It was everything I had hoped it
would be and so much more.
The long and painfully drawn out
flight from New Zealand is a necessary though tedious journey, and after a 10
hour stopover in Los Angeles (relieved only by some fine and hearty Mexican
cuisine washed down with a few ice cold Coronas), followed by a rather pointless
3 hours in Chicago spent shuffling aimlessly around O’Hare airport terminal, I’m
becoming more anxious by the minute to finally touch down at Syracuse where we
can settle into our hotel room, grab a few hours of much needed sleep (how
anyone actually sleeps on airplanes is beyond my comprehension) and dream of
what lies ahead at Canastota.
I don’t think I’m prepared for
the 90 degree hot and humid sun drenched morning that follows our first night at
the hotel in Syracuse – but what a glorious morning it is.
On entering the museum grounds
on Friday morning (yes, I missed the opening day as we were both ‘dog tired’
from the long flight!) I notice a small group of excited fans congregating near
the museum. I look up to see none other than ‘Rock-a-bye’ Reuben Olivares
signing t-shirts and other assorted memorabilia.
Who’s that? says Melissa.
I’m quite sure there really
isn’t any time to be lost in explaining how Olivares is regarded by many as one
of the most devastating punchers ever to grace the bantamweight ranks, so I
quickly purchase a t-shirt depicting an old Boxing Illustrated Olivares front
cover, dig out the trusty black sharpie and next thing I know I’ve got my first
signing of the weekend.
He then motions for me to stand
next to him, ‘Mano e Mano’.
I would have dozens of pics
taken over the remainder of the weekend, but for some reason it remains my
favorite, and I’m very proud to say that my humble bid for the signed portrait
of a young Olivares that was auctioned off over the course of the weekend, along
with many other items in the main pavilion, is enough to secure it.
“Muchos Gracias Senor Olivares”
The humidity continues to rise
as we make our way into the museum.
I feel like the proverbial ‘kid
in a candy store’ when I feast my eyes on all the exquisite boxing memorabilia
from yesteryear, and as have countless others who have visited the hallowed
halls of the IBHOF museum, I stand next to the colorful robes that have adorned
such luminaries as Kid Gavilan, Marvin Hagler, Reuben Olivares and many others
and have my picture taken.
The diversity of fist shapes and
sizes fascinates me, as I closely study all the inductees casts made since the
inaugural induction weekend of 1990. Clearly the size of a fighters hands has
very little, or even no bearing whatsoever on his ability to render an opponent
After purchasing some IBHOF
souvenir merchandise from the pavilion we drift outside to view the Oscar Diaz
exhibition and take in the sights around the grounds.
I glance over toward the
entranceway to see another small crowd beginning to gather.
It’s Alexis Arguello arriving
on the grounds
Moving closer, I realize that
he’s standing motionless in the blazing heat, talking hurriedly in Spanish to
someone on his mobile phone, while the crowd around him grows larger by the
second. Occasionally he looks up and glances quickly around the faces standing
in front of him
I swear I hear him mention
‘J-Lo’ and detect a glint in his eye, between bursts of his clipped though
beautifully lyrical Spanish. He remains there speaking on his phone for a couple
of minutes while everyone stands riveted in front of him, waiting for the
conversation to conclude.
No sooner is his phone snapped
shut, when pictures, gloves, caps and some even larger items of boxing
memorabilia are extended in his direction and he begins to oblige the excited
A watchful security person
interjects several times, pleading with him; “please move into the shade
Alexis, it is very hot !”
There isn’t much chance of him
moving though, and he greets everyone with his own unique brand of courtesy and
charm. In a few minutes I have my cap signed and it’s off to Grazianos for some
much needed sustenance.
It’s Friday night back at the
hotel, and Melissa wants to check out the Turning Stone Casino.
“Why don’t you go to Graziano’s
by yourself, she says.
“You’ll probably have fun”.
As per usual, she isn’t wrong.
I slide out of the cab to see
Bert Sugar standing just outside the main entrance to the bar. He looks just
like he does on all of those documentaries and ESPN boxing shows – the dandy
mobster attire complete with Cuban cigar protruding from his mouth.
It’s a little after 9pm and the
place is absolutely pumping.
I can sense a certain
electricity in the air as I push my way up to the bar for my first Budweiser of
Lionel Ritchie’s “All night
Long” is blasting out of the speakers across the room.
While hoping to catch the
barmaid’s eye for a drink, I turn around to see Ken Buchanan standing directly
“Hey they’re singing about me”
he quips in his distinctive Scottish twang.
Back outside the bar entrance I
notice a car pull up and out falls “Sweet Pea”. He seems to slowly survey the
area and mood outside, before slowly ambling over toward the small crowd
Someone greets him warmly and I
realize that he appears to be on some other planet tonight, though im not
altogether sure what substance has precipitated his demeanor.
He turns to me and I extend my
hand saying “the sweetest southpaw of all”…. a small smile creeps across his
face as he reply’s
“I knowwwww !
I tell him ive come a long way
to be here, all the way from New Zealand to be precise.
What follows is pure improvised
theatre, the kind of magic that made Whitaker something special to the sweet
science, and something that is so spontaneous and entertaining.
He begins to dip down low, his
now slightly heavier frame sliding and twisting like quicksand. His head is now
positioned slightly below my waist level as he sinks even lower toward the
ground, though still with the agility and balance of a Caribbean limbo dancer.
He momentarily sways to and fro in the soft light beneath the awning.
“So you from down-under? ….Hey
I’m from down under too, and YOU cant hit me….”
He looks up toward me with an
impish grin, he shimmys and sways…turns this way then that…. still no more than
3 ft above the ground.
“I’m STILL down-under…
He now begins to laugh softly to
himself, as do most of the incredulous onlookers. This is HIS show and he knows
it…. more laughter begins to fill the tepid evening air as he slowly returns to
an upright position.
I can barely believe the theatre
of what has just taken place and im somewhat speechless.
He asks someone for a cigarette
and begins rambling into a semi drunken monologue.
People from inside now realize
he’s here, and several fans emerge from the bar armed with the usual assortment
of photos and other mementoes in the hope of a signing…. I can sense a change in
his mood as he eyes some of them with consternation…even a slight
“Oh No! ….No No NO” he responds
to one photo pushed toward him.
I can sense that it’s a game he
sometimes like to play with fans…. I can see him turning into some kind of
pugilistic prima donna before my eyes…. it seems to be at polar ends to what I
had just witnessed a few moments before.
The man with the photo seems
deeply offended by Whitakers objections, and snatches the pen and photo out of
his surprisingly small hands.
“Hey if it’s a big deal to
YOU…don’t worry about it!”…. he blurts and walks forlornly back inside Grazianos.
Sweet Pea looks momentarily
He quietly ponders the
situation for a moment.
“You’ll be back” he calls after
Somehow, I doubt it.
The following morning we head
off to the card show at Canastota High, after our good friends from the UK –
Pete and Dave, whom we had met at our motel in Syracuse, kindly offer to drive
The amount and quality of the
memorabilia there is quite staggering, and I manage to swap an old photo of
‘Alabama Kid’ for a nice selection of Duran tickets – including the fights with
Benitez, Leonard, Hearns and Hagler (the latter I was informed, had come from
the private collection of the late Jim Jacobs).
I’m also fortunate enough to
purchase both gloves and trunks signed by ‘Manos De Piedra’ himself, and given
the fact i’m unlikely to get close enough to Duran over the course of the
weekend, I’m more than content to settle for these two precious items.
Although just in case, I also
find a nice copy of the Duran/Pazienza II programme.
A little later back at the IBHOF
grounds, i’m lucky enough to grab a nice pic with Raul Macias, perhaps one of
the most gracious fighters from the old school that I have ever had the pleasure
I only just manage to zap
Ricardo Lopez for a signing as he’s getting into a cart to head back to the
hotel for a rest, and like Macias, he makes it seem as though it’s me
doing him a favour by asking for his time.
Before heading back to the motel
in Syracuse to get spruced up for the banquet that evening, the inimitable
George Chuvalo entertains us all, with a little help from Bert ‘Sugar’, with his
stories and reminiscences of his colorful ring career. Now here’s a man who
fought the BEST of his era, and who can talk with such humour and eloquence
about it all – and you can still understand every word he says!
The two memorable events at the
banquet for me that night are Vinny Paz’ heartfelt speech (he returned to the
podium, after having forgotten to mention the main reason why he had attended)
and also my hilarious encounter with Carmen Basilio.
Near the conclusion of the
evening, I emerge from the bathroom only to see Basilio slowly making his way
toward the entrance. I quickly decide that it would indeed be an honor to hold
the door open for him as he approaches the doorway. He draws closer toward me,
and just as he shuffles up alongside, he flashes out his left hand and catches
me right under the nuts!
All I’ll add is this -
I’m glad I never caught one
flush on the jaw from him when he was at the height of his pugilistic prowess
fifty years ago!
Another highlight is Melissa
snapping a pic (purely by chance) of Alexis Arguello sparking up a cigarette
outside the main foyer! …
”You got me,” he says..
Last day, and I’m already
starting to feel a sense of gloom about having to leave Canastota. Anyone who
has ever attended an IBHOF induction weekend will no doubt have some sense of
what it means to be there, and it isn’t something that is easily translated to
I arrive in time to have a final
look around at some of the IBHOF merchandise and the fightphotos.com stand in
case I decide on a last minute purchase before I head off to find a good spot to
view the Parade of Champions.
I choose one of ‘Sweet Pea’ to
remember my encounter with him outside Graziano’s, and realize its just about
time for the parade to roll.
It’s a beautiful crystal clear
and warm Canastota morning, and as I approach a corner near the old church, for
some reason I start talking to a man and his female accomplice. We strike up
good thing and next thing you know we’re talking the fight game, and Jimi tells
me that he’s been to every Induction weekend since IBHOF begun, “only missed a
couple” he says proudly before introducing me to a friend who says he’s coming
to New Zealand later this year, and what places do I recommend him to visit.
And so we talk some more about
the fight game, and Jimi just loves a good ‘tear up’.
Just as he’s getting all wound
up about Hagler and Hearns, Mickey Ward and Gatti, Corrales and Castillo,
Barerra and Morales – we hear the first strains of the brass band approaching
I get most of the pics I wanted,
standing on that downtown Canastota corner in the sparkling heat of the morning.
I’m waiting for Ken Norton to round the corner, as I so want to hand him a photo
of a painted rock of his likeness from my local boxing club back home.
Jimi’s friend says he can help,
as he’s met Norton on several occasions. “I’ll help you get it to him, just wait
Sure enough- as the car carrying
the still impressive frame of Norton rounds our bend, he calls out loudly.
“Hey Ken, he wants to give ya a
As the car comes to a momentary
standstill, I walk out onto the road and offer the small framed photograph up to
Norton, who turns, stares impassively at me, and mutters :Thank You”.
We start ambling back toward the
Jimi tells me that soon all the
fighters will be entering the grounds again for the induction ceremony, and I’ll
have another chance for some more pics.
After what seems like an endless
delay, they all start drifting along the pathway toward the podium outside the
pavilion, and I spot Carlos Ortiz striking his best fighting pose for the
Despite the grey hairs and the
many years since he’s stepped through the ropes, he still makes an imposing
A couple of days earlier when he
had signed my cap, I remembered that back in the mid 70’s his management had
pushed for a shot at Duran’s lightweight crown, though for reasons known only to
the shady world of the ‘bahxin’ business’ the fight never eventuated.
“Maybe you’ll get your shot at
Duran after all” I joke.
“Yeah we’re currently in
negotiations,” he says laughing.
I expect Whitakers speech to be
interminably long and rambling, however Jose Suliaman grabs the spotlight when
his turn arrives, and most of us are shifting uncomfortably after 10 minutes of
his incessant banter. ‘Sweet Pea’ winds up the crowd by glancing at his watch
and suppressing a few yawns (evidently he’s booked to fly out of Syracuse at
6pm, and isn’t about to be upstaged by the WBC president for much longer)
His speech is, for something
that appears to be quite unrehearsed, a spellbinding tribute to the men who had
guided him through the amateur ranks into the world of the professional
prize-ring, culminating in several world titles and boxing’s coveted “Pound for
Pound’ number one status.
“Pound for Pound – You guys
Thank You, Thank You, THANK YOU”
he says with unsupressed gratitude.
I can feel my stomach crying out
for some much needed sustenance, so I drift back over the road to Graziano’s
Every available seat seems to be
“Come sit down out the back room
honey,” the waitress says, opening the sliding doors revealing the side area
where many of the fighters had gathered on Friday night for dinner and drinks.
No sooner had I ordered some
Lasagne and a cold Budweiser, when in strolls Marvin Hagler with his partner. I
see him quickly brush off a photo request with a little annoyance. “We wanna eat
just now, maybe a bit later”.
I say hello as he passes my
“How ya doin’ buddy” he replys,
making his way to a table by the far wall.
Despite being a little heavier
around the midriff, I estimate that he’s still only a 6-week training camp away
from making 160 pounds, and still carries himself with the air of a world
I wait for them to finish
eating and slide up to their table to introduce myself, feeling a little unsure
how this will turn out.
They seem happy to chat now the
busy weekend schedule has subsided, and I tell them that I had sent an email
through his website just before leaving New Zealand bound for Canastota.
“Nuuu Zeelan’ he slowly drawls.
Yeah I remember reading that
Yeah I read that one too,” she
And so we exchange a few words,
though I don’t want to outstay my welcome so tell then I’m going to head into
the bar and kick back with a beer or two.
”Yeah just relax man…..that’s
what I’m doin’ he says.
I give them my regards and
adjourn to the bar; it’s time for some liquid refreshment.
“Come inside and lets get some
pictures, Ken’s here too somewhere,” says Alan Minter.
I had seen him walking over
toward the entrance to Graziano’s with a friend and so I introduce myself, and
explain that I’ve just been talking with Hagler inside.
His expression changes somewhat
for an instant –
“Oh God, Haglers not still here
is he”, he inquires.
“No I saw him leave not too long
“Oh that’s alright then,” he
says, making his way inside.
Inside he motions to Ken
Buchanan, who is engrossed in conversation over by the bar, to come over and
take part in a quick impromptu photo shoot for me – I’m quite touched by his
warm and courteous manner, and for the next few minutes his friend clicks away
on the shutter for me. At one point Minter turns to me and assumes a fighting
pose – Now this is more like it – I do the same and dip at the knees, feinting a
quick left hook at his right side. For some reason, maybe it’s the Budweiser,
for a split second I’m tempted to pivot on my front foot and drive it toward his
unprotected liver. He senses this, and drops his right elbow in anticipation.
We all laugh in unison..
His English friend turns to me
“Alan’s a former undisputed
champion, You don’t get to meet many of those – not even ‘round here”
“And so he is” I reply.
And he still looks in great
My friend Dave from the UK, who
I met at our motel in Syracuse, and who’s been plonking a fresh bottle of
Budweiser in front of me every twenty minutes, has been to every induction
weekend since the beginning except the year his wife passed away, and is telling
me some great stories outside over a cigarette.
“Leon Spinks was here a couple
of years back”
“Yeah so I heard” I reply.
“Has he replaced his front teeth
yet? I ask
“Well yeah, he did for a while –
Used to get gold settings in them, but he gave up after a while”.
“Why’s that” I inquire
”All the hookers used to steal
them when he was asleep” he recalls dryly.
Back inside I’m overjoyed to
spot a couple of guys I had met on Friday night at the bar..
Jerry and Howard recognize me
straight away, and we’re off again.
Jerry, I don’t know his real
name – I call him Jerry coz he’s Irish (as in Jerry Cooney), and every word that
comes out of his mouth has me in howls of laughter.
Jerry informs me that his pal
got k.o’d by Howard Davis in one of his last amateur bouts – “But don’t mention
it to him” he warns, “he hates talking about it”
So I call his pal ‘Howard’, and
it seems to stick.
Jerry pulls out a card from his
pocketbook and hands it to me.
It says NYPD Lieutenants
“What is it?” I ask
“Well, if ya get pulled over on
the way to New York City, just show ‘em that” he says, taking another sip of
Around 9pm I see Carmen Basilio
stroll into the bar.
He signs a pair of miniature gloves for me, and I remind
him of the incident outside the bathroom at the banquet last night.
He looks up and glares sharply
“Do ya want me ta’ do it again”!
I finish up chatting with
Esteban Montanez, the son of posthumous inductee Pedro Montanez,’ who is propped
up alongside the bar.
.I ask him if he’s proud to be
here representing his late father.
“Yeah, I’m my fathers son,
y’know what I mean,
“I am my fathers son,” he slowly
He stares thoughtfully into his
glass for moment
“But I’m not the man that he
was” he murmers softly.
It’s getting late, and I’ve lost
count of the number of beers I’ve consumed.
I look across to where my
English friends had been sitting, but they seem to have disappeared.
Reuben’s portrait is still
perched on the seat just where I left him.
We both decide to call it a
The departing spirits at
Canastota have other places to be.
The following morning I leave
Canastota, and the words of Pernell Whitaker fill my head :
“I may not be a resident of
But I’ll always be a resident of
Canastota spiritually for eternity”