Madison Square Garden is making a brave effort to establish that assumptions about the future of sport may in some cases be false

Click to follow
Last week a headline appeared in a New York newspaper that must have filled thousands who saw it with more nostalgia, brought the insidious effect of television on sport into sharper focus, than if they had heard a roar, looked up and seen great heroes from the past resurrected. The headline said, "Return to Mecca".

It announced that boxing was being revived at Madison Square Garden, an arena made synonymous with the sport by the honour roll of great figures who have appeared there including Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Henry Armstrong, Emile Griffith, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sandy Saddler, Roberto Duran, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

In the belief that no great career was complete without a Garden appearance, Sugar Ray Leonard fought his last contest at the famous location on West 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. Ken Buchanan of Scotland, perhaps our best post-war boxer, became a Garden favourite when retaining the world lightweight championship and in losing it to Duran.

When such notable figures as Jack Dempsey and Benny Leonard fought at the Garden it was 16 blocks further south, but mecca is where you find it and more than 16,000 customers were counted last week when Oscar Da La Hoya gave further proof of immense potential by outclassing James Leija in defence of the World Boxing Organisation lightweight title. In its great and spirited years, boxing was the blood of the Garden, but with the advent of television and a migration to the casinos of Nevada, it went into decline and disappeared two years ago.

A new Garden regime, ITT/Sheraton, has shown itself more in sympathy with the past than Paramount, who closed the doors on boxing, and was rewarded last week when revival brought a buzz of excitement to the streets surrounding one of Manhattan's most famous landmarks.

Bob Arum, of Top Rank, was closely involved with proceedings that saw a galaxy of past and present champions at ringside, but significantly the Garden will not be tied to one promoter or television network. "Fighting in the casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City is one thing," Arum said, "but nothing can match the atmosphere of this place."

As it was almost three years since a ring in which Louis, Marciano and Robinson fought had been dusted off, the Garden's president, David Checketts, and senior vice-president of communications, John Cirillo, knew they were taking a considerable gamble. "There was no guarantee that New York fight fans were ready to be lured back from watching boxing on television so the turnout was thrilling," Cirillo said.

It was not only television that caused boxing to drop out of sight at the Garden. Other reasons included bad fights, fighters who could not really fight and patrons eager to prove that they were better equipped than the contestants.

With 8 March marking the 25th anniversary of the legendary first of three fights between Ali and Frazier, the Garden will now present a super-middleweight title defence by Roy Jones next month, followed soon afterwards by a return bout between George Foreman and Michael Moorer. The plan is for four major promotions a year.

Television's power over sport - revelations about Rupert Murdoch's activities in rugby league carried by this newspaper yesterday suggest it is an even more worrying issue than was imagined - make it improbable that New York can be restored, in the words of its Governor, George Pataki, as "the capital of the boxing world".

However, Madison Square Garden is making a brave effort to establish that widespread assump- tions about the future of sport - that there is no future at all without conforming to the notions of men who wield immense power - may in some cases be false.

Although the pay-per-view network, Home Box Office, put out the main event and one supporting bout, last Friday's gathering at the Garden owed nothing to television. It was, in essence, eagerness to be part of a sporting experience raised from history. It worked but will it go on working? "We were greatly encouraged," Cirillo said, expressing relief.

At least it casts a small doubt against the damnable theory that television is the only form of sporting influence in store for us all.