gets old. Seeing the fights, either on TV or live, and being around fight people continues to animate me to an astonishing degree. Perhaps that’s why I’m still mistaken for someone in his 30s; doing what you love every day may actually slow the aging process. I just hope it remains that way because this schedule may test that theory to the utmost.

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I don’t know who coined the adage “experience is the best teacher,” but I know it applies to me. One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is to call the hotels the night before leaving to make sure all the reservations I made in January were still in their respective systems.

I usually keep my list of hotels and confirmation numbers on the second shelf of my bookcase in the home office (where I also store 11 of my 18 – and growing – DVD storage units). But when I looked for it, it wasn’t there. Uh-oh.

So I looked in my phone book for the Erie hotel phone numbers I’ve used in the past. The first hotel said they didn’t have a reservation under “Groves.” Neither did the second one – or the third one.

Great. For the first time since my maiden voyage in 1993, I didn’t have a complete roster of reservations. Luckily for me, the first hotel I called said there were plenty of rooms available so I called them back. Thanks to my recently purchased AAA membership, the rate was cut by more than 10 percent. Because I still hadn’t heard back from Smitty regarding our trip to Cooperstown, I told the clerk that I might change my reservation from Sunday night to Monday evening — an option they said was perfectly fine.

Then I called the biggie, my customary hotel in Syracuse at which I’ve stayed every year since 1996. There’s a reason for that: As I returned year after year I became friendly with the staff, particularly Celeste Brown, who had checked me in and out for more than a decade. She made sure I got the best rate possible and skillfully dealt with all the issues that came with my extremely flexible schedule. However, she left her job a few months after last year’s festivities but made sure her replacement knew of me. Sure enough, when I called the hotel my reservation (and my room rate) was there, ready and waiting for me.

With my Erie troubles still fresh, I shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if my reservations in Syracuse had also disappeared into the ether. Hall of Fame weekend is one of Syracuse’s most in-demand times for hotels and getting a room a little more than four days out would be like asking Darrell Issa and Eric Holder to hug it out. To my relief, all was well.

I stayed up until almost 4:30 a.m. tackling a rush of last-minute, time-sensitive assignments but in the end they all were finished. I went to sleep with a clear mind and a hopeful outlook.

Tuesday, June 4: I couldn’t have asked for a more brilliant day for a long drive – temperatures in the low 70s, barely discernible humidity and mood-lifting sunlight that made the fully formed leaves appear luminous. I pulled out of the driveway shortly after noon and arrived at my hotel in Erie just 4 hours 15 minutes later – one of my quicker times. Although there was construction along the way there were no traffic snags – until I actually arrived in town.

After checking in and unpacking I headed for the nearby Pilot Travel Center, a combination gas station/convenience store/Subway outlet. With my gas gauge at the one-eighth mark I decided to fuel myself at Subway, then fuel up the trusty Subaru. The $3.29-per-gallon cost was a full 40 cents cheaper than the rates in West Virginia and Ohio, probably because we use a far more expensive spring/summer blend.

Getting there was quite a chore because there was a huge clog of vehicles in and around the center. Apparently it’s a popular destination during the afternoon rush hour and the combination of short green lights and the plethora of 18-wheelers trying to access the trucks-only entrance caused us to mark our minute-by-minute progress in inches rather than feet.

By the time I made my next food run at 10 p.m. the jam had long cleared but the mercury had dipped into the high 40s. The chill in the air was somewhat disconcerting because to me that belongs in September rather than June. I guess I should have been thankful it wasn’t snowing.

I clicked off the lights at 1:30 a.m. but couldn’t fall asleep for at least another hour. I suppose my mind couldn’t stop whirring about the excitement that was to come.

Miles at day’s end: 243

Wednesday, June 5: My sleeping cycle is like Guillermo Rigondeaux’s ring style – in and out, circling about, always thinking about something. I mustered only five hours of real sleep before stirring awake at 6:30 a.m., then finally arising at 8:15 a.m. Another beautiful driving day awaited me, though there were more clouds on the scene. After eating a small bowl of Cheerios, surfing the web and catching up on the laptop, I began the long trip to Syracuse by driving onto Interstate 90 East.

Unlike some motorists, I love driving on Interstates. The unobstructed two-lane access gives me the flexibility to maintain my preferred speed without being hassled by the maniacs doing their Kurt Busch impressions or the slow pokes who push drivers to make unusually dangerous passes just to be free of them. Sure, I don’t experience the full complement of local scenery but the long stretches of pavement allow my writer’s mind to do its work. I do some of my best thinking – and come up with some of my best lines – while driving on interstates.

Once I hit the highway all was well. I-90, at least the portion in New York State, is funded by tolls and in my opinion the convenience more than pays for itself. Of course, the prices have risen since 1993; the portion that covers the New York/Pennsylvania state line to Buffalo has risen from $2.10 to $3.15 while the Buffalo to Syracuse portion rose from roughly $5 to $6.65, which, when one factors in inflation, isn’t all that unreasonable. That said, I’m glad I’m doing this as a visitor and not as a resident. Paying road tolls every day can get very old very fast and I know I’m going to be shelling out early, late and often over the next couple of days. It’s a relatively small price for the huge fun I plan to have.

A recently adopted ritual is swinging by the Hall of Fame property on Wednesday afternoons to take in the calm before the storm as well as say hello to Executive Director Ed Brophy and his nephew, media relations guru Jeff Brophy. For the record, it was Jeff who told me how I could apply to become a Hall of Fame voter: Compose a one-page letter addressed to the IBHOF’s screening committee and explain the reasons behind your candidacy. To my surprise and delight, it was accepted less than three months later in the form of a “Dear Elector” letter accompanied by a ballot. I have proudly participated in the election process since 2001. (For the record: Of the Modern category members of the Class of 2013 I voted for Virgil Hill and Myung Woo Yuh).

Ours is a professional relationship that has evolved into a friendship and those good feelings make it easy to help out in any way I can. Over the years I’ve written articles for the program, provided footage of featured boxers, spoken on stage on short notice and so on because I believe in the IBHOF’s mission to honor history’s best and brightest while maintaining an intimate small-town dynamic. For these reasons, and more, I’ve long considered Canastota to be my home away from home and as I headed east on I-90 toward Exit 34 I couldn’t help but feel wonderful about returning there.

I pulled my car into the McDonald’s parking lot directly in front of the glass-encased exhibit dedicated to Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus, boxing’s only Canastota-born champions. As I gazed at each of the posters, photos and robes I paid silent tribute to Basilio, who passed away last November. Emcee Joey Fiatto often said Basilio is “the reason why we are all here” and in a very real sense that is true. Had it not been for Basilio’s Canastota roots the IBHOF certainly wouldn’t have been placed here, if at all. Although Basilio’s physical being is no longer with us, his robust spirit will live on forever (as well as his Basilio Sausage Sandwiches). While chatting with Jeff inside the gift shop underneath the pavilion, he gave me a red rubber wristband with the words “Carmen Basilio: Canastota’s Champion,” surely one of many tributes planned to honor “The Upstate Onion Farmer.”

Because Ed Brophy was unavailable for the time being, I walked over to Graziano’s Inn to meet superfan and longtime friend Keith Stechman, who drove in from Long Island less than an hour earlier. His imposing physique and thick New York accent can be intimidating to those who don’t know him but just a few minutes of conversation made it clear to me he was – and remains – a good soul. Ever since I met him in the 1990s he has never hesitated to show his generosity and such was the case here. Not only did he give me a half-dozen magazines, he sprung for dinner at Graziano’s. He said it was a gesture of appreciation for treating him kindly when others have not but for me my friendliness toward him was no effort. He’s a boxing fan and I’m a boxing fan; that’s good enough for me.

Before eating dinner we stopped by a table occupied by a quartet of Welshmen, one of which was attending his 21st weekend while another was making his first. As soon as he made that fact known, we all said – almost in unison – “you’re going to have a great time.”

Keith and I settled into a booth and ordered dinner – for me it was steak, fries, salad and Diet Coke. After that we dove into the conversational vortex that is Graziano’s during Hall of Fame weekend. Even before the event’s official start, many familiar faces populated the restaurant, one of which was what I call a “Genesis” IBHOF attendee. Not only has he attended every official IBHOF weekend since 1990, he was present at the 1989 event that kicked off everything.

A host of familiar faces stopped by our table, and besides Keith, who excused himself after a couple of hours, I spent the most time with two fellows I first met at a Boxing Ministries event in Youngstown, Ohio the night Antonio Tarver knocked out Roy Jones as well as Erik Killin and Jacob Sirof (who I’ve nicknamed “Bulldog” because of his strong resemblance to a young Orel Hershiser). To me, all the great boxing talk has convinced me that Graziano’s is actually a benevolent black hole where seconds, minutes and hours are sucked in with stunning speed. Before I knew it six hours had zoomed by and by then I realized I needed to drive back to Syracuse to at least get a few hours of rest, if not sleep.

I capped my evening in a most appropriate way: Watching a Mike Tyson documentary on BET. Realizing the program was going to drag farther into the night than I wanted to stay awake, I switched off the lights shortly after 3 a.m. Looks like the Class of 2012 inductee has scored yet another knockout – me.

Miles at day’s end: 283 (grand total 526)

Thursday, June 6: I awoke at 8:15 a.m. after a pretty good night’s sleep – God knows how that happened – but when I pulled back the curtain the hard steady rain most of us feared was coming had arrived. The good news: That ensured a lengthy stay under the pavilion and away from the redhead-baking sunlight. The bad news? Well, that was obvious. Still, it didn’t deter the unquestioned enthusiasm I sensed throughout the grounds.

Although the weekend didn’t officially start until 1:30 p.m. with the first Ring Talk, I knew better. Anytime boxing fans get together there’s a party to be had, even if it’s conversationally, so I headed toward Canastota shortly before 10:30 a.m. Because my hotel didn’t have a place to print boarding passes – and because the staffer wouldn’t allow me behind the desk to do so even after I offered to have her supervise me (as Celeste allowed me to do in later years) – I swung by one located nearby and used their facilities.

I pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot 30 minutes later and made a beeline for the pavilion. Several dozen fans had already congregated, including many old friends. One of the first I saw was Canadian Bill Johnston, who has attended every weekend since 2000 and I also spoke with “Genesis” attendee Zbigniew Marszalek (a native of Poland now living nearby) and semi-retired dentist turned boxing photographer David M. Baum, among many others. Smitty gave me a hand-crunching handshake and I also met his producer Jon for the first time face-to-face. From time to time others stopped by to say hello and ask questions of me. The celebrity treatment was very flattering but the experience is still relatively new to me. But more on that later.

I approached longtime emcee Joey Fiatto the moment I first spotted him on stage and after telling me the lineup of Ring Talk speakers I volunteered some factoids about each one that could spark more detailed questions and deeper answers from each.

altThe day’s first speaker was former welterweight champion and 2002 Hall of Fame inductee Pipino Cuevas, whose prodigious power damaged countless speed bags and inflicted broken bones on several notable opponents. He twice broke Angel Espada’s jaw while doing the same to Harold Weston Jr. and he also ended Backus’ career when he fractured the onetime welterweight champion’s orbital bone en route to a second-round TKO.

“Did you ever feel guilty about inflicting so many painful injuries to your opponents?” I asked Cuevas.

After the question was translated to him, he smiled and offered a simple answer that brought laughter: “No.”

The next speaker was Gaspar Ortega, who was joined on stage by Hall of Fame referee and longtime friend Joe Cortez, Ortega’s son and world-class third man Michael Ortega and author Troy Rondinone, who recounted the senior Ortega’s life in the new book “Friday Night Fighter: Gaspar “Indio” Ortega and The Golden Age of Television Boxing.” I asked Ortega if there was a fight or series of fights in which he executed at his very highest level. He replied – notably in English instead of going through interpreter Cortez – he couldn’t pinpoint any such match but that he fought many tough champions that helped bring up his own level.

The third Ring Talk belonged to Julian Jackson, whose booming Caribbean-lilted voice was exceeded only by the enormous punching power he exhibited during his 17-year career that saw him score 49 knockouts in 55 wins. In my opinion, Jackson was the best one-punch KO artist I’ve ever seen – even more so than Mike Tyson, Alexis Arguello, Edwin Rosario, Thomas Hearns, Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan among others. I’d go as far to say – and I said this to Jackson himself – if I were to hire one person to deliver one punch on my worst enemy, it would have been Julian Jackson.

I quickly added Jackson, being a good Christian man, probably would have refused the assignment, a comment that caused him to chuckle.

I was lucky enough to pose several questions, including what sensations he felt when scoring his greatest one-shot demolitions. He said he knew the fight was over every time he felt a “tingly vibration” flowing up and down his forearm, a certainty that prompted him to point his glove downward even as his opponent was still falling to the ground.

altWhen an English fan asked Jackson about his extraordinary come-from-behind one-punch-knockout over Herol Graham, Jackson revealed a secret only known to close friends and family: During the heat of battle, the deeply religious Jackson said he managed to petition the Almighty for a fight saving punch. A few moments later His answer came in the form of a hammering right hook delivered from the southpaw stance, a stance switch forced upon him by his rapidly swelling eye. The blow stiffened Graham instantly and left him on the floor for several frightening minutes.

Being that this was “The Hawk’s” first visit to Canastota I dearly wanted to add his signature to my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing,” which boasts more than 300 signatures since I began bringing it in 1996. However, the line was far too long so I hoped to catch him later on.

Still, it was a pretty good day in terms of gathering autographs. I spotted Class of 2013 honoree Myung Woo Yuh – a fighter whose induction I’ve long championed – walking with a four-man group that included onetime WBC featherweight titlist In Jin Chi. After speaking briefly with the one member of the group who understood some English, I was able to get both men’s signatures, Yuh’s on a small photo featuring him and Mario DeMarco (their punch-fest in fight one of their two-fight series remains one of the most breathtaking I’ve yet seen), Chi’s on the first page of the featherweight champions chapter. I later added the John Hancock of former WBC welterweight king Milton McCrory, who several years earlier had gifted me with an autographed photo and a gold-colored Kronk T-shirt after I made footage of his fights as well as the Olympic bouts of his brother Steve, a 1984 gold medalist. By the way, I still wear the shirt as a tribute to both McCrory and his legendary trainer Emanuel Steward.

I flitted from conversation to conversation and I was even interviewed for a documentary about the IBHOF weekend. Being the semi-ham I am in front of cameras, I gave the filmmakers everything I had in terms of storytelling, and they even asked me to re-enact my chipping stroke after I told them the story about my final shot rolling into the 18th hole from slightly off the green as former middleweight champion Gene Fullmer – a member of the opposing foursome – observed from less than 10 feet away. After finishing with me, Jack Obermayer – the original “Travelin’ Man” with his 49 states visited and his thousands of shows worked – was interviewed.

The blustery, rainy, chilly weather grew worse as the afternoon wore on and it reached a low point by the time the Opening Ceremony ended. The rush of warm air upon entering Graziano’s was an immense relief and as I entered the dining area I heard a multitude of greetings from several parts of the room.

One group of fans that included longtime IBHOF pal Jay Brunetti and his dad Jon beckoned me to sit at their table and, me being me, I accepted their invitation. The sextet – which also included Rob Valenti, Mike Ruppert Sr., Mike Ruppert Jr. and Anthony Sabbatino – peppered me with questions that spanned the gamut and as I was offering my answers I couldn’t help but think about the late, great Bert Randolph Sugar. Over the years it was Sugar who held court before an adoring throng and his level of knowledge ensured that he had an answer for every query. Moreover, every response was greeted with enraptured, wide-eyed, respectful anticipation as well as with precious little dispute.

Over the past several years, the level of deference and respect afforded to me has grown exponentially, which amazes me because I still consider myself a fan at my core. Thanks to the platforms offered by RingTV.com and THE RING magazine as well as my increasingly frequent appearances on radio shows and my work with CompuBox, I’ve become a pseudo-celebrity of sorts.  As certified Hall of Fame historians like Sugar and my role model Hank Kaplan have left us, a new generation of pundits must rise up and carry their torch. If I am to be one of those pundits – and that honor can only be bestowed by others – I’m happy to be given that privilege.

As much as I wanted to stay and work the room, I knew I needed to leave once the clock sailed past 9 p.m. I needed to give myself time to recount everything that happened as well as get in some sleep before the next phase of my journey – working the Dawson-Stevenson/Gamboa-Perez HBO doubleheader in Montreal. The lights switched off at 11:20 p.m. and so did another day in the life of the “Travelin’ Man.”

Miles at day’s end: 41 (grand total 567)

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Click here for Part II

Click here for Part III

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. 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. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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