BY PETER LAMPASONA
Madison Square Garden hosted its first heavyweight title fight in 1882 when John L. Sullivan defended his title against Joe Collins. Since that time, the little building at 4 Penn Plaza and its three predecessors have become known as the Mecca of boxing, with Manhattan being the ultimate fight town. Yet, the newest generation of fight fans probably can’t remember the last time a ring was even erected in the spot that once hosted the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano.
The last fight advertised on the MSG website is for the November 2008 clash between Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Junior: a bout that they still have listed tickets available for sale. And before Jones versus Calzaghe it’s been even longer since a real superfight has played out in the Garden. While Mecca hardly stands desolate, being the third busiest sports arena in the world, since the 90’s there have been fewer faithful making their pilgrimage.
The stagnation of Manhattan as a venue for big fights has been blamed on many sources. Many of the legislative efforts of former New York mayor Rudolf Giulliani to curtail organized crime in New York are also blamed for making the area less profitable for boxing promoters. Various casinos’ ability to offer gifts and incentives to promoters and athletes are also credited for steamrolling conventional stadiums. Still more say that New York simply does not contain as voracious a fan base for fights as it used to, though Miguel Cotto’s well-attended victory over Yuri Foreman at Yankee stadium earlier this year could easily defeat that line of speculation. Whatever has caused the decline, there are three letters looming over the horizon that can revive mid-town as the place for the big fights – MMA.
UFC President Dana White has made the boast with every first appearance his organization makes in a city that he is the man “bringing big fights” back to that city. Unlike many other catch phrases the UFC president likes to use, this one is correct without qualification.
The UFC’s formula for success has been as the spearhead of MMA into the main stream. And this roll prizes, above all else, legitimacy as a sport and the ability to reach new fans. This has brought the UFC in force to towns that jaded boxing promoters would rather let the fans come to them.
No symbol can scream legitimacy or speak to the masses more than playing a show in the house of Ali versus Frazier. Representatives of the UFC have made statements indicating that they would play a show at Madison Square Garden at a loss. Every other major organization and Mid-Atlantic regional promotion has shared the sentiment, even if they don’t necessarily have the financial power to back up the desire.
And it’s not like The Garden isn’t interested. MSG Sports has greatly increased the amount of business relationships it has with MMA promotions and MMA industry companies over the last two years. From broadcasting Bellator, co-promoting with Strikeforce, and investing in MMA trade shows, The Garden’s salivation for mixed martial arts is visible.
Should MMA be sanctioned in the Empire State, the derelict, two year old boxing match would be replaced by a new major bout every three to six months. The Mecca of boxing could be reborn as the Mecca of all combat sports, and Manhattan once again would be the ultimate fight town. It’s just one state assembly approval away.
Reprinted by permission of the author from MATCombatSports.com