MSG: The Mecca of Boxing

Photo: Will Hart

By Tim Smith

You can travel all around the world and talk to any boxer – amateur or professional – and they will tell you that there is one place on earth they want to fight before they finish their career: Madison Square Garden.

There's a reason it's known as “The Mecca of Boxing.’’

The mystique of the Garden as the epicenter of boxing was cultivated long ago. John L. Sullivan defended his heavyweight title at the original Garden in 1883, establishing the famous arena as the premier destination for big-time champions of the day.

Recently, the Garden has been competing with the Las Vegas casinos and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for major boxing shows. But its reputation among boxers and their rabid fans remains strong.

“I would say if a fighter is winning and a champion, people will want to see him fight his biggest and best fights here at the Mecca of Boxing,’’ said Joel Fisher, Madison Square Garden's Vice President of Sports.

Sergio Martinez, the WBC middleweight champion, will defend his title against Miguel Cotto in a 12-round bout on HBO Pay Per View at the Garden Saturday night. Cotto will attempt to become the first Puerto Rican boxer to win four world titles in four different weight classes.

It's safe to say the 33-year-old has become the face of boxing at Madison Square Garden, where he has fought eight times since 2005 and has sold more tickets (close to 125,000) than any boxer in the last 20 years.

“It's my second home. I feel great fighting inside this magical arena. Being in New York is like being in Puerto Rico,’’ Cotto said.

Sullivan defended his title against Herbert Maori Slade before a crowd of 10,000 at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 6, 1883. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about the action in the ring as Sullivan completely demolished the overmatched Slade, who had to be helped back to his corner before the police stopped the match in the third round. But it was the first time that a boxing match was held under electric lights at the Garden.

Joe Louis made eight of his record 25 heavyweight title defenses at "The World's Most Famous Arena." Louis bookended his career as a popular heavyweight champion with fights at the Garden, becoming the heavyweight champion by beating James Braddock, the Cinderella Man, on June 22, 1937.  He later came out of retirement at the age of 37 and fought a 27-year-old Rocky Marciano at the Garden on Oct. 26, 1951. But that night didn’t end well for Louis, as Marciano knocked him through the ropes before referee Ruby Goldstein counted him out. That was Louis’ last professional fight; one that launched Marciano on the path to becoming an undefeated champion.

Cotto defeated Zab Judah at MSG on June 9, 2007 Photo: Will Hart

Cotto defeated Zab Judah at MSG on June 9, 2007
Photo: Will Hart

The Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier took place at the Garden on March 8, 1971. Ali and Frazier were two undefeated heavyweights who both claimed a variation of the heavyweight championship, leading to one of the most star-studded sports events in history; one that even had Frank Sinatra working as a photographer for Life Magazine.

Bobby Goodman has a unique history with the Garden. His father, Murray, was the publicity agent for the arena during the 1940s and 1950s. Later, Goodman ran the boxing department at the Garden when the arena acted as its own promoter and had 16 boxers under contract. 

“Watching a fight at the Garden was a unique experience when I was growing up,’’ Goodman said. “You walked in the building and on the right next to hot dog stands you’d see the gamblers getting their bets together. When you got inside it was a great experience, because everybody was a fan of boxing. They knew the sport. You didn’t have people there waiting to get back to the tables at the casino.’’

Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank Promotions, grew up in New York during boxing’s glory days at the Garden. He said the Garden’s popularity as a top destination for great boxers coincided with the explosion of boxing on television.

“Prior to World War II, a lot of the big fights happened outdoor at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium,’’ Arum said. “With the TV era, people were no longer willing to sit miles away and watch a fight. People's eyes got adjusted to watching boxing up close, which you could do on TV. The era of the fights at the big stadia faded out and MSG became the place for boxing.’’

Arum recalls going to the old Garden on 50th Street in Manhattan to see Ali fight Zora Folley in 1967. Three years later Arum was promoting his first show at the Garden – Ali versus Oscar Bonavena. Later he promoted Roberto Duran and Davey Moore, along with Saturday's challenger, Cotto.

The Garden has resided at four different addresses in its history, but if there has been one constant throughout it's this: it has always been the only destination for great boxers involved in historic matches.

“When that place is full and the lights go down and the ring announcer says, 'Ladies and Gentlemen for the heavyweight championship of the world…' there are goosebumps," Goodman said. "You don’t get that same feeling in the casino. There's nothing like it in the world."