Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Wallace Matthews
Long before there was a Yankee Stadium, more than 40 years before New York had an NFL team and more than a half-century before the NBA was born, the Big Apple was a fight town.
From the first documented Madison Square Garden boxing event – a three-round “no-decision” bout between heavyweights Jem Mace and Hubert Maori Slade in 1883 – and passing through the single-greatest night in the history of boxing, the epic first meeting of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, New York has long been the boxing capital of the world.
Looking for a fight? You come to New York. More often than not, we’ve got one for you.
And more than just a fight town, New York has always been a middleweight town. The so-called “average man’’ division has always attracted the attention of the country’s least-average city, and more great middleweight champions have come from New York City than from anywhere else in the world.
Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, Joey Giardello, Ben Jeby, Iran Barkley, Davey Moore and Doug DeWitt were all native New Yorkers who rose to the world middleweight title, and Sugar Ray Robinson (via Detroit), Emile Griffith (via the U.S. Virgin Islands) and Vito Antuofermo (via Bari, Italy) were all transplanted New Yorkers whose title reigns were inextricably linked to their adopted hometowns.
Add to that prodigious list Daniel Jacobs and Gennady Golovkin, who will meet to unify the world middleweight title on March 18 at – where else? – Madison Square Garden.
Jacobs, of course, is a native New Yorker, a product of the same Brownsville, Brooklyn neighborhood that spawned Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, Zab Judah and Shannon Briggs. Golovkin was born in Kazakhstan and now lives in Santa Monica, California, but considers New York his home base; the Jacobs fight will be his fifth at Madison Square Garden and he has headlined three of the last four shows held in the Garden’s main arena dating back to 2014.
Their scheduled 12-round bout is among the most highly-anticipated matchups the middleweight division can offer, pairing one fighter (Golovkin) who is as intimidating to middleweights as Mike Tyson was to heavyweights 30 years ago, and another (Jacobs) who has beaten an even scarier foe than Golovkin, having survived a 2011 bout with a form of bone cancer that left doctors doubting he would ever walk again, let alone fight.
When the two come together on March 18, it is bound to add to the proud legacy of not just boxing, but middleweight boxing, in the building that is known around the world as the Mecca of the sport.
“Even in Kazakhstan we knew about Madison Square Garden,’’ Golovkin told me recently during a visit to his training camp in Los Angeles. “I feel very comfortable at Madison Square Garden. I know Danny is from Brooklyn, but I feel like New York is my home.”
Indeed, although more than 500 fans are expected to travel from Golovkin’s native Kazakhstan to attend the fight, the fact that he has sold out the Garden every time he has fought there attests to a popularity that crosses ethnic and racial lines, from the Russian and Ukrainian enclaves of Brighton Beach to the Hispanic communities throughout the city that have always been loyal and vociferous fight fans.
“Our game plan was always to build him in New York City,’’ said Tom Loeffler, Golovkin’s promoter, who took over the direction of the fighter’s career in 2012, after his first 23 fights, mostly fought in Germany. “His fight against David Lemieux (from Canada) sold out the Garden in spite of there being no local fighters on the card. That hasn’t been done since the days of the great Puerto Rican fighters like (Miguel) Cotto and (Felix) Trinidad. It’s almost unheard of that a non-Latino or a non-heavyweight can sell out the Garden like that.’’
Jacobs, who grew up in an apartment on Pitkin Avenue just blocks away from where Bowe lived on Lott Avenue and not far from Mike Tyson’s boyhood home on Amboy Street, scored his most notable win in his native Brooklyn, knocking out Peter Quillin – another transplanted New York middleweight – in the first round in December 2015. This will be Jacobs’ fourth fight at Madison Square Garden, but his first in a main event.
“I thought headlining the Barclays center was an all-time high for me, because I’m a Brooklyn guy, and I’m actually the first world champion from Brooklyn to win his title in Brooklyn,’’ he said. “That was really special for me. But when I think of fighting at the Garden, all I can think about is Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, all those guys who had the chance to display their talents and now it’s the same for me. I feel like I’m following in the footsteps of those guys.’’
Those are giant steps to fill and it will likely take a giant effort by Jacobs (32-1, 29 KOs) to deal Golovkin his first defeat after 36 victories and 33 by knockout, including 23 in row stretching back to 2008. But huge middleweight upsets have happened here – Robinson was upset by Gene Fullmer and Denny Moyer at the Garden and by Carmen Basilio at Yankee Stadium, and a supposedly washed-up Roberto Duran shockingly knocked out Davey Moore at MSG in 1983 – and Jacobs draws upon his own upset victory over the osteosarcoma that almost ended his career, and life, six years ago, for inspiration against Golovkin.
“I think, to beat a guy like Golovkin you have to be mentally tough,’’ Jacobs said. “And what guy could be tougher than me, after what I’ve battled? You never really know who you are until your back is against the wall like that. I know now that I can’t be broken, especially by fear. I will fight the best fight of my life that night.’’
Spoken like a true New Yorker, but Daniel Jacobs is more than that.
He is a New York middleweight, a special breed of cat with a long, proud history in a town that has never stopped fighting for an instant.