Madison Square Garden aiming to return as boxing’s ‘Mecca’

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Gennady Golovkin’s win over Daniel Jacobs, left, was one of The Garden’s best fights this year. (Getty)
Gennady Golovkin’s win over Daniel Jacobs, left, was one of The Garden’s best fights this year. (Getty)

The year of 1964 was a great one for boxing. Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title and announced that he was changing his name to Muhammad Ali.

Joe Frazier won the gold medal in the heavyweight division at the Tokyo Olympics. There were many elite fighters competing on a regular basis.

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And Madison Square Garden had a commitment to the sport that was unparalleled. The Garden was the venue for a boxing match for seven consecutive weeks, beginning on Feb. 7 when Joey Archer topped Holly Mims and concluding on March 20 when Mims dropped another one, this time to Luis Rodriguez.

It went seven consecutive weeks in June and July, as well.

That year, though, marked the last time that The Garden hosted boxing for at least three consecutive weeks.

Until now, as Saturday’s show at The Garden — headlined by a light heavyweight bout between Sergey Kovalev and Vyacheslav Shabranskyy — will be televised on HBO in the first of three consecutive weeks of boxing cards at what is known as “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Next week, Miguel Cotto will put the cap on his legendary career on Dec. 2 when he meets Sadam Ali in his retirement fight. And on Dec. 9, Vasyl Lomachenko meets Guillermo Rigondeaux on ESPN in what is believed to be the first match ever to pit dual gold-medal winners against each other.

Boxing has had a sensational year and The Garden’s interest is only proof of that.

Joel Fisher, MSG’s executive vice president for marquee events, said boxing remains “a cornerstone franchise for us.”

Expect The Garden to be a competitive bidder for the heavyweight title fight between WBC champion Deontay Wilder and IBF-WBA champion Anthony Joshua if and when that bout is ever made.

In years past, when boxing wasn’t doing as well, that bout might have automatically gone to Las Vegas. And while it still may end up there because the economics of a major heavyweight title fight often work in Sin City’s favor, Fisher understands the significance of the match and the interest in it and isn’t going to sit idly by.

“That’s absolutely a fight we have interest in and it’s a fight we believe that fans really want to see,” Fisher said. “Look, it’s a huge fight and any premier event like that, we’re definitely interested in. We’ve developed a great relationship with Matchroom and [promoter] Eddie Hearn and his people and we’ll talk with them when the time is appropriate.

“It’s a huge event and that’s the kind of event we always have interest in. Fighters always say they want to fight at The Garden and it’s even moreso for a major heavyweight title fight like that.”

The most famous fight of all time, the March 8, 1971, heavyweight title match between Ali and Frazier was held at The Garden and brought out the biggest names in sports and show business to watch.

That, though, was held at a time when boxing’s position in the American sporting landscape was more significant. It’s fallen greatly in the 46 years since, and, in many areas, it’s viewed as a fringe sport.

It’s always been popular in New York, though, and Showtime and the Premier Boxing Champions have had great success with shows in Brooklyn.

Having The Garden involved in boxing so regularly, though, shows that promoters are finally doing the right thing and making the fights the fans want to see on a more frequent basis.

That is the only way in which the sport will continue to grow.

Combat sports in general have succeeded at MSG. The UFC’s Nov. 4 show in New York was hailed by many as its greatest card ever, and MSG was packed that night. The night before Cotto’s retirement fight, the Garden will host a Glory kickboxing show on Dec. 1.

When Lomachenko fights Rigondeaux, it will complete a year for The Garden in which most of the fighters in the Top 10 pound-for-pound list will have competed in the building. Terence Crawford made his Garden debut earlier this year, and Gennady Golovkin successfully defended his middleweight title against Danny Jacobs.

Lomachenko, Rigondeaux, Golovkin, Kovalev and Crawford are all among the Top 10.

“Boxing is an integral part of our calendar and we’re speaking to promoters all the time about what they have coming and what we may be interested in,” Fisher said. “We have great relationships with all of the promoters and we feel like having them bring an event here makes their event that much more special. You hear fighters all the time talk about this place as ‘The Mecca’ and how they have dreamed of fighting here. So we’re always looking for those kinds of fights.”

If there are a series of big fights next year in The Garden, it can only be a good sign that boxing is growing and attracting more fans. Far too often, news around the sport is negative, but the interest from The Garden is proof that the sport is healthier than it has been for a long while.

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