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Boxing & Madison Square Garden

By Sean Davies

Madison Square Garden in 1895
The second Garden was the second highest building in New York

Madison Square Garden may be self-styled as "The World's Greatest Arena", but few boxing fans would argue with the verdict.

For all the encroachments made by Las Vegas and the big-money casinos, the arena in the heart of New York remains the spiritual home of the pugilistic world.

"From a boxer's point of view, once you have boxed there you can die in peace," said 'Tartan Terror' Ken Buchanan, who starred in six Garden bouts including classic encounters with Roberto Duran and Ismael Laguna.

But fight fans heading to Manhattan should be aware that they won't find the Garden on Madison Square - only the first two of four stadiums bearing that name were there.


The first, roof-less venue was built by famed showman PT Barnum in 1871 at a prime site in the heart of the city's commercial area.

Although heavyweight champion John L Sullivan gave two "illustrated lectures of pugilism" there, prize-fighting was illegal at the time and the Garden was best known as a concert and circus venue.

It was replaced in 1890 by a striking building designed by famed American architect Stanford White, who gave the Garden a prominent tower capped by a 14-foot copper statue of the goddess Diana.

Although more noted for circuses, exhibitions and cycling events - and the murder of White at the venue by Harry Shaw - the second Garden began to grow its boxing reputation with fights from the likes of Sullivan, Jess Willard, Freddie Welsh , Benny Leonard , Harry Greb, Gene Tunney and the Manassa Mauler himself, Jack Dempsey.

Madison Square Garden in 1943
The Garden's third incarnation truly established its boxing legacy

But it was the third incarnation of the Garden, completed in 1925, that became embedded in boxing folklore.

Legendary fight promoter Tex Rickard was the inspiration, prompted into action when the New York Life Insurance Co refused to renew his lease on the previous Garden.

Rickard - along with fellow promoter Mike Jacobs - purchased disused railway barns at 50th Street and 8th Avenue and built what was then the world's largest indoor athletic arena (17,000 seats), in time to coincide with one of boxing's true golden ages.

The likes of Jim Braddock, Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano provided unforgettable fight nights for the Broadway crowd and the shady mob characters who were at the forefront of the smoke-filled scene.

Regular Friday fight nights were beamed nationwide on television, embedding the Garden on the US consciousness.

In the early 1960s a young Olympic heavyweight champion going by the name of Cassius Clay could often be found hanging around outside the arena, just waiting to see how many people would recognise him.

The formidable legacy would be built upon by the fourth and current incarnation of the Garden, erected at 7th Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets on top of Pennsylvania Station and opened in 1968.

Joe Frazier v Muhammad Ali I at New York's Madison Square Garden
Ali v Frazier I at the Garden - 'The Fight of the Century'

That was during Muhammad Ali's exile from boxing due to his stance on Vietnam, and in 'The Greatest's' absence his successor as world heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier, headlined the first card at the new Garden in March 1968.

Ali returned in 1970, and after just two comeback fights he was pitched in against the awesome Frazier at the Garden for a bout billed as 'The Fight of the Century'.

It attracted a remarkable crowd, including the most wealthy, powerful, famous and infamous in American society.

With 760 press credentials distributed and 500 more turned down, the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Diana Ross were thrown out after trying to sneak into the media section.

Frank Sinatra would have followed them before securing a place as a working photographer for "Life", his fight picture appearing on the front cover of the magazine.

The fight short-changed no-one, Ali felled by a devastating hook after 15 brutal rounds, remarkably bouncing straight back to his feet, but losing his undefeated record - and claims to the linear heavyweight title - on points.

Ali gained revenge over Frazier at the Garden in 1974, and there were memorable fights from Buchanan, Duran, Salvador Sanchez, Azumah Nelson and other luminaries too numerous to list.

But the likes of Don King and Bob Arum were beginning to take the biggest fights to Las Vegas and Atlantic City with the lure of the casinos' mega-money.

Madison Square Garden in 2007
The latest Garden is set to undergo a major internal renovation

"For the last 25 years Las Vegas and the casinos have steamrollered over traditional venues worldwide, saying come to us and we'll give you x-amount of free rooms plus millions of dollars as a golden hello," said BBC boxing expert Steve Bunce.

But the Garden is making a comeback, undergoing huge internal regeneration and actively chasing the big fights.

"Fighters simply want to appear in Madison Square Garden and will fight for nothing if necessary," said former light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres.

But more tangible rewards are also now on offer.

"The Garden has ended the rule on not paying site fees and will find the cash to induce promoters," said Bunce.

"It attracts fighters to the venue, they love the money up front."

Hard cash may be the defining factor, but when it comes to history and prestige true champions will always look to bloom at the Garden.

"It's the greatest venue in boxing with all the champions who have fought there," said Joe Calzaghe ahead of his Garden fight with Roy Jones Jr.

"If you can't get excited about fighting there you're in the wrong game, it's the last thing I want to achieve in boxing."

see also
Brits at the Garden
03 Nov 08 |  Boxing
Wales' greatest US fight nights
25 Mar 08 |  Boxing
Country profile: United States of America
18 Oct 11 |  Country profiles
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales

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