Remembering Shea stadium

9/30/2008 - Boxing

NEW YORK -- In the classic Academy Award-winning film, "On the Waterfront," Terry Malloy, the ex-pug played brilliantly by Marlin Brando, laments never getting "a title shot outdoors in the ballpark."

There was a time when fighting outdoors in a ballpark meant a boxer had reached the pinnacle of his sport. A fight was moved to a stadium only when promoters expected a windfall at the gate. Jack Dempsey once drew 82,000 to the Polo Grounds and Joe Louis packed 70,000 into Yankee Stadium. Even cozy little Ebbets Field, out in Brooklyn, had its share of big fights.

By the mid-1960s fewer fights were being staged at outdoor venues, but that didn't stop promoters from bringing boxing to Shea Stadium, the cavernous ballpark in Flushing, Queens.

Shea closed its doors for good on Sunday, and while Tom Seaver, Joe Namath and the Beatles graced the hallowed ground at one time or another, so too did some of the top names in boxing.

Shea Stadium made its boxing debut on May 21, 1966, when Jose Torres successfully defended his light heavyweight title with a 15-round decision over Wayne Thornton. Torres twice dropped Thornton in the first round, representing the only highlights of an evening that was, for the most part, forgettable.

Torres, a Puerto Rican native fighting out of Brooklyn, was a very popular attraction at the time. So moving one of his fights to an outdoor stadium seemingly made sense. But the first blow to the card came when the New York State Athletic Commission refused to sanction middleweight contender Joey Archer as the opponent. Archer was a popular Bronx-based Irishman who had fought a pair of close fights with middleweight champion Emile Griffith.

When Thornton, from Fresno, Calif., was announced as the challenger, the main event immediately lost its appeal as a intracity showdown.

What also hurt the inaugural Shea card was that the Muhammad Ali-Henry Cooper fight was being televised from London the same day and the Preakness Stakes, still a major sporting event at the time, was being run late that afternoon.

"The first card I ever saw was the Thornton-Torres fight at Shea Stadium," said New York-based boxing promoter Don Majeski. "I remember you had to be 14 years old to get into a fight in New York state so my mother went out and bought two tickets and took me to the fight. The card was a resounding disaster. We sat way up in the rafters so my mother bribed some of the ushers so we could move down. It wasn't hard. There were a lot of seats to chose from; something like 4,000 people showed up for the fight."

Shea's seating capacity for baseball is 57,405. With the ring positioned at second base and ringside seats set up in the infield, the house could have held 60,000 for boxing. But The New York Times reported an attendance of 12,000 for Torres-Thornton while The Ring Record Book and Encyclopedia lists the attendance as 4,300.

"Shea was too big for boxing," said trainer Gene Moore, who worked the undercard at Shea's first and third fights. "Even if you had a good crowd, the place seemed empty. They just didn't have enough people there for there to be any kind of atmosphere. It felt like you were fighting in front of an empty house."

Nonetheless, the boxing crowd returned to Flushing on Aug. 16, 1967, for the rubber match between a pair of future hall of famers, Carlos Ortiz and Ismael Laguna. This fight was a highly anticipated match with Ortiz defending his lightweight title for the fifth time. The fight was promoted by Madison Square Garden and this time the move outdoors was more calculated. Five months earlier, at the Garden, Laguna, from Panama, scored a controversial decision over Frankie Narvaez, who, like Ortiz, was Puerto Rican. When the decision was read after the Laguna-Navaez fight, a riot ensued.

"There were several riots at the Garden in that era so the top brass felt they would have better crowd control at a bigger venue," said Majeski.

The fight drew 19,480 to Shea and passionate chants of "Orteez, Orteez," and "Lagoonah, Lagoonah," filled the park. There would be no riots as the only fighting on this evening took place inside the ring. It was there that Ortiz retained his belt with a unanimous decision.

"Any time you fight in a big stadium like that, you know it's special," said Ortiz. "When you fight outside you start thinking about the weather and all of these other things. But once the bell rings, and you get hit, and you start hitting the other guy, it's just like a regular fight. None of that other stuff matters anymore. Shea Stadium was a very big stadium, huge, but the only thing I focused on was what was going on inside of the ring."

The final bout at Shea was its best. But still, it did not go off without incident. The middleweight title bout between Nino Benvenuti and Griffith on Sept. 29, 1967, was delayed a day because of rain.

"Whenever you stage a fight outside there are more headaches than when you do a conventional show," said promoter Johnny Bos, who attended all three of Shea's cards.

"Weather is always a concern, you have to make sure the ring is covered, the television lights have to be covered. The Griffith-Benvenuti card was almost delayed a second day because of rain. But, having a fight at a baseball stadium is different, it adds something to the card. It makes it special."

The first fight between Benvenuti and Griffith -- another matchup of future hall of famers -- was held five months earlier at the Garden and was voted fight of the year by The Ring magazine. The rematch did not disappoint. It drew 21,376 to Flushing, about 2,000 more fans than the old Garden could have handled. The action was steady throughout the bout and Griffith sealed a very close decision (9-5-1 twice, 7-7-1) by dropping Benvenuti in the 14th round.

The Mets would later hire a manager named Joe Frazier, but boxing never returned after 1967. Both Shea and Yankee Stadium were in the running to host the 1971 Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali bout, but the "Fight of the Century" wound up at the Garden. The final fistic venture for Shea Stadium -- aside from Pete Rose mauling Buddy Harrelson at second base during the 1973 National League Championship Series -- would come in 1976. On that night, Chuck Wepner, the heavyweight contender known as the Bayonne Bleeder, was tossed out of the ring at Shea by Andre the Giant in a comedic boxer versus wrestler match.

Shea's boxing history might be brief, but for those who participated, the stadium will always remain a special place. Ortiz has fought in major venues all over the world, including the Los Angeles Coliseum, Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico, Luna Park in Argentina and El Toreo bullring in Mexico City.

"Look, there was nothing like fighting in Madison Square Garden," said Ortiz, who still lives in New York. "That was the mecca of boxing. But fighting at Shea Stadium, it was fun. I'm glad I had the chance to do that. Will I miss it? Well, I haven't been to too many baseball games, but yeah, it's sad that they are tearing this stadium down. It's special to me."

Moore, the trainer, got his first job selling beer at Ebbets Field. He was a die-hard Dodgers fan and vowed never to watch a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, although he did put the rivalry aside just long enough for him to attend the Ray Robinson-Joey Maxim fight in the Bronx. One of his fondest boxing memories, though, took place at Shea. And it has nothing to do with what was going on inside the ring.

"I had a local kid named Stevie Shevlin fighting a four-rounder on the Griffith-Benvenuti card," said Moore. "He was in against Jimmy Gilio. Now, Gilio's dad was the bartender at Jilly's. Jilly's was a famous bar in Manhattan and it was one of Frank Sinatra's favorite hangouts. So Sinatra came to the fight to see the kid. I'm working the corner, I look up and there's Frank Sinatra sitting there. I'll never forget that."

Nor will he ever forget Shea Stadium.

Robert Cassidy is a contributor to ESPN.com.