Each year since 1988 the little upstate New York town of Canastota hosts some of the very best of the sweet science for a weekend in June. Canastota, hometown of middleweight great Carmen Basilio and his nephew, former welterweight champ Billy Backus, has become the closest thing boxing has to a Mecca of all things fistic. On Sunday the International Boxing Hall Of Fame, or IBHOF, will induct former fighters: Daniel Zaragoza, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Carlos Palomino and Azumah Nelson. Also being inducted are non-combatants Referee Stanley Christoduoluo, writer W.C.Heinz and promoter Russell Peltz
Some of the events and functions that highlight the IBHOF weekend are sights and sounds that a boxing fan will experience nowhere else.
The weekend features open workouts with current fighters which are always thrilling and remind the crowd of just some of the physical challenges that go along with fighting professionally. This year Winky Wright and Antonio Tarver are expected to dazzle fans with some of the components of their training regimen which have brought each of them recent success. In past years, Jesse James Leija shadowboxed and punched the mitts for a large crowd, as did Christy Martin and Paulie Ayala.
Another element of the weekend is the very popular ringside lectures featuring the inductees in which IBHOF Exec. Director Ed Brophy poses questions to the guests before opening the discussion up to questions from the gathered fans. Last year Livingstone Bramble and Mike McCallum gave a provocative talk on training and how the sport has changed since their day. Fans also enjoyed the unseemly comedy duo of Bert Randolph Sugar and former heavyweight titlist Frank Bruno.
All inductees partake in the fist-casting ceremony in which a plaster mold of a fighter’s fist is taken and later put on display in the hall of fame museum.
On Friday night the Turning Stone Casino, just a few miles down I-90 from Canastota, host a live fight card. This year the headliner is Victoriano Sosa and ESPN2’s Brian Kenny will be here live speaking with the inductees.
An early morning 5k Fun Run, in which fighters and fans alike can participate, starts off each Saturday at the induction weekend. Last year Chris Byrd and Livingstone Bramble finished ahead of most of the other fighters who ran.
Later, the Canastota High School gym becomes a flea market of boxing memorabilia, filled with photos, books and assorted artifacts that would interest even the most casual fan of boxing. Last year this writer picked up a copy of a 1910 book entitled The Life and Battles of Jack Johnson which includes blow-by-blow accounts of some of the Galveston Giant’s epic bouts.
On Saturday evening there is a cocktail party for more autograph signing and schmoozing with the former champs, followed by a banquet at one of Canastota’s fine restaurants.
My brother, Doghouse photographer Brendon Pierpaoli, and I are here in Canastota for our third visit to the Hall of Fame. We come here for the induction weekend because we get to rub elbows with boxing greats and near-greats that are willing to sign autographs and share their stories with fans that’ve come from as far as Ireland or Australia.
One of my personal gods is Marvelous Marvin Hagler and, our first year here; the Marvelous One was kind enough to sign a Sports Illustrated which featured him on the cover from 1982. Hagler doesn't look like he's aged a day, and when he does the 5k run he still finishes with a respectable time for a man of fifty and when you meet the man up close you can see all the faded white scars along his brow from those numerous WAR-time injuries.
Here you can meet all-time Middleweight Great, Carmen Basilio, who has aged into a jolly and bawdy character that lights up a room with his presence; whether he is mugging for a fan’s photo souvenir or helping out at the concession stand serving the world famous sausage and peppers sandwich that bears his name.
That same jovial spirit of togetherness can be seen in once intimidating and dangerous fighters like Aaron Pryor, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Terrible Terry Norris, and Jeff Fenech; all repeat guests at IBHOF induction weekends.
The hall of fame museum itself is not an enormous building; but it is composed of three modest rooms that are filled with treasures and windows into the sport’s rich history. There are the robes of former greats, a blue dress shirt and bow tie worn by Ref. Joe Cortez that is stained with the crimson spatters of DNA from Johnny Tapia and Carlos Hernandez. Two televisions show old clips of greats like Robinson, Duran, and Lamotta along with highlight clips of boxing’s most famous knockouts. One display shows the actual mouthpieces of former champions including Mike Tyson’s which appears so much larger than his colleague’s it seems almost fitting that he ejected it from his mouth in order to use his teeth that fateful night versus Holyfield.
Our first trip to the induction weekend was in 2002, the same weekend Mike Tyson fought Lennox Lewis in Memphis. My brother and I, both once rabid Tyson-disciples, were rooting against Iron Mike for the first time, and since the January press conference announcing the fight had become a chaotic melee of toppled chairs, scrambling hangers-on and Tyson’s profane soliloquy, we had been praying the fight wouldn't result in a fracas that would denigrate the entire sport. We worried that boxing had suffered enough of the proverbial black eyes that yearfrom James Butler's sucker punch to Lewis and Rahman's ESPN fisticuffs.
At the induction banquet they rolled in televisions so that folks could watch the spectacle on pay-per-view. But before the live feed from Memphis even started we had come to the conclusion that boxing, as a sport, was in great shape and nothing that would happen at The Pyramid in Memphis could detract from the palpable sense of honesty and brotherhood between the fighters and their awestruck fans we were seeing and experiencing in Canastota.
At the banquet Jesse James Leija and Irish Mickey Ward sat beside each other and joked through dinner when just 6 months before their fight had ended in frustration and unfulfilled expectations after cuts forced ringside officials to go to the scorecards just as the action was heating up. Here in Canastota there was no animosity, no resentments or petty jealousies. These were two blue collar craftsman sharing food and drink in good company and the night they hammered each other with punches was a memory charged with shared experience and toil, there was no anger, no pent up rage.
When Marvelous Marvin Hagler addressed the assembled he spoke with his slight Italian accent. He described the feeling he gets in Canastota as the same as when he was once champion. Hagler went on to describe how here, at least while we were all together, no one saw the differences in skin colors and religions. A lot of people would probably imagine ex-fighters to be surly, belligerent men unlikely to appreciate or enjoy interaction with fans. But Hagler’s shared thoughts were more touching and profound than any grumbled thank-yous and honored-to-be-here’s one might expect from an ex-pug.
If you follow boxing, and especially if you love boxing, then you must attend the induction weekend at least once. I intend to keep coming here as a reminder of what makes this sport so great...and when I pray, all my prayers will be said in the direction of Canastota.
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