The Travelin’ Man at IBHOF Weekend 2017: Part one

By Lee Groves

Tuesday, June 6: In life, only a handful of experiences achieve the distinction of never growing old or losing its original luster. A favorite song. A beloved person. A cherished memory. A belief in something greater than oneself. For me, one of those experiences is the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend, an event that celebrates the career accomplishments of a select few while also bringing together thousands who share a love for “The Sweet Science.”

Ever since my first visit in 1993, Induction Weekend has become a won’t-miss event. In the beginning, it was a chance for me to meet the heroes of my youth and use their autographs as proof that I actually met them. But as the years rolled on and I started to establish my presence as an IBHOF voter, starting in 2001, a boxing writer beginning in 2003 (my second such incarnation) and a full-time punch-counter commencing in 2007, the weekend morphed into a combination of a college reunion, a boxing immersion course and a chance to celebrate the immortality of friends and colleagues instead of strangers I saw on television and video. Also, for most of the past decade, the weekend also coincided with punch-counting jobs, some of which took place in Canada or on the other side of the U.S. During those years, I was determined to get back to the festivities, and, happily, I did so. This year’s punch-counting assignment will require no such dramatics because, on Friday, I will be working an episode of “ShoBox: The New Generation” at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York, which is located just one exit east of Canastota on the New York State Thruway.

This ShoBox will be particularly special because of the presence of three people. Two are 2017 IBHOF inductees Steve Farhood and Barry Tompkins. The third will be my punch-counting team member and “lead dog”: CompuBox President Bob Canobbio.

Farhood and Tompkins, who were elected in the Observer category, are just two members of a strong and deeply deserving Class of 2017: Evander Holyfield, Marco Antonio Barrera and the late Johnny Tapia among the Moderns, the late 1940s and 1950s welterweight and middleweight contender Eddie Booker in the Old-Timer category, and Australian trainer Johnny Lewis, veteran Nevada judge Jerry Roth and the late ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. in the Non-Participants. Steve and Barry will be joined by 2012 Hall-of-Famer Al Bernstein for the ShoBox telecast and this event marks a first in that two members of the same broadcast team will be doing what got them into the Hall of Fame just two days before being officially enshrined. Even better for me: This will be only the second show I’ve ever worked with Canobbio, with the first taking place January 27, 2005 at Michael’s Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, Maryland. That “Ballroom Boxing” show included the professional debuts of Andre and Anthony Dirrell as well as fights featuring two more future champions Lamont Peterson and Roman Martinez.

Perhaps this episode of ShoBox could produce its own slate of future titlists. The candidates, at least on the televised portion, will be super lightweights Regis Prograis and Joel Diaz Jr., middleweights Steve Rolls and Demond Nicholson, and lightweights Jon Fernandez and Juan Reyes. The combined records are 100-4-4, including 42-0 for the main event fighters Prograis and Diaz.

As has been the case for several years, I have adopted a schedule that has turned my own IBHOF Induction Weekend experience into a nearly week-long process: A four-hour drive from home to my usual hotel in Erie, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, a second four-hour trip from Erie to Syracuse, as well as a visit to the museum grounds on Wednesday, Induction Weekend activities from Thursday through Sunday afternoon, a return drive to Erie Sunday evening and the final stretch run home on Monday.

Sunny skies and an unseasonably cool 67-degree temperature greeted me as I approached my new 2017 Subaru Legacy in the driveway. I executed the trade-in this past April with this trip in mind because I wasn’t sure if my 2005 Impreza was up to the challenge anymore. As I sat behind the wheel, fastened my seat belt and turned the ignition, I was further convinced I had made the right choice. Also, for the first time in years, I have a working CD player and, as a result, I could play any of the dozen discs I had on the passenger seat.

As I headed northward, the sun gave way to clouds that yielded occasional bursts of gentle precipitation. Then, as I headed north on Interstate 79, traffic slowed down dramatically three-quarters of a mile south of the Mount Nebo Road exit in Pennsylvania. Following 15 minutes of single-digit miles-per-hour driving, I discovered the reason why: A tractor-trailer on the southbound side had overturned while rounding a downhill curve. Alarmingly, it was the driver’s side of the truck that was face-down and a slew of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances were on the scene. As I passed by the wreckage I silently hoped no lives would be lost.

The remainder of the drive proceeded without incident and I arrived at the hotel in Erie at 4:30 p.m. After making a few phone calls, I drove across the street to the Pilot outlet to get a foot-long turkey sub from Subway, a bag of potato chips and a 20-ounce bottle of Diet Canada Dry. For me, the order was a two-fer: Eat half the sub for dinner, then the other as a late-night snack. Once I returned to the hotel, I alternated between writing and watching part of the Pittsburgh Pirates-Baltimore Orioles game, which the Bucs lost 6-5 in 10 innings. Not long after I finished the sub, I turned out the lights and closed the curtain on my first travel day.

Wednesday, June 7: My six-hour rest was unusually deep and, just as had been the case yesterday, conditions were cool and clammy but, by the time, I finished another round on the laptop, the sun was fighting hard to break through. At 9:45, I began packing my belongings and, by 10, I was headed east on I-90.

After crossing into New York state, the clouds were replaced by brilliant sunshine that continued the rest of the drive to Syracuse. I arrived at the hotel shortly before 2 p.m. and, after unpacking, I made three phone calls, including one to the Hall of Fame to alert the people there I was on my way.

For the past several years, I’ve made a point of visiting the grounds the day before the event’s kickoff to say hello to Ed and Jeff Brophy, as well as other staffers while getting a flavor of what was to come. Jeff revealed to me that former IBF welterweight champion Shawn Porter was going to be a surprise celebrity guest and that last-minute preparations were going smoothly.

It was at this point that second-year event emcee James “Smitty” Smith burst through the gift shop entrance and lit up the room with his trademark enthusiasm and charisma. After going over the latest changes to the schedule – changes that likely will keep coming until the opening ceremony at 1 p.m. the next day – Smitty and I walked to the Days Inn across the street from the grounds and caught up on the latest developments in our respective lives. We soon were joined by former welterweight champion John H. Stracey, as well as longtime attendees Eric Schmidt from Canada and Glen Wilson from England. The 66-year-old Stracey is a lively conversationalist (as well as a talented singer) and he answered all queries about his career highlights as well as most of his five career defeats. One fact I didn’t know: Not only did he spar with Jose Napoles before “Mantequilla’s” March 1972 title defense against Ralph Charles, Stracey also sparred with Ken Buchanan and with Charles himself on the same day.

Thanks to Mike Brophy (brother of Ed and father of Jeff), the six of us were invited to a cookout on the Hall of Fame grounds usually reserved for staffers and other locals. Sausage sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers and beverages were consumed gratefully and the conversations flowed like Niagara Falls. After our gastric tanks were filled, we returned to the Days Inn, said goodbye to Smitty and the champ, then headed to Graziano’s for another round of boxing talk. Once inside Grazzie’s, my companions were ace memorabilia collectors John Gay and Don Scott, as well as Long Island superfan Keith Stechman, who, like me, was marking his 25th consecutive Hall of Fame weekend. He also is among the most generous people I’ve yet met, for he gave me a double autographed photo of Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney, as well as a signed picture of Willie Pep.

Gay invited me to his hotel room inside Graziano’s and on his bed was a veritable treasure trove of rarities. The depth and breadth of his collection was beyond breathtaking. Encased ticket stubs from many of history’s most famous fights were in astonishingly good condition and his stash included books, photographs and letters from champions who have been deceased for decades. I handled each article with extreme reverence, fearful that a stray movement could inflict irreparable harm.

Gay’s generosity to me was also appreciated; for $5 I bought a mini-book called “The Big Fight” that contained reports from Bill Corum, Dan Parker, Bob Considine, Damon Runyon, Arthur Brisbane and Hype Igoe, among others. Even though I am now considered a veteran scribe, I still derive benefits from reading the works of past greats. Additionally, Gay gave me a copy of a February 1986 letter handwritten by Eddie Futch to writer Jack Fiske, then working for the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Futch revealed his thoughts about mythical matchups between then-champ Marvelous Marvin Hagler and middleweight legends Rocky Graziano, Carmen Basilio, Dick Tiger, Gene Fullmer, Marcel Cerdan, Carlos Monzon, Tony Zale and Jake LaMotta. For the record, Futch believed Hagler would beat the first four while losing to the next four.

As is usually the case for me, the time passed with astonishing speed. Before I knew it, it was past 11 p.m. But just as I was headed toward my car, I heard another longtime attendee call out my name. Rick Gagne, who, during the years I couldn’t remember his name I called “Vermont,” in honor of his home state, had a surprise guest with him – 1984 Olympic gold medalist Paul Gonzales, who eventually became the first in 2017 to sign my “big book.” Gonzales entertained us with stories about his career, what he is doing now (assembling a foundation bearing his name that will help troubled youth) and about Olympic teammate Mike Tyson, an alternate for the U.S. squad and who Gonzales described as “a cool guy.”

With the time past midnight and a 30-minute drive to the hotel ahead of me, I bade a reluctant good night. After returning to the room, I caught up on my writing, then addressed some other work projects before consuming a late-night snack, catching up on what I missed on TV, and turning out the light at 3 a.m.

Thursday, June 8: The following five hours of slumber were pretty restful by Travelin’ Man standards. After finishing the morning routines, I pulled back the curtains and was delighted to see another sun-drenched scene. This day, however, won’t be entirely leisure time because I was scheduled to be at the Turning Stone’s events center in order to test graphics that will make their debut on tomorrow night’s show.

I left the hotel shortly after 9:45 a.m. and arrived on the grounds about a half hour later. In previous years I made special mention of the first “regular” to spot me on Thursday morning and, apparently, the good-natured competition between Dr. David Baum and Canadian buddy Bill Johnston — the two most often cited — has become rather vigorous. This time, it was Bill who saw me, and, though I could be wrong, it appeared to me he was conducting a stakeout. As soon as I spotted him about 200 feet away he gave me a big sweeping wave of his arm and an even bigger grin. He knew he had gotten the “award” for 2017 and when Dave saw me a couple of minutes later he seemed a bit disappointed when I told him Bill had slightly beaten him to the punch.

So what did this little episode teach me? It’s that traditions run deep at the IBHOF weekend – even weird ones.

The three of us spent considerable time talking among ourselves, after which several others approached our area and struck up conversations. I recognized their faces and voices but, as usual, their names escaped me because I don’t see them often enough to have that info stick. It’s a regrettable personality quirk but the flipside is, once I do remember, I remember for life.

For me, this year’s visit is more than personal and professional, it’s also entrepreneurial. Here’s why:

Ever since “Tales From the Vault” came out in 2010, I’ve been asked when I will write a second book. I didn’t have an answer for them – until now.

Sometime in 2018, CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and I will release “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” which may well be the last one-of-its kind Ali book ever written. As many boxing fans know, Muhammad Ali’s life has been the subject of innumerable books, movies, documentaries, profiles, plays and videos but none of those ventures ever addressed one vital aspect of Ali’s ring life – his statistics.

Author Jonathan Eig, who will be publishing his own Ali book this October and will be writing the foreword to “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” commissioned CompuBox to run the numbers to ascertain how many punches “The Greatest” had absorbed in his career. While some of the data will be unveiled in Eig’s book, this one will provide deeper and expansive coverage.

Unfortunately, only 47 of Ali’s 61 fights had complete video available (including the first seven, which either weren’t filmed or were available only in highlight form). However, just one fight was omitted between the Doug Jones fight in March 1963 and his final contest against Trevor Berbick in December 1981 – his 12-round decision win over Rudi Lubbers in October 1973 between Ali’s second fights with Norton and Frazier. Thus 43 of Ali’s final 44 fights are chronicled and the numbers yielded surprising yet illustrative findings.

However, “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” promises to provide the complete package. Coverage of each fight will begin with round-by-round statistical breakdowns of total punches, jabs and power punches, then will be chronicled in “Tales From the Vault” style. Meanwhile, within each story, Canobbio will provide “next generation” stats that will colorfully present unique informational nuggets. This format will present Ali’s ring career in a way never presented before.

As the book was taking shape, we decided to provide advanced advertising at this year’s IBHOF weekend, where thousands of members of the target audience would be gathered. Our tool of choice: Postcards.

Canobbio purchased the rights to use two famous Ali photos: One of young Cassius Clay landing a long jab against Sonny Liston’s bruised and bloodied face and one of an older Ali absorbing a huge right from Earnie Shavers. Meanwhile, I wrote a blurb describing the book’s concept (one which Eig skillfully edited down to fit the two-sided postcard) and Nic Canobbio, one of Bob’s sons, transformed my design vision into compelling reality.

We had 1,000 postcards printed – 500 for me and 500 for Bob – and I made sure to give a postcard to nearly every person I met. Without exception, the postcard and my accompanying sales pitch was greeted with interest and intrigue. Hopefully that will translate to sales once the product drops next year.

At 1 p.m., Smitty officially opened Induction Weekend with a ceremony that saw Teresa Tapia, Johnny Lewis, Marco Antonio Barrera, Barry Tompkins and Steve Farhood ring a bell and present brief remarks. I missed Stracey’s subsequent ringside lecture because I opted to eat lunch, my first meal in nearly 12 hours. Of course, my appearance in the rearmost group of tents ignited more boxing talk, talk I was more than happy to oblige. Two conversation partners asked me to sign the postcard I gave them, so, with a black Sharpie, I inscribed my name down the jabbing arm of Clay.

I would have stayed longer, except I needed to drive to the Turning Stone to conduct the pre-fight testing for tomorrow night’s show. I reported to the arena floor 15 minutes before my 3:30 p.m. call time but the growing pains that come with new things required more time to complete than usual. I didn’t mind, for it’s much better to spend the time to get everything right now than to engage in shortcuts and experience the pain of errors during the live show.

I received permission to leave the arena floor at 8:20 p.m. Famished, I drove to the McDonald’s across from the Hall of Fame museum and ate while reading the latest issue of THE RING. Usually a deliberate eater, I finished my meal so quickly that I barely got through one-quarter of the magazine.

I then drove to Graziano’s, where I spent most of my time talking with four people. The first was former welterweight champion Billy Backus, who greeted me warmly and vividly recalled a January 1974 fight card in Paris, in which he shared billing with Roberto Duran (Backus stopped Roger Zami in nine while Duran took out Leonard Tavarez in four). The second was veteran Maryland photographer Mike Greenhill, someone I’ve known for more than a decade. After he left, I was pleasantly surprised by the final two – writer Eric Thompson of TheSweet Science.com and his guest, onetime heavyweight contender Eddie Gregg. In May 2015, Thompson, who counts me as one of his mentors, wrote an excellent feature on Gregg, the first man to floor the cement-chinned Randall “Tex” Cobb.

“When you get one foot off the ground, anybody can get knocked down,” Cobb told the New York Times after the bout. “And anybody who doesn’t think I get off balance doesn’t have eyes.”

A little-known fact: Gregg was invited to the 1968 Olympic Trials but the sport wasn’t boxing; it was canoeing. Thompson reported that although Gregg was undefeated in eight years of racing, he had to turn down the invitation because the trials conflicted with preseason practice for high school football, his first athletic love. Gregg turned to boxing only after a failed tryout with the New York Jets in 1976 and he went on to forge a 24-3-1 (18) career between 1979-1987.

Following a brief chat with 12-year IBHOF attendee Erik Killin, I headed to my car and returned to Syracuse. I was overjoyed to see that the Pittsburgh Penguins had blown out the Nashville Predators 6-0 to take a 3-2 lead in the Stanley Cup Final but that surge of emotion made it tougher to wind down. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., I turned out the lights.

Friday, June 9: Once again, I experienced unusually sound sleep. Perhaps the manic energy I derive from Hall of Fame Weekend is the cause or maybe another source is responsible but, whatever it is, I’ll take it.

Then again, my profound sense of peace may have come from another source that will appear counterintuitive at first. That source will be revealed in Part Two.

*

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 l.groves@frontier.com.

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