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.
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 fightDec. 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.
The greatest of all timeAug. 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.
Ends of erasOct. 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.
Death in the ringMarch 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 CenturyMarch 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.
Roberto Duran wins first and third world titlesJune 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 GardenJuly 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.
ControversyMarch 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 TrinidadSept. 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.
The Final FightJune 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.
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