BY JOHN THEALL Sports writer

MEETING A LEGEND — Boxing Hall of Fame member Sugar Ray Leonard jokes with fans while signing autographs at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota on Friday. Leonard is one of some 40 boxing stars on hand to take part in this weekend’s 23rd annual event. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

MEET AND GREET ¿ Former junior welterweight and welterweight contender and Canastota native Dickie DiVeronica signs a autograph for Isaac Lyautey from Rochester on Friday during the 23rd annual International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

TAKING SOME JABS — Light heavyweight boxer Ryan McKenzie poses for a photo with 11-year-old Alex Bonilla from Virginia during Friday’s celebrity workout sessions at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Weekend festivities resumed today and will conclude on Sunday with the Parade of Champions and the Hall of Fame inductees ceremony. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

SWEET SCIENCE — Light heavyweight fighters Jimmy Garcia, right, puts together a few combinations on Martiez Potter during sparring aciton at the 23rd annual International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota on Friday. Celebrity workout sessions were one of the several activities taking place on the day, which concludes on Sunday with the Parade of Champions and the induction speeches. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

Joe Cortez (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

CANASTOTA — Boxing enthusiasts came out in droves on Friday to welcome some of this year’s inductees while getting an opportunity to reconnect with former champions and current Hall members as they shared their favorite stories during the 23rd annual International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend.

This year’s class includes multi-division champion Thomas "Hitman" Hearns, two-division champion Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson, "Let’s Get Ready To Rumble" ring announcer Michael Buffer, legendary trainer Freddie Roach, broadcaster Al Bernstein and journalist Michael Katz.

Posthumous honorees include, Cocoa Kid in the Modern Category; Newsboy Brown, Leo Houck and Jake Kilrain in the Old-Timer Category; promoters Hugh D. McIntosh and Rip Valenti in the Non Participant Category; and James Wharton in the Pioneer Category.

Inductees were voted in by members of the Boxing Writers Association and a panel of international boxing historians.

Detroit’s legendary "Hitman" Hearns finished his career with a 61-5-1 record with 48 knockouts. He was the first man to win titles in four different divisions, and later added another division title. He holds wins over Harold Weston, Juan Roldan, Virgil Hill, Wilfred Benitez, Pipino Cuevas and Robert Duran.

The fighting pride of Washington, D.C., Johnson was the first African American flyweight and super flyweight champion in history. The southpaw "Too Sharp’s" pro record went to 44-5 overall with 28 KOs.

Other members of the Hall of Fame induction class include, Buffer, who is known worldwide for his signature phrase, "Let’s Get Ready To Rumble," Roach has trained over 20 champions, Bernstein has a 30-year career as broadcaster for ESPN and SHOWTIME and journalist Katz wrote for The New York Daily News and The New York Times.

The Hall of Fame weekend began on Thursday and by the time the sunny weather rolled through on Friday, a supportive crowd was on hand to experience some ringside lectures from past fighters, while also being able to see young up-and-comers spar during a celebrity workout session, and see some of this year’s induction class have their fist casted all while being able to have personal conversations with the former legends of the ring.

The events concludes Sunday with the Parade of Champions with grand marshal 1991 Heisman Trophy winner and Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard leading the parade through downtown Canastota and to the museum grounds for the induction speeches.

Over 40 boxing stars are expected to participate in the weekend festivities.

Among the special guests making a visit was none other than five-time world title winner in five weight divisions and "Boxer of the Decade" for 1980’s, Sugar Ray Leonard.

Leonard, who hung up his gloves in 1997 after he lost to Héctor Camacho in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was later inducted into the Hall of Fame later that year, and finished his career with a record of 36­3­1 with 25 knockouts with an Olympic Gold Medal.

He said he was on hand to welcome in Hearns after the two of them had two classic bouts in the 80’s. The first match went a staggering fourteen rounds in 1981 at Caesars Palace in Paradise, Nevada, with Hearns leading most of the match before Leonard slowed Hearns with an overhand right and pinned Hearns against the ropes, where he unleashed another furious combination, prompting referee Davey Pearl to stop the contest and award Leonard the Unified World Welterweight Championship. Hearns was leading by scores of 124-122, 125-122, and 125-121.

In the second bout, dubbed "The War", took place at Caesar’s Palace in a scheduled twelve-rounder in 1989 for Hearns’ WBC Super Middleweight Championship.

Hearns dropped Leonard with a right cross in the third round, but Leonard came back and battered Hearns around the ring in the fifth round. Early in the seventh round, Hearns hurt Leonard but punched himself out going for the knockout. With Hearns fatigued, Leonard came back and had a strong finish to the round. Rounds nine and ten were good rounds for Leonard, but he ran into trouble in the eleventh round. Three booming rights from Hearns sent Leonard down for the second time in the fight. Knowing he needed a big finish, Leonard fought furiously and had a big final round.

The judges scored the fight a draw. Judge Jerry Roth scored the fight 113-112 for Hearns, Judge Tom Kazmarek scored it 113-112 for Leonard, and Judge Dalby Shirley scored it 112-112. Shirley was the only judge to give Leonard a 10-8 margin in the twelfth. If he had scored it 10-9, as his two colleagues did, Hearns would have won by a split decision. The decision was soundly booed, as most felt that Hearns had won the fight.

Leonard said the two are friends to this day and he wanted to congratulate him on making his long awaited induction into the Hall of Fame.

"This is unbelievable. Tommy Hearns finally getting in. Those fights with him were some of my most defining moments, and we’re good friends now," Leonard said.

When asked if he congratulated Hearns Leonard jokingly said, "I yell at Tommy."

"Yeah, I just spoke to his lovely family and we left our rivalry in the ring. We’re good friends now, and I congratulated him. Tommy, Berstein, Buffer, and Johnson, that’s a great group, it’s a great class. This is awesome. I love coming here. It’s been amazing being here. I mean there is so much love and support here. I consider this home," added Leonard.

Leonard wasn’t the only Hall of Fame alumni on hand for the event.

Current longtime referee Joe Cortez, who was a part of last year’s class with Mike Tyson, Sylvester Stallone, Julio Cesar Chavez, Kostya Tszyu, and Nacho Beristain, said that he was back to celebrate his one-year anniversary before heading out later Friday night to officiate tonight’s bout between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley in Las Vegas.

"It’s my first-year anniversary, and you have to treat it like a marriage. If you don’t celebrate it, you’re in trouble. So, I felt like it was the best to come out here and see the people, and I think I’ll try and make it out here every year," Cortez said.

"The class that I went in with has to be the best class to ever go into the Hall of Fame, but for me it was just a great honor to be considered for the honor either way. There is another great class going in this year, and it’s like an extended family here. I think this is the best event that every boxing fan needs to attend. It’s a privilege to be amongst all the legends, but most importantly, the fans.

Buffer and Pacquiao’s trainer Roach will also work the fight before taking Roach’s $26,000 private jet to make sure they make it to the Parade of Ceremonies on Sunday in Canastota and deliver their Hall of Fame speeches.

Celebrity workout sessions were just one of the activities going on during the afternoon events.

Among the fans in attendance was Brian Scaley, who made the 700-mile trek from Chicago for a chance to meet a few former fighters, but was in awe that he got to meet more than he ever expected.

"It’s probably going to be the first of many times because this is awesome. I collect autographs, and I love that the boxers are so personable and very easy to approach and sign whatever you’d like them too," he said.