By John Wharton: Madison Square Garden also saw the final fight in the career of lightweight legend Ismael Laguna, who faced Scottish fighter Ken Buchanan in a bid to regain his WBA lightweight title. The two had fought a year earlier, when Buchanan upset the odds to win a close split decision. In the intervening year Buchanan had added the WBC title, in a win over American lightweight Ruben Navarro, but had been forced to vacate the title. So when Laguna and Buchanan squared off in September 1971 the bout was for Buchanan’s WBA title. The rematch wasn’t as close as the original and judges Harold Lederman, Jimmy Devlin and Tony Castellano all scored the bout in favour of the champion. This victory for Buchanan set up a fight with rugged Panamanian Roberto Duran.
The two met in June 1972. In a classic fight Duran ripped the title away from the Scotsman with a 13th round TKO, but the bout wasn’t without controversy as Buchanan complained about Duran using his head illegally and persistently throwing low blows. Despite the amount of fouls committed by Duran he received only one warning from referee Johnny LoBianco. As the bell sounded to end round thirteen, Duran hit Buchanan with a low blow and Buchanan hit the canvas in agony. Confusion reigned during the interval and referee Johnny LoBianco awarded Duran a stoppage victory when Buchanan was unable to answer the bell to signify the start of round fourteen. The punch was so severe that later, at the hospital, Buchanan was diagnosed with a ruptured testicle.
When the new Madison Square Garden was built it also added a smaller venue known as the Felt Forum, named after the then President of MSG Irving Felt. With a capacity ranging from 2000 to 5600, the Felt Forum was to be used for meetings, graduations and concerts, and was the traditional home of the NFL draft until 2005.
1972 also saw Muhammad Ali return to The Garden for the first time since his defeat to Joe Frazier. Ali faced former champion and old foe Floyd Patterson, and he stopped him in round seven in what turned out to be the final bout in his illustrious career. Another legend entered the ring for the final time that night, as Carlos Ortiz faced Ken Buchanan in a bout of former lightweight champions. The Scotsman proved too strong for Ortiz who retired on his stool at the end of round six.
Future world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes made his debut at The Garden in 1973, as he outpointed Bob Bozic over six rounds. However, 1973 proved to be a damp squib, with not a single world title fight fought at The Garden that year - and it was a sign of things to come rather than a blip. The first fight card of 1974 saw old foes Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali square off again in the second fight of their trilogy. The fight itself is sometimes mistakenly regarded as inconsequential or unimportant, as it is sandwiched in between 1971’s Fight of The Century and 1975’s Thrilla In Manila. The build-up to the fight saw both fighters fined $5000 for brawling in the ABC Wide World of Sport studio. As they reviewed their first bout Ali had started trash talking to Frazier, which riled the Philadelphia fighter, who jumped and confronted Ali. This prompted Ali to grab Frazier and both fighters were wrestling on the ground before being separated by members of both camps.
Whilst not being as exciting as the other two fights in the trilogy, it was nonetheless interesting and the fight settled into a rhythm with Frazier playing the role of the aggressor, stalking Ali and taking jabs in order to try and get in under Ali’s jab to land the left hook that had floored Ali in their first encounter. Ali wobbled Frazier in round two but a mistake from referee Tony Perez, who thought he had heard the bell, gave Frazier sufficient time to enable him to recover and survive the round. After twelve rounds Ali was awarded a unanimous decision and gained a modicum of revenge over Frazier.
The decline of Madison Square Garden continued after the Ali-Frazier fight. On the day Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa, The Garden - which only a couple of years earlier would have been a contender to host the fight - saw a bout between WBC Middleweight champion Rodrigo Valdes and undefeated Vinnie Curto in a non-title fight. The last five years of the seventies saw a total of only twenty fight cards at The Garden, whilst The Felt Forum saw a massive increase in the amount of bouts fought.
The late 1970’s to late 1980’s saw the rise of Las Vegas as a major fight venue, with the Casinos able to offer big money to secure the bigger fights. Madison Square Garden was even falling behind cities such as Montreal, which staged the Duran-Leonard bout, and New Orleans, which staged the rematch between the two and also Thomas Hearns v Wilfred Benitez. This was no more evident than in September 1981 when The Garden hosted a card featuring future world champion Hector Camacho and a man we’ll read more of later, Luis Resto. Meanwhile, Caesars Palace hosted a bill featuring future world champions Tony Tucker and Edwin Rosario and headlined by the superfight between Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns and ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard. Ten years earlier The Garden would have been the main contender to host a bout of such magnitude.
Throughout its history The Garden has been the site of many unsavoury incidents, from the deaths of Stanford White and Benny Paret to the match fixing scandal featuring Jake La Motta. The night of 16th June 1983 was meant to be a memorable night for The Garden, as one of the games true legends returned to try and win a third world title at three weights as he faced unbeaten WBA Light Middleweight Champion Davey Moore. The bout, which took place on Duran’s 32nd birthday, should have been the overriding memory of the night, with the Panamanian legend totally dominating Moore en route to an eighth round stoppage victory. Sadly, however, the main event was overshadowed by what transpired on the undercard fight between Billy Collins Jr and Luis Resto.
Collins was an unbeaten prospect who looked like he could be a serious talent in years to come and, conversely, Resto was a journeyman with an unimpressive record of 20-8-2. With 8 KO’s he was widely considered to be a light puncher. The bout was one sided and at one point, in between rounds, Collins complained that he felt like he was being hit by bricks. By the end of the 10th round Collins face was badly messed up, both eyes were swollen and bruised, and his left eye was cut. As the fight ended Collins’ trainer and father Billy Collins Sr noticed that something was wrong with Resto’s gloves. He claimed he felt no padding near the knuckles and that the padding in Resto’s gloves appeared to be missing. He made this complaint to the ring officials who instantly seized Resto’s gloves and began an investigation.
n investigation by the New York State Police Laboratory found that Resto’s gloves had been tampered with by his trainer Panama Lewis. In the 2009 HBO documentary ‘Assault In The Ring’, Resto finally admitted that not only had Lewis removed the padding from the gloves but had also dipped his hand wraps in plaster of paris. The injuries Billy Collins Jr suffered in this bout were so grievous that it meant the end of his boxing career - and in less than a year Collins Jr was dead after crashing his car off the road whilst driving under the influence. Both Resto and Lewis served jail time for their offences and both received life time bans from boxing, although Panama Lewis occasionally trains fighters outside of the Unites States.
If anything can be said to represent the decline of The Garden in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it is the fact that one of the greatest Middleweights of all time only ever fought there once in his career. Marvin Hagler defended his title against Mustafo Hamsho in October 1984, and scored a convincing three round stoppage win.
The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles were a stunning success for American boxers, with nine medallists - seven gold, one silver and one bronze. The night of Thursday 15th November 1984 saw six of these medallists make their professional debuts at The Garden, as Evander Holyfield won a six round points decision over Lionel Byarms, and Meldrick Taylor faced Luke Lecce, decking him three times to force a first round stoppage. Also on the bill, local boy Mark Breland, who had won welterweight gold, unanimously outpointed Dwight Williams; and Pernell Whitaker scored a second round stoppage win over previously undefeated Farrain Comeaux. Tyrell Biggs and Virgil Hill also scored victories in their first outings.
Julio Cesar Chavez made his bow at The Garden, when stopped Refugio Rojas in seven rounds in defence of his WBC Super Featherweight crown. Also on the bill that night were two future Chavez opponents, as Hector Camacho faced Edwin Rosario in a bout for the WBC Lightweight title and the Puerto Rican bragging rights. After a close twelve rounds, Camacho got the nod from the judges via split decision.
A further indication of the decline of Madison Square Garden was apparent in 1987, as not one boxing bill was scheduled for main arena all year. It was the first time this had happened since the early 1920’s. No bouts took place in the following two years either, and it wasn’t until 1990 that boxing returned to The Garden when a card featuring future junior lightweight champion Regilio Tuur took place in January of that year. It wasn’t until April of that year that World Championship boxing returned to The Garden, as Juan Nazario stopped Edwin Rosario in eight rounds to take the lightweight title from the Puerto Rican fighter.
The only fight card of 1991 saw the Madison Square Garden debut of ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard. A 34 year old Leonard faced young WBC Junior Middleweight Champion Terry Norris. The bout was painfully one sided, as Norris scored a wide unanimous points decision over a man he had worshipped as a youngster. Leonard was floored twice and at times Norris appeared to carry him and allow him to finish the bout on his feet.
The World Heavyweight Title returned to The Garden, after a seven year hiatus, in February 1993 with Riddick Bowe defending his title against former champion Michael Dokes. Dokes came into the bout on the back of a nine fight winning streak, and Bowe was making the first defence his WBA and IBF Heavyweight titles, which he had won three months previously against Evander Holyfield. In a farcical bout Dokes was stopped in the first round - he was decked after a minute and a half, and for the next minute and a half Bowe stalked Dokes, landing with several heavy shots and staggering him on a couple of occasions, before referee Joe Santarpia stepped in at 2:19.
In December 1995, Oscar De La Hoya made his Madison Square Garden debut as he stopped James Leija in two rounds, in defence of his lightweight title. Also on that bill was exciting fighter Arturo Gatti, who won the IBF Super Featherweight Title with a unanimous points decision over Tracy Harris Patterson. July 1996 saw one of the most bizarre fights ever at The Garden, as former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe faced the relatively unknown Polish heavyweight Andrew Golota. What occurred was one of the most exciting nights of heavyweight boxing at The Garden, as Goloto battered Bowe from pillar to post and gave the former champ a boxing lesson. Golota, however, seemed to be in self-destruct as he continually fouled Bowe, landing several low blows and being penalised points before eventually being disqualified in round seven. What followed was carnage as members of Bowe’s entourage stormed the ring and one attacked Golota with a walkie talkie, causing a headwound that needed eleven stitches to close. Golota’s trainer Lou Duva suffered what appeared to be a heart attack and had to be carried out on a stretcher. Eventually, the trouble spilled out into the crowd and, in what seemed to be a racially motivated incident, Golota’s predominantly white fans clashed with the mainly black following of Bowe, both grabbing what they could to attack each other.
1997 saw a first for The Garden, with a minimumweight title fight fought at The Garden for the first time in its history, as Ricardo Lopez defended his IBF and WBO titles against Alex Sanchez. The last title fight of 1997 to be fought at The Garden was one of the most exciting fights I’ve ever seen. Naseem Hamed was the reigning WBO featherweight champion - and unbeaten in twenty seven fights with twenty five wins coming by knockout - and after months of hype he was making his American debut. The opponent chosen for him was former WBC champion Kevin Kelley. Kelley had lost just once in fifty fights and was on an eight fight unbeaten streak since losing his title to Alejandro Gonzalez in 1995.
Hamed, as usual, entered the ring in typical flamboyant manner. His initial ring walk was made to the strains of Will Smith’s Men In Black, the soundtrack to one of the big films of 1997, but not before a few minutes of a dancing silhouette of himself was projected onto a large screen. After four rounds of explosive boxing Hamed was the winner, decking Kelley three times. The last one was for the full count, but it was not before he’d been decked himself three times also.
The last Madison Square Garden world title bill of the 20th century saw promoter Don King assemble four world title fights together. IBF Light Middleweight Champion Ferocious Fernando Vargas destroyed British journeyman Howard Clarke in four one-sided rounds of a complete mismatch; WBA Welterweight Champion James Page won a wide unanimous points decision over Sam Garr; whilst WBA Flyweight Champion Leo Gamez destroyed Hugo Soto in three rounds. But the fight that drew the big crowd to The Garden was between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, who were fighting to unify the World Heavyweight Title for the first time in six and a half years since - Riddick Bowe crassly disposed of the WBC Heavyweight belt into a bin in 1992. The bout has become ensconced in the memory of boxing fans because of the outrageous decision that gave Holyfield a much undeserved draw, and it has gone down in history because the scoring itself was the subject of a Manhattan grand jury investigation which saw the FBI raid Don King’s offices. This last fight proved somewhat a sour note for The Garden to end the century on.
Lennox Lewis would also to figure in the first title fight of the new century at The Garden, when he beat previously undefeated American Michael Grant by way of a second round knockout. The new century was beginning in much the same way as the last one ended for The Garden, as only two fight cards were put on at the venue in 2000. The events of September 11th 2001 will never be forgotten by New Yorkers and by the world at large. Boxing and The Garden paid tribute to the victims and heroes of the day when Felix Trinidad faced Bernard Hopkins in a bout that unified the World Middleweight Championship. Trinidad entered the ring wearing an NYPD officers cap, whilst a member of his entourage wore the helmet of a New York Fireman in recognition of the heroics of both of the emergency services. Hopkins, meanwhile, came into the ring to the strains of America The Beautiful by Ray Charles, and with members of his entourage carrying a fireman’s helmet and a policeman’s cap. Fighting in front of a partisan Trinidad crowd, Hopkins dominated the fight and in the 12th round a chopping right hand decked Trinidad. As referee Steve Smoger counted, Trinidad struggled to get to his feet and eventually the bout was stopped.
The following month The Garden held a benefit concert for the victims of 9/11, and also a tribute to honour the first responder heroes from the New York Fire Department and New York Police Department. The concert, which was broadcast on VH1 and was organised by former Beatle Paul McCartney, featured British artists such as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Elton John, David Bowie, The Who and Eric Clapton. The United States was represented by Bon Jovi, Jay-Z, Backstreet Boys, Billy Joel and Kid Rock. The concert was a success and over $35m was raised.
As the decade drew on one fighter in particular became a firm favourite of The Garden Crowd. Miguel Angel Cotto made his debut at The Garden in 2005 when he stopped Uzbek contender Muhammad Abdullaev in nine rounds. In the years to come, and with New York having a large Puerto Rican community, he quickly became a firm favourite for fans of New York boxing. Cotto would appear at The Garden six more times over the next five years, including an exciting stoppage win over native New Yorker Zab Judah in 2007. The highlight of Cotto’s career to date came when he faced Mexican Antonio Margarito in a rematch of their controversial 2008 fight, when Margarito stopped Cotto in the eleventh round. The bout became notorious when Cotto’s camp accused Margarito of having his handwraps dipped in plaster of paris. The rematch took place in December 2011 and Cotto outboxed and outpunched him, with the bout eventually being stopped due to damage over the eye of Margarito.
In 2007 Madison Square Garden lost a piece of history, as the ring which was first used in 1925 when the third Madison Square Garden was opened was retired. The ring saw its first action on a bill which was headlined by the World Light Heavyweight title fight between Paul Berlenbach and Jack Delaney. The last fight in the old ring was the fight between Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah. It was a fitting end for the old ring, as the two fighters fought an exciting bout over 11 tough rounds, before Cotto overwhelmed his opponent and forced referee Arthur Mercante Jr - the son of the referee in perhaps the most famous fight in The Garden’s illustrious history - to step in and stop the fight. The ring was donated to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York State.
The new century brought The Garden a new lease of life after the disaster of the 1990’s, and the total amount of cards staged at The Garden in the first decade of the new century more than doubled from 15 to 31. Whilst all but the most blinkered boxing fans will admit a return to the heyday of the 40’s and 50’s is highly unlikely, it is to be hoped that the lows of the late 80’s and 90’s are behind us. With fighters like Miguel Cotto spearheading the revival of The Garden, we can hopefully enjoy another 133 years of boxing at this incredible venue.
July 17, 2012