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Articles of 2004

The End of An Era for New York Boxing

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When Sunnyside Gardens finally closed its doors in the mid '70s, a neighborhood in New York City didn't just lose a boxing arena, it laid to rest one of the most glorious eras in all of boxing: The last time Henny Wallitsch got into a fight with someone at Sunnyside Gardens he was arguing over a coke and fries.

A wrecking ball unceremoniously demolished the famous boxing arena on Queens Boulevard in Queens, New York in December 1977 and in its place a Wendy's was built – a monument to fast-food lovers and salad-bar fanatics but not fight fans. The kitchen is where the ring once was, and the tables are where the seats used to be. Gone are the dressing room and the bar and the bleachers and all those memories that were swept under the carpet like dirt.

“I left a lot of my blood in that kitchen,” said Wallitsch, an Austrian heavyweight who fought at Sunnyside at least 20 times and grew up in Queens. “Or maybe that's my blood coming from those hamburgers.”

The final show was on June 24, 1977 between Ramon Ranquello and Bob Smith, a couple of out-of-towners from Jersey City and Natchez, Miss. with no connection to New York, maybe 400 fans in the audience, and no clue that the place was about to be replaced by a restaurant whose slogan used to be “Where's the beef?”

“It was a great atmosphere. You could die of lung cancer there,” said Bobby Cassidy, a middleweight contender who fought there 26 times and reportedly holds the record for main events at Sunnyside. “I went back there around 10 years ago. I parked my car under the El and just walked around the neighborhood. The Chinese restaurant was still there next door. My god, it brought back memories. I never went into the Wendy's, though, couldn't do it. Life goes on, but it hurts a little that they tore it down- all those memories.”

In contrast to other venues such as St. Nicholas Arena, whose proprietors knew when the wrecking ball was coming, nobody expected Ranquello-Smith to be the final show at the fabled arena. Sunnyside was never given a proper burial and closed abruptly when Vic Manni and Nick Annest, a pair of local promoters entrusted with the keys to the building, became the centerpiece of a police investigation concerning gambling in connection with a local synagogue.

By that time the neighborhood rivalries were drying up anyway. People were leaving the city for the suburbs. The gimmicks that matched a police officer against a firefighter were drawing flies, and publicity stunts such as camera night, in which fans could have their picture taken with a famous fighter, were no longer gate attractions.

As a result, the promoters feebly resorted to gambling to pay off the $8,000-a-month rent and their operation was subsequently closed. With that, the guillotine came down on an era that once boasted around 20 fight clubs in New York – almost a show every night – and a boxing scene that was so healthy it seemed it would last forever.

“Sunnyside was the last of the real small, self-sustaining fight clubs,” said boxing historian and matchmaker Don Majeski. “After it left, that was it.”

Sunnyside was a mythical place, full of charm and imagination, women and cigar smoke and, best of all, fights. Dozens of world champions fought there on their way to bigger paydays at Madison Square Garden, guys like Tony Canzoneri, Floyd Patterson, Vito Antuofermo, Eddie Gregory, later known as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Gerry Cooney turned pro there. Heavyweight Bobby Mashburn, who fought Larry Holmes and Ken Norton and was the father of the New Orleans Hornets' Jamal Mashburn of the NBA, appeared at Sunnyside.

“Sunnyside Gardens is an ugly, red-brick relic tucked beneath a trestle for the Flushing line on Queens Boulevard, fighting for survival in a dormant sport,” is how Bill Verigan of the Daily News described it on May 11, 1972.

Built in 1926 as a ritzy tennis club by millionaire Jay Goulds, Sunnyside developed into a sanctuary for activities such as wrestling, karate, arm wrestling, bingo nights and eventually boxing when it was sold in 1945. Before then, if you wanted to see a fight you went to Queensboro Arena next to the Queens Plaza station. Primo Carnera headlined there before the wooden stadium was torn down the '40s and Sunnyside became the gathering place for the discriminating sports fan where men recently returned from the service met their wives in the wooden bleachers and businessmen had a drink at the bar in the lobby.

Gamblers in fedoras huddled outside with bookmakers placing bets, and fans couldn't peek into the referee's scorecard before they made a wager like they could in the balcony at St. Nicholas Arena. A seafood restaurant across the street was the pre-fight destination and the neighboring bars like the Merry-Go-Round and Escape were the spots you hit after the fight.

Young kids lucky enough to find seats at the arena stole peaks of what their parents were doing when they weren't at home.

“I was old enough to go to my father's fights, and I was in the audience when a riot broke out,” said Bobby Cassidy Jr., a writer for Newsday and son of the middleweight contender. “This fighter named Bobby O'Brien, who was a cop, was in the audience that night; he wasn't fighting and someone just cold-cocked him. He just starts knocking people out, and I'm a 10-year-old kid watching all this.”

Sunnyside was around for the confluence of Spanish immigrants in the '50s and '60s who moved into the area and helped fuel famous rivalries, all chronicled in papers like La Prensa and the Long Island Star-Journal that people still talk about today.

A matchmaker at Sunnyside Gardens in the '60s, Gene Moore, now 70, never hesitated to square off fighters with divergent ethnicities. Then he crossed his fingers that the enthusiasm wouldn't boil over into bedlam. When “Irish” Bobby Cassidy Sr. fought Carmelo Martinez, a riot ensued after the decision was announced.

“The place was packed to the pillars with Puerto Ricans and my Irish crew,” said Cassidy Sr., now 59 and still living in Levittown, L.I. “In the seventh round he dropped me. I came back to the corner and my trainer, Jimmy Glenn, slapped me. That was the first time a trainer had ever slapped me before. I came back in the eighth round and landed some heavy shots and he was walking around like a cripple. He was wobbling around and his foot kept kicking up in the air. People were throwing chairs and tossing things into the ring after I won the decision.”

The kids who belonged to neighborhood gangs, like Henny Wallitsch (“If you missed me with a punch, I was mad”), a member of the Midnight Boys, trained at local gyms and became instant celebrities at Sunnyside for their neighborhood wars and ability to sell tickets.

“Me and Bobby Halpern had a bloodbath there,” said Wallitsch, now 69. “They had to move the ringside seats two rows back because of the mess. The Daily News said that it was the greatest fight in the last 20 years.”

There was never a dull moment at Sunnyside. The 1965 blackout canceled a show that three busloads of fans from East Rockaway, L.I. came to see.

When the promoter, a vaudevillian character named Broadway George Albert, a retired milliner who always had a cigar in his mouth, booked the same fighters the following week, the fans never came back.

To help brunt the occasional unsuccessful promotion, Madison Square Garden subsidized Sunnyside with $500 a week during Albert's seven-year reign in the '60s. Duke Stephano, Albert's matchmaker, was Teddy Brenner's assistant at the real Garden in Manhattan, and fighters who consistently won at Sunnyside were promoted to the Mecca in Manhattan. Garden publicity chief, John Condon, handled Sunnyside's press for free. General admission was $4, ringside was $8 and it cost roughly $5,000 to put on a fight. If the promoter made a $100 profit, it was considered a moderate success.

“It was a great place,” said Howie Albert, George's son who co-managed former welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith. “There wasn't a bad seat in the house. I drive by the place now, and I have tears in my eyes, even though I like Wendy's. There were so many nice times there.”

So much has changed since then. Nowadays boxing shows are risky ventures bereft of charm and substance. Promoters are more likely to go to casinos and their free rooms than to legitimately build up a following in the city. Too many promoters have gone broke running unimaginative shows that tank at the box office and once bitten, they rarely return.

“Before television (changed the way boxing is operated), Sunnyside was the minor leagues of the sport,” said Daily News cartoonist, Bill Gallo, who grew up in Astoria and whose father covered fights at Sunnyside for the New York Sun. “It was a popular place, and managers would come from overseas just to try their fighters out at Sunnyside. Some of them became stars, some of them didn't, but Sunnyside was a fun place to be.”

Today, Sunnyside is a special word, spoken at Ring 8 meetings in Long Island City at Tony Mazzarella's Waterfront Crabhouse and at New Jersey Hall of Fame gatherings in Lodi, NJ kept alive in fight posters and ticket stubs that Bobby Cassidy Jr. saved from his father's fighting days and in scrap books cobbled together by Howie Albert.

To old-timers whose memories of their fights are as sharp as a diamond stud, Sunnyside Gardens is a living, breathing entity, capable of turning grown men into hyperactive kids suddenly walking along Steinway Street to the Red Door Bar, not a care in the world following a tough fight at Sunnyside, as Bobby Bartels, a popular welterweight from Astoria in the mid '50s did on more than one occasion. Those were the days.

Articles of 2004

2004 Boxing Pound for Pound List

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The final boxing pound-for-pound list of the year for 2004.

1. Bernard Hopkins: The top guy from beginning to end, Hopkins took care of Oscar De La Hoya with a body shot in the biggest fight of 2004. Now, he'll wait for Jermain Taylor to progress a little further, or he'll go the rematch route with Felix Trinidad. Either way, Hopkins stands to earn a lot of money in 2005 and extend that all-time middleweight reign.

2. Floyd Mayweather: How long has it been since we've seen Mayweather in a meaningful fight? Certainly not in 2004, when he outpointed the difficult DeMarcus Corley. He's slated for a January outing against a no-name. Enough stalling, already, “Pretty Boy”. Fight someone we care about (preferably Kostya Tszyu), or you'll lose your #2 position sometime in 2005.

3. Felix Trinidad: “Tito” stormed back with a magnificent knockout of Ricardo Mayorga in 2004, and now hopes to capitalize on it with big money fights. He'd like nothing more than a rematch with his only conqueror, Hopkins, but he may also opt for old nemesis Oscar De La Hoya. Either way, Trinidad is sure to fight a big fight sometime in the coming year.

4. Kostya Tszyu: What a difference one fight makes. As recently as late October, the boxing world was wondering whether Tszyu was even serious about the sport anymore. We found out with a second round demolition of Sharmba Mitchell. And that made the junior welterweight division very attractive. Tszyu has several options now, including Arturo Gatti and Mayweather or even a hop up to welterweight to challenge Cory Spinks. Let's hope one of them happens in 2005.

5. Manny Pacquiao: Pacquiao fought twice in 2004, and what a fight the first one was. His thrilling war with Juan Manuel Marquez was the best brawl of the year, and there is a chance that the two rivals will go at it again in 2005. If not, Pacquiao has a list full of options: Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, etc. Pacquiao will fight one of them in the next year.

6. Marco Antonio Barrera: Another guy thought to be washed up when the year started, Barrera resurrected his career for the second time with a masterful victory over Paulie Ayala and a close decision over rival Erik Morales in another great fight. Barrera is obviously shooting for a return with Pacquiao, who decimated him in November 2003. Barrera says it was an off-night. Hopefully, we'll find out if that was the case.

7. Winky Wright: Winky entered the “superstar” realm in 2004 with a pair of decision victories over Shane Mosley. The first was very impressive, as Wright practically shut Mosley out. The second was closer, but proved once again that Winky was the superior fighter. He'd like a shot at Trinidad or Oscar De La Hoya, but neither will happen. He'd probably be best off shooting for a name like Fernando Vargas or Ricardo Mayorga.

8. Juan Manuel Marquez: After several years on the outside looking in, Marquez is finally in a position to make some money after his courageous performance against Pacquiao. He rose from three first-round knockdowns to wage the fight of his life in a fight that was ruled a draw. It would also be interesting to see Marquez against countrymen Barrera and Erik Morales.

9. Erik Morales: “El Terrible” fought another great fight against Barrera, but, again, it was in a losing cause. He has now lost two of three to his fierce rival, and probably wants nothing to do with him anymore. But, eventually, talk of Barrera-Morales 4 will come up again. In the meantime, Morales could shoot for Pacquiao or Marquez.

10. Glencoffe Johnson: The newest entry, Johnson pumped some life into boxing in 2004 with a pair of upsets of Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver. Now, he's set to make some really big money in rematches with either, or a shot at old conqueror Hopkins. Either way, Johnson is better than anyone imagined.

11. Jose Luis Castillo: Castillo made some comeback noise of his own in 2004, beating Juan Lazcano for his old vacant title and decisioning Joel Casamayor for another big win. He says he wants Kostya Tszyu next, and if that materializes, boxing fans will be in for a treat. If not, Castillo vs. Diego Corrales is a great fight.

12. Oscar De La Hoya: Hard to erase that picture of De La Hoya grimacing in agony courtesy of a Hopkins shot to the ribs, but the “Golden Boy” had no business fighting at 160 pounds. He should drop down to junior middle or even welterweight again if he has any hope of regaining his past form. But 2005 could be the final year for one of boxing's all-time great attractions.

On the brink: Antonio Tarver, Diego Corrales, James Toney

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Articles of 2004

Heavyweight Joe Mesi Bringing Lawsuit

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As reported by the Buffalo News, Joe Mesi is suing the New York State Athletic Commission and the MRI center that conducted tests on the heavyweight boxer after his bout with Vassiliy Jirov. Mesi reportedly suffered brain injuries in the Jirov bout, which has left his boxing status uncertain.

The lawsuit alleges Mesi's medical records were improperly released to the NYSAC. The records, the lawsuit goes on to allege, were then released to the media, prejudicing Mesi's right to have his status reviewed by the appropriate boxing authorities.

The lawsuit does not seek specific monetary damages, as the extent of damages will be affected by whether Mesi is able to resume his career as a leading heavyweight contender.

Mesi hopes to have his status reviewed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission within the coming month. The ruling of the NSAC promises to be key in whether Mesi will be able to resume his boxing career.

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Articles of 2004

The Best in Chicago Boxing Returns

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Dominic Pesoli's 8 Count Productions and Bob Arum's Top Rank Incorporated along with Miller Lite presents SOLO BOXEO DE MILLER, THE ARAGON RUMBLE, another installment of The Best in Chicago Boxing on Friday, January 14th, broadcast live internationally as part of Telefutura's Friday night professional boxing series.

The newly remodeled Aragon Ballroom is located at 1106 W. Lawrence Ave. near the corner of Lawrence and Broadway in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood and is easily accessible, just 4 blocks west of Lake Shore Drive and just 4 miles east of the Kennedy expressway. There are three large parking lots located within a 1/2 block of the Aragon Ballroom. Additionally, the Howard Street Blue Line stops just across the street. Doors will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

Headlining the action packed card is the American debut of super-bantamweight Ricardo “PIOLO” Castillo, 12-2 (6KO's) of Mexicali, Mexico as he squares off in a scheduled ten rounder against WBO Latino Champion, Edel Ruiz, 24-12-3 (13KO's) of Los Mochis, SI, Mexico. Castillo will be accompanied to the ring by his brother, World Lightweight Champion Jose Luis Castillo.

In the co-main event of the evening, one of Chicago's most popular fighters, middleweight “MACHO” Miguel Hernandez, 14-1 (9KO's), battles hard swinging local veteran “MARVELOUS” Shay Mobley, 7-4-1 (2KO's), of One In a Million Inc.in a scheduled eight rounder.

The huge undercard bouts include;

Carlos Molina vs TBA, six rounds, junior middleweights
Frankie Tafoya vs TBA, four rounds, featherweights
Ottu Holified vs. Allen Medina, four rounds, middleweights
Francisco Rodriguez vs. LaShaun Blair, four rounds, bantamweights
Rita Figueroa vs. Sarina Hayden, four rounds, junior welterweights

Said Dominic Pesoli, President of 8 Count Productions, “it was a terrific evening last month and our fans were thrilled to be at the Aragon to watch David, Speedy and Luciano. David Diaz's fight against Jaime Rangel was a fight people will talk about for a long time. Our commitment to our fans is to make every event of ours better than the last one. This main event is terrific, both guys are very tough Mexicans who won't take a step back.

The fans love Miguel and Mobley figures to be a very tough opponent. Him and David Estrada had a six round war last June at our show. And the undercard showcases a lot of new, younger talent that is coming out of Chicago right now. Tafoya and Holifield have both had very successful beginnings to their careers and Francisco Rodriguez comes with fantastic amateur credentials and David Diaz says he has all the talent to be a great pro.”

“We've got big plans for 2005 and this show should take up right where last months show left off. The huge crowd loved the action last time and I'm sure they'll say the same thing this time.”

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