Sugar Ray Leonard stood on the sloping 18th fairway of the
Casolwood Golf Course in Canastota, N.Y., sizing up his next
shot and gazing at the crowd of boxing fans gathered around the
green, 100 yards away. He adjusted his cap and took a practice
swing with the fluidity one might expect from a five-time world
boxing champion who often transformed his brutal sport into art.
It was because of his brilliance in the ring that Leonard
(right) was in Canastota, a town of 5,000, 20 miles east of
Syracuse. He, former light heavyweight champ Jose Torres,
promoter Don King and 10 others were to be inducted the next day
into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
The golf tournament was just one of several events, including
lectures on the state of boxing, a 5-km run and an autograph
show, held during the weekend. Sugar Ray's focus seemed to be on
the links. At number 18 he dug in with his white-and-brown golf
shoes, tugged on his pressed gray slacks, paused once more for
drama, adjusted his glove and swung.
The crowd scattered like water bugs as Leonard's worm burner
careered along the cart path before coming to rest 30 feet away,
under a poster on the clubhouse promoting Tyson-Holyfield II.
Leonard, alas, was perhaps the finest golfing boxer in the bunch
of former pugs who played in the tournament. Maybe he was just
nervous as he approached the 18th, near which his old rival
Marvin Hagler was signing autographs. Leonard and Hagler had
shaken hands amicably when they had met earlier in the day. "But
we don't have them in the same foursome, that's for sure," said
one Hall of Fame representative. A novice golfer, Hagler,
looking as fit as he did when he fought Leonard in '87, went
into the water on his first hole. "I'm gonna try this sport,"
Hagler said. "And everybody better just get out of my way."
Indeed, fans were bobbing and weaving all day at Casolwood,
where cries of Fore! rang out every few minutes, causing the
legendary boxers to flinch more in one morning than they had
during their ring careers. Two years ago Hall of Famer Carlos
Ortiz, twice a lightweight champ in the 1960s, was struck in the
head by a ball. Before his wife could help him off the course,
she too was hit by an errant drive. The next year Ortiz showed
up wearing a helmet. "It's fun out there," he said. "But it's
June 22, 1997
This year former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney hit his tee
shot on number 10 sideways across the 18th and 17th fairways.
(He always did have a vicious hook.) When an approach shot at 17
got away from former welter- and middleweight champ and
Canastota native Carmen Basilio, an onlooker inquired about the
70-year-old boxer's handicap. Basilio walked over and, with the
same left arm that battered Sugar Ray Robinson in 1957, placed
the jokester in a headlock. Basilio, who putts with his trusty
left alone, guided his foursome to a third-place finish. "One
guy I'm playing with today said he always had trouble with his
hands in the ring," Basilio said. "I told him, 'Yeah, the ref
kept stepping on them.'"
Basilio's nephew Billy Backus, a fellow Canastotan, held the
welterweight title in the early 1970s. It was in searching for a
way to honor the town's two illustrious sons--and for an
attraction to draw tourists off the New York State Thruway--that
the folks of Canastota, previously best known for growing
onions, conceived of the Hall of Fame in '84. Now, life-sized
bronze statues of Basilio and Backus greet visitors to the
four-room wooden building, and, with the induction of Leonard et
al., 178 fighters, managers and other fistic figures are
enshrined. Each year about a dozen former fighters play in the
golf outing, at which old friends and legendary foes alike
high-five each other on the way to the 1st tee and then continue
their camaraderie in the 19th hole. "Once the spectators are
gone, the fighters stick around," said Backus. "That's when the
old war stories come out."
Given the action on the links, the bloodiest tales likely came
from that day's rounds.