CANASTOTA, N.Y. – It’s always a numbers game in boxing, whether the game is being played in corporate boardrooms or inside the ropes.
Sunday’s 25th annual International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend might have been its biggest yet, with large crowds of enthusiastic and very vocal fight fans having made the pilgrimage to this picturesque central New York village for the four-day smorgasbord of boxing-related activities and to witness the installation of a seven-member class of living enshrines that was headed by former world champions Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Joe Calzaghe. Although no attendance figures were immediately available, it appeared to at least one veteran observer – that would be me – that the turnout might surpass the star-studded Class of 2011, which included Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Kostya Tszyu and Sylvester Stallone, the movies’ Rocky Balboa who was inducted in the Observer category.
“Wow,” Canastota mayor Carla DeShaw said as she peered out at the throng of fans who filled nearly every inch of space near the stage where De La Hoya, Trinidad, Calzaghe, British promoter Barry Hearn, referee Richard Steele, photographer Neil Leifer and journalist Graham Houston were seated, along with a host of IBHOF alumni and other notables. “Every year it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”
In the not-too-distant future, that very well is likely to be the case. The IBHOF, which opened in a modest building in 1989 with no guarantee that it would long endure, has become to boxing what nearby Cooperstown, N.Y., is to baseball. An ambitious fund-raising effort is underway to enhance and enlarge the facilities, with the State of New York on board to provide $1 for every $2 raised by the IBHOF.
That expansion got a boost Saturday night at the “Night of Champions Banquet” in Syracuse, which drew a well-heeled crowd of about 1,500. De La Hoya pledged $50,000 to the fund-raising effort, which was followed by another pledge of $50,000 from WBA super middleweight champion Andre Ward, who also ponied up $3,200 for a Muhammad Ali-autographed boxing glove, one of the many collectibles that were being auctioned off.
Once enough money is raised and the expansion completed, the museum – which is only able to publicly display a limited portion of its many historical artifacts – will be able to bring more good stuff out of storage.
But that is another matter for another day. What mattered more on this weekend is that a new group of boxing standouts got to experience what has evolved into the ultimate certification of greatness in a sport rooted more deeply in blood, sweat and sometimes tears than any other.
“The Hall of Fame was something I always talked about as a kid,” Ward said Saturday night of his first trip to Canastota. “I’m like a kid in a candy store right now, being here with these legends. Hopefully, I can be inducted in that new building.”
The remarkable female boxer, Lucia Rijker, expressed the same sentiments of her first trip to Canastota. She had turned down an invitation in 2013, believing it to be not that big a deal and, besides, she was busy training a protégé for an upcoming bout.
“I had no idea what it was like to be here, to tell you the truth,” said the “Dutch Destroyer,” who also gave the impression of being a kid in the proverbial candy store.
Canastota and the small army of IBHOF volunteers tend to have that effect not only on celebrity guests, but on everyone else, making them feel like the most important people in the world. Consider these comments from previous Hall of Fame inductees:
“I always wanted to go into the Hall of Fame,” former WBA bantamweight champion Jeff Chandler said upon learning of his election in 2000. “What fighter wouldn’t want that? But you never know if your career is quite good enough. I hoped mine would be, but you can’t know for sure until you get that call.”
Former three-division world champ Pernell Whitaker, at his 2007 induction, opined that “these last four days have been the best four days of my life. I may not be a resident of Canastota physically, but I will always be a resident of Canastota, spiritually, forever.”
Induction into the IBHOF doesn’t happen easily, nor should it, as longtime heavyweight champion Larry Holmes said during his big moment in 2008. Wiping away tears, he said, “I don’t want them to put me in the Hall of Fame because they like me. I want them to put me in because I earned it.”
Living inductees Hearn, Steele, Leifer and Houston earned their induction. Hearn promoted his first major fight – Frank Bruno vs. Joe Bugner – in 1987, and it had an attendance of 35,000. “I was hooked,” he said of his decision to continue to seek the high that comes with promoting major boxing events that find a large enough audience. “You know, I dreamed of becoming a boxer. One problem: I couldn’t fight.”
Steele, who was a two-time All-Marine champion as a 172-pounder, could fight, although he found his calling later on as an elite referee who served as the third man in the ring for 167 world championship bouts. He said he found his way into boxing as a 12-year-old who got into too many street fights.
“This is my friend, Richard. He likes to fight,” a classmate, Albert Wright, said in introducing Steele to his father, who just happened to be Chalky Wright. The elder Wright – a featherweight whose pro career spanned from 1928 to ’48 and in 2003 was listed by The Ring magazine as one of the 100 hardest punchers of all time -- in turn introduced Steele to Sugar Ray Robinson, and later to Joe Louis.
“I met Sugar Ray Robinson. I met Joe Louis,” a seemingly still-incredulous Steele, who wore a tuxedo to the induction, said of his early brush with two of the greatest fighters ever to lace up padded gloves. “I said to myself, `Man, I’m going to the gym.’”
Leifer snapped maybe the most iconic boxing photo of all time, with a defiant Cassius Clay – he would change his name to Muhammad Ali the following day – standing over the fallen Sonny Liston in their May 25, 1965, rematch in Lewiston, Maine. Leifer, though, said he considered his best photo to be an overhead shot of Ali celebrating after his third-round stoppage of Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams at the Astrodome in Houston on Nov. 14, 1966.
“I love photographing boxing,” said Leifer, who said a big reason for that is Ali. “Nobody ever had a better subject than Muhammad Ali. He loved the camera. There’s no way I would be standing here had not Ali taken me along for the greatest ride of my life.”
But, as deserving as Hearn, Steele, Leifer and Houston are, the stars of the show Sunday were Calzaghe and, to a far greater extent, De La Hoya and Trinidad, who squared off in a welterweight unification bout on Sept. 18, 1999, that was widely regarded as that era’s equivalent of the first Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns megafight.
Nearly 15 years later, they are now less rivals than good friends united in the knowledge that they were part of something special enough that they’re destined to march into history together.
That Sept. 18, 1999, showdown at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, was somewhat controversial as Trinidad won a 12-round majority decision in large part because De La Hoya, who thought he was comfortably ahead on points, elected to play keepaway in the last three rounds. It proved a strategic blunder as Trinidad won on two official scorecards by respective margins of 115-113 and 115-114, with the third judge seeing the fight as a 114-114 standoff.
De La Hoya was stunned at the time, saying, “I thought I had it in the bag. I really, really did.” Asked why he declined to engage Trinidad in the slugfest he had vowed, De La Hoya said it was because he believed that outboxing the Puerto Rican national hero was his best course of action.
“Some people didn’t appreciate my boxing talent,” he said. “I just wanted to box. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to give him a boxing lesson.”
Sneered Trinidad: “Oscar is very quick, very fast with his hands. But he showed me that the nickname that the whole world had put on him, `Chicken De La Hoya,’ is true.”
Truth be told, it was only one boxing writer who had slapped that unkind and erroneous label on De La Hoya. A rematch seemingly was in order, but it never happened for whatever reason. And now?
De La Hoya and Trinidad spent four days hugging and laughing whenever their paths crossed, their differences clearly put aside, although Oscar making a joking reference to what was once a testy situation in his acceptance speech.
“Some called it the `Fight of the Millenium,’” he said of that fateful night in 1999. “He was undefeated; I was undefeated. The Mandalay Bay was packed. And you know what?”
Dramatic pause …
“Never mind,” he said, smiling, as the big crowd howled with laughter.
Two persons on the dais who didn’t smile at one another or exchange hugs were Bob Arum, who promoted De La Hoya for that 1999 fight, and Don King, who promoted Trinidad. They didn’t like each other much then, nor do they now, it would appear. But De La Hoya, still the president of Golden Boy Promotions, apparently is willing to let bygones be bygones with Top Rank founder Arum, signaling an end to the latest boxing Cold War, or at least a variation thereof. In the official program for the induction, a full-page Top Rank ad read “Congratulations to our Champion, Oscar De La Hoya.”
One person who quite noticeably was not mentioned was Golden Boy’s now-former CEO, Richard Schaefer, who also apparently is now De La Hoya’s former friend. Schaefer announced his resignation from GBP less than a week before Hall of Fame weekend, the timing of which can only be described as curious.
“We must put aside the evils that have damaged our brand and sullied our reputation,” Oscar said of the infighting that frequently creates chasms between promotional entities. “We, the promoters, must stop carrying grudges that serve no purpose but to divide our sport.
“You have my pledge that from this moment forward, Golden Boy Promotions will double-down on the very simple concept that we strive to achieve every single day – putting on the best fights for the best fans in the world.”
For a lot of spectators who had a vested rooting interest in De La Hoya-Trinidad in 1999 – the pro-Tito contingent seemed especially large and boisterous – that is a sentiment that should meet with approval from every constituency.