Mark Allen Baker Interview
(Title Town USA)
Canastota, New York is home to the International Boxing Hall Of Fame.
Canastota is also the birthplace of Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus.
In Title Town USA, Boxing In Upstate New York, Mark Allen Baker tells the story of Carmen Basilio, Billy Backus and a host of other boxers.
Q – I guess it almost goes without saying, you’re a big boxing fan.
A – Yes, sir. I’m a big boxing fan. My grandfather was a club boxer in Binghamton, New York where my parents were from. I would go to sleep at night when he was watching me to the old radio sounds of either a ball game or one of the fights from the (Madison Square) Gardens. His favorite fighter was Willie Pep. He used to tell me stories about Jack Dempsey and some of the older fighters. He was the first one who really brought boxing to my attention. It was always something that interested me. I was a historian and collector. I started out as a collector in the early days and when I was young, used to write to Gene Tunney. And, I started collecting autographs and memorabilia and that’s really how I got interested in history.
Q – At one time you owned Bleachers, in Liverpool, New York?
A – Around 1989, I started talking about this whole idea of a Boxing Hall Of Fame. At that time I was talking about a sports bar. I was working at General Electric and had a memorabilia store in Fairmount Fair. We started talking wouldn’t it be nice to build a sports bar in Syracuse? So, I built Bleachers on Old Liverpool Road, in Liverpool, New York.
Q – How long did you own and operate Bleachers?
A – For 3 years and then I sold it. I designed it did the logos, the menus. All the memorabilia inside the place was mine. That’s when I first started. That was one of my contributions to it. So, that’s how I was introduced to Ed Brophy (of the Boxing Hall Of Fame). Ed just opened the Hall Of Fame. He heard about me and came to the restaurant. That’s how I first got involved. I was sitting in the office and my waitress comes in and says, ‘There’s a man in the dining room that wants to talk to you’. I said, ‘You’re kidding? I’ll go talk to him’. I figured he was gonna complain about the food. It was Ed Brophy. He said, ‘You got a few minutes?’ I said, ‘Sure’. So, I sat down and he talked to me about this whole concept of the Boxing Hall Of Fame and asked me if I would get involved. I said, ‘Sure. I don’t know what capacity’. I told him my background. I had 10 years in at General Electric and I was doing a lot of marketing and marketing research. Then of course doing the restaurant. He was thrilled when he walked in the restaurant and I had all this memorabilia everywhere. He said, ‘You really gotta get involved’. I was the one doing all the old press kits right up to the point where I left Central New York. I developed all the press kits and all the backgrounds for all the fighters with Herb Goldman and Hank Kaplan and Ed Brophy. Most of the 90’s was all ours.
Q – Were you running bands at Bleachers?
A – Well, here’s another funny story. I had promoted shows at Oswego for 4 years during the 70’s. I did Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bob Seger, Peter Gabriel, and then I did some of the shows at the (Syracuse) War Memorial with Concerts East. We did like Boston, Queen. By the time I ended at Bleachers, we were just starting to do the bands and I was pulling out at that time.
Q – How long did it take you to put “Title Town USA” together?
A – It’s interesting, when I was living in Fayetteville (New York) I actually put the book proposal together and the reason I did it was I was volunteering and doing so much work with the Boxing Hall Of Fame and kept on hearing the same things over and over again. Every time someone would walk in the museum, why Canastota? Why is it in Canastota? Then you start telling them about Carmen Basilio and (Billy) Backus. And then they’d say, ‘Didn’t Carmen fight Robinson’? How did that happen? I told Ed once if we could only have a tool of a book that explained everything so that when they walk in all we have to say is “Here. Read this book. It’s gonna answer all your questions. You won’t need to look any further’. So, that’s where the whole impetus came for the book. First, my experience at the museum in receiving so many questions and so many inquiries, knowing what they wanted to hear, what the visitors were looking for and could I come up with a tool? So, I worked and put the book together, sent it out to a few publishers and a couple of ‘em were interested, not the kind that I thought could do it justice that would mass market it and put it out there so it would look attractive and would be on the websites and get into all the bookstores. Finally, by the time I landed in Hartford, I found a book by the History Press (www.historypress.net – publishers of Title Town USA) that I liked the design of and I liked the way it was handled. I liked the writing style of the guy who wrote the book and so I contacted The History Press and they fell in love with the idea. From that point on, they contracted me and I got the complete cooperation from The Boxing Hall Of Fame. Of course I had known everybody there for years and years and years. By that time I was not only a former sponsor and a former volunteer but also a Chair person on the weekend, so I know everybody. I had written articles for other magazines and other books about boxing. They were familiar and happy to comply and tell me stories and help me out anyway they can. The cooperation was just super. Everybody helped out. You always get some initial reluctance at first from some of the fighters, but then everybody ended up cooperating just great. It ended up being a wonderful process.
Q – Title Town USA is the kind of book where I can almost hear people saying ‘We want more details’. Mark, why not build a website called “Title Town USA”?
A – That’s a great idea!! I wrote the whole section on the fighters who fought all around New York and Central New York. By the time I finished that section it was about 30,000 or 40,000 words. I was way over the word count. I never looked at my contract and realized I only had 50,000 words for the entire book. I had to do some dramatic editing to condense all this down. There is a need (for a website) and there is a tremendous amount of information that is not in ‘Title Town’ and needs to be embellished just on Buffalo alone. Buffalo’s got such a rich, rich boxing history. You could write volumes on just Buffalo.
Q – Why has Upstate New York produced so many Boxers? Is it just coincidental? Would you have found the same phenomenon had you written about Ohio or Michigan?
A – I think you may in some cases, but my whole theory goes back to the development of the Erie Canal. Obviously it framed Upstate New York just fine. It took you right straight from east to west. It enabled transit from New York City and commerce to move all along to Buffalo. I put everything on the Erie Canal. It brought immigrants up. It gave them jobs. The contractors brought in all the local people to work in the three major sections of the canal. In Canastota it meant bringing in Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants. Thank God for those hard working immigrants. I think the Eire Canal was responsible for Syracuse developing, for Upstate New York developing not only to a hard-working community but a good frame of mind and a good frame for boxers, for the education of a boxer and for the development of boxing. You couldn’t ask for a better hamlet than Canastota, New York to support boxing. That whole town has rallied around this whole principle of a Boxing Hall Of Fame and really made it relevant. It made it a very important addition to Upstate New York. They’ve done a great, great job. It wasn’t without hard work and criticism.
Q – I don’t see a whole lot of guys going into boxing anymore, do you?
A – No. Where we lost if Gary, is we stopped teaching boxing in school. You start decreasing the exposure to those people in significant age groups and we’re losing it.
Q – They didn’t offer boxing when you were in high school did they?
A – No. Basically it was the 50’s; I’d have to go back to my notes when they started dropping boxing from the curriculum, the high school curriculum. You didn’t get it. Once the concern came up for liability insurance and damages, boxing was the first thing to go.
Q – Have you spoken to Carmen Basilio recently? Do you know how he’s doing health-wise?
A – No. The last time I saw him he was very frail looking. When I interviewed with him for the book I caught him and Angelo Dundee over at the golf course and spent about 40 minutes trying to talk to him. Obviously people we’re coming up and getting autographs and interrupting me, but, he was fairly cognizant, but, he was slipping. From what I understand last year he was extremely fair. I did not get to speak to him at all last year (2011). He was kind of being kept from everybody. I don’t get a good feeling about his health, which is unfortunate.
Q – Mark, where is the sport, in the sport of boxing when you’re trying to knock someone out?
A – There’s a strategy of self-defence. It’s very, very clear when you look at fights. Use what everybody is familiar with – Ali. He’s the perfect example of someone who is a strategist. He was a master puncher. He was a master of self-defence. He was a great example of good condition. Outstanding foot work. Great eyesight. Great angles. Great puncher. The list is endless. Ali was magic. He was Art in the ring. No question about it. All you have to do is view a couple of Ali tapes and I think you can see for yourself that it’s clearly a sport.
Q – When you look at Muhammad Ali today, and you see the damage he suffered from all those punches, how can you still support boxing? I know I don’t look at boxing the same way I used to.
A – It brings up a good point. Years ago I did a local Syracuse radio show. I was doing a show with Tommy Colter from Syracuse and I think Bert Sugar was on it. Tommy was the one who said it and I totally agree they should be using head gear. The head is a very fragile organ no question. It’s so sensitive. I’ve been an advocate and I had this conversation recently with a physician here in Connecticut, an advocate of wearing head gear. I know people don’t want to see it, but, I’m a total advocate of head gear. I think they should wear it. If you wore head gear in a boxing match the best guy would still win the boxing match, no question. I think it’s very, very dangerous. Here’s a sport that has no pension plan. It’s basically every man for himself. You’re putting him in a ring and you’re letting him get bashed around. Who knew years ago what damage was being done? Clearly quite a bit was being done. I’m all for head gear. I really am and I’m all for an organization that will look out for these boxers and support their retirement and set up pension plans for them and I wish it was under one big umbrella. I really do. And, I’m not alone.
Q – Mark, it’s not just the head. Look at the punches that are thrown to a fighter’s stomach and abdomen and the damage that must do to the heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas, liver.
A – Absolutely. And now you’ve got the Ultimate Fighting and how that whole thing plays into boxing, if it does at all and how that is impacting the audience. It’s just a matter of time before those guys get killed. The damage they’re taking is just unbelievable. It’s ridiculous. What’s the point? It’s just a matter of time before there’s going to be a couple of key deaths and all of a sudden people will be up in arms about it. It happens in boxing periodically as you know. It happened with Emile Griffith. It happened with ‘Boom Boom Mancini. It comes up sporadically. Every once in a while there’s a ring death just to remind us how violent this thing really is and how we need to make sure that the regulations are followed. Perhaps it needs to be modified in some cases.
Q – What do you think about women getting in the ring to box?
A – Same thing. I’m not a physician but it’s probably not the smartest thing in the world to do. I don’t want to tell women they can’t do anything. It’s totally up to them and what they choose to do, but I don’t think it’s wise. I certainly wouldn’t get in unless first, I had a thorough physical before I got in the ring and secondly unless I was adequately protected.
Q – What did you learn about the Boxers you profiled in “Title Town” that maybe you didn’t know before?
A – The biggest thing I learned was the strength of Central New York as an epicenter for the sport. I learned that there are so many contributors that have roots to Central New York that came out of there. I was very impressed by that. I was very impressed by how they’re related, how the different players play into each other. I learned great stories that seem to be lost. Thanks to some of those organizations like Ring 44 out of Buffalo. They do a great job of preserving stories of boxers that may have slipped through the cracks. I tried to include some of them with their permission in the book; the interesting, motivating factors behind some of the fighters. I was given a very heartfelt look at Central New York through the eyes of the sport. It was just great. It really was. My appreciation for everything that has gone on in Central New York is just incredible.
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