THREE PUNCH COMBO — This was the fourth straight year my wife and I made the journey to Canastota, NY for Hall of Fame weekend. Each year I have had memorable experiences and this year was no different.
At the annual Boxing Hall of Fame weekend, you just never know who you will bump into. We were on the grounds early Friday and headed to Dunkin Donuts for coffee. It was early and we were the only people in the shop. Not more than a few sips into my coffee I saw Micky Ward walk through the door. I approached him after he placed his order and found him to be one of the most engaging boxers I ever met. He thanked me multiple times for being a fan and supporting his career.
Fans are drawn to Canastota each year for the opportunity to meet some of their favorite boxers and get their autograph. Boxers are usually more than accommodating in these requests. I wouldn’t be able to highlight everyone who I saw signing and doing photo ops but every year there is at least one boxer who stands out for going above and beyond. This year it was Shawn Porter.
Porter did a workout for fans on Friday and after the workout met with fans for autographs as well as photo opportunities. The line was incredibly long. Generally, someone will sign for around 30 minutes or so and eventually leave with a long line still in place. Being from Cleveland myself, I wanted to meet Porter but was at the end of the line. As I got closer, I saw Hall of Fame officials asking if he wanted to leave. His response was that he would not leave until everyone who wanted to see him got the opportunity. Porter was easily on the stage for well over an hour and, true to his word, did not step down until there was nobody left in line.
After spending all day Friday on the grounds listening to various ringside lectures from boxing personalities as well as viewing the annual fist casting ceremony, we returned Saturday for more ringside lectures. As the day ended, it was back to Dunkin Donuts to allow traffic to clear out before returning to the hotel in neighboring Syracuse. Sitting there drinking coffee, I saw someone approach the table next to us. It was Bert Cooper.
Cooper is an interesting guy to say the least. He told me of his past bad habits and how that affected him in some of his fights. One fight I specifically asked him about was his bout with Richie Melito. Cooper told me about how the inspectors approached him before the fight as there were rumors swirling that he was going to take a dive. He swore to me that was never the case and says to this day he does not know how that rumor started. With pride, he described the knockout of Melito and seemed to be very proud that he did win a belt that night.
As I was talking to Cooper, another familiar boxing face came and sat next to us. Usually I recognize faces involved in boxing but did not initially with this person. So I politely asked his name and he said Junior. Then it dawned on me, it was Junior Jones.
Jones was a personal favorite of mine from the 90’s and I had an extensive talk with him for more than an hour. He excitedly talked to me about his career and we discussed many specific fights. The Barrera fights came up and with much pride he described those wins. We also spoke about his victory against Orlando Canizales just prior to the Barrera fight. Jones had a ton of respect for Canizales and called him one of the smartest as well as toughest guys he ever faced. Jones stated the fight with Canizales was much tougher than either of his encounters with Barrera. We also talked in great detail about his fights with Kennedy McKinney and Tom Johnson. He has immense respect for both. Specifically, he talked a lot about his admiration for Johnson and that he wished boxing fans as well as writers would give Johnson more credit for what he accomplished in his career. The experience I had with Junior Jones at Dunkin Donuts was truly one of the most memorable of my life.
Hall of Fame Ringside Lectures
One of my favorite parts of Hall of Fame weekend are the various ringside lectures that take place on the Hall of Fame grounds on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The lectures never fail to bring out interesting stories as well as behind the scenes revelations. This year was no different. Here are some of my favorites from the many talks given this past weekend.
Teresa Tapia spoke candidly about her late husband Johnny’s career. One of the biggest revelations to me was when she talked about the Danny Romero fight. She stated that a month before the fight Johnny was in jail and she was watching Romero train vigorously on the news as her husband sat in jail. She estimated that Johnny trained about three weeks total for the fight which to me makes the performance he gave that night all the more remarkable.
John Stracey described in detail his trip to Mexico City to challenge the legendary Jose Napoles for Napoles’ WBC welterweight title in 1975. Stracey, who is from the UK, said the British newspapers decided not to send anyone to cover the fight, certain that he had no chance of victory. Stracey also described being in Napoles’ backyard for the fight and how the fans viewed him. On one occasion, he said someone came up to shake his hand and gripped him so hard that he soon realized that this person was trying to injure his hand. Stracey talked with pride about the bout, describing getting up from the canvas in the first round to defeat Napoles and take his belt in his country.
Jimmy Lennon Jr. told some very interesting stories about his father, Jimmy Lennon Sr. One was back at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. From time to time, noted Lennon Jr., riots broke out at these fight cards. He said one was so bad that it was on the verge of spilling into utter chaos. His dad knew he had to do something but didn’t know what to do. So he took the microphone and sang “Peg of My Heart.” Lennon Jr. stated the riot ceased as people focused in on his father’s singing. When his dad was asked later why he picked that particular song, he said it was the first one that came into his head.
Finally, Jessie James Leija had some interesting revelations about his career. First, he admitted to being totally drained prior to his first defense of his WBC super featherweight title against Gabriel Ruelas. Leija stated that in order to cut the weight he had to bring on noted nutritionist Mackie Shilstone. According to Leija, Shilstone warned him against trying to make 130 but Leija did not want to lose his title. Leija talked about the regimented diet that Shilstone put him on. It worked, he cut the weight, but was so drained that he couldn’t perform as he wanted and ultimately lost his belt to Ruelas. Also, Leija talked in detail about his upset win against Francisco Bojado in 2004. Leija admitted to being hurt to the body in that fight and stated that on a few occasions he was close to being put out. But he also believed in his strategy of taking Bojado deep into the fight and as the fight progressed he saw that the strategy was working which spurred him forward.
The ringside lectures during Hall of Fame weekend are something I look forward to every year.
The 2018 Hall of Fame Class
Each year, three boxers from the modern category are voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. This year’s class featured three fighters appearing on the ballot for the first time in Evander Holyfield, Johnny Tapia and Marco Antonio Barrera. Looking ahead to 2018, two boxers who will be appearing on the ballot for the first time are locks while the final spot will be up for considerable debate.
The two first-time-eligible fighters who are absolute locks are Vitali Klitschko and Erik Morales. Klitschko basically cleaned out the heavyweight division during his era with the exception of not facing his brother who was the other dominant heavyweight of the era. He holds dominant wins against the likes of Kirk Johnson, Corrie Sanders, Samuel Peter, Chris Arreola and Tomasz Adamek, among others. In the fights that he won, Klitschko basically won almost every round. In the two fights he lost, Klitschko won the majority of those rounds before succumbing to an injury in one bout and a bad cut in the other. Vitali lost only a handful of rounds during his entire career – a truly remarkable feat.
Similar to Klitschko, Morales has slam dunk credentials. He is a former multi-division world champion with wins against the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Marco Antonio Barrera, Daniel Zaragoza, Junior Jones, Wayne McCullough and many others. He was involved in multiple all-action fights and his trilogy against Barrera is one of the great trilogies in boxing history.
The third fighter to be voted into the Hall will be up for debate. The two most notable among the other new shooters are Ricky Hatton and Winky Wright. Each has impressive ring accomplishments, but to be voted in the first time eligible a fighter has to be truly special. Hatton will probably get more votes than Wright, but don’t expect either to get enshrined in 2018.
So the third will come from a long list of holdovers. In my opinion, the name that stands out the most is Vinny Pazienza. Pazienza was a multi-division world champion and has quite an impressive resume with wins against Greg Haugen, Gilbert Dele, Lloyd Honeyghan, Roberto Duran and Dana Rosenblatt. In addition, the comeback story in overcoming injuries sustained in a horrific car crash to win a world title is incredible. And Pazienza, similar to two other Hall of Famers in Arturo Gatti and Ray Mancini, was must-see television when he fought. Win or lose, Pazienza’s fights were often barnburners. Boxing is an entertainment sport and in the 80’s, 90’s as well as 2000’s Pazienza was one of the sport’s most entertaining fighters.
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The pilgrimage to Canastota is a worthwhile trip for me each year. I have never left Canastota without memories that will last a lifetime. If any boxing fan has never made the trip, I’d strongly suggest doing so at least once. I can guarantee it will be a memorable experience.
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