J.R Jowett reports on a great night in Atlantic City
The Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame conducted their third annual event with a four-day celebration that ran from June 20 to 23 at the Claridge Hotel.
Founded by trainer Ray McCline, the event commenced with a Golden Boy boxing show and concluded on June 23 with a lively, entertaining and well-attended induction ceremony at the Celebrity Theater. Master of Ceremonies was the multi-lingual Samad Haq, who was well supported by NJ Commissioner Larry Hazzard. The multi-talented Commissioner did an outstanding job of introducing nearly half the honorees with a breezy, humorous and informed style.
Eleven non-boxers were honored, leading off with Madison Square Garden matchmaker Bobby Goodman. He offered a brief statement of gratitude following a biographic intro by Henry Hascup that described how Bobby, from a boxing family headed by HOF publicist Murray, grew up in the training camps of the ‘50s champions.
The tone was set for a program loaded with historical references, some famous, some obscure or forgotten, such as when names like Laoma Byrd’s and Grossinger’s were almost as well known as the boxers themselves. Manager Stan Hoffman followed, opening with a quip about why did they give Bobby the short route to the stage. Stan waxed ecstatic over his years in the game and the many fighters he brought to Atlantic City. One of his most famous, Iran Barkley, would come later.
Journalist Nigel Collins gave a concise and lively talk, not about his own accomplishments, but rather a brief history of the Atlantic City scene, its rise with the casino era, and what might be considered a Golden Age of local boxing. As a good journalist would, he illustrated it with a story of driving in a death defying blizzard to find a deserted town counterpoised by a packed hall to see a classic encounter between Barkley and Roberto Duran! More to come on this.
Historian Henry Hascup was himself inducted, in addition to introducing several other recipients and providing his famous “9 Count” for the Departed of the last year. Sadly, this included Willie “The Worm” Monroe, who had passed away only two days prior. But Henry was a riot when it came to his own induction, breaking up the audience with hilarity about how he was scared to death when he seemed as relaxed as a revivified Johnny Carson, and silencing a heckler with, “You wanna do this?” He also set a tone that reverberated throughout the evening when he choked up over the support he’s gotten from wife and family. While boxing is often viewed as the ultimate sport of the lone combatant, family support frequently has a lot to do with success. And this same idea was echoed throughout the evening.
NJ boxing judge Thomas Kaczmarek alluded to that same legendary snowy night when on his way to work the Barkley-Duran fight, he slid off the parkway and had to be rescued by the state police. Hascup had primed the audience by explaining how Kaczmarek had been selected by the august ruling bodies to teach scoring throughout the world, and wisecracked that the recent spate of hinky decisions may trace to the fact that Tom no longer fulfills that role. Also cited, a legal beagle of a different sort is former PA State Athletic Commissioner James Binns, who was strangely brief in remarks, considering that he’s a renowned lawyer. Unable to attend was famed referee and more recently a member of the NJ Athletic Control Board, Tony Orlando.
Possibly best among the non-boxers was Deputy Commissioner Rhonda Utley-Herring. Introduced by her boss, the two put on a light comedic banter worthy of Ethel & Albert. The infrastructure that supports boxing is largely overlooked…until something goes bad, that is…but fans in the Tri-State area don’t know how good they have it compared to the shenanigans that go on in poorly regulated jurisdictions. And so it is good to see someone from behind the scenes get the spotlight. Larry observed that Rhonda was already in the office when he took over for “Jersey” Joe, knew all the rules by heart, and has turned what was intended to be a summer job into a 30-plus year career. They cited regulations and practices that the state initiated and have since become de rigueur, like the lost mouthpiece rule. Hazzard mentioned the federal passport, initiated by then-DC commissioner Cora Masters Barry, who was in attendance. And they exchanged friendly badinage, like Larry observing that sometimes he wished she’d lose her voice (she spoke through laryngitis) in the office, and Rhonda reflecting that it takes a lot of courage to say no to Hazzard.
Posthumous inductions went to shirtless promoter “Butch” Lewis, trainer “Bouie” Fisher, and cutman “Ace” Marotta. Butch’s son and daughter accepted for him, and described growing up while having to make room for boxers regularly sleeping at their house. Marotta’s and Fisher’s sons accepted for them, with Bouie’s observing how he had drifted out of training boxers but was pleaded to come back and train an 0-1 tyro, Bernard Hopkins. Marotta’s son is the former Ice World ring announcer Jimmy Marotta.
Spearheading the inducted boxers were two home-grown attractions, John Brown and Kevin Watts. Kevin talked about entering the sport over family objections while having a powerful draw in the local Pleasantville Rec, where the best from all around the world would train while prepping for Atlantic City fights. After stumbling over a four-syllable word, he quipped that he’s gotten through his career still able to enunciate clearly. The diminutive Brown, always at a notable physical disadvantage, talked of overcoming the seeming drawback with will to win, and accepting losses, often in close fights out of town, without losing any of that drive that made him one of the most exciting fighters of the era.
Another who commented on dealing with loss was Micky Ward, observing that “losing only made my heart bigger.” An AC staple, Ward observed that he had more fights in Atlantic City than in Massachusetts. The raucous Lowell crowd making the regular trips accounted for “better fights on the bus” than some in the ring.
An ebullient Timmie Witherspoon was a crowd pleaser, just as he was in the ring. Timmie kicked off by praising…of all things normally taken for granted…the fans. He observed that it was the fans who paid for the Hall of Famers’ cars and houses and sent their kids to college. Without them, he’d be talking to the walls. He then launched into a fervent plea for a support system for the boxers who don’t fare so well and end up broke and broken. Unfortunately, that’s been tried.
Virgil Hill was inducted, but unable to attend due to serious illness in his family.
An overwhelmed Iran Barkley was another who focused attention on his family, with two children in attendance. Finally, there were Roberto Duran and Bernard Hopkins. And what a difference!
Known for dead and deadly seriousness in the ring, a beaming Duran danced his way to the lectern and quipped, through an interpreter, that he didn’t understand any of it and had to go to the bathroom! “We’re enemies in the ring but friends outside of it,” he said of his compatriots. The crowd loved it! Roberto’s son Victor then performed a spritely salsa number, and Duran danced his way off the stage to make room for the closing act.
Bernard Hopkins. And what a difference! Bernard riveted the audience with a dramatic rendering of his time in incarceration and what he went through in establishing the discipline to become not only an all-time great but to leave the ring with another viable career still ahead. We’ll say no more. You can wait for the movie.
And we leave with a smiling Duran giving a tv interview in the hallway. It will all be back in a year, with a different cast. It was great fun as well as most interesting. Look forward to the next one and don’t miss it!