By Tyson Bruce
In today’s boxing climate Madison Square Garden is known as New York’s premier boxing site. However, in the history of New York boxing the great borough of Brooklyn occupies an equally rich and storied history in the ‘Sweet Science’. This weekend at the newly constructed Barclay’s Centre, located in the heart of Brooklyn, the latest chapter of that history will unfold when two of its native son’s Zab Judah of Brownsville and Paulie Malignaggi of Bensonhurst square off in an excellent four-bout card televised by Showtime.
The history of Brooklyn boxing dates back over 130 years, before it was even formally recognized as a part of New York city, when in 1882 “The Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan, America’s first true celebrity athlete, boxed an Irishman named Jimmy Elliot, knocking him down three times and finishing the bout with a punch to the throat in the third round. Since that time Brooklyn has hosted some of the most prestigious fighters in the history of the sport, including one the first great-recognized African American fighters in the celebrated lightweight champion Joe Gans, who boxed there in 1896 & 1897. In fact, two of the greatest ‘pound for pound’ boxers in the annals of the sport, middleweight champion Harry Greb and heavyweight legend Jack Dempsey, both boxed in the “Borough of Churches” shortly before the onset of the roaring twenties. Tony Canzoneri, one of the greatest lightweight champions of all time, fought in Brooklyn a record 47 times. In the infancy of pugilism in America, few places played a greater role in the development of boxing as a modern sport than Brooklyn.
Between 1892-1954 New York City absorbed wave after wave of immigrants, who came to America on the promise of untold prosperity and freedom. Needless to say, things were not that easy or simple, and the new toughness that was formed out of human struggle and rugged individualism became the recipe that would for generation after generation produce great fighters—no place more so than Brooklyn. It began with the old immigrant generation that belonged to the Jews, Italians, and the Irish and then, after gentrification, the second generation that was comprised mostly of Hispanics and African Americans. All of these ethic groups are richly represented in Brooklyn’s boxing history.
A modern symbol of that rich history belongs to the famous Gleason’s Gym, whose famous gym moniker is taken from the poet Virgil that reads, “Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.” Peter Robert Gagliardi, a flyweight boxer, founded the gym in 1937 in the Bronx. He later changed his name to Bobby Gleason to attract the mostly Irish population of the area. The gym quickly became recognized as one of the premier gyms in the city during a period of time when New York City dominated the boxing business with an iron fist.
During it’s time between the Bronx and Manhattan locations, some of the great champions in boxing history have called Gleason’s home, such as Jake LaMotta, Jimmy Carter, Carlos Ortiz, and Benny “Kid” Paret. The great Muhammad Ali used the gym as his training centre for his 1964 heavyweight title fight with Sonny Liston and Roberto Duran made it his American training base throughout his career. The gym moved to its current location in Brooklyn in 1981, and has since become a pillar of the community and a symbol of a bygone time in American history. On any given day at Gleason’s you can observe world champion caliber boxers like Zab Judah and Paulie Malinaggi training along side New Year’s resolution fitness pledgers, optimizing a kind of ethnic and social diversity that can only be found in New York.
The neighborhood of Brooklyn that fight fans most associate with boxing these days has to be the Brownsville section. An area that only occupies about 2.19 square miles has managed to produce five heavyweight champions since 1956: Floyd Patterson (1956), Mike Tyson (1986), Riddick Bowe (1992), Michael Moore (1994), and Shannon Briggs (1997). Brownsville is littered with a variety of low-income public housing projects, which have come to symbolize a tragic brand of indentured and institutional poverty in urban centers all across America. No other area of New York City has as many social problems as Brownsville. The explosion of the crack and heroin epidemics that crested in the 1980’s and early 1990’s ravaged the area with crime rates soaring out of control. Despite a dramatic drop in the crime rate in the 2000’s, Brownsville continues to have the worst murder rate in the city. It is out of this strife that some of the best heavyweights of modern times have emerged. People in Brooklyn are tough and have something worth fighting for—an essential ingredient for producing great fighters.
The arrival of the 4.9 billion dollar Barclay’s Center (home to the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA) in 2012 has been responsible for the renaissance of the boxing culture in Brooklyn. Golden Boy Promotions, boxing’s largest and most powerful promotional entity, signed a three-year deal to book twelve fight events annually at Barclays Center. They say that Brooklyn and, for that matter, all of New York City boasts some of the most knowledgeable and passionate boxing fans in the world. This has clearly shown itself to be true, as large and vocal crowds have poured in to support the boxing events and the area has quickly become one of the great new hotspots of boxing in North America.
So, it’s fitting that two of its home son’s Zab Judah and Paulie Malignaggi, whose paths have always seemed to bypass one another, finally meet in the twilight of their careers in an all Brooklyn showdown. Combine that with the fact we have a stacked card featuring bouts between Devon Alexander vs. Shawn Porter, Austin Trout vs. Erislandy Lara, and Sakio Bika vs. Anthony Direll, we may have another great night to put in the annals of Brooklyn boxing.