Some Hope For NY Boxing Fans, Honoring Leon

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It’s been almost a year, when the punches were thrown in a ring in New York and fans could cheer up close. Then, Adam Kownacki lost a heavyweight title eliminator to Robert Helenius in his hometown at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Since March 7, 2020, the arenas have been dark. The Coronavirus pandemic closed the doors for promoters, fighters, and fans. The boxing gyms in New York also closed their doors and many are out of business or operating at a limited capacity with a struggle to stay open.

This past week there was some hope for the sport of boxing in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo gave a green light for venues to open their doors for fans, under a limited capacity and adhering to strict medical protocols.

So after a year, there is some hope that punches will be thrown again in front of a live and boisterous bunch of rabid New York boxing fans that are starving to see their sport up close.

Though, the fight to return will not be easy. First, promoters need to register again, to secure possible dates and venues and that needs to be approved, with the New York State Athletic Commission, the governing body that supervises live combat sports in the state.

The commission doors have been closed in lower Manhattan and a vast majority of their state employees were placed on furlough. The NYSAC also follows their procedure of medical protocols and grants a license for promoters and fighters to stge an event and compete.

And with small venues used by secondary promoters, you can expect that group to be shutout as medical protocols would not meet guidelines. The maximum capacity is usually capped at 1,500 or less and does not provide an arena setting and, with tight space, would not meet indoor medical protocols

But there is hope that boxing and the fan base will return to Madison Square Garden with a possible target date of May or June.

The Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn has been the new home for boxing. Since October of 2012, the arena has hosted 39 cards under the PBC banner with telecasts on Showtime and recently FOX Sports.

The pandemic put a conclusion to boxing in Brooklyn. There are no immediate plans to resume after new management at Barclays laid off employees. The Barclays Center boxing division that became a home for major title fights and world class fighters has ceased operations.

Top Rank, the Las Vegas based promotion, with a multi-million dollar ESPN televised platform, and granddaddy of sorts of boxing, has been in talks with officials at Madison Square Garden about resuming shows in May or June.

MSG has been the long time, second home of Top Rank and has staged sellouts over the years in the main arena and adjacent Hulu Theatre that seats a little over 5,500.

The Garden next week reopens business for a limited number of fans at 10 percent capacity for NBA Knicks’ and NHL Rangers’ games. A source at Top Rank said boxing was on the agenda at the Garden as fans would adhere to state and medical COVID procedures that include a negative test, within 72 hours of the event.

The goal for Top Rank is to promote a Teofimo Lopez Jr. lightweight title defense. He’s one of their top superstars who unified the titles late last year at the closed door Top Rank “ESPN” bubble at the MGM in Las Vegas and was a top rated televised fight.

Lopez, a Brooklyn based fighter and New York, go together. He can sell out the house and Top Rank was looking for him to defend the lightweight titles at the “Mecca” in front of a capacity crowd.

But the Lopez and Top Rank situation is in jeopardy and that’s another story with logistics about a purse and contract dispute that is in the balance. Also, if the Garden moves ahead with boxing, as I have learned, we are talking massive prices for the limited number of tickets that would be sold to make up for the costs to put on a boxing card with a minimum capacity.

The PBC, for the time being, will continue to manage and televise their shows at the Mohegan Sun closed door “Bubble” up in Connecticut and in Texas, with shows this month and next.

But there is hope for New York. Boxing has always come back. There is more anticipation, even with a limited number of fans, that trading punches will return soon to a New York venue.

Leon Spinks, The Champ: I was in my junior year at the City College of New York back in February of 1978 when Leon Spinks was still a rookie of sorts in the heavyweight division . Boxing was quickly growing on me and became a passion because of Muhammad Ali and all the great fighters of that era.

It was early in my career as a sports journalist, but I was one of the fortunate ones. I was one of the few at my age, that was employed in the industry and was granted credential access to boxing events at Madison Square Garden.

I was fortunate to cover major championship flights in Las Vegas, then the Mecca of the sport as much as the Garden was here in New York. I covered Hagler-Hearns, Leonard-Duran, and the heavyweight division that was the face of boxing.

There was the Spinks’ family of Michael and Leon. There was Don King and Butch Lewis, the promoters that kept the Spinks name on the map. There was Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum with an instrumental role in the heavyweight division.

There was me with Leon Spinks, not alone at ringside with my mentor the late Bert Randolph Sugar. Of course, “Uncle Bert” carried the conversation as he always would and the fighters would gravitate to him as did all athletes, writers, and others.

I met Leon Spinks a year and a few days after that championship win over Muhammad Ali. He was a champion for 13 months and eight fights into his pro boxing career. Today you only hear that accomplishment coming from former lightweight champion Visyl Lomachencko, who won a major title in his third pro fight.

Spinks, 67 years of age passed away last week and lost his fight to prostate and other cancers.

Spinks, though, came from a boxing family. He carried those championship instincts in the ring against the 36-year old Ali. They said Ali was at the tail end of his career. They said a younger Ali would have easily beat Spinks.

But as I told many this past week, it was the time for Leon Spinks. I don’t buy the statements that he caught Muhammad Ali at the right time. They said Ali did not look at Spinks as a threat to his title and slacked off with the training.

Hey, this was Muhammad Ali. You beat the “Greatest Of All Time.” That night, Leon Spinks was the best of all time as the 24-year old underdog won a 15-round split decision after surviving a last round and flurry of punches from Ali.

Spinks said to me that he did not listen to the critics. He went in the record books with a brief reign as the fighter who dethroned Ali of the heavyweight title. Years later, Spinks settled at his home in Las Vegas and would attend fight cards until his health started to go downhill.

“I don’t care what they say, man, I am the best now,” Spinks said to me a year later after that win over Ali, as I covered a championship fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

He had the right words to describe that win. Leon Spinks was that fighter in the days when boxing had 15-round fights and the heavyweight division was indeed “King” of the sport with Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier, and so many more.

“You talking about a guy who upset Muhammad Ali that was the night of his life,” said Sterling McPherson a former champion who was friends with Spinks in Las Vegas.

McPherson, an eight-year pro for many years, was in the fight camp with Spinks and later became a boxing advisor and manager. He was there when Spinks got the call to take that quick fight with Ali.

“They rushed him to fight for the heavyweight title,” McPherson said. “You talked about a guy who fought Larry Holmes after 12 fights. He was fighting top guys right away. We didn’t think this was going to be any type of fight. We didn’t know what type of Leon Spinks would show up.”

Years later, more were talking when Buster Douglas got that stunning knockout and heavyweight title win over Mike Tyson. Though, you beat Muhammad Ali during that era and it was something special.

It was a Leon Spinks night. It was not a night for Don King but a time in boxing history for the new champion with the greatest toothless smile. As Spinks said, “I’m not the greatest. Just the latest.”

He was the latest. No doubt, also one of the greatest for dethroning Muhammad Ali. Rest In Peace Champ.

Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Mancuso

About the Author

Rich Mancuso

Rich Mancuso is a regular contributor at NY Sports Day, covering countless New York Mets, Yankees, and MLB teams along with some of the greatest boxing matches over the years. He is an award winning sports journalist and previously worked for The Associated Press, New York Daily News, Gannett, and, in a career that spans almost 40 years.

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