By Kieran Mulvaney
After two outings at the Madison Square Garden Theater – a January 2013 stoppage of Gabriel Rosado and a thumping of Curtis Stevens in November that same year – Gennady Golovkin takes his bow on Saturday in the Garden's "big room," the arena that has hosted some of the world's greatest fighters (and arguably history's biggest fight) during its prestigious history. In fact, all four fighters on HBO's World Championship Boxing card are making their MSG debuts; heavyweights Bryant Jennings and Mike Perez have also both fought and won at the Garden Theater before, while Golovkin opponent Daniel Geale is competing for the first time in New York and only the second time in the United States.
The circumstances under which some of the sport's more celebrated names have made their first Garden appearance vary widely, as do their subsequent career arcs. The following is just a sampling of famous fighters who have enjoyed memorable nights at the world's most famous arena. Golovkin, Geale, Jennings and Perez will all be hoping to follow in their footsteps.
The record shows that Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, first fought at Madison Square Garden in his eleventh pro fight, against Sonny Banks on February 10, 1962. (That debut began inauspiciously, as Banks dropped Ali in the first round before being dropped himself in the second and stopped in the fourth.) He returned the following year to outpoint Doug Jones, and in 1967, he defeated Zora Folley to defend his world heavyweight title for the last time before being forced into fistic exile. But those three contests were all at the previous incarnation of the Garden, which since 1925 had stood on the west side of 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. That's sixteen blocks north of the MSG's most recent iteration, which opened in 1968 and where Ali fought twice. The first occasion was the second fight of his comeback, a fifteenth round stoppage of Oscar Bonavena, and his subsequent outing was the epic challenge of Joe Frazier that has gone down in history as 'The Fight of the Century.'
As a member of the hugely successful 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team, Holyfield fought at the Garden in his first professional contest – on a card with fellow Olympians and professional debutants Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, Virgil Hill, Mark Breland and Tyrell Biggs – on November 15 later that year. "I'm fighting against a guy who's Philadelphia state champion," Holyfield recalled almost 30 years later. "This guy looks just like Joe Louis and he was already a champ. He had 12 fights already and I ain't had no fights. So I realized that I'm supposed to win, so I guess I'll go in there … and win." And so he did, via six-round decision. Holyfield didn't return to the Garden until 1996, when he stopped Bobby Czyz in his last outing before meeting Mike Tyson.
Lewis fought three times at the Garden, and all three occasions were memorable. He made his MSG debut while rebuilding his championship bona fides following his shocking 1994 KO loss to Oliver McCall. His opponent, on May 10, 1996, was the durable veteran Ray Mercer, who gave him a torrid time in a terrific fight that Lewis won by split decision. There were plenty ringside who thought the Brit was a little fortunate to escape with the win that day, but there were plenty more who felt he was outright robbed the next time he fought in the arena, when he somehow left with nothing more than a draw after seemingly dominating Holyfield in their heavyweight unification bout. There was no doubt about the outcome in his third and final Garden outing, however, when he bounced Michael Grant off the canvas several times before finally stopping him in the second round in April 2000.
The flashy featherweight made only one appearance at MSG, a mouth-watering December 1997 clash with New Yorker Kevin Kelley, but what an appearance it was. His ring entrance – beginning with shadow dancing and ending with a forward somersault over the top rope – lasted seven minutes, which wasn't much less than the duration of the fight itself. The fight may have been brief, but it was spectacular: Hamed was down in the first, touched his glove to the canvas for a knockdown in the second, then bounced back to knock down Kelley in that same round. In the fourth he touched the canvas again, but decked Kelley with hard punches on two separate occasions in that frame, the second time hard enough that Kelley couldn't beat the count. "What we just saw was the Hagler-Hearns of featherweight fighting," enthused HBO's Larry Merchant.
Trinidad's Garden debut – against Australian Troy Waters on August 23, 1997 – was over almost as soon as it began, the Puerto Rican dropping his foe twice and stopping him in round one. By this time, he was already closing in on superstardom, and would come one step closer with his next Garden outing, a dominant twelve-round decision against fellow future Hall-of-Famer Pernell Whitaker. More sensational, arena-rocking victories followed – against William Joppy in 2001 and Ricardo Mayorga in 2004 – but it was also at the Garden that he suffered his most high-profile defeat, against Bernard Hopkins in September 2001. The arena was also the site of his final fight; flabby and faded, he was easily outpointed by Roy Jones Jr. in January 2008.
Who could have known, when then-junior welterweight Cotto defeated Muhammad Abdullaev on June 11, 2005, that it would be the beginning of one of the closest relationships between fighter and venue in modern boxing? Cotto dominated his former amateur foe en route to a ninth-round TKO, the first of nine outings (so far) at the arena; the best of them – perhaps the greatest night of his sensational career – may have been the most recent, when he thumped Sergio Martinez to seize the middleweight crown in June. If all goes according to Golovkin's plan Saturday night, we could soon see a unification fight between the two middleweight champs in the near future – and one iconic venue comes to mind.