By Jeff Jowett in Canastota: On the weekend of June 11-14, the boxing world turned on its axis from the village of Canastota, NY. It was the 26th annual induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame of a new class of the sport’s most accomplished achievers both in and around the ring. This year’s class lacked some of the star caliber of previous convocations, but no matter. The event has come of age in its own right and taken on a character of its own that transcends individual participants no matter how great. There’s nothing like it for an atmosphere of co-mingling among the greats and the aficionados who helped make them so. A Hall of Famer himself, stellar promoter J. Russell Peltz quipped it’s one of the few events left in boxing not run by Al Haymon. That says a lot.
This year’s class consisted of four boxers, plus two non-participants and two “observers”, along with two Old-Timers. Gone was the “Pioneer” category, as historian Don Majeski was evidently unable to unearth any new London Prize Ring noteworthies.
Leading the modern boxers, as well as Most Happy to Be Here category, was ‘70s flyweight king Yoko Gushiken, of Japan. Despite a comparatively brief 24 bouts, Yoko so distinguished himself with 13 defenses against solid opposition without having to rely heavily on hometown decisions that he earned his spot on the HOF wall. Gushiken struggled gamely through a short but emotional acceptance speech in English, then fleshed it out in Japanese through an interpreter.
An issue that clouds selections to all halls of fame is the semantic confusion between “fame” and “excellence.” They are not the same. If relying strictly on the former for qualification, Butterbean would have been in here long ago. True, Rocky Balboa, not even a person, got in, but only under a storm of objections. Enter Riddick Bowe, with a career marked more by controversy and disappointment than outstanding achievement. From quitting in the Olympics through failures to defend titles and twice getting whacked by Golota, Riddick proved more of an enigma than a sensation.
Naseem Hamed??? Yes, he did indeed have a string of unquestionably stellar wins. But the plunge at the height of his career straight into oblivion on the skid from one defining loss is not the stuff of championship. Hamed was absent, officially due to illness of his wife but there was some unsubstantiated claim that legal issues keep him out of the US.
Finally, there was inducted Ray Mancini…with a media-driven career, destroyed by Arguello after triumphing over a poor effort by Jose Luis Ramirez, winning the lightweight title from one of the weakest to hold it, Arturo Frias, defending against Kim, who hardly belonged on that level, and a washed-up Chacon before being dismantled by Bramble…the immensely popular “Boom Boom” was nothing if not famous and proved the hit of this year’s class.
Non-participant inductees were made up of famed Madison Square Garden publicist John F.X. Condon posthumously (he died in 1989), manager Rafael Mendoza, and Thomas Hauser’s pick as Best Referee in the World, the Sextuple S, “Sweet, Super-Smooth, Strawberry Steve” Smoger. The normally shy and retiring Smoger broke Jack Obermayer’s record for a long, autobiographical acceptance speech while electrifying the crowd in recounting the rise of his career along with that of Atlantic City boxing. Mendoza, the manager of an entire Hall of Fame of Mexican greats, gave a dignified talk in which he stated that he’d never held a signed contract with a fighter, just a handshake.
The Observers were Jim Lampley, who needs no introduction to anyone within range of a TV set, and former editor of The Ring, Nigel Collins. Lampley related a touching story of how his father had died when he was very young, and some years later, his mother sat him down in front of a television set and stated this is what his father would want him to do if he were still there. It was the Robinson-Olson fight.
The British-born Collins, affectionately dubbed “The Impaler” by photog Tom Casino for his no-nonsense editing acumen, regaled fans with a stirring if not entirely biologically and historically accurate tale of the sport’s place in their lives. “You’re all predators,” Collins fearlessly harangued the breathless crowd, and went on to explain how boxing conforms to the basics of human nature while providing a noble and wonderful outlet to compulsions that otherwise too readily may lead to uncivilized and horrific consequences…war being cited as the nadir.
Lastly were the Old-Timers, Masao Ohba and Ken Overlin. The ‘70s flyweight champion from Japan Ohba racked up five defenses over solid opposition and was clearly on a HOF path when his life was cut short by a car accident at age 23 after 38 bouts. The virtually punchless but exceptionally skilled Overlin fought 165 bouts which included winning and defending the middleweight championship in 1940-41.
A concurrent event, celebrating their 20th year, the Nate Race fittingly added a 20k course. None of the boxers participated in that! However, as usual, the HOF did participate in the traditional 5k race. And the winner was…among boxers…Heather Hardy! She was 64th overall among 476 runners in a stellar time of 23:46. Not far back was William Joppy, finishing 71st in a time of 24:18. But his son, William Jr., turned in a splendid effort, leading the HOF contingent with a whopping 32nd place finish in a time of 21:32! While not competing, “Boom Boom” was the official race starter, while Ray Jr. came in just behind William Jr. in 39th place in 21:45. Boom Boom’s wife, Tina, ran a fine 27:04 to finish 141st, while a blistering dual between Micky Ward, who never misses the run, and Peter Manfredo saw Micky edge Peter by one second, in 26:36, to finish 122nd to Peter’s 125th. The Boxing Writer’s category was won by former BWAA President Jack “Mantequilla” Hirsch, who finished 199th in 28:49, while Nigel Collins ran an eye-catching 30:49 to finish 234th.
The Grand Marshall for this year’s Parade of Champions was actor Jon [sic] Seda. Seated down in the back of a convertible, Jake LaMotta rode regally. But it doesn’t look like he can still slip the jab. Jeff Chandler demonstrated his combo technique to the crowd in a blur of fists. A smiling Larry Hazzard celebrated his return to the limelight. Ruben Olivares beamed, Pipino Cuevas looked serious, Terry Norris seemed top contender for the Nice Guy award. Nino Benvenuti exuded Euro charm. Fernando Vargas checked his cell phone. Russell Peltz, Mendoza, Lampley and Collins warmly represented the non-boxer celebs. Smoger worked up the crowd. Olympic champion Claressa Shields held out her Gold Medal for all eyes. George Chuvalo brought down the curtain on the Famers, but be forewarned, this parade never ends.
The memorabilia show was a treat all of its own, as always, and provides a rare and special opportunity to step outside the inner circle of gilt-edged celebs, many long gone, to meet members of their families peddling biographies. This year, these included but were not limited to members of Jack Sharkey’s, Tony Zale’s, and “Jersey” Joe Walcott’s families.
Final 10-counts were tolled at the induction ceremony for fallen warriors Harold Johnson and Gene Fullmer…genuine, uncompromised Champions, not watered down split title holders.
Other celebrities and super-stars spotted around the grounds included but were not limited to Michael and Leon Spinks, Billy Backus, Dickie DiVeronica, Gerry Cooney, Hasim Rahman, Don Chargin, Aaron Pryor, Carlos Palomino, Kenny Bayliss, Richard Steele, Joe Cortez, Dickie Eklund, Montell Griffin, Marvin Camel, Kevin Kelley, Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer, and the victim of one of the worst decisions in modern times (vs Fernando Vargas), Ronald“Winky” Wright. Sergio Martinez shocked the banquet crowd by announcing his retirement.
Sorrowfully, the one egregious oversight that plagues the credibility of the Hall of Fame year after year is the omission of Don Elbaum.
On the other side, year after year, one of the fun features of the weekend is the ongoing cat-&-mouse game between fans and the “goon squad.” In truth, the event is manned almost entirely by volunteers, and they do a yeoman job of containing the overzealous fans who, if left unchecked, would make the weekend virtually unbearable for the most popular celebrities. “We get called ‘A-holes’ and stuff like that when many times we actually help fans get autographs,” observed one security volunteer. “It’s the same ten or twelve people every year. We know who they are.” Perhaps first-timer Joppy said it best when he advised, “If I died tomorrow, at least I could say I’d been to Hall of Fame weekend.” Every dedicated fight fan should concur.