by David P. Greisman
Bert Randolph Sugar – he of the trademark fedora, cigar and witty observations – wrote countless articles, edited multiple magazines and penned numerous books, toiling for three decades before he made it to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
It took me six hours.
Now I’ve not even achieved a fraction of what Sugar has – I definitely haven’t been inducted into Canastota, no matter the implication of the above bait and switch. But on a January weekend in which the boxing was slow – and with my regular writing gig giving me an extra day off – I set out for upstate New York.
The Big Apple may lay claim to the so-called “Mecca of Boxing” in Madison Square Garden, but Canastota is to The Sweet Science what Cooperstown is to America’s Pastime.
My trip to Canastota and the International Boxing Hall of Fame was a religious experience, one that every boxing fan should make, if possible. On a weekend in which the boxing, once again, is slow, I chronicle what ended up as two journeys – one physical, one spiritual.
10 a.m. – I jump in my car on what is an abnormally warm winter weekend in north central Maryland. Within 15 minutes, I’m over the Mason Dixon Line, off on my longest road trip since September, when I drove halfway across the country. That ill-advised journey took place on the weekend of the Marco Antonio Barrera-Rocky Juarez pay-per-view rematch. My destination was Cornhusker Country – and Nebraska was on the road against USC – so not only did I have to write my column while sleep-deprived, but I first had to find a spot willing to take a single television screen away from college football.
2:16 p.m. – I cross into New York, passing by Binghamton, home of the college from which Tony Kornheiser matriculated. Time flies within the next hour and a half, with me driving beyond Syracuse and exiting onto I-90.
3:53 p.m. – A sign on the side of the road says, “Attractions: Boxing Hall of Fame.” I pull onto the exit ramp, pay my toll and see said attraction almost immediately to my right. I know that the Hall of Fame is scheduled to close within a few minutes, so I park and check into the Days Inn Canastota. While I would’ve preferred the nearby Graziano’s Motor Lodge (more on that later), I know that the Days Inn has wireless Internet access – and I have writing to do.
10:40 a.m. – I check out of the Days Inn, load my stuff into my car and drive the walking distance to my raison d’etre, the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Once inside, I see the 1984 resolution that paved the way for the Hall of Fame to be in Canastota – home of former welterweight and middleweight world champion Carmen Basilio and Basilio’s nephew, former welterweight champion Billy Backus.
In the nearly 18 years since the Hall of Fame opened its doors, a Who’s Who of boxing has journeyed to this quiet town, and it’s easy to understand why. Looking around, one sees a veritable history of boxing in its variety of exhibits. Statues of Basilio and Backus. Plaques for all the inductees. The trunks, robes, shoes, gloves, hand wraps and mouthpieces worn by some of the biggest superstars – and when you see Sugar Ray Leonard’s robe hanging out in the open, it takes all the willpower in the world to obey the “Do Not Touch” signs.
There are the fist casts, too, dozens of clenched hands belonging to fighters from generations ago – Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey – and to other contemporary stars and observers such as Micky Ward, Riddick Bowe and Russell Peltz. I take a gander at the fist cast belonging to Bert Sugar, which sits in its own case with two fingers up, holding a wooden stogie. With it is a Royal typewriter, “Bert Randolph Sugar” Dymo-labeled on.
Meanwhile, Ed Brophy – the executive director of the Hall of Fame – chats up his visitors, asking where they’ve come from and why they’ve chosen his building as their destination. He is friendly, energetic, knowledgeable and dedicated. One can tell that this is his life’s work, his passion.
One needs not assume, either. Brophy will confirm it for you.
“Boxing was in my blood since I was a young kid,” he says. “It’s really a way of saying, ‘Let’s show our appreciation to the sport of boxing.’ ”
What amazes is the attention to detail, to the various aspects of the sport throughout history. One can chronicle the evolution of boxing – starting millennia ago and moving through the Marquess of Queensbury era. And it’s not just about the fighters – though the photos and displays belonging to the great champions and contenders are absolutely a focus.
One exhibit is dedicated to that aforementioned other boxing Mecca, Madison Square Garden, an exhibit which includes the checks written for Ali-Frazier I. Another exhibit has fight tickets – $3 for general admission to Joey Maxim-Sugar Ray Robinson, $400 for VIP ringside at Julio Cesar Chavez-Edwin Rosario. It sure puts in perspective the price range for May’s Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather extravaganza.
Other tickets are part of an exhibit that Brophy put up just the night before I came: genuine tickets framed together with genuine programs. Of the many? Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight championship defense against Georges Carpentier. Oh, and the Rumble in the Jungle.
There’s so much memorabilia that Brophy tends to rotate displays. He is planning on constructing another addition, one that will go between the existing building and a large exhibition hall that acts primarily as a gift shop except during the Hall of Fame induction weekend.
The induction weekend is another matter. This year’s is an excellent class in terms of retired boxers – Roberto Duran, Ricardo Lopez and Pernell Whitaker. Induction Weekend is June 7 through June 10, and tens of thousands will fill up the hotels in Canastota and beyond. My attendance, unfortunately, will have to wait until another year when I can take four days off from the regular writing gig.
1 p.m. – I leave the Hall of Fame and head over to Graziano’s Motor Lodge. To my surprise, they do indeed have wireless Internet. I check in, and after a much-needed nap I get straight to writing what is my hundredth edition of “Fighting Words.” After sending my column off in the late evening, I head out in search of grub, only to find out that Graziano’s Casa Mia has different hours than my appetite does.
Both the hotel and the restaurant are owned and operated by Tony Graziano, who trained Carmen Basilio and managed Billy Backus. I wanted a chance to talk to the man, but with an ice storm playing havoc on area roads, I’m unsure if I can work a conversation in before the long drive home tomorrow.
10:30 a.m. – I’m up and out, or so I think. I mention to the wonderfully kind woman in charge of the motel that I never found the time to meet Graziano. She leads me out of the motel and into the restaurant, where she introduces me to the man.
Graziano – who, with his employees, is in the middle of getting his restaurant ready for the day – comes over and greets me, asks where I’m from and tells me to feel free to look around. There are hundreds of photos on the walls, and I’m told there are countless more that will eventually go up.
A few minutes later, Graziano comes back and walks me around the restaurant, pointing out the legends who have either been in Canastota or been in his life. I marvel at what must be a wealth of boxing knowledge inside the man’s head, and I wonder why he has never written a book. And then he drops this gem of a quote:
“Here’s my buddy, Rocky Marciano.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard that sentence before, and I’m unsure if I will again.
11:08 a.m. – I leave the restaurant. I would have loved to stay for a meal and more conversation, but the roads in upstate New York are getting worse. Had I stayed, I may have been stuck in the ice and snow that would hit the area for the remainder of the week. Then again, it couldn’t have been any worse than the monumental amount of snow that would hit towns like Oswego and Parish a few weeks later.
The trip was amazing. From the moment I arrived home, I wondered when I would again have time to make the drive – especially for Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. Then again, if I ever work my way to running a few boxing magazines, penning dozens of books and writing articles exponentially greater than mine in number and quality, I may just have to make the time.
The 10 Count
1. For the second straight year, the early contender for Fight of the Year is a slugfest that wasn’t broadcast on American airwaves.
On Feb. 17, lightweights Michael Katsidis and Graham Earl met in London on the undercard of the Michael Sprott-Audley Harrison heavyweight bout. And while their fight was for the World Boxing Organization’s interim 135-pound belt, one gets the feeling that the action – and action is the proper term here – wouldn’t have gone down any other way.
Unlike 2006 Fight of the Year Mahyar Monshipour-Somsak Sithchatchawal, Katsidis-Earl doesn't need YouTube to become an Internet sensation. To see Katsidis-Earl for free, head over to http://www.frankwarren.tv/
2. Joe Mesi needed less than a round to stop George Linberger on Versus’ Fight Night, earning Mesi his fifth victory since he returned in April from two subdural hematomas and a forced two-year layoff. Mesi looks like he’s worked himself back into shape, though it must be said that Linberger’s last fight was 14 months ago, a four-round split decision over Eric “Butterbean” Esch. Nevertheless, Mesi’s post-fight interview was half-triumphant, half-defiant:
“I’m back,” he said. “It took me four fights to get back … I got my four tune-up fights, I didn’t look that great in them. How am I supposed to look good? There’s two-and-a-half years off I had.
“You’ve never seen the best of Joe Mesi yet. I think now in my second chance, in my second career, you’re going to see the best … I’m a young 33. I started boxing late. You haven’t even seen me beat yet.
“By summer, I want to be fighting in western New York … because I generate money for me and my opponents, I generate fans, I generate exciting fights … we’re going to fight back in New York and have the 20 to 25,000 people again ‘cause no one else can do that in the heavyweight division.”
3. On the same West Virginia card, former heavyweight titlist Tommy Morrison fought for the first time in over a decade. Like Mesi, Morrison was forced to the sideline by medical issues. And like Mesi, Morrison is waging an uphill battle for acceptance.
Morrison’s involuntary banishment began in 1996 when he tested positive for HIV. After traveling to Japan and knocking out designated opponent Marcus Rhode, Morrison retired.
Morrison returned Thursday, having convinced the West Virginia Athletic Commission that he either no longer has HIV, or that the nineties test yielded a false positive. Morrison also won in the ring, stopping an inexperienced John Castle in the second round.
For all intents and purposes, Morrison is treading on thin ice. Boxing is a blood sport. Joe Mesi only puts himself in danger by continuing to fight. Without reliable evidence, one tends to assume that Tommy Morrison and the promoters and athletic commissions that enable him are willing to put others in danger, too.
4. In the shadows of Mesi and Morrison, two things must not be overlooked from Thursday’s Fight Night broadcast.
The reporting done by ringside color commentator Wally Matthews was dead-on. Whereas some would have focused mostly on the in-ring action, Matthews remained a boxing journalist, working controversial stories and asking difficult questions.
And lest we forget, there was the main event bout between Humberto Soto and Humberto Toledo, which Soto won via third-round stoppage. Soto looks like a force to be reckoned with at 130 – and with the sheer amount of quality match-ups at junior lightweight, Soto is one more reason to hope for the impossible truce between Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions.
5. Boxers Behaving Badly, part one: Former lightweight and junior middleweight titlist Vinny Pazienza was arrested Feb. 23 and charged with drunken driving after police in Warwick, R.I., found him at a gas station, passed out behind the wheel of his Jeep with his engine running, according to The Providence Journal. Pazienza allegedly failed a field sobriety test and refused to take a Breathalyzer test, authorities said.
In 2005, Pazienza lost his driver’s license for up to a year for a December 2004 incident in which he refused to take a Breathalyzer test after police stopped him for driving erratically.
Pazienza is scheduled to appear before the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal on March 21.
6. Boxers Behaving Badly, part two: Former middleweight and super middleweight titlist Chris Eubank was arrested last week in London for disturbing the peace during a unique antiwar demonstration, according to BBC News. Eubank – who had been protesting Prince Harry’s impending deployment to Iraq with British troops – was driving a large truck on which a banner read, “Blair, don’t send our young prince to your catastrophic illegal war to make it look plausible.”
Eubank is scheduled for a March 29 hearing.
7. The legal saga involving HBO play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley ended last week with Lampley receiving three years of probation after he plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge of violating a restraining order, according to the Associated Press.
Lampley, who was initially accused of felony domestic violence, was also ordered to stay away from ex-girlfriend Candice Sanders, enroll in a 52-week domestic violence recovery program, perform 40 hours of volunteer work and pay a fine of approximately $700.
“The thing that I am most guilty of is choosing [the] wrong woman,” Lampley said in a released statement.
On a related note, Thomas Hauser penned a fantastic article last week that expanded on the circumstances surrounding Lampley’s arrest and put the entire situation in perspective. Excellent work.
8. The World Boxing Association officially stripped Mariano Carrera of his middleweight belt last week and reinstated Javier Castillejo as its titlist.
Carrera, who had defeated Castillejo in December via technical knockout, tested positive for the banned substance Clenbuterol in his post-fight drug test. His second sample also tested positive, forcing the WBA to disqualify Carrera and name Castillejo the winner.
Castillejo is scheduled to defend his title in an April rematch against Felix Sturm.
9. Goodbye, Johnny Tapia. May this retirement truly be your final one – and may you live comfortably off of royalties from your autobiography.
10. Laila Ali will compete on the fourth season of ABC television show Dancing with the Stars, joining fellow semi-celebrities Billy Ray Cyrus, Clyde Drexler, Joey Fatone, Shandi Finnessey, Leeza Gibbons, Heather Mills, Apolo Anton Ohno, Vincent Pastore, Paulina Porizkova and Ian Ziering.
Ali isn’t the first boxer to appear on the program – the first season saw a brief stint from Evander Holyfield. Alongside dance partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Ali needs only last four episodes to better the fumbling footwork of “The Real Deal.”
Dancing with the Stars premieres on March 19.
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