Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota-part I

 

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Most major sports orbit around treasured chronological touchstones. For the NFL, Super Bowl Sunday has morphed into Super Bowl Week, then Super Bowl Fortnight. For baseball fans, the World Series represents the zenith of a lengthy campaign while the NBA and NHL playoffs cap off their marathon playoff seasons with finals that begin during the same week in June.

Despite being structured far differently than its counterparts, boxing is no different. The weekends closest to May 5 and September 15 have been reserved for the biggest pay-per-view events but on a more personal level for fans, the first full weekend in June has become the most anticipated segment of the calendar. That’s when the International Boxing Hall of Fame stages its annual induction weekend and with every subsequent year, the event grows in stature and stagecraft yet manages to retain much of the small-town charm and intimacy that marked its earliest days.

For Executive Director Ed Brophy and the army of people who help him, this event marked a major milestone – the 25th anniversary of the first ceremony – and record crowds greeted the enshrinement of a high-quality class in the Modern category: Oscar De la Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Joe Calzaghe. Joining them on stage were referee Richard Steele, promoter Barry Hearn, writer Graham Houston and photographer Neil Leifer, all legends in their own fields. All in all, the 25th class ranks among the very best ever honored other than the massive initial class that included 20 Moderns, 21 Old-Timers and five Pioneers.

The headlining trio marks the third “mega-class” of Moderns since 2007. That year saw Roberto Duran, Pernell Whitaker and Ricardo Lopez immortalized while Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez and Kostya Tszyu joined them four years later. As of this writing, another such class may not happen in the foreseeable future but then again, one must never underestimate boxing’s capacity for springing surprises.

Much has changed since I made my first visit in 1993. To that point, boxing’s future “Travelin’ Man” had only set foot in three other states in his 28-plus years – Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan – and his first visit inside an airport wouldn’t take place for another 12 years. I was only three years into my job as a member of the Parkersburg News copydesk and money was so tight that I could afford to stay only two of the four days (Friday and Saturday) while lodging at a fleabag trailer park hotel that had too-soft mattresses and too many cockroaches.

I didn’t know enough to reserve hotel rooms ahead of time aside from the one in Canastota. On the way up, I just drove as far as I could and, by chance, I pulled into a Motel 6 in Erie, Pa. just after midnight and was able to check in. On that basis alone, Erie eventually became my traditional midway stopping point both going out and, to a lesser degree in recent years, coming home.

Being the greenhorn I was, I believed I could get any hotel room I wanted when I drove back two days later but I learned the hard way that there’s light years of difference between securing on-the-spot lodging on a Saturday as opposed to a Thursday. There literally was no room at the inn – any inn. As a result, I drove a car without the benefit of cruise control for 11 hours and by the time I returned home at 3 a.m., my neck, shoulders, back and legs were in searing pain.

From that point forward, I reserved my rooms during the dead of winter and made sure they were still in the system the week before departing. I moved up from roach motels to brand-name outlets and with every passing year, I picked up helpful tips, acquired hundreds of autographs, formed countless friendships and created memories for a lifetime.

At first, my IBHOF trips were all about meeting the legends I admired from afar but as the years rolled on, they acquired a far deeper meaning both personally and professionally. I became a Hall of Fame voter in 2001 just a few weeks after approaching media director Jeff Brophy (Ed’s nephew) about the process and became an “insider” of sorts by helping out with various projects throughout the year. They, in turn, assisted me greatly in promoting my book, “Tales From the Vault” when it was published in 2010 by giving me a table at the book and memorabilia show, buying 10 copies for the gift shop and granting me an impromptu “Ring Talk” slot that ultimately led to brisk sales.

After leaving the newspaper business in 2007 and becoming a more visible presence in boxing media via the book and the various websites for which I worked, I learned I had fans. I signed autographs, posed for pictures and engaged in long conversations that I enjoyed as much, if not more, than they did.

As I began my 22nd trip to what Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz calls “Boxing Heaven,” I intended to seek my share of autographs for my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing” but spending far more time reconnecting with the faces I see only in Canastota and immersing myself in the sport to which I’ve devoted more than 40 years of my life. The following three-part article will chronicle the journey as seen through a writer’s – and a fan’s – eye.

Tuesday, June 3: I spent most of the last eight days since returning from Montreal furiously working to clear the decks so I could enjoy my time in Canastota without any work-related tasks hanging over my head. I finished all of the available CompuBox pre-fight research for June on May 31 and I invested most of this morning updating my master DVD list, a task that took 90 minutes since I had fallen a full six weeks behind. I finished the update only eight minutes before my intended departure time of 12:05 p.m. but a late request – submitting flight requests for the June 27 ShoBox card in Las Vegas – pushed that back another 10 minutes.

I pulled out of the driveway amidst gorgeous driving conditions – sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. The route I follow to Erie (then Syracuse and Canastota) is so ingrained that I didn’t need to pack a GPS; I just drive and go.

Because of rush-hour traffic – and the perpetually severe bottleneck in New Martinsville, W.Va. – I experienced some delays along the way but still arrived in Erie four-and-a-half hours after I left the house, which was about the average time. After unpacking, the rest of the day was relaxing and uneventful. I walked over to the Pilot Travel Center across the street to grab a Subway, corn chips and a Coke Zero and chilled in the hotel room until falling asleep shortly after 1 a.m. I knew I needed to save my strength for the busy days that lay ahead of me.

Wednesday, June 4: I awoke six-and-a-half hours later feeling pretty good but the extra-soft mattress left me with a somewhat stiff back that loosened up by the end of the morning routines. If I wasn’t awake before, I certainly was after I banged the top of my head on the towel rack when, because of the immobile shower head, I stepped aside to avoid any cold shower stream and raised up when I reached a satisfactory water temperature. My bell was rung but thankfully, I was still able to answer it.

I caught up on my writing for the next couple of hours and when I had reached a good stopping point, I placed calls to several people. My first message was to former three-belt lightweight champion Nate Campbell, with whom I formed a friendship several years earlier. In July 2012, he gave me a most unexpected gift: a beautiful purple-and-gold robe with the words “Galaxxy Warrior” on the back. He wore it three times – for back-to-back fights against Francisco Olvera (TKO 6) and Isaac Hlatshwayo (L 12) as well as against Khabib Allakhverdiev (Tech. Dec. L 6). It had hung in my bedroom closet since then but just a couple of weeks before this trip, I realized that it should have a more appropriate home – inside the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

I called Nate to let him know about my plans and he couldn’t have been more thrilled. A scheduling conflict prevented him from coming to Canastota himself, so he asked me to give him the next-best thing: A phone call soon after handing over the robe as well as a photo of the event.

 

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Another call I placed was to Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Robert Diaz, whom I first met more than a decade ago on a private boxing-oriented chat room when he worked in Marco Antonio Barrera’s camp. Both he and I have come far in the years since and a couple of years earlier, he gave me a much-appreciated gift: a bright red cornerman’s jacket worn by a member of Manuel Medina’s team when “Mantecas” engaged in one of his final fights, a title eliminator in South Africa. I had long been a big fan of Medina’s perpetual motion style and to have a small piece of his career was cherished. But the time came that it too should have a better place and thus it came with me to Canastota. Like Campbell, Diaz was overjoyed and he promised two things: (1) to call Medina to alert him of the news and (2) to see me sometime during the weekend.

The other person I called was Jeff Brophy at the IBHOF. I let Jeff know about my plans to donate the items and we arranged for the handover to take place during my usual pre-event walk around the grounds.

But first I had to get from Point A to Point B.

I left the hotel in Erie a little before 10:45 a.m. and proceeded to make excellent time as I arrived at the hotel less than four hours later. The ladies behind the registration desk recognized me from my past visits and quickly found a vacant, non-smoking room. Once I settled in and placed a few phone calls, the last of which was to Jeff to let him know I was on the way, I was ready to drive to the Hall.

My adrenaline – or perhaps my thoughts – must have been flowing faster than usual because the trip seemed to take far less time than normal. I found my customary space in the McDonald’s parking lot across from the Hall, gathered up the memorabilia and made my way toward the grounds, which were occupied only by a few groundskeepers.

I introduced myself to the young man and woman manning the museum entrance and asked if Jeff was there. He was and his Uncle Ed joined us a few moments later.

Ed marveled at Campbell’s robe, saying it was one of the most colorful he had ever seen. Armed with a digital camera, Jeff had Ed and me pose with the robe, then with both items. We briefly looked at the pictures, approved them, chatted briefly and went our separate ways – Ed to a phone call he had put on hold, Jeff to a huddle with “The Voice of IBHOF Weekend” Joey Fiatto and me to McDonald’s to grab a late lunch and read the latest issue of THE RING.

After filling up, I walked to the corner of the parking lot to view the glass-encased exhibit dedicated to Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus. I read all the names and businesses on the plaque, which illustrated just how large an undertaking it had been just to make that exhibit a reality, much less the Hall itself. I then returned to the grounds to take one last look around and as I was doing so, I heard a familiar voice yell out, “LG!”

I knew instantly it was Fiatto because he’s the only person who ever gives me the “initial” treatment bestowed on “MJ” (Michael Jordan), “LT” (Lawrence Taylor) and “GGG” (Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin). After a warm handshake and a brief talk, we were joined by referee Mark Irwin and his son, who I first met as an eight-year-old but has grown into a storehouse of tightly-coiled muscles. Despite being four years older than I am, Mark looks five years younger – a fact that irks me to no end since many people have said I look younger than my own age. The four of us formed a circle and chatted for several enjoyable minutes before breaking up and moving on to our respective items of business. For me, that meant driving back to the hotel, unpacking the rest of my stuff and preparing for Day One of the 25th annual International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend.

Thursday, June 5: Even now, more than 20 years after my first pilgrimage to Canastota, the prospect of Opening Day at the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend made it hard to fall sleep. In the six-and-a-half hours between turning in and getting up, I awoke at least four times only to be disappointed that morning had not yet arrived. I wanted to get going and I wanted to get going now.

When I finally climbed out of bed at 7:30 a.m. and peeked past the curtains, I was delighted to see sunshine. This defied the previous night’s forecast that called for overcast skies with flecks of occasional sunshine and the positive turn only heightened the sense of anticipation as I performed the morning routines. To top off the energy tank, I indulged in something rare for me – breakfast. A simple bowl of cereal did the trick and by 9:30, I was ready to head out the door.

Although the first scheduled event – a “Ring Talk” with John H. Stracey – wasn’t to take place until 1:30 p.m., there was plenty to keep me occupied once I reached the grounds at 10 a.m. I encountered the first familiar face less than two minutes after arriving – Oswego, N.Y. native David Baum, a semi-retired dentist-turned-photographer now living in Myrtle Beach who has attended all but one of the induction weekends. As we were catching up, a second frequent attendee (one who is my Face Number One most years) came on the scene, Canadian Bill Johnston, whose IBHOF specialty is snapping pictures of himself with the fighters.

Later on, I spotted Ed Brophy conducting a TV interview for Sky Sports in the U.K. and once they wrapped, I struck up a conversation with the crew while also forwarding an offer to provide additional historical insight should they need them (life lesson: Seize the initiative. What’s the worst that can happen? They say, “No”? Ah, but what if they say, “Yes”?). My credibility in that situation was bolstered when Boxing News editor (and longtime friend) Tris Dixon greeted me warmly upon joining us.

I stopped by the tent occupied by “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith, who was preparing for his first interview of the day with 2014 IBHOF inductee Joe Calzaghe. While Smitty and I chatted, producer Jon Hait and two employees from Syracuse’s ABC affiliate, Mike Brown and Mark Folsome, cleared the platform and erected the necessary lights. Biting but good-natured banter was the rule of the day but when “Super Joe” and his team arrived, it was all business. I talked briefly with Calzaghe and his son, Joe Jr. while they waited for the taping to begin and stood quietly while Smitty and Joe recorded their segments. When they finished, I hoped to snag a quick scribble from Calzaghe but that was instantly shot down when the security person beside me firmly declared, “No autographs here.” I wasn’t worried because Plan B was to get all I wanted Saturday afternoon at the VIP Cocktail Reception.

I walked to the pavilion and settled into a chair near the back to listen to Stracey’s Ring Talk, the majority of which centered on his life-changing victory over longtime welterweight champion Jose Napoles in December 1975.

“My manager, Mickey Duff called me up three months before the fight and he told me he had some good news and some bad news,” he recalled. “He said, ‘The good news is that you are fighting Napoles for the title in December’ and that the bad news was that I was fighting him in Mexico. I told him that was even better because I fought in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and [because of that] I knew how to train at altitude (Note: Mexico City’s altitude is 7,362 feet). Plus, there was no pressure on me. If I lost, I was expected to lose overseas but if I win, it’s a cherry on top of the cake.”

Despite being a native of Cuba, Napoles was an icon in Mexico and Stracey remembered two incidents that struck him as pre-fight gamesmanship.

“When I first got there, I walked around the area to get familiar with the surroundings,” he said. “A big guy, probably six-foot-five, shook my hand and he squeezed it so hard that I thought he broke it. Mickey and I thought he was planted to do it. Later, Mickey said we needed to get a bit of sparring and he got someone that he called a ‘Mexican Road Sweeper.’ We didn’t know that he was the equivalent of a British or a U.S. champion and he came at me hard. He buzzed me with the jab and I thought to myself, ‘Why is this so hard? He was supposed to be a Mexican Road Sweeper.’ I felt a trickle of blood over my left eye and when I got back to the corner I asked, ‘Is it bad?’ Some plaster was put over the eye and I was told to ‘Go out and hurt him.’”

And hurt him, Stracey did and when he was done, the sparring partner-turned-hitman was flat on his back. At that point, Stracey put his foot on his victim’s chest and raised his arms overhead, a pose that prompted photos to be taken.

The weigh-in was set for 8:30 a.m. the day of the fight, just eight hours before they were scheduled to enter the ring. After Stracey scaled a fit-and-ready 145, Napoles hopped on the scale and jumped off the moment the bar hit 147.

“Mickey knew it was a trick and he told the commissioners in Spanish that he had to be on the scale longer,” Stracey remembered. “It turned out he was 148 (one pound over the championship limit). Napoles had only one hour to lose the pound or else he had to forfeit not only money but also the title. Napoles was cursing me and his face had an expression like, ‘I’m going to kill you.’”

The last bit of psychological warfare in Team Napoles’ bag was forcing Stracey to wait 15 minutes inside the ring. But Stracey used that time to ingratiate himself with ringsiders and by the time Napoles finally arrived, he felt he converted a few of them.

“I spread out my arms as if to ask, ‘Is he going to fight me or not?’” he said, which got some laughs from ringsiders. When Napoles finally emerged, Stracey and his newly-minted supporters let out a good-natured cheer laced with more than a little sarcasm.

In what was THE RING’s “Upset of the Year” for 1975, Stracey overcame a first-round knockdown and a furious rally by a cut and desperate Napoles to win the title by sixth round TKO. Stracey took particular pride in pointing out that he was the first WBC champion crowned during the tenure of Jose Sulaiman, who passed away January 16 at age 82.

“Sulaiman was elected WBC president on December 5, 1975 and I won the title on December 6, 1975,” he said.

After getting something from my car parked across the street, I spotted referee Charlie Fitch coming in the opposite direction. He and I met at a previous induction weekend and became friendly and knowing he was fresh off overseeing the Carl Froch-George Groves rematch, I asked for his thoughts.

“I stopped the fight for two reasons,” he said. “First, when I looked down at [Groves], I saw he was out and, second, because of the way his leg was twisted under him. But to Groves’ credit, he started to wake up just as I was waving off the fight and he wanted to get to his feet. He and his fans were very sportsmanlike after the fight.”

Ruben Olivares and his translator, newly-minted author Gene Aguilera (“Mexican-American Boxing in Los Angeles”), took the stage for the next Ring Talk but my attention was sidetracked by impromptu conversations with Chicago-based husband-and-wife promoters Wasfi and Cynthia Tolaymat, historian Don Koss and several other weekend regulars. I then went to the concession tent and bought a Basilio Sausage Sandwich and a Diet Pepsi, doing so more from obligation than need. More than any other place I visit, the urges to eat, sleep or even use the facilities are minimized because of the sensory fulfillment I receive from the constant boxing talk.

Felix Trinidad’s arrival aboard a speeding golf cart caused many in the crowd to rise out of their chairs and some broke out in “Tito! Tito!” chants. The fighter, clad in a tight black shirt and looking well, proved his charisma remained in prime form as he smiled, spoke and gestured with his trademark fervor. I missed most of what he said, however, and for a very good reason: seated to my immediate left was a surprise attendee who came to Canastota on his own: Oscar “The Boxer” Muniz, best known for splitting his two fights with Jeff Chandler. His was the first autograph I acquired for the 2014 weekend and I hoped I would get many more along the way.

Muniz’s stories about the Southern California boxing scene in the 1970s brought me back to a fonder time when the cream of the crop in the lower weight classes clashed on an almost weekly basis. One tale of Muniz’s regarding his first fight with Chandler was particularly striking: shortly before his stunning 10-round, non-title win over the reigning WBA bantamweight champion in their first meeting, Muniz purchased the July 1983 issue of THE RING, whose cover featured a photo of Chandler and the words “Jeff Chandler: The Best Fighter Nobody Knows.” He used the photo to stoke his already elevated motivation level and it was just one ingredient that sparked his inspirational effort. The rematch was staged less than five months later and this time, it was for Chandler’s title. In what would be “Joltin’ Jeff’s” final victory, he prevailed via seventh-round TKO.

I couldn’t help but notice how large the crowds were for a Thursday and two reliable indicators portended a heavily-attended weekend. First, security told us that the entire middle section of seats under the pavilion – I counted 164 chairs – were reserved only for family members who were planning to attend the opening ceremony. Usually that volume is reserved for Induction Day itself but according to one well-placed person, two fighters alone requested 30 seats each for loved ones. And second, the restaurant portion of Graziano’s World Famous Restaurant and Inn was packed, an unusual occurrence for a Thursday.

As I scanned the dozens of autographed photos hanging on the walls, writer Eric Thompson invited me to dine with him and friend Robert Tammaro, a CPA from Monroe township, N.J., in their booth. Only after I consumed my sirloin steak, salad, baked potato and Diet Coke did I learn Eric was paying for everyone’s meal. Had I known I would have requested a less expensive dinner but he didn’t mind; he said was repaying me for a past kindness and this was his first opportunity to do so. Feeling the urge to contribute something for the meal, Robert and I insisted on leaving a generous tip for the waitress.

Veteran memorabilia collector John Gay – who I first met just before last month’s BWAA dinner – joined us later on and he told us about a letter written by Eddie Futch in which he broke down Marvin Hagler’s chances against eight other middleweight greats. Being boxing guys, we made a game of it: John wrote down the names and results from memory, then polled each of us and tracked our guesses. Futch said in the letter that Hagler would have beaten Dick Tiger, Rocky Graziano, Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio while he would have lost to Tony Zale, Marcel Cerdan, Jake LaMotta and Carlos Monzon. I guessed correctly on all but the Cerdan match and won our three-way duel while Eric went 6-2 and Robert 5-3.

After our group broke up, I joined another that included, among others, a man named Tom Space, the owner of a restaurant/gas mart/hotel in Redfield, N.Y. called Otter Limits Corp. Upon hearing his name, I did a double-take and, in a scene undoubtedly played out many times in his life, he had me look at his driver’s license to confirm the unusual surname.

As the final moments of San Antonio’s victory over Miami in Game One of the NBA Finals played on the flat screens above the bar, I witnessed several only-in-Canastota moments: Marlon Starling and Micky Ward greeting each other with enthusiastic hugs, Wilfredo Gomez and Frank Tate signing autographs for fans surprised to learn of their appearances and a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Hall of Fame promoter Don Chargin, who turned 86 on this day.

Only when I checked my cell phone for the time did I realize how late the hour had grown. With a 30-minute drive ahead and a long day looming on the horizon, I decided to drive back to the hotel and get whatever rest I could.

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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 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. 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 email the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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