Joe Cortez talks (pic Jill Bonnett)
By Derek Bonnett in Canastota: Any boxing fan who has been considering making the trip up to Canastota, NY, USA needs to stop thinking. Thinking just gets in the way of doing and the second weekend of June 2012 is already approaching.
The class of 2011 was honored on the museum grounds of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and throughout the small onion farming town of Canastota. The community was consumed by boxing and flooded by guests from all over the world. This year’s inductees included Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Kostya Tszyu, Joe Cortez, and Nacho Beristain from the modern era. Old-time names like Harry Carpenter, John Gully, Jack Root, and Dave Schade among others were also honored for their various boxing contributions in and out of the ring.
Also making their presence known were past inductees Angelo Dundee, Carlos Ortiz, Ruben Olivares, Azumah Nelson, Jeff Fenech, and Aaron Pryor. Other familiar faces from the ring were Jesse James Leija, Micky Ward, John Scully, Leon Spinks, George Chuvalo, John H. Stracey, Marlon Starling, and Sergio Martinez. Each and every one of them contributed to the aura of the rainy, but magnificent weekend coordinated by the hall of fame and numerous other supporters.
Tri Nguyen and I were delighted to attend the event and did our best to capture each moment digitally and verbally.
Having arrived on June 10, the second day of the ceremony, I was able to witness a very special part of each year’s induction ceremony: the fist casting. Using chemicals and materials found mostly in any dentist’s office, the hall of fame staff prepared replicas of each inductee’s fist to be put on display along with boxing shoes, robes, hand-wraps, mouthpieces, and pictures for years to come. Tszyu, Chavez, Tyson, and the whole gang first had to coat their hands with Vaseline before submerging their fists into a coffee can sized cylinder filled with the plaster material. Many smiles emerged on the faces of the fighters and more than a couple Antonio Margarito comments came from the fans.
Earlier in the evening, a barefooted Tszyu gave a public performance in the ring with Smitty for In This Corner. Tszyu offered Smitty a couple compliments such as, "You are pretty fast...for an old man" and "Nice punch...but my head is here." Smitty boasted about sharing the ring with thirty-eight world champions on his internet show and having never suffered a defeat. To this, Tszyu replied, "Not yet." Tszyu showed the fans how he used his left jab to set up his deadly right hand. Tszyu explained the importance of throwing this punch, for him, was to not have to use it unless the punch would travel only a short distance. Tszyu exited the ring about thirty minutes and graciously signed autographs for fans including my wife, who was a real asset for me given her long blonde hair and long legs. Somehow, she always found her way to her targeted ring great.
The next morning, June 11, started off with some rain and wind much to the chagrin of those guests involved in the 5K run/walk, but, like the fighters in the ring they came to pay their respects to, they toughed it out and managed to see the rain cease and the clouds open up. The real rays of light for the day came during the ringside lectures given by Angelo Dundee, Jesse James Leija, and Azumah Nelson.
Dundee joked with the audience and elicited numerous laughs while answering some pretty interesting questions about myriad topics. "Lecture? What are you talking about? I’m just bullshitting!" Dundee responded after being thanked for his time and commitment to the fans.
The hall of fame trainer from the class of 1992 discussed the "Dundee Rule", which he explained was created after the infamous glove incident from Cassius Clay’s 1963 bout with Henry Cooper. Dundee claims the seam of the glove had come unstitched prior to the bout, but he did not see any reason for complaint. However, once his fighter was hurt, he said he used his finger to push the leather up more and asked for a new pair of gloves. Dundee was told there were no extra gloves in the arena and from that time on commissions kept extra gloves underneath the ring.
Other key notes from Dundee’s "bullshit session" pertained to his work as a technical supervisor on the films Ali and Cinderella Man. Dundee expressed his love for actors and paid Will Smith and Russell Crowe top honors. He explained their work ethics were on par with many of the fighters he’s worked with over the years and he felt both men, had they started at the right age, could have been successful fighters. Dundee shared an anecdote about Smith while the actor was portraying Ali, "The guy who played Frazier, James Toney, had been beating Will up and Will was tired of it." Apparently, Smith wanted to try to take it to Toney after some weeks of training, but Dundee advised him the only thing that would come of it would be a knockout loss! Even still, Dundee said that by the time Smith had finished his preparations for the film, he was Muhammad Ali.
Dundee had nothing but excellent memories to recall, but one regret he had in his life was that he was never able to train Willy Pep. "The guy couldn’t pop a balloon and he was outfighting all the top guys. He was amazing." Dundee felt that Pep would have been a huge hit in England due to their love for Willie Pastrano, whom Angelo compared to the Hartford, CT great. Dundee concluded with a message to Floyd Mayweather Jr. "The only way Mayweather is going to be great is to fight Pacquiao. No more bullshit! Fight!"
Leija’s talk was equally engaging and reinforced my belief that the former super featherweight champion should be doing commentary work for one of the major networks. His clarity of speech and keen boxing insight is unrivaled in my opinion. Leija discussed his four fight series with Azumah Nelson and its significance. As he reflected, he made an apology to his fans because he felt he came to a realization about himself since retiring from the ring. "I worked hard to get my title and then I stopped. I got comfortable. A comfortable fighter is a fighter who is about to be beaten. Before I fought Gabriel Ruelas, I was on vacation. I was relaxing not even concerned I had a hungry number one contender to deal with in four months time."
One fan asked Leija to explain his greatest moment in the ring. Of course, Leija mentioned his series with Nelson, but offered an unusual choice for his greatest moment: his bout with Oscar De La Hoya. "That fight may have ended badly by second round knockout, but I came from a place in San Antonio without much money. It was a bad place." According to Leija, to be standing in the ring against Oscar De La Hoya at Madison Square Garden was something else. It was validation of his mark on the boxing world to have risen to such a level to compete with such a fighter on such a platform. Afterward, the line for a Leija autograph stretched across the museum grounds.
Azumah Nelson was all business in the ring and his responses were equally intense. Nelson, a man of few words, but ever so eloquent with a thick Ghanaian accent, discussed the importance of rematches. All of the great fighters had them. Nelson insisted great fighters will fight those who beat them to gain revenge and rematch those who challenged once, to beat them worse. Nelson, who surely was rematch tough, defeated Leija and Jeff Fenech brutally after previous struggles with them. However, Nelson’s stone attitude showed a softer side as he discussed the bond he formed with Leija after four fights. "Leija was like my small brother. I did not like hitting him."
Nelson also expressed his desire to have fought a rematch with Genaro Hernandez, who defeated him in 1997. Hernandez had coincidentally passed away five days earlier. Nelson said, "He is in heaven now. We will all get there. We will all be judged. He was a good man."
Later in the day, Joe Cortez, this year’s most engaging inductee from my perspective, made time for a SecondsOut interview. Cortez has proudly served in over 180 world title fights starting back to 1982 just two years after beginning his career as a referee. His first world championship assignment was Aaron Pryor’s WBA title defense against Miguel Montilla. Cortez recounted some of his most memorable experiences in the ring, his ideas concerning ring safety, and his thoughts about his fellow inductees.
"The fights between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes, Iran Barkley versus Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya, the Chavez-Haugen fight, it drew the largest crowd in boxing history." Cortez credits these experiences as some of his most defining moments as a ring official. Although he’s reached the pinnacle of the sport, Cortez looks forward to the future as a boxing referee. However, he alluded to a desire to be behind the microphone doing commentary work using his perspective as a hall of fame referee.
Perhaps his catchphrase will get him there. If not, maybe it will at least get him acclaim much like Mills Lane’s "Let’s get it on!" or Michael Buffer’s "Let’s get ready to rumble!" So, where exactly did Cortez get his now growing in fame line of "I’m fair, but I’m firm!"
According to Cortez, it’s almost too simple. "In one of my past interviews I was asked what it takes to be a good referee. I told him, ’You got to be fair, but by the same token, you have to be firm.’ And that’s how it came about."
More specifically, world class referees and students of Cortez, Vic Drakulich and Kenny Bayless had some words of praise for their mentor.
"Joe has been very consistent with his application of the rules in the ring and he has shown great form. Basically, he has set the standard for all of us to follow," said Drakulich. "I constantly look at Joe for his movement in the ring. He’s constantly on the move only interjecting himself when necessary, keeping the motion of the fight going. That’s what I have learned from Joe over the years."
"I’ve always looked to Joe, because Joe has mentored us over the years. And like Vic says, his consistency goes back many years and I just think it’s wonderful he’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame," stated Bayless. "Joe is really into seminars. He has hosted seminars. Even some at his house, so that we are all consistent with our work and on the same page. That’s what I treasure about how well performing Joe is. He’s been in our corner every step of the way throughout the years."
Cortez signed autographs in drones and really took the time to meet with the fans. His celebrity may not reach the heights of Tyson or Chavez, but he was involved with the fans beyond signings. He often sat with his supporters while the other two ring legends stood only behind restrictive gates. Cortez held numerous conversations and many lengthy ones long after his pen touched the glossy photographs of him plying his trade.
Cortez discussed serious business as well. The topic of ring safety came up after discussing Gabriel Ruelas and his ill-fated bout with Jimmy Garcia. Cortez explained the need to stop fights appropriately. He acknowledged the fans’ desire to see someone knocked out, but accepted the role of spoiling the crowds’ fun with an early stoppage if injury seemed likely.
"The referee needs to make use of his time. He needs to be vocal. If a fighter is getting dropped in the first round. Again in the second. Down again in the fourth and fifth. Even if they don’t seem hurt, you need to start giving warnings. Tell them they have to show you something. Visit the corner. This prepares the crowd for a stoppage. Call the doctors into the ring to look at the fighter," Cortez stated.
Cortez went on to ask the fans attending his lecture to visual two lines coming together at the top of a pyramid. The English teacher in me pictured Freytag’s Pyramid, the diagram charting the structure of a five-act play. Cortez explained that the right hand side of that pyramid is a safe zone. If the fighters get hurt then they progress up the pyramid. The apex is the point where a fight needs to be stopped Cortez explained. When a referee ignores tell-tale sign that a fight needs to be stopped and allows a fighter to absorb unnecessary punishment, they progress down the other side of the pyramid and that’s when ring tragedies occur. In Cortez’ mind, a fighter should never be allowed to continue past that apex or climax.
Regrettably, Mike Tyson and, one of my personal ring favorites, Julio Cesar Chavez were not easily accessible for the media. Tyson arrived late to the fist casting and Chavez signed only a handful of autographs after an interview with a reporter carrying a lot more clout than myself. I got a good laugh at the way SecondsOut was printed on my press badge. Instead, it read "Second Scout". Hey, I can’t expect everything.
There were other note worthy topics from this year’s induction ceremony at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Later in the week, you can look for some coverage on boxing memorabilia and one of the most impressive boxing painters since Leroy Nieman.
For further boxing discourse, contact Derek DBO Bonnett on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org.