Vic DeJohn got the thrill of a lifetime when chauffeuring Mike Tyson to the International Boxing Hall of Fame inductions in Canastota, N.Y., in early June.
Just meeting the former undisputed and youngest heavyweight champ ever was an exciting adventure.
Then Iron Mike did the unexpected – nothing new there – by offering to autograph DeJohn’s giant gold boxing glove that already bore the signatures of more than 400 fighting legends.
“I was telling him about my glove, how Sandy Saddler (two-time world featherweight champion, 1944-56) signed his name Sandy Sadder. When I got his stuff out of the trunk, I showed Mike the glove. He said, ‘Wow, look at all these champions! Give me your pen.’
“He volunteered to sign it,” DeJohn said. “I didn’t even have to ask him.”
That was just one of the many magical fleeting moments boxing fans from New Mexico to England enjoyed June 10-12 during festivities at the sport’s upstate New York shrine near Syracuse.
This year’s Hall of Fame class, in addition to Tyson, featured Rocky movies film star Sylvester Stallone, three division world champion Julio Cesar Chavez (Mexico), junior welterweight champ Kostya Tszyu (Australia), trainer Nacho Beristain (Mexico) and referee Joe Cortez, who worked countless title bouts, including Tyson-Holmes in January 1988.
Thanks to Tyson’s and Stallone’s star power, crowds were several times larger than anything the Hall of Fame has previously seen.
For boxing memorabilia collectors, it was paradise, topped off by Saturday’s autograph and card show that had dozens of vendors from across the country.
“I’ve been to every one of these shows since it started,” said Don Scott of Texas. “This has got to be two to three times the crowd of last year.”
“Tyson,” he said, without hesitation. “Absolutely. You had to see Friday’s fist-casting (the Hall of Fame has a replica of each boxer’s fist) to understand what a draw he was. It looked like the mob was going to turn on him for autographs. They put him on one of those little golf carts with security people all around him. It was like President Obama had shown up. Pretty crazy.”
Throughout the weekend, at several different appearances, Tyson was gracious to everyone involved. During a Banquet of Champions with nearly 1,500 people on hand, he recounted how his manager and legal guardian, the late Cus D’Amato, put him on a path to becoming world heavyweight champ. It was a difficult road, from the mean streets of Brooklyn (“I was always robbing people as a kid,” Tyson recounted.) to an upstate boys’ detention center to D’Amato’s gym in Catskill, N.Y., where history was made.
“Cus used to ask me, ‘Can you handle the assignments I’m putting in front of you?’ ” Tyson recalled. “I said, ‘Sure I can.’ I didn’t want him to think I was afraid. I wanted him to think I was tough. When I met Cus D’Amato, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
For all that’s happened to him since then, both inside and outside the ropes, Iron Mike still has an amazing appeal to fight fans, especially collectors. Vendors sold all kinds of Tyson-related items such as playing cards, posters, autographed gloves, photos and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings.
Amazingly, the former champ even rode in Sunday’s parade, sitting in the back of an open-top convertible, cradling his young daughter, while admirers pressed in from every side.
When Tyson wasn’t present, fans were dazzled by dozens of other boxing greats, including former heavyweight champs Ken Norton and Leon Spinks; George Chuvalo, who fought Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and held the Canadian heavyweight title for 21 years; Hall of Fame trainers Angelo Dundee and Lou Duva; past title holders Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta, Gene Fullmer, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Livingstone Bramble and Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor; along with “Irish” Micky Ward and his half-brother Dicky Eglund, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, respectively, in the recent motion picture, The Fighter.
In a special treat for fans, everyone was given a chance to hold and have their picture taken with a beautiful aqua-colored, commemorative WBC championship belt that includes photos of the newest Hall of Famers.
Renowned boxing historian/author Burt Sugar entertained crowds with humorous anecdotes and a flashy wardrobe (green pajama-style pants dotted with tiny red lobsters).
During a panel discussion about the state of boxing today, he also gave a brief commentary about mixed martial arts.
“I don’t think it’s hurt boxing,” he said. “It’s built its own audience. Mixed martial arts isn’t a sport. It’s a bar fight. Mixed martial arts is a ‘Frankensport.’ Maybe it’ll have the shelf life of demolition derby.”
He was joined during the session by Chuvalo, Duva and WBC President Jose Sulaiman. The weekend brought together one of the most impressive assemblages of luminaries any one sport has to offer at a single gathering, ranking right up there with the Baseball Hall of Fame inductions held annually in Cooperstown, only 70 miles away.
For true ring fans, the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame, dedicated to the sport’s earliest warriors, is also in upstate New York near Buffalo.
“It’s housed in the original barns that John L. Sullivan trained in for the last bare knuckle heavyweight title fight against Jake Kilrain, in 1889,” owner Scott Burt said. “The doors were literally locked up, and we unlocked them 100 years later. Sullivan’s equipment had been there. He was from Boston, but he went there – Belfast, N.Y. – to get away from the limelight.”
Sullivan won the fight in 75 rounds, two hours and 15 minutes, in 104-degree weather in Richburg, Miss. The Bare Knuckle Hall of Fame opened three years ago and had an impressive display at Saturday’s card show.
The Banquet of Champions included a live auction where one bidder paid $4,000 for a set of four boxing movie posters autographed by their respective stars: Cinderella Man (Russell Crowe), The Fighter (Wahlberg, Bale), Raging Bull (Robert DeNiro) and Rocky (Stallone). An Everlast robe with 33 champions’ autographs sold for $2,500.
The top price tag was the $7,000 paid for a set of seven boxing gloves, autographed by great rivals such as Leonard-Hearns and Jones-Trinidad.
Famed Showtime ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. entertained banquet-goers by introducing celebrity guests the same way he does before a fight: “In the red corner, wearing black trunks, undefeated and fighting out of Catskill, N.Y. – Iron Mike Tyyyyyyyyyyyyyson!!”
Stallone, after watching a big-screen Rocky film clip, lamented not saving at least one piece of movie memorabilia.
“I wish I had that sweatsuit back,” he quipped.
Turning serious, he told about the lessons boxing has taught him, even as an actor.
“Our life is a constant battle,” he said. “It’s not how hard you get hit. It’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Then, joking again, Stallone reflected about Rocky’s fate.
“I wrote the thing. How could I lose?” he said.
At Sunday’s induction, after receiving his 10-karat gold Hall of Fame ring, Stallone turned the crowd on by yelling one of his most famous Rocky lines: “Yo, Adrian!”
Celebrities kept fans in stitches throughout the weekend with a variety of verbal jabs, comic sparring and knockout humor.
It started with former world welterweight champ Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor telling how Alexis Arguello tagged him during their classic 1982 bout at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
“I saw the stars, I saw the sun, then I saw God,” he said, laughing.
Trainer Angelo Dundee matched that with funny tales of his own. For example, he was a technical adviser for the 2001 movie Ali, starring Will Smith, who got so cocky during filming that he wanted to fight James Toney, a real heavyweight who portrayed Joe Frazier.
“I can beat this guy,” Smith insisted.
“Please don’t try,” Dundee told him.
In the first Ali (Clay)-Liston fight, liniment somehow got in Ali’s eyes, blurring his vision. Debate still rages about whether Liston did it intentionally.
“He couldn’t see,” Dundee said.
Struggling back to the corner, Ali needed a break, so he told Dundee, “Cut the gloves.”
There wasn’t time, though, so Dundee did the next best thing.
“When the bell rang I yelled, ‘Run!’ ”
Sugar said of one fighter, “He speaks seven languages and got hit in every one of them.”
Chuvalo got a rise out of fans when telling about his payday against Ali – $25,000.
“I got half,” he chuckled. “After taxes it was $9,000, something like $700 per round . . . and I got Canadian money!”
Chuvalo took on all the great heavyweights of his time – Ali twice, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson – and was never knocked down during a 93-fight pro career.
“I kissed a few girls, but never kissed the canvas,” he said, smiling.
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.