Meandering through Canastota

BY Robert Cassidy Jr. ON June 14, 2005
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Canastota, New York – The boxing fraternity made its annual pilgrimage here for the Class of 2005 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. To experience the quaintness of small-town Canastota and the camaraderie displayed by the fighters and their beloved fans is well worth the trip to Central New York. It’s no longer a secret that Canastota is boxing’s hometown. For a sport that too often shoots itself in the foot, induction weekend allows you to remember why you first fell in love with boxing.

Some thoughts that came to mind while working the weekend.

Ambivalence. It was touching to see 2005 inductee Bobby Chacon hear the roar of the crowd one more time. He was embraced by the fans and his fellow boxers. But it was sad to see him struggling with his speech and walking awkwardly, unsteady and unsure, from station to station throughout the weekend. Chacon, a proud warrior, is a reminder of the risks each boxer takes and the toll a noble sport can impose.

Feisty. Carmen Basilio. At the age of 78 the Hall of Famer and native of Canastota, is still a handful. As we shook hands to start an interview, he grasped my right hand and his left hand dipped into my pocket, lifting my modest roll of cash. (under $100). Thankfully, he gave it back to me. At the close of our interview, he feinted a left to my body and landed an open-handed right to my cheek. The “thwack” was loud enough to turn heads in the arena. I immediately called for a lawyer. He winked and said, “If that was with a closed fist, you’d be on the floor.” I didn’t doubt him.

Terrible Terry. I didn’t vote for Terry Norris on the 2005 ballot, but he was gracious about his induction and credited his father, Orlin Norris Sr., with making him a world champion. “I’m here because of my Dad. He wanted me to be the best fighter in the world. He trained me. He made me train very hard. He made me the best I can be. My Dad passed away three years ago, but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.” Of his brother, former cruiserweight champion Orlin Norris Jr., he said, “He’s my best friend and my hero.”

Three. Opponents of Muhammad Ali – Leon Spinks, Ken Norton and George Chuvalo. That number is down from eight three years ago, when Spinks, Norton and Chuvalo were joined by Joe Frazier, Ron Lyle, Henry Cooper, Jimmy Ellis and Ernie Terrell. Chuvalo is one of only two men to have face Ali before and after his exile [Floyd Patterson is the other.] “He was definitely a different fighter,” Chuvalo said about The Greatest. “He was a bit slower. He had to be more resourceful. He had to rely more on his smarts, his guile. Don’t get me wrong, he was still a great fighter. But the first time I fought him, I couldn’t believe his hand speed. He had the fastest hands of any heavyweight in history.”

Across the Pond. Flying over the Atlantic to attend the ceremonies were 2005 inductee Barry McGuigan (Ireland), 2000 inductee Ken Buchanan (Scotland), 1999 inductee Mickey Duff and world champions John H. Stracey and Alan Minter, all from England. Journalist Harry Mullan (Ireland and editor of Britain’s “Boxing News”) and Jack Randall (London, bare-knuckle champion) were inducted this year posthumously.

Across the Pond, Part 2. The weekend started with people talking about Manchester’s Ricky Hatton upsetting junior welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu and ended with the conversation shifting to Ireland’s Kevin McBride upsetting Mike Tyson.

Across the Pond, Part 3. What a weekend for Clones, Ireland. McBride “The Clones Colossus” and McGuigan, “The Clones Cyclone,” hail from the same town.

263. Pounds weighed by heavyweight Shannon Briggs, who headlined the ESPN2 card at the Turning Stone Casino. Fight night is a staple of the Hall of Fame weekend festivities. Briggs, in his latest attempt to resurface as a contender in a wide-open division, dropped the previously unbeaten, but severely overmatched Abraham Okine, four times en route to a 3rd-round TKO.

Hollywood. Tinsel town was well represented in Title Town. On hand was Academy-ward nominated actor Ryan O’Neal, who portrayed a fighter in “The Main Event.” He was the Parade Grand Marshall and also once managed Hedgemon Lewis. Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrayed a fighter in the film “The Boxer,” was in Canastota for McGuigan’s induction. He trained Lewis and was the technical adviser for the film. Hector Roca, who trained Academy Award-winner Hillary Swank for “Million Dollar Baby,” was on hand working the corner of New York lightweight Jorge Teron. Hall of Fame alumnus Angelo Dundee attended the ceremony and spoke often about his role in training Academy Award-winner Russell Crowe for “Cinderella Man.” Dundee was the flick’s fistic adviser and he also played a role as a cornerman. Crowe arrived in Canastota on the final day and toured the museum with Dundee. And, representing perhaps the greatest boxing film of all time, was Jake LaMotta. His life story was depicted in “Raging Bull.”

29. Number of past of present world champions in attendance.

Respect. I remember in previous inductions how Marvin Hagler would speak before the crowd and point out guys like Carmen Basilio and Joe Frazier and say how much they inspired him. This year, the young fighters, like Sugar Shane Mosley, Diego Corrales and Lamon Brewster spoke of how Hagler inspired them.

Disrespect. I don’t know if they had to catch a plane or attend a prior engagement, but it was disappointing to watch Mosley, Corrales and Brewster exit during the induction speeches. If they had a plane to catch or a prior commitment, it should have been scheduled well after the ceremonies. The only young fighter to stay for the entire induction was Mike Anchondo.

Expansion. It’s time to expand the museum. While the new pavilion is beautiful and the events wonderful, the museum should be the centerpiece of the weekend. It is not. And that’s a shame.

The West Coast of Florida. The current home of Canastota native Mike Brophy. It’s in the vicinity of Ft. Myers, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox. Mike returns to Canastota each year for his role as press coordinator. Without him, we couldn’t get our jobs done. The only bad thing I can say about Mike is that, sadly, although born in the state of New York, he is a Red Sox fan.

Sweet Sounds. John H. Stracey, the former welterweight champion, is now a singer. In addition to hawking his latest CD, he performed during the cocktail hour, singing classics such as “Born Free,” “Sweet Caroline” and “My Girl.” Quite well, I might add.

Thank You. To all the fans and fighters – including Mike Anchondo and Mustafa Hamsho – who were nice enough to ask after my dad. He and Hamsho, both managed by Paddy Flood, sparred together at the old Gramercy Gym. “He was already established, really toward the end of his career,” said Hamsho. “But he would get in the ring and work with the young fighters. He’d play with us.”

Public Workouts. Juan Diaz, Mike Anchondo, Christy Martin and Lamon Brewster all conducted outdoor training sessions on the Hall of Fame grounds. It’s an exciting event for the fans who get to watch world-class athletes train five feet away. It harkens back to the days when guys like Rocky Marciano or Emile Griffith went to training camp in the Catskills and held open workouts at places like Grossinger’s.

Other sports. They just don’t matter during Hall-of-Fame weekend. The Spurs won Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Afleet Alex won the Belmont Stakes and Major League Baseball started its second round of interleague play. No one seemed to notice.

Everyone loves a parade. Especially me. The parade through the heart of Canastota is the highlight of the weekend. Rarely does a fighter ride in a parade (save for Puerto Rican champions when they arrive home after a title bout). To see these warriors chauffeured through the streets, fans screaming and waving, is worth the trip.

See you next year.

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