For boxing fans, this weekend is considered an industry holiday. It is the time of the year where the International Boxing Hall of Fame enshrines its most recent inductees. Fans from around the world travel to Canastota, New York to take in the festivities. In addition to the enshrinement, the Hall of Fame weekend also offers autograph and memorabilia shows, cookouts, parades, a golf tournament, a 5K race, and four days of interacting with the greatest fighters of past and present.
Thanks to promoter Michael Acri, a new tradition was born in 1998: a Friday night fight card at the Turning Stone Casino in nearby Verona, New York. That tradition continues this Friday night, as rising undefeated heavyweight Abraham “The African Assassin” Okine (14-0, 8 KOs) takes on former linear heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs (41-4-1, 35 KOs) live on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights (June 10, 8PM ET/5PM PT).
Prior to Acri entering the mix, most shows would comprise of sparring sessions and amateur bouts. But Michael Acri Boxing Promotions changed all of that, as Hector Camacho headlined the inaugural Hall of Fame fight card in June 1998. The card itself was nothing earth-shattering, other than the fight being Camacho’s first since dropping a near shutout decision to Oscar De La Hoya nine months prior. In fact, none of the Hall of Fame cards have been billed that way, with the exception of Laila Ali-Jacqui Frazier in 2001. Nor are they designed with the intention of making a small fortune.
What Acri has aimed for – and achieved – was to create a night where boxing junkies of all different flavors can get together, and take in a night at the fights.
“The shows, they are what they are,” says Acri, more honest – and accommodating – than most in the business these days. “My intention was always to offer a scenario where fans can attend, and leave claiming to have watched great fighters in action. At these events, you have memorabilia people, you have past inductees, and most important, boxing fanatics from everywhere. No matter who you root for, you know that you can come to the fight card and just have a good time. It’s always a good turnout, and has become a pretty big event over the years.”
This year had the potential to be bigger. The comebacking David Tua was to headline the card courtesy of promoter Cedric Kushner, who co-promotes this year’s card with Acri. Tua wound up getting injured, so Okine-Briggs was made and slated as the main event. Moving up to the co-feature is once-beaten lightweight Raymond Narh (13-1, 12 KOs), as he takes on Darnell Logan. Narh and Okine were born and raised in Ghana before relocating to Pittsburgh, PA. Their association is a big reason why Narh was able to land the slot.
In Logan (8-2-1, 4KO), Narh will face an opponent who will stay in his face and provide him with a solid test. Much like his ubiquitous brother Marteze – who headlined last year’s card at Turning Stone (L10 Victoriano Sosa), Darnell loves to stay busy both in and out of the ring. Friday night will be his twelfth fight in just fourteen months as a professional. Unlike his brother, Darnell’s whiskers are a bit shaky; both of his losses have come via early knockout.
Narh’s lone loss was also an early exit, a first round knockout loss to rising undefeated lightweight contender Almazbek “Kid Diamond” Raiymkulov. He has since scored four straight knockouts, and hopes to continue the streak this Friday. All Acri asks for is that his kid is focused.
“I know that Raymond wishes he could take back the fight with Raiymkulov. There’s certainly no shame in losing to someone like him, but Ray never gave himself a chance. He showed up looking for a one-punch knockout. The fight turned out to be kill or be killed for both as Narh had Kid Diamond badly hurt, but the fight ended all wrong, and all too quick. What I want this fight to show is that Narh learns from mistakes. He’s a student of the game, he’s knowledgeable and has very good form. He does a lot of things right, and wants to get better.”
The same can be said for Okine, his stable mate. Despite offering an undefeated record, Okine will face his first major test in Briggs. While Briggs may not be a major threat to today’s best heavyweights, he still serves as a viable measuring stick for up and comers such as Okine.
What Acri likes about this year’s feature attraction is that it’s not the foregone conclusion that normally is most bouts on such cards.
“On paper, I give Okine a very good chance to beat Shannon,” says Acri. “But there are some questions about him that will be answered on Friday. From my view, he’s strong, has a very good chin, sound defense, and has decent power. The kid has a ton of amateur experience, so even with only fourteen fights, he’s a bit more seasoned than your average prospect. But is he seasoned enough? That’s what we’ll found out Friday, especially early, as Shannon liked to swing for the fences in the first few rounds.”
Should Okine pass the chin check in the early going, things should go well. Unless, of course, he manages to get lured into Briggs’ fight.
“Briggs is definitely more experienced, so my kid will have to show some patience in getting the job done. If not, he’ll find himself in a shootout very quick. That wouldn’t be a bad thing for those in attendance, but all I look for is Okine to give himself the best possible chance of winning this fight, and throwing his hat into the heavyweight ring.”
Who knows? Perhaps a star or two will be born in Turning Stone. A few have passed through over the years. Laila Ali made her pro debut in Verona, and returned twice more. The latter served as the main event for 2001’s induction weekend fight card, where she slugged it out with Jacqui Frazier in an unforgettable eight round war. Ali prevailed by majority decision, and remains undefeated to this day, as she fights one night later on the “Capital Punishment” card in D.C.
Angel Manfredy and Victoriano Sosa were able to revive their careers at the Turning Stone, along with Camacho as mentioned earlier. Former world champion Carl Daniels has appeared on several cards in the past as well. All have helped Acri become the promoter of choice on the Oneida reservation, as he puts on 80% of the shows that takes place there. If he could pick a single show that would be his favorite… well, then that just wouldn’t be Michael Acri.
“None stick out any more than the other,” admits Acri. “I’ve always been proud of the fact that the people of Verona allow me to develop a series and a reputation in their town. And it’s the ultimate thrill to know that my fight cards are the center of attention for the biggest boxing weekend of the year. To know that fans look forward to a night at the fights, and always go home entertained… it’s rewarding enough without having to pin it to a single event. I’m just happy to make boxing fans happy with my shows. That has always been my goal with this series.”
The tradition continues. Mission accomplished.
Who will win? Wladimir Klitschko or Tyson Fury?