Demise of Boxing in New York – September 1st is around the corner and I feel like I’m about to attend a wake. That’s the day many are saying will mark the beginning of the end for boxing in New York. The insurance requirements about to be mandated in the state has local promoters talking about the death of boxing in New York as we know it. They’re calling it the MMA clause though some suspect the Magomed Abdusalamov incident had something to do with its passing.
Lou DiBella and Joe DeGuardia, among the few promoters left who can put on a show without TV money, both say the bill will practically do away with small shows in the state. The notion of no boxing in the state is not an outrageous one. It was outlawed in the state under the Slater Bill from November 1917 until the passing of the Walker Law in 1920. Back then local attractions such as Benny Leonard and Johnny Dundee were forced to ply their trade in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Which is what Lou DiBella says he may end up doing, though he will likely have to change the name of his series from Broadway Boxing to Trolley Line Throwdowns.
Demise of Boxing in New York?
The New York State Athletic Commission gave the public a 45-day period to send “data, views, or statements” regarding the proposal. The 45 days ended Aug. 27. While some are optimistic and say boxing will be different but not dead, others are saying it’s time to start writing the eulogies. If that’s the case then boxing in New York since the Walker Law was passed almost 100 years ago might not see its 100th anniversary. The number 100 reminded me of a book that turned 50 this year. 100 Years of Solitude, written Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, starts with Colonel Buendia facing a firing squad when his mind drifted back to that day his father took him to discover ice.
With the reports and rumors about the end of boxing in New York shooting out from all directions almost like a hail of bullets, my mind drifted back to that day when my brother first took me to a boxing gym. I was still in grade school and Pipino Cuevas, on his way to Detroit for the Hearns fight, made a stop in New York. You had to fork over a few bucks for the privilege of passing through the little turnstile Gleason’s Gym used to have at the entrance. Dozens of men crowded around Pipino as he violently struck the speed bag. We stood behind the crowd and followed along like a sled dog when Pipino changed stations and started cranking out a few dozen sit-ups while his hair, combed like Superman’s, stayed in place. Unable to peak through and around the bodies in front of me often enough to get a good view, my eyes scanned around the dingy blue gym. In the ring to the left another familiar face sparred only a few feet away. Even at that age I knew to pay extra attention when the familiar face – Wilfred Benitez – backed into the corner and waved in his opponent. They said he had radar but on that day it looked to me like he got hit too much. I think Wilfred agreed. After a left hook jarred his headgear to a position that needed re-positioning, he looked my way and winked. I knew he was telling me he was ok because everyone else was watching Cuevas. As the years passed my interest in the sport grew.
Izzy Zerling had a second-floor gym on Church Avenue where Friday nights, on the way home from the supermarket just next door, you could hear excited cheers coming from the top of the stairs. It was a “smoker.” They let me in once but I remember more about the hotdog with ketchup I ate than I did about the quick fights going on in the ring. Later on I joined the gyms and started making trips to tournaments with names like “Summer Classic” that were sponsored by either a local newspaper or a beer distributor. Soon we started attending Juan LaPorte fights featuring a bunch of Lou Duva fighters on the undercards. When Laporte returned from Belfast and his fight with Barry McGuigan we told him we “thought you had him in the ninth.” Then he told us his dressing room was more like a closet, freezing cold, and filled with some sort of exhaust fumes. Posters featuring the rugged good looks of “Pretty” Pat Prisco had his trainers asking gym owners if they could hang them in the “ladies room.” Before the 80s ended females made up a large portion of the memberships and Willie Badillo made hotdogs in between teaching lefts and rights. Gleason’s had moved to a desolate part of Brooklyn known back then as being “by the Jehovah’s Witness building.” “DUMBO” was a cartoon character to most and not some made up acronym for a gentrified neighborhood.
That area down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass was a seedy one still where many nights rugged youths would bring their Pits, American Staffs, and Staffordshire Bulls, match them up by size, and let them tear into each other. Now the area is filled with people who smile, appreciate the cobblestone streets and snack on $7 cookies. In the various gyms were actors learning to throw the jab from former contenders, Mafioso types stopping by to kill some time, and middleweights about to do time for killing. I once shook the hand of that bearded middleweight’s hand as he quietly walked down the squeaky steps leading to 42nd Street about a year before he was profiled on America’s Most Wanted. There was the light heavyweight prospect who stashed an inventory of crack vials in his gym locker right next to his hand wraps and Gil Clancy used to stop by on his lunch breaks when he was at the nearby studios. I got to meet Sandy Saddler and old pros like Chester Rico and Eddie Giosa and an occasional celebrity like Miles Davis. And of course, there were the old timers. Guys who used to fight in “prize fights” and had faces that begged the question, “So, how many fights did you have?” I spoke often with the old timers about everything from combat boots, steak, roadwork, sex before a fight, and the size of Jake LaMotta’s cranium. “Of course none of them middleweights could knock him out,” they all agreed. Another thing they all agreed on was the future of the sport. “Boxing will never die,” they used to say.
When boxing faded in New York while Madison Square Garden renovated the Felt Forum/Paramount/The Theater, they all said it would come back. They were right. It did bounce back though never again to the levels it was the previous decade when Ali, Frazier, Duran, Holmes and Norton were regular Garden headliners. Back in the 80s, a Garden appearance was still a big enough deal that former fighters were introduced with a handshake and a “he fought at the garden” endorsement. Those days are gone and we await tomorrow with the same uncertainty we used to have about the condition Bert Cooper would show up to fight in. I wonder what the old timers would think about the new law set to pass September 1st. Boxing was already a shrinking sport in New York. If no amendment is made to the proposed change, boxing could become as rare in the city as an NBA Finals. And if other states follow suit, it could be the beginning of the end for the sport in the country. Which would be ironic since, nearly 100 years ago, New York led the way in the sport’s resurgence. Boxing has suffered a few black eyes over the years but always bounced back. That’s probably what the old timers would say. “It ain’t goin anywhere.” But the old timers could get it wrong once in a while. Like they were when they kept saying Beau Jack fought the most main events at the Garden. Even after I showed them that Tony Canzoneri had more than Jack, they shrugged their shoulders and told me the thick record book in my hands was more useful as a stand to help short people reach the speed bag. If you haven’t read 100 Years of Solitude I can tell you that Colonel Buendia did not die before the firing squad. Maybe boxing won’t die from this law either. Maybe we can go back to doing what they did during the time it was illegal.
Maybe fights can be staged in private clubs or as exhibitions with no judges – maybe we’ll see a return to the No Decision era. Or maybe the law’s passing proves to be a serious enough blow that it leaves boxing in New York in the same weakened state that the Colonel found himself in when he did eventually die. And like the Buendia family, it is possible boxing in New York doesn’t live to see 101. While we await the final decision, I’ll take my seat in a hopefully crowded movie theater and watch the Hands of Stone movie. I’ll keep a close eye on Usher during the fight scenes because I know that he too was one of the Hollywood types who learned to “box” in that neighborhood where dog blood stained the streets. I might watch the movie twice because, if what they say is right, it might soon be the only way to watch a boxing match in the state. And just in case that happens, I’m stocking up on Pipino Cuevas fights.
Demise of Boxing in New York / Pictured: New York State capitol Building, in Albany, New York.