Thursday, June 8-Opening Bell
A sinus infection and sleep deprivation notwithstanding, I was out of bed at three o’clock Thursday morning and in the car by twenty-five-to-four. Nearly two hours before sunrise and well ahead of the nightmarish Long Island and Manhattan rush hours, my headlights illuminated nearly 300 miles of blacktop running north and west, Canastota bound, for my tenth International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend.
The temperature, which had been a comfortable 50-something degrees as I left Huntington, had already crept into the low-70s when I pulled into the Hall of Fame parking lot just before nine and was predicted to flirt with 90 by late afternoon.
“Making yourself pretty for the boxers?” a voice yelled from an open window of the vehicle swinging past mine as I checked the side view mirrors to make sure no area of exposed flesh was overlooked by the copious amounts of SPF 70 sunscreen I was currently smearing on. My friend Len from nearby Oswego winked, waved, and eased his car into a vacant spot.
Recently divorced and in need of a diversionary weekend getaway, the destination I had settled on was Canastota, New York and my first IBHOF inductions in 2007. I’ve missed only one since. It is a fun but exhausting trip, putting in all of that windshield time alone with only the monotonous task of finding the there-one-second-and-static-the-next local NPR affiliate on the dial to distract me, then having to endure the erratic Central New York weather patterns (rain or extreme heat, sometimes both), the whims and misapprehensions of the overzealous volunteer events staff and, worst by far, the eBay hustlers circling the boxers like vultures all weekend, shoving you aside to get Marvin Camel or Marvin Hagler to autograph one more glove or sign another 8×10 to sell come Monday morning. Having gotten to know Len, his son Greg, grandson Steven, and mutual acquaintance Rick to both grumble and laugh about it all with over the last several years has made the accumulated aggravation not only tolerable but fodder for comedic material.
Len’s wife Jan was thankfully well enough this year to attend the opening day ceremonies and it was a pleasure to finally meet her after so long. The first bit of business is always to check the museum gift shop for any new swag as well as giving the posted guest list a thorough once over. Other than the current crop of inductees and the usual suspects like Gerry Cooney, Michael and Leon Spinks, Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, the late additions of Shawn Porter and Daniel Jacobs, two of my favorite active fighters, was a very nice surprise.
Australian trainer Johnny Lewis, most famous for his work with Jeff Fenech and Kostya Tszyu, was the first attendee we encountered followed not long after by Chiquita Gonzalez and then Marco Antonio Barrera, like Lewis a member of the IBHOF Class of 2017 and very pleasant person. It was pretty great to say hello to Steve Farhood and shake the hand of Barry Tompkins while congratulating him on his induction and tell him that, as far as commentators go, he is tops in my book, a compliment he made sure to let me know he was genuinely appreciative of.
Acknowledging the Heather ‘The Heat’ Hardy t-shirt I was wearing, someone stopped me for a nice, lengthy discussion about women’s boxing. Turns out it was Mark Jones whose social media handle is ‘Boxing Jones’. Always great to meet another knowledgeable and passionate advocate for female fighters.
During the welcoming ceremony at 1pm, each new enshrinee was gathered on the dais to toll the fight bell centered on a large folding table before saying a few words. Barry Tompkins felt it appropriate that Marco Antonio Barrera should sound the bell only once as there were many times during his career that ‘The Baby-Faced Assassin’ never heard a second.
I had two assignments to complete on behalf of Michael Nunn over the course of the weekend. One was to hand deliver a personal letter to Hall of Fame Director Ed Brophy about getting his name on the ballot, the second to pass along his greetings to his old nemesis turned good pal James Toney. With the first mission accomplished early that morning, I was happy to see that Toney was delivering a Ringside Lecture at 4:30 which would shut the lights out on the days’ festivities.
James credited Evander Holyfield as being a “great fighter” but, among his long list of opponents, he talked about Roy Jones Jr. being the fastest and Mike McCallum the toughest. “He made me think,” Toney said of McCallum, adding that “he made you pay for your mistakes.” He was asked about the Nunn bout in Michael’s hometown of Davenport, of course, and mentioned the mind games that were played behind the scenes such as his being moved without warning to “some fleabag motel across the river” soon after his initial arrival. Though he admitted to getting his butt kicked for the first six rounds, he said he could feel Nunn’s energy ebbing away and the momentum shifting in his favor. “One left hook,” smiled Toney, “and it was…zzzzzzzzz (snoring sounds).”
I had brought along my copy of the Nunn/Toney fight program and passed it to James across the table at which he was seated and signing autographs for a long line of fans. Because the bout occurred in a modestly sized minor league baseball stadium, these programs were produced in limited supply, thus not easy or cheap to come by these days, so I don’t imagine he has been asked to scribble his name on very many. This, along with the notion that it is an original artifact from his first world title victory, explains the child-like glee that overspread Toney’s features when he took it in his bowling ball-sized hands.
While he autographed my program (adding “14x World Champ”, a nice touch), James listened intently and reacted enthusiastically as I shared with him Michael’s situation as it stands now and that he looks forward to getting together when he gets home. “Oh man, tell him I said ‘what’s up?’ and to get in touch when he gets out,” he responded.
Back at the hotel, I did exactly that after showering off the sunscreen and fatigue but before going across the street for some decidedly subpar pizza. When I had first staggered into the Oneida Super 8 to check in, Marvin Camel and his wonderful wife Norma, who somehow remembered me from two years ago, were sitting at a little table adjacent to the continental breakfast and complimentary “coffee” station reading the days’ newspapers. Although I was five hours away from my own bed and books and decent coffee, I felt like I was home.
“Yeah, man. That was a bloody war,” said Shawn Porter when I brought up the Andre Berto fight at Barclays Center in April. “We’re going for Keith Thurman next,” he assured me. Even though my interactions with the boxers are typically brief and fleeting, I am genuinely happy for each opportunity. When else will they present themselves, especially in such impressive numbers in so short a time span? Porter’s father and trainer Kenny was a real character and had a hoot messing with the fans who stepped into the frame of the cameras operated by a film crew shadowing their every move throughout the weekend, possibly for a documentary. I forgot to ask. Nonetheless, wherever they went, it was ‘Showtime’.
No matter how many times I may have heard Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund sit together and tell stories (sometimes the same ones) over the years, it is an occasion not to be missed. While Len and his grandson Steven stuck around the Days Inn to see who might materialize for an autograph or photo op, our friend Rick and I bee lined toward the museum grounds for Micky and Dicky’s Fighter Talk at eleven o’clock. Ward expressed admiration for Gennady Golovkin’s body punching and Eklund, told that Christian Bale maintains that portraying him in The Fighter was his most challenging role, simply took a sip of coffee and offered, “It ain’t easy being me.” Speaking of the movie, Micky confirmed that the long-rumored sequel is looking less and less likely with each year that passes with no firm commitments from Mark Wahlberg, the filmmakers, or studio executives.
Let’s just say that Dicky wasn’t particularly keen on signing my copy of Intimate Warfare, the book by Dennis Taylor and John Raspanti chronicling the Gatti/Ward trilogy. Years ago, he had refused to sign my copy of Bob Halloran’s biography of Micky called Irish Thunder. His exact words were, “I’ll paint your fucking house, I’ll paint your fucking toenails, I’m not signing that fucking book.” It seemed that Halloran had promised Eklund financial compensation for his participation in the project and failed to honor the agreement. That looked to be more or less the case again in this instance. I could have taken my book back and slinked away but I wanted to see how this would play out.
He turned his rancor on Micky who had already signed it for me. “How can you sign a book and you don’t even know who the fuck wrote it?” Micky looked over and gave us both an apologetic grin and shoulder shrug and went back to autographing other people’s items apparently not needing Dicky’s scrutiny or approval. The dilemma ended there and Eklund grudgingly signed my book in the upper left corner of the front pastedown and, when I asked if he would please personalize it to me, scrunched my name in just above his. Rare is the time when I come home from induction weekend without a good Dicky Eklund story.
While Rick and I waited on line to meet Micky and Dicky, an announcement had been made that Mark Allen Baker, author of Title Town USA: Boxing in Upstate, New York and the upcoming The Fighting Life of Abe Attell was on the premises to sell and sign the 20 copies of his recent Battling Nelson biography The Durable Dane that he had on hand. We dashed into the gift shop like little kids out of their bedrooms and towards the Christmas tree to scoop up two of the three remaining books, make our purchases, and go back to where we had left Mr. Baker, adjacent to the exhibition ring outside where Shawn Porter would be giving a workout demonstration on Saturday afternoon. Boxing nerd? Guilty as charged.
After emerging from Dunkin’ Donuts clutching a frozen coffee to serve the dual purpose of cooling off and staying awake, I had a little chat with Marvin and Norma Camel at a shady side table just outside. Norma thanked me for mailing them the photo I had taken of Marvin posing with his WBC belt prior to last year’s induction ceremony and insisted that I choose a few of the photos she had printed up of Marvin with various boxers so that he could sign them for me. Instances like this make memories that linger long after the moment has been experienced and are a big part of why I keep coming back.
My first Evander Holyfield sighting came right around 3pm as the 2017 inductees and select special guests convened for the annual fist casting ceremony. To this point, Holyfield had made himself quite scarce. It is common knowledge that he is uncomfortable around people and cares very little for signing autographs which we fans were informally instructed not to even request. Evander would perhaps take photos if you were lucky but that was that. Fine. He had just recently bailed out on a podcast hosted by Mike and Jeremiah here on The Grueling Truth Sports Network so my expectations were appropriately low going in anyway. Just in case this was as good as it was going to get, I snapped a few pictures from the back of the crowd just to prove to dubious friends that I had been in the same zip code as Evander Holyfield. Smokin’ Bert Cooper arrived with Junior ‘Poison’ Jones and they both had a grand time mingling with the fight fans. Cooper would proudly remind everyone of how he had taken the Holyfield fight on three days’ notice (though I believe it was actually six) and gave just as good as he got for the first half. “Imagine if I had the full three months to train?” he wondered aloud.
Rick had offered me his extra ticket for the Friday Night Fiesta at the unfortunately named Rusty Rail Party House. The guests of honor were Marco Antonio Barrera, Humberto ‘Chiquita’ Gonzalez and his onetime ring rival Michael Carbajal, in addition to Pipino Cuevas and Ruben Olivares, both of whom are familiar faces during induction weekend. It was a tempting offer, especially since I have never once attended any of the pay for play events. However, this virus was kicking my ass plus I was going to see the fights at the Turning Stone Casino with Len and Steven and thought it best not to push my luck and attempt to do both like Rick was.
So, it was back to the hotel for a shower and change of clothes before making the short drive over to Verona to see the full moon hovering over the Turning Stone bring out the beast in the Cajun kid who calls himself ‘Rougarou’.
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