The International Boxing Hall of Fame: Home to Legends and Legendary Fans

by Damon Ealy

It’s Induction Weekend

From here, the drive northeast to Canastota for the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s induction weekend in early June is an easy one-north for a while, right turn at Buffalo, east for a while-during a beautiful part of the year. Last year, 2007, was my first visit to the Hall, and for my family-my wife and daughter, who was nine months old at the time-it was our first real trip anywhere as a group.

Induction weekend is a long one, starting on Thursday. We arrived on Friday morning. My first impression of the Hall was from the New York State Thruway, I-90. It sits right there, just to the west of the tollbooths. “That’s it?” I asked, not unimpressed, but surprised to find the place we’d driven so far for suddenly so close. It’s far smaller than I thought it’d be: a nice covered stage, a warehouse and the Hall itself, a brown, house-like building, all surrounded by a bit of green land and some trees. We drove through Canastota, through the community of Oneida Castle and east toward Verona, where we were staying, not far from the Turning Stone, site of a number of pro bouts over the last decade or so.

That afternoon, we returned to the Hall and chatted with some of the people on the grounds. A gregarious guy, a veteran of the induction weekend, sat at a table with us and animatedly recalled celebrity encounters of years past. When he spotted Christy Martin, he hustled us in her direction, insisting we get a picture of her with our daughter. I looked sideways at my wife, caught her eye and winced. Uncomfortable. The autograph-seeking and photo ops were definitely not what we were there for. I moved slowly, but our new friend was not to be deterred. He waved us over, introduced us to Christy and asked for a photo. She gave us a friendly hello, and we both relaxed a little. Now we have a snap of our baby with a future Hall of Famer.

With an infant along for the ride, we knew we couldn’t swing the high-end events associated with the weekend-the banquets and golf-so we didn’t even plan on them. But it wasn’t a problem filling the gaps in our time. We drove further east to Utica and toured the Matt Brewing Company (makers of Saranac beers) and checked out the Utica Zoo. Oneida Lake and its beaches are just north of the Hall, and Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame is about an hour and half’s drive southeast.

But we enjoyed just hanging around Canastota. If any Canastotans minded the invasion of their town by thousands of weekenders, they didn’t show it. The area is the kind of America I’d like non-Americans to know: friendly, not corporatized, plenty of outdoor space, quiet but alive.

We did plenty of Hall-related things, too. On the grounds on a clear 90-degree afternoon, we listened in on a question-and-answer session with 2007 inductee Pernell Whitaker and Lou Duva. Both guys did a lot of answering, and Duva’s chemistry with Pea, one of his “kids” from the ’84 Olympic team was fun to see, even for a casual fan like my wife. My notes read:

– Whitaker: Trinidad “might have been” toughest fight.
– “What if I fought Duran?” (x 3, 4) – would’ve preferred a fight at welter, not light.
– Duva pulls cell from pocket, answers – “Hello? Don King? I’m busy” & hangs up. [ Laughter ]
– Duva: Pea “team member,” “danced into the gym and danced out” … “closest … is Fred Astaire.”
– Whitaker: “What if I fought Duran?” (5)

We were glad to pay the entry fee to the Hall (nine dollars, by my recollection) to get out of the heat for a while. We lingered there and posed for some photos with the relics. The museum is probably smaller than the median suburban ranch home, but it’s laid out in a classy, contemporary way. And it’s packed with colors and textures-the hard, angular bronze cast of Primo Carnera’s fist, faded tickets from ’40s title fights preserved behind glass, colorful silk fight robes (I stopped in front of Livingstone Bramble’s, a cartoonish skull stitched onto it).

I’d decided that Emile Griffith is the girls’ favorite fighter (I’m sure the affable Hall of Famer would remind both of them of a grandfather), so we made sure to be at the memorabilia expo held at the Canastota’s High gym. Griffith has been a fixture at the IBHOF’s induction weekend, and we hoped to catch a glimpse and maybe say hi.

We missed Emile, but we were lucky enough to meet fellow Pittsburghers Paul and Patty Kennedy. Paul is a former newspaperman and published author of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. His Billy Conn: The Pittsburgh Kid was published by AuthorHouse in 2007, and he and Patty were there to sell the book and enjoy the weekend.

I found out that Paul grew up in the same part of town we live in. As a kid in Pittsburgh’s East End, Paul would spot the elderly Conn on his well-known walks in his Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Paul signed a copy to our daughter. It was a real treasure to take home from Canastota.

Sunday is the busiest day of the weekend, with a parade through downtown in the morning and the induction ceremony in early afternoon. It was an exciting day, but a hot one with a lot of walking that left us hungry. We decided to splurge on for our last in Canastota and eat at Graziano’s Casa Mia, just down and across the road from the Hall and next door to the original “Hall of Fame,” roadside statues of Canastota ring greats Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus next to the McDonald’s on Route 13.

Graziano’s is happening on induction weekend. We weaved through the packed bar, baby on my wife’s arm, squeezing past some familiar faces on the way and others that I had a feeling should’ve been familiar. The dining room was nearly empty, and we enjoyed some for-real Italian food. Tony Graziano came to check on us, and we chatted with the retired local judge and his wife at the nearby table. The baby was loud, and she was messy, but no one minded, and our waitress fussed over us. We promised the judge and his wife we’d be back.

But it’s a year later. The induction weekend is beginning today, and I’m in Pittsburgh, getting ready for another workday. I know we’ll be back, probably next year. I might not even walk through the Hall itself again, but I want to run into the Kennedys and the judge and his wife again and eat at Graziano’s. I don’t care so much who’s being inducted, but I want the girls to see their favorite fighter, and I want to get back to a place where they love boxing so much they built a shrine to it and invited us all to come in.

For more information on the International Boxing Hall of Fame, check out their official website:

http://www.ibhof.com/

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