Boxing's Garden of Eden

On Saturday night Joe Calzaghe will end his career at Madison Square Garden. Steve Bunce relives the glorious heritage of the fight game's fabled venue
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The Independent Online

A few years ago they tolled the last bell for the heroes of Madison Square Garden when it looked like a Mafia hitman and his trail of cold bodies had turned the stomachs of the suits in charge of boxing. The corporate men were ready to put an end to prize-fighting at the sacred venue when Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, a New York legend in Mafia circles, flipped and started squealing.

Gravano was involved in a Supreme Court investigation into boxing corruption and appeared as a witness as did the Garden's matchmaker Bobby Goodman. Goodman was arguing that the sport was straight, but it is thought the association was still too much for those who ran the venue.

It was 1993 and the grand old sport looked over at the Garden. A year or so earlier I had been ringside when Sugar Ray Leonard finally realised a dream from childhood and fought at the Garden. He lost heavily but left the ring with a crooked smile on his face.

"This was not about the money. Fighting here is about joining a special fraternity. I had to do it," claimed Leonard. On that night in 1991 when Leonard was smashed to bits by Terry Norris, I sat about 10 feet away from notorious wiseguy John Gotti and a few of his slick-suited cronies, men with large hair and sparkling pinkie rings. Gotti was sentenced to about 10,000 years for his role in a long and distinguished list of dead men shortly after the fight and died in prison. It's possible that "The Bull" was in his company.

It was Gotti who led the crowd's chants when a former street-gang leader called Mitch Green stood on his chair and removed his shirt. Green had recently lost a fight at three in the morning to Mike Tyson outside an all-night tailor's shop in Harlem and he was and remains a cult figure. Gotti, a half-naked Green and Sugar Ray Leonard walking to the Garden ring with tears on his cheeks. It was some night and a couple of years later the Garden did survive the fears of the corporate suits.

The original Madison Square Garden opened in 1879, it was updated to include a roof garden in 1889, moved 23 blocks in 1925 and finally came to rest where it is now in 1968. In boxing's ancient days Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong and Rocky Marciano all left their footprints on the walk from the changing room to the neon square.

At ringside men puffing on cigars and typing out copy stood as their equal, with Budd Schulberg, Paul Gallico, Damon Runyon and AJ Liebling holding a lofty line and adding their own sweet chorus. Just 18 days after the two planes landed in the Twin Towers in 2001 I sat at ringside again, and this time I was in the company of boxing royalty with Schulberg at my side. We watched Bernard Hopkins defy the odds, and the chants of about 18,000 Puerto Rican fans, and knock out Felix Trinidad in the last seconds of the final round. It was an emotional night with hundreds of firemen invited in by King the promoter, who had bought the shattered city a fire truck.

The American national anthem went on for a long, long time and it is doubtful that there was a dry eye in the Garden. Schulberg, who won an Oscar for his On the Waterfront script, insisted that we had witnessed something special in the old ring that night.

He should know, having seen Louis and every great fighter since perform at the venue. It certainly felt like history to me. It was in late 1970 that a Hollywood agent called Jerry Perenchio tried to persuade Aristotle Onassis to stump up $6m (£3.8m) for a fight at the Garden. The old Greek said no but "The Fight of the Century" found funding and took place in March 1971 when Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali. Frank Sinatra was a ringside photographer.

The image of Ali, jaw swollen and eyes vacant falling slowly to the canvas in the 15th and last round, is one of sport's most unforgettable pictures. The fight and the image, which was not taken by Sinatra, is Garden history. Ali gained revenge at the same venue nearly three years later. The Fight of the Century was one of the tapes that Naseem Hamed watched in 1997 in the days before he entered the Garden ring. Hamed survived a couple of knockdowns to knock out local idol Kevin Kelley. On the night Hamed took a long time to walk to the ring. "Why should I hurry? I was walking in Ali's footsteps. Me, a kid from Sheffield fighting at Madison Square Garden.

"It was wicked." He is right, and from Ali to Leonard there are similar testimonies.

There is one story that for me captures perfectly what being a champion and fighting at the Garden really means. In the '60s there was a middleweight champion called Joey Giardello from Brooklyn. He had fought through boxing's bad years when fixed fights dominated and led to the sport's brokers being sent to Alcatraz for their nefarious activities in the boxing business. Anyway, by 1963, after 16 years and 124 fights, he finally won the world middleweight title.

One afternoon at a clam bar in New York he was approached by a wiseguy and offered a fight against a young and protected prospect at the Garden. There was a lot of money involved and the suggestion was that Giardello would not try too hard.

Giardello turned to the guy and said: "You see this nose? I got it flattened in tough fights against guys like Henry Hank and George Benton. [Sugar Ray] Robinson gave me the scar over my eye. Now, my face ain't pretty but I earned it. Let your guy go out and fight real fighters out of town; let him earn his shot in the Garden. Until then, get lost. My title ain't for sale and your bum ain't gonna fight for it, especially not in the Garden."

Both Roy Jones Jnr and Joe Calzaghe know exactly how Giardello felt and they fully deserve their moment in boxing's most splendid Garden.