CANASTOTA -- Two life-sized statues of boxers stand inside the International Boxing Hall of Fame Museum, located just off Exit 34 on the State Thruway, about 20 miles east of Syracuse.
One might expect the likenesses of Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis, generally considered to be the greatest heavyweight champions. Or perhaps Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion in several classifications who was said to be the best fighter “pound for pound” to ever step into a ring.
Instead, the statues are of Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus, two former welterweight champions who grew up in this village of about 4,000. The effort by local boxing buffs to honor them also led to establishing a hall of fame that would commemorate all prize fighters and preserve the sport’s history.
Basilio fought in the late 1950s, and added a middleweight title to his list of ring accomplishments. Backus, Basilio’s nephew, won the welterweight title in 1970 against Jose Napoles, despite going into the fight a 9-to-1 underdog.
The boxing museum, which opened in 1989, is housed in a small building that looks even tinier when compared to its baseball counterpart in Cooperstown, 70 miles southeast. A pavilion houses an indoor gift shop and a boxing ring, used in Madison Square Garden from 1925 to 2007 for many of boxing’s most famous fights.
Despite its size, the boxing hall still packs quite a punch.
Plaques tells the story of each of the 432 hall of fame inductees. Their ranks will expand by six on June 11, when the induction of a group headed by former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield caps a weekend of festivities featuring dozens of ex-fighters.
Many of the fighters are remembered through photographs, fight programs, posters, admission tickets and other memorabilia.
There’s a ticket from Ali’s 1970 comeback match against heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry in Atlanta. Ali was stripped of his title at the time, and that fight ended a forced 3 1/2 year boxing suspension after he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam war.
George Chuvalo, the former Canadian heavyweight boxing champ and a supporter of the hall of fame, will be at this year’s induction. He lost two decisions to Muhammad Ali, including once for the world title in 1966, and scored a seventh-round knockout of Quarry in 1969.
“It’s kind of a crazy business, boxing,” Chuvalo said on the phone from Ontario. “You fight a guy when he was champion of the world. He tries to kill me, and I try to kill him, and we end up becoming friends. I liked Muhammad a lot. He was compassionate, and he helped a lot of people.”
Chuvalo said when he saw Quarry next, years after their fight, it was sad. “He looked like he was lost in space somewhere. He couldn’t connect with the human race.”
Chuvalo, who fought 93 professional fights without ever being knocked down, accepts brain injuries as an unfortunate aspect of boxing, calling it “a part of the game.”
The most colorful display shows what fighters wore in the ring, including robes worn by boxing champions Benny Leonard, Emile Griffith, Marvin Hagler, Carlos Ortiz and Vito Antuofermo.
Worn boxing gloves recall Joe Louis’ 12-year reign as champ, and when Rocky Marciano defeated future champ Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952.
A Kong-sized fist cast of Primo Carnera, the 6-foot-5-inch fighter who tipped the scales at 265 pounds, boxing’s heaviest champ, is on display.
A simple blue stool serves as a reminder of its role as a respite for fighters during the one-minute rest between rounds.
“When the fighter rests, the corner goes to work,” a text panel says. “Acting as a strategist, teacher and cheerleader, a corner man’s job is to instruct and motivate in a concise 60-second monologue. Often a fight can be won or lost during the one-minute rest between rounds.”
The International Boxing Hall of Fame has a lot to offer boxing fans. But the space also feels frozen in the 20th century, when the sport was more popular.
Boxing champions, especially in the heavyweight division, were once practically household names. No more. Over the years, multiple boxing associations have diluted fighters’ recognition by making unified champions a rarity. No exhibits address this thorny issue.
The rise in popularity of mixed martial arts, which has challenged boxing’s supremacy in the fight world, is also ignored.
Nor does the museum recognize the mounting evidence, and growing concern concerning the correlation between boxing and the kind of brain injuries that caught up with Ali and Quarry.
Here’s hoping the bell tolls soon for the museum to more accurately reflect today’s era, too.
If you go:
The International Boxing Hall of Fame is located right off Exit 34 of the New York State Thruway past Syracuse, 170 miles from City Hall. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Admission is $13.50 for adults, $11.50 for seniors, $8.50 for youth ages 7 to 15, and free ages six and under.
The induction ceremony will be held June 8 to June 11. There are three days of paid events leading up to the 1 p.m. June 11 parade followed by the 2:30 p.m. induction, which is free and open to the public. For more information, call 315-697-7095 or go to www.ibhof.com.