For a fighter seemingly never at a loss for words, Floyd Mayweather Jr. was rendered speechless.
At the International Boxing Hall of Fame dinner Saturday night at the Event Center at Turning Stone Resort and Casino, Mayweather stepped to the podium after highlights of his 2007 knockout of Jr. welterweight champion Ricky Hatton played on a large screen behind the dais.
For two full minutes, Mayweather tried to find the words.
He could not.
Fellow inductee Laila Ali came to the podium, first to hug Mayweather and then to bring him a napkin to wipe away flowing tears. For two full minutes, Mayweather let it all soak in and then, quietly, he began.
“I don’t even know what to say,” he uttered once, and then again, moving the microphone closer. “I’ve been waiting for this for 45 years.”
Earlier in the day, at a panel on the Hall of Fame grounds in Canastota, New York celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Ring Magazine, inductee Bernard Hopkins joined Editor-in-Chief Doug Fischer. Hopkins, reverently, referred to taking his place in the “Heaven of the Hall of Fame.” Hopkins repeated the phrase at the banquet later that night.
Mayweather was overwhelmed by the moment, entering those pearly gates. Why wouldn’t he be?
Hopkins captured what the moment really represents in a sharp turn of phrase. Boxing careers, athletic careers in general, aren’t like others. It’s not a grind focused on the age of sixty-five. There are no eyes on a slowly growing 401K.
For the fighters on the stage, it was something they did for free, many of them as children, a way of life made a career. They share a trade of bruises, blood, and sacrifice. When Mayweather, Hopkins, Roy Jones, and the other big names inducted over the weekend put down their gloves for good, they were ending a piece of their life.
For those who believe in a higher power, the end on Earth may mean a chance to enter heaven, nirvana, or some other lasting afterlife.
Since 1990, the International Boxing Hall of Fame has given the boxing community, fans and fighters alike, a brick and mortar location. It survived a pandemic and delivered a once in a lifetime induction of three classes in a single weekend. There may never be anything like it again.
In the classic baseball movie Field of Dreams, Ray Liotta’s Joe Jackson asks Kevin Costner if a baseball field carved into a cornfield is heaven. Costner replies no, it’s Iowa. The implication is that it’s both. Canastota is the same. Those enshrined, through their acts and work ethic and talent, achieved an immortality that promises their fistic careers live on long after they’re gone.
If that’s not heaven, what is?
The Hall has been open to criticism over the years, fair and unfair. The induction of Jackie Tonawanda this year remains a source of controversy. Hall voting isn’t transparent year-to-year, leading to misunderstandings about who selects inductees and in which categories. There are inductees who have raised ire and those still waiting for their call who can be deemed long past worthy.
Witnessing the events unfold this weekend, it’s clear why the latter group arouses such passion. It matters when fighters who earned their place in heaven still linger in purgatory because it’s clear it matters so much to those who have arrived.
It mattered to Hopkins. It mattered to Mayweather. It mattered to Regina Halmich who traveled from across the Atlantic. It mattered to Wladimir Klitschko, who took a moment away from war to record comments for the ceremonies. It mattered to fans who traveled from different places around the world to say thank you to their heroes.
For those who haven’t had the experience yet, those who deserve enshrinement, it matters to make sure voters get it right.
There were touching moments throughout the weekend. Before his own speech Saturday, Mayweather rose and urged support from the crowd for women’s boxing trailblazer inductee Barbara Buttrick, urging the crowd on as the aging “Atom” worked to get in a few words. Jay Larkin’s sons were proud as they accepted their late father into the Hall. Hopkins invited retired referee Rudy Battles and his son to share the stage with him, recounting how Battles influenced him by visiting Hopkins in prison and believing in him from a young age. Women’s trailblazer Marian Trimiar wept when the WBC provided the former women’s lightweight champion with a belt, something she never had as a professional.
There were also the sights and sounds of it all. Fighters could be seen all weekend stopping to take pictures with fans and sign autographs, on the Hall grounds, coming from dinner at the hotel, for several minutes after the banquet on Saturday, and again after official Sunday inductions. The trade show at the local high school gym was a mini-Comic Con for boxing, full of memorabilia, collectibles, and autograph opportunities that covered all of boxing’s many decades.
Sunday’s parade felt like something from another time, a mix of local high school bands, bagpipers, and civil servants mixed in with some of the greatest fighters in the world. Candy and ice cream were tossed or handed to the children in the crowd. Fighters rode by, making sure to turn and wave at each side of streets lined with a community that was home to the great Carmen Basilio and the visitors to that community making it home for a few days.
Every bar and restaurant was a chance to meet someone to talk boxing or say thank you or congratulations to an honoree. There were also opportunities to step back and observe. After the official induction Sunday, James Toney could be found sitting outside Turning Stone, alone, enjoying a cigar. He was wearing his Hall of Fame ring.
For those cynical about Hall of Fame inductions or processes, all that can be said is it’s hard to understand until one steps into the experience. Seeing the trunks of Joe Louis, a fighter forever battling on black and white film, in all their vibrant color…staring at the size of Primo Carnera’s molded fist…putting a hand on the same ring canvas that hosted Ali-Frazier I and so many other immortal battles…it’s all in one place. Small things matter less in the presence of so much greatness.
It’s the heaven of the Hall of Fame. The gates open again in June 2023.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com