NEW YORK CITY has often represented the world’s nerve centre in a variety of fields. Fashion, finance and the fight game were traditionally big business in the Big Apple, but where the first two still excel in NYC, boxing went the way of the celebrated pioneers from centuries previous and headed west.
The desert lights of Las Vegas – not to mention casino owners’ ever-increasing wealth – proved irresistible to boxing’s biggest players. New York, despite boasting various fight venues, could not compete with the Nevada niceties, and instead became a sleeping giant which only occasionally awoke.
“If they would’ve built casinos in NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s, then this is still the place to be,” declares legendary ‘fixer’ and proud New Yorker, Don Majeski. His upbringing in the sport laid a platform that has enabled him to stay within boxing’s chequered environment ever since, but Don’s education took place at an academy that no longer exists: a bustling East Coast fight hub that never took a day off.
As a high school adolescent enjoying his first flirtation with boxing, Majeski, like other New York fight-goers, fell in love easily. 1966 saw Madison Square Garden, then located on 49th and 8th, host 11 events that included marquee fights such as Emile Griffith against Dick Tiger and Joey Archer, Joe Frazier taking on Oscar Bonavena, and Tiger versus Jose Torres up at 175lbs following his failed effort to dethrone Griffith a division south.
“It wasn’t just the Garden where the boxing was taking place in New York,” recalls a misty-eyed Majeski. “Shea Stadium hosted a few fights, and there was the Sunnyside Garden over in Queens. That place was practically putting on shows on a weekly basis.
“As a boxing fan in New York in the ‘60s, you didn’t have to worry in the slightest about seeing a fight because there was always something happening. It was a way of life for some people in the city. You could go to shows and see the same faces every week and see the same women every week. It was like a culture thing that was going on.
“The shows were affordable, and that’s something that promoters can’t say now. How many promoters today are making these events affordable for young people to go and watch? I’d get an allowance off my mother and that money would be spent on getting to whatever show was taking place that weekend.
“The papers were also a lot kinder with their coverage back then too, as it was only really baseball that competed with boxing. The big fights would take place on Monday night because the Sunday paper was the best-selling day, and promoters were guaranteed that their events would be given a big, big push in the Sunday press.”
The demise of the New York fight scene was precipitated, somewhat ironically, by American glory at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 – success that led to broadcasters screening boxing on free-to-air networks. With Vegas luring boxing promoters by offering both the venues and the participants’ accommodation for free, New York was unable to compete financially and had to rely on the far less lucrative lure of tradition when in the hunt for big fights.
Attendances fell rapidly, shows became less frequent, and the closure of the Sunnyside Garden in 1977 gave the New York scene a nasty bruise. Gym attendances also fell, but the heavyweight scene of the 1980s offered New York a glimmer of hope that was frustratingly short-lived.
“Why on earth didn’t MSG take advantage of any of the heavyweights here?” rails Majeski, warm nostalgia turning to bitter regret.
“We had Gerry Cooney, Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe – three huge monsters who could put bums on seats in any state, yet alone New York.
“Why didn’t MSG set up a boxing division within their company and tell people around the country that, ‘The only place you can see these guys is Madison Square Garden’? They can then do deals with places like Vegas, but make sure that they’re well paid for the privilege.
“The same thing could’ve been done in ‘84 when all the Olympians with their medals made their debuts at The Garden. MSG could’ve done something similar with them guys and built something really big with them, because the number of massive, high-profile fights them guys had was unreal. Imagine the money MSG could’ve generated by having exclusive rights to them.”
Underneath Madison Square Garden is Penn Station, and a short subway ride spits you out in Brooklyn, home of the Barclays Center, a modern arena and, to Bruce Silverglade – long-time owner of the famous Gleason’s Gym – something that New York fight fans can truly believe in. A pivotal supporting actor in the New York fight scene since the building’s inauguration in 2012, Barclays has been the venue for many enrapturing nights.
“It’s given the place a bit of a shake-up and it means that fans haven’t got to rely on The Garden for the big shows,” enthuses Silverglade. “Putting a boxing show in New York comes at a big price for promoters because The Garden is expensive and the hotels in Manhattan are expensive too. The Barclays Center is a new arena and it’s what the people of Brooklyn have wanted for a long time. The promoters seem to like it too, because the fights are getting good numbers. If good fights can be made here then that’ll be enough for the fight fans in this city. They’re not stupid and they know what they want. If the shows that have been on recently can be maintained then I think New York is still the place to be.”
One potential deterrent to boxing’s fortunes in New York is its State Athletic Commission insisting that all fighters competing within their jurisdiction require a million dollar insurance bond that will provide coverage for brain injuries – a demand that recently led NYC-based promoter Lou Di Bella to declare that he will no longer stage shows in the area because the insurance rates are too high.
Mixed Martial Arts, a sport famously banned in New York state, has also been given permission to run shows in the area by the NYSAC, which gives boxing a rival in the combat sports market.
Another locally based promoter, former fighter Dmitriy Salita, also has concerns about the recent and proposed changes.
“The State Athletic guys have got to come to their senses and listen to the people who are still working hard to make boxing a success in New York,” he insists. “How on earth can promoters put on shows knowing full well they have to find millions of dollars before a punch is even thrown?
“The guys have done a brilliant job in New York and I get fighters’ safety is a big concern to them. But there has to be some sort of middle ground that allows us to look at the safety of a fighter without putting so much money about. I’ll be okay because there’s other places I can put on shows, but New York is where I’m from and there’s so many good fighters here that are hungry and they need a platform to perform on.”
Majeski predictably takes a less diplomatic stance: “This is nothing but the New York State Athletic Commission looking out for number one. They don’t want to get sued. That’s the bottom line here.
“They’ll run the line that the fighter is their concern and they’re leading the way in ensuring fighter safety, but the reality is that they’re just looking out for themselves. If a big lawsuit comes their way then they have the money provided by the promoter to pay off any damages they suffer. It stinks and could be the end for boxing in New York.”
Despite the worrying implications of this proposal, Salita retains optimism for boxing in his home city. Possessing a solid stable with a number of fighters expected to breakthrough via broad exposure on ShoBox, Salita is adamant that New York will continue to churn out quality fighters.
“New York is a rich, rich city, but the poor parts contain hungry young men who’ve seen boxing save so many before them and hope that the sport can be a way out for them,” he explains. “Where there’s poverty there’s hunger, and boxing has always been a sport where the best fighters have come from poor and working-class conditions. New York has plenty of that, so boxing is still a dream and a way out for many of the young kids in this city.”
As of right now, New York is not the fight haven it once was, the legends of yesteryear casting shadows from which the current scene struggles to escape. Where once stood a boxing kingdom with palaces that fighters from afar wished to visit and perform, the present-day Big Apple is more a vibrant outpost, biding its time. New York still remembers, and echoes of its prominent past are ubiquitous, with MSG hosting the occasional show and Gleason’s Gym still a hive of activity where tales of happier times permeate the less hectic periods.
“Gleason’s isn’t just for the fighters no more,” says Silverglade. “Nowadays every type of person is in here keeping fit and ticking over, and it’s like that from five in the morning until 10 at night. You come to this gym in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s and there are four-five world champions in here training in all the different rings. We go back further and this was the place where fights were made without contracts or agents because just a handshake was needed. They were good times and things were a lot less complicated back then.”
New York is unlikely to ever regain the Fight Capital title it clung ferociously to for so many years. Boxing, in most quarters, is about following the money trail regardless of location. That said, with a sparkling new arena and finances burgeoning once again, recent years have offered small portions of promise for a resilient NYC.
There are a number of fascinating matches to be assembled in the city by a bevy of resourceful promoters, and New York may yet be able to add further instalments to the epic tales of a bygone era.