WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder opposes Artur Szpilka in the main event of the January 16 boxing show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. In the main supporting bout, Charles Martin meets Vyachelov Glazkov for the IBF heavyweight belt vacated by Tyson Fury.
The 19,000-seat Barclays Center, Brooklyn’s instant monument, opened in September of 2012. It has housed 15 boxing shows, but the Jan. 16 event will be the first in which heavyweights get top billing. As co-promoter Lou DiBella notes, 115 years have elapsed since the last heavyweight title fight in Brooklyn.
That’s an awfully long time considering Brooklyn’s rich boxing heritage.
During the late nineteenth century when boxing was transitioning from the bare-knuckle to the gloved era, few fighters were as lionized as Jack Dempsey (the original Jack Dempsey) and Jack McAuliffe. Dempsey was active from 1883 to 1895. In his prime he was considered peerless, hence his nickname “Nonpareil.” McAuliffe, dubbed the Napoleon of the Prize Ring, competed from 1885 to 1897. He retired undefeated.
Born 39 months apart in Ireland, Dempsey and McAuliffe were young children when they settled with their parents in Brooklyn. Lore has it that for a time they were co-workers in a Williamsburg barrel manufacturing plant.
Nonpareil Jack Dempsey had his last fight at Coney Island. For a time, the seaside community at the southern tip of Brooklyn rivaled New Orleans and San Francisco as the leading destination for prizefights of international importance.
Coney Island hadn’t yet morphed into a family amusement center. Home to three important racetracks, Coney Island after dark mirrored New York City’s infamous Bowery, a place identified with low-brow entertainment. It was a natural locale for prizefighting, a sport widely condemned as immoral.
The highlights of the Coney Island epoch were the three fights involving James J. Jeffries. On June 9, 1899, Jeffries wrested the heavyweight crown from the head of Bob Fitzsimmons with an 11th round stoppage. Later that year he repelled the challenge of Sailor Tom Sharkey. On May 11, 1900, he conquered James J. Corbett, stopping the former champion in the 23rd round.
The Jeffries-Sharkey sockfest was a doozy. For many years this bout, a 25-round affair, was considered the most brutal heavyweight title fight. There were no judges in those days. If a fight went the distance, the referee merely raised the hand of the fighter that he thought had the best of it. There was no protest when referee George Siler raised the hand of Jeffries, but the stout-hearted Sharkey cemented his reputation as one rough customer.
Boxing was resurrected in Coney Island during the 1920s. One of the more noteworthy cards staged at Coney Island Stadium was held on May 25, 1926. It featured Ruby Goldstein, an 18-year-old knockout artist from Manhattan’s Lower East Side (and later a prominent referee). Goldstein, who had acquired an avid following, was pitted against Ace Hudkins, the Nebraska Wildcat.
Hudkins wasn’t much older than Goldstein, but he was considerably more seasoned. He would saddle young Ruby with his first defeat, knocking him out in the fourth round.
Rising featherweight contender Tony Canzoneri also appeared on that card. Born in Slidell, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, Canzoneri had most of his early pro fights in Brooklyn and adopted the borough as his home. He went on to win the New York version of the world featherweight title and the world lightweight title.
The career of Canzoneri, a future Hall of Famer, provides a window into a bygone era, an era when Brooklyn was awash in neighborhood fight clubs and the best boxers, with few exceptions, had dozens of undercard fights on their ledgers before they succeeded in landing a main event.
Canzoneri had his first pro fight in July of 1925. Over the next 25 months, he fought 48 times. Twenty-four of those fights were in Brooklyn; seven in the neighboring borough of Queens.
In Brooklyn, Canzoneri fought at Ridgewood Grove (a facility that straddled the Brooklyn-Queens border), the Broadway Arena, the Fort Hamilton Arena, Coney Island Stadium, Canarsie Stadium, and Ebbets Field.
Boxing at Ebbets Field never reached the heights that it did in the big baseball parks across the river in the Bronx, but the hallowed home of the Dodgers had a few moments in the sun. Former middleweight champion Mickey Walker, outweighed by almost 30 pounds, battled Jack Sharkey to a 15-round draw on July 22, 1931. Later that year, a crowd estimated at 30,000 (an impressive turnout considering the economic climate) watched Sharkey outpoint Primo Carnera in a bout billed for the American heavyweight title.
Of the aforementioned boxing arenas, the Broadway Arena, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, and Ridgewood Grove were the busiest. The Broadway, which could trace its lineage as a home for boxing to 1914, was the top fight club in the metropolitan area during the 1930s and 1940s. It likely hosted more than a thousand shows before it shut down in 1951. Researchers have documented 1,229 boxing shows at Ridgewood Grove from 1920 to 1954.
These clubs, run on shoestring budgets, were nurseries for fighters on the way up and ATM machines, of a sort, for journeymen and fighters on the way down. Few fighters seized the imagination of the public on the way up like Rocky Graziano. His career, like so many boxers, paralleled that of Tony Canzoneri, albeit the Brooklyn phase of Graziano’s career was shorter. He debuted at the Broadway Arena, the first of his 14 fights in Brooklyn.
The Eastern Parkway Arena was a late addition to the Brooklyn boxing scene. The converted roller rink at 1435 Eastern Parkway hosted a weekly Monday Night show that ran on the Dumont network from May 19, 1952 to May 16, 1955.
Carl “Bobo” Olson, from Honolulu by way of San Francisco, and Gene Fullmer, from West Jordan, Utah, had their first New York exposures at Eastern Parkway. Matchmaker Teddy Brenner, who served in the same capacity at Madison Square Garden, was testing them to see if they were worthy of fighting on a larger stage. Indeed they were, especially Fullmer, who engaged Sugar Ray Robinson in a robust four-fight series.
The most famous alumnus of this venue was Floyd Patterson. Eleven of his first 16 pro fights were at Eastern Parkway Arena. In 1956, the Brooklyn-based Patterson became the youngest man to win the heavyweight title, a distinction he held for 30 years.
The Eastern Parkway Arena was in the Brownsville section, a fertile pod of fistic talent. During the first half of the 20th century, Brownsville boxers were disproportionately Jewish. As the neighborhood changed, so also did the pigmentation of her boxers. Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad did more than uphold Brownsville’s boxing legacy; they took it to a new level.
Mike Tyson never fought in Brooklyn; Riddick Bowe only once after turning pro, an early bout at Gleason’s Gym that was little more than a public workout. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, born Edward Gregory, never fought in Brooklyn either but had several engagements at Sunnyside Garden in Queens, a place that was a nursery for his former amateur rival, Brooklyn’s Vito Antuofermo. When Sunnyside Garden closed in 1977, the obit eulogized the cozy arena as the last of New York’s neighborhood fight clubs.
Philadelphia’s Danny Garcia met Tijuana’s Erik Morales in the main go of the inaugural boxing card at Barclays Center. The undercard was spiced with local fighters: Paulie Malignaggi, Daniel Jacobs, Luis Collazo, Peter Quillin, and Dmitriy Salita. In the wings, figuratively if not literally, were Tyson, Bowe, Mustafa Muhammad, Antuofermo, Shannon Briggs, Zab Judah, Mark Breland, Juan LaPorte, and Junior Jones.
They say that boxing is dead, a refrain that was heard even in the best of times. Then it blooms anew where it was previously dormant. Boxing in Brooklyn was ripe for a renaissance. Barclays Center arrived at a propitious time.