Hall of Fame visit sets boxers on path to becoming part of history

Part of every induction weekend at the Hall of Fame is having a cast made of each honoree's fist. Among those on display is the fist of Roberto Duran, who at least in Canastota could be known as "Hands of Bronze." Dan Rafael/ESPN

CANASTOTA, N.Y. -- It is Thursday afternoon and it is frigid outside, but these professional boxers along with members of their training and promotional teams have loaded into two shuttles for the 10-minute ride from the Turning Stone Resort Casino to the place where anyone in boxing hopes to someday be enshrined for eternity.

We are on our way to the International Boxing Hall of Fame two days before the big Matchroom Boxing/DAZN card headlined by light heavyweight world titlist Dmitry Bivol and challenger Joe Smith Jr., and most of the folks making the trip have never been to the Hall of Fame before and seem quite excited.

Even fighters who are just a little over 24 hours from weighing in, and understandably irritable, are nonetheless energetic and looking forward to seeing boxing history in person in the little museum that sits right off the New York State Thruway about a half hour from Syracuse.

In boxing, fighters routinely talk about their desire to earn big money. But another popular topic is their desire to leave a lasting legacy in the sport. Among the few tangible aspects of fighters' legacies are their title belts and any awards they are given by a sanctioning organization or the Boxing Writers Association of America. But here in this quaint little town, inside the museum across the street from the famed Graziano's Italian restaurant, is the ultimate tangible piece of a fighter's legacy. It is the plaque that hangs on the wall alongside all of the other plaques that recognize the all-time great fighters, and others associated with the sport, who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Anyone can buy an admission ticket to tour the facilities, and some are invited by Hall of Fame executive director Ed Brophy, who is a walking encyclopedia of the exhibits. But only the best of the best are remembered forever with a blue plaque on the wall.

We have entered the main museum, and everywhere there are pieces of boxing history. Visible almost as soon as you walk up a few steps are glass cases that include items such as the robe Sugar Ray Leonard wore in his professional debut, trunks worn by the great Ricardo Lopez and Thomas Hearns, and gloves worn by Vitali Klitschko. Over there are the gloves worn by Rocky Marciano in his knockout win over Jersey Joe Walcott in their heavyweight championship fight. There also are gloves worn by Vasiliy Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux in their junior lightweight world title bout, the first that matched two-time Olympic gold-medal winners.

The list of cool stuff on display goes on and on. There are photos, gloves, belts, programs, posters. There are videos of classic fights playing. If you're a boxing fan, a trip here is a must for the bucket list.

I grew up about two hours from the Hall of Fame and went to college only about 90 minutes away, so I have visited here many times, both for pleasure and also to cover the annual induction weekend in June. It is always a thrill. But to make the trip here on this day, with fighters and other boxing people making their first pilgrimage, is a different experience.

It was enjoyable to watch the reaction of fighters such as Bivol, Smith, light heavyweight contender Callum Johnson, young junior middleweight prospect Israil Madrimov and even noted trainer Joe Gallagher as they toured the grounds and got an up-close look at the repository of boxing history.

"This place is amazing," a wide-eyed Smith said as he looked around. "There's a lot of history here, and I definitely would love to become a world champion and make it into this place someday. Being here is getting me excited; it's getting me hungry for Saturday night. I just want to get in there and get my title."

Smith, who would lose a decision to Bivol, said he had never thought about the prospect of someday being enshrined until this moment. "No, but now that I'm here, I'm thinking of it," he said. "Definitely, it would be great to go down in history and be part of this."

Only the special few make it in, including former world champions Donald Curry, Julian Jackson and Buddy McGirt, who will be inducted this June on the 30th annual induction weekend.

When Johnson found out his fight with Seanie Monaghan would be at Turning Stone, he figured it was just another place to fight, pick up a check and hope to continue toward what he hopes will be a second chance to win a world title. When he found out the fight would take place only a few minutes from the Hall, and that a trip had been arranged to go see it, he was excited. When he got there, he seemed to really enjoy himself.

"It's just an inspiring place to be as a fighter," Johnson said. "I wanted to get around here and get a look. It's mind-blowing. I didn't know [Turning Stone was close] until I got over here and realized when they told me we were going to come over and have a look. It's like an added bonus. I had a bright smile come to my face when they told me. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me."

Johnson is 33 and has an 18-1 record. He knows his chance to someday be enshrined is extremely small. But he is happy to be here for a firsthand look.

"It's nice, a privilege and an honor to come here," said Johnson, whose eyes darted all around, looking at so many of the historic items.

What stood out to him? "The size of Mikey Tyson's gum shield. He's got a big mouth by the looks of that," Johnson said with a laugh. "The size of Lennox Lewis' hands also. Things like that and just looking at the old robes and gloves."

Part of every induction weekend is when those elected have a bronze cast made of their fist. Those casts are on display in cases inside the museum. Bivol and Smith posed for various photos in different parts of the museum, including in the famed Madison Square Garden ring that was home to countless huge world championship fights and is now on permanent display.

Bivol is not shy about his desire to be a Hall of Famer.

"Of course I want to be in here, too, someday," he said. "Today, I think about it. When you see the great names like Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, you want to be next to them one day because it's history. So, of course, it is one of the motivations. When I see these famous guys, you want to be next to these guys and you want to win and get more belts and make more history."

If a fighter makes enough history, this is where his legacy will be preserved, immortalized with a blue plaque hanging on the wall inside this lovely museum in upstate New York.