By Rob Kunz
The International Boxing Hall of Fame celebrated its 25th anniversary June 5-8 in Canastota, N.Y. The Boxing Hall of Fame opened in 1989, and celebrated its first class in 1990. That amazing first class included Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, Carmen Basilio, Joe Frazier, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, just to name a few.
There are three living members of that first class: Ali, Jake LaMotta and Bob Foster, but unfortunately, none of these three living members were in attendance for the 25th anniversary celebration. The new class of 2014 was fitting for a 25th anniversary celebration, with Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya and Joe Calzaghe highlighting one of the finest induction classes in recent years.
Beyond the new class of 2014, boxing fans were also able to attend a few nearby bouts promoted by Iron Mike Productions, be treated with a night of Puerto Rican champions and have a chance to meet a number of current and past champions.
Iron Mike Productions promoted a fight card for ESPN Friday Night Fights at nearby Turning Stone Casino featuring Iraq War veteran Sammy Vasquez Jr. against Jay Krupp, and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Yudel Johnson against former Mexican champion Norberto Gonzalez. Vasquez looked very good in his KO win to remain undefeated, and he was fun to watch. He is a fighter I would like to see again in the future, and maybe one to keep an eye on. Mike Tyson was more accessible at the fight events than he was during his 2011 Boxing Hall of Fame induction. Tyson participated in a question-and-answer session with Larry Holmes, helped moderate the pre-fight press conference, was part of the fighter weigh-ins and was ringside at their fight.
Some lucky fans were able to get a picture with Mike or obtain an autograph during these public events. I was able to get my first Tyson autograph in person. I had seen him in person many times and had mailed away to Collector’s Showcase of America and National shows in the past, but it was nice to finally have him sign something for me in person.
Sitting right next to Tyson at ringside for the fights was Oscar De La Hoya. In between the two co-main event boxing matches for ESPN, De La Hoya did a couple of interviews and signed for a few dozen fans. I also saw champions Andre Ward and Zab Judah walking around amongst the crowd at the fight. Neither Tyson nor Larry Homes participated in any of the Hall of Fame weekend events. I found this a bit surprising, being that it was the 25th anniversary and they were just a few miles away.
The Hall of Fame hosted a Puerto Rican champion night on Friday night before the induction. The Hall of Fame was able to gather five past Puerto Rican champions: Carlos DeLeon, Ivan Calderon, John John Molina, Wilfredo Vazquez and Juan LaPorte, as well as Hall of Famers Carlos Ortiz, Wilfredo Gomez and new inductee Felix Trinidad. You can find six of these fighters (DeLeon, Calderon, Vazquez, Ortiz, Gomez and Trinidad) on many lists for the Top 10 greatest fighters of all time from Puerto Rico. It would have been nice to have seen Miguel Cotto join this group, but his fight against Sergio Martinez at Madison Square Garden was just the next day (Saturday).
After the program, which featured fight clips and speeches, fans lined up to get autographs of these boxing greats. Those in the front of the line missed out on Trinidad (as he sat down late), while those who were later in line missed out on Wilfredo Gomez (who left the line after signing for a short time). About 50-60 of the guests were ultimately cut off in line, as time ran out.
As the years go by and some of the great Hall of Fame boxers have passed, there are fewer and fewer members returning each year. I remember the years of 15-20 returning Hall of Fame boxers each year, and I can only imagine what it was like in the very early years before I started going.
It is hard for me to hear people talking about Muhammad Ali just walking around Canastota that first induction year. The Hall of Fame has lost Emile Griffith, Ken Norton, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Carmen Basilio in the past two years. Luckily, the HOF has some consistent returnees in Aaron Pryor, Carlos Ortiz, Ruben Olivares and Pipino Cuevas, who also returned again this year. Only four other Hall of Fame boxers returned for the 25th anniversary: George Foreman, Michael Spinks, Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Wilfredo Gomez. Spinks came back in 2013 in what seemed like a long absence prior to last year. And I can only remember one year in the past 10-plus years seeing Qawi and Gomez return.
George Foreman had not been back since his induction in 2003. It was great to hear that Foreman was returning. One of my top items for the weekend was to have “Big George” Foreman sign my multi-signed boxing robe. Foreman did sign on a number of occasions; I was just never in the right place at the right time. One time he did grab my robe, but he had a blue Sharpie in his hand and would not change to the black Sharpie I had handed him. This has happened to me before with Troy Aikman. So I politely refused, and he did not bend in his insistence on not switching pens.
Maybe I am wrong, but I have more than 60 signatures on this robe, all in black, and with names like Tyson, Stallone, Frazier, LaMotta, Hearns, Hagler, Duran and Leonard; I just did not want to spoil its looks with one signature in blue. Besides, I assumed I would obtain the signature at a later time in the weekend since it was only Friday. Well, that never happened. I had purchased tickets for the three main events on Saturday – the golf tournament, cocktail hour and the banquet – so I thought I would be in good shape at least at one of these events. However, Foreman only attended the banquet and shockingly stood up and left after only signing one or two autographs.
But the entire signature process at the banquet is quite a mess, and it’s amazing that no one gets hurt. All the Hall of Famers and guests (40-45 total) all sit along a long head table that is raised on a stage. Autographs are only allowed after the dinner and program ends. So hundreds of people (and I mean hundreds) rush the stage and pile to the head table. Within seconds, the crowd is six-to-seven people deep in front of the biggest names in attendance. Fans are pushed and crushed against the head table and stage, and when people get their autograph, there is no place to move to get out of this mess. I have seen this process be bad for Lennox Lewis and Sly Stallone in past years, but this year seemed worse than ever. Looking at all the tables in the room and the rush to the front, I think there were 500 more people attending than in other years.
The Boxing Hall of Fame does a great job each year bringing some current and retired boxing greats to the weekend events. No other major sport brings in a consistent quality group of the stars of the sport for an induction weekend. This year, current super middleweight champion and 2012 Fighter of the Year Andre Ward, four-division champion and future Hall of Famer Erik Morales and 2004 Fighter of the Year Glen Johnson highlighted those making the trip to Canastota. Also in attendance were heavyweights George Chuvalo, Gerry Cooney, Leon Spinks and John Ruiz. There was a film connection with three of the boxing guests: Million Dollar Baby’s Lucia Rijker, Goodfellas’ Vito Antuofermo and The Fighter’s Micky Ward.
Of all these guests, a fan favorite was certainly Andre Ward. He was great with fans, and he took a lot of time talking to fans, taking pictures and signing autographs. On Saturday morning, he took 15 minutes and just stopped and talked about the boxing and the nature of finding and signing his next opponent. At the Saturday night cocktail party, he took much of the attention of the crowd, as many of the premiere guests like De La Hoya, Trinidad and Foreman were no-shows.
Class of 2014
Certainly the main attraction of the weekend was the Class of 2014. Three great boxers were inducted in Felix Trinidad (42-3), Oscar De La Hoya (39-6) and Joe Calzaghe (46-0).
Trinidad was a three-division world champion, capturing titles at welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight. He holds the record for most welterweight title defenses with 15. Trinidad holds victories over Hector Camacho, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, Fernando Vargas and William Joppy. Prior to his short-lived first retirement in 2002, his only loss was to Bernard Hopkins.
Like Trinidad, who was already a champion at age 20, De La Hoya won more than 200 amateur bouts, won the U.S. National Championship at age 17, an Olympic Gold medal at age 19 and also won his first professional championship at age 20. De La Hoya would defeat 17 world champions and win 10 championship titles in six weight classes. He is said to have generated more money from his fights than any other boxer in the history of the sport. He is now active with Golden Boy Promotions, the promotional company he founded.
Calzaghe would retire undefeated, with 46 career wins, and regarded as one of the best British boxers of all time. Despite his unbeaten record, he might not have been as highly regarded early in his career, as the majority of his fights were in Europe. Not until very late in his career did he venture to the U.S. for two bouts. Those two fights were big wins over Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. Calzaghe also had career wins against Jeff Lacey and Mikkel Kessler.
These three boxers were great with the fans. And they spent a lot of time around the Hall of Fame grounds posing for pictures and signing autographs. It was hard to find a time when Trinidad and De La Hoya did not have big smiles, and both were very charismatic figures. Their popularity did bring bigger-than-normal crowds to the opening ceremony and to the fist casting. These three really did try to make sure as many fans as possible went home with the memory of a picture or autograph.
The Hall of Fame class also included British boxing promoter Barry Hearn; 50-year journalist Graham Houston; referee (of more than 170 title bouts) Richard Steele; and longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer. Leifer, while famous for his work with Ali, has landed on more than 200 magazine covers and published 16 books. My personal favorite photo of his is the 1968 image of Packers Jerry Kramer carrying Vince Lombardi off the field after Super Bowl II.
The Hall of Fame is still working on funding for an expansion. It was nice to see that both Andre Ward and Oscar De La Hoya each donated $50,000 for this expansion effort. As I witnessed over the entire weekend, both are class acts. Hopefully Trinidad, Calzaghe and De La Hoya plan on making many future trips to the Hall of Fame.
Rob Kunz is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.