Hall of Fame Weekend, Part I
By Derek Bonnett: Muhammad Ali is The Greatest, I know. Also, I fully accept Sugar Ray Robinson’s consensus rating as the best boxer of all-time. This paradox troubles me not as these types of debates are highly subjective and a matter of perspective; I rarely engage in them with much fervor. Yet, neither one of these all-time great, hall of fame enshrined boxers was my hero. Ali last fought in 1981 against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas, but he was a sliver of his former ring-self. At this time, to me, boxing was just the sport my father loved. Robinson’s career was of course long over as well and the world’s most venerable fighter passed away in 1989 or shortly after I really started paying attention to the best sport in the world.
My heroes came along after Ali’s decline and Robinson’s passing for the most part. George Foreman’s name will have to carry a special asterisk since his career spanned two separate volumes of ring accomplishment. Boxing sir names such as Moorer, Toney, Gonzalez, Chavez, and Tyson held time at the top of the sport and always peaked my attention, but it was two specific names from the nineties which brought me back to Canastota, New York for the 2017 International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction ceremony: Marco Antonio Barrera and Johnny Tapia. Evander Holyfield was icing on the cake and I mean no disrespect in not naming him along with the other two. He was every bit the warrior; however, I just told you I was a Moorer fan!
I’m not exactly sure what number visit this was to the IBHOF. It might have been eight or nine, but this 2017 trip was the fourth time I made pilgrimage for Induction Weekend, which typically aligns itself with my birthday on June 12. This year will be my fortieth alive and about my thirtieth as a fan of the Sweet Science and in those years I have never appreciated a boxer more than Barrera. It is my great shame that I never found the opportunity to see him fight live, but his bouts were never missed on television. Like so many other fighters foreign to the USA, my introduction to the "Baby-Faced Assassin" came via the pages of KO Magazine, The Ring, Boxing Monthly, or some other boxing magazine of the early 1990s. YouTube, like all other innovations, came along too late for my preferences, but the printed pages did their job to inform me of Barrera’s ring progress, quite often at the Great Western Forum. Barrera turned back the challenges of Carlos Salazar, Eddie Cook, Frankie Toledo (in my native Connecticut!), Agapito Sanchez, and Eddie Croft early on in his course to becoming a three division, six-time world champion. However, as for many other boxing enthusiasts, it was the February 3, 1996 HBO debut of Boxing After Dark which featured Barrera taking on Kennedy McKinney that laid the foundation for Barrera as my all-time favorite fighter. The all out action which saw McKinney officially down five times and Barrera once still keeps fans, including this one, on the edge of their seats. Barrera was already a world champion at super bantamweight with four title defenses under his belt, but the McKinney fight was his coming out party to the world as Mexico’s latest great fighter.
On the museum grounds in Canastota, when asked about Mexico’s best fighter, Barrera was too humble to even mention his own name. Barrera spoke in his native tongue with translation from Marco Antonio Barrera Jr., who sat beside him during a morning ring lecture on June 10.
"Salvador Sanchez died too young, so we never got to his full potential," Barrera said. "Of course, Julio Cesar Chavez is the greatest fighter from Mexico."
The stage side seating was filled with fans eager to listen to Barrera speak and to ask him questions. Barrera recognized Naseem Hamed as his greatest victory or at least the one that brought him the most pleasure because many experts had picked the British fighter to knock Barrera out.
"In training camp, there was a fighter I would use that move on," Barrera stated referring to the Half-Nelson he employed to force Hamed head first into a ring corner in their 2001 contest. "So, when Hamed got under my skin, I used it on him and asked, ’Who’s your daddy?"
Both Barrera Sr. and Jr. got a laughed at the retelling of this anecdote for the fans.
Barrera’s ring resume would include one of the great trilogies of the sport against Erik Morales, which saw the Hall of Fame Inductee go 2-1 against the equally great Morales. It is a shame the two could not have been inducted side by side, but Morales’ career extended beyond Barrera’s by more than a year’s time. The Barrera-Morales trilogy raised much discussion throughout the weekend, particularly at the Friday Night Fiesta on June 9, which paid homage to many of the great Mexican fighters, inductees and visitors to the hall of fame.
Top-flight referee of more than 730 bout, Kenny Bayless recognized the privilege of having been selected to officiate the rubber match between Barrera and Morales, but stumbled over the order of the results.
"Barrera won the first bout or was it Morales? I can’t remember," Bayless spoke, turning toward the Hall of Fame inductee. "Marco, did you win it?"
"He won it, but they didn’t give it to him," an ultra-talented, Oscar De La Hoya-looking writer, possibly from SecondsOut, responded, eliciting a roar of laughter from the audience.
So much of this evening centered around the heart, will, and warrior mentality so often attributed to "Mexican boxing". Former world champions, Ruben Olivares, Pipino Cuevas, Humberto Gonzalez, Michael Carbajal, Jesse James Leija, and Fernando Vargas spoke of it throughout the evening and surely added to the lore behind the legend of Mexican style fighting.
Appropriately following, Teresa Tapia came to the podium to accept recognition for her late husband Johnny Tapia, also a "Baby-Faced Assassin".
Tapia passed away in 2012 after a well-storied battle for a sense of happiness and justice in a world which violently took his mother from him in his early youth. Tapia battled heroin addiction as vehemently as he battled his ring opposition nearly as long as his adult life. The name Tapia was also introduced to me in print, but his 1994 comeback after a three and half year suspension quickly caught fire. His ESPN televised world title bout against Henry Martinez made me an instant fan. Tapia fed off the energy of his fans like few other fighters, even more so than Vinny Pazienza. Tapia was a fighter rarely in control of his emotions outside of the ring, but could somehow channel the fervor of the crowd into many of his greatest performances. Tapia could seemingly be arm weary after a furious exchange only to be re-energized by the roar of his fans to produce a follow-up combination exceeding six or seven punches easily. It has long troubled me that Tapia’s life had been captured unjustly in the 2005 biography Mi Vida Loca, which appeared, in my opinion, to be assembled with little care. HBO honored the now Hall of Fame champion in 2014 with a touching documentary simply called Tapia in which Tapia states in the early seconds of the film, "I love to box."
Tapia’s widow expressed her disappointment in not being able to see Johnny’s reaction to being inducted among the all-time greats in the sport. She shared the former champions jubilation over simply visiting the museum previously and his humility over being able to walk among such other champions. Fortunately, Tapia’s fist had already been casted during a previous visit to Canastota and it rests among the countless other legendary mitts enshrined in the hall of fame.
"Johnny must be driving everyone crazy up in heaven tonight," the surviving Tapia said in fond memory of her troubled husband.
Tapia won five world titles in three divisions and highlighted his career with decision wins over Danny Romero, Nana Konadu, and Jorge Julio. Boxing fans were treated to a condensed version of the cross-town war between Tapia and Romero on screen during the Fiesta. Tapia controversially lost a pair of bouts to Paulie Ayala, which were replayed in part in the museum itself over the weekend. With his best days behind him, Tapia also suffered defeat at the fists of Barrera in 2002 before ending his career on a four bout win-streak in 2011. Barrera expressed praise for Tapia’s efforts during their twelve round bout while lecturing on the museum grounds.
Sadly, Evander Holyfield, every bit a warrior as any Mexican boxer who ever lived, was distant during his time at the scheduled events. To each his own and I offer nothing but praise for the greatest cruiserweight boxer in history and one of my personal top-ten heavyweights of all-time. There’s not a heavyweight in history that I can say has an easy night with a prime Evander and I don’t see it as going out on a limb to say "The Real Deal" could have taken at least one fight off of Ali had they shared a trilogy.
Many excellent fighters of past eras and present participated in the annual 5K race held just off the museum grounds. Fighters such as Shawn Porter, Danny Jacobs, Jesse Vargas, Pernell Whitaker, Andrew Golota, Micky Ward, and John Scully helped make the days special for fans with numerous photo opportunities and autograph sessions. Even former Holyfield rival Smokin’ Bert Cooper made it out to the card show for some time devoted to the fans at Canastota High School.
Congratulations to the class of 2017. The International Boxing Hall of Fame welcomes boxers Marco Antonio Barrera, Johnny Tapia, Evander Holyfield, and Eddie Booker. Non-boxers Steve Farhood, Jimmy Lennon Sr., Johnny Lewis, Jerry Roth, and Barry Tompkins also join the hall thanks to their various contributions to the sport.