The Decline, Fall, and Rise of the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden

The Decline, Fall, and Rise of the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden

NEW YORK–Madison Square Garden plays host tonight to a pay-per-view middleweight championship bout between titlist Sergio Martinez and challenger Miguel Cotto.  

More so than the aging boxers, the venerable venue appears less about now than nostalgia. The Garden supplied the grand stage for legendary clashes between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, Ken Buchanan and Roberto Duran, and Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. At Friday’s weigh-in Michael Buffer announced the combatants but not before announcing the battlefield, “The world’s most famous, the mecca of boxing…Madison…Square…Garden!”


Walking around the arena, history encroaches on the amnesiac present in the signs for Joe Louis Plaza, the surrounding area that celebrates a heavyweight champion who fought in New York City 26 times, including a dozen scraps at the old MSG. His lineal predecessor John L. Sullivan bare-knuckle brawled at a still older incarnation of the public space. Madison Square Garden played so central a role in the rise of the sport that it–through the New York State Athletic Commission–and not an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies, once determined world champions. It was a simpler, better time for boxing when Madison Square Garden reigned as the undisputed champion of great fights.    

But Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and other casino capitals now eclipse the Big Apple when it comes to attracting big fights. Just four of the 443 career matches fought by the Ring magazine’s current top-ten pound-for-pound boxers took place inside Madison Square Garden. Sergio Martinez, who fights again in the Garden on Saturday, defended his title against Irishman Matthew Macklin in 2012. Wladimir Klitschko notched uneventful victories over Sultan Ibragimov in 2008 (UD12), Calvin Brock in 2006 (TKO7), and David Bostice in 2000 (TKO2) inside the fabled arena. But the eight others listed on Ring‘s top ten have not stepped foot in a ring inside the legendary building. Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, and Andre Ward–the best boxers in the world–have never exchanged leather at the world’s best-known boxing backdrop.

Edwin Rodriguez, a 24-1 contender in the 168-pound division, tells Breitbart Sports that he felt the aura of the arena when he bested Don George in the Garden in 2012. “It was definitely special just knowing the history that Madison Square Garden has,” Rodriguez reflects on his 2012 unanimous decision victory in the storied hall. “It was the feeling of fighting for something big, like a world title. You’re at a place where a lot of fighters made history.”

Rodriguez offers that since casinos attract money and people on their own without the lure of a sporting event, they possess advantages in hosting big fights over standard city sports-arenas. “I think the casino has a fee that they pay out to the promoters,” Rodriguez tells Breitbart Sports. “So, it’s a win-win situation. The casinos do the promotion.”

The rise of the casinos precipitated the decline of the Garden as a fight mecca. So did the rise of mixed-martial arts (MMA). “It’s absolutely happening and legal in forty-nine out of the fifty states,” UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein tells Breitbart Sports of MMA. “New York is the only state where this isn’t happening.” So when native sons Jon Jones, Rashad Evans, and Chris Weidman compete, they do so outside of the borders of the state that outlaws their popular profession.

How can a place retain the mantle of “Fight Capitol of the World” when it bans one of the world’s most popular forms of fighting?

“There’s a lot of pride that comes along with being the ‘Fight Capitol of the World,'” Long Islander and UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman tells Breitbart Sports. “New York has been deprived of some great entertainment and the economic impact. It would be absolutely huge to have mixed-martial arts in New York.” Weidman, as he did in his last two fights, competes in the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas for his July 5 title defense against Lyoto Machida at UFC 175. 

Other factors in the Garden losing the game to reign over the fight game include increased competition for limited MSG dates, boxing’s inability (save for a few top fighters) to fill seats, a growing cultural aversion to the sport’s brutality (especially as urban enclaves become more posh and less blue collar), the expense of reserving space in Manhattan’s most vaunted venue, and a much wider array of diversions captivating New Yorkers than did fifty or a hundred years ago.  

“Madison Square Garden has a history like no other arena in the United States or the world,” the UFC’s Epstein explains. “That name ‘Madison Square Garden’ means something to everyone in the fight game. I was lucky enough to see Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis in the Garden. The energy that night it was special.”  

The energy for Cotto-Martinez, if Friday’s weigh-in foreshadows, could light up Times Square. In bringing together two of the elite practitioners of the sweet science–and a pair of pugilists attracting intense ethnic loyalty (particularly for Cotto on the weekend of the Puerto Rican Day Parade)–the main event revives the formula that made Madison Square Garden a focal point for prizefighting pilgrimages. In doing so, boxing has laid a path to go back to the future.