Johnny Watterson: Growing sporting reputations bloom in Madison Square Garden

Ghosts inhabit corridors and dressing rooms of famous New York venue

There is no evidence that it was Phineas Taylor Barnum who coined the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute". But for a man who promoted celebrated hoaxes such as the Fijian mermaid and General Tom Thumb, it is a phrase that would not be out of place on his tombstone. For that he gets the credit.

A complex man, Barnum was essentially a snake oil salesman who operated at the high end establishing “PT Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” in 1870, a travelling circus, menagerie and museum of freaks.

The Tom Thumb exhibit was an interesting and lucrative enterprise. Charles Stratton was the bite-sized human attraction, an American-born lad with dwarfism, who reached global celebrity status because of it in the 1850s.

Stratton began his career at four years old, although it was reported that he was closer to 11 and with coaching was taught to imitate well known historical figures. It wasn’t Barnum’s way to let the truth dampen an interesting narrative.


As all good performers understand, there must be sacrifice for the art and for public amusement, Stratton was apparently drinking wine aged five and smoking cigars at seven.

But it was Barnum, a 19th century Don King and like him a multi-millionaire, who saw the potential of building a great hall after Cornelius Vanderbilt had moved his railroad to Grand Central Terminal from a location near Madison Square Park.

Barnum took the opportunity to construct a large, enclosed space with banked wooden benches around a 240-foot oval centre which was covered by a tent roof. Oblivious to the notion that less is sometimes more, he named it "The Great Roman Hippodrome and Barnum's Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome."

But it drew large crowds for only a limited number of events, and five years later Vanderbilt took back the site into the family name and renamed it. Madison Square Garden was born.


Gazing over from the grand columns of Penn station, at least the fourth iteration of The Garden stands overshadowed by the towers of mid-Manhattan. The original building was demolished in 1889, again in 1926 and replaced by the New York Life building, before reconstructed again in 1968 and renovated several times.

The New York Post last year called it “the world’s most immovable arena” after it was agreed that necessary work to Penn Station directly beneath could take place without evicting the more celebrated upstairs neighbour because relocating the Garden to another part of New York would delay the station improvements for a generation.

Now it is the most famous but the oldest sporting facility in the New York metropolitan area and the oldest arena in the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League.

But the bricks and mortar have over the years been less important than the ghosts that inhabit its corridors and dressing rooms. One of those regarded as the biggest fight in history took place in 1971 between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It was the first time ever that two undefeated boxers who held or had held the world heavyweight title fought each other for that title.

WBA, WBC, and The Ring heavyweight champion Frazier and former undisputed heavyweight champion Ali, met on March 8th, 1971, in the Garden. The posters of the time feature claims of “No radio’, ‘No home TV” stamped across the top, reminding patrons their dollars were paying for exclusivity. Ringside seats were $150, which in today’s prices equates to $1,064.

Frazier won it by unanimous decision before they met again in the Garden in 1974 setting up the epic third of the series, which Ali won in the “Thrilla in Manilla” in 1975.

Big stage

For basketball fans it also hosted the 1970 New York Knicks NBA Championship, where in the final game of seven an injured Willis Reed played defence for the local team on one of the best to play the game, Wilt Chamberlain. Limiting him to two scores in nine attempts was a cameo pearl.

If you make it to the big stage in the Garden, you never fail to capture attention, own midtown Manhattan for a night. In sport a performance in the cathedral inevitably holds a magisterial command and position in the city.

Boxers rarely get to headline shows unless they have broken through the conventional ceiling and turned their story into something more immediate and relevant. It is no low-key joint.

Although it is a home for three professional teams, The New York Knicks of the NBA, The New York Rangers of the National Hockey League, and The New York Liberty of Women’s NBA, the five-floor coliseum acts as the pinnacle of an athlete’s career as it is reflected through the Garden’s prism of history.

This week Katie Taylor's own Barnum, the enterprising Eddie Hearn with his Essex patter, has charged the undisputed lightweight world champion with having the drawing power to fill the streets around 7th and 8th Avenues and West 31st street and the energy to light them up.

Regardless of what happens against Amanda Serrano on Saturday night, the venue will give as much back to Taylor as she gives to it. Just as Eamon Coghlan did, racing to a record seventh victory in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games in 1987, the Garden gives each their own time. Barnum knew that when he began the first chapter over 150 years ago.