I just finished reading Mitch Abramson’s essay of the sad demise of Sunnyside Gardens and it reminded me of the death of another fabled fight factory, the 5th St. Gym in Miami Beach, where I spent seven happy years in the ‘60s and a couple of unhappy hours early in the ‘90s. It may seem unnatural to remember an old beat up old building as a friend, but this one was.
April 1992. Miami Beach, Florida. They have put a big Master padlock on Muhammad Ali's door. Soon even the ghosts will be razed. The world weary old 5th St. Gym is about to be reduced to rubble by the wrecker's iron ball. No more will Ali's spirit dance across the sagging wooden floor. The ring that vibrated under the feet of Joe Louis and Carmen Basilio and Ezzard Charles, of Willie Pep and Carlos Ortiz and Sugar Ray Robinson is down. Gone, too, are the heavy bags that withstood the hammers of Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston. The speed bags which Kid Gavilan and Archie Moore made sing departed silently. The world's second most storied boxing sweatshop is to become a parking lot, or an apartment complex. I feel like I have been to the wake of an old friend.
Chris Dundee's gym on Miami Beach's southern tip was nine years old when Ali and I arrived for the first time on nearly the same day in 1960, he from the Rome Olympics and me from The Miami Herald. As students with vastly different curriculums, we climbed the 15 stairs to the second floor loft a few thousand times. Willie Pastrano, who left the gym a 20 1 underdog and returned with the light heavyweight championship in 1963, despised those wide linoleum covered steps. "I'm on my way to hell," he'd grumble, as he'd shuffle heavily upward each day at noon.
Others, like Luis Rodriguez, who began cutting sugar cane in Cuba at the age of five, never forgot a harder life and found fighting a pleasurable way to earn a dollar. A tall skeleton of a man with a nose that looked like it had been torn from a banana stalk, Rodriguez also left the gym in 1963; he returned with the welterweight championship.
They were the home boy stars, they and the irrepressible Ali, but the gym was always thick with hungry kids from faraway places drawn like moths to the gym's legendary flame, looking to fulfill a dream in a cavernous place where Chinese waiters once sold fortune cookies. The champions and top contenders came, too - Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Dick Tiger, Bob Foster, Johnny Saxton, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Ken Buchanan, an endless parade of the great and near great.
Some, like Joey Giardello and Jake LaMotta, came there to train for fights in Miami or Miami Beach, while others, mostly fighters from Europe, came just because it was the 5th St. Gym. Many who came had trained at Stillman's Gym on 8th Avenue in New York, which had been the world's most famous gym before that Spartan retreat was replaced by an apartment building in 1961. Now with a sense of history, boxing's aristocracy wanted only to break a sweat in another legendary labor camp.
Drawn like gold prospectors to Johan Sutter's Mill, the big time writers - the likes of Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Budd Shulberg, Doc Green - descended regularly upon the gym, usually in the spring when baseball brought them south, detached and cynical, but certainly in their own fashion to pay homage. Angelo Dundee, Chris's younger and more famous brother, always hosted the visiting newsmen for lunch at Puerto Saqua, a short stroll north to 7th and Collins, where, like the conversation, the meal of Cuban steak, black beans and rice, and banana pie never varied.
The two story building stood two blocks west of where the Atlantic Ocean washes up on pristine beaches, but for the citizens of the gym it might as well have been planted in an Iowa cornfield. The modest entrance to the gym was a narrow rectangular cut in a concrete block background of pale pink. Inside a blackboard in a tiny alcove listed in chalk the boxers training that day.
Optimistically, as though their careers would go on forever, the names of the local stars were painted. As you ascended the stairs, three hand lettered signs warned that entry would cost you fifty cents. Over the double doors at the top, another sign said: "Stop and Pay Fifty Cents, No Dead Beats." Until 1979 another sign read: "No Girls Allowed." At the door Dundee always stationed a senior citizen with no nonsense eyes to collect the access tax.
Inside was usually given over to smoke filled bedlam. The solitary ring was seldom empty. Twin heavy bags and two speed bags groaned and chattered constantly, except when Ali sparred and everyone stopped to watch. A large dust covered, fly specked mirror rested at a tilt against a rear wall, next to a door which led to tiny dressing quarters which boasted badly dented lockers, a blistered wooden bench, and two showers which were nozzles on the end of bare gray pipes over concrete squares. When the showers clogged, the runoff often spilled into the drug store downstairs. No one went to the gym for comfort.
All that is gone now. Dundee gave up the gym when he stopped promoting in 1982, after free televised bouts and the rise of gambling casino boxing all but killed small club fights. Name fighters trained elsewhere. Roosevelt Ivory who took over the gym has surrendered to the decay. Termites have chewed the floor into a quilt of plywood patches. The walls once covered with colorful posters and old fight pictures and yellowed clippings of battles long ago fought are now bare and chipped and holed. Some windows are cracked; others are missing. The only equipment that works is the large padlock securing the grill across the entrance.
Nothing remains; nothing but the smell of sweat and rubbing alcohol and, hauntingly, of chicken soup; and the ghosts, who weep. Soon even they will be gone. But somewhere Willie Pastrano is laughing. He is the last fighter to have a dream about the 5th St. Gym come true.
His manager at the time, Steve Nelson, told me the next day that he would give Joppy a few months, then they would talk about coming back, maybe making a run at a middleweight title were Hopkins to leave the division.
At the time, I thought Joppy was done. Saturday night, after Jermain Taylor dominated him, I wished he had been done. This is a guy who, despite all his peculiarities, was genuinely likeable, and I would have preferred he went out better.
As Frank Lotierzo pointed out at TheSweetScience.com a few days ago, Taylor was in a no-win situation; if he beats Joppy easily, he knocked out a shot fighter; if he loses, he wasn’t worth the hype.
But Joppy was in a similarly bad situation—overmatched, fighting an opponent he did not care about, essentially only for the money. What would beating Taylor have gotten him? A top contender slot? Another beating by Trinidad and/or Hopkins?
If Joppy had stayed retired after the Hopkins loss, he would have gone out under less than ideal circumstances, but still on his terms—and having won the ludicrous $50,000 side bet with Hopkins by avoiding a knockout. He held a middleweight belt for nearly five years, saw a good bit of the world, and lost to a pair of Hall of Famers giving vintage performances in Hopkins and Felix Trinidad. (His only other loss, a close decision to Julio Cesar Green in 1997, was avenged a few months later with a dominating decision victory).
Instead, he did what he once emphatically told me he would never do: sell his name to a rising star. It’s easy to understand why he did it—it is very difficult to turn down a presumably six-figure payday. But when I read his pre-fight press conference quotes, and saw his crotch-grabbing antics, I began to believe that Joppy was doing this as much to convince himself as everyone else. I don’t think his heart is in it, and that’s no way to end a respectable career.
His heart wasn’t in anything but fighting Hopkins in the years after he lost to Trinidad, though he often talked of Tito’s handwraps. He turned down far easier fights than Hopkins—against Joe Calzaghe, Robert Allen and others—that would have paid a lot more than Don King’s lowball purse bid for the Hopkins fight.
I’m not worried about his physical health. It’s his right to fight, and if he’s physically able (which he obviously is), then obviously there’s no reason to stop him. And this is one guy, recent legal troubles aside, that I had always presumed would be fine financially.
He didn’t get rid of his window-washing business until well after he became the middleweight champion. I don’t think he’s ever bought a new car in his life.
He was always hustling something. The first time we met, he tried to sell me a pair of jeans, something like a size 36, clearly too big for me.
He replied that they’d shrink in the wash, and that he’d drop the price from $15 to $10. I declined, as I did over the next two years, whenever he had hats, gloves, mittens or anything else for sale.
But the turbulent year since the Hopkins fights—two arrests, the charges since dropped—and his decision to finally vacate D.C. for his adopted hometown of Winslow, in southern New Jersey seemed to give Joppy enough closure to end his career, to get away from the craziness that seemed to follow him in Washington gyms.
Joppy, to me, is the perfect example of a good-but-not great fighter. He’s not a Hall of Famer like Hopkins, but not a nobody either. I had hoped he would transition smoothly into life out of boxing, paddling around his New Jersey home, doing enough real estate deals to keep him from ever washing windows again. I guess he still can.
The Taylor‑Joppy fight was nothing more than just that: a fight. One fighter, Taylor, has his best days in front of him. The other fighter, Joppy, has his best days behind him. Once Joppy realized that he couldn't win, which was about midway through the first round, he fought just enough to survive and keep Taylor from knocking him out - just as he did in his last fight with middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins.
As stated in this space before the fight, Taylor was in a no-win situation. If he beat Joppy in a round or two, Joppy was nothing but an old shot former champ hanging on for one last payday. And if he struggled versus Joppy, than how good can Taylor really be? Neither scenario unfolded and Joppy never really tested Taylor once in 12 rounds. So whatever questions anyone had about Taylor before the fight are probably still unanswered.
Taylor showed poise by not going recklessly after Joppy and punching himself out when he appeared to have him hurt. Taylor was very professional and took whatever Joppy gave him during the fight, indicating his growth in becoming a world-class fighter. If Joppy exposed his body and covered his head, Taylor unloaded with some terrific body punches. And if Joppy tried to lure Taylor to go up top so he could counter, Taylor did so by varying his attack. When Joppy thought the hook was coming, Taylor threw his uppercut. When Joppy wanted and expected Taylor to throw his right, he hooked off his jab and scored. Throughout the fight Taylor was always a step ahead of Joppy, either beating him with his speed or - sensing Joppy's predicament - anticipating his options and taking them away.
Did we really learn anything about Jermain Taylor in his fight with William Joppy that we didn't know before the first round? Probably not, unless you weren't aware of his versatile jab and hand speed. It was a pretty safe bet before the fight that Taylor could be counted on to play a major roll in the middleweight title picture in the very near future.
After the fight, Taylor's promoter Lou DiBella - the guy that proclaims he's not a manager or a promoter, but has his hands in everything - said Jermaine is ready to fight Hopkins or Trinidad in his next fight. That will not happen and DiBella knows it. DiBella can challenge Hopkins and Trinidad as much as he wants in the media on Taylor's behalf, because it brings attention to his fighter, but the fight’s not happening, at least not in the next few months as he stated.
DiBella is no fool and knows that it's not quite time for him to risk his fighter against either Hopkins or Trinidad. Regardless of what he says. There is still a very good chance that Taylor could endure a beating from either one of them and might not recover emotionally. No, DiBella will wait another year for Hopkins and Trinidad to age and erode a little bit more before taking the risk with his fighter.
Although he currently holds the lowly regarded IBO bantamweight world title, Mabuza has championship material written all over him and would be a serious contender for any of the more recognized world titles. He is undefeated with 15 of his 17 bouts ending via the short route.
Mabuza’s last bout was a thrill a minute affair against the hard as nails Pilipino fighter Eric Barcelona on November 20th at Carnival City in Brakpan, South Africa. Both boxers went at each other with speed and tenacity for the full twelve rounds, their arms pumping like well-oiled machines. Barcelona put up a formidable display. Had he been in the ring with a less skilled opponent, he would have walked away a deserving winner.
The Mabuza-Barcelona bout was a strategic affair and there was little to choose between these two warriors. The main deciding factor was Mabuza’s ability to think on his feet and to alternate his attacks on his more one-dimensional opponent. Mabuza was also the stronger of the two. While neither fighter visited the canvas, Mabuza did stagger Barcelona in sixth, ninth and twelfth rounds, and were it not for the bell or the ropes providing a reprieve for the brave challenger, he most surely would have gone down.
South Africa has produced a number of world-class bantamweights, including the likes of Willie Smith, who in the 1920s beat Teddy Baldock for what was billed as a world title fight, Olympic gold medal winner Laurie Stevens, as well as universal bantamweight world champion Viccie Toweel and his brother Willie, who fought a draw with Robert Cohen for the same title a few years later.
There was South African Arnold Taylor, who won the WBA bantamweight world title, and Jake Tuli, an Empire champion and number one contender, who never received a world title opportunity. There were of course many others along the way, but the aforementioned names are boxers who are mentioned when the debates of top-ten South African boxers of all time hits the table.
While Mabuza has not yet earned the right to be included in that discussion, he certainly has the ability to get there and has the potential of becoming one of the greatest in the current division. “The IBF, WBA or WBC, bring them all on,” said Mabuza’s trainer, Nic Durand, following his charge’s impressive victory over Barcelona. “We’re ready to take on any of the other champions – if they dare!”
On ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights, rising featherweight star Ricardo ‘Rocky’ Juarez landed one of the prettiest left hooks seen in ages as he one-punched former 126-pound kingpin Guty Espadas, Jr. into a second round siesta at the 2:24 mark. Juarez simply looked sensational in this brief viewing, taking the fight to his vastly more experienced foe--who may still be carrying the psychological scars of his 3rd round knockout at the hands of Erik Morales in October 2003, and showing ring awareness and presence not usually seen in a 24-year old with only 22 fights to his credit.
Juarez cements a spot for himself among the top five feathers in the world today with this win and seems poised to meet the likes of a Scotty Harrison or Manny Pacquiao sooner rather than later, while Espadas would do well to reconsider his career at this point. The likeable 30-year old Mexican has been pushing leather for a dozen years now and is clearly on the decline. After winning a championship on what many considered a rather modest set of skills he has nothing left to prove, and not much left to offer.
On the Juarez-Espadas undercard former heavyweight prospect Dominick Guinn literally froze himself out of future consideration for dreadnaught division gold as he dropped a desultory ten round nod to earnest but plodding Serguei Lyakhovich. As he did against Monte Barrett in his disastrous first loss back in March of this year, Guinn failed repeatedly to follow up on any advantages he established against his man and seemed to have no grasp of basic ring strategy.
Despite the fevered exhortations of his corner, Guinn’s hands seemed to have been tethered to his pectorals as the hard-working Belarussian beat him to the punch repeatedly and dictated the majority of the pace of the bout. While one won’t look for great things from Lyakhovich in the future, he does add an interesting dimension to the heavyweight crowd. He’s big (6’-4”), strong, willing and throws a mean uppercut. Consider him a Golota-type fighter, albeit one who actually understands the rules of the game and doesn’t use opponents’ gonads for speed bags. Guinn, at only 29 years of age and not without skills of his own, could still someday crash the back ten of the division. However, he may be destined to live up to the second half of his “Southern Disaster” nickname with more primetime stinkers such as this one.
Saturday night saw an all-action card broadcast on SHOWTIME PPV, as WBC lightweight king Jose Luis Castillo defended against Joel Casamayor, IBF super middleweight champion Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy made the first defense of his crown against New Jersey’s Omar Sheika, and undefeated Nigerian Olympian star Samuel Peter tackled former contender Jeremy Williams in what was to be his first stern test in the heavyweight division.
Sheika, to the surprise of many—this writer included, early on managed to nullify Lacy’s prodigious wallops. He did so not by going on the usual full-out offensive he throws at his opponents--thereby inhibiting their own attacks, but by closing the distance between he and his man, throwing some nice, short body shots and overhand rights and then clinching and grabbing for dear life. The last time this many headlocks and arm-bars were seen, the two guys wearing short pants in the ring were named Dusty Rhodes and Dick the Bruiser, but for Sheika, it all worked…up to a point.
That point came in the latter half of the match when Lacy finally started to find his range with his vaunted left hook, teeing off on Omar’s head with alarming regularity. Although shaky after a few bombs in rounds seven through twelve, Sheika never seemed on the verge of being stopped. Once Lacy realized he could take Sheika’s best shots though, he simply walked his man down and unloaded, exceeding Omar in both quantity and effectiveness. Spirited exchanges in rounds seven and twelve provided the best action seen this year and had the Mandalay Bay Arena crowd continuously rising up in appreciation. Sheika’s tender skin was not a factor in this one as only a reddening and slight swelling of old scar tissue around both eyes was the only damage he suffered this night. Judges saw it as follows: Epstein and Giampa—115-113, Byrd—117-111, all for the defending champion.
Sheika, who had dropped off most boxing experts’ top notcher lists as of late, showed plenty of his usual spunk in this one and may well be in line for a rematch with either Lacy or previous conqueror Scotty Pemberton come 2005. Lacy showed great patience as he worked through some early frustration with Omar’s smothering tactics to establish and dominate with his power. Both men displayed two of the best chins currently in the 168-pound ranks and gave the fans the fight of the night.
Duva Boxing managed to keep themselves entered in the heavyweight sweepstakes as their latest hopeful in the ranks, Samuel Peter, knocked Jeremy “Half Man, Half Amazing” Williams into a leather-induced slumber at 0:27 mark of round two in their scheduled twelve rounder (for the hollow NABF title). Peter showed gumption and aggression in trying to trap Williams in the first round, but the veteran avoided any serious damage--or real action for that matter. In the second, and after flailing a cannonade of punches in the general direction of Williams, he got lucky with a big left hook that floored his opponent for several anxious minutes.
This abbreviated showing against his first “name” opponent really didn’t prove much in the 24-year old Peter’s favor. We know the kid has heavy hands but he needs a much tougher chalenge than Williams in order to establish his bona fides in the division. As for Williams, one would think he will now avidly pursue his many interests outside of the game of boxing; interests that obviously robbed of him any focus and drive he ever had for the sport.
The main event on the SHOWTIME card had Jose Luis Castillo defending his WBC lightweight title against former super featherweight boss Joel Casamayor in a bout that many experts had predicted would be one of the best of the year. The action that unfolded, while entertaining at times, didn’t even ratchet up to Lacy-Sheika proportions, unfortunately.
Their bout featured the protypical boxer versus slugger clash of styles that often guarantees a cerebral, but vicious chess game of a fight. This one was more a spirited game of checkers between these two seasoned pros, as neither man seemed anxious to let it all hang out in the early rounds and only took it to the trenches sporadically throughout the remainder of the fight.
Casamayor showed some great hand speed and accurate combinations during the first few sessions, but Castillo landed the stiffer shots in the infrequent exchanges. The southpaw Casamayor appeared to pile up an early lead with his superior skills and ability to evade Castillo’s power shots, but one sensed that Castillo was simply trying to get a feel for his foe for the later rounds and was biding his time.
The second half of the fight largely went Castillo’s way as he cut down the distance between them and belabored Casamayor with some hard left hooks and right leads to the head and body. It was apparent in the last several rounds of the bout that Casamayor couldn’t stand in with the champion’s power, a fact not lost on Castillo himself, who managed to walk through Joel’s shots and dictated things to the final bell. Tallies were as follows: Jen-Kin—116-112 Castillo; Castellano—115-113 Casamayor, and Moretti—117-111 Castillo, for an expected, but strangely unsatisfying split verdict for the champion.
The razor-thin margin of victory could lead to a second meeting between the two men, and the feeling here is that Casamayor may have learned just enough about his foe, and enough from his own mistakes in this one to reverse the outcome in any redux.
Over on the HBO side of things we had the taped broadcast of last weekend’s scintillating battle between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. Enough has been written of this all-action classic, but if you haven’t seen it you need to go out and beg, borrow or steal a copy. After that sizzler it would have been tough for any other fight to follow it, but Little Rock, Arkansas’ favorite fistic son, Jermain Taylor, gave it his best shot as he mixed it up against former middleweight champion William Joppy.
The bout, held in Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum in front of over 6,000 rabid Taylor fans, turned out to be more a national showcase for the audacious hand speed and aggressive, confident style that Jermain possesses, rather than a competitive fight. Joppy simply was dominated all fight long by his younger and more talented foe, and for all the world looked like a guy who would rather be somewhere/anywhere else than in Little Rock, Arkansas this night.
Jermain landed a dizzying array of punches throughout the twelve round tilt but only managed to floor Joppy once, in the fifth round. After connecting with some good body shots Taylor swept a left hook across Joppy’s jaw and dumped him to the canvas. Joppy arose and managed to survive the rest of the session, but gave Taylor even more respect in the ensuing rounds. In the latter rounds it seemed Joppy was doing some bizarre, 160-pound version of a Muhammad Ali impersonation as he rope-a-doped against the ring strands, held onto the top rope with his right and gestured with his left, did the old “wobbly knees” routine, and bicycled around the ring like he had George Foreman, Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers and Sonny Liston pursuing him, rather than l’il old Jermain Taylor.
The judges’ final tallies correctly called it a Taylor shutout, with scores of 120-107 all around. Taylor disappointed his homies by not putting his man on ice, but scored an impressive win nonetheless over his vastly more experienced foe. So, is Taylor for real? Well, it will be nice if Lou Di Bella decides to ink a contract for Taylor to meet Bernard Hopkins sometime before The Executioner applies for his MediCaid card. Maybe then we can find out if Jermain can live up to the “Can’t Miss/Hall of Fame” hype that has followed his every step in the middleweight division to date.
All in all, a veritable buffet of offerings for fans of the Sweet Science, with nary a touch of dyspepsia to show for our indulgence.
While Sonny's comeback moved at a snail's pace, the heavyweight picture was changing dramatically. When Ali refused induction into the Armed Forces he was stripped of his title and forced into idleness. It seemed likely that Ali would never box again. A series of elimination bouts produced two championship claimants, Jimmy Ellis and Joe Frazier. With Ali out of the way, Sonny felt confident that he could take either Ellis or Frazier. It was now time for Sonny to make his move.
Sonny's first serious test on his comeback campaign would come against young Henry Clark. At first some experts thought Sonny made a mistake in choosing Clark. In his previous comeback bouts, Sonny still seemed to carry his vaunted power, but he also looked slow and ponderous. Clark was not a big puncher, but he was a boxer and a mover in the Ali style, a style that had proven in the past to trouble Sonny. The actual fight was comparable to a man against a boy. Only Clark's gameness made it competitive. The referee finally raised Sonny's hand in round seven. Liston was now right back in the thick of the heavyweight picture. Sonny said he wanted to fight Jerry Quarry and then either Ellis or Frazier.
The next step for Sonny would be against veteran contender Leotis Martin. Martin had lost to Ellis in the first round of the WBA elimination tournament. Martin also lost to Henry Clark. He seemed like a "safe" opponent. A victory for Sonny might get him a shot at the winner of the Ellis‑Frazier unification bout that was scheduled for February of 1970.
The bout started slowly with Liston forcing the action behind his long punishing left jab. At times Martin was able to jab with him, but Sonny was in control. In round four, Sonny finally connected with a long sweeping left hook that floored Martin. Leotis survived the round and actually began picking up the pace in round five. After six rounds Sonny was well out in front, but Martin was very much alive and there were six rounds to go. In the seventh Sonny seemed to age in front of everyone's eyes. Martin was beginning to out-jab Sonny, while also landing effective counter shots. In the eighth round Liston became unglued. Martin bloodied and cut Liston's nose and the blood poured into Sonny's mouth impairing his breathing. In round nine Liston seemed to just be trying to box his way to the final bell in hopes that his early lead would get him the decision. Martin had other plans. Leotis was now punishing Liston with wicked jabs to his gory face.
Sonny's jab was more of a flicking jab. As Liston pawed out with a series of jabs, Martin timed the last one perfectly and came over the top with a crunching overhand right. The punch literally froze Sonny in his tracks. Leotis immediately connected with a powerful left hook to the chin and another right as Sonny fell face first to the canvas. He was OUT COLD! In a matter of seconds the aura and myth of Sonny Liston was shattered.
The announcer Howard Cosell called it a "crushing and compelling knockout."
A wrecking ball unceremoniously demolished the famous boxing arena on Queens Boulevard in Queens, New York in December 1977 and in its place a Wendy's was built - a monument to fast-food lovers and salad-bar fanatics but not fight fans. The kitchen is where the ring once was, and the tables are where the seats used to be. Gone are the dressing room and the bar and the bleachers and all those memories that were swept under the carpet like dirt.
"I left a lot of my blood in that kitchen," said Wallitsch, an Austrian heavyweight who fought at Sunnyside at least 20 times and grew up in Queens. "Or maybe that's my blood coming from those hamburgers."
The final show was on June 24, 1977 between Ramon Ranquello and Bob Smith, a couple of out-of-towners from Jersey City and Natchez, Miss. with no connection to New York, maybe 400 fans in the audience, and no clue that the place was about to be replaced by a restaurant whose slogan used to be "Where's the beef?"
"It was a great atmosphere. You could die of lung cancer there," said Bobby Cassidy, a middleweight contender who fought there 26 times and reportedly holds the record for main events at Sunnyside. "I went back there around 10 years ago. I parked my car under the El and just walked around the neighborhood. The Chinese restaurant was still there next door. My god, it brought back memories. I never went into the Wendy's, though, couldn't do it. Life goes on, but it hurts a little that they tore it down- all those memories."
In contrast to other venues such as St. Nicholas Arena, whose proprietors knew when the wrecking ball was coming, nobody expected Ranquello-Smith to be the final show at the fabled arena. Sunnyside was never given a proper burial and closed abruptly when Vic Manni and Nick Annest, a pair of local promoters entrusted with the keys to the building, became the centerpiece of a police investigation concerning gambling in connection with a local synagogue.
By that time the neighborhood rivalries were drying up anyway. People were leaving the city for the suburbs. The gimmicks that matched a police officer against a firefighter were drawing flies, and publicity stunts such as camera night, in which fans could have their picture taken with a famous fighter, were no longer gate attractions.
As a result, the promoters feebly resorted to gambling to pay off the $8,000-a-month rent and their operation was subsequently closed. With that, the guillotine came down on an era that once boasted around 20 fight clubs in New York - almost a show every night - and a boxing scene that was so healthy it seemed it would last forever.
"Sunnyside was the last of the real small, self-sustaining fight clubs," said boxing historian and matchmaker Don Majeski. "After it left, that was it."
Sunnyside was a mythical place, full of charm and imagination, women and cigar smoke and, best of all, fights. Dozens of world champions fought there on their way to bigger paydays at Madison Square Garden, guys like Tony Canzoneri, Floyd Patterson, Vito Antuofermo, Eddie Gregory, later known as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Gerry Cooney turned pro there. Heavyweight Bobby Mashburn, who fought Larry Holmes and Ken Norton and was the father of the New Orleans Hornets' Jamal Mashburn of the NBA, appeared at Sunnyside.
"Sunnyside Gardens is an ugly, red-brick relic tucked beneath a trestle for the Flushing line on Queens Boulevard, fighting for survival in a dormant sport," is how Bill Verigan of the Daily News described it on May 11, 1972.
Built in 1926 as a ritzy tennis club by millionaire Jay Goulds, Sunnyside developed into a sanctuary for activities such as wrestling, karate, arm wrestling, bingo nights and eventually boxing when it was sold in 1945. Before then, if you wanted to see a fight you went to Queensboro Arena next to the Queens Plaza station. Primo Carnera headlined there before the wooden stadium was torn down the '40s and Sunnyside became the gathering place for the discriminating sports fan where men recently returned from the service met their wives in the wooden bleachers and businessmen had a drink at the bar in the lobby.
Gamblers in fedoras huddled outside with bookmakers placing bets, and fans couldn't peek into the referee's scorecard before they made a wager like they could in the balcony at St. Nicholas Arena. A seafood restaurant across the street was the pre-fight destination and the neighboring bars like the Merry-Go-Round and Escape were the spots you hit after the fight.
Young kids lucky enough to find seats at the arena stole peaks of what their parents were doing when they weren't at home.
"I was old enough to go to my father's fights, and I was in the audience when a riot broke out," said Bobby Cassidy Jr., a writer for Newsday and son of the middleweight contender. "This fighter named Bobby O'Brien, who was a cop, was in the audience that night; he wasn't fighting and someone just cold-cocked him. He just starts knocking people out, and I'm a 10-year-old kid watching all this."
Sunnyside was around for the confluence of Spanish immigrants in the '50s and '60s who moved into the area and helped fuel famous rivalries, all chronicled in papers like La Prensa and the Long Island Star-Journal that people still talk about today.
A matchmaker at Sunnyside Gardens in the '60s, Gene Moore, now 70, never hesitated to square off fighters with divergent ethnicities. Then he crossed his fingers that the enthusiasm wouldn't boil over into bedlam. When "Irish" Bobby Cassidy Sr. fought Carmelo Martinez, a riot ensued after the decision was announced.
"The place was packed to the pillars with Puerto Ricans and my Irish crew," said Cassidy Sr., now 59 and still living in Levittown, L.I. "In the seventh round he dropped me. I came back to the corner and my trainer, Jimmy Glenn, slapped me. That was the first time a trainer had ever slapped me before. I came back in the eighth round and landed some heavy shots and he was walking around like a cripple. He was wobbling around and his foot kept kicking up in the air. People were throwing chairs and tossing things into the ring after I won the decision."
The kids who belonged to neighborhood gangs, like Henny Wallitsch ("If you missed me with a punch, I was mad"), a member of the Midnight Boys, trained at local gyms and became instant celebrities at Sunnyside for their neighborhood wars and ability to sell tickets.
"Me and Bobby Halpern had a bloodbath there," said Wallitsch, now 69. "They had to move the ringside seats two rows back because of the mess. The Daily News said that it was the greatest fight in the last 20 years."
There was never a dull moment at Sunnyside. The 1965 blackout canceled a show that three busloads of fans from East Rockaway, L.I. came to see.
When the promoter, a vaudevillian character named Broadway George Albert, a retired milliner who always had a cigar in his mouth, booked the same fighters the following week, the fans never came back.
To help brunt the occasional unsuccessful promotion, Madison Square Garden subsidized Sunnyside with $500 a week during Albert's seven-year reign in the '60s. Duke Stephano, Albert's matchmaker, was Teddy Brenner's assistant at the real Garden in Manhattan, and fighters who consistently won at Sunnyside were promoted to the Mecca in Manhattan. Garden publicity chief, John Condon, handled Sunnyside's press for free. General admission was $4, ringside was $8 and it cost roughly $5,000 to put on a fight. If the promoter made a $100 profit, it was considered a moderate success.
"It was a great place," said Howie Albert, George's son who co-managed former welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith. "There wasn't a bad seat in the house. I drive by the place now, and I have tears in my eyes, even though I like Wendy's. There were so many nice times there."
So much has changed since then. Nowadays boxing shows are risky ventures bereft of charm and substance. Promoters are more likely to go to casinos and their free rooms than to legitimately build up a following in the city. Too many promoters have gone broke running unimaginative shows that tank at the box office and once bitten, they rarely return.
"Before television (changed the way boxing is operated), Sunnyside was the minor leagues of the sport," said Daily News cartoonist, Bill Gallo, who grew up in Astoria and whose father covered fights at Sunnyside for the New York Sun. "It was a popular place, and managers would come from overseas just to try their fighters out at Sunnyside. Some of them became stars, some of them didn't, but Sunnyside was a fun place to be."
Today, Sunnyside is a special word, spoken at Ring 8 meetings in Long Island City at Tony Mazzarella's Waterfront Crabhouse and at New Jersey Hall of Fame gatherings in Lodi, NJ kept alive in fight posters and ticket stubs that Bobby Cassidy Jr. saved from his father's fighting days and in scrap books cobbled together by Howie Albert.
To old-timers whose memories of their fights are as sharp as a diamond stud, Sunnyside Gardens is a living, breathing entity, capable of turning grown men into hyperactive kids suddenly walking along Steinway Street to the Red Door Bar, not a care in the world following a tough fight at Sunnyside, as Bobby Bartels, a popular welterweight from Astoria in the mid '50s did on more than one occasion. Those were the days.
JERMAIN TAYLOR vs WILLIAM JOPPY Jermain Taylor won a unanimous decision over William Joppy on Saturday, retaining his WBC Continental Americas belt and keeping a perfect record. Taylor outpointed Joppy 120-107 on all 3 judges’ scorecards. Taylor controlled the fight throughout, as Joppy went into survival mode for much of the second half of the fight. Punch stats favored Taylor, as he threw 580 punches and connected on 239, while Joppy threw 352 and connected 115 times.
JOSE LUIS CASTILLO vs JOEL CASAMAYOR Jose Luis Castillo successfully defended his World Boxing Council lightweight championship with a split decision over Joel Casamayor at Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas. The official scores were 115-113 for Casamayor and 116-112 and 117-111 for Castillo. In what undoubtedly was a difficult fight to score, the decision proved controversial amongst many fans. Certainly, the wide margins on the 2 judges’ scorecards that had Castillo winning were hard to reconcile.
JEFF LACY vs OMAR SHEIKA In the most entertaining fight of the night, Jeff Lacy defended his International Boxing Federation super middleweight title with a unanimous decision over Omar Sheika. Both fighters were hurt during the bout as both men landed power punches throughout. However, it was Lacy’s superior physical strength and puncing power that edged it for him late.
SAMUEL PETER vs JEREMY WILLIAMS Sam Peter knocked out Jeremy Williams at 0:27 of the second round with a blistering left hook. After avoiding a Peter right hand, Williams backed away with his hands down and was caught by a punch he never saw coming. Though still apparently raw, Peter solidified his position as one of the top prospects in a moribund heavyweight division which desperately needs an injection of new talent.
Jose Luis Castillo took the last three rounds from Joel Casamayor on all three judges’ scorecards to eke out a split decision Saturday on SHOWTIME. The defending World Boxing Council (WBC) Lightweight Champion won the disputed nod by the scores of 117-111, 116-112 and 113-115. In the second world title fight on the telecast, undefeated International Boxing Federation (IBF) Super Middleweight Champion Jeff Lacy retained his belt with a hard-fought 12-round decision over the resilient Omar Sheika. In the opening fight on SHOWTIME, unbeaten heavyweight contender Samuel Peter registered the biggest victory of his career with an impressive second-round knockout over Jeremy Williams.
Saturday’s SHOWTIME telecast, which aired at 9 p.m. ET/PT (delayed on West Coast) from Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, Nev., was promoted by Top Rank, Inc. in association with Gary Shaw Productions, LLC and Cedric Kushner Promotions, LTD with Team Freedom and Duva Boxing.
Castillo (51-6-1, 45 KOs), of Sonora, Mexico, spotted the challenger the first two rounds before picking up the pace in the third. Still, Castillo needed the last three rounds to successfully defend his crown for the first time in his second stint as WBC 130-pound champion. There were no knockdowns in a hotly-contested bout that had the fans on their feet during the final nine minutes. Castillo captured the WBC lightweight crown for the second time with a 12-round unanimous decision over Juan Lazcano on June 5, 2004, in Las Vegas. Castillo initially won the WBC 135-pound world championship with a 12-round majority decision over Steve Johnston on June 17, 2000. Following three successful defenses, Castillo lost the title and a subsequent rematch to Floyd Mayweather in April and December of 2002.
Casamayor (31-3, 19 KOs), of Guantanamo, Cuba, had success boxing from the outside until faltering in the final nine minutes. Stepping up a notch in weight, the southpaw was quicker for the most part and landed his fair share of combinations. Casamayor won the WBA interim 130-pound crown with an easy decision over Antonio Hernandez on June 19, 1999. In his 21st start, he became the first U.S.-based Cuban defector to capture a world title when he won the WBA belt with a devastating fifth-round TKO over Jongkwon Baek on May 21, 2000. He made four successful defenses before suffering his first defeat on a controversial 12-round decision to Acelino Freitas Jan. 12, 2002, on SHOWTIME.
Lacy (18-0, 14 KOs), of Tampa, Fla. triumphed by the scores of 117-111 and 115-113 twice, but there was never a moment when he could relax. Lacy shook and staggered the game Sheika on a few occasions, but could not put him down. The unbeaten youngster became the first 2000 Olympian to win a world title when he captured the vacant IBF crown with an eighth-round TKO over No. 1 contender Syd Vanderpool on Oct. 2, 2004, on SHOWTIME.
Sheika (26-7, 17 KOs), of Patterson, N.J. gave his best but it was not quite enough to prevent him from falling to 0-3 in world title bouts. Sheika continually fought back in the slugfest and split Lacy’s lower lip in the middle rounds.
Peter (21-0, 18 KOs), of Akwaibom, Nigeria, showed why many consider him to be the heavyweight division’s hottest prospect by turning what most figured to be his toughest test into one of his easiest. The hard-hitting Peter missed with a right hand, but connected with a stunning left hook to Williams’ chin to end matters 27 seconds into the second round. Peter made his SHOWTIME debut as the main event on “ShoBox: The New Generation,” Aug. 5, 2004, from Hollywood, Fla., putting on a boxing clinic and bloodied Jovo Pudar’s nose en route to registering a 10-round unanimous decision.
Williams (41-5-1, 36 KOs), of Long Beach, Calif. traded shots in the first before getting knocked cold. The veteran scored an impressive eighth-round TKO over Attila “The Hun’’ Levin on SHOWTIME April 15, 2004.
SHOWTIME will close out an excellent year of boxing when multi-talented boxer and musician, Ebo Elder (21-1, 13 KOs), defends his North American Boxing Organization (NABO) lightweight crown against former NABO champion Courtney Burton (21-2, 11 KOs), Friday, Dec. 17, on “ShoBox: The New Generation” (11 p.m. ET/PT), In the 10-round co-feature, unbeaten World Boxing Organization (WBO) No. 15 junior welterweight contender “Mighty” Mike Arnaoutis (11-0-1, 5 KOs) will make his third SHOWTIME appearance against an opponent to be announced.
Since his first-round demolition of Jesse Feliciano this past October, "Mighty" Mike has become a genuinely avoided fighter amongst his fellow junior welterweight prospects. Although difficulty finding a suitable foe kept his Cestus Management team working overtime, Arnaoutis himself is unfazed by the problem. "Mighty" Mike has been deep in hard sparring and even harder training for some four weeks as of this date, and remains focused and confident that his third fight on ShoBox will be his best outing to date. Says Arnaoutis, "Gallardo? No problem. Whoever it is, no problem. I'll watch the tape, see what I have to do, and go out and take care of Gallardo or anyone else."
Advisor Mike Michael had some words for Jauquin Gallardo. "Gallardo doesn't need to worry about "Mighty" Mike. Nothing is going to help him, not tape, not anything. The only thing Gallardo should be worrying about is Gallardo. With the way Mike has been working in the gym, I hope Gallardo has been training hard as well, otherwise it's going to be another short night for 'Mighty' Mike."
Michael also had a few choice words for "Mighty" Mike's fellow 140-pound fighter Paul Malignaggi. "I looked on the internet the other day, and I see that Paul Malignaggi, the so-called 'Magic Man,' has made a video with one of the boxing websites. I gave it a watch, and this clown is on the video with his ridiculous little headband and his funny voice calling my kid ugly. Ugly? This is boxing, Paulie, not a beauty contest. Look, I'm very sorry that "Mighty" Mike isn't your type, but there are a lot of fish in the sea. I'm sure you'll find some nice young man to make you very happy. In the meantime, you saying you want to get in with my boy is about as credible as you claiming to be a top fighter. As far as making history, the only thing that history is going to do is laugh at Paul Malignaggi. If you really want to do it, tell Johnny Bos to peel off your diaper and we'll make a fight. Until then, Paul Malignaggi saying who he wants to fight is just like his heart, his chin and his balls...suspect!"
Arnaoutis vs. Gallardo will be broadcast live on the Showtime Network at 11 pm eastern time on Friday, December 17. Already hungry for action, "Mighty" Mike called upon his fans as well as all boxing fans to tune in and check out the fight. "I will give my best, leave it all in the ring, just like I always do. They said Feliciano was tough. I guess not. Now, they say Gallardo is tough. I hope he is. Maybe it will be easy, maybe it will be hard. Either way, I'll win, and he'll lose. Thank you to all my fans and everyone who supports boxing and boxers in America, and I hope everyone will watch the fight and see who I am."