As the calendar turned from July to August, it meant that aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, NC, a weekend-full of festivities was about to commence. Although the weather provided rain for what seemed like a week in a row, on Thursday, the sun came out just in time for the opening social event for those participating in the 2021 Marine Corps Boxing Hall of Fame weekend.
It seemed fitting that the clouds cleared and the sun would come out to make it a beautiful weekend. It was as if Leon Spinks pushed the clouds away for those Marines to have their special moment.
Yes, that Leon Spinks, who became the undisputed heavyweight champion on Feb. 15, 1978 when he defeated the great Muhammad Ali by way of split decision. Leon was a Marine veteran who proudly served his country.
Before getting into the weekend’s festivities, it is appropriate to provide some background on Marine Corps Boxing.
“The Smokers” was a boxing program that originated at Parris Island, S.C before heading to Camp Lejeune, NC in the 70s. It was an interesting concept at the time because if you had a problem with someone or just wanted to fight, you would get it on at the Smokers. That’s where Marines and sailors settled their differences in competition by lacing up gloves and rumbling.
The Smokers weren’t centrally located, each unit had their own version of it. This resulted in a raising of the stakes, with the program’s growth providing ample entertainment and increasing the combative skills within the units’ main structure.
The Marine Corps boxing team saw success through the 70s all the way into the 2000s. In 2012, though, the USMC boxing team was disbanded. Folks wondered about the reason for the retirement; retired Sergeant Major Michael Cline explained: “It was more about the money than anything else.”
Budgetary limitations and restraints tend to pop up with some frequency within the military, and funding availability can fluctuate during peace and war times. A recent example of this can be found in reference to the Marine Corps wrestling team. They had a representative, Staff Sgt. John Stefanowicz Jr., who qualified to compete in this year's Olympics, in Tokyo. Shortly after his return, it was announced that the program would not be renewed for the next fiscal year.
The boxing program, however, is in a growth mode. Michael Cline served for thirty years in the Marine Corps and retired as a Sergeant Major. When asked about the thought process behind creating the event, Cline said, “To give recognition to a lot of people who truly did not receive it while being a part of the Marine Corps Boxing team.”
It’s not that widely known that the Marine Corps has veterans that became Olympians, world class pros and World Champions. Here are just a few names that you may recognize: Carmen Basilio, Jamel Herring, Leon Spinks, “Mac” Foster, Charles Brown, and Ken Norton. Even some referees, like Mills Lane, Robert Byrd and Richard Steele wore the famous Eagle, Globe and Anchor at one point in their lives.
Since there have been so many Marine Veterans that had an impact on boxing, Cline felt like the Marine Corps should honor their own. Michael felt passionate about it and that led to him starting the Marines Corps Boxing Hall of Fame in 2016.
After the concept of recognizing Marine veterans through the HOF gained plaudits, the idea was pushed by Cline to restart the boxing program. He presented the idea to now retired Lieutenant General Beaudreault, the II Marine Expeditionary Force Commanding General, who embraced the idea and brought the suggestion to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. That conversation led to the birth of the pilot program named the II MEF MACE (Martial Arts Center of Excellence) Boxing Program. This program is on a year-to-year contract and could, to be candid, suffer a similar fate as the wrestling team. But for now, Coach Joe Higgins and company are training a small group of Marines to compete in regional and national tournaments. (Editor's note: Click HERE for a story on the return of Joe Higgins to boxing by Abe Gonzalez.)
Thursday’s Social Event
The social event was held at a nearby restaurant, which was a meeting point for those flying or driving in from all over the country. There were Marines from a variety of time periods, going back as far back as 40 years.
One of the highlights for me was seeing former WBU champion Angel Manfredy, who fought the likes of Arturo Gatti , Diego Castillo and Floyd Mayweather (see below), to name a few.
Talking with some of the ladies and gents that were there, it felt great being a part of the event and you could feel that Marine Corps spirit just floating around in the air.
After enjoying the prideful atmosphere, I said my goodbyes, while already anticipating the next day’s event.
Friday’s Amateur Boxing Event
This wouldn’t be a boxing hall of fame weekend without having some rollicking fights to honor the event. Michael Cline put on an amateur card called “Freedom Fight IV” which featured 21 amateur fights. The event had fighters of all ages exhibiting their ring skills, while friends and family cheering them on. Medals were given to those that came out victorious. In the back locker room preparing some of his fighters was Coach Joe Higgins. He mentioned to me that he has some fighters participating in the August 26 Lou Dibella card, in Richmond, Virginia at The Diamond, home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. Higgins is also preparing his team for some tournaments across the nation in the fall.
I stayed until the last scrap on the card as there was a Marine I know, Sahin Kalkay, participating in the event. It was 11:30 PM, and I stifled a yawn, because I told him I would stay to watch his fight and I did. After his fight was over, I headed home in anticipation of the next day's banquet.
Saturday’s Hall of Fame Day
Although I was unable to attend the events prior to the banquet, Kimico Sheffield, who is the right hand for Michael Cline, informed me about the events that were taking place. First thing in the morning, a forum was held by CJ Crenshaw. This forum addressed veteran’s issues and supplied information on how to apply for certain benefits they may or may not be aware are available to them.
One of the issues that is relevant today is the lack of information and education available to veterans. That matter, and discussions like this are important to Michael and Kimico, and it was quite clear that they draw on their accumulated wisdom to work on improving the dispersal of intel which improves the lives of veterans. The Boxing HOF is now a non-profit organization, so veterans there can look forward to the continuation of this mission. Aside from helping veterans, the non-profit will look to help the youth across the nation, in the form of scholarships and mentorship programs.
Once the forum was over, a BBQ commenced; a good time looked to be had by all.
The time arrived for everyone to show up to Camp Lejeune, for the actual HOF ceremony. As I pulled up to the parking lot, I saw Jamel Herring talking to some of the Marines. As I walked in, I couldn’t help but notice former heavyweight champion Ray Mercer, an Army veteran, in attendance. He was there enjoying himself, talking to Marines and soaking in the good vibes.
Then, Michael Cline put his uniform on and paid tribute to those that made the ultimate sacrifice. This is customary in certain Marine Corps ceremonies. Once he did that, the color guard walked in, the national anthem was played, and the ceremony had officially begun. After acknowledging the VIPs, some awards were presented. Following that, this year's inductees were called up and given their medal and rings by Jamel Herring and others. The Marines were beaming with pride and having Herring giving them their rings meant that much more to them.
Once that was over, the customary Anchors Away and the Marine Hymn was played, signaling the end of the ceremony. At this point, everyone was taking pictures, having some beverages, and enjoying each other’s company. This was a night that really showed the comradery that Marines are well known for in their rich history.
It was a great weekend and I truly enjoyed myself. The hope is that the Marine Corps can keep these sports teams together so that they can compete at the national and international level.
The Marine Corps Boxing HOF is home to some great ideas, which can turn into something bigger in the future. If successful, they can reach people around the country in a positive way.
For more information on how you can potentially be a part of that or donate to their program, feel free to send an email to: [email protected].
Feel free to visit their website, unitedstatesmarinecorpsboxinghalloffameinc.com .