Canastota, N.Y., a village of 5,000 just east of Syracuse, bills itself as the onion capital of the U.S. But as of last summer, Canastota could add another enticement to its tourism brochure, with the opening of the International Boxing Hall of Fame Museum—the only museum in the country devoted solely to the sweet science.
Housed in a handsome frame building, the museum stands less than a quarter of a mile from Exit 34 on the New York State Thruway. With its careful landscaping and three tall flagpoles out front, the Hall of Fame could be easily mistaken for a drive-through bank or tourist information center. But inside, 3,000 square feet of display space are crammed with boxing memorabilia—from battered gloves and trunks to championship belts, posters and hundreds of photographs.
Former light heavyweight champion Jose Torres said at the dedication of the hall last June 10, "Here I get the smell of boxing."
Oddly enough, boxing, a pungent sport—and one with more history and color than most—has never had a true hall of fame. The Ring magazine founded one in 1954, inducting 24 of the sport's greatest figures that year, and since then it has continued to elect new members. But The Ring's hall remains little more than boxes stuffed with plaques and statues sitting around in the magazine's offices. In 1982 there was talk of a $1 million museum in Madison Square Garden. The next year plans were announced for a $34 million extravaganza to be built in Las Vegas. Neither of those projects made it to the opening bell.
Canastota, though far removed from the glitz of the Garden and Vegas, is not as unlikely a site for a boxing museum as it may seem. For Canastota knows its fighters as it does its onions. "This town has a great boxing tradition," says Ed Brophy, executive director of the Hall of Fame Museum and a native Canastotan. "All the bars and restaurants, the barber shops—even the funeral parlors—have fight photos on the walls."
Canastota has produced two world champions—Carmen Basilio, who twice held the welterweight title and in 1957 beat Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight crown, and Basilio's nephew Billy Backus, who held the welterweight title in the early '70s. The Boxing Hall of Fame grew directly out of the town's desire to honor its fistic heroes. Things began modestly, in 1984, when with $30,000 raised from donations, the Boxing Showcase was built. It was a small brick-and-glass structure set ingloriously at the edge of a McDonald's parking lot, across the road from the present museum. Inside the Showcase were life-sized bronze statues of Basilio and Backus, along with their championship belts and photos of their most famous battles. Tourists, replenished with Happy Meals, could push a button and watch a videotape showing highlights of the local champs' careers. "The Showcase was a start for us. Now we had enshrined our champions," says Brophy. "That's when we began to think in bigger terms."
Brophy, together with a group of local businessmen, spent the next two years conducting feasibility studies and raising money. With a $135,000 grant from the state of New York, the committee purchased a 10-acre plot on which stood an old seven-room house that would be razed to its foundation to be reborn, at double the size, as the Hall of Fame (a local architect donated his services for the renovation). As word of the project got out, memorabilia began to come in—from fans, historians and fighters.
The museum opened to great local fanfare with a "Banquet of Champions," an affair attended by 400 people. In addition to Torres, the former champs in attendance included Basilio, Backus, heavyweights Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson, light heavyweight Bob Foster and welterweight Kid Gavilan, who—dressed in spats—demonstrated his famous bolo punch.
Given almost any excuse, Brophy proudly screens a videotape of the hall's opening day. First you see the former champions ducking in through the doors from a light summer rain. Then, to a man, the old fighters look around and begin to grin and point. They search out their own pictures on the wall. Foster nostalgically fingers the material of his old robe. Frazier and Patterson duplicate the poses of life-sized cutout figures of themselves in their prime. "I don't see how they could have done it any better," says Frazier.
The museum lacks the slickness and the scope of its baseball counterpart 45 miles down the road in Cooperstown. There are no multimedia theaters and no lavish gift shops. Champions' robes, including Foster's, are displayed along the wall on hangers, as if they'd just come back from the dry cleaner's, and visitors are likely to be greeted by Brophy at the door. All of which adds a perfect air of gritty hominess to this most basic of sports.
"We try to make the visit not only an enjoyable, nostalgic experience but an educational one as well," says Brophy. To that end there are exhibits explaining the basic punches and defenses of the sport (illustrated with photographs of great fighters in action) as well as exhibits covering the history of boxing nicknames and the rules and scoring of bouts. There are some surprises, too. A collection of tickets to historic fights makes a colorful, indeed beautiful, display, and a sampling of the tabloid Illustrated Current News from the 1930s gives a vivid idea of what following boxing was like before television.
The only thing missing is an actual hall of fame. And that's coming soon. The inaugural inductions will be held this year, on the museum's first anniversary (the inductees will be announced on April 7), and a section of the hall will be redesigned to accommodate the gallery of those honored. Beyond that, there are also tentative plans to add an outdoor training complex on the grounds.
"Boxing has been good to Canastota," says Brophy. "Our goal now is to grow and gain visibility in the sport." Maybe in a few years trainers in gyms across the country will be telling their young pugs, "Keep punching, son, and someday you'll make it to Canastota."