Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
History is in the air this week at Madison Square Garden. It always is, of course, at the World’s Most Famous Arena, the fourth iteration of which is closing in on its 50th birthday and which – notwithstanding the glorious nights enjoyed by the likes of Roberto Duran, Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, and Miguel Cotto, among many others – remains most celebrated by boxing fans for the Fight of the Century. Burt Lancaster was a co-commentator, and Frank Sinatra a ringside photographer, for that night on March 8, 1971, when Joe Frazier repelled the challenge of Muhammad Ali and retained the heavyweight championship that had been stripped from his rival almost four years earlier.
The weigh-in for Saturday’s Boxing After Dark card, headlined by a junior lightweight battle between Roman "Rocky" Martinez and Vasyl Lomachenko, was moved up an hour so that those in attendance could more easily watch Ali’s funeral, taking place in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, one week after his death at age 74.
Among those paying his respects in the Bluegrass State was the promoter of Saturday’s fight, Bob Arum; and on Thursday, before he caught a flight from New York, he was in an expansive mood, regaling reporters with tales of how his first fights as a promoter had been Ali’s last before being denied his license and sentenced to jail for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
Almost lost amid the reflections and celebrations, however, was a cautionary note for the future of boxing in the Big Apple. Arum claimed that “this will be the last fight I do in New York,” unless changes are made to a bill passed in March by the New York Assembly, and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in May, that imposed a requirement on promoters to post a $1 million bond for each fighter as insurance in the event of a combatant suffering traumatic brain injury.
“We’re a big company, a lot bigger than a lot of the local New York promoters,” Arum told the New York Post. “But I can’t afford to put up bonds like this.”
Of course, if Arum didn’t spout hyperbole, he wouldn’t say much at all, and the smart money has to be on some sort of agreement being made between now and September 1, during which time the New York State Athletic Commission has the authority to make any appropriate amendments. Still, the venerable promoter is far from the only one to have expressed concerns about the viability of boxing in one of the sport’s traditional hotbeds unless that language is changed; and Saturday’s fight – a relatively low-key affair, being held at the more intimate of the Garden’s two venues, The Theater – is exactly the kind of smaller-scale card that would have to move somewhere else if it isn’t.
It is also a card that reflects the ever-changing dynamics of the sport. At the time of Ali-Frazier, boxing was dominated by Americans, who comprised the vast majority of its champions; as years went by and world class athletes found alternative, safer and more lucrative opportunities in other sports, the demographics shifted so that by the early years of this century, Arum was focused almost exclusively on promoting Hispanic fighters.
Among those was Cotto, who for years made this date – the day before New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade – his own: fighting in New York seven times, five of them at the Garden. With Cotto’s career winding down, there is enthusiasm for passing his island’s torch to Felix Verdejo, but the exceptionally talented young lightweight is still a work in progress, and so the charismatic prospect will be in the chief supporting bout on Saturday night.
Puerto Rico’s hopes in the main event rest on the shoulders of Martinez, a three-time world titlist who is nonetheless a huge underdog against Vasyl Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a representative of boxing’s latest wave: a conveyor belt of supremely talented fighters from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Lomachenko’s fellow Ukrainians Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko were arguably the vanguard, and his compatriot Viktor Postol will be taking on Terence Crawford in Las Vegas on July 23. There are others: the "Siberian Rocky" Ruslan Provodnikov and, most notably, Russia’s Sergey Kovalev and Kazakhstan’s Gennady Golovkin, who are among the best, most popular and most avoided fighters in boxing today.
In terms of pure skill, however, Lomachenko may outshine them all. In just his seventh professional fight, he will be seeking to win a world title in his second weight class. It is no knock on Martinez that he will be heavily favored to do so. After plying his trade in Las Vegas, Carson, San Antonio and Macau, Lomachenko will be making his New York debut; he will of course be working to ensure that he becomes the latest in a long line of famed boxers to dazzle the Garden’s fans, and Arum isn’t alone in hoping that he won’t be the last.
Weights from Madison Square Garden:
Rocky Martinez: 129.8 lbs.
Vasyl Lomachenko: 129.6 lbs.
Felix Verdejo: 134.8 lbs.
Juan Jose Martinez: 133.8 lbs.