IT WAS in September 2007 when the boxing ring at Madison Square Garden was retired. The same ring had been in use for 82 years and letting it go was emotional.
Yep, that means Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard shared a ring. It means that Roberto Duran and Ricky Hatton shared a ring. And Marvin Hagler and Joe Calzaghe. It is endless, but there is no Floyd Mayweather in the fantasy game. He never fought at the Garden.
The old ring, the Garden ring, was finally put out of use by the demands of Oleg Maskaev, who at the time was the WBC world heavyweight champion. The ring used by heavyweight icons, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Lennox Lewis was not big enough to satisfy Big Oleg. He wanted something a bit bigger, a bit safer.
The sacred old structure measured just 20-feet, its full dimensions when built. And that meant that with ropes, it was just 18.6 inside the fighting area – perhaps a fraction more. A big phone booth, in many ways. Maskaev, according to his contract demand, wanted a full 20-foot ring between the ropes. His challenger, Samuel Peter, agreed and their two signatures on the fight contract was the start of the end of the Garden’s oldest resident.
The Maskaev fight was due for October but was postponed. However, the greats from the Garden gathered on September, 2007, to say their personal farewells to the old ring. Emile Griffith was there, Joe Frazier was there and Bernard Hopkins was there. It is a gathering that I wish I had attended. Can you imagine watching sweet Emile up in that ring for one last time?
I have walked the corridors at the Garden, seen the basketball rings, the hockey goals, the Zamboni. They are piled and packed away in ugly heaps near the temporary cocktail stations during fight night. And our ring must have been there in a hefty, darkened pile while the Rangers and the Knicks played and Elvis sang.
The ring weighed one ton and was made up of 132 parts and pieces. It had been repaired, new padding had been fitted and at some point, an extra rope had been added and a hundred different canvasses had covered it. How many men and women in 82 years of boxing glory finished their fight on their knees or back in that ring.
It is a great pity that the blood-stained canvasses were not kept and framed to hang in giant halls. Perhaps somebody cut a swatch from each of the old and dumped canvasses; how much would you pay for any of the corner patches where Ali planted his feet, the small area where Felix Trinidad finished in his 2001 fight with Hopkins? They are priceless pieces of fabric, part of our history.
It is the ring that launched careers and ended careers. And life; men died in that old ring. In 1962, Griffith killed Benny Kid Paret in the ring and the images of a slumped Paret, battered, trapped on the three ropes and close to death are haunting. In the photographs he is a man left to die, damaged beyond repair at the moment and in that ring. Benny slumps to the canvas in the corner and holds one of the ropes. I wonder if they torched that death canvas or just cleaned up the blood and sweat left by the stain of Paret’s dead fall? That ring was a shrine.
Foreman had his first fight at the Garden in that ring in 1969; Louis his last in the same ring in 1951. The giants walked the same boards. During undercard fights you can hear the ring, hear the boards and metal crunching against each other as the boxers dance in the ring; it was the sound, a thumping echo of the old beast getting ready for the main event. There is not a peep from the structure when 20,000 are roaring at the fighters in the main attraction.
It is fitting that one of the Garden’s darlings, Miguel Cotto, was the last man to win in the old ring. The first fight was in 1925, the final was in June 2007 when Cotto stopped Zab Judah. At that point, nobody knew the old structure was doomed. It was, presumably, just dismantled, piled away for another night; part of the hidden gems in the Garden’s endless corridors. It was, so officials have said, getting harder and harder to construct. It was a tiring four-hour build, a complex series of connecting pieces. A work of a boxing art, perhaps.
Angelo Dundee, close to a permanent fixture in the ring’s corner from the Fifties, complained that the turnbuckles were brass and hard to manipulate. He struggled to tighten the ropes. “They were always loose,” Dundee said. In 1971, Dundee was holding a rope, up on the apron, just before the Fight of the Century, when somebody called out “Hey, Ang.” It was Frank Sinatra with his camera round his neck and his elbows on the ring. As I said, that ring is a bleeding shrine.
The old Garden ring looked like a skinny vulture before it was dressed with the modern accessories. On the day that Naseem Hamed and Kevin Kelley fought back in 1997, I saw the structure naked and thin. It looked half the size before the padded ropes, corner pads, foam, padding and canvas transformed it. The brightly-lit square was unrecognisable later that night when Hamed and Kelley used every inch of it.
Back in 2019, at the public workout before the Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz rematch in Saudi Arabia, Mike Goohall, the King of Rings, told me a story. Goodall has been erecting rings for decades, the untouchable czar of the game. He could build a ring on an elephants back. He once chain-sawed an ancient tree at dawn to build a ring on the Algarve. The tree was 300 years old, by the way. Mike saved the show that night, but remains a terrorist to Portuguese environmentalists.
The ring that was being used that day in Saudi was the ring that Goodall had stored at York Hall for decades. Joshua had won an ABA title in that ring. The same ring was destined for one of the royal palaces in Riyadh once the boxing had finished. It presumably sits there now, a lonely relic holding so much history from small nights at the ancient venue; hopefully it lives in the shade of a tree. It deserves a safe pasture.
Back in 2007, the Garden ring was sent to the Hall of Fame. A nice location for a dear old friend to grow old.