CANASTOTA, N.Y. — Perhaps more than any other sport, boxing is about family, of bonds formed between fathers and sons. Those bonds are almost always born of love, but love can come in several forms. Sometimes it is tender, sometimes tough, still other times a curious mixture of each.
But during the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s 26th annual induction ceremony here Sunday afternoon, several of the inductees spoke of being introduced to boxing, at least indirectly, by mothers, siblings or dear friends who could just as well have been blood relatives.
To be sure, the IBHOF’s Class of 2015 — Riddick Bowe, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and “Prince Naseem Hamed (who did not make the trip from England because of a medical situation his wife is dealing with) in the Modern category, Yosho Gushiken (Old-Timer), Jim Lampley and Nigel Collins (Observer) and Steve Smoger and Rafael Mendoza (Non-Participant) — is a mixed bag of the erudite and the earthy. All eight of the living inductees are joined by a devotion to a primal activity which Collins, former editor of The Ring magazine, likened to a more socially acceptable version of law of the jungle.
Prior to the induction ceremony, Collins, who was born in England, immigrated to Canada as a child and later moved with his family to the Philadelphia area, recalled being introduced to the fight game by his father and grandfather, who were huge fans.
“Boxing is more a part of the culture in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States,” said Collins, who recalled his grandfather throwing a thin mattress over a clothesline and using it for a heavy bag. “You can get a feel for that every time they get a fighter who’s half-decent. The people just go bananas.”
During his acceptance speech, Collins noted that all life on Earth is “either prey or predators. Human beings are predators. That’s why we have survived as long as we have when other species died out. In order to survive we had to be tough. But we needed a way to express that in more civilized times. I believe that boxing is the most noble and wonderful way to express that side of us. It’s never going to die until human nature changes, and I don’t see any sign of that.”
Bowe, the two-time former heavyweight champion, grew up in the drug- and crime-infested section of Brooklyn, New York, known as Brownsville, the same neighborhood that spawned another heavyweight champ in Mike Tyson. The 1988 Olympic silver medalist in the super heavyweight division, Bowe got into scraps, plenty of them, but mostly with his brothers.
“Because of them, I had to fight for everything,” said Bowe, clearly in a jovial mood during his time at the podium. “I had to fight to go to school. I’d be getting ready to go and one of them had my socks on. Another had my underwear on. By the time I started boxing, I had fighting pretty much down pat.”
Mancini, a former WBA lightweight champion, said he got into boxing because his father, former lightweight contender Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini, had his own title dreams dashed when he was hit with shrapnel from a German mortar shell in the fall of 1944. Ray made it a mission to finish what his dad had started, and he did so while becoming one of the most exciting action fighters of the 1980s.
“Everything I am, everything I’ve ever been and everything I ever will be is because of two things: my family and my city of Youngstown, Ohio,” he said. “I am a product of that city. I love the people. They carried me a lot further than I wanted to go at times.”
Breaking with normal procedure, Mancini asked for and got permission to be introduced by his sons, Ray Jr. and Leonardo, instead of by IBHOF president Don Ackerman.
“I said I’d like my kids to speak for three to five minutes,” Mancini said. “They sad, `No, no, no. We got a guy who’s going to introduce you.’ Don Ackerman, you’re a lovely man, I’m sure. But I’ve known you for about 10 minutes. You had no shot at (introducing) me.”
Lampley has been the blow-by-blow voice of HBO Boxing since 1988, but when he was hired by ABC Sports in the 1970s, he was blocked from doing fights by Howard Cosell, who considered boxing to be his exclusive province. Eventually, Cosell decided to leave his ringside perch and Lampley got a chance to call a bout involving a young heavyweight phenom named Mike Tyson.
“I was introduced to boxing in December 1955 by my mother in Henderson, North Carolina,” Lampley recalled. “My father had died of cancer the preceding year. My mother took me to a Christmas party at a friend’s home. She marched me out of the living room down the hallway to the hostesses’ bedroom, turned on a black-and-white television set and told me, `Sit down. You’re going to watch the Friday Night Fights, Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Bobo Olson. This is what you and your father would be doing if he were still here.
“Don Dunphy called the fight. Robinson scored a knockout win. I was enthralled.”
For world-class referee Smoger, the father figure, in a manner of speaking, was former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, then the head of the New Jersey boxing commission, who gave him his first big break. Smoger took that opportunity and ran with it, cadging tips from such noted refs as Zack Clayton, Frank Cappuccino, Mills Lane and Joe Cortez.
Smoger, who is still active, is the most traveled and licensed referee ever, having worked fights in 36 foreign countries and 26 U.S. states, primarily on the East Coast.