Ten times he headlined at The Garden, exactly half taking place the night before the second Sunday of June, which is when the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade takes place. Earlier this month, after dropping a decision to Sadam Ali, Cotto announced his retirement, leaving a void not only in boxing, but also at The Garden. It’s a void MSG intends to fill according to Executive Vice President Joel Fisher, who recently stated that boxing is still “a cornerstone franchise for us.” Who, if anyone, is poised to become the new face of boxing in New York?
Danny Jacobs, who headlined in the big arena against Gennady Golovkin and has enjoyed top billing across the bridge in Brooklyn and in Nassau County, is a candidate. From the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Jacobs has both the story and the punch to carry main events anywhere in the New York area. Sadam Ali, who spent much of his youth explaining to his Brooklyn classmates that he wasn’t Puerto Rican — would have — in different times — been an obvious successor. But recent rumors having him going to the U.K. for his next fight.
History tells us the face of The Garden doesn’t have to be a local fighter. Aside from a card or two, Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson, and Hector Camacho never became regulars above Penn Station. Recent headliners in the smaller arena downstairs included Sergey Kovalev, Terence Crawford and, Vasyl Lomachenko and rumors say that Garden executives are considering extending offers to Anthony Joshua for a match against Deontay Wilder. Ireland’s Michael Conlan is being groomed as a possible St. Patrick’s Day attraction and Felix Verdejo is being looked at as someone who might be able to slot in the night before all the local politicians are “Puerto Rican for the day.”
Whether it’s a homegrown product or an out-of-towner, The Garden has always been able to find a successor. Before Cotto, it was Felix Trinidad. Going back to 1925, the year boxing promoter Tex Rickard used nearly five million of his own dollars to have a third Madison Square Garden built – on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street and not on Madison Square – The Garden has always had a “house fighter.”
Despite a six-week break for the circus, Tex put on thirty-eight shows the Garden’s first full year, drawing an average attendance of just over 13,000. Though fighters the likes of Harry Greb and Mickey Walker headlined at “The House That Tex Built,” it was Tony Canzoneri who became the first of the house fighters. Headlining more than twenty times, Canzoneri’s 1928 fight against Al Singer was the first at Tex’s Garden to pull in a crowd of over 20,000. During the Great Depression years, Primo Carnera and Jimmy McLarnin drew the largest crowds despite complaints over the $15 ducats. The mid-1930s saw a significant drop in both number of shows – about 15 per year – and attendance – below 10,000 on average.
Mike Jacobs took over the promotional duties in the late 1930s and, behind the strength of a category-five hurricane named Henry Armstrong, saw attendance figures regularly top the 13,000-mark with the number of shows hosted once again approaching 30 per year.
Sugar Ray Robinson was the next star, headlining first as a lightweight against Maxie Shapiro, then as a welterweight and middleweight. Robinson would go on to headline just under 20 times. Following the war years, Beau Jack and Tony Pellone took turns sharing the marquee the most. Jack would top the bill over 20 times during the decade. Pellone, a fan favorite from Greenwich Village and somewhat later Brooklyn’s Gravesend district, had a lot of mob muscle backing him up and was dubbed The Split-Decision Kid by the writers of his day. Despite some cynical press, Pellone was popular with the crowds, who turned out in the tens of thousands whenever he topped the bill. Tales of him helping to support his 12 brothers and sisters were recanted for many years.
WC Heinz informed readers that Pellone, who turned pro at 15, would hand over his entire purse to his father, Anillo, who in turn, gave the fighter five bucks. When the 18-year-old Pellone squared off against reigning lightweight champ Bob Montgomery, he made $8,513. “I give it to my old man,” Pellone told Heinz, “and he said to me in Italian, ‘How you fixed?’ and I said, ‘I’m broke.’ ‘All right,’ he said, ‘here.’
He gives me the thirteen dollars. I said, ‘Hey, thirteen is unlucky. Give me fourteen dollars instead.’ Then my old man said, ‘No, give me one dollar back.’”
Pellone, who lamented never having received a post-fight rubdown because, his trainer told him, “Good fighters don’t need them, and bad fighters don’t deserve them,” fought during an era when the best seats went not to the ringside officials or to the press, but to the local bookies and on most nights, an aisle seat in the third row was reserved for Frankie Carbo. It was also the era when The Garden got its nickname.
Mecca – with a lower-case M – was commonly used during the early 1900s. Sports writers referred to New York as the mecca of boxing. In other sections of the paper, the city was also called the Art Mecca with the Brooklyn Academy of Music being dubbed by some the mecca of the performing arts. The Mecca Arena in the Lower East Side staged club fights and the Mecca Temple uptown was the ballet mecca. Back when The Garden was on Madison Avenue, it was frequently referred to as the Mecca of Cycling. During the 1940s, when college hoops ruled, it became popular to call The Garden the mecca of basketball. Calling it the mecca of boxing soon followed.
By 1951, boxing attendance at Madison Square Garden had taken a terrible dip. Only Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and Kid Gavilan drew more than 10,000 fans and in 1952, only one fight card had a crowd of more than 6,900 file past the Adams Hat store on the way to their ringside seats. In 1954, the average attendance was 2,823. There was a rebound during the Sixties when Emile Griffith and, to a lesser degree, Jose Torres and Carlos Ortiz, slugged their way to the top. When Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Roberto Duran started featuring on the Seventh Avenue marquee, The Garden was once again the mecca of boxing.
Miguel Cotto was the first fighter since Griffith to headline in double-digit figures. It took him 16 years to reach 10 main events. In this era of fighters fighting twice per year, it’s doubtful the new face of Garden boxing will approach that amount. The days when Canzoneri, Jack, and Griffith headlined over 20 times, and when Robinson, Armstrong, and Pellone topped more than a dozen shows, are long gone. They belonged to an era when fathers wore t-shirts only on the weekends, Taishanese, not English, was the main language spoken in Chinatown, and children were taught that sticks and stones would break their bones, but words would never harm them.
The only one I know that’s left from those days is Joe Ruggiero. He’s pushing 87 and still drives himself to Atlantic City once per month to play the slots in the smoking section, meeting up with his group of friends that gets smaller each year. Joe, who didn’t know his name was Giuseppe until he joined the Army, was a member of the same Dyker Heights social club that Rocky Graziano and Lou Salica frequented. “Rocky was the best middleweight in the welterweight division,” he jokes without laughing. And he remembers when Rocky, a struggling contender, fancied himself a car mechanic and would tinker with the carburetors at a shop on 66th and New Utrecht. “They’d tell him ‘great job’ but as soon as he left, they’d have to fix whatever he touched.” Rocky was “nothing at all like Paul Newman played him.”
Joe remembers all the greats from the 1940s, loved Rocky Marciano “even though he couldn’t fight,” didn’t care for Ali’s showboating and trash talking, and thought Mike Tyson was on his way to becoming the best of them all. Joe never heard of Cotto, Lomachenko, Trinidad, or Golovkin. He hasn’t gone to a Garden fight since Jake LaMotta and hasn’t watched on TV since Tyson bit Holyfield. But he did ask if the “two Russian twins” were still champ. “What were they taking turns being champion? What kind of bullshit is that?”
Joe wasn’t in the arena when Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield faced off a few rows in front of Keith Richards and a Harlem drug dealer. He wasn’t there for the Trinidad years, where trumpets blared, congas sounded in the cheap seats, and a knucklehead or two thought it was a good time and place to light up a spliff. And he won’t be there when a new face of The Garden emerges. Plenty of others will be there. Golovkin and Cotto proved that the masses will arrive for the right fights.
Whether it’s a local hero or an established star, whoever it is will have to bring their A-games onboard the A train if they want to be the one to replace Cotto as the new face of The Garden. Because, if they don’t live up to expectations, they’ll be replaced in a New York minute.
Editor’s note: Jose Corpas’ second book, a biography of Panama Al Brown, titled “BLACK INK: A Story of Boxing, Betrayal, Homophobia, and the First Latino Champion,” is available now via Amazon and other leading online booksellers. He is currently at work on his next boxing book, tentatively titled “THE RIVALRY; Mexico vs. Puerto Rico.”
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