You may not know this, but there is a Boxing Hall of Fame just as there is a Baseball Hall of Fame, and it’s located in the little town of Canastota, between Utica and Syracuse.
I know because I popped over there the other day to have a look, on what they call Hall of Fame Weekend.
There is no good reason for it to be in Canastota except that Carmen Basilio, best known for narrowly beating then narrowly losing to Sugar Ray Robinson in the 1950s, was born there, and also some local people in the 1980s got together and made it happen.
It’s a modest structure just off Exit 34 of the Thruway, and as you might expect, it contains memorabilia and artifacts of the sweet science since its early days — monogrammed trunks, sequined shoes, even protective cups worn by the greats of the game.
I gazed upon and contemplated:
• A pair of puffy but crumbling training gloves worn by Joe Louis in preparation for an exhibition bout held June 5, 1942;
• A leather-and-metal protective cup worn by “Bat” Battalino, featherweight champion from 1929 to 1932;
• A fringed leather loincloth, adorned by a large “M”, worn by Hector “Macho” Camacho, who had a taste for pseudo-Aztec regalia in the ring;
• An assortment of custom-fitted mouthpieces, like reverse dentures, made by Dr. Walter Jacobs for clients as illustrious as Mike Tyson;
• A satin robe worn by Muhammad Ali.
These items, some of them very showy in their time but creaky and brittle-looking today, put me in mind of the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley about the Egyptian potentate Ozymandias, whose boastful but busted statue was all that was left of his glory in later years.
A pair of frayed and fragile trunks, alas, suggests not immortality but its opposite.
Sugar Ray Leonard, already a Hall-of-Famer, was on hand, looking as trim and fit at the age of 56 as he did when he dazzled opponents like Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.
He gave a playful exhibition in an outdoor ring, demonstrating how to slip a punch, how to stay away from a strong right hand, how to alternate jabs to head and body, how to move side to side and stay out of reach. Except for the lines in his face and judging only by how he moved, it could have been the Leonard of 30 years ago.
The modest crowd on this drizzly day loved it, and so did I.
Al Bernstein, television sportscaster, was there to be inducted in the “observer” category, and he told us that while boxing in this country has declined to a “niche sport,” with a small but devoted audience, it has gotten bigger in Europe, where title fights draw as many as 50,000 spectators. He also opined that media interest in it might be growing here, albeit slowly, which is something I haven’t noticed myself.
He gave himself a ribbing for what he said was the biggest gaffe in his career, which was calling a fight starring Canadian light-heavyweight Donny Lalonde “the most boring fight of the year” when he didn’t realize that Lalonde had broken both hands early on and was just trying to survive.
And Lalonde was there to rub it in, good-naturedly, and recollect that when he went to the hospital to get his hands repaired the bill was going to be more than his purse for the fight, there being no universal health insurance in this country, so he went back to his room and did the plaster-casting himself.
It’s sometimes hard to believe how tough these guys are.
I thought of that when I spotted Mickey Ward, the fighter on whom the movie “The Fighter” is based, since I still cannot comprehend how anyone could have survived his three fights with Arturo Gatti, just as I cannot comprehend how Gatti survived either.
But there he was, alive and plucky, joking with other retired boxers, signing autographs, and seeming to have a jolly time.
Gatti, alas, did not make it this far, succumbing a few years ago to either murder or suicide, a matter that is still not resolved.
Well, it’s a hard sport — so hard that when I watch it I don’t think of it as a sport at all but as combat, pure and simple — and I was surprised as I always am at a gathering of boxers at the camaraderie among them. It’s a curious thing that I might write about another time.
Meanwhile I invite you to view my photos in the gallery above.