By Fiona Manning
They traveled from all four corners of the globe Saturday night to pay homage to the men and women of boxing at the 24th annual World Boxing Hall of Fame Banquet held at the Commerce Casino in east Los Angeles.
Emotional tributes were paid to Azumah Nelson, Joey Giambra, Del Flannagan, Humberto Gonzalez, Jose “Pipino” Cuevas and Rodolfo Gonzalez, the newest members of the Boxing Hall of Fame fraternity.
Honored posthumously, was tragic former welterweight champion Marty Servo who endured a rare spinal column degenerative disease, but gave the performance of his life in the ring against “Sugar” Ray Robinson.
In keeping with the international theme, the evening started with the excellent news that talented local light heavyweight champion Julio Gonzalez snatched the WBO crown from Dariusz Michalczewski that morning in Hamburg, Germany.
The crowd buzzed with excitement over what was deemed a big upset.
“I cannot believe this news. What a great day for boxing,” said MC and perennial boxing good guy, Jimmy Lennon Jr.
A sort of upset occurred at the 2003 banquet with some of the inductees including the evening’s two biggest guns, Ghana’s brilliant ring general, Azumah Nelson and our own Roy Jones Jr. not in attendance.
There was some controversy thrown in the mix too with the induction of Rod-olfo “El Gato” Gonzalez, who apparently was honored despite the fact that he officially missed inclusion by just one vote.
The World Boxing Hall of Fame officials decided to include him, much to the fury of some voters. In fact two members of the board resigned in protest over what has become known as “Gato-Gate.”
A private vote by the 10-member Executive Committee was held after the 140 voting members declined to honor Gonzalez. He was accepted on an 8-2 vote but the controversy still swirled on Saturday night.
According to Reno-based writer Rusty Rubin who is penning an authorized biography of the former WBC lightweight champion, there were still bad feelings about this particular induction. In previous years, similar situations meant that the fighters had to wait another year or two or 10, to get their moment in the sun.
It was a good thing “El Gato” was inducted however, since he was not only worthy, but his speech was the most heart-felt of the night.
Inductee Michael Katz, who was honored for his contribution to boxing writing in the Expanded category, gave the most insightful and yes, wordy speech by declaring that he loves covering boxing because it is “the only real game in town.”
The evening was a Who’s Who of the sport: but thankfully, nobody embarrassed themselves this year. Apparently, chastened by his drunken outburst last year, trainer Emmanuel Steward stayed well away this time.
Up on the dais, past, current and future champions rubbed shoulders with one another over meals of salad, shrimp and filet mignon.
Among those present: Tony “The Tiger” Lopez, Danny Valdez, Art Aragon, Zack Tardia, Lorenzo Garza, Troy Dorsey, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Michael Carbajal, Art Frias, Bobby Chacon, Carlos Palomino, Mike Weaver, Jimmy Ellis, Ernie Terrell, Carmen Basillio, Jesus Pimentel, Joey Barnum, Paul Gonzalez, Carlos “Famoso” Hernandez, Jose Torres, George “Scrap Iron” John-son, Mondo Ruiz and Paul Rojas.
After giving the Invocation, former referee Richard Steele gave the floor to HBO’s “unofficial judge” Harold Lederman who accepted the “Fighter of the Year” award for Roy Jones Jr.
He compared Jones to other cross-over sports superstars such as baseball’s Willie Mays, basketball’s Michael Jordan, golf’s Tiger Woods and tennis phenomenon Serena Williams.
“If you have never seen any of these athletes in action, then you know you have missed out,” Lederman said. “That’s how good Roy Jones Jr. is.” Amen.
Lederman took the opportunity to honor Julio Gonzalez’s victory in Germany. It was a touching moment in light of the only career loss he has ever suffered: last year he dropped a decision to Jones.
HBO was honored for its coverage of boxing, then various awards were given to some crowd-pleasing names.
Former California referee and judge Robert Byrd (who has defected to Nevada) was honored for his work in boxing. He retired this month after his 34th year with the California Highway Patrol.
Teresa Tapia, beleaguered wife and manager of Johnny “Mi Vida Loca” Tapia was honored for putting up with him and other boxing tough guys such as Don King and Bob Arum.
Bob Case, who presented Teresa with her award said he thinks of the Tapias as one person.
“Under her guidance, Johnny won four world titles and has made enough money to get a new tattoo every month for the rest of his life,” Case said.
Teresa spoke humbly and movingly about her husband’s apparent “death wish” and how he miraculously recovered from yet another drug overdose in March.
“Each time I fall down I wake up and she’s holding my hand,” Johnny told the crowd. “I love her, I need her and God bless you all.”
Referee Arthur Mercante was given an award for his long body of work and then the stage was set for the official inductions.
Marty Servo’s niece and her family made a nervous and speedy appearance, accepting his award and then the real fun began.
The first film clip shown for the night was 1996 inductee Jose “Pipino” Cuevas, who, apparently unable to attend that ceremony, was recognized this year.
“It is a great honor to receive this award in the town where I defended my title,” he said. “This is the greatest feeling that I ever had.”
Manager, trainer and promoter Bennie Georgino, inducted in the Expanded category looked very sad, recalling some of the fallen legends he worked with during his “long climb up the hill.”
He wasn’t the only one: Manager Ricardo Maldonado, also inducted in the Expanded category is apparently still bewildered and deeply shocked over Marco Antonio Barrera leaving him.
Currently embroiled in messy litigation with the “Baby-faced Assassin,” Maldonado feels badly about their professional divorce.
Maldonado was also dumped last year by Brazilian KO artist Acelino “Popo” Freitas so perhaps he felt it both opportune and soothing to list the string of world-wide organizations that have named him Manager of the Year in the last few years.
Former welterweight and middleweight contender Del Fannagan, unable to attend due to illness was represented by snappy clips and his son Terry Flannagan who was unable to utter a word since nobody gave him much of a chance.
Writer Michael Katz basked in his glory and thanked his father for teaching him to love boxing.
Introduced by Danny Val-divia who told the crowd that “Michael Katz was born at the age of 10 in the Bronx…” When he caught his mistake, Valdivia said, “I was making sure you were listening.”
They had some difficulty sliding Katz’s medal over his beret and it finally sat perched on his ever-present neckbrace.
Katz didn’t care. He told many rambling anecdotes and appeared emotional, saying he wished his daughter could have attended but said, “She’s in Berlin. I think she’s recruiting the next governor.”
Rodolfo Gonzalez, who was inducted by hard-working Hall of Famer David Martinez, came to the mike seconds after we watched snippets of his barn-burning battle with Chango Carmona.
“El Gato” told the moving story of how in 1964 he was diagnosed with liver cancer and given two months to live. “I was devastated,” he said. “That night I had a dream and the Virgin of Guadalupe, maybe you have heard of her, and she told me to come to her church and ask her for help.
“The next day, I was half dead and I could hardly walk but I went to the church and said, ‘Here I am Lord, do with me what you will.’ Within 10 minutes, something beautiful, something indescribable…a miracle happened. I felt warm… it felt wonderful… two months later, the doctors told me the cancer was all gone.
“10 years after that, I became world champion and I took my belt to the church and laid it at the feet of the Lady of Guadalupe so everybody could see it. It’s still there.”
There was heart-felt applause to this speech, especially from Mi Vida Johnny.
Joey Giambra who never became champion in his illustrious middleweight career said he felt like a champion on this night. He also revealed a movie is in the works on his life. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
With Azumah Nelson absent, the crowd at least got to see tape of the great man’s epic ring war with Salvador Sanchez.
In the final award of the night, Humberto Gonzalez, WBC and three-time IBF junior flyweight champion spoke in Spanish about his career, the translations by Adolpho Perez were hazy but according to the former champion, he deliberately chose footage of his loss to Michael Carbajal because it was such a great fight and he was proud of his work as a boxer in that particular bout.
“They said I punched like a heavyweight [he fought at 108 pounds] but I want to be remembered as a boxer and a puncher,” he said.
Gonzalez, along with the rest of his compadres will be remembered as very, very great men: great boxers and punchers indeed.
Boxing back in San Diego!
The “Brawl at The Hall” is set for Wednesday October 29th at Blanca’s Fiesta Hall in Imperial Beach just south of San Diego. “We want to bring boxing back to the home of legendary champion Archie Moore and this will be just the beginning,” stated Gabriel Barron who is the promotion’s coordinator.
The card which is being presented by Don Chargin and Premier Entertainment will feature Tijuana’s Cesar Figueroa (25-3) and local super-lightweight Rafael Ramirez (14-3). Also on tap will be Chula Vista lightweight Ernest “Too Slick” Johnson (10-0), National City resident Anibal Solis taking on a soon to be named opponent and heavyweight Mika “The Samoan Destroyer” Gergen taking on Keith Pouncey.
The six bout event is enjoying the support of famed San Diego businessman and long time boxing promoter and manager Bobby De-Philipis. For event and ticket information call (619) 420-8866. You can also call Blanca’s Fiesta Hall at (619) 575-0937. Blanca’s is located at 1770 Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach. Tickets are $25 to $50 with a limited amount of tickets available on the mat. Doors open at 6:00 pm. First fight is at 7:00 pm.