Garden of Greatness

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August 15, 2007

NEW YORK -- From Yankee Stadium to Soldier Field, Wimbledon to Daytona International Speedway, there's one venue in every sport that is looked at as the "Mecca." Ask almost any diehard sports-entertainment fan where WWE's signature venue lies, and most of them will come back immediately with Madison Square Garden.

What they may not know, however, is that "The World's Most Famous Arena" is also one of boxing's biggest venues as well. Matt Hardy vs. Evander Holyfield (MVP's replacement) on Saturday Night's Main Event will be just the latest in a cavalcade of historic fights that have taken place within MSG's walls. Throughout the 20th century (and even into this one), MSG has been the home of some of boxing's biggest battles, some of which MVP even mentioned in his video challenge to Hardy this past weekend.

Ironically enough, the McMahon family is also big part of MSG's boxing tradition. Roderick "Jess" McMahon, grandfather of WWE Chairman Mr. McMahon, began his career as a boxing promoter, bringing the "sweet science" to MSG with the help of then-New York Rangers owner Tex Rickard. Nearly a century later, Mr. McMahon's WWE will continue the tradition at Saturday Night's Main Event.

Boxing at MSG is a tradition that began all the way back in 1882 in the original Garden, as John L. Sullivan became the first World Heavyweight Champion to box in the legendary venue. Over the next 125 years, MSG has become synonymous with big title fights.

During his 13-year reign in the 1930s and 1940s, Joe Louis defended the World Heavyweight Championship eight times in the Garden -- yet his most famous fight at MSG was a loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951. At age 37, Louis was unceremoniously knocked through the ropes -- and into retirement -- by a punishing left hook from the "Brockton Blockbuster."

In the 1970s, the rivalry between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali became one of boxing's fiercest. While their third and final fight -- known to many as "The Thrilla in Manila" -- is the most widely known, the first two battles in that trilogy took place on the corner of 33rd and 8th in New York City. The first, a unanimous decision victory for then WBA and WBC Heavyweight Champion Frazier, was Ali's first loss and was chosen by highly-respected boxing magazine Ring as the 1971 Fight of the Year; the second -- a 1974 unanimous decision victory for Ali -- was Ali's last victory before winning those WBA and WBC titles from George Foreman in the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle."

In 1971, MSG also saw boxing legend Roberto Duran's first fight on United States soil, a bout he won in the first round. In his return to the Garden one year later, the man known as "Hands of Stone" defeated Ken Buchanan to win the WBA Lightweight Title, the first title Duran claimed in a storied 33-year career that saw him become champion in four different weight classes.

Even in the last decade, when many top fights in America shifted to Las Vegas venues, Madison Square Garden has seen its share of classics. In 1999, Evander Holyfield fought Lennox Lewis to a controversial draw in Holyfield's final defense of the undisputed Heavyweight Championship. (Lewis would win a rematch later that year to claim the titles).

The WBC, WBA and IBF Heavyweight Championships have also been defended on their own several times in the Garden, including a pair of historic nights in 2004 where WBA Champion John Ruiz and IBF Champion Chris Byrd successfully defended their titles on the same card. The latter night's undercard also saw former titlists Holyfield, Hasim Rahman and Oliver McCall in action, marking the only time five current or former Heavyweight Champions had ever competed on the same card. Also of note, current University of Notre Dame football star Tom Zbikowski boxed his only professional fight at MSG, winning a first-round TKO over Robert Bell in June 2006.

While heavyweights have dominated MSG, lower weight classes have also made history in the Garden. In May 2001, Felix Trinidad took the WBA Welterweight Championship from William Joppy; four months later, Bernard Hopkins defeated Trinidad to unify the IBF, WBC and WBA crowns. Last January, O'Neil Bell defeated Jean-Marc Mormeck to unify the IBF, WBC and WBA Cruiserweight Titles. In a spectacular fight just two months ago, Miguel Angel Cotto successfully defended his WBA Welterweight Championship against Brooklyn native and former Undisputed Welterweight Champion Zab "Super" Judah; this November, Cotto will return to the Garden to face recent WWE.com Superstar to Superstar subject "Sugar" Shane Mosley for that title.

On Saturday Night's Main Event, Matt Hardy will add his name to MSG boxing lore. Meanwhile, his opponent will make his fifth appearance inside the Garden ring, and will do so just two months before he faces Sultan Ibragimov for the WBO Heavyweight Title on Oct. 13 in Moscow -- a match where Holyfield will attempt to become the first five-time Heavyweight Champion and the second-oldest man to capture the crown. But this week, "The Real Deal" will be looking to avenge his last MSG fight -- a loss in 2004 to Larry Donald -- while Hardy may be looking just to survive against the four-time Heavyweight Champion.

Ah, just another night of pugilism in "The World's Most Famous Arena."

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