Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota – Part III

Micky Ward spoke on behalf of his good friend and fierce ring rival Arturo Gatti, who was posthumously voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, at the recent induction ceremony. Gatti’s promoter Kathy Duva, manager Pat Lynch and Gatti’s seven-year-old daughter Sofia Bella stand nearby.

 

Click here for part I.

Click here for part II.

 

Sunday, June 9: I suppose I could have chosen to fly home to Pittsburgh after working the HBO doubleheader that saw Yuriorkis Gamboa capture a dull decision over Darley Perez and Adonis Stevenson score a smashing 76-second knockout over Chad Dawson to capture the WBC light heavyweight title — only the ninth time a 175-pound title bout ended in round one, the second-fastest title-fight KO in history behind Bobby Czyz’s 61-second destruction of David Sears in December 1986 and the only one-round title contest in which a belt changed hands. But that wouldn’t be my way. That’s because I was hell-bent on getting back to Canastota to witness the end of my 21st consecutive International Boxing Hall of Fame weekend, which would see living inductees Virgil Hill, Myung Woo Yuh, Mills Lane, Jimmy Lennon Jr. and Colin Hart enshrined while Arturo Gatti would be among the posthumous honorees.

Getting there wouldn’t be easy. I hadn’t slept since arising at 8 a.m. Saturday morning and waiting in the gate area without nodding off was a challenge. My schedule called me to board a scheduled 6:30 a.m. flight from Montreal to Philadelphia, after which I would catch the 10 a.m. bird from Philly to Syracuse, drive to Syracuse and check into my hotel, then drive approximately 45 minutes toward Canastota and take in the weekend’s final remnants.

I had a most interesting seatmate on the Montreal-to-Philly leg: A native of Iran now living in the U.S. who secured a medical residency in Chicago two weeks ago. But even more intriguing was the fact that, for a brief time, we both thought he had boarded the wrong aircraft. As he shuffled through his three boarding passes, he didn’t see any that bore the word “Philadelphia.” In fact, his ticket had him going to Baltimore.

In all my travels I have yet to meet a person who was allowed to get on the incorrect plane, and thank goodness for “Dr. Ben” (my name for him because his actual surname is too long to spell or pronounce) he wasn’t the first. It turns out that the Philly plane was the first step in getting him to Baltimore but it wasn’t known at the time of boarding whether he would get to stay on the same aircraft or if he needed to change planes. As it turned out, he needed to do the latter but he indeed was on the correct plane.

We shared a love of sport (he knew of Iranian native and onetime WBA bantamweight titlist Mahyar Monshipour) but while he liked boxing it was tennis that dominated most of our conversation. We both are fans of Roger Federer’s all-around game and greatness (though I believe Nadal is the historically greater player given the Spaniard’s head-to-head domination and similar Grand Slam success) and he’s a huge admirer of Maria Sharapova, who had lost the French Open final to Serena Williams the day before. As for his own sporting experience he was a goalkeeper for his national team for high school age players while I was a world-class bench-warmer/spectator. In four years time he hopes to become a cardiologist and, given the fact that he’s all heart, he’s off to a good start.

I landed in Philadelphia without incident and as I waited to board I again struggled to stay awake. Another propeller-powered plane awaited me but for the second straight time the flight was nearly flawless in terms of turbulence. Perhaps the good turbo-prop karma seatmate and fellow author Gayle Callen boasted during Friday’s flight is finally rubbing off on me.

After touching down in Syracuse I walked to my car and checked back in to my hotel, then started the second half of my visit to the IBHOF. It’s funny; the closer I got to Canastota, the stronger and more energized I became. My eyes’ redness and itchiness disappeared and soon I felt as if I had enjoyed a normal sleep cycle.

Unlike the previous three days, Canastota was bathed in sunlight and temperatures were in the high 60s. Since I don’t enjoy parades my first stop was intended to be the Hall of Fame grounds but instead I spent several minutes in the McDonald’s parking lot talking with referee/lawyer/Civil War buff Vic Drakulich and his wife as well as “Genesis” attendee Zbigniew Marszalek and perennial visitor Bill Johnston (who has a knack for being among the first people I see every time I return to Canastota).

When I reached the grounds I looked for semi-retired writer Bernard Fernandez, who was assigned the IBHOF weekend story for the magazine version of THE RING. For the past several years he and I have established a ritual in which we buy Basilio Sausage Sandwiches and shoot the breeze. Though I found him sitting at a table underneath a tent, he told me he had already eaten his. Because I didn’t get to the grounds until 12:30 p.m., and because he couldn’t have known when – or if – I would arrive in a timely manner, I can understand why he didn’t wait for me. Therefore, we made a temporary addendum to our routine – our circle would be complete once I buy and eat mine. After all, the importance doesn’t lie in the eating of the food, but rather the fact we made it through another year.

Another departure from our routine was that we were joined by others; Johnston, a friend of Bernard’s and writer-turned-matchmaker Eric Bottjer. I enjoyed the extra company and it was a great way to pass the time before the “scheduled” 2:30 p.m. start of the induction ceremony.

The Hall of Fame organizers must have known of our ritual because we were assigned adjoining seats in the front row. Several moments grabbed my attention during the induction:

* This being the first Induction Sunday since Carmen Basilio’s passing, emotions ran high. IBHOF president (and longtime boxing judge) Don Ackerman’s voice cracked as he paid tribute to the former welterweight and middleweight champion and many in the audience bore a red wristband bearing the inscription “Carmen Basilio: Canastota’s Champion.”

* Actress and IBHOF parade marshal Rosie Perez mirrored the feelings of many when she said, “As a boxing fan, I’m in boxing heaven. You give us your bodies and your lives and we offer you our applause but I wish we could offer you more.”

* Over the years, each of historian Herb Goldman’s renderings of the deceased Hall of Famers’ credentials are usually greeted with polite applause but after he read off the accomplishments of Gatti – of course the first fighter on this year’s list – the crowd stood as one and issued a loud and lengthy ovation worthy of the reactions Gatti earned inside the ring. The combination of Gatti’s charisma, ferocious fighting style and premature death threatened to overshadow the inductions of the living representatives, especially since many critics declared the Class of 2013 was low on marquee value. Thankfully it didn’t turn out that way. In my eyes, Hill, Yuh, Lennon, Lane and Hart were given proper tribute during the weekend yet the Ghost of Gatti didn’t overwhelm the event. A proper balance was struck, and for that I was gratified. Something also told me that Gatti would have been more than happy to share the spotlight as well.

* Seven-year-old Sofia Bella warmed many hearts when, after being boosted to the microphone by Gatti’s longtime manager Pat Lynch, she said “thank you for my daddy.” Before that manager Pat Lynch, also joined on stage by Gatti’s mother and daughter as well as promoter Kathy Duva, offered an emotional tribute to his client and friend, saying, “It’s a tremendous accomplishment for Arturo. This little girl here shall have this memory forever. It was so great to see his mom and all of them come down to celebrate such a brilliant career. It’s a truly deserving award for him. I know he’s looking down with a big smile on his face.”

* Duva also addressed the critics of Gatti’s election by quoting Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” While Gatti’s elevation has engendered much controversy and legitimate points of conflict, this was not the time or place to debate but rather a time to celebrate and remember.

* Colin Hart expressed his emotions well when he declared the following: “Now I know what I feels like to win an Oscar. I’m in the word business but I had previously said I couldn’t come up with a word to express my joy. Since then I came up with one – ecstatic.” He also elicited laughs when he said he had the pleasure of covering fights involving most of the men on the stage, except Jake LaMotta, who will turn 92 on July 10. “I’m old,” he said. “But I’m not that old.” He ended his remarks by quoting Winston Churchill, who defined success as “going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

* Lane, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002, was unable to speak so his son Tommy stood in for him. Nevertheless, the love the fans showed Lane was unmistakable. The cheers rang out as Lane proudly extended his ring-adorned fist toward the crowd and during Tommy Lane’s speech one man shouted out “Judge, you are the man!” which brought a nod from the 76-year-old. Because of his condition – his immobilized right arm was in a sling and he needed a cane to get around – his family wasn’t sure he could make the trip. But one could see by his facial expressions that he loved getting the chance to see the fighters he oversaw once again as well as the high regard the fans still have for him.

* Ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. noted that Michael Buffer, who was inducted last year, had spoken for 30 minutes – far longer than the preferred seven-minute block. With a smile on his face and mischief dripping from his trademark tenor, he added, “I’m not the competitive type but I plan to speak 31 minutes.” Most of his speech was centered on his father Jimmy Sr., who was his role model, mentor and cheerleader. He also introduced his 90-year-old mother Doris, who virtually sprang from her seat with startling vitality and waved to the crowd. It is shocking that Jimmy Sr. has not yet been voted in, an oversight that I hope will be rectified soon.

* Hill was saved for last, and his speech typified the humility that has been the trademark of his life and career. He admitted to being star-struck as he shared the stage with dozens of boxing luminaries, all of whom didn’t match his 23 victories in title fights or his nearly 10 years as light heavyweight champion. He never forgot his North Dakota roots, which surely made him feel comfortable amidst Canastota’s small-town surroundings. “To me, a city was a place with 45,000 people, like Grand Forks,” he said. “In my heart of hearts (my induction into the IBHOF) means more to me than you’ll ever know.” He also took note of the attention he received as well as the demanding schedule by saying, “you have made this week very tiring. When you said I ‘d be very, very busy, you weren’t kidding!”

Following the ceremony I put away my press credential and reverted back to boxing fan. I walked around the periphery of the crowd that converged on the stage and lined the sidewalk leading to the museum. I spotted punch-counting partner Dennis Allen, who, like Hill is a North Dakota native and who Hill himself says is like a brother, waiting to speak to the newly-minted Hall of Famer as he wrapped up a TV interview in front of the pavilion stage. I sidled up to Dennis and said hello and after Hill hugged Dennis I introduced myself as Dennis’ “partner in crime in CompuBox” and asked him to sign my big book. Since there was no picture of Hill to sign, I had him sign the lead page in the light heavyweights chapter, which he did happily before being whisked away.

In past years I’d leave Canastota immediately after the induction but this year I changed gears by reserving a room in Syracuse for Sunday night so I’d be able to enjoy the after-glow at Graziano’s. I had dinner with “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith, producer Jon Hait and two employees from Syracuse’s ABC affiliate — Mike Brown and Mark Folsome — who had worked with Smith and Hait for the past two years. I then accepted Smith’s invitation to watch Game 2 of the NBA finals between his hometown Heat and the San Antonio Spurs at his hotel room in Verona.

It wasn’t until Smitty told someone on the phone that he was flying home tomorrow that I realized our trip to Cooperstown to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday wasn’t going to happen. It was just as well, because I had plenty of work waiting for me once I returned home.

Me being me and Smitty being Smitty, we barely watched the game and instead talked until a little after 1 a.m., after which I made the long drive back to Syracuse. At 2 a.m. – 42 hours after I last went to bed – I finally clicked off the lights and got some much needed sleep.

Miles at Day’s End: 75 (by car, grand total 650), 621 (by air, grand total 1,242)

Monday, June 10: Just five-and-a-half hours later a massive cramp in my left calf jolted me awake, a rare occurrence since my recent weight loss since I’m in much better shape now. The pain went away almost immediately after I rubbed it out and the earlier-than-expected rising time turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to get in the writing I neglected to do by accepting Smitty’s invitation the previous evening. By 10:45 a.m. I reached a good stopping point and by 11 I was ready to hit the road.

Because I had so much to do at home – and so little time to do it – I decided to drive all the way back home instead of splitting it over the customary two days. In 21 years this was only the third time I had attempted this but thanks to my car’s cruise control the eight-and-a-half hour trip was nowhere near as taxing as it was in 1993, when I was forced to drive home because this IBHOF rookie forgot to reserve a room.

As I ticked off mile after mile I listened to the radio, visually sipped on my surroundings, purchased a pair of drive-through meals and filled up my depleted gas tank for a third time in less than a week. I also had the chance to reflect on everything that has transpired over the past six days as well as all of the travels I’ve experienced since I began working full-time for CompuBox in March 2007. The dreams I harbored in the years leading up to 2007 paled in comparison to the reality I have lived thus far. The people I’ve met, the cities and nations I’ve visited and the athletic excellence I witnessed have spawned stories I’ll never forget – or want to forget.

I pulled into my driveway at 7:30 p.m. and I was ready to crawl into bed and recharge the batteries. But before doing that I needed to address some items on my never-ending “to do” list and in the end I didn’t go to sleep until after 2 a.m.

Miles at Day’s End: 479

Final mileage via car: 1,129

Final mileage via air: 1,242

Total miles traveled: 2,371

By the time you read this I will already be on my next journey – working the HBO doubleheader in Dallas pitting WBO featherweight titlist Mikey Garcia against Juan Manuel Lopez and rising junior welterweight Terence Crawford versus 34-1-1 (25) Mexican Alejandro Sanabria.

Until then, happy trails!

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Photos / Mike Greenhill, Lee Groves (the sandwich)

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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