By John Wharton: If the forties and fifties were a golden era for boxing and The Garden, the sixties could possibly be regarded as the end of the heyday and the beginning of decline. The Garden did see some classic fights throughout the sixties and seventies, however, and many great fighters plied their trade in the famous old ring. The first title fight of the new decade fought at The Garden was a comfortable defence for Welterweight Champion Banny Paret over Luis Federico Thompson. Four months later Paret would lose his title to great rival Emile Griffith in a bout in Florida, but his next two fights against Griffith were both at The Garden. The second bout of the trilogy was a close fight, with Paret given a controversial decision over Griffith to regain his title. The rubber match took place on the 24th March 1962 and at the weigh-in on the afternoon of the fight Paret allegedly touched Griffith’s behind and made several references to Griffith’s sexuality. Griffith, who would later admit to having sexual relations with men, looked stunned and lunged at Paret - it took members of both teams to separate them.
By the twelfth round Griffith was ahead on points and had Paret trapped in a corner. Paret had one hand over the top rope and was using his free hand to try and block Griffith’s punches as they rained in on him. A volley of punches landed clean to his head and Paret stopped moving. Referee Ruby Goldstein froze and eventually Manuel Alfaro Paret’s manager jumped into the ring and stopped the fight. Paret left the ring on a stretcher, and after ten days in a coma he died. Griffith would later move up in weight and win a world title at middleweight when he dethroned the Nigerian Dick Tiger in a very close fight in 1966 at The Garden.
In 1961 Archie Moore made the final defence of his Light Heavyweight Championship when he easily defeated the Italian Giulio Rinaldi. Surprisingly, in a successful career that spanned 28 years and 219 fights, Moore only fought at the venue three times. The tail end of Moore’s career would be entwined with that of one of the sports up and coming prospects.
Cassius Clay was the 1960 Olympic Light Heavyweight gold medal winner, and in the early part of his career he was trained by Moore but disagreements over training camp routines saw them part company. Clay would later stop Moore inside four rounds in 1962. Earlier that year Clay made his first appearance at The Garden when he stopped Sonny Banks in the fourth of a scheduled ten rounder. The bout was memorable for Banks, being the first man to deck the young prospect. Clay was back at The Garden just over a year later when he outpointed Doug Jones over 10 tough rounds.
By 1967 there had not been a Heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden since 1947, when Joe Louis had eked out a close decision against Jersey Joe Walcott. When Muhammad Ali took his place in the ring against challenger Zora Folley it was the beginning of a busy few years for The Garden and Heavyweight title fights. Folley was cautious in the bout and spent the first six rounds trying to counter Ali’s superior speed and quality. In round seven Folley was decked and struggled to get up, and pretty soon he was knocked down again but this time did not get up.
The last world title fight at The Garden saw Puerto Rican boxer Jose Torres attempt to regain his Light Heavyweight crown from Dick Tiger. The two had fought the year before at the venue, with Tiger winning a unanimous decision and taking Torres’ title. The rematch was a tighter affair and Tiger prevailed by a narrow split decision, with many in attendance feeling that Torres was the winner. The decision proved so unpopular that many sections of the crowd began to riot and police were called to The Garden in order to quell the trouble.
In April 1967 Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the US army, on the grounds of religious beliefs. In 1964 Ali had failed the US Armed Forces qualifying test because his reading and writing skills were substandard, and the problem arose when the tests were revised and Ali’s classification was changed to 1A. On the 28th Ali officially refused to be inducted and, as a result, The New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Other boxing commissions followed suit.
As the new Madison Square Garden opened in February 1968, the old guard of boxing were being replaced by the new guard. In March 1968 the first boxing card at the new venue was headlined by the fight for the vacant Heavyweight title between Joe Frazier and Buster Mathis. Frazier stopped Mathis in round eleven and claimed a portion of the heavyweight crown. On the undercard, one of boxing’s most famous trilogies was completed as Emile Griffith and Nino Benvenuti squared off for Griffith’s Middleweight title. The bout was close and the knockdown scored by Benvenuti in round nine was enough to help the Italian shade the bout. Another member of the old guard, Dick Tiger, lost his Light Heavyweight title to challenger Bob Foster via fourth round stoppage - Foster would go on to become one of the great Light Heavyweight champions of all time, and would lose in two rounds to Joe Frazier as he moved up and fought for Frazier’s Heavyweight championship.