Good-Bye to Roseland, From Hauser

BY Thomas Hauser ON February 14, 2014
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After a while, the big arenas where fights are held start to feel the same. The spectator areas, dressing rooms, and ringside corrals have a homogenous look. Small venues are more likely to have their own unique character.

Roseland had character. It opened as a ballroom in 1919 at Broadway and 51st Street in New York. Thirty-seven years later, the building was torn down and ballroom dancers were redirected to what had once been a skating rink one block to the north.

In the decades that followed, Roseland hosted everything from gala parties to rock concerts. Guests sang Happy Birthday to Hillary Clinton and listened enthralled as the Rolling Stones blasted out Satisfaction.

Time marches on. Roseland will close its doors after an April 7 concert by Lady Gaga. Then it will be demolished to make way for a high-rise building.

Roseland was never identified with boxing in the public mind. But over the years, 27 fight cards were contested there. An overhanging balcony offered spectators a spectacular view of the ring. There wasn‘t a bad seat in the house.

The first boxing event held at Roseland was a Cedric Kushner “Heavyweight Explosion” card on December 8, 1998, featuring Al Cole vs. Kirk Johnson, Obed Sullivan vs. Jesse Ferguson, and Shannon Briggs vs. Marcus Rhode. Three months later, Kushner returned with Hasim Rahman vs. Michael Rush and Danell Nicholson vs. Frankie Swindell. Rahman KO’d Rush in five rounds. Two years later, he knocked out Lennox Lewis in South Africa to become heavyweight champion of the world.

Paulie Malignaggi won his second pro fight at Roseland with a fourth-round stoppage of Robert Sowers on July 26, 2001. He was there again on November 23 to fight on a card promoted by Lou DiBella with the proceeds going to the families of police officers and firefighters who had died on 9/11. Future champions Jermain Taylor and Orlando Salido also emerged victorious that night. But the show ended on a horrifying note when James Butler (who lost a unanimous decision to Richard Grant in the main event) sucker-punched Grant as the victor stood in the ring awaiting a post-fight television interview.

It was a horrifying moment. Grant dropped to the canvas. Blood poured from his mouth. His jaw was fractured and he went into convulsions. Butler was arrested on the spot. He later pled guilty to felony assault, served four months in prison, and was released on five year's probation. He is now in prison again subsequent to guilty plea in conjunction with the 2004 murder of writer Sam Kellerman.

Five years passed after the Butler-Grant fiasco before boxing returned to Roseland. The most glorious moment in the ballroom’s ring history occurred on July 15, 2011, when Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez fought to a ten-round draw that evoked memories of the first encounter between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward.

David Tua, Peter Quillin, Yuri Foreman, David Telesco, and Louis Del Valle also fought at Roseland. The final bell tolled on Wednesday night, when DiBella Entertaiment promoted the last fight card that the one-time ballroom will ever host.

Wednesday’s fights started shortly after 7:00 pm. The seats filled up early. Soon only standing room was available. Curtis Jackson III (better known as Fifty Cent) was there. So was Rosie Perez. Stephen Espinoza and Gordon Hall were on hand to scout future opponents for ShoBox. Harold Lederman and Peter Nelson gave HBO a presence.

There were nine fights, most of them well-matched with spirited action. If one imagined that the fighters’ gloves were black, their trunks black or white, and the ring canvas tan, it could have been the 1940s.

Ron Rizzo (vice president of operations for DiBella Entertainment) stood in the balcony, overlooking the scene. “For me, the closing is personal,” Rizzo said. “I was working for Cedric when we did the first show here. Roseland always had a special feel to it. There’s enough room and enough open space that you can move around and socialize between fights. Wherever you are, you get a good look at the ring. In all the years I’ve been in boxing, I haven’t found a place I like as much as this. I’ll miss it.”

Those thoughts resonated with Kushner, who was sitting quietly on a banquette toward the rear of the arena. These are hard times for Cedric. Once, he was at the center of the boxing universe. But in recent years, he has suffered reversals.

How did Kushner feel about Roseland closing?

“It’s a sign of the times,” Cedric said. “And for me, personally, it’s another part of my past, gone.”

*     *     *

On February 25, 1975, Elijah Muhammad died and his son, Wallace, succeeded him as leader of the Nation of Islam.

Muhammad Ali later recalled, “That didn’t surprise us, because we’d been told Wallace would come after his father. But what surprised some people was, Wallace changed the direction of the Nation. He’d learned from his studies that his father wasn’t teaching true Islam, and Wallace taught us the true meaning of the Qur’an. He showed that color don’t matter. He taught that we’re responsible for our own lives and it’s no good to blame our problems on other people. And that sounded right to me, so I followed Wallace. I’ve changed what I believe, and what I believe in now is true Islam.”

That bit of history is relevant today because Mauricio Sulaiman has succeeded his father as president of the World Boxing Council. Mauricio can take the organization that his father was largely responsible for building, keep the good, and reform its abuses. Or he can embrace the concept of phony belts, questionable officiating, biased rankings, and a lack of overall financial accountability.

The choice is his.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (Straight Writes and Jabs: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

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