Commentary

Madison Square Garden's ring was a special place

After 82 years of service to some of the most memorable fights in history, the Madison Square Garden ring was recently retired and is headed to the Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. Kieran Mulvaney discusses what made that ring such a special place.

Originally Published: October 2, 2007
By Kieran Mulvaney | Special to ESPN.com

When the smoke had cleared and Miguel Cotto had emerged victorious from his welterweight title defense against Zab Judah on June 9, the postfight buzz was of Cotto's emergence onto center stage, of his place on the pound-for-pound lists, and of Judah's bravery in the face of the unstoppable force of the relentless champion.

The one thing about which there was no talk was the ring in which the fight had taken place.

Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah
Chris Farina/Top RankNo one knew at the time that Miguel Cotto, left, and Zab Judah would be the last men to fight in the old Madison Square Garden ring.
And yet, although nobody knew it at the time, the contest had not just been exciting, it had been historic. Cotto's 11th round stoppage of Judah would turn out to be the last championship bout ever to take place in a ring that, over the course of 82 years, had seen more title fights than any other.

The ring had, in the span of eight decades, undergone plenty of changes. The arena where it was housed for the first 42 years of its existence was torn down, and a new one was built a few blocks away. The ropes, the padding, and the canvas were all repaired and replaced. And, since the late 1940s, flashing red lights on the corners had warned that the round was about to end -- a concession first made for a fighter named Eugene "Silent" Hairston, who was deaf and who accordingly could not tell when the bell had been rung.

But the metal framework -- one ton and 132 interlocking pieces of it, including ring posts and buckles -- was the same when Cotto beat Judah as it was on Dec. 1, 1925, when Paul Berlenbach outpointed Jack Delaney over 15 rounds to retain his light heavyweight crown.

That bout, the first ever staged in the ring, took place one month after the opening of the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden, and marked the beginning of a glorious relationship between sport and venue.

"For a person to fight in Madison Square Garden, they had to be a very special individual," noted legendary trainer Angelo Dundee. "A 10-round fighter would come from out of town, he'd have to fight a six-round [undercard bout], just to get into the Garden."

"If you had to pick a time when boxing perhaps was at its highest point, it would be when Madison Square Garden was the Mecca of Boxing," said Ed Brophy, director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. "Wherever a boxer lived around the world, if ever he fought at Madison Square Garden, he either became a great name or he was always able to say afterwards that at least he did fight at the Garden. And those great fights took place in that ring."

Joe Louis defended his world heavyweight championship in the ring at the Garden eight times, and fought there on 12 occasions -- including his final bout when, well past his prime, he was knocked through the ropes by Rocky Marciano, marking the sad end of one great heavyweight career and the emergence of another.

It was in the same ring that Sugar Ray Robinson defeated the likes of Fritzie Zivic, Marty Servo and Sammy Angott. This is the ring where Robinson fought the first and fourth of his epic six-bout series with Jake LaMotta; where he took on Henry Armstrong in a battle between arguably the two greatest boxers pound-for-pound of all time; where he won his first world title, defeating Tommy Bell to annex the welterweight crown in 1946; and where he lost his middleweight crown to Gene Fullmer over 15 rounds in 1957.

If you had to pick a time when boxing perhaps was at its highest point, it would be when Madison Square Garden was the Mecca of Boxing.

Ed Brophy, director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame

The ring saw champions rise and fall. It saw controversies, such as the time Panama Lewis removed the padding from Luis Resto's gloves prior to Resto's 1983 bout with favored Billy Collins, a move that resulted in the previously unbeaten Collins receiving such a beating that he could never fight again -- and contributed, some say, to his dying, drunk, in a car accident nine months later. It saw the beginning of careers, such as the professional debut of a young man named George Foreman in 1969, or the night in 1984 when Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Virgil Hill and Tyrell Biggs -- indisputably the finest Olympic class in U.S. boxing history -- all turned pro on the same card. It saw the end of careers, those of Louis and Marciano among countless others, and even of lives, such as those of Willie Classen and Benny "Kid" Paret.

It wasn't just the big fights.

"There was a regularity to it," said boxing historian Bert Sugar. "The ring was there every Friday night, which was fight night in New York."

"It was electrifying," said Hall of Fame referee Arthur Mercante of the Garden boxing scene at its peak. "It had this allure and all of the socialites would come to Friday night fights."

"That ring had a tremendous amount of memories for me," recalled Dundee, "because I was there just about every week with fighters, because that's how I was hustling a living."

In his new book, "My View from the Corner," written with Sugar and to be published in November by McGraw Hill, Dundee recounts arriving in New York after World War II and apprenticing to his brother Chris, a local promoter. Chris worked out of a room in the Capitol Hotel, just across from the Garden, and Angelo slept on a cot in the back of the room, from where he worked as a bucket boy, an assistant trainer and a general gofer.

Dundee remembers distinctly the first time he ever worked a corner in the famous ring, and for good reason.

"Oh God yes. I'll never forget," he chuckled. "I was babysitting [heavyweight contender] Jackie Cranford. I was the bucket boy. What happened was, [a woman] calls me up in the Capitol Hotel, Room 711 and I'm babysitting this guy, she says, 'I'm Jackie Cranford's cousin. He promised me, my mother, and sister tickets.' So I said, 'If you're really his cousin, go buy the tickets and I'll see you after the fight. We're going to Toots Shor's.'"

The caller did buy the tickets. She was Jackie Cranford's cousin. And she did show up at Toots Shor's gin joint afterward.

"And that," laughed Dundee, "is how I met my wife. To this day, she's never forgiven me."

Twenty-four years later -- three years after the Madison Square Garden at 50th Street and 8th Avenue had been torn down and the present one was erected at 7th Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets -- Dundee was involved in the most celebrated fight in the ring's history. His most famous charge, Muhammad Ali, challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship he felt was rightfully his.

The battle was dubbed the Fight of the Century, and although Dundee insists he was "oblivious" to everything except preparing his fighter, he acknowledges the circumstances presented unique challenges.

"In fact, the story of the fight that was never beat to death, we never left the arena after the weigh-in [on Saturday morning]," he said. "We had to stay there. The crowd problem was so big we couldn't get out. So I stayed there with Muhammad until fight time. We walked around the Garden, and I let him lay down on the table in the dressing room to rest. He didn't care, because he was oblivious, too. But we never left."

There were other clues to the night's significance when the fighters entered the arena. Dundee looked down from the ring and saw Burt Lancaster at one of the ringside commentary positions. And one of the photographers from Sports Illustrated was an equally familiar face.

"I'm on the apron, and I hear, 'Hey Angie,' and boom, this guy snaps my picture. It's Frank Sinatra. There were so many luminaries there. That night, it was a tremendous night. Electrical."

"To this day," said Mercante, who was the third man in the ring for the legendary bout, "People stop me wherever I go all over the world and ask, 'What was it like?' There'll never be another night like Ali-Frazier."

But in time, the excitement of that remarkable evening faded, the center of the boxing universe shifted away from the Garden, and the number of fight cards at the arena, and in New York, steadily declined.

Oscar De La Hoya
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesOscar De La Hoya fought only twice in the old Madison Square Garden ring.
Whereas Tony Canzoneri, Ezzard Charles, and Beau Jack fought in the Garden 29, 28, and 27 times respectively, Mike Tyson fought there on only three occasions, and all of them before becoming world champion. Oscar De La Hoya had just two fights in the Garden ring; Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler had one apiece; Thomas Hearns and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., none. While part of that is a function of the decreased frequency with which champion boxers now compete, it is also testament to the fact that the Las Vegas Strip, not Midtown Manhattan, is today boxing's grandest stage. By the time De La Hoya made his Garden debut against Jesse James Leija in December 1995 (after having already made eight appearances in Sin City), there had not been a single fight card at the Garden for nearly three years.

Even so, there are nights when the Garden has awoken from its slumber, to prove that reports of its death have been exaggerated. Perhaps none of them was more remarkable than the evening of Sept. 29, 2001, when, in a city still numb and raw from the events of 18 days previously, Bernard Hopkins defeated Felix Trinidad to become undisputed middleweight champion of the world.

In Miguel Cotto, the Garden has a new champion, a man whose bruising, brawling style would have fit perfectly in the arena's golden age, and who, against Judah and Paulie Malignaggi emerged victorious from exciting bouts that had capacity crowds roaring as they did for Robinson, Marciano, LaMotta and Graziano.

Given his popularity in New York and his success at the Garden, it was perhaps fitting that Cotto should have been the last champion to fight in its storied ring, although plans for the ring's retirement had first been discussed seriously in the company a year previously.

"When we had the Cotto-Malignaggi fight, there were some questions about the ring at that time," admitted Joel Fisher, senior vice president of MSG sports properties.

Even in its heyday, said Dundee, the ring could sometimes show its age.

"I tell you: The ring was a classic, because it was so old," he said. "It was old when I was there. It had brass turnbuckles. And that was a bugaboo for me because you couldn't tighten the ropes. And you look at some of the old fights like Marciano and Joe Louis, and Marciano put him through the ropes, because they were loose. You couldn't tighten the turnbuckles."

A similar problem, noted Mercante, happened when he was refereeing a fight involving Sugar Ray Robinson, when, he said, "the ropes just collapsed."

The same structure that had enabled the ring to last more than eight decades also became a hindrance.

"I've seen many rings being put up and down; never have I seen a ring the way this ring is built, the way it is put together with so many pieces, and the strength of it and the weight of it," said the Hall of Fame's Brophy. "It's very unique, but it is a more time-consuming ring to put up and take down than other rings that I've seen. There's been a lot of participation by many people time-wise in putting that ring together and taking it down over the years for so many fights."

To this day, people stop me wherever I go all over the world and ask, 'What was it like?' There'll never be another night like Ali-Frazier.

Arthur Mercante, referee of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight

"It's certainly not built like the rings are built today," agreed Fisher. "Our building guys are the best in the world, so they had learned and got used to putting it together. But it took them four hours to assemble it, and they had noticed it was becoming more and more difficult."

Size was another factor. The ring measured 18½-by-18½ feet inside the ropes, small by modern standards. When Oleg Maskaev's promoters inserted a clause in the contract for Maskaev's scheduled (and, ironically, subsequently postponed) Oct. 6 WBC heavyweight defense against Sam Peter, that the ring be 20 square feet inside the ropes, Fisher and colleagues reluctantly brought down the curtain on more than 80 years of loyal service.

On Sept. 19 the Garden officially retired the ring at a ceremony attended by several of those who had graced its canvas over the years: Frazier, Vito Antuofermo, Hopkins, Griffith, Jose Torres, Iran Barkley, Buddy McGirt, Joey Giardello, all of whom had stepped through the ring's ropes and spilled blood -- theirs and their opponents' -- on its canvas, as the crowds' roars echoed in their ears.

"I went to the festivities, and I said, 'I've really come to interview the ring itself. It's got some tales,'" Sugar said. "It's part and parcel of boxing. It's not just a relic, it's a treasure."

The ceremony was covered by news outlets worldwide; a degree of interest that Fisher confessed caught him and his colleagues a little off guard.

"The extent of the coverage of this, the interest in it -- worldwide, not just in the United States -- I think it's caught us all a little by surprise," he admitted. "And it's made us all very proud."

Later this month, the ring will be transported north to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., (located, appropriately enough, in Madison County). There it will spend the rest of its days, a silent witness to battles won and lost, hopes and dreams fulfilled and shattered, and careers, lives, and times long gone, existing now only in memory.

Click here for 10 of the greatest nights/fights in MSG history.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters. He lives in Northern Virginia.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com, HBO.com and Reuters, and also blogs for Discovery Channel News.