ANTHONY JOSHUA’S debut at Madison Square Garden brings back memories of a British invasion that took place 23 years ago.
The current Madison Square Garden is the fourth incarnation of the fabled arena. It opened its doors in 1968 and has hosted some of boxing’s most storied ring encounters including the 1971 “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Once referred to as “The Mecca of Boxing,” MSG is no longer at the centre of the boxing universe. But fighting there is a pilgrimage that every great fighter wants to make at least once in his ring lifetime.
When Lennox Lewis fought at Madison Square Garden for the first time, he was widely regarded as damaged goods. After winning a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, he’d advanced through the heavyweight ranks and annexed the WBC heavyweight crown by decision over Tony Tucker. Next, he’d defeated Frank Bruno and Phil Jackson. Then, shockingly, Lewis was knocked out by Oliver McCall in London.
The road back ran through Ray Mercer at Madison Square Garden on May 10, 1996. Mercer was a heavy-fisted brawler with an iron chin. And Lennox considered himself a “pugilistic specialist.” The plan that night was for Lewis to outbox Mercer. Except the plan wasn’t working. By the late rounds, Lennox’s face looked as though someone had inserted a golf ball beneath his right eye. Sensing that the fight was slipping away, trainer Emanuel Stewart told his charge, “Just f**king fight him.” Lewis did as instructed and eked out a 96-94, 96-95, 95-95 decision win.
Nine months later in Las Vegas, Lennox avenged his loss to McCall and reclaimed the heavyweight crown. Victories over Henry Akinwande, Andrew Golota, Shannon Briggs, and Zeljko Mavrovic followed. That set the stage for a return to Madison Square Garden and a March 13, 1999, title unification bout against WBA champion Evander Holyfield. The widespread belief was that Lewis deserved the nod that night. But the judges ruled the contest a draw.
Eight months later, Lennox won a unanimous decision over Holyfield in Las Vegas. In his next bout – on April 29, 2000 – he fought at Madison Square Garden for the third time and final time.
The opponent was Michael Grant; 27 years old, undefeated in 31 outings, 6-feet-7-inches tall, 250 pounds. Some observers called Grant the best pure athlete ever to come into boxing. More than a few insiders considered him the heir apparent to the heavyweight throne.
Lewis knocked Grant down three times in the first round and ended matters in the second stanza. That was Lennox’s most impressive performance at Madison Square Garden. It won over the doubters and solidified his position as the dominant heavyweight in the world.
I have vivid memories of all three Lennox Lewis fights at Madison Square Garden, some of them more personal than others.
When Lewis and Mercer fought in 1996, I was a book writer, not a journalist. I’d authored The Black Lights and Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times but written only a handful of articles. That night, I was on assignment for a magazine called Boxing Illustrated.
Three years later, Holyfield-Lewis I (as the promotion was styled) marked a step forward in my journey as a boxing writer. I was on assignment for a nascent website run by HBO Sports. My article would be posted on a burgeoning medium called the internet. It was the first time I was ever seated in the ringside press section for a major fight – the corner seat in the last row. When I picked up my credential, a BBC producer whose credential request had been denied offered me a thousand dollars for my seat. That seemed like a good way to be banned from the press section at Madison Square Garden for life. I turned him down.
Lewis-Grant was another turning point in my evolution as a boxing writer. Grant’s team invited me to spend the hours before and after the fight in Michael’s dressing room. It’s an experience that I’ve shared with dozens of fighters since then and a wonderful way to write a fight. I ask myself sometimes what it would mean for history if someone had been in Joe Louis’s dressing room before he fought Max Schmeling, writing down everything that happened and was said. In Sugar Ray Robinson’s dressing room. Or Jack Dempsey’s. That’s what I’ve been privileged to do with fighters like Roy Jones, Evander Holyfield, Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Bernard Hopkins, Gennady Golovkin, Canelo Alvarez, Sergio Martinez Jermain Taylor, Kelly Pavlik, Paulie Malignaggi, and Ricky Hatton.
In the years following Lennox Lewis’s three appearances at Madison Square Garden, his ring accomplishments and personal qualities solidified his place in boxing history. Anthony Joshua seems well-positioned to undertake a similar journey. Like Lennox, “AJ” has won an Olympic gold medal and staked a claim as heavyweight champion of the world. Like Lennox, he carries himself with dignity and grace. Now he’s coming to Madison Square Garden, hoping to take another step forward toward joining the fighters in boxing’s pantheon of gods.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is email@example.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published recently by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.