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Monday, June 12, 2000
Why I need to visit Canastota again

By Tim Graham
Special to

CANASTOTA, N.Y. -- This is surreal.

That's all I could think to myself as I stood in the bustling lobby of the Days Inn off Exit 34 on the New York State Thruway.

I was sipping a cup of coffee in the erstwhile overnight stopover for weary travelers heading to Boston or the Adirondacks or who knows where. There was the ubiquitous rack of tourism pamphlets asking folks to visit places like the Towpath Trail at the Old Erie Canal State Park and Casolwood Golf Course. The Weather Channel was on the television.

Nothing unusual about all that.

But a glance around the room, roughly the size of a small apartment, quickly skewed the setting farther from Rockwell and closer to Dali.

Marvin Hagler stood to my left. Ken Norton was in the hallway behind me. Jimmy Bivins rested in the armchair. Lou Duva sat on the edge of the sofa. Alexis Arguello leaned against the front desk. Carmen Basilio cracked jokes with George Chuvalo. Joe Frazier ambled from an adjoining room.

And Grandpa Munster was yelling to anyone who would listen that he "knew more about roundball than anybody who ever lived."

It was my first trip to quaint Canastota, home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, where several new members were inducted over the weekend. The dignitaries were waiting Sunday morning for vans to shuttle them off to Fiore Funeral Home, the starting point for the annual parade.

Showers had moved through Central New York all morning and were threatening to dampen the parade, but the sun broke through in time for the journey down Peterborough Street, through the three-block area known as the heart of the village and past the porches of waving residents. That's where Al Lewis, a k a Grandpa from "The Munsters," came in. He was the grand marshal for some reason.

No matter who leads the procession, induction weekend ignites Canastota -- population around 5,000 -- four days out of the year, as an estimated 20,000 boxing enthusiasts converge on the village for a chance to see boxing's greatest people and relive its finest moments in an impressively personal manner.

It was the 11th induction weekend for the still-growing Hall of Fame, but it was the first time I had attended. I had passed Exit 34 countless times over the years, usually traveling between Cleveland and Boston, but I never seemed to have enough time to visit the 3,000-square-foot museum. Then again I'm the stereotypical male long-distance driver: The only way I stop is if the gas gauge is flirting with the E.

The Hall of Fame experience was simply sensational. I love boxing. It's the sport I'm most passionate about, mostly because the fighters, far and away, are the most genial in all of professional sports.

I've had the pleasure of working with the greats in settings ranging from their dining rooms to casino ballrooms. I've had multiple encounters with Muhammad Ali. I've done exclusive Mike Tyson interviews. I've been to Don King's house. I've sat down with Oscar De La Hoya on his living room couch. I've had dinner with Johnny Tapia.

But at no time during those moments did I feel the aura of boxing's magnitude like I did during induction weekend in Canastota.

I pulled off the Thruway (Interstate 90) at the Canastota exit, about 20 miles east of Syracuse, and handed the toll booth operator my money. The gray-haired gentleman seemed up for the occasion, chomping on a stogie with not too many puffs left on it.

"Can you tell me how far the Hall of Fame is from here?" I asked, as he handed me my five-cents change. Without blinking he pointed past me and through my passenger-side window. I could have thrown my nickel and literally hit the building from the booth.

Ten seconds later I was parked and out of my car. I was surprised at how unassuming the building looked. After all, this was boxing, and after living in Las Vegas for four years, I was expecting something a little more -- well, gaudy.

But the Hall of Fame is a reserved, cedar-sided structure. To use a Spinks analogy, it's more Michael than Leon.

The Hall of Fame sprouted up in this onion-farming village based on its two favorite sons: Uncle Carmen Basilio and nephew Billy Backus. Believed to be the first champions from the same family, Basilio won a middleweight and two welterweight titles, while Backus once wore the welterweight belt.

After building a drive-by, gazebo-like enclosure to pay homage to Basilio and Backus -- virtually in the front yard of a McDonald's -- Canastotans decided to go several steps further and give boxing the shrine it deserved.

The village raised $150,000 through donations and state grants to purchase 10 acres of land across the street from the McDonald's in 1989, and a year later boxing lore finally had a home.

The International Boxing Hall of Fame draws 50,000 boxing fans a year. They come from around the globe to see artifacts that can be considered significant, mundane or just plain strange.

Of course, there are title belts and vintage photos and old gloves and ticket stubs and programs. But there also are off-beat displays such as a strange-looking metal cup worn by early featherweight champ Bat Battalino (it looks more like what Hannibal Lecter wore on his head), a collection of mouthpieces (no trace of flesh on Mike Tyson's) and a case filled with the cornerman's tools, including all three allowable coagulants.

Visitors also can see bronze casts of the boxer's No. 1 tool: the fist. The castings of Primo Carnera and Abe Simon are as big as a human head, while others such as Jack McAuliffe and Tony Canzoneri and Emile Griffith, are surprisingly small.

Just outside the museum, induction weekend festivities included celebrity workouts by Bernard Hopkins and Angel Manfredy and guest lectures from the likes of Danny "Little Red" Lopez, James "Bonecrusher" Smith and Arthur Mercante.

There are plans to expand upon the experience. The Hall of Fame intends to use a $300,000 state grant to build a permanent outdoor pavilion -- temporary structures were erected for the weekend -- and establish a research library. The museum basement is stocked with myriad items there isn't room to display, including over 700 boxing books and a complete collection of The Ring magazine.

But induction weekend activities aren't limited to the Hall of Fame grounds. The entire village comes alive this time of year, and many Canastotans comprise the legion of about 150 volunteers who assist the Hall of Fame's tireless four-person full-time staff.

A boxing memorabilia show took place at the high school. A golf tournament went on at Casolwood Saturday morning. The Banquet of Champions was held Saturday night at the Rusty Rail Restaurant once a cocktail party adjourned from the Greystone Church, a remarkably renovated old building now used for various gatherings.

Much of the talk was about boxing Saturday afternoon at the Three Pines Restaurant, a watering hole on the Peterborough parade route with a boxing wall of fame next to the Lethal Enforcers video arcade game. An astute local named Sammy, who takes pride in living across the street from Backus, made sure to ask all who sat at the bar who their favorite boxers were.

"Arguello," said one. "Ray Mancini," added another. "Roy Jones," someone called.

Then one patron mentioned he wasn't much of a fan.

"Oh, come on," Sammy replied. "Everybody's a boxing fan in Canastota, especially on Hall of Fame weekend."

The young man begrudgingly offered "De La Hoya."

The woman behind the bar at the Three Pines was asked what people can look forward to in Canastota the rest of the year. "Nothing," she chuckled before seriously correcting herself. "Well, except for the fishing derby."

There was plenty going on Saturday night at Graziano's Restaurant. The place, owned by Backus' trainer Tony Graziano, was awash in the Hall of Fame spirit. The parking lot was jammed, but not everyone planned on going inside. A multitude of memorabilia collectors stood on guard with their open car trunks filled with stuff to be signed. As the boxers straggled in following the banquet, they were besieged with autograph requests. They affably honored as many as they could.

Graziano's was hopping until long after last call. Arguello, Carlos Ortiz, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Iran Barkley were relentless on the dance floor, but still couldn't escape more autograph seekers, who danced alongside with pens in hand.

New inductee Jeff Chandler couldn't greet enough fans, and Aaron Pryor couldn't tell enough jokes. Hagler, relaxing in a back room, seemingly couldn't get enough peace.

Most of the honorees looked rather spry Sunday morning as they waited out the rain and the start of the parade. It was a big day for the Class of 2000. Two of the four living inductees -- Chandler and Ken Buchanan -- are unemployed. A third, Carl "Bobo" Olson, is dealing with the late stages of Alzheimer's Disease. Argentine promoter Tito Lectoure was the fourth.

The surrealism continued once the cars started rolling past the gathered throngs along the route.

There were fire engines, floats, marching bands, a bagpipe band, the flag corps, the Girl Scouts, the state assemblyman and even McGruff the Crime Dog and the Crash Test Dummies. In so many ways it was your average small-town parade.

One moment people were applauding the local Brownie troop, the next they were cheering a fleet of men who dedicated themselves to beating the hell out of each of other.

It was bizarre, and I loved it.

Like the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction parade motors down Peterborough Street, I owe it to myself every year to cruise down the New York State Thruway and back to Canastota. boxing writer Tim Graham has covered the Sweet Science for The Buffalo News, The Ring Magazine, Las Vegas Sun and The Washington Post.