"So, what is it, dad, a Darth Vader training helmet?" asked my daughter, the ninth-grade movie buff. "You could put a pumpkin in that thing."
She was peering in disbelief over a display case holding the enormous full-face protective headgear of light heavyweight champion Melio Bettina. In the case beside it were a bronze molding the size of a small pet -- a cast of the fighter's right fist -- and an unused ticket for his match with challenger Tiger Fox on Feb. 3, 1939, at Madison Square Garden.
"Looks like gladiator stuff," said the unlikely visitor prowling the International Boxing Hall of Fame with her father in Upstate New York. "Boy things."
That might be the universal teen reaction to this quirky little museum in sleepy Canastota, high on the flatlands of central New York along the Erie Canal. From the outside, it's a wood-clad construction that might be an outlet store or a small medical building.
Inside, the eye wanders over what looks like clothes racks and mannequins -- the vintage ring clothes and robes worn by boxers long ago. Looking closer, you'll find old programs and fight magazines, television monitors showing boxing matches from the 1920s, and lots and lots of stuff that once meant the world to those who lived and died for the ring.
For folks of a certain age, who perhaps remember the glory years of Muhammad Ali and the electricity generated by Washington's Sugar Ray Leonard, the museum comes layered with nuance and shadings of its own.
"One of the things that is most interesting," said the museum's executive director, Edward Brophy, "is that each generation of visitors seems to relate uniquely to the exhibits."
Ken Burns's researchers contacted the museum while preparing his documentary on the racial torment of black boxing champion Jack Johnson. Clint Eastwood's researchers consulted, too, in preparing for this year's Oscar-winning best picture, "Million Dollar Baby," as did the crew for the just-released "Cinderella Man."
"They wanted to look at old photos in our collection, old film and news reels, to get a sense of what people wore to boxing matches back in the '30s -- wardrobe things, I guess you call it," said Brophy.
While sound and motion has its place, the museum experience here offers a quieter gravity. Take, for example, its collection of fist moldings. Every modern boxer of note is represented, as well as old timers like Johnson and Jack Dempsey, legends at the start of the last century.
Looking like oddball lawn ornaments at first glance, the burnished bronze castings have their own story, explained Brophy. The concept was unknown before Walter Jacobs, a New York dentist who also happened to be a fight fan. Jacobs, who died in 1989, loved boxing and got into the game early in the last century by offering to make custom mouthpieces for the boxers. When they lost a tooth in the ring, he would fabricate a new one from the molding taken earlier.
Friendships were formed, and when one day he hatched the idea of casting their fists, as he did their mouths, the boxers were glad to help. From this came the museum's earliest collection, including all the great fighters who visited New York. Jacobs even saved Joe Louis's gauzy hand wraps after one of his bouts in the 1940s.
Another fascination is the museum's collection of bling, the fluff and stuff that the bygone boxers cherished. Display cases hold dozens of velvet robes with forgotten Kid-This and nobody Sugar-That elaborately stitched across the fabric. Satin boxing shorts worn by Louis, Willie Pep, Joe Frazier, and Marvin Hagler are shown. And there is a collection of their flat-soled ring shoes, curled with years, frilly and tasseled signatures of their championship days.
Most conspicuous are the championship belts, big leather diadems loaded up with mirrors and spangles, metal studs and unworldly macho designs in testimony to their grandeur. As you enter the museum, larger-than-life plastic statues of hometown boxers Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus are draped with their championship belts. Forever crouching -- menacing with their dukes up -- the sight is pure rococo extravagance.
In a way, it was Basilio and Backus who started the museum. Townspeople wanted to honor the two natives for their boxing fame. In 1982, they set up an outdoor glass-enclosed display under lights showcasing their gaudy robes at the McDonald's across the street from the present-day museum.
People started coming by, and after some fund-raising and $50,000 in state seed money, the museum went up in 1989 in a field by the tollbooth off Route 90, the big Albany-to-Buffalo throughway.
"American has changed," offered Angelo Dundee, 84 and perhaps dean of the boxing establishment from its glory days. "Boxing has changed, too, especially today with all the movies and television and the new casinos with their own rings.
"It's still a tough hustle for the kids," said the trainer of Ali and Leonard. "But when they come to visit [the hall of fame], with all they do for boxers here, you know this [museum] is strictly done from the heart."
"For boxers, it's priceless," Dundee said.
-- Raymond M. Lane
The International Boxing Hall of Fame is at 1 Hall of Fame Dr. in Canastota, N.Y., about 15 miles from Syracuse. Admission is $7. Details: 315-697- 7095, www.ibhof.com.