Memories of Weekends Past
By Bruce Kielty
The experience of attending an induction weekend at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York should be on the bucket list of any true boxing aficionado. Unlike the NFL and MLB Hall of Fames, the atmosphere is looser, less rigid and normally includes some up close & personal moments with the boxing celebrities that we honor. IBHOF promoter Russell Peltz summed it up best in his moving 2004 induction speech when he admitted that when you pass through the Canastota toll booth off the New York Thruway, you are truly entering “Boxing Heaven.”
I first visited the Hall of Fame in the Fall of 1990, a few months after their inaugural induction. I guess that I was skeptical about the longevity of any operation located in the tiny hamlet of Canastota. After all, there had been a number of Boxing Hall of Fames come and go over the years. I am happy to say, looking back over 3 ½ decades that my skepticism was misplaced. My wife Janet and I make it a priority to attend every year. It is truly amazing how many long-term friendships that we have made over the decades, from all over the US and abroad. It is hard to make everyone happy (certainly I have scratched my head over a few of the inductees), but a little controversy is not always a bad thing. After all, controversy has fueled the sport of boxing from the bare knuckle warriors of yesteryear until Today. In short, I give Ed Brophy, Don Ackerman and their staff a tip of the hat for keeping it together all of these years.
I would like to share a few of the lighter moments that I have witnessed over the years. I hope that you enjoy reading about them as much as I am happy to recall them for you.
On June 7, 1991 the Hall of Fame hosted some wild exhibition “fights” between ring stars of the past at the Canastota High School. It was all in fun. The initial clash was Carlos Ortiz vs Billy Backus. The second bout of the evening featured a “rematch” between Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer, two of the roughest brawlers in history. Their match culminated when both Basilio and Fullmer “attacked” referee Frankie Adams and pounded him into submission. It was the final bout of the evening, however, that proved Murphy’s Law remains in effect. It featured 6’3” Bob Foster vs. 5’5” Ruben Olivares. Nothing bad could happen between two old vets going through the motions, right? Wrong. Giant Bob Foster twisted his ankle and hobbled around Canastota the rest of the weekend on crutches!
In 1992, we invited a retired Michigan business executive by the name of Larry Murray to accompany us to Canastota. Pittsburgh native Larry was a die-hard boxing fan and as a young man had taken a train to NYC to see the 1941 title bout between Joe Louis and his hometown favorite Billy Conn. Larry Murray had a certain dignified air about him and as he strolled through the memorabilia show, people somehow got the impression that he was one of the weekend boxing celebrities. Finally, he was approached by a fan for an autograph. Like most Irish rascals, he played along with the harmless con and signed “Stanley Ketchel.” Before he could escape his new admirers, he signed several more Ketchel autographs. Not one person questioned him! Today, they are probably being sold on eBay!
In 1991, the HOF offered a Sunday morning breakfast at the Canastota Fire Hall. I noticed that unofficial host Carmen Basilio was happily mixing with the diners. I sheepishly asked him if he would take a photo with me. Basilio looked me over from head to foot, then noticed my brunette wife, and said with a straight face, “I’ll take a photo with your wife…but not you.” He later relented, but it was my first taste of Carmen’s unique wit.
Former top-rated lightweight Kenny Lane joined our “entourage” at the Hall of Fame in 1992. He wanted to keep a low profile but we prodded him to reacquaint himself with his old foe Carlos Ortiz. Kenny was resistant, claiming that there had been some animosity between them during their series of fights and he didn’t want to rekindle old feuds. As the weekend neared an end, I spotted Carlos by the outdoor pavilion and pointed Lane out to him. Carlos’ face transformed into a wide smile. He approached Kenny and grasped him in a heartfelt hug of friendship. Carlos later confided to me that “you couldn’t hit Lane in the ass with a round of buckshot. Lane was soooo clever!”
Speaking of Ortiz, Carlos was one of the speakers prior to the 1992 inductions at the outdoor HOF pavilion. Ortiz was preceded at the podium by the popular USA Network’s Tuesday Night Fights TV commentator Sean O’Grady. The charismatic O’Grady entertained the crowd with a fairly lengthy oration. Finally, he turned the microphone over to Ortiz. Ortiz looked over the audience and deadpanned, “That, my friends, is why you never give a microphone to an Irishman!”
As many of you know, not all of the memorabilia wheeling and dealing is done in the cozy confines of the Canastota High School gym. Some of the most heated action (not that type of action!) took place in the motel rooms of Graziano’s. I will never forget the negotiating that I witnessed going on in the motel room of one “Philly Frank” McClain. All of the “heavyweight” collectors were in the room, eagerly going through massive piles of rare photos, posters and tickets. The highlight, however, was Frank’s bathtub. It was filled to the top with ice, beer cans and pop cans. Frank was truly the host with the most.
In 1994, the HOF was still looking for activities to keep the visitors interested and occupied. I suggested to Ed Brophy that I could provide heavyweight contender Buster Mathis Jr to box a 3-round exhibition on the grounds. He agreed so I called local New York heavyweight Joel Humm who readily consented to be Buster’s dance partner. In the makeshift dressing room, Humm had equipped himself with his mouthpiece, cup and headgear. When Joel noticed that Mathis wasn’t planning on wearing headgear, Joel removed his own. He explained, “I don’t want to go out in front of those people and look like some kind of wussy!”
Although I am rarely an early riser, Induction Weekend tends to amp up my adrenalin levels and I bounce out of bed early. My wife and I found a small diner located on a Canastota side street that looked like a postcard out of the 1950’s. The food was fine but the company was better. For several years, I would find Bert Sugar there alone in a booth, savoring a newspaper and an unlit cigar. We had something in common. Bert’s wife is from a town in West Michigan, where I reside. With Bert’s passing, I surely miss his jaded but always entertaining slants on boxing and on life itself.
At the 1999 Induction ceremony, Thailand’s jr. bantamweight superstar Khaosai Galaxy (49-1 career record) was summoned to the podium for his entrance into the hallowed halls of the IBHOF. Hall of Fame President Don Ackerman immediately appealed for a translator to assist. After a few uncomfortable moments with no one responding, Don asked if there was anyone in the audience who could translate the Thai language. Rotund Lou Duva immediately rose from his chair to the laughter of everyone in attendance. To the relief of everyone, the actual translator finally got the hint and performed as arranged.
Over the years, the IBHOF banquet has continued to grow, requiring a shift of venues to accommodate the crowds. There are so many boxing celebrities stretched out at the front table that it is a sight to behold. Time restraints demand that only a limited number of the boxing greats can address the crowd from the podium. I will never forget the performance of Gentleman Gerry Cooney one evening. He moved his massive frame up to the microphone, looked down at his notes and said “My name is Gerry and I’m an alcoholic…Oops…Sorry, wrong meeting.”
Another memorable quip from the annual IBHOF banquet came from the inimitable Carmen Basilio. After completing the lengthy walk to the podium, He stared down at the seated Master of Ceremonies Bert Sugar and sadly shook his head before saying, “Mr. Bert Sugar…the reason that it is now illegal for first cousins to marry.”
Without question, one of the real “characters” who migrate to Canastota each June, is Brooklynite boxing memorabilia collector Keith Stechman. With his bigger-than-life personality and zest for boxing, Keith is hard to miss. Prior to the 2005 induction weekend, there had been a rumor that 3-time Academy Award winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis would be making an appearance, in support of his UK friend and inductee Barry McGuigan of Belfast. For that reason, I had brought a full-size theatrical poster from Day-Lewis’ 1997 film “The Boxer.” I held out a faint hope that I could get the reclusive actor to sign it. To make a long story short, Day-Lewis did arrive via motorcycle in Canastota, but I was unable to make a connection. By Sunday morning, I explained my failure to Keith Stechman and offered to sell him the movie poster at a discounted price. He readily agreed and my wife and I headed back to Michigan. As fate would have it, we were barely through the New York Thruway toll booth when Day-Lewis appeared. Keith, ever the gentleman, promptly got the esteemed actor to affix his autograph. For that reason, every time that Keith sees me arrive in Canastota, he feels compelled to recount the story to his eager listeners.
In 2007, I was seated in a booth of a packed Graziano’s Restaurant & Lounge, when I noticed that popular boxing memorabilia collector Lou Manfra and his daughter were sitting in an adjoining booth with colorful Paulie Malignaggi. At the conclusion of the evening, I introduced myself to Paulie and confessed that until I had witnessed his brave stand against Miguel Cotto, I had considered him more flash than substance. I admitted that his gutsy effort against the power punches of Cotto had won me over as a fan. Paulie looked at me for minute and grinned, “I kinda grew on ya, huh?”
My final entry for this article also took place in Tony Graziano’s establishment, across from the Hall of Fame in 2008. My wife Janet and I were seated in a booth with former WBA Heavyweight Champ Ernie Terrell and his pal Jim Carlin. Ernie was obviously tired from a long day of fulfilling obligations at the HOF and surrounding community, and was even having trouble keeping his eyes open. He finally turned to Carlin and wearily asked, “Is this the place where I am supposed to sing tonight?” Fifteen minutes later, Ernie was called to the stage where he belted out the r&b standard “Mustang Sally” like he was still in his prime. When Ernie died a few years later, we lost a very good man.
(The author is a longtime matchmaker/booking agent based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and is an active boxing memorabilia collector.) Don’t forget the HOF weekend is June 8-11.