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The rise and fall of the Golden Gloves: Part I

Golden Gloves
Winning the New York Golden Gloves was the pinnacle for any amateur boxer in the tournament’s glory days, but those days could not last forever. Here, in a four-part series, Jack Hirsch details the history of the faded tournament

IN court they call it irreconcilable differences, which is the inability of the two parties to resolve their problems. In a nutshell, that explains why one of boxing’s great institutions, the New York Daily News Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament, is no more. This is a story of how greed, ego, power, and people’s inability to communicate destroyed a long and honoured tradition. This is a story of how dreams were shattered because the people in authority were more interested in serving their own interests than the athletes they were entrusted to look after.

The Daily News is a New York City newspaper that is now over 100 years old and at one time had a circulation of over two-million readers. In 1927, DN sports editor Paul Gallico started what became known as the Golden Gloves. It fast became a tradition that transcended boxing. Officially it has always been called the Daily News Golden Gloves; The tournament run by New York News Charities Inc., with the profits being given to various causes.

Those who participated over the years came from diverse backgrounds. The cultural phenomenon represented the best of New York City. The Daily News’ vast circulation not only read about the fights, but the stories of the fighters as well. The more they won the better known they became to the public. The boxers fought for glory, the right to be called a GG champion, and to have a small pair of Golden Gloves placed around their neck. Those pair of gloves were as precious to them as a gold medal was to an Olympic athlete.

How important it was to some can be found in the story of super-heavyweight Angel Alston. After losing in the finals of the 1984 tournament, in his first try at the Gloves, Alston kept chasing his dream unsuccessfully for the next 10 years. Finally on his last year of eligibility before age requirements would end his career as a Golden Glover, Alston broke through. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

Becoming a Golden Glove champion was a life-altering experience. At a time when neighbourhood ties were stronger than they are today it meant instant celebrity status within that patch of land. Winning the GGs was the ultimate achievement as so many of the alumni attest to. No matter what they achieved afterward, the Golden Gloves always held the most special of places in their heart. Mark Breland, who won the Gloves five consecutive years (1980-1984) and is associated with the tournament more than any other boxer in its history, vouches for that. “It means far more to me than my Olympic gold medal and two world titles as a pro,” he said.

Mark Breland
Getty Images

Vito Antuofermo who won the Gloves in 1970 then later held the undisputed world middleweight championship, concurs. “If I could choose only one, the Golden Gloves would be it,” he said. “It is the greatest thing I ever experienced.”

The New York Daily News Golden Gloves was the springboard for great fighters who would go on to Hall of Fame careers as professionals, a list that includes Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Emile Griffith, Hector Camacho and Riddick Bowe. Those names are legendary, but the Golden Gloves was never regarded as a developmental league to launch professional careers. Public perception withstanding, to those who won it the NYGG was the pinnacle, the highlight of their youth so to speak. And the memories were not only confined to those doing the punching. It was a place where family and friends bonded in support of their favourites. It was a tournament that built character, got kids off the streets and propelled them to an improved lifestyle they might not have been able to find elsewhere.

“These are not the kids who will get in trouble, these are the kids who are trying to do the right thing,” then-New York State Senator Al D’Amato told me at ringside during the night of the 1988 finals. The evidence backed that up. In an era when drug use among young people was rampant, the Daily News, for the first time, had invoked mandatory drug testing for the tournament. When all was said and done of the 744 who were tested only six were positive – less than one percent.

For the first 60 years of the tournament the finals were held at Madison Square Garden, then as now the world’s most famous arena.

Garden jitters had been a term frequently used for boxers who under-performed in the big house. Certainly the pressure of appearing in the Gloves finals was something that was impossible to prepare for. The wait in the dressing room to be called was nerve racking. Then the moment of truth arrived, where the boxer made the walk through the tunnel, down the aisle, and into the ring where a sudden silence would ensue. The lights in the Garden would dim, then the spotlight would shine directly on the boxer as he was introduced to the packed house telling us the gym they represented, their tournament record, and where they went to school or were employed. The fighters nervously braced for those introductions as they would the sudden dip of a roller coaster, the intensity as unbearable for some and as it was uplifting for others.

Three rounds to justify the hard training and sacrifices made, the mornings on the wintery road, the nights at the gym. Some of the championship contests produced a clear winner, others ended in nerve-racking suspense where the final bell rang with the outcome in doubt. The two fighters would gather beside the referee in the centre of the ring where they would await the decision that would impact them for the rest of their life. For the loser the effort was secondary, the pat on the back telling him good try was of little consolation. Getting to the top of Mount Rushmore is so much better than saying you had a great view of it, after all. The fight was over but the adrenaline continued to run in the few seconds before they would learn their fate. It was not uncommon for many to try to will their way to victory. They hoped, prayed, anything that would tilt the scorecards their way.

It lasts literally seconds, just as a jury verdict does. “The winner in the — division is —“. The pure ecstasy of being declared new champion was indescribable. They had joined an exclusive club and would always have a title next to their name. That moment would be vivid in their mind for the rest of their life. One they would happily hold onto and keep reliving. Unless they had won the Gloves before or would do so in a subsequent year, those who did not hear their name announced at the end would always wonder ‘what if’.

The journey began by filing out and mailing in the application form that would appear in the Daily News sports section. For some the planning was meticulous, having spent time in the gym under the watchful eye of a coach where they gained experience and a high level of fitness. Then there were those who had never boxed before and had an inflated image of their prowess: They would sign-up on a whim, take a crash course at their local gym, then learn the painful realities of the manly art of self-defence, never to return to the tournament again.

Golden Gloves

The early matchups in the tournament were not created by coincidence, but by design. Even in the so-called dark ages where cell phones and the internet would have been an invention beyond the imagination, there were pretty good scouting reports on the better boxers entering the Gloves. The competition at unsanctioned events meant that in some instances boxers might have already squared off before facing the other in Golden Glove competition. The seeding, therefore, would pair the best in each division against the presumed weakest in the hopes of saving the marquee matchups for last. It was a formula which worked and quickly distinguished the pretenders from the contenders.

The good times, at least those we knew way back when, would not last forever.

When less than 12,000 turned out for the 1987 finals at Madison Square Garden, it marked the end of an era where the championship matches would be contested in the main arena. MSG continued to host the finals, but they now took place in its smaller venue, the Felt Forum, now known as the Hulu Theater. It was more than the crowd size that factored into the decision. The number of weight divisions was increased meaning that the number of fights made for too long of an evening. Beginning in 1988, the finals would take place over the course of two nights, which MSG would host until 2012.

The decline, I suppose, was inevitable. Even so, it should never have been allowed to plummet to the inescapable depths it now finds itself.

No one particular person is responsible for the demise of the Daily News New York Golden Gloves, but it becomes apparent after investigating the tug of war that went on behind the scenes that a toxic atmosphere existed between the Daily News Charities Inc; and Metros in which coaches were said to be intimidated and forced to choose sides. A mini-war escalated in which the prospective Golden Glovers were the ultimate victims.

Historically, the Golden Gloves had always mirrored the geographical makeup of New York City. Over the decades the diverse ethnicity of the tournament mirrored life in the town. But as times changed so did the number of entrants, less of them signing up to compete in the Golden Gloves.

At one time it was the exact opposite. In 1937 at Madison Square Garden, three rings simultaneously held the entire quarter-finals of the tournament over one day where an astounding 107 matches occurred. But as we moved into the following century, inequities existed that were never properly addressed. As journalist Ryan Songolia, who covered the tournament for the Daily News in 2011 pointed out, “Some weight divisions had less entrants than others making the road to the finals much easier. Some fighters had to box only once to get there because of a lack of competition in their division. Others had to box a few times at least.”  This was especially true when women’s boxing became a part of the tournament in 1995 and did not have nearly as many participants as did the men.

Smoker shows held in churches, gyms, and youth centres in the various neighbourhoods of New York are a thing of the past, but at one time they were very popular on the amateur circuit. In fact, in the early 1980s, Mike Tyson travelled several times from the Catskills to the Bronx, to box on them. These unsanctioned shows fought in front of boisterous crowds gave the boxer invaluable experience entering the Gloves tournament. In a sense it made a mockery of the GG Sub Novice category that was intended for participants who had no prior fights at the time. Tightened insurance laws ultimately made putting on these shows cost prohibitive.

What is indisputable is the impact that the New York Daily News had on the tournament during its peak years. As the newspaper with the largest circulation in New York City, the Daily News took special pride in the tournament being theirs. The coverage they provided of all the shows from beginning to end was extensive. Come tournament time the back page of the paper would routinely have photos of the action the evening before.

As other sports gained in popularity, the New York Golden Gloves was sure to suffer, but amateur boxing had an unexpected revival with the charismatic 1976 United States Olympic team anchored by Sugar Ray Leonard and Howard Davis Jnr. The five gold medals at those Montreal games captured the imagination of the American public. Davis Jnr from Glen Cove, Long Island, was a four-time New York Gloves champion (1973-1976) and it was he who won the Val Barker trophy as the outstanding boxer of those Olympics. In the same year, the Academy Award-winning movie Rocky inspired a new generation of amateur boxers as well.

When Mark Breland entered the picture a few years later, the New York Golden Gloves had their most charismatic entrant in the tournament’s history. Breland regularly scored highlight reel knockouts and attendance soared on the nights he boxed. But Breland was the exception to the rule, the rare fighter who could attract fans to shows for the sole purpose of seeing him box. Over the years it had transitioned to the point where, with the exception of the finals, the only ones attending the events were family and friends of the boxers. In addition, with attendance being down the once vibrant atmosphere was gone. On many occasions people left the moment the match ended they had come to see.

The NFL’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1970’s and the NBA’s in the mid-eighties. As wildly popular as the NBA is today, it was not even a primetime sport in 1980. In fact, as incredible as it seems now, the decisive game of that year’s finals, which saw Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers defeat Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers, was not even shown on live television.  As the landscape changed and increased attention was given to other sports, the Golden Gloves was not as prominently displayed on the pages of the Daily News as before.

Golden Gloves fans had long been a devoted group braving the winter elements to attend shows, but when cable television came into existence with its broad array of programming the motivation to head out the door was compromised. But what hurt more was the advent of the internet, something that has proven to be a crippling blow to newspapers and publishing industries around the globe. Staff has been cut and jobs lost for them to stay in business. These days, you can obtain virtually any information, albeit of varying quality, by going onto the internet. Hit hard by this, the New York Daily News was no longer the major media player it had once been.

The New York Daily News Golden Gloves was the first of its kind, but many other cities followed in having tournaments of their own, many enjoying success. The Chicago Golden Gloves was popular for a time. There would be inter-city rivalries with The Big Apple in the 1950s through the mid-60s, then resume for a few more years from 1977 to 1982. When New York hosted one such event at Madison Square Garden in 1960, among the winners for the victorious Chicago team was one Cassius Marcellus Clay. In 1983, when the Chicago Tribune withdrew their sponsorship the inter-city rivalry was done, but for those who were around at the time it conjures up great memories.

For all the success that other tournaments had there was no disputing that the New York Daily News Golden Gloves stood above the rest. It was the one tournament where amateur boxers from all over came to be a part of. Among them was Tony Madigan, the British Empire and Australian 175lb champion, and an Olympian in both 1952 and 1956. Madigan travelled the world for the sole purpose of winning the New York Gloves. He accomplished his mission in the 1959 tournament, but would later lose to Clay in the inter-city competition fought in Chicago. Clay who later became known as Muhammad Ali, continued to be a nemesis to Madigan, defeating him in the 1960 Olympics in Rome as well. Those heady days of Madigan and Clay being associated with the Gloves is now a memory so distant it’s scarcely believable.

The problems between the New York Daily News Charities Inc; and the USA Metro had been building up for some time until it came to a head in 2017 which was the last year of the NY Golden Gloves. USA Boxing’s position was that the tournament was being run poorly and that they could do a much better job of serving the participants. They were also of the opinion that the Daily News charities were making a significant profit which should have been used in part to finance boxers and their coaches for out of town trips. According to people involved with the DNC, the tournament had ceased to become profitable due to high operating costs and diminished attendance at events.

The issues with how the DNC should distribute potential profits dates back to 1947 when the Amateur Boxing Coaches Organization (ABCO) made several demands that were rejected. ABCO then unsuccessfully tried to get the boxers to boycott the tournament. The Metropolitan AAU, the sanctioning body of the time, moved quickly and decisively on the side of the DNC putting the matter to rest. Such was the clout that the New York Daily News had in its heyday. But this is an altogether different era, and standing directly in the line of fire was Brian Adams, who beginning in 2006 was entrusted with running the tournament by the DNC.

TO read part two of the series, click here.

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