By John Wharton: The original Madison Square Garden was situated at the former New York and Harlem Railroad Depot, on East 26th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. This was the first venue to use the name and was in use from 1879 until 1890, when it was replaced by a new building on the same site. The building was owned by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt prior to it being known as Madison Square Garden, and was leased to the showman PT Barnum when the railroad depot moved uptown. Barnum used the building for circuses and other performances, and the venue became known as Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.
In 1876, the land was leased to band leader Patrick Gilmore who re-christened it Gilmore’s Garden. He used it to put on flower shows, beauty contests, music contests, temperance and revivalist meetings, and the first Westminster Kennel Show. It was at this time the site was first used for boxing bouts; but as boxing was technically illegal, they were masqueraded as exhibitions or illustrated lectures.
In 1877, Commodore Vanderbilt died. His grandson WK Vanderbilt took control of the site and renamed it Madison Square Garden. In his arena Vanderbilt presented events such as indoor track and field, The National Horse Show and more boxing. Featuring was John L Sullivan, who took part in a series of bouts at The Garden starting in July 1882 and consistently drew over-capacity crowds. One of the main uses of the first Garden was as a cycling velodrome. At this time, cycling was one of the biggest sports in the US and some cyclists could earn $100,000-$150,000 a year. Eventually Vanderbilt sold the site to a consortium which included JP Morgan, WW Astor, Andrew Carnegie, and James Stillman. The consortium decided to demolish the building and replace it with a new building, to be designed by the famous architect Stanford White. In July 1889 demolition began on the first incarnation of the venue.
The second Madison Square Garden opened its doors on 6 June 1890, in an event attended by 17,000 people, as well as dignitaries such as JP Morgan, The Pierpoints, The Whitney’s and General William Tecumseh Sherman. As well as being the architect, White became infamous as the victim in a notorious murder. This was perpetrated by the millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw after he discovered White had been conducting an affair with his wife, the actress Evelyn Nesbit, whom White seduced when she was 16. White was shot at point blank range by Thaw during the premiere performance of the musical revue Mam’zelle Champagne. The ensuing trial was sensationalised by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers and became known as the first ‘Trial of The Century’.
Boxing became more prominent at the second Madison Square Garden when it was eventually legalised. Many legendary fighters fought at the venue, including heavyweight champion of the world Jack Dempsey, who defended his title against Bill Brennan whom he defeated with a twelfth round stoppage in 1920. This bout is often regarded as one of Dempsey’s toughest defences and was not without controversy. Brennan, who had been decked by a left-right combination to the body, was apparently counted out by referee Johnny Haukop, but Brennan claimed he had beaten the count.
Another heavyweight champion who benefited from controversy at The Garden was Gene Tunney, who was hoping to regain his World Light Heavyweight Championship against Harry Greb. The bout took place in February 1923 and Tunney reclaimed his title via unanimous decision. When the ring announcer read out the decision it was booed loudly by the crowd, and for a time the police were forced to quell riots that had broken out in various parts of the arena.
Despite the importance of the venue to New York City, the second Madison Square Garden suffered the same fate as its predecessor, as it become financially unviable. The New York Life Insurance Company, which held the mortgage on the site, decided to demolish the building in order to make way for its new headquarters. Demolition began in 1925, and construction began on the new building and was completed in 1928.
This meant that the new building would need to be built further away from Madison Square, and the new site that was chosen situated on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in Manhattan. Work began in January 1925 and the venue opened in the December of that year. The first title fight to be fought at the new venue was the World Light Heavyweight title fight between defending champion Paul Berlenbach, a native New Yorker, and the French Canadian challenger Jack Delaney. Berlenbach won the fight by a narrow decision.
This for many boxing fans was the heyday of The Garden as a boxing arena, as many legendary fighters plied their trade here. One of the early great fights was a bout for the World Featherweight Championship, between the defending French champion Andre Routis and local challenger Tony Canzoneri. Routis won the fight by unanimous decision, despite being decked in the first round by Canzoneri. Yet, as the New York Times explained, "None disputed the verdict when it was announced, after one of the most savage fights ever staged for the 126-pound crown". Henry Armstrong was the only man in boxing history to ever hold three world titles at three different weights simultaneously, and was a regular fixture at The Garden - fighting on no fewer than seventeen occasions, including bouts against fellow hall of fame fighters Sugar Ray Robinson, Fritzie Zivic and Lou Ambers. Indeed Armstrong’s first fight, with Fritzie Zivic, still holds the record attendance for any of The Garden’s incarnations, when 23,190 people witnessed a bout between these two boxing greats.
Heavyweight great Joe Louis defended his title seven times at The Garden, whilst Sugar Ray Robinson won his first world title at there, when he defeated the rugged Tommy Bell to win the World Welterweight Title in 1946. Robinson fought at The Garden twenty-four times in his career, including for two of his three fights with Jake La Motta. La Motta was a native New Yorker who himself fought at The Garden sixteen times in his career, including one title defence against the Italian Tiberio Mitri in 1950. More infamously, La Motta fought Billy Fox in 1947 and lost via fourth round stoppage - this win guaranteed Fox a shot at Light Heavyweight Champion Gus Lesnevich, and La Motta a shot at Middleweight Champion Marcel Cerdan. It later transpired La Motta had thrown the fight with Fox in order to guarantee a shot at the Middleweight title. The New York Times report of 15 November 1947 hinted at some nefarious activities; and indeed the New York State Athletic Commission chairman, Eddie Eagan, visited La Motta in his dressing room prior to the fight, to inform La Motta of the rumours that were circulating. La Motta left the ring of his own volition but was apparently distraught; yet, La Motta had apparently agreed to throw the fight and also paid out $20,000 dollars to shady behind-the-scenes figures, in order to guarantee a shot at the title.
In 1951, heavyweight prospect Rocky Marciano faced faded former World Champion Joe Louis in a bout at The Garden and stopped the former title holder in eight rounds. This was the last significant heavyweight fight to be fought there until the 1960’s. Indeed throughout the 1950’s there would be no heavyweight title fights, as champions fought at Yankee Stadium and The Polo Grounds when they fought in New York. In the 1950’s, The Garden belonged to the lower weight fighters, such as the aforementioned Robinson and La Motta, as well as Carmen Basilio, Sandy Saddler.
In 1954 Archie Moore made his first appearance at The Garden, when he defeated future world champion Harold Johnson in fourteen rounds. In 1957 Gene Fullmer defeated Sugar Ray Robinson over fifteen rounds. And, in 1959 lightweight great Carlos Ortiz won the vacant Lightweight Title with a second round stoppage win over Kenny Lane. As the fifties drew to a close, the third Madison Square Garden was seemingly going from strength to strength - boxing was about to enter a new era.
Next Week: Death at The Garden, Clay/Ali, Death of The Garden and The Garden Rises again.
June 14, 2012