The 28th annual Hall of Fame Induction Weekend at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY, wrapped up Sunday, June 11. I can’t say that everyone had a grand time because I wasn’t there — I’ve never been there – but I’ve yet to meet a boxing fan who went there and wasn’t keen to go back again.
That being said, the IBHOF adheres to certain practices that this reporter finds off-putting. Those practices have led to the enshrinement of some people with dubious credentials. Meanwhile, an egregious oversight gets more maddening with each passing year. These smudges have dampened my enthusiasm for making the pilgrimage to Canastota.
The inaugural Hall of Fame class, named in 1990, had 53 members. That was an unwieldy number, but IBHOF honcho Ed Brophy noted that boxing had been around for more than 100 years and the Hall had a lot of catching-up to do. This year’s class consisted of nine inductees. They fell into four categories: modern era boxers (Evander Holyfield, Marco Antonio Barrera, Johnny Tapia), old timers (Eddie Booker), non-participants (Jimmy Lennon Sr., Johnny Lewis, Jerry Roth), and observers (Barry Tompkins, Steve Farhood). A fifth category, pioneers, now appears on the ballot only once every five years.
The electorate consists of full members of the Boxing Writers Association of America (there are currently 85) and an international panel of unidentified boxing historians. Before the ballots are sent out, a separate panel sifts through the list of eligible candidates and winnows it down to a manageable pool of nominees.
In the modern boxer category, as it now stands, electors are allowed to vote for up to five candidates. Every year, regardless of the vote total, three will be selected. Likewise, voters can select up to five non-participants and up to five observers. Regardless of how the vote goes – and there is no minimum required — the Hall is committed to welcoming three new non-participants and two new observers each year. In the old-timer category, voters may list as many as three boxers, but only the top vote-getter gets in.
In the modern boxer category, a fighter must be retired for five years before he becomes eligible for induction. The problem here, obviously, is that in some years there are more than three worthy candidates and in other years the pickings are slim. With an inflexible number of entrants each year, one runs the risk of diluting the quality of the product by adding substandard components.
Several prominent boxing writers, including ESPN’s Dan Rafael and Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, have called for an overhaul of the selection process. Both favor the imposition of a threshold as is found in other sports. For example, in baseball a player eligible for the Hall of Fame must receive at least 75 percent of the vote to get in.
Insuring that no less than three boxers from the modern era go into the Hall each year was a prudent business decision. Induction Weekend is the signature event of a Hall that can’t survive on gate receipts and a gift shop alone. Induction Weekend reportedly draws as many people as will visit the Hall during all the other days of the year combined. Good turnouts are deemed essential to renewing the stipend that comes from the state treasury. Just imagine how dead the weekend would be if there were no recently retired boxers among the honorees. But while the IBHOF’s way of doing things is understandable, that doesn’t make it right.
Way back in February of 2008, Thomas Hauser took the IBHOF to task for “an unfortunate lack of transparency and the absence of accountability.” According to Hauser, the names that went on the various ballots were then chosen by a committee consisting of Brophy and three hand-picked consultants. As is true today, the final vote counts were kept secret. Considering these facts, it should come as no surprise that there have been murmurs that worthiness hasn’t always been the sole criterion in deciding which candidates get to pass “go.” Let’s be perfectly clear; no one is suggesting money under the table. However, there have been whispers that a tax-deductible contribution to the IBHOF above a certain amount will get a would-be inductee over the hump if he is looked upon as borderline.
In my humble opinion, the curious picks are clustered in the Non-Participant and Observer categories. There are currently 106 individuals enshrined in the Non-Participant category, defined as “those who have made contributions to the sport apart from roles as boxers and observers” (e.g. promoters, trainers, referees, matchmakers, administrators and press agents). The Observer category, a spin-off of the Non-Participant category, recognizes “print and media journalists, publishers, writers, historians, and artists.” It currently has 38 members.
And here is where we find the great oversight that I alluded to. I’m flabbergasted that the electorate (or is it the ballot-screeners?) has failed to recognize Ham Fisher.
Ham Fisher (1900-1955) created the comic strip boxer Joe Palooka. At its peak during the 1940s, the strip ran in more than 800 papers and had more than 50 million readers.
Humble, courageous, virtuous to a fault and completely without guile, Joe Palooka was a paragon of innocence in the Machiavellian world of prizefighting. While he was merely a character in the funny pages, a figment of one man’s imagination, one could argue that Joe Palooka was the greatest ambassador for boxing that the sport has ever known.
Like several other comic strip characters, Palooka was enlisted to fight the Nazis during World War II. In fact, he was the first comic strip hero to go off to war. His face on recruiting posters and his exploits in the comic strip were credited with stimulating enlistments and the sale of war bonds. It has been speculated that the term “GI Joe” originated with him.
Roping Ham Fisher into the Hall of Fame wouldn’t accomplish squat as far as attracting more bodies to Saratoga and that may have been true even if he were somehow still alive. Away from his drawing board, the man who made millions of people smile was an ill-humored man with very few friends.
Joe Palooka made Ham Fisher a very rich man. He derived royalties from 12 feature-length Joe Palooka films, a short-lived radio series, a short-lived TV sitcom, comic books, a board game, and sundry items for young boys such as the Joe Palooka metal lunchbox. But money didn’t buy happiness. Despondent over his declining health, Fisher committed suicide in 1955.
The comic strip continued on without him for 29 years. Joe Palooka wasn’t indomitable, but he outlived his creator by almost three decades.
It’s a fair guess that Sylvester Stallone was influenced — if only subliminally — by Ham Fisher. Joe Palooka, portrayed as the son of a coal miner, was a country boy whereas Rocky Balboa came from the mean streets of a big city, but otherwise the parallels are striking. Their imaginary ring battles were morality plays with stereotyped heroes and villains.
Sylvester Stallone was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observers category in 2011. Perhaps someday the IBHOF will see the light and put Ham Fisher in there too.
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I will certainly visit the IBHOF if I should find myself in the general area. I won’t make a special trip. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit where credit is due. What IBHOF guiding spirit Ed Brophy has accomplished is remarkable. Many promoters before him announced plans to build a freestanding building to house a Boxing Hall of Fame and Museum, but those plans never materialized. The well-intentioned couldn’t raise the capital and the fly-by-nights were just blowing smoke. Brophy pulled it off. Starting from scratch, he and his supporters purchased a 10-acre lot and erected a 2,000-square foot facility that has been expanded twice with a third expansion in the works.
Hall of Fame Induction Weekend is a community-wide, indeed regional jamboree. Reportedly 200 volunteers chip in to make the weekend a success, some building floats for the Parade of Champions, one of the highlights of the final day of the four-day event. A go-getter like Brophy doesn’t need a scribbler like me, a man with no first-hand familiarity with the IBHOF scene, to come along and find fault with his operation, but I just did and it is what it is.
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The International Boxing Hall of Fame is located at exit 34 of the New York State Thruway, approximately 20 minutes from Syracuse. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
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