Commentary

Ring history: Events that shaped Madison Square Garden's ring

If the recently retired ring at Madison Square Garden could talk, it would have some amazing stories to tell. Kieran Mulvaney revisits some of the events that helped shape the ring's history.

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

The Madison Square Garden ring was host to literally thousands of fights during its 82 years, and more championship bouts than any ring in history. Many of the greatest fighters of the past eight decades exchanged punches and shed blood inside its ropes. With almost too many memories and historic bouts to list, any selection of some of the greatest episodes in the ring's history is bound to omit some remarkable contests. With that in mind, here's one attempt at a representative sample of notable and controversial evenings at the sport's most storied arena:

The first fight

Dec. 11, 1925

The Madison Square Garden ring made its debut appearance on Dec. 11, 1925, in a card that was topped by a world light heavyweight contest between defending champion Paul Berlenbach and former and future champ Jack Delaney.

MSG
Gjon Mili//Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesChampion Joe Louis lay on the canvas after being knocked down by Jersey Joe Walcott at Madison Square Garden.
In an exciting battle, Berlenbach -- who had won the belt from Mike McTigue a little under seven months previously (McTigue having lifted the crown from Delaney) -- was knocked down in the third and, according to a ringside report, "punched groggy" in the sixth and seventh, but rallied strongly over the second half to turn back the challenge of Delaney. (The real name of the challenger, who was from Quebec, was Ovila Chapdelaine, but his surname was transliterated by Anglophones into the one he used in the ring).

Delaney won a rematch, and regained the title, at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field the following year.

The greatest of all time

Aug. 27, 1943

Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong were arguably the two greatest fighters pound-for-pound of all time, and they fought in the Garden on 37 occasions between them.

Sugar Ray Robinson
Hy Peskin//Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesSugar Ray Robinson, right, plied his trade regularly at the Garden.
In consecutive fights in 1938, Armstrong, the reigning featherweight champion, added the welterweight and then the lightweight belts, becoming the first and only man to hold titles in three weight divisions simultaneously. Robinson won the first of his six world championships in 1946, recovering from a second-round knockdown to outpoint Tommy Bell and claim the welterweight crown, and went on to contest the welterweight and middleweight titles in the Garden many more times.

The two legends fought just once, two years after Armstrong's last title fight -- a 12th-round TKO defeat to Fritzie Zivic, also at the Garden -- and three years before Robinson's first. And although Armstrong was past his peak and Robinson not yet at his, the fight (which Robinson won over 10 rounds) was surely the greatest combination of talent ever to square off in a boxing ring.

Ends of eras

Oct. 26, 1951; Feb. 9, 1991

Fighters rarely know when to quit, even -- perhaps especially -- the great ones. Joe Louis fought 12 times in the Garden, but it is the image of his final bout there -- indeed the last fight of his career -- that lingers.

Louis had retired from the ring with a record of 61-1 on March 1, 1949, just over eight months after defending his heavyweight title against Jersey Joe Walcott. He returned to the ring in 1950, dropping a decision to Ezzard Charles in a bid to reclaim the title. He won his next eight fights before running into the fast-rising contender Rocky Marciano, who knocked him down with a left hook in the eighth, and then through the ropes for the knockout. Marciano would go on to become champion, but Louis retired again, this time for good.

Herb Scharfman//Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesEmile Griffith, left, was involved in a tragic bout with Benny Paret.
At least he stayed retired. Forty years later, Sugar Ray Leonard, who had already retired from the ring three times, made his Garden debut, and was pummeled by the younger, faster Terry Norris in a shot at the junior middleweight belt. He retired again after that, before making a final, embarrassing comeback attempt against Hector Camacho in 1997.

Death in the ring

March 24, 1962

Boxing is an inherently dangerous business, and as is to be expected of any venue where fights have taken place for over 80 years, the Madison Square Garden ring has seen its fair share of tragedy. No such tragedy was more widely seen, reported on, written about and dissected than the 1962 welterweight championship bout between Emile Griffith and Benny "Kid" Paret.

It was the third meeting between the two: Griffith, behind on points, had knocked out Paret in the 13th round in the first fight to claim the title the year before; and Paret had regained the crown six months later on a controversial split decision. In the buildup to the rubber match, Paret had enraged Griffith by insulting him with a slur that questioned his sexuality, and after suffering a sixth-round knockdown, a relentless Griffith dominated.

In the 12th round, Paret became entangled in the ropes and, unable to extricate himself, took a pounding that would prove fatal. He lapsed immediately into unconsciousness and died 10 days later.

The Fight of the Century

March 8, 1971

On March 4, 1968, one month after the opening of the fourth (and present) Madison Square Garden, Nino Benvenuti beat Emile Griffith for the middleweight championship, and Joe Frazier knocked out Buster Mathis to receive New York State recognition as heavyweight champion of the world.

Ali v Frazier
Keystone/Getty ImagesJoe Frazier's war with Muhammad Ali, left, was dubbed the "Fight of the Century."
In 1970, Frazier unified the title by defeating WBA champion Jimmy Ellis, also at the Garden. But he could never receive full public recognition as heavyweight champion until he beat Muhammad Ali, who in 1967 had been stripped of the title and banned from boxing for refusing induction into the armed forces. Ali returned to the ring in 1970 with victories against Jerry Quarry and, in the Garden, Oscar Bonavena, setting up the eagerly anticipated clash with Frazier.

It was dubbed the "Fight of the Century," not just for the in-ring potential -- it would be the first time two undefeated heavyweight champions fought for the title -- but for the societal undertones: Ali, the draft-eschewing member of the Nation of Islam; Frazier, adopted as the establishment fighter and derided for that fact by Ali, who incessantly referred to him as an "Uncle Tom."

The unpleasantness of the buildup was mirrored in the fight itself, the two men exchanging hellacious combinations before Frazier finally floored Ali with a left hook in the 15th round en route to securing a unanimous decision victory.

Roberto Duran wins first and third world titles

June 26, 1972; June 16, 1983

When Duran overwhelmed Ken Buchanan to win the world lightweight championship in 1972, he was a snarling, whirling, irresistible dervish of a fighter, landing blows wherever he could -- including, asserted Buchanan, below the belt -- before ripping the title from the Scot via a 13th-round TKO. He suffered the first defeat in his career -- via points in a nontitle match -- to Esteban DeJesus in the same ring five months later, but avenged it twice, both times via stoppage.

By the time he stepped up to challenge Sugar Ray Leonard for the welterweight championship in Montreal in 1980, Duran sported a record of 71-1 and had already secured a place as one of the greatest fighters of all time. He burnished his credentials by mauling the former Olympian in his characteristic fashion to annex the 147-pound crown, but it all came crashing down in the rematch, when he quit in the eighth round.

When he followed that performance with back-to-back losses to Wilfred Benitez and Kirkland Laing, Duran seemed finished as a major force. But almost exactly 11 years after he won his first title at Madison Square Garden, Duran returned to center stage, brutalizing favored Davey Moore and lifting the WBA junior middleweight belt.

Moore's career never really recovered, and he died in a freak car accident in 1988. Duran fought on, adding a middleweight belt in 1989, before finally retiring in 2001 following injuries sustained in a car crash of his own.

Riot at the Garden

July 11, 1996

Combine packed crowds, alcohol and the primal emotions generated by two men fighting in a ring; add a judging or refereeing controversy; and step back. The result may be unpleasant.

Fights in the crowd at boxing cards aren't especially rare; full-blown riots are far less frequent. The Garden has seen its share: in 1967, after Dick Tiger edged Jose Torres by split decision, "where they pulled the organ out of his moorings and threw it," recalled Bert Sugar; in 1978, after Vito Antuofermo beat Willie Classen (who the following year would die from injuries sustained in a fight with Wilfred Scypion in the same ring) by pounding literally almost every part of his anatomy. But the one most familiar to contemporary fight fans, not least because it was broadcast live on HBO, came after Andrew Golota repeatedly targeted the nether regions of Riddick Bowe and snatched defeat away from famous victory.

Andrew Golota v Riddick Bowe
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRiddick Bowe lay on the canvas as chaos ensued after Andrew Golota was disqualified.
When they met, Golota was 28-0, Bowe was 38-1 and coming off a TKO victory in the rubber match of his epic series with Evander Holyfield. But although he was favored, Bowe appeared out of shape, and was beaten repeatedly to the punch by his opponent. Golota was winning virtually every minute of every round, but even as an upset appeared to be unfolding, too many of Golota's blows strayed low on too many occasions. On two of those occasions Bowe sunk to the canvas in apparent agony, until in the seventh round, after repeated warnings and three point deductions, referee Wayne Kelly disqualified Golota.

Immediately, members of Bowe's corner leaped through the ropes and began pounding Golota and his corner team. Supporters of both men rushed the ring, and a melee broke out, spreading out into the stands, a series of fights erupting throughout the Garden. By the time the situation was deemed under control after more than a half hour, 15 spectators, nine police, and Golota cornerman Lou Duva had been taken to hospital, and 16 people had been arrested.

A rematch in Atlantic City five months later saw Golota again pound Bowe before again being disqualified for low blows. This time, there was no riot.

Controversy

March 13, 1999

There had been no undisputed heavyweight champion since 1992, when Riddick Bowe (who had beaten Evander Holyfield, who had beaten Buster Douglas, who had beaten Mike Tyson) abdicated the WBC belt rather than face mandatory challenger Lennox Lewis. Ever since, the title had been fragmented. In March 1999, WBC champion Lewis and WBA/IBF champion Holyfield met to restore unity to the division.

In front of a crowd that yielded the highest-grossing gate in Garden history, Lewis appeared to be the clear winner, winning eight or nine rounds on the scorecards of most ringside observers. The three judges who counted, however, saw it differently. Only one, Stanley Christodoulou, scored the bout for Lewis; Eugenia Williams scored it for Holyfield and Larry O'Connell saw it as a draw.

The crowd erupted in outrage, as did the New York tabloids the following morning. There were calls for a congressional investigation. O'Connell issued a mea culpa of sorts to the British press, and Williams was roundly vilified for her scorecard, particularly for scoring the fifth, which Lewis dominated, for Holyfield.

In a rematch in Las Vegas, Holyfield did better and the fight was closer, but the scorecards were wider and Lewis was given the unanimous victory most felt he had deserved at the Garden.

Bernard Hopkins defeats Felix Trinidad

Sept. 29, 2001

The buildup to this fight, to crown the first undisputed middleweight champion since Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987, had been explosive from the start. Hopkins had continually taunted Trinidad, to the extent of throwing the Puerto Rican flag to the ground, once at a news conference in New York, and once, in an almost suicidal gesture, at Roberto Clemente Stadium in San Juan -- a move that prompted a riot from which Hopkins and his team literally had to run for their lives.

Felix Trinidad
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesFelix Trinidad, center, and his father saluted Sept. 11 victims during his ring entrance.
The fight, scheduled for Sept. 15, 2001, was the most anticipated event of the boxing year, and tension was high as fight week began.

And then, on the morning of Sept. 11, everything changed, and suddenly the middleweight championship of the world didn't matter so much anymore.

But as New York and the nation attempted to get back to normal, or at least a semblance thereof, the fight was rescheduled for two weeks later, and by the time it got under way, the tension generated by the bout's promotion and the events of the previous two weeks was palpable.

In the ring, the old master Hopkins dominated, before finally dropping Trinidad midway through the 12th, at which point the Puerto Rican's father-trainer Felix Sr. entered the ring to stop the fight.

The Final Fight

June 9, 2007

The final bout to be fought in the ring was a worthy entry to the annals. Before a crowd of 20,658 (the largest ever for a nonheavyweight bout at the new Garden), Miguel Cotto retained his WBA welterweight title with a stoppage of a game Zab Judah.

Although Judah was from Brooklyn, the crowd was overwhelmingly in support of the Puerto Rican Cotto, who wore down his opponent over 11 brutal rounds. Judah had his moments: the former champ rocked Cotto twice, bloodied his lip and mouth, and refused to yield even after the defending champ put him down first once, and then a second time. Eventually, however, referee Arthur Mercante Jr., son of the man who had refereed the ring's most famous bout 36 years earlier, stepped in to halt proceedings.

Click here to read about the history of Madison Square Garden's recently retired ring.

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.