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Past greats recall Garden glory

12/6/2011

If any fighter can claim to be Madison Square Garden's biggest star, it is undoubtedly Miguel Cotto, who proved again on Saturday night that he can repeatedly pack the sport's most storied venue to the rafters.

But while Cotto may be "The Man" at the Garden today, the arena has played host to many a fighter who has punched his way into the history books, and a few hours before Cotto took on Antonio Margarito in front of more than 21,000 screaming fans, a select few were treated to an audience with some of those shining lights from MSG's past: former middleweight champ Vito Antuofermo, still a regular on the New York fight scene; Hall of Fame former lightweight champ Carlos Ortiz; Marvis Frazier, who fought his first four fights at the Garden and whose father won arguably the greatest, and surely the most famous, bout in the arena's history; famed heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, whose 54-second knockout of Ken Norton is the shortest main event the Garden has staged; Cooney's former in-ring nemesis, and now his out-of-the-ring friend, legendary heavyweight champion Larry Holmes; and the one member of the group who technically is still an active fighter, former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield.

Although the Garden may have been supplanted by the MGM Grand in Las Vegas as the epicenter of the sport's big events, it still occupies a revered niche in boxing history and in its pomp was the ultimate destination of any aspirant boxer.

"When I first was told I was going to come to MSG and fight here -- oh boy. It's something," Ortiz said. "You have to learn how to conduct yourself, but actually just by thinking of it, you get weak. Weak feet, weak legs. Fighting at MSG, it's out of this world."

It's a feeling, he added, that has yet to truly leave him. "I get chills every time I see the arena from the outside," he said. "Oh boy. 'I fought there,' I say."

"They told me I was going to fight at the Garden against a guy called Bobby Bozic," Holmes recalled of his Garden debut, his fifth professional fight, in 1973. "And I thought I'd better get myself in shape because they said, 'If you win at the Garden, you've got a home.' And so I wanted a home, I wanted to fight here. And I did win that fight, but I almost killed myself winning it because I overtrained, and that six-round fight, it was like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Manila -- except it was a six-round fight and it was Larry Holmes and Bobby Bozic."

Antuofermo recalled fighting in the finals of the Golden Gloves in front of a full house of 20,000 in 1970.

"I was never scared. One of my problems was I was never scared to fight anybody," he said. "But I was scared that night. We walked from the dressing room, and they shut the lights off. And I hear a noise, everybody shouting 'Vi-to'. And that was the scariest moment of my life; my first night at the Garden."

Both Frazier and Holyfield took their professional bows at the Garden -- Frazier assuredly aided by his status as son of one of the greats, Holyfield by his membership in the renowned 1984 Olympic class, several members of whom made their pro debuts that same night.

"I'm fighting against a guy who's Philadelphia state champion," Holyfield said. "This guy looks just like Joe Louis and he was already a champ. He had 12 fights already and I ain't had no fights. So I realized that I'm supposed to win, so I guess I'll go in there … and win."

But if there was one fight at the Garden he could have over, Holyfield admitted, it would be his controversial draw with Lennox Lewis in 1999.

"He's the only guy I ever let get to me," he said. "I told him, 'I'm going to knock you out in the third round.' So the only round he's gonna make sure he don't get knocked out is the third round. I went back to the corner when that round was over, and I started to step out of the ring and walk out. If it wasn't for my son being in the corner, standing right there, I would have walked out. I just didn't want anybody to tell my son, 'Just like your daddy, when he had pressure, he walked out.' That's the only thing that kept me in that ring, because I was so embarrassed by opening my mouth and telling somebody I was going to knock them out in the third round."

For most of those on stage, it had been a long time since they experienced the bright lights and the loud crowds. But for them all, the memories of headlining at the Mecca of Boxing are as vivid as if they had occurred yesterday.

"When I walk in that door, I remember every single fight I had in there," Cooney said. "That's what the Garden means to me."