Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota-part III

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Click here for part one

Click here for part two

Saturday, June 7 (continued): For a few moments in time, the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Cicero, New York became Puerto Rican Boxing Heaven.

With dozens of passionate countrymen fixated on the battery of big screens, Miguel Cotto became the first of his nation to win major boxing titles in four weight classes. Better yet, from his standpoint, by stopping Sergio Martinez, he achieved two more career-defining feats: first, he became the lineal middleweight champion and, second, he erased any doubts concerning his Hall of Fame status. Five full years after his retirement, whenever that is, Cotto is a lock for first-ballot enshrinement.

But as joyous as his supporters were about Cotto’s victory as a two-to-one betting underdog, their fervor soared a few minutes later when Felix Trinidad, fresh from attending the Banquet of Champions, walked through the door. Upon seeing him, the throng unleashed explosive cheers and broke into thunderous chants of “Tito! Tito!” and their hero responded by eagerly thrusting himself into the middle of their celebration.

For those fans, life at that very moment couldn’t have been better. Not only did they witness one of their own achieve the biggest victory of his career inside the ring, they were joined by arguably the most popular boxing hero in their country’s history, one who was less than 18 hours away from being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The best American sporting equivalent of what happened at Buffalo Wild Wings would be a group of New York Yankee fans watching Mickey Mantle hit a bottom-of-the ninth grand slam in Game Seven to win the World Series on TV and then being joined at the local bar by Babe Ruth.

Many experts, including myself, didn’t see this one coming. The conventional wisdom was that Martinez – if healthy – had the skills and off-kilter rhythm to confuse and frustrate what they believed was a post-prime Cotto. Who knew that Cotto, who weighed a perfectly conditioned 155, would achieve perhaps the greatest form of his career?

From the time Cotto landed his first left hook until the moment Martinez resigned his title – and perhaps his career – between rounds nine and 10, the fight was his. Cotto’s punches were crisp and compactly delivered while his defensive reflexes were sharp and fluid. He executed Freddie Roach’s blueprint to a T and remained composed even when he plunged Martinez into his most desperate moments. He was clinical, masterful and – pun intended – “maravilla.”

Along with Trinidad’s appearance at the restaurant, Cotto’s feat has two more links to the Class of 2014. First, by capturing Martinez’s 160-pound crown, he joined Oscar De la Hoya as the only former 140-pound titlists to go on to capture a middleweight belt. Second: he also joined a select group of ex-welterweight titlists who also won belts at 160 – Tommy Ryan, Mickey Walker, Carmen Basilio, Sugar Ray Robinson, Emile Griffith, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns – as well as De la Hoya and Trinidad.

For Martinez, the loss could begin the countdown toward his eventual enshrinement in Canastota. A longtime welterweight and junior middleweight, the Argentine was the lineal champion at 160 for four years by beating a succession of naturally bigger men like Paul Williams, Kelly Pavlik and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. His last unquestioned loss took place more than 14 years earlier on the Erik Morales-Marco Antonio Barrera I undercard when Antonio Margarito starched him in seven rounds. Plus, Martinez must rank with the very best fighters ever to enter the pro game without an amateur background.

The pre-fight wisdom suggested Martinez used the 15-plus month break to fully heal from his multiple injuries and cosmetically, he looked fit to fight. But Cotto’s first landed hook showed everyone that Martinez’s conditioned exterior concealed the ravages of the Argentine’s long recovery period, the effects of Father Time and, most importantly, a rejuvenated Miguel Cotto.

Doggedly determined to avoid Cotto’s devastating hooks, Martinez constantly moved to his left even when it was clear that tactic wouldn’t help him. For a left-hander, circling to his own left is an unnatural move that disturbs not only his balance but also his ability to deliver punches with full power, so imagine how much more difficult it was for Martinez to execute this strategy on two aged and physically compromised legs. Only in hindsight could these variables be completely understood.

As for whom Cotto fights next, Saul Alvarez is the most logical choice based on timing and financial considerations. Should that fight happen in December – and should Cotto prevail – the following bout could be a rematch with Floyd Mayweather Jr.

It makes all the sense in the world for both sides. For Cotto, it would be the biggest payday possible and if he defeats “Canelo” as impressively as he did Martinez, a second go-round against Mayweather would be sellable to the general public. For Mayweather, a Cotto rematch would fulfill all the requirements he wants from his opponents. First, Cotto’s enormous fan base would help produce a prodigious financial windfall, even by “Money’s” standards. Second, Mayweather has already beaten Cotto, so he’ll own an important psychological advantage. Third, it’s a way for him to capture a sixth divisional title without having to add excess poundage, for given Cotto’s weight of 155 for Martinez, a 155 or 156-pound catchweight is doable. Finally, Mayweather will have the chance to win a belt at 160 without having to fight Gennady Golovkin.

But for all of these favorable variables, one fight-killing factor trumps all as far as Mayweather is concerned and it’s one of the reasons Mayweather has refused to fight Manny Pacquiao all these years- the prospect of doing business with Bob Arum. His animus toward Arum was powerful enough for him to eschew a gigantic payday against the “Pac-Man” and unless a seismic attitudinal change occurs, it won’t stop him from doing it again.

*

After basking in the post-fight atmosphere for a while, I asked for directions back to I-90 so I could get back to the hotel. I pulled into the parking lot at 1:45 a.m. and it wasn’t until after three when I finally came down enough to turn out the lights.

Sunday, June 8: The energy of the previous day prompted a solid five-and-a-half hour slumber and thus I awakened refreshed and ready to go. I spent considerable time preparing the way to leave for home; I packed my belongings while also deciding to cancel my hotel reservation in Erie in favor of making the long drive home in a single session. I invested whatever time I could catching up on the writing but once 10:45 a.m. rolled around – 15 minutes before checkout – I had no choice but to stop and make the final packing push.

My first indication of the size of the induction day crowd occurred when I approached the toll booths at Exit 34 on the New York State Thruway. The line was at least a dozen cars long and as I looked to my right, I saw that hundreds had already gathered on the grounds. After pulling into a spot in the McDonald’s parking lot and walking across the street, I spied a group of flag-waving fans dancing and chanting to the rhythms of a bongo player as TV cameras captured the scene. They were waiting for Trinidad to finish his tour inside the museum to view his plaque and to spend some quiet moments with friends and family before his big moment.

Once Trinidad emerged, the fans roared their adoration and, as always, Trinidad reveled in it and plunged himself into its midst. The invisible walls that separate stars from admirers doesn’t exist with Trinidad and his fans; he loves them just as much as they love him and he freely basks in their love because he knows they will not hurt him in any way.

After hanging out with Team Smitty in his tent, I happily took part in an annual tradition with fellow scribe Bernard Fernandez – the Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit. Almost without fail, he and I would buy a sandwich and a soda, find somewhere to sit and indulge in a most enjoyable conversation about the “Sweet Science” as well as our mutual experiences writing about it.  For us, it’s the perfect way to enjoy each other’s company while also awaiting the start of the induction ceremony.

Bernard and I presented our red tickets to the ushers, found our seats in the first-row press section and continued our conversation as neighboring writers and photographers took their places. I noticed that the chair reserved for De la Hoya’s father, Joel was located directly behind mine but by the time the ceremony began shortly after 3 p.m. – 30 minutes later than scheduled – he had moved closer to the center of the row to get a better view of his son’s elevation.

Of all the induction ceremonies I’ve attended – 21 in all – this unquestionably had the highest attendance. Not only was every seat filled under the pavilion, hundreds of more chairs were placed under each of the surrounding tents, something I had never seen before. Spontaneous chants of “Tito!” filled the air from time to time and at one point, Hall of Fame referee Joe Cortez rose out of his chair and held up his arm like he had following Trinidad’s January 1994 decision victory over Hector Camacho, the only fight of Trinidad’s he refereed.

As “The Voice of the IBHOF,” Joey Fiatto read off the roll call of fighters, several surprise appearances were noted: Lucian Bute, Zou Shiming, Felix Verdejo (who scored a first round knockout of Engelberto Valenzuela on the Cotto-Martinez card) and the promoter of last night’s card in Madison Square Garden, Bob Arum.

A few memorable instances from the ceremony:

*  While waiting for the ceremony to begin, I noticed Class of 2014 honoree Neil Leifer taking photos of the crowd from his place on stage, which would have been like De la Hoya, Trinidad and Calzaghe taking turns shadow-boxing, Richard Steele refereeing them, Graham Houston writing about the sessions on his laptop and Barry Hearn working up the crowd.

“Being the first photographer inducted into the Hall of Fame is a real, real honor,” Leifer said, “but I hope I won’t be the last because there are some very deserving people out there.”

The first fight Leifer attended was the first bout between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson in 1959. He bought a ticket in the $5 nosebleed section and he said his sight line was so bad, he didn’t know until the fifth knockdown that the black fighter had been the one who was floored. Still, the experience hooked him on boxing for life.

“College students have asked me ‘how can we have a career like you’ve had?’” he said. “It’s easy: just go out and find a subject like Muhammad Ali, stay with him for 40 years and you’ll be a superstar.”

*  The most memorable speech was delivered by Steele, whose route to boxing immortality left his listeners, including this one, awestruck. A friend named Albert took note of Steele’s frequent street fights and invited him to his house to meet his father – former featherweight champion Chalky Wright. Wright, in turn, introduced Steele to a man who happened to be sitting in his living room that day – Sugar Ray Robinson. Another day, Steele spotted a big black Cadillac sitting in Albert’s driveway. The car belonged to Joe Louis and Albert greeted “The Brown Bomber” as if he were an old friend.

“Joe, this is my friend Richard. He likes to fight,” Albert said.

“Hello Richard,” Louis said as they shook hands. “You like to fight, huh?”

“Yes.”

“We should get you some fights,” Louis said. “Are you in training?”

Steele then recalled his thoughts at that moment: “I’m a street fighter. I met Chalky Wright; I met Sugar Ray Robinson and I met Joe Louis. Man, I’m going to a gym!”

During Steele’s first day inside the gym, Albert’s father called in a favor to a certain trainer and had him give pointers to Steele. That trainer was Eddie Futch.

The pointers must have worked because a year after receiving those lessons, he captured the 1963 All-Marine Corps championship and went on to the 1964 Olympic Trials.

“I won my first fight but I lost the second one…they said,” a line that prompted roars of laughter.

Steele turned pro in 1966 and went 12-4 (10) before retiring. Soon after, he received a phone call from the California State Athletic Commission about becoming a referee, a role he had great doubts about assuming. It was Futch who convinced Steele to take the step.

“It’s an honor to be a referee,” Futch told Steele. “Besides, you’d be only the second black referee in California in the last 25 years.” Needless to say, Steele took the job and the rest is history.

His controversial actions in the first Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor fight and the first Mike Tyson-Donovan “Razor” Ruddock bout prompted fans to boo Steele for years afterward. But on this day, he heard nothing but cheers, especially from a contingent of protégés seated a few rows back.

“You guys [the crowd] have really shown me what love is,” he said as he choked back tears. “This memory will be with me for the rest of my days. The fans, oh, wow, you’re great. If I had enough rings, I would give you all one.”

* Calzaghe, Trinidad and De la Hoya each paid tributes to their fathers Enzo, Felix Sr. and Joel, respectively during their speeches but two instances during the “Golden Boy’s” remarks particularly stood out. The first addressed his 1999 super-fight with Trinidad.

“We met one day in what some call the ‘Fight of the Millennium’” he said. “[Trinidad] was undefeated. I was undefeated. The fight went the distance and you know what…never mind.” The crowd, who knew of the controversial decision given to Trinidad, laughed heartily and even Trinidad couldn’t conceal a smile. “Let me put it this way: it’s less painful standing up here today in a suit than it was going 12 rounds with Felix Trinidad.”

The second intriguing statement was the strongest signal yet that he wants to end the “Cold War” between Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank Promotions. With Arum seated less than 10 feet away, De la Hoya declared the following:

“We must put aside the egos that have damaged our brand and sullied our reputation. We, the promoters, must stop carrying petty grudges that serve no purpose but to divide our sport. And most important, we must give the fans the fights that they want.”

Here’s hoping his words will result in actions – and soon.

*

I quickly extricated myself from the crush of people bearing down on the stage and walked over to Graziano’s to get in one last shot of fellowship. I had hoped to say my goodbyes to Smitty and his crew but as I waited for them to finish their work inside the HOF museum, I settled into a booth with British writer/historian George Zeleny. Boxing News editor Tris Dixon, then photographer Sumio Yamada (who was looking for “Boxing” Bob Newman, his ride to the airport) joined us.

Knowing I had a long drive ahead of me, I decided to leave at 6:30 p.m. with an eye on getting home at 2:30 a.m. I filled up the gas tank (and my stomach) at the first rest stop I saw on I-90 West, set the cruise control on 65 mph, listened to a series of classic rock stations on FM and enjoyed the drive. I didn’t stop the car until I needed to fill the tank again just south of Pittsburgh and I arrived in my driveway at 2:28 a.m. – just two minutes off my target time. I’m so predictable.

Happy to be home, I still had enough energy to organize and record my receipts before going to bed at 4 a.m. I must have been more tired than I thought, for I wouldn’t stir again for another seven hours.

As has been the case every year, my 22nd trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend produced unique and wonderful memories. It used to be the only major trip I’d take in a given year but thanks to my current circumstances, that’s no longer the case.

My next journey is scheduled to begin Friday, June 20 when I will drive to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. to work an NBC Sports Network-televised card topped by Karl Dargan-Anthony Flores and Anatoliy Dudchenko-Nadjib Mohammedi.

Until then, happy trails.

*

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.

 

Photo by "Boxing" Bob Newman

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