Already, on this sad-sick street of smeared windows filled with old school rings and dusty old Army overcoats, of saloons with long, stained bars and strange lighting, the feel is gone. Just the building, a big-hipped slattern of design, remains. The old Garden echoes only the sounds of a night watchman's clock and chain and the snores of bums sleeping in the cold dark of the outer lobby. The wind whips at the empty marquee, the images form in the mind, of dance kings and sluggers, of a thousand tableaus that no longer hang here anymore.
Yet, for all the braying politicians and flaying evangelists, all the nonsense and drama, dazzle and dullness, Madison Square Garden meant boxing, come lean times or fat times. Kids doing road-work in the half-light of a Buenos Aires or London morning, or kids listening by a radio to announcers long dead, knew it only as a dreamlike palace of pain and special majesty, a place of certain sounds: a stillness, a bell, a fight-crowd hum. No bells ring here anymore.
Now the offices have been moved 16 blocks down the street to an impersonal high-rise above Penn Station, where Garden boxing will present its first show next Monday night, matching Buster Mathis and Joe Frazier for the "heavyweight title" and Emile Griffith defending his middleweight crown against Nino Benvenuti. Small wars and undercurrents surround every fight, but much warrants notice in this show at which ringside will cost $100, ringside terminating (knowing the Garden, old or new) in or near the men's room.
Shadows hover over this show: the old metaphysician Cus D'Amato, who is still a factor after being crudely exiled by Mathis and his camp; the shrieking invasion and style of Rover Boy Babbits who use terms like "socio-eco" and paint their gym with "subliminal" advertising that is hardly subliminal; and, finally, the future of Garden boxing itself, now quivering in the balance amid the intrusive pigeons and rain and all the other Mack Sennett accidents that have attended the opening of the new Garden.
The Mathis-Frazier fight is unquestionably attractive, perhaps the most interesting match-up since the first meeting between Ali and Sonny Liston. Interesting, also—and repugnant—is the title designation given the fight. A creation by N.Y. State Athletic Commissioner Edwin Dooley and the Garden, the "title" caper is unbecoming to the history of careful subterfuge in boxing. Desperation, though, dictated the clumsy maneuver. Dooley needs the revenue from a healthy boxing situation on Eighth Avenue. The Garden, in turn, has to control the heavyweight champion to be relatively healthy.
Cornered, after blatant attempts and failures to wreck the WBA's elimination tournament and thus secure two or more heavyweights, the Garden pressured Dooley. His acceptance of Mathis as a contender was indigestible even to boxing, a sport always rife with anarchy and Balkan politics. The quality of Buster's opponents, you see, has been absurdly inferior. He once fought one fighter twice in the same week, and who can ever forget Big Buster in against Waban Thomas, that pitiful figure wearing short, green dress socks, waiting for Buster on shaky legs lined with varicose veins.
No one did forget Buster's Waban, but Garden boxing reacted to complaints with customary callousness, just one of the many attitudes it has manifested since the IBC was toppled and the Garden itself became active in boxing promotion. As a promoter it had weapons, political strength, money, a building of its own and knowledge, but still it followed the line of destruction rather than construction. The arrogance and double-talk in the Garden's matchmaking, inspired by self-interest, are staggering. Its disinterest, too, in talent development is ridiculously impractical.
The Madison Square Garden Corporation is concerned. Questions are being asked. Does the boxing department carry itself, or does the corporation carry boxing (unlikely for any extended period)? Does the "image" of boxing, the management hypocritically wonders, fit in with the new Garden at Penn Station? The future of Garden boxing hangs heavily on Monday night's show, a show that will cost well in excess of $600.000. Even if the show is a success, which it should be, there are still two major problems: fights can be made, but will the management allot more dates to boxing? Can the Garden control the winner of its manufactured heavyweight title?
Neither Mathis nor Frazier, who are not easily controlled, wanted the fight, each preferring Floyd Patterson, who had one preference: neither of them. It is a stupid fight for the two, and one which the Garden tried to make on four different occasions some time ago, once for $4,000 and again for $20,000. Money—$175,000 for Frazier and $75,000 for Mathis—was hardly conclusive in the making of the match. Mathis, who has ability but meager credentials, took the fight because he is certain he can beat Frazier, whom he beat twice in Olympic bouts. Frazier's camp wisely ignored the money, it claims, but then hastily jumped at the title recognition. The jump could end in a long fall for Frazier.
Undefeated in 19 fights, 17 of them knockouts, Frazier has become valuable property to boxing and Cloverlay, the Philadelphia syndicate that sponsors him; original shares in Frazier were sold at $250 and are now worth at least $4.000. Frazier, at 24, is no longer an Olympic fighter. He has been moved with discretion, and he has responded moderately to tutoring. He is basically a stevedore with two hooks for hands, but he still retains poise and striking ring command. Essentially, he is not a combination puncher. He throws one punch at a time, many of them too wide, but he is always moving in, his body and head constantly in motion. He is easy to hit when coming out of a crouch—the head is right there—and he is especially vulnerable during momentary inactivity. Frazier will try to intimidate Buster, find out what he is made of from the start, directing his firepower in the beginning at Mathis' magnificent belly.