Boxing: Bell tolls for the Garden

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The Independent Sport
TONIGHT they are ringing the last bell at Madison Square Garden, which is like saying that the last goal has been scored at Wembley and nobody will ever again bat at Lord's.

They'll take down the old ring and lock away the burnished brass bell that many of the greatest fighters in history heard, and unless somebody comes along with more money than sense there will be only memories to remind us that the Garden was synonymous with boxing.

Boxing doesn't sell there any more. Even the Circus does better. 'It costs dollars 18,000 just to open the doors, and immediately you are looking at another dollars 50,000,' said the former president of the Garden's now defunct boxing department, Bobby Goodman, who has set up as an independent promoter. So probably that is it then. Sadly, no more boxing at the mecca.

If that isn't an excuse for nostalgia, what is? Sixty-seven years since the ring was first put up at the old Garden on 49th Street when Paul Berlenbach, the 'Astoria Assassin', outpointed Jack Delaney in defence of the world light-heavyweight championship.

Angelo Dundee, the famed manager and trainer, remembers looking across from the Capitol Hotel, watching the crowds assemble. 'When I was just a bucket guy, I sat in the window and dreamed. There was no feeling like taking a fighter to the Garden,' he said.

A formidable Garden publicist, the late John FX Condon, thought it to be so much a part of boxing's fabric he refused to rent it out to a film company making Anthony Quinn's version of Requiem for a Heavyweight. 'It portrayed boxing in a bad light,' Condon later explained.

Never short of a bright idea, Condon once persuaded the principal contestants to spar publicly in a ring raised in Times Square, causing considerable chaos and inciting the local constabulary, who aggressively demanded proof of permission. Before Condon ran out of excuses for not being in possession of the necessary document, he was able to welcome the Mayor of New York, who had been invited to referee the session. 'Ask him for a licence,' he growled.

An old friend, Vic Zeigel of the New York Daily News, who fell briefly into Robert Maxwell's clutches, tells an even better story about the Garden as it was before the move to West 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue. It is taken from a collection of Vic's racy columns. 'Mushky Jackson (Morris Ladisky) was a manager-trainer-second-you-name-it-he-

did-it. One night the Garden was a heavyweight short for a four-round fight and Mushky was sent on a scouting mission. . .Mushky's first stop was the Brass Rail restaurant at Seventh Avenue and 49th St. He was walking past the doorman when he realised the uniform seemed to be just the size he needed.

'When the fights show was over, some of the boxing press dropped by the Brass Rail. The doorman opened a cab door for Mushky and Al Buck, then the boxing writer for the New York Post. Buck glanced at the doorman and said, 'Don't I know you from somewhere?' A remarkable bit of recall, since the doorman was counted out just a few seconds after the referee's instructions.'

More poignantly, entering the Garden was like walking into a history book. Harry Greb, Tony Canzoneri, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky Graziano, Jake La Motta, Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Henry Armstrong, Archie Moore, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ken Buchanan and, of course, Sugar Ray Robinson, the most complete fighter of all time.

Robinson appeared 20 times in the Garden ring, winning the first of his titles there on 20 December 1946 when outpointing Tommy Bell for the world welterweight championship. Robinson, unbeaten, was having his 74th professional contest and his 15th that year. 'By then there was nothing Ray didn't know about boxing,' said Riddick Bowe's veteran trainer, the 72-year-old Eddie Futch, last week in Atlantic City. 'Ray will always be a part of the Garden like the Garden is a part of us all.'

New York is no place for sensitive souls and the majority of people around boxing have fuel pumps for hearts. But Madison Square Garden has a magic that is all its own, which is why some fully paid-up cynics of my acquaintance will be there tonight to pay their respects.