My New York Obsession

When Madison Square Garden Was the Real Heavyweight Champ of NYC

A smoky look back at the place where Sinatra took in the fights and every night was a knockout.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In a little-remembered movie from 1932 titled Madison Square Garden, a middleweight contender punches through a muddle of corruption and finds solace in the solidarity of his fellow boxers and friends. It’s a pretty minor film, but when it comes to the reputation and history of Madison Square Garden, it reveals a few important things. Namely, that even during the Depression the venue was carving out a name as New York City’s most famous sporting arena. The old Madison Square Garden would soon become a legendary backdrop for mythic sporting events, and a Hollywood film could name-check it without hesitation. The movie also uses its title as a shorthand for the world of prizefighting: Several of its most famous figures appear in Madison Square Garden as themselves, including former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and renowned sportswriter Damon Runyon.

golden boy
A scene from Golden Boy (1939).

My interest in boxing came from a love for the smoky, cigar-chomping world of American movies from the ’30s and ’40s. In films such as Golden Boy (1939) and Body and Soul (1947), the imagery and intensity of the fight world seemed perfect parables for the rags-to-riches story of America after the Great Depression. Before I knew it, my love for boxing movies extended into the sport itself. I became obsessed by the thrill and terror of live boxing, closely following the careers of contemporary heavyweights and endlessly watching interviews and documentaries featuring the great fighters of the past. I read that stone-cold mafiosi like Frankie Carbo once “ran the Garden,” and I yearned to learn what exactly that meant. To be a fan of both movies and boxing is to exalt Madison Square Garden—and to know it was the center of the prizefighting world at the time when the sport was at its most dominant.

The heady atmosphere of Madison Square Garden was where, as the Times put it, “society brushed with the underworld.”

What is equally little remembered now, though, is that New York City’s most famous sports arena was actually on its third iteration by the time Madison Square Garden, the film, was released. The previous two versions, the first built in 1879 and the second in 1890, were located on Madison Square itself, until the venue was relocated to Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets, in 1925. The original MSG was built by a cabal of robber barons and wealthy plutocrats and temporarily leased by P.T. Barnum, but failed to succeed financially. It took a powerful boxing promoter named Tex Rickard to help finance and rebuild the Garden in its new place. Many sporting and non-sporting events took place in Madison Square Garden III; as The New York Times’s Murray Schumach wrote in 1968, “Sports palace, political battleground, town hall of the nation, temple for evangelists…this six-story building overcame its grubby appearance to become an internationally known symbol of fun and controversy.”

madison square garden
First Madison Square Garden (1879). / The Arts Publishing Corporation, New York; photo courtesy of McKim, Mead and White via Wikimedia Commons

Every movie star and member of the intelligentsia could be found [there] on any average fight night: Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin, and Norman Mailer.

But the venue’s principle attraction was always boxing, and it would become the American cultural flashpoint for the entire sport. Before it was demolished in 1968 and moved to its current location in the west 30s, MSG III was the site of some of the most iconic prizefights of the first half of the 20th century: Cassius Clay versus Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Robinson versus Jake LaMotta, and Joe Louis’s career-ending loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951. (Some of these fights were re-created for films like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, and Michael Mann’s Ali.) MSG III was also where every movie star and member of the intelligentsia could be found on any average fight night: Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and countless others took in the fights, often dressed in finery.

The Garden was notoriously smoky, creating visibility issues for attendees in the nosebleed seats. And the heady atmosphere, where, as the Times put it, “society brushed with the underworld,” would be depicted in countless films from that time. When the site was relocated to 4 Penn Plaza, it was the end of an era. At the last event in the old Eighth Avenue location, announcer Joe Humphreys was said to intone (to the audience at a dog show, nonetheless): “Farewell to thee, O temple of fist-iana.” The temple’s altar, its well-trodden ring, is now housed in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, preserved for posterity.

Frank Sinatra Ava Gardner
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner (1951) / Photo by IISG via Wikimedia Commons

Although many incredible bouts went on at the new Madison Square Garden—Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran, and Mike Tyson all fought there—some of the old-timers struggled to adjust and so, too, would audiences by the ’80s and ’90s. With a few notable exceptions, the sport would wane in popularity over the years. Now all but one of the major heavyweight titles are held by boxers across the pond in Britain, and American combat-sport fans are far more likely to follow mixed martial arts than they are old-school boxing.

muhammad ali prizefighting
Photo by PA via Wikimedia Commons

The history of Madison Square Garden has proven to be a microcosm of the real-estate development in 20th-century Manhattan. As the island is gentrified and redeveloped by large corporate entities, little stays the same for long. Yet the spirit of the smoky old Garden remains a pinnacle for fighters and for the sport itself. Current British heavyweight champ Anthony Joshua recently took a trip to the Garden and dreamily talked about making his American debut there in 2019. And if rumors are to be believed, there’s a chance that the Garden will be moving yet again in the years to come, giving this venue another fighting chance.

Christina Newland is a writer on film, pop culture, and boxing at Sight & Sound magazine, i-D, Vice, Little White Lies, and other publications. She tweets @test-email-christinalefou and you can find her work at www.thebetamaxrevolt.com.