After Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier squared off in their classic rubber match, the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali biographer Thomas Hauser framed the importance of the confrontation in a manner that left no doubt that what was at stake transcended the possession of any sanctioning body’s bejeweled belt.
“They weren’t fighting so much for the heavyweight championship of the world,” Hauser noted. “They were fighting for the heavyweight championship of each other.”
In some ways, the Showtime-televised turf war that Daniel “Miracle Man” Jacobs (30-1, 27 KOs) and Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin (32-0-1, 23 KOs) will engage in on Dec. 5 in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is reminiscent of Ali-Frazier III. It’s almost an afterthought that Jacobs’ WBA “regular” middleweight title will be on the line; what matters is that these are two Brooklyn guys, one homegrown, another an adopted son, who desperately want to claim the unofficial but highly prized designation as kingpin of New York City’s most populous (2,621,793) and iconic borough.
“This fight is to show who The Man in town is,” said promoter Lou DiBella. “The winner will own Brooklyn. If you’re The Man in Brooklyn, you’re The Man.”
At a press conference to announce the much-anticipated bout, both fighters left no doubt that being The Man along Flatbush Avenue — and everywhere else within Brooklyn’s 71-square-mile limits – is something that can’t be understood by outsiders. It is home, and home means a lot to nearly everyone, but maybe especially so to residents of a melting-pot community who know what it’s like to be the punch line of jokes told by other Americans, even fellow New Yorkers with more prestigious Manhattan zip codes. If you’re a Brooklynite, there is no place on earth quite like their little slice of heaven.
“To me, this fight means everything to Brooklyn,” said the 28-year-old Jacobs, who was born in the same gritty Brownsville section of the borough that gave boxing Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe. “This is a thick-skinned city that was raised on fighting. You always had to defend yourself. We have that pride of having great fighters that come from here. I’m fortunate to be (another Brooklyn-authenticated) champion and to continue that legacy.”
Said Quillin, 32, who was born in Chicago, raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., and moved to Brooklyn when he was 19, his adopted hometown is a place he has taken to his heart and which has loved him back, negating any presumed advantage Jacobs might have as a true native.
“This fight means everything to me,” said Quillin, a former WBO middleweight champ. “It’s two guys in the Battle for Brooklyn. We are both going to have great support in the building, and this fight will really inspire people.
“I feel like I’m a son of Brooklyn. Although I’m from Michigan, this city has taken me in like I’m one of their own. You see what Las Vegas did for Floyd Mayweather (another fighter raised in Grand Rapids who made his mark elsewhere). That’s what Brooklyn did for me.”
It’s not so common a misconception as it once was, with the Internet and mass communications filling in gaps of knowledge among Americans far removed from New York, but many U.S. residents of a certain age – like me, a native New Orleanian who didn’t relocate to the Philadelphia area until I was 36 – were unaware for a long time that the country’s most-populated city consisted of five separate but connected boroughs. Or maybe we just preferred to think that way. Oh, sure, the uninformed probably understood that Manhattan was skyscrapers, Times Square, Wall Street and Madison Avenue, incredibly expensive real estate and, from a sports perspective, the Knicks, Rangers and major fights in Madison Square Garden. The Bronx meant the Yankees and, from what we were told, a high crime rate. Queens and Staten Island? They were just there, less consequential parts of a larger whole.
But Brooklyn, it had been drilled into the national psyche, was unique. It was special. It was the place where dem lovable Bums, the Dodgers’ “Boys of Summer,” regularly won National League pennants only to be thwarted time and again (seven in all) by the lordly Yanks in subway World Series, with the blessed exception of 1955 when Duke, Campy, Pee Wee, Skoonj, Newk, Oisk and Gil silenced the standard “Wait ’til next year” refrain and made next year that year.
We outsiders knew Brooklyn as the place that actor William Bendix (who was born in Manhattan, by the way) lovingly referenced in several 1940s war movies, fretting as much about how his Dodgers were doing as to the more immediate task of defeating the Germans and the Japanese. We knew Brooklyn from the 1970s TV show, “Welcome Back, Kotter,” whose opening sequence included a sign that advised viewers that Brooklyn was America’s third-largest city, although it isn’t actually a city unto itself. We knew it from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” both the book and the movie, which suggested tightknit families and roots sunk deep. And we were aware that Brooklynites talked, well, kind of funny.
But the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Ebbets Field was demolished shortly thereafter, and the demographics of the Brooklyn that had been began to evolve into something else. The borough that was 97 percent white in the 1930s is now, according to a 2014 accounting, 49.5 percent white, with the remaining percentages filled in by all races and ethnicities.
But the spirit and pride that set Brooklyn apart, at least to that hodgepodge of humanity’s view of themselves, carries on. The Barclays Center officially opened on Sept. 21, 2012, bringing big-time sports to the borough for the first time since the Dodgers went west. The NHL’s Islanders are a new tenant this season, and the Barclays management has, in a way, declared itself the new “Mecca of Boxing,” going head-to-head with the Garden in a pugilistic version of Dodgers vs. Yankees, and this time dem Bums are determined to make next year every year.
“The two gentlemen up here are part of the Barclays Center,” Brett Yormark, Barclays’ CEO, said as he was flanked by the fighters at a press conference last week. “This is their home away from home. There is no better place for them to be getting it on.”
Brooklyn, which gave the world such notorious or venerated figures as crime boss Al Capone, wordsmiths Walt Whitman, Norman Mailer and Neil Simon, chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, entertainers Jackie Gleason, Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks, Richard Dreyfuss, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Jay Z, and sports greats Sandy Koufax, Joe Torre, Joe Paterno and Bernard King, as well as champion boxers Tyson, Bowe, Mark Breland, Shannon Briggs and Yuri Foreman, is back. It might not be the cultural and emotional center of the universe, or even of its own city, but to its residents much of the once-familiar magic has returned.
It will be interesting to see how the house is divided when Jacobs, a four-time New York Golden Gloves titlist who will be fighting at Barclays for the fifth time, and Quillin, who will be making his fourth appearance there, square off. After Bernard Hopkins won his first world championship, stopping Ecuador’s Segundo Mercado in seven rounds to claim the vacant IBF middleweight belt on April 29, 1995, he stated that he was the first “native Philadelphian” to win a title in that weight class. It was an assertion hotly disputed by former 160-pound ruler Joey Giardello – a native of Brooklyn, incidentally – who moved to Philly after he mustered out of the Army and made it his home throughout his 19-year professional career.
“We adopted Peter as one of Brooklyn’s own, but come fight night you will see a Brooklyn-born champion,” Jacobs said, sounding very much like Hopkins did 20 years ago.
However Brooklyn opts to subdivide its affections, the important thing is that Jacobs and Quillin will fight one another, as was not the case with Brownsville homeboys Tyson and Bowe, who were in the same division at more or less the same time but never crossed paths where it counts, in the ring. And their respectful current demeanors notwithstanding, expect things to heat up at the moment of truth.
“Take all the friendship and throw it out the window,” DiBella said. “This is going to be nasty. This is going to be brutal. There will be boxing, but these guys will throw bombs. They can’t help themselves. That’s what makes them so great.”