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The Gathering of Old Warriors
By Enrique Encinosa
It is our second pilgrimage to the far away land called upstate New York, where old warriors gather once a year to shake hands with mere mortals in a village called Canastota.
Erik, my oldest son -- at twenty-six more of a buddy -- and I have been here before, in this annual gathering of champions, contenders, boxing historians, collectors, plain fans and the voyeurs who merely come to gawk at the celebrities, to see the immortals in the flesh.
We check into a hotel in Syracuse where the mattresses have deep indentations, rent a car the color of a Mexican boxing glove and drive a half hour east towards the International Boxing Hall of Fame & Museum.
It's early Friday morning and Hank Kaplan, my great friend and grand guru of all pugilistic historians, greets us at the lobby of the Days Inn across the road from the IBHOF. Soon after we are allowed into the conference room that is being used as a private breakfast room for the champions and ring stars of yesteryear.
I meet Ken Buchanan and his demeanor impresses me. The former lightweight king, now in his fifties, looks like he could do a few rounds without breaking a sweat. We talk about boxing and Scottish politics, for the Tartan warrior is a true nationalist, fiercely proud of his wee bonnie Scotland.
I tell Buchanan that Frankie Otero, one of his old foes is one of my best friends and he smiles.
"Frankie was a very good boxer," he says, "and the first time I fought him he put up a good scrap and it went the distance. The second time I stopped him. He is a very nice fellow. How's he doing?"
"Very well. He owns a couple of properties and works as a real estate appraiser and broker."
I call Frankie on my cellular phone and the former lightweight contender, answers the phone in his townhouse in South Florida.
"I thought you went to the Hall of Fame," Frankie says, puzzled with the early morning call. "I did. I am. I have someone here that wants to fight you again." I pass the phone to Buchanan and the warriors chat. I look around the room and memories of growing up overwhelm me. Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers are sitting together in a corner, reliving old times. Bob Foster is pouring himself a coffee and George Benton and Arthur Mercante are swapping anecdotes.
I remember my teenage years, seeing Benton demolish Johnny Smith with body shots, Foster dropping Dick Tiger, and Lyle and Shavers in their bouts with Quarry and Ali.
Ernie Terrell walks into the room. I knew him thirty years ago when I was an amateur light heavyweight fighting out of Johnny Coulon's Gym in Chicago. We talk about the Chicago fight crowd. I ask him about Allan Thomas, whom I sparred with, and Ernie informs me that the former contender is employed as a correction officer in Cook County.
I hit it off with Matthew Saad Muhammad who has a charming smile and a mellow disposition. We discussed Marvin Johnson and Yaqui Lopez over pastries and juice.
Later that afternoon I visit the museum. There are statues of Canastota's most famous citizens, Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus. I have met Basilio before and the old onion farmer is one of my favorite champions of all time, for he was the embodiment of raw courage and willpower in the ring.
My son Erik reminds me of the time Howard Cosell interviewed Carmen before his fight with Robinson and the obnoxious one said -"Carmen, nine out of ten reporters pick Robinson to beat you. What do you have to say about that?"-And Basilio answered -"There's nine guys who are wrong."
The museum contains robes, photos, championship belts, memorabilia and a gift shop. Outside, the parking lot is packed and circus tents have been set up to house a gift shop, concession stands and a ring for exhibitions featuring Paul Spadafora and other young fighters.
We wander through the grounds while Lou Duva speaks to an audience of about fifty fans gathered in front of his stage. To the side of the stage several lines are forming as dozens of fans seek autographs from Ismael Laguna, Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor and Gene Fullmer. It makes me feel good to see how Pryor has rebounded from his years of drug abuse, but I am saddened by the sight of Laguna scribbling slowly, concentrating on forming the letters that spell out his name.
As we walk past clusters of fans, slices of fight chat envelop us.
"I saw Georgie Araujo fight twice."
"Walcott had this sneaky right hand that he threw right after inching forward so slightly you did not even notice."
"I saw Giardello and Rocky Rivero. That was some fight."
The concession stand features Carmen Basilio sausage sandwiches and the gift shop has some interesting shirts and jackets.
Tito Trinidad appears and he is mobbed. A fan stands next to me. He is wearing a cap with the Puerto Rican flag and a Trinidad T-Shirt with a second Puerto Rican flag.
"Not hard to tell where you are from," I say.
"I'm from Rhode Island," the man answers.
Collector par-excellence Dennis Nolan helps us locate CBZ Editor Mike De Lisa. Mike, a pioneer of cyber boxing magazines, is happily smoking a good cigar and drinking a beer at the edge of a parking lot across the street from the museum, accompanied by CBZ writer Dave Iamele and his girlfriend, Marianne. We chat about the CBZ, drink a couple of more beers, discuss records of old time contenders and spend a couple of hours telling outrageous anecdotes or discussing obscure fighters of long ago.
Later in the afternoon we head in my car to the Turning Stone Casino, to procure press credentials for the Laila Ali-Jacqui Frazier fight. In the pressroom I bump into Tom Archdeacon, one of the top sports writers in the nation. Tom started out with the Miami News in the early eighties and we rubbed elbows at title fights and small club shows building an eternal friendship.
I'm not a big supporter of women boxing. Nothing chauvinistic, it's just that very few of them can fight and their performance level is amateur at best. There are exceptions. I was impressed years ago when I saw Gabriela Casillas box an exhibition with Roberto Duran. Lucia Rijker is a capable fighter and Christy Martin has guts, but most women boxers fight.well, like girls.
Women's boxing has been marketing descendants of ex champions with shark-frenzy intensity, believing that royal names will give credibility to women's boxing.
Ingo's daughter fell by the wayside, looking clumsy. Freeda Foreman is embarrassing to watch and a woman fighter named Keisha Snow tried to con the fight crowd claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Sonny Liston.
Jacqui Frazier is a raw novice with some easy wins over totally unskilled opponents. At 39, her peak is not in the future. She is a lawyer by trade and a fighter.by just being a Frazier. Even daddy had to attend the academy of rope burns and plow through more than forty amateur fights before turning pro. Jacqui's whole experience is compressed into seven knockout wins over handpicked opponents.
Laila Ali has also piled up a nine fight undefeated streak against inept novices. Of all women fighters Ali stands out as the best marketed. A strikingly beautiful woman, she possesses a dose of her father's charm and wit. She has been taught to fight using jabs, straight right hands and with side to side movement. Against unskilled opponents she has looked flashy and the nostalgic have looked for a trace of her father's fluidity, but it is not so. She is also a novice.
If these were the daughters of a couple of club fighters the fight would yield pocket change. Talent is not the thing here, but the names of Frazier and Ali that sends shivers up the spines of those of us who lived in that time.
I attend the Laila-Jacqui fight because it is a happening, an event that has been marketed in pay-per-view as a family tradition, a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
The fight is held inside an arena with a capacity for eight thousand and by the time the main event comes on, over six thousand seats are occupied, but not all by paying customers. Almost four hundred of us have press passes. The Hall of Fame section has a couple of hundred complimentary tickets and then there are freebies for the local politicians, the tribal council and a few other celebrities, each with an entourage.
There is a touch of the Ali-Frazier extravaganza. The crowd includes dozens of champions and contenders, local politicians, a few extravagantly dressed denizens of the "demi-monde" and hundreds of fans of the fathers attired in fight motif T-shirts.
Mike, Dave, Marianne, Erik and I sit together. The undercard passes by slowly as we discuss boxing research and make plans to attend the boxing collector's show the following morning.
Then it begins. The crowd chants the names of Ali and Frazier and for a brief moment, glancing at the entourages, feeling the chant of the fight crowd it is a time warp, a heart string tug wishing one could turn back the clock.
The fight is entertaining but not to be mistaken with a classic. They go at each other with the gusto and skills seen in Golden Gloves novice finals. Jacqui stalks and throws roundhouses, telegraph hooks and lands a few good shots. Laila throws faster and moves more.
It is the first hard fight for both. Jackie tries with Frazier pride but the younger Laila wins by a fair margin, youth being served.
The ride back to our hotel seems long. The first day has been uplifting, exciting and emotionally draining. We sleep a few hours and head back to the hall of fame grounds.
The collector's show is held in the gymnasium of a junior high school, forty or fifty exhibitors peddling their wares. Rare and not so rare books, trunks and robes worn by champions, rare photographs, videos, toys and memorabilia are ready for the collectors. While the collectors shop around Sugar Ramos and Ruben Olivares sign autographs.
The hard core crowd gathers early. The first seventy or so who wait in line for the exhibit to open are not your average I'll-buy-a-T-shirt kind of people. No, these are the hard core, seeking a rare photo of Gunboat Smith, a first edition copy of "Roar of the Crowd," a seventy-year old ceramic decanter featuring John L. Sullivan. You get the picture and yeah, I'm one.
I do all my shopping in a half an hour, buying two Everlast Record Books (1926 and 1927), a bio on Jim Corbett, two books of fight stories by a couple of journalists, "The Saga of Sock" by Grombach, a yellowed paperback of Bill Stern boxing tales and a menu from Jack Dempsey's Restaurant. A worthy harvest.
By Saturday afternoon the museum grounds are packed with boxing fans, champions and media people. The fans are an interesting lot. There is a man from Wisconsin and his seventeen-year old son -an amateur middleweight- who drove eighteen hours to come to Canastota. An elegant man in a wheelchair made the pilgrimage from Argentina. There are some Japanese, a contingent of Canadians and a sprinkling of Europeans, with a lot of New Yorkers in the crowd.
Tony Sirico -- Paulie Walnuts from the HBO series "The Sopranos" -- is scheduled to be the Grand Marshall of the closing ceremonies. His appearance on Saturday afternoon was disappointing. He zipped in, zipped out, was surrounded by security, signed very few autographs and left in a blink.
We skip the banquet, take a breather in our hotel room in Syracuse and head back to Canastota.
Canastota is a village of three thousand with a great fight tradition. Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus became world champions, Dick Di Veronica was a world rated welter and other Canastota men carry scars over their eyebrows from many a prelim fight.
The village, however, has only two hotels a 60 room Day's Inn and Graziano's Italian Restaurant and Inn, both facilities being taken up by the hall of fame champions and exhibitors.
As a result, thousands of fans stay in Syracuse, Vernon Downs or at the Turning Stone Casino Hotel. As the official daily activities end, the fans head back to their lodgings and miss out on the best unofficial event of the festivities, hanging out at Graziano's.
After the banquet, late in the evening, Graziano's is packed with the fight crowd. Leon and Michael Spinks, Ken Norton, George Chuvalo, Bob Foster, Carmen Basilio, Dick Di Veronica, Jolting Jeff Chandler, Emile Griffith, Sugar Ramos and a dozen other ring lords mingle with the locals.
"This is this the wrong place to pick a fight," I tell Dick DiVeronica and the slugger smiles and nods his head in delight.
I tape a radio interview with my countryman, Sugar Ramos. He is fit and clear headed, full of a bubbling joy that is his trademark personality. For the last thirty years he has earned his living as a musician, playing nightclubs, restaurants, weddings and private parties all over Mexico with his own combo. His son, a lanky middleweight with a shy smile, accompanies the Sugar man.
"He's had three amateur fights," Ramos says, "and has won two. He's just starting out."
The crowd interacts. Ken Norton is too busy trying to score to sign autographs or chat with the fans. Iran Barkley is on the surly side while Michael Spinks is a total gentleman. Jolting Jeff Chandler has a little white goatee that makes him look older than he is, but he won't shave it.
"I earned every one of these gray hairs," he says, smiling.
I talk to George Chuvalo, who was one of my favorite fighters of the sixties. The Iron Man fought them all, never took a backward step and always gave fans their money's worth. He has dealt with personal tragedy with the great willpower he used in the ring. I find Chuvalo to be an articulate man with a pleasant personality.
The highlight of the night comes when I'm with Carmen Basilio. The old champ has a habit of playfully sucker punching people. Well, not punching, just tapping. Basilio will be talking to you, nod his head or make a face at an imaginary passer by and when you turn to look, he clocks you lightly and smiles. He's done it to my son once or twice in previous meetings.
I'm talking to Carmen and his eyes wander to the side and he nods his head. I turn my head but bring my hand up and block his shot. He is surprised, delighted and laughs. I anticipate a second shot and block that one also.
Still smiling he gives me a Joe Pesci type curse and I wink at him.
"Carmen," I say, "when I grow up I want to be just like you."
At three in the morning we leave Graziano's. We won't be staying for the closing ceremonies for I have a news radio show to prepare on Monday, but it 's okay. I have had enough boxing thrills pumped into me to last a full year, until the next pilgrimage to the faraway land called upstate New York.