IT all started in 1990 with the first group of honourees enshrined into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, a tiny village in upstate New York. On this, the 30th anniversary, the full impact of how fragile life is was evident in the fact that Jose Napoles is the only surviving member of that original class. But the memories never die. A tour of the museum and a look at all the plaques on the wall guarantee the greats of yesteryear will live on for eternity. Hall of Fame weekend is far more than just honouring the newest class of inductees and acknowledging the past ones. It is a celebration of boxing, a four-day party so to speak. It belongs at the top of everyone’s bucket list of places to be. If you’ve never been, make it a priority to go next year.
Obviously, the first HOF class, led by the likes of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson, was exceptional. In the succeeding years the strength of the classes varied. Some felt this year’s group was not particularly strong, but that is only in comparison to who has gotten in before. All were in attendance except journalist Mario Rivera Martino, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 93. The other non-fighters were broadcaster/trainer Teddy Atlas, promoter/matchmaker Don Elbaum, judge/referee Guy Jutras and publicist Lee Samuels. The boxers were former welterweight/super-welterweight champion Donald Curry, former welterweight champion Tony DeMarco, former super-welterweight/middleweight champion Julian Jackson and former super-lightweight/welterweight champion Buddy McGirt.
THURSDAY JUNE 6
My six-hour drive to Canastota was a time to reflect on the previous 26 induction weekends I had been to. Upon checking into my room at the Fairfield Inn in Verona, New York – a 10-minute car ride from Canastota – the receptionist spoke well of the late Bert Cooper who had stayed at the establishment the year before. I dropped my bags off and drove to the museum grounds.
The ringside lectures were in full swing when I arrived. Antonio Tarver spoke about Andy Ruiz Jnr’s upset of Anthony Joshua. He attributed Joshua’s shock defeat to being surprised by the level of intensity Ruiz displayed. Tarver, now retired, spoke about his wealth of knowledge and what he could contribute by training other fighters. Jackson, meanwhile, constantly invoked religion as the reason for his success. He told stories of how his faith got him through rough patches in fights.
Elbaum is the ultimate storyteller. He told of the time he babysat for Ali’s kids and of having promoted Robinson’s last fight. Elbaum is fondly remembered for claiming he had located the gloves from Robinson’s pro debut. When photographers wanted to take a picture of Robinson wearing them, he panicked. Robinson could not figure out why Elbaum put a stop to it, that was until he noticed that both of the gloves were right-handed.
I attended the weigh-in for the Zab Judah-Cletus Seldin fight, due to take place at the nearby Turning Stone Resort & Casino the next night. I had picked Judah to win beforehand, but changed that prediction when the fighters got on the scales. Seldin looked solid, Judah weight-drained.
FRIDAY JUNE 7
Back on the museum grounds, we were entertained by the yearly MC, James “Smitty” Smith from Las Vegas. Smith took a couple of crowd polls, asking first who would win a Terence Crawford-Errol Spence Jnr fight. The vote looked split down the middle. Shockingly, when asked who would win a rematch between Ruiz and Joshua, the majority of hands went up for Ruiz.
Paulie Ayala talked of the feud he had with Johnny Tapia, which was fuelled no doubt by the two disputed decisions Ayala was awarded over him. “In 2004 we decided to let bygones be bygones,” said Ayala. “Johnny was a great guy.” Ayala spoke of the brotherhood that existed between former fighters.
Even though he had a fight scheduled that evening, Judah paid a quick visit to the grounds. I also spotted Sugar Ray Seales walking towards the parking lot unnoticed. Seales was the only member of the 1972 US Olympic team to strike gold at the Games. He went into his pocket and took out his gold medal, putting it into my hand for me to hold.
Don Scott did his yearly seminar on boxing collectables and what the value of certain items might be. “Of all the world heavyweight champions,” said Scott, “Marvin Hart is the only one whose autograph can’t be found.”
Unbeaten super-middleweight David Benavidez sparred nine rounds in a ring set up on the grounds. It kicked off his training for a fight later in the summer.
The fist-casting has always been a pet peeve of mine. All inductees are asked to participate, but in my opinion it should only be the fighters.
I introduced myself to former super-lightweight champion DeMarcus Corley, who I spotted at McDonald’s across the street from the museum. The week before at the Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Banquet, I had presented the Manager of the Year Award to Egis Klimas. Corley had been Klimas’ first fighter. When I asked Corley whether he was still in contact with Klimas, he broke into a grin, took out his cell phone and gave him a call. The two had a brief, friendly chat.
The HOF alumni were all individually paraded down the aisle and into the ring during the show that night at the Turning Stone. Atlas seemed to particularly enjoy it, shaking hands, posing for photos and exchanging pleasantries.
SATURDAY JUNE 8
The day started with the annual 5K race in Canastota, a scenic course that runs through the neighbourhoods. We all have favourite parts of the weekend. Mine is the collectors convention held in the Canastota High School gym. If you are interested in purchasing boxing memorabilia there is no better place to be. Acting as MC at the convention was ring announcer and all-round good guy David Diamante.
After spending time at the convention, I went with Keith Sullivan to the museum grounds, intending to watch Atlas’ ringside lecture that had been scheduled for 12.30pm. But much to our dismay, Teddy was wrapping things up when we arrived. Mike Brophy, who handles PR for the Hall, was baffled about the time change, as were others who had planned their schedule around it. Sullivan, a prominent attorney, is on the Atlas Foundation board of directors and is starting a management company, with several promising prospects expressing interest in signing with him.
We toured the museum and bumped into David Berlin, the former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission who has gone back to his roots as a boxing attorney. We also chatted to actor Holt McCallany, who would serve as the Grand Marshall of the parade the following day. It was then off to the Casolwood Golf Course, where former light-heavyweight champion Marvin Johnson sat near us as we were eating our lunch.
Largely forgotten is the inspiration for the HOF having wound up in Canastota. It is the display case located across the street from the museum, honouring Canastota’s two world champions, Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus.
SUNDAY JUNE 9
Judah was the primary focus of conversation in the morning. Reports surfaced that he was in a coma following his stoppage loss to Seldin. People were very concerned, but thankfully it was later confirmed that, despite suffering a brain bleed, Zab was recovering well.
Although the parade starts at 1pm, I always make it a point to arrive close to an hour before, so I can get a good location to sit and watch. Marvin Hagler owns an antique car which he stores in Canastota that is used to drive him in the parade.
The induction ceremony is the pinnacle of the long weekend. Atlas, who is not usually known for his diplomacy, understood the setting he was in. Despite the falling out he had with ESPN, Teddy thanked them for the opportunity they had given him. Elbaum and Atlas are extremely close. Both said it was important to them to go in together. When Jackson praised promoter Don King, Elbaum looked on amused. He and King have had an adversarial history.
Samuels spoke of his first major assignment as a Top Rank publicist, covering Hagler’s training camp for his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard. He also informed the crowd he covered Curry’s camps as well, and that he considered both men lifelong friends because of the bond they established over that time.
DeMarco, 87, said very little, but the smile on his face said a lot. Over the years, there had been debate as to whether DeMarco deserved enshrinement, with some, like Boxing News contributor Springs Toledo, advocating strongly for him. McGirt, meanwhile, gave an emotional speech focusing on his family. The weather was superb all weekend. Everyone headed home with new memories to add to the old ones they have cherished over the years.