CANASTOTA – The first thing you learn when you enter the International Boxing Hall of Fame, if you weren’t already curious enough to find out the answer, is why it is located in Canastota, a village of about 4,000 people and known, because of surrounding farms, as Onion Town.
The guide asks the question and then answers it. He tells you Canastota was the home to two boxing champions, Carmen Basilio, who held both the middleweight and welterweight titles in the 1950s, and Billy Backus, welterweight champ in the 1970s. That’s not entirely a coincidence; it seems to run in the family. Basilio was Backus’ uncle.
Basilio died in early November, and reading news reports about his death reminded me that I long wanted to visit the Boxing Hall of Fame.
Once the guide asks and answers the question of “Why Canastota?,” you’re left on your own. How much time you need will depend on just how interested you are in boxing history. The Hall of Fame itself isn’t too big. It’s housed in what looks like a prefabricated house.
Next door is a related building that contains a gift shop and the boxing ring used at Madison Square Garden in New York City for more than eight decades. That ring will be the highlight of the visit for many people. Reach in and touch the floor and you learn that it’s bouncy. Touch one of the ropes and you realize it’s not a rope but padding around a chain.
For most people, about an hour should give them a careful view of everything in the two buildings. For the boxing aficionado, more time will be required.
More than 300 people have been enshrined in the hall. Some of the names are familiar to even those who don’t follow boxing: Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano. Some are likely to be known to casual fight fans or movie buffs, names like Max Baer (he’s the guy who lost to Jim Braddock of “Cinderella Man” fame), Jake LaMotta (subject of what many consider the greatest fight movie ever, “Raging Bull”), and James Jeffries (who lost to Jack Johnson in the fight that was at the center of the movie “The Great White Hope”).
Some names will be obscure to even the most devoted fans, like Aileen Eaton, Professor Mike Donavan and Mysterious Billy Smith. (Eaton was a promoter and the first woman inducted into the hall; Donavan was a 19th century bare-knuckles fighter who gave boxing lessons to Theodore Roosevelt; Smith was a 19th century welterweight champ who elbowed, kneed, head-butted and bit his opponents often enough to earn him the title of “Dirtiest Fighter Who Ever Lived”).
The actual Hall of Fame takes up less than a quarter of the smaller building. The rest of that building is a museum.
There are eight TVs scattered around the two buildings, showing highlights of famous fights. One exhibit has 34 casts of fists of fighters. The largest by far, seemingly twice as large as most of the others, is of Primo Carnera, a heavyweight who did most of his boxing in the 1930s and who stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 275 pounds.
In the gift shop you can buy autographed boxing gloves. A Carmen Basilio glove goes for $85, a typical price. There are also T-shirts for $20, sweatshirts for $30, and the other paraphernalia you expect to find in similar places. And Muhammad Ali playing cards.
The trip to the Hall of Fame won’t be complete unless you go across the street to the parking lot of the McDonald’s, where you’ll find a brick and glass kiosk containing a tribute to Basilio. It displays large photos of some of his fights, two robes he wore into the ring, and a picture of him with baseball great Ted Williams.
As long as you’re close by, make a quick trip to downtown Canastota. Turn left coming out of the Hall of Fame parking lot and downtown is about a minute away along a block and a half of Peterboro Street. It consists of the usual array of gift shops, pizzeria, bakery, and other small-town retail. But on the north side of the street is a memorial to the victims of 9/11 that includes a three-foot section of an I-beam salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
Go a block south from that main street and you’re on Main Street, and near the intersection with MacArthur Street is a historic marker pointing out the boyhood home of Basilio. You’ll want to see that, because Basilio is the reason you came to Canastota.
If you go
Canastota is about 20 minutes east of Syracuse. Take the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) east to Exit 34 (not 34A), and the International Boxing Hall of Fame (www.ibhof.com) is visible from the toll booths, on your right. There’s plenty of free parking.
The hall is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 .am. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $9.50; $9 for seniors, $6.50 for those ages 7 to 15, and free for children 6 and younger. For more information, call (315) 697-7095.