By Lee Groves
Sunday, June 11 (continued): No matter how many times I’ve attended Induction Sunday – this will be my 24th since I missed my first one due to my work schedule and finances – I feel a fusion of anticipation, appreciation and finality. Like a good pay-per-view card, the events of Thursday, Friday and Saturday created the foundation by which the main event, the induction ceremony, is supported. That foundation is further strengthened during those years when the incoming class is particularly strong and it can be argued that the Class of 2017 – Evander Holyfield, Marco Antonio Barrera, the late Johnny Tapia and Eddie Booker, Johnny Lewis, Jerry Roth, Barry Tompkins and Steve Farhood – is among the most qualified, top-to-bottom, post-1990 classes ever enshrined.
Over the years, I’ve developed several Induction Day routines, the strongest of which is The Basilio Sausage Sandwich Summit. About a decade ago, maybe more, maybe less, I spotted writer Bernard Fernandez eating a sausage sandwich in one of the tents near the back of the property. I introduced myself to him and, after getting my own Basilio, we established a strong acquaintance. After the process repeated itself a few times, our friendship deepened to the point in which we decided to formalize our get-together by giving it a name and declaring it our yearly “thing.”
In most years, the Summit takes place underneath the rear tents but, one time, it happened on the metal bleachers. The only rules governing the Summit are that it takes place on Induction Sunday and that we consume only Basilio Sausage sandwiches – no hot dogs or hamburgers allowed. Although Bernard and I prefer the fully loaded sandwich topped by mustard, other, more inferior combinations are acceptable for guests of the Summit. Plus, even though most of the conversation centers around boxing, other topics are fair game and good-natured ribbing is not only OK; it’s encouraged.
Soon after arriving on the grounds, I ran into fellow West Virginians Mike “Lo” Snyder, his son Todd and Todd’s brother-in-law Zach Tonkin in front of the museum. As usual, our boxing talk was so interesting to me, that I ignored the blazing sunshine and the rising temperature that came with it. After saying our goodbyes, I began walking toward the rear tents that promised to provide much-needed shade. I was surprised to see Bernard already seated at the tent nearest the food stand. The time: Slightly past 10:30 a.m.
I greeted Bernard heartily, after which I sat down to his right. Over the next four-plus hours – a record for the Summit – we spanned the gamut of human experience and, at various times, were joined by an older military veteran whose name I didn’t recall, former BWAA president Jack Hirsch, veteran European Boxing Union official Rinze van der Meer, James “Smitty” Smith and a young couple from Kansas City, Missouri, Mark Easter and his wife Whitney Adams (who jokingly said she didn’t take her husband’s surname “for obvious reasons”). To my surprise and delight, Mark and Whitney are fans of this Travelin’ Man and their kind words helped lift my spirits even more.
Bernard and I waited until noon to indulge in the peak moment of the Summit – purchasing and dressing up our sandwiches. We playfully asked our friend from the military to beat up anyone who dared try to steal our belongings while we were away at the food tent.
“It won’t be the first time,” he replied with menace in his voice but a twinkle in his eye.
“Terrific!” I shot back. “We have a professional butt-kicker in our midst. I feel a lot better now!”
I volunteered to buy our sandwiches and diet sodas, since Bernard did the same for me last year and, upon our return, our property was untouched.
Not only were the sandwiches consumed with dispatch, so were the hours preceding the start of the induction ceremony. The 2017 Summit ended shortly before 3, after which Bernard and I showed our red tickets to security and were escorted to our seats in press row. Fittingly, our chairs were side-by-side and occupied the two slots closest to stage center. We were soon joined by Fightnews.com’s writer/photographer “Boxing” Bob Newman, who was seated two spots to my right. Longtime Hall of Fame photographer Pat Orr’s name graced the seat to my immediate right but that order was pleasantly changed by a female usher who directed a slim and attractive African-American woman to take that seat.
Who was that slim and attractive woman? None other than Toi Irvin – Evander Holyfield’s wife.
Following pleasant introductory banter with her seatmates as well as Holyfield family members situated a row behind us, Toi whipped out her cell phone and shot a brief video in which she kiddingly said she was sitting with members of the “fake news” world. At her direction, Bob and I introduced ourselves and I made sure to add the declaration “There’s no fake news here.”
Emcee James “Smitty” Smith kicked off the ceremony by introducing the Class of 2017 members as well as other luminaries: Past Hall-of-Famers Al Bernstein, Wilfried Sauerland, Pipino Cuevas, Richard Steele, Joe Cortez, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Don Chargin, Stanley Christodoulou, Ruben Olivares, Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez, Michael Carbajal, Riddick Bowe, Michael Spinks and Marvin Hagler, as well as fighters and celebrities Billy Backus, Fernando Vargas, Daniel Jacobs, Gerry Cooney, Jesse James Leija, Jessie Vargas, John H. Stracey, Deontay Wilder, Shawn Porter, 1976 U.S. Olympian Chuck Walker, Leon Spinks, Livingstone Bramble, Andrew Golota and 2017 IBHOF parade marshal Eric Braeden (the actor born Hans-Jorg Gudegast, who has portrayed Victor Newman on the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” since 1980).
While talking to Lennon Jr. at the “ShoBox” card two days earlier, I complemented his father’s rendering of the National Anthem before the Cassius Clay-Archie Moore fight, something I didn’t know had occurred until recently. After thanking me, he said, “It’s funny you mention the National Anthem. There will be a surprise regarding that at the ceremony on Sunday.”
That surprise came in the form of Jimmy Jr.’s 94-year-old mother Doris, who practically skipped toward the microphone and gave what may be the most memorable and surprising anthem ever sung in the ceremony’s 28-year history. Not only she hit all the high notes but also shifted up an octave on the word “free” and held that note for several impressive seconds. The cheering drowned out her breathless “and the home of the brave,” which, in the lyrics, is actually posed as a question.
Hall of Fame President Don Ackerman led a 10-count for the three Hall of Fame inductees that had died since the last ceremony – Aaron Pryor, Bobby Chacon and Lou Duva – a particularly poignant moment for me, given my own father’s death just four days earlier. Following remarks from Braeden, Ackerman honored deceased inductees Booker, Lennon Sr. and Tapia.
Booker was represented by his nephew Ian (pronounced eye-an) and his youngest grandson.
“My uncle fought in the ’30s and ’40s,” Ian began. “I never saw him fight. I’m 66 years old and that was before my time. He told me about (his time in the ring) and he said he had never been knocked down. He was proud of that. Based on the record and the people he fought, I’d like to say that my uncle Eddie was a bad man. I thank you very much; my family thanks you very much and I appreciated the award he received. And he also got me in the front row of this thing and I’m proud of that.” The last line earned the desired laughs.
“I saw two pictures of my grandfather and they inspired me and the rest of the family to be what we can be,” the incredibly young-looking grandson added. “To the greats on the stage, to the people out there, there’s always somebody watching you, somebody looking at your record. My grandfather had never been knocked down or knocked out, and there are guys like Mr. Holyfield, who got knocked down, then got back up and knocked out the guy who knocked him down.” That got a wry smile from the four-time titlist.
Next up was Jimmy Lennon Jr., who honored his father, in part, by telling the story of a Greek-American banquet in Los Angeles in which he was required to say the name of the guest of honor, a Greek whose name was 34 letters long and whose surname consisted of 14 syllables: Anastasios Honchopathadurkomontorogiotopolous.
Lennon Jr. said his father had long been fascinated by languages and, luckily for him, he had a background in Greek. Using that knowledge, he broke the surname down into syllables, put it back together and practiced it until he could smoothly incorporate it within his natural speaking cadence.
Lennon Jr. simulated the moment by rendering the name just as his father had years ago, a feat that drew admiring “oohs” from the crowd.
“He said the name flawlessly,” Lennon Jr. said. “The man came to the podium, kissed my father on both cheeks and told him, ‘You are the only person to pronounce my name correctly since I come to America.’ My father believed that a man is entitled to the dignity of his own name.” That Jimmy Jr. was inducted into the Hall in 2013 is ample evidence that the son had learned his father’s lessons well.
Teresa Tapia, as had been the case throughout the weekend, offered a well-received and emotional tribute to her late husband. The centerpiece of her speech was Tapia’s WBO-title winning performance against Henry Martinez in 1994, perhaps the most emotionally-charged victory of his career. Like Muhammad Ali’s victory over George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle,” Tapia’s win over Martinez for the vacant belt was the peak moment of his comeback from an enforced three-and-a-half year layoff that took away his best chronological span of his athletic life.
“When that first bell rang, the crowd fought alongside with Johnny,” she said. “They rallied for him and Johnny soared to the greatest of heights. Johnny would not let his fans down. He would often say throughout his illustrious career that you would have to kill him in order to beat him. And, in turn, his fans rode with him all the way to victory. Johnny had put on an amazing display of adrenaline and talent. Johnny TKO’d Martinez in the 11th round. The underdog from Albuquerque had finally made it.”
She said the fans proved to be a pillar of strength for the rest of his career.
“Johnny believed that the strength and ferocity of his fans gave him the will to succeed,” she said. “Johnny laid everything he had in the ring for his fans that night and for the rest of his life, in and out of the ring. Through all of his triumphs, tragedies and many resurrections, the fans were his strength and salvation. He always said he could not do this without his fans and he truly meant it. Today, Johnny, the fans, the boxing community have returned the love that you gave throughout your career. From this day forward, Johnny, you shall be immortalized with the greats that fought before you. Your name, memory and enormous heart will live on forever.”
The inductions of Tompkins and Farhood were greeted with loud and boisterous cheers from the sizable Showtime contingent. True to their natures, their speeches were jovial yet thoughtful.
Tompkins began his speech by addressing Lewis, asking, “When they refer to you as ‘old-time,’ don’t you wish they would save that for the eulogy? We’re still going, man!”
Turning more serious, Tompkins said, “What makes this day so humbling is that it is an acknowledgment by my peers. All that we, as broadcasters, can try to do is just chronicle the event that’s being played out in front of us. It’s the great fighters and the trainers and the cutmen and the officials, many of whom are in this room, that put forth in one evening in an 18-foot square all the things that we talk about and, hopefully, maybe we can add the one or two strokes that paint a picture that might be remembered. Much as great fighters make great fights, great fights make great television. I’ve always marveled at the end of every fight. Fighters will go over and hug each other and it’s not a cursory hug. It’s a bond between two warriors (in which) only they can understand what it takes to do what they do. Boxing is family. For a few years, I had the chance to emcee the induction ceremony at the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame. My co-inductee here this week, Evander Holyfield, when he went into that Hall, he was presented by Mike Tyson. When Roberto Duran went in, he was enshrined by Sugar Ray Leonard. And next year, when Erik Morales goes in, Marco Antonio Barrera will introduce him. That’s six guys who went to war eight different times, their most hated rival, and they have the most respect for that other guy. That’s what makes this sport and that’s what it’s all about.”
Farhood began his speech with a request: “Can someone time this speech? Because I have a bet on the over/under.” Because my cell phone voice recorder featured a running clock, I assigned myself the task. “The reason I’m timing my speech: There have been too many times I’ve been seated where you are and have suffered through well-intended speeches that dragged on and on, so I will be brief with my speech…and there will be a slide show, followed by a question-and-answer. We’ll be done in no more than 90 minutes; I promise you.
“Over the years, I’ve been asked why I’ve covered boxing and no other sports,” he said. “My question in response to that question is, ‘Why would a journalist want to cover anything other than boxing?’ There is nothing quite as revealing, quite as invigorating, quite as electric, quite as magical as a great fight…except for maybe a 30-minute run at a craps table. After all these years, boxing can still wow me and that’s part of why I’m still doing this. That and the need to pay for my wife’s extravagant lifestyle. As for the fighters, they continue to fascinate me. With rare exception, the boxers are uneducated but hardly unintelligent. Tough and suitably toughened, yet emotionally vulnerable and willing to open up and tell their life stories, which can leave both speaker and analyst in tears. If you’re a journalist, you’re naturally curious. And if you’re curious, you value a good story. I’ve done this for almost 40 years. If I do it for another 140, the stories of the boxers and boxing will never grow old or stale. I thank boxing for finding me.”
When Steve sat down, I asked, “So who (in the pool) had 9:37?”
“Nine thirty-seven…” he said, then nodded his head as if to say, “not bad.”
Judge Jerry Roth’s speech lasted only 70 seconds but he packed a 15-rounder’s worth of emotion.
“When I received the phone call from Ed Brophy that I was going to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, I was speechless,” he said. “Believe me, ‘speechless’ is not a word that describes me. He asked me to describe how I felt at that moment and all I could do was to actually cry. I was so touched. I’ve now had six months to let this sink in and I’m still very emotional about it, so, if I start to cry, you’ll know why. I’m humbled and truly proud of this honor. Being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with each of the deserving inductees over the years is something that will leave a lasting impression on me forever. This has been a wonderful weekend and one of the highlights of my life. I can never thank you enough for honoring me and making me feel so very special.”
Ever humble, Lewis admitted that Roth’s speech was a hard act to follow. Instead, he was himself – calm, composed and considerate.
“I was in the car with my wife when Ed Brophy rang me and informed me that I was also to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I think we both had tears in our eyes because she knew the importance of what boxing meant to me since I was a very young kid,” he said. He paid homage to his most famous charge, three-division champion and fellow Hall-of-Famer Jeff Fenech. “Every other kid that was in the gym learned from what Jeff put in. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard to get what he achieved and it never came easy. There’s an old saying that you only take out what you put in and he put in so much.” Finally, he also offered praise to Jesse James Leija, who impressed Lewis with his sportsmanship following his loss to another one of Lewis’ Hall of Fame students Kostya Tszyu. As Lewis walked toward his seat, Leija called out for Lewis and gave him a hug.
Barrera followed Farhood in the order and, though his English is excellent, he chose to have his son serve as interpreter.
After thanking his family and those loved ones who passed away, he mentioned his wife of 18 years, of whom he said, “Those are the only fights that I can’t win.”
“When one starts boxing, you don’t think that you are going to be one of the great champions,” he added. “But I think this has been the best week of my life because I have been with the champions of now and the champions of before.”
The last speaker, of course, was Holyfield, still in impeccable condition and sounding much as he had throughout his adult life. As is the case with most, Holyfield said his mother was the driving force in his life, both in boxing and outside it. When the eight-year-old Evander asked his mother about becoming a boxer, she made sure to mention the cons before the pros.
“She said, ‘Do you know what they are going to do to you?’
“Nuh-uh,” he answered.
“They’re going to hit you,” she said.
“I’m the youngest in the family. I get hit all the time,” the young Holyfield reasoned. “I get three whuppings a day. I’m used to getting hit and my momma told me I could hit them back. So that’s how boxing started with me.”
He recalled his first fight, before which his coach instructed him that, when the bell rings, he wanted Evander to hit the kid in the nose while hearing the other kid’s coach telling him to hit Evander in the nose.
“There are three things I learned from my momma: Listen, follow directions and don’t quit,” he said. “So I got down in my stance, the bell rung, the kid ran out there and I ran out there but he closed his eyes. I didn’t close my eyes. I hit him right in the nose. He started crying. The referee stopped the fight and my 70-year-old coach was so excited, he got stuck in the ropes. When he got in there, he raised my hand and told me that I took my first step toward being the heavyweight champ of the world.”
A turning point in Holyfield’s life took place at age 16 when he was presented the choice of attending his prom or competing in an amateur tournament in Canada.
“I didn’t want to go to Canada but my momma looked at me and said, ‘What does the prom have to do with being the heavyweight champion of the world?’” he recalled. “‘Didn’t you say that you wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world?’”
“Yes, ma’am,” Holyfield said.
“OK, then,” she concluded. “‘Do you want me to tell that girl (that you’re not going) or do you want to tell her?’ I knew my momma would embarrass me, so I told (his date). The point of doing that (was) I learned how to make decisions, so, when it came down to going to Vegas and all this, I realized that…you can’t miss anything you’ve never had. Everything that I became was because my momma would keep telling me over and over but, when I was young, when she told me (these things), I got hit, too. I got quick reflexes because my momma hit to the head all the time. So here I am, I’m telling you that it’s all these things that my momma taught me (that made me what I am). She said, ‘Son, no matter how old you get, you got to remember what I tell you because I love you. I’m not sure everybody else loves you.’ I know my momma loves me. I am so thankful that this Hall of Fame is all about the help I got from someone else.”
The crush of people toward the stage trapped Bernard Fernandez and me for several long minutes but, because we weren’t in a hurry, we didn’t mind. I helped create space for a young male member of Johnny Lewis’ contingent to escape the scrum, which broke up after the fighters finished doing the customary group shot of extended newly-ringed fists.
My final task was to secure Holyfield’s autograph for “the big book.” I had thought that the Holyfield contact I established at the cocktail would come through but it wasn’t to be. As I was explaining my situation to a skeptical but open-minded security guard, Jeff Brophy stuck his head out the window and told him to let me inside the museum. Once there, I spoke with Jeff, as well as Ed Brophy, who assured me all would be handled. Meanwhile, I spotted Toi inside the museum, showed her the book and explained that I was going to donate it to the museum at a future date and that my request wasn’t profit-driven, the main reason Holyfield signed relatively few autographs. I also said I would be willing to lay back and wait for her husband to be led to me so that he could enjoy the full afterglow of the ceremony. She smiled and said she would help me.
She didn’t get the chance, for suddenly Ed directed friends and family to go outside and board a bus that would shuttle them to a private reception inside the Greystone, a piece of information Ed gave to me when I approached him just as the bus was about to leave. I hopped into my car and arrived just as the bus had finished unloading its precious cargo.
I had hoped to gain entry to the event but I learned that only people with special name tags were given that privilege. But I was determined to get this signature and I didn’t want my work to go unrewarded.
I struck up a friendly conversation with the two security guards working the event, a man and a woman. Only after our introductory talk, which established my status as an engaging person who respected law, order and protocol, I told him what I was seeking, adding that I had sat beside Holyfield’s wife at the ceremony and thus could confirm my identity by sight. My explanation had its desired effect, for the guard offered to go inside and check out my story.
I had been expecting for Toi to poke out her head and validate my identity (and harmlessness) but instead the guard brought out Randy Manns, a friend who had known the freshly-minted Hall-of-Famer since the fighter was 13. I repeated the story behind “the book” and pointed out the picture I wished for him to sign – a black-and-white photo showing him land a short right on Dwight Muhammad Qawi. While my story didn’t gain me entry into the event, it did persuade Manns to bring the book inside with him. Five minutes later, a smiling Manns returned the book to me, and, when I turned to the page in question, I saw the treasured signature.
Because the binding had broken a couple of days earlier, I drove to the Hall of Fame and gave Jeff the book in order to effect eventual repairs. I told him that I would pay the bill upon seeing him again, whether it be for a show in a few months or, God willing, next year’s ceremony.
I then drove over to Graziano’s to meet Smitty but I couldn’t find his face in the crowd. I left a message on his cell phone, then drove over to the Days Inn, where he was staying. That was a no-go too. After leaving a handwritten note with the woman helming the registration desk, I hopped into my car, called home to let the family know I was about to start the drive home and stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through. Four-and-a-half hours later, I checked into my hotel in Erie, Pennsylvania, and watched the final 15 minutes of what would be my beloved Penguins’ Stanley Cup-winning 1-0 win over the Nashville Predators in game six of the series. After switching off the TV, a wave of satisfied fatigue washed over me and, a bit after midnight, I turned out the lights.
Monday, June 12: I awakened six-and-a-half hours later and spent most of the next three hours chronicling what had unfolded the day before. My goal time, in terms of departure was 10 a.m., but so much had happened that it took me longer than expected to complete the task. The delay was minimal, however: 10 minutes.
As was the case for the last five-and-a-half days, I was blessed with beautiful driving weather. Shortly after 2:30 p.m., this four-week “world tour” finally came to an end. In all, I added 1,189 miles to my car’s odometer over the past six days – nearly doubling its previous reading – and logged more than 10,000 miles of travel over the past 24. One can fairly say that I’ve earned a break from the road and from the air.
That break will last 32 days, for my next journey is set to begin July 13, when this Travelin’ Man will jet to Miami, Oklahoma, for a ShoBox quadruple-header topped by super lightweights Ivan Baranchyk and Keenan Smith.
Until then, happy trails!
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last seven 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. To contact Groves, use the email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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