Boxing’s legacy frozen in Canastota, NY

The International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. features the same boxing ring featured in Madison Square Garden for decades.

Edward Brophy quickly shuffled papers together in his office, looked at the clock and rushed towards the front desk. It was Dec. 4, and Brophy was in the midst of his busiest day of the timid Canastota, N.Y., winter. He checked with that day’s cashier, long-time employee Rachel Shaw, and then dashed into the bowels of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

A literal rock throw away from an Interstate-81 toll booth, the IBHOF’s main building could be misconstrued as a woodman’s cabin. It’s vaulted ceilings, wood-paneled exhibits and rug carpets give the two-building structure a dated feel. A visitor’s log-in book sits on a table in the main foyer. And in the last three days, no one has visited the Hall. Twenty-four hours later, Brophy would announce the IBHOF’s 2019 induction class, headlined by current ESPN commentator and former trainer Teddy Atlas.

Brophy predicted that all the major news outlets would pick up the story. Induction Weekend — celebrating its 30th year next June — is the busiest time of the year, Brophy said. The weekend, a four-day event, brings in approximately $3 million each year, according to Jim Walter, executive director of Madison County Tourism.

The IBHoF announcement was written by the Associated Press and printed in the New York Times. Yet, according to Google’s Trends report, the search term “boxing hall of fame” totaled a 9 on a scale to 100 quantifying “interest over time.” Since 2011, the sport’s popularity has declined through diminished pay-per-view buys, lost television deals, and rising interest in the other four major sports and mixed martial arts.

“We’re usually pretty busy in the summer,” Mike Delaney, another full-time employee of the Hall, said. “But in the winter not as many people come by.”

Since 1990, the Hall has been the convergence of the boxing world. It has annually announced a grouping of former athletes and visionaries that defined the “Sweet Science” of boxing. Yet, in recent years, it’s become a vestige of the past rooted in Central New York.

To understand why a boxing hall of fame is adjacent to a highway on a desolate patch of brown and green, in a city that habits less than 5,000 residents, one must consult history. Carmen Basilo, a native of Canastota born in 1927, defeated Sugar Ray Robinson and won the Middleweight World Championship. Billy Backus, Basilo’s nephew, also was born in the region and was a champion.

Other champs are from the area as well, and The International Boxing Hall of Fame, which had its inaugural year in 1989, was founded by residents of the town. It is one of two recognized boxing memorials in the United States. The other is in California.

On a recent visit, an attendee walked by a glass display case holding dozens of bronzed fists. Each corresponded to an inductee, the names ranging from Sugar Ray Robinson to Muhammad Ali. The visitor glanced at the fists and tilted her head to the side. “Wait,” she said before pausing for a moment, “Mike Tyson used to box?”

The International Boxing Hall of Fame features memorabilia from every era of boxing.

The placement of the IBHOF in Canastota is much like boxing’s current level of relevance in modern-day culture. Both are tucked away in the corner of Americana, intrinsically tied to the past. So much so that it indirectly prohibits its future. Ali, Oscar De La Hoya, and Evander Holyfield are all considered in the “Modern Era.” Time has warped the wood of the Hall, the lights constantly sit at a slight dim, as if the sun is perpetually setting on the glory days of the sport that was.

The Hall’s tour begins with a look at the sport’s history, featuring issues of Ring Magazine, commonly referred to as The Ring. Billed as “The Bible of Boxing,” it started in 1922 and boxing’s biggest stars graced the covers. On a back wall in the IBHOF, nine issues are lined up. On the top row, the faces of Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis stare back at visitors. The second row features Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Ali, and Tyson. The names thin toward the third row, however, with the lone mainstream star being Floyd Mayweather in an early-21st-century edition.

A Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll conducted in 2017 stated that 28 percent of Americans consider themselves fans of boxing, nearly matching mixed martial arts. If one of boxing’s lowest periods is the last 10 years, then that directly coincides with the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts juggernaut.

In 2015, UFC produced a revenue of $609 million. In 2016, boxing’s biggest star of the modern era, Floyd Mayweather Jr., retired (he would return one year later to box’s UFC most-famous fighter Conor McGregor). UFC also set a record-setting deal when it’s parent company — Zuffa — was sold to a group headed by William Morris Endeavor talent agency for $4.025 billion.

In the Hall’s gift shop back in Canastota, N.Y., slotted next to off-brand fight T-shirts, above a set of discounted signed boxing gloves, and 10 feet away from the same boxing ring featured in Madison Square Garden for decades, two red and blue UFC hats are for sale.

“The increasing popularity of MMA combined with the dwindling influence of boxing in recent years has sparked endless debates pitting MMA and boxing against each other,” Johny Payne, a Sportskeeda Senior Analyst says. “In spite of being relatively new as a business, in comparison to boxing, MMA constantly keeps taking the spotlight away.”

The International Boxing Hall of Fame embraces the greats surrounding the sport as well.

Throughout the Hall, televisions are spread across the two buildings. The spotlight is shining on the past. The screens capture the history of the sport and past fights originally aired on Home Box Office. HBO, as ESPN Senior Writer Dan Rafael wrote, was a “platform that created modern pay-per-view,” and “the launching pad for most of the sport’s biggest stars.” One television is placed next to a history of boxing’s rise through mass communication. This past September, HBO announced that it would stop showing live fights for the first time in 45 years.

It appears as if the public relevancy of boxing is limited to small bursts. Since 2012, five boxing pay-per-view fights have popped 1 million buys, four of those featured Mayweather and the lone outlier contained Manny Pacquiao, boxing’s second-biggest star of the era. Even in the mainstream media sphere, boxing has struggled to sustain the public’s interest. 2015’s “Creed” — the Michael B. Jordan-led continuation of the Rocky Balboa franchise — totaled $173 million in the domestic box office. But a year later, boxing’s largest pay-per-view, a bout between Canelo Alvarez and Amir Khan, scraped together 600,000 buys.

The Hall has struggled with popularity, too. The Madison County Tourism group estimated that the IBHoF has contributed more than $20 million to the local Central New York economy, kicking back $1.2 million in taxes to the state. Despite that, the Hall hasn’t been renovated or expanded.

In a side section of the hall’s main building, a room with a mounted television hangs in the corner. On it, an old video hyping an old Joe Lewis fight shows George Foreman in a tuxedo in front of a swing band. Foreman walks up to the camera and smiles.

“It’s an exciting time ladies and gentleman,” Foreman says. “We’re waiting for (boxing’s) next star.”