UFC joins Madison Square Garden’s storied fight history
A new chapter in the storied book that is the history of Madison Square Garden will start to be scripted on Saturday as the UFC makes its eagerly anticipated debut at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
UFC 205 will be headlined by Eddie Alvarez against Conor McGregor in a lightweight title match. The prelims can be seen on FS1 starting at 8 p.m. ET.
The Garden has been the site of some of boxing — and pro wrestling’s — biggest moments. There’s also a couple of unexpected brawls thrown in that are memorable.
Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I (March 8, 1971)
The most legendary bout to take place at Madison Square Garden occurred on March 8, 1971, when Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali met in the "Fight of the Century." Both fighters entered the ring undefeated, with Frazier 26-0 and Ali 31-0.
On that star-studded evening, no less than Frank Sinatra was an official photographer for the bout that saw Smokin’ Joe knock down Ali in the 15th round en route to a unanimous decision victory.
Ali-Frazier II (Jan. 28, 1974)
Almost three years later, the pair met again and Ali evened the score, winning a unanimous decision. "Super Fight II" was actually a non-title bout and it was contested over 12 rounds.
Ali got the better of Frazier on this night, setting the stage for their third bout, "The Thrilla in Manila."
Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota (July 11, 1996)
The stakes were not as high and the fight was not as hyped as the Ali-Frazier battles, but the 1996 bout between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota turned into a different kind of memorable moment at MSG.
Golota, a 12-1 underdog, was having his way with Bowe, pounding him throughout the early rounds. However, the action in the ring would not be the story of this evening. The Polish fighter had been warned about hitting the former heavyweight champ below the belt. A final low blow in the seventh round led to referee Wayne Kelly stopping the fight and awarding it to Bowe via disqualification.
That’s when all hell broke loose. Bowe’s security people entered the ring and headed for Golota, who had his back turned. Golota was pushed, turned started to throw punches. One member of Bowe’s security force hit Golota with a walkie-talkie, busting the fighter open.
Golota’s fans became involved in the melee, which led to 10 arrests. Eight policemen and nine fans were sent to the hospital.
Joe Louis-Rocky Marciano (Oct. 26, 1951)
Decades earlier, legends met in the fabled MSG ring. However, it was not like the Ali-Frazier battles as one was in his prime and the other toward the end of a legendary career.
Louis was guaranteed $300,000 for the fight, an enormous sum for that time. However, he no longer was the fabled "Brown Bomber," and he was in the ring with a fighter who would become one of the all-time greats.
Marciano had his way with the aged Louis, finally knocking him down twice in the eighth round. Referee Ruby Goldstein had seen enough and stopped the fight. Marciano was the victor by TKO.
How thorough was the beating? Reports after the fight had Louis saying he was having a hard time combing his hair because of the toll Marciano’s punches had taken on the legendary champ. He was having trouble lifting his arms.
Roberto Duran-Ken Buchanan (June 26, 1972)
Legends made their mark in the Garden in many weight classes. In 1972, Ken Buchanan was the lightweight champ, and the popular Scot was to face a contender named Roberto Duran.
Duran held the advantage for most of the 13 rounds. However, it ended in controversy with Buchanan on the canvas in agony. Referee Johnny LoBianco stopped the fight and declared Duran the champ, failing to acknowledge what many in attendance believed to be a low blow by Duran.
This, of course, would not be the only time fights in Duran’s career would end in a controversial fashion.
Roberto Duran-Davey Moore (June 16, 1983)
In 1983, Duran met Davey Moore, looking to overcome the shame of his "No Mas" loss to Sugar Ray Leonard and other defeats in the previous calendar year. He had, in fact, retired, only to be prodded back to work by his wife Felicidad, who told Duran, "If you had any pride, you would demonstrate to Panama and the whole world that you are not finished."
After a couple of unimpressive prep victories, Duran was ready for a solid opponent.
Moore proved to be the perfect foe. He was eight years younger than Duran and entered the ring as the favorite. However, "Hands of Stone" was on a mission to regain his stature among boxing legends.
Duran took apart Moore, pounding him relentlessly. In the seventh round, Duran knocked Moore to the canvas. Moore was finished. For some reason, his corner sent him out for round eight and Duran continued to knock Moore into oblivion. A towel thrown in from the corner mercifully stopped the brutality, which occurred on Duran’s 32nd birthday.
The crowd of 20,000-plus burst into "Happy Birthday," as on this night the Panamanian was more of the hometown favorite than the Bronx-born and vanquished Moore.
Benny Paret-Emile Griffith (March 24, 1962)
The action in this one started at a weigh-in when Benny "The Kid" Paret whispered a gay slur at the legendary Emile Griffith in Spanish.
Griffith tried to get to Paret then, but would have to wait for the actual bout. In a fight that was nationally televised, Griffith battered Paret. The final flurry happened in the 12th round.
When it was finally over, Paret was taken to the hospital and was in a coma for 10 days before he tragically passed away.
Sugar Ray Robinson-Henry Armstrong (Aug. 27, 1943)
Another match that would have been storied had the fighters each been in their prime took place in 1943 when the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson met his idol Henry Armstrong.
Robinson was 44-1 when he entered the MSG ring that evening. Armstrong, who fought 181 times in an epic career, was at the end of the line. Robinson pounced Armstrong for 10 rounds, winning a unanimous decision.
Armstrong retired after the fight, but returned to the ring and fought for two more years before finally hanging up his gloves.
Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield (March 13, 1999)
There was no clarity when Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield met in 1999.
The heavyweight title fight was dubbed "Undisputed," as every version of the championship was on the line.
Those in attendance believed Lewis was going to leave the ring as the undisputed heavyweight champion. He had started quickly, while Holyfield rallied in rounds 8-11. However, a strong finish by Lewis made it seem as if "The Lion" had earned a decision.
That was until the announcement that one judge had scored the fight for Holyfield, one for Lewis and the other a draw. That led to a final decision of an unpopular draw. How unpopular was the call? Then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the decision "a travesty."
Jake LaMotta-Sugar Ray Robinson (Oct. 2, 1942)
Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta were fierce rivals throughout their careers. Robinson won a 10-round decision, using his speed and great footwork to cope with the non-stop charge of the "Raging Bull."
Muhammad Ali-Oscar Bonavena (Dec. 7, 1970)
Ali was the perfect showman for the Garden. One of his best efforts came in 1970 when he faced Oscar Bonavena, a bruising, colorful Argentine boxer.
The fight was the second after Ali’s three-year layoff due to a legal battle with the U.S. Government.
Bonavena was a perfect foe. He had a mouth on him, too, and went after Ali saying, "Why you no in Army? You big chicken. Chicken," at the weigh-in.
That was enough to stir up the great Ali for a vintage effort. He wanted to become the first man to top Bonavena and the Argentine managed to survive the first 14 rounds. However, Ali got to Bonavena in the final round and stopped him with 57 seconds left due to the three-knockdown rule.
John L. Sullivan-Herbert Slade (Aug. 6, 1883)
And in the beginning, in the first incarnation of Madison Square Garden, there was the legendary John L. Sullivan fighting in 1883.
Yes, that is how far the history of MSG goes. On August 6 of that year, John L Sullivan met Herbert Slade in a bout that was years ahead of its time.
Slade was not Caucasian. He came from New Zealand and this was the first time a boxer who was not white had fought for a world championship. The fight was so big that the New York Daily News sold 1.5 million copies pre-fight. Sullivan won in the third round.
Ten thousand fans were at the bout. Sullivan’s popularity at the Garden provided a huge boost to boxing and the arena itself as a venue for the sport.
Joe Frazier-Buster Mathis (March 4, 1968)
The Buster Mathis-Joe Frazier heavyweight title fight had ramifications on many levels. Frazier knocked out Mathis in 11 rounds, gaining measures of revenge for the victories his bigger foe held when they fought as amateurs. The larger issue was the fight was to replace Ali in many regions as heavyweight champ. Ali’s title had been vacated after his 1967 draft conviction and the victory by Frazier only helped build the rivalry between himself and Ali.
WrestleMania (March 31, 1985)
Boxing provided great bang for the entertainment dollar at MSG. However, it had a counterpart: Professional wrestling. The McMahon empire at WWWF/WWF/WWE has been closely associated with the Garden for decades.
The event that stands above all is WrestleMania. And the first WrestleMania took place at MSG in 1985. The legendary story is Vince McMahon pushed all his chips to the center of the ring, banking that an event like WrestleMania would lift professional wrestling to heights unseen.
The first WrestleMania did just that: Ali was a referee. The combatants on the card were not only ring legends like Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan but also entertainers such as Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. The star-studded event was a success, a huge one, and gave birth to the annual pay-per-view that is the Super Bowl of sports entertainment.
WrestleMania XX (March 14, 2004)
No event was more star-crossed than WrestleMania XX at MSG in 2004. The finish of the championship matches created jubilation in the ring and among WWE fans across the world.
Why? The popularity of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit was soaring. Each wrestler captured his respective brand’s championship. However, the joy was short-lived as Guerrero died far too young in November of 2005, and Benoit murdered his wife and son before committing suicide at his family’s home in Georgia in 2007.
Brock Lesnar-Goldberg (March 14, 2004)
There is a current strange tie to WrestleMania XX. On Nov. 20, Brock Lesnar will meet Bill Goldberg in Survivor Series in Toronto. The pair battled in a forgettable match in WM XX with Goldberg coming out the victor. Each combatant left WWE after the event and this will be the first time they have met since 2004.
Triple H, restarting The Game (Jan. 7. 2002)
Triple H tore his left quadriceps muscle during a 2001 Raw episode. He was sidelined for many months before WWE had a show scheduled for MSG in January of 2002. He made a dramatic return to the ring on that night and continued on to great success in his unparalleled career.
Bruno Sammartino-Buddy Rogers (May 17, 1963)
The Sammartino era began in 1963 when he defeated Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds at the Garden. The match and plot behind it is filled with the usual drama that goes along with everything in sports entertainment.
Sammartino-Ivan Koloff (Jan. 18, 1971)
Sammartino was as much a fixture of the fabric of MSG events as any boxer or arguably athlete of his generation. He had reigned for years as champion and was the most popular wrestler of his time. However, on Jan. 18. 1971, it was determined the title run would end. Ivan Koloff defeated Sammartino. Rather than risk the wrath of the crowd, Koloff exited without the championship belt and Sammartino remained in the ring as a distraction.
Bob Backlund-The Iron Sheik, throwing in the towel (Dec. 26, 1983)
The day after Christmas in 1983 provided another opportunity for a heel to take the title off a long-reigning champion at MSG. Bob Backlund faced The Iron Sheik on that card. When the Sheik had the champ in his camel clutch finishing hold, Arnold Skaaland in Backlund’s corner threw in the towel, ending the title run. The towel episode led to other moments in the company’s storyline.
Hulk Hogan-The Iron Sheik, Hulkamania is born (Jan. 23, 1984)
The Iron Sheik had a role in arguably the biggest character creation in WWE history. On Jan. 24, 1984, Hulk Hogan escaped the dreaded camel clutch and finished The Iron Sheik with his patented leg drop. The match became the catalyst for Hulkamania.
Jimmy Snuka-Don Muraco, an influential leap (Oct. 17, 1983)
In 1983, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka had one of his career-defining moments, as he leaped off the top of a 15-foot steel cage after losing a match to Don Muraco. Future wrestling stars such as Mick Foley, The Sandman, Tommy Dreamer and Bubba Ray Dudley were at the event and all believe it inspired their pro wrestling careers.
Stone Cold Steve Austin-Mr. McMahon (Sept. 22, 1997)
One of the all-time moments in WWE history occurred at MSG in 1997. The Vince McMahon-Stone Cold Steve Austin rivalry was white hot. After a long segment, Austin hit the Chairman with the Stone Cold Stunner sending the audience into hysterics as Austin was taken from the ring and to jail in handcuffs.
Boston Bruins-New York Rangers (Dec. 23, 1979)
Two of the more memorable fights at the Garden had nothing to do with boxing or wrestling.
In 1979, the arch-rival Boston Bruins were playing the New York Rangers in a December game.
The Bruins won the game 4-3 but that isn’t where the memories start. As the teams left the ice, a fan hit the Bruins’ Stan Jonathan with a rolled-up program. That ignited the mother of all brawls.
The Bruins’ Terry O’Reilly headed into the stands followed by Peter McNab. In all, 18 Bruins went into the stands to confront the fans.
Security guards eventually separated the combatants. John Kaptain, with his brother, James; his father, Manny; and a friend, Jack Guttenplan, were charged with disorderly conduct. After the game, a crowd of about 300 Rangers fans rocked the Bruins’ bus and had to be dispersed by eight mounted police officers.
Three Bruins earned suspensions and everyone on the team except for goaltender Gerry Cheevers, who was drinking beer in the locker room, was fined $500 apiece. The times — and salaries — were far different.
Miami Heat-New York Knicks (April 13, 1998)
The 1998 NBA playoff series between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks saw a wild on-court brawl. It started with the Knicks’ Larry Johnson and the Heat’s Alonzo Mourning during Game Four. However, the most memorable moment of the battle was when then-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy ran onto the court and tried to corral Mourning, who was nearly two feet taller. The bad blood had actually begun in 1997 when the teams got into a battle at Miami, but Van Gundy’s attempt to control Mourning at MSG stands the test of time.