POLO GROUNDS: A Long-Lost Venue in Boxing History
By Jay Monte, and Sean Sullivan
When one reflects on
boxing in New York during the first half of the 20th century,
Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden are instant memories. Others
might reminisce about smaller arenas, such as Ridgewood Grove and
Yet while Yankee
Stadium’s relationship with boxing is well-known, the Polo Grounds had
an inseparable impact on boxing history as well.
THE POLO GROUNDS - HISTORY
OF THE STADIUM
Over a period of 88
years in existence, the Polo Grounds underwent a change of location and
several expansions. Although mainly identified with baseball, the park,
which opened in 1876, was the scene of many other athletic promotions.
Football, as well as boxing, played a prominent role in the arena’s
history, and throughout the years, the Grounds featured sports like
track and field, soccer, tennis, and even auto racing.
The name of the
field can be traced back to James Gordon Bennett Jr., the son of a noted
newspaper publisher, who helped introduce polo to the American people.
Bennett and his society pals did their playing on Fifth Avenue and 110th
Street. A few years later, Bennett and his crew moved their activities
to Westchester County, but the pastures continued to be called the “Polo
Grounds.” When the park’s growing popularity exceeded its limited
capacity, it was abandoned in 1888.
In the early days of
baseball, the New York Giants used the Grounds as their home base, and
in 1889, the team moved further uptown to Eighth Avenue and 155th
Street. The fans so closely associated the Giants with their old stadium
that the new field, initially dubbed Brotherhood Park, would soon also
be known as the Polo Grounds.
From its modest
beginning, with wooden stands able to hold a crowd of just 8,000, the
Polo Grounds expanded until, by 1910, it had become a double-decker,
capable of accommodating 20,000 fans. After a fire razed the stadium,
the Grounds was rebuilt in 1911 with a seating capacity of 38,000. With
further additions and improvements to the stands over the next decade,
the facility increased to 55,000.
the Polo Grounds played host to some of the most memorable battles in
boxing history. Over that 38-year period, 33 fight cards were staged
there, including 25 title clashes, in which the champion retained his
laurels just 13 times.
On Oct. 12, 1922,
the Polo Grounds opened its doors to boxing with a small show, in which
four of the five fights ended in a draw.
The summer of 1923
was a spectacular season for pugilism at the Grounds that established
the venue as a major attraction for outdoor boxing events. Five
championship bouts were on the calendar, and belts changed hands in four
French war hero
Eugene Criqui became the first fighter to win and lose a championship at
the Polo Grounds, stopping long-reigning Johnny Kilbane in six for the
featherweight belt and losing it on a decision to Johnny Dundee. From
June 2 to July 26, Criqui’s reign lasted just 54 days.
In June, flyweight
laurels shifted from Jimmy Wilde to Pancho Villa, the first Filipino to
win a world title, via knockout in the seventh round; and the
middleweight crown from Johnny Wilson to Harry Greb on points, in
(Greb returned to
the Grounds to defend the crown against fellow future Hall of Famer and
welterweight kingpin Mickey Walker two years later. Hours after their
hellacious battle won on points by Greb, the pair allegedly found each
other at a night club and had an impromptu rematch, easily won by the
It was the headliner
of the Polo’s sixth show that is probably the venue’s most well-known
battle, when heavyweight Jack Dempsey defended his crown against the
burly Argentinean Luis Firpo on Sept. 14. Over 85,000 fans witnessed a
savage affair that featured 11 knockdowns over a four-minute period.
Almost immediately, Dempsey felt Firpo’s power as he was dropped to a
knee by a right. Dempsey roared back, flooring Firpo seven times, but
the challenger remained undeterred. Trapping his antagonist against the
ropes, Firpo unleashed another right onto Dempsey’s chin, sending him
clear out of the ring and into press row. The fans were stunned, as
their hero was on the brink of defeat, but after he climbed back through
the ropes—with the assistance of a few reporters—the comeback was on.
Two more knockdowns of Firpo ended matters after 57 seconds of round
conqueror, Gene Tunney earned his shot at the crown in 1925, by beating
Tommy Gibbons via KO12 at the Grounds.)
There was hardly a
titleholder or elite contender who did not appear at the Grounds during
its heyday. Among the many were Gene Tunney, Georges Carpentier, Tom
Gibbons, William (Young) Stribling, Tommy Loughran, Paul Berlenbach,
Sammy Mandell, Jimmy McLarnin, Harry Wills, Kid Chocolate, Jack (Kid)
Berg, Mickey Walker, Dave Shade, Jimmy Slattery, Al Singer, Barney Ross,
Billy Patrolle, Lou Ambers, Tony Canzoneri, Sixto Escobar, Henry
Armstrong, Harry Jeffra, Lou Jenkins, Joe Louis, Billy Conn, Lou Nova,
Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano and Rocky Graziano, Archie Moore, Bobo
Olson, and Floyd Patterson.
ROSS-JIMMY MCLARNIN III
Ross and Jimmy McLarnin finished their famous trilogy at the Grounds on
May 28, 1935. The referee was Jack Dempsey. In front of 35,000 fans,
Ross earned the unanimous verdict. Their first two encounters (the first
won by Ross; the rematch by McLarnin), both at Madison Square Garden
Bowl, ended in split decisions. (Future bantamweight king Sixto Escobar
knocked out future featherweight champion Joey Archibald in six, on the
Both Ross and
McLarnin each had one previous appearance at the Grounds before their
rubber match. In a bid for the lightweight title in 1928, McLarnin lost
a decision to Sammy Mandell. In 1933, Ross defended his lightweight belt
with a split decision victory, in a rematch against Tony Canzoneri.
sponsored boxing events at the Polo Grounds included Tom O’Rourke, Tex
Richard, Humbert Fugazy, Al Weill, Jimmy Johnston, Mike Jacobs and Jim
Norris. On Sept. 23, 1937, Jacobs used the Grounds as the venue for one
of the most elaborate fight cards ever promoted, called the “Carnival of
Champions,” which included four title matches.
Barney Ross defended
the welterweight title for the first time since regaining it from
McClarnin, with a decision over Ceferino Garcia, whom he’d already
beaten twice before in non-title scraps in 1935. Lou Ambers made the
second defense of his lightweight championship with a majority decision
against Pedro Montanez. Sixto Escobar lost his bantamweight crown on a
decision to Harry Jeffra, who had already beaten him in two non-title
fights the previous year.
While Marcel Thil
held the IBU middleweight title, the New York commission recognized
Freddie Steele as the 160-pound champion and insisted that Thil’s bout
against Fred Apostoli be considered a non-title affair. Though ahead on
points, Thil suffered a cut over his right eye and could not continue,
losing by TKO after the 10th round.
It took three years
for the Grounds to schedule its next boxing event, headlined by Henry
Armstrong. In the first of their two meetings, Armstrong stopped Lew
Jenkins in six of a non-title fight during “Hammerin’ Hank’s”
welterweight reign. Jenkins did well early but was then floored seven
The following show,
on June 18, 1941, featured one of the most celebrated comebacks in
heavyweight history, when Joe Louis avoided almost certain defeat to
halt the game “Irish” Billy Conn in round 13. Conn, who vacated his
light heavyweight crown to take on Louis, was outweighed by 25 pounds.
For 12 rounds, in front of 54,387 fans, Conn was outboxing the slow and
plodding Louis. Ahead on two scorecards, the brash Conn foolishly
decided to stamp his performance with a knockout. Sensing his
opportunity, the exhausted Louis wobbled the challenger with a
combination then landed a right to the jaw that sent Conn down for the
count with two seconds remaining in the round.
Louis returned to
the Grounds in his next defense, winning a TKO6 over Lou Nova. After
this event, the Polo Grounds wouldn’t see another boxing match for eight
Returning to the
boxing scene on Sept. 14, 1949, the Grounds witnessed former
middleweight champ Rocky Graziano—in his third fight back since losing
the rubber match to Tony Zale—earn a come-from-behind knockout over
Charley Fusari in 10.
SADDLER-WILLIE PEP IV
The final battle of
the touted rivalry between Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep took place on
Sept. 26, 1951, at the Grounds and was arguably the dirtiest. After what
transpired, both fighters would be briefly suspended by the New York
State Athletic Commission. Saddler had the edge, winning two of their
previous three contests, knocking Pep out in four rounds of their
initial encounter. Pep won the rematch on a decision with his ring
savvy, and was ahead on points during the rubber match when he suddenly
couldn’t come out for round eight citing a shoulder injury, and thus
lost by TKO.
Their fourth meeting
was filled with grappling, pushing, thumbing and many other fouls. Even
referee Ray Miller hit the canvas. A cut opened under Pep’s right eye in
round two and his left eye began to swell to the point where he elected
not to continue past the ninth round, again losing on a stoppage.
Marciano defended the heavyweight crown for the second
time, in a rematch against Roland LaStarza—the man many felt beat him on
points on his way up the ranks three years earlier. This time around,
with 44,562 onlookers at the Grounds, Marciano didn’t let it go to the
scorecards, knocking the challenger through the ropes, stopping him in
round 11 of a “fight of the year” candidate for 1953. Again LaStarza had
the edge early, avoiding much of the Rock’s leather, but Marciano’s
pressure eventually forced him to wilt.
(Three months prior to facing
Marciano, in what would be the “Brockton Blockbuster’s” finale, Archie
Moore retained his light heavyweight title on June 22, 1955, at the
Grounds, with a third-round stoppage of Carl “Bobo” Olson.)
On Sept. 12, 1951,
Sugar Ray Robinson regained the middleweight crown that he’d lost to
Randy Turpin in London two months earlier. A Polo crowd of 61,437 set a
non-heavyweight gate record of $767,626. After nine tame, fairly even
rounds, Robinson suffered a deep cut over his left eye that seemed to
re-energize him. Two hard rights put Turpin down in the 10th.
Though he arose, Robinson subjected Turpin to a minute-long assault
until referee Ruby Goldstein stopped the action with eight seconds left
in the frame.
This was actually
Robinson’s second appearance at the Grounds, as he stopped Pete Lello in
four rounds, a decade earlier as a welterweight.
headlined what turned out to be the final two boxing events ever staged
at the Polo Grounds. In his first defense, on July 29, 1957, Patterson
stopped Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson in 10. But his second appearance at
the Grounds was much more historically significant. Already a former
champion, Patterson rematched Ingemar Johansson and brutally knocked him
out with a left hook in the fifth round, on June 20, 1960, to become the
first heavyweight to regain the title.
END OF AN
When the Giants left
New York for their new home in San Francisco in 1957, the Polo Grounds
was set to be torn down. However, when a new team—the New York
Metropolitans—was created, they needed a temporary home, and so the
Grounds was kept open for a few more years, until the Mets moved to
Flushing, Queens. This postponement allowed for a proper sendoff for
boxing with the Johansson-Patterson rematch of 1960. And four years
later, with interests in real estate development, the stadium was
WAY IT WAS - LOUIS-WALCOTT I and II
"The Final Chapter of a Golden Legend"
It was post war America, and Joe Louis had been on top of the
heavyweight division for over a decade, and would be defended his
crown for the 24th and 25th and last time respectfully, against a
formidable opponent that seemed to get the best of him Jersey Joe
Walcott, a Camden based cutie that had fought the likes of Lee Savold,
Joey Maxim, Lee Oma, and Tiger Jack Fox. Walcott, alias Arnold
Raymond Cream b.1914, was 33 years old and was beginning his quest
for the heavyweight crown that he ultimately get in 1951, was prime to
fight Louis in December 1947.
Louis, born Joseph Louis Barrow, also age 33, experience 23
title defenses, starting with Tommy Farr (W15), and the previous a one
round thrilling KO of Tami Mauriello, Sept 1946, in New York.
The first fight was held at Madison Square Garden, with Walcott
surprising the champion with quick counterpunching, knocking Louis down
in the first and fourth rounds, but losing a controversial 15 round
decision. Louis, appearing disappointed at his performance, left
the ring, and the perception was he had left because he thought he lost.
Louis later recanted and said he thought he won the fight.
"The Way It Was, courtesy ESPN Classics"
There was so much controversy about the first bout, and talk of a
rematch became a reality in June of 1948. Again, Walcott stymied the
champion, dropping Louis with a right hand in round three. The fight
continued to a similar pattern as the first bout, until the 11th round
when Louis caught Walcott with a counter right hand that led to a
barrage of punches that dropped Walcott face down and unable to
continue. Result Louis KO11.
And Walcott later admitted - "when Louis hurt you, he put you away.
There was no better finisher than Joe Louis."
It was to be the last of great fights of Joe Louis illustrious
career. Louis announced his retirement on March 1, 1949, only to come
back in 1950 and challenge Ezzard Charles, the new champion, (who had
defeated Walcott for the NBA vacant crown) Charles defeated Louis over
15 rounds in what was to be the last time Louis would fight for the
THE WAY IT WAS
Special Thanks to the archive of Don Majeski
FIGHTS OF THE TWENTIETH
JOE LOUIS/JERSEY JOE WALCOTT
Walcott started his career as a lightweight.
Parents immigrated from Barbados, named after the original champion
Walcott was a true rags to riches story.
Acted in the classic film "The Harder They Fall" 1956.
Later a referee, famous for the Ali-Liston II controversial ending.
Died age 80 February 25, 1994.
Louis family was born in Alabama, resettled in Detroit.
Trainer was the famous Jack Blackburn . . .
Turned pro in 1934, won the heavyweight title in 1937.
Was given 50 cents for violin lessons, used money for boxing lessons.
Career 25 defenses is still a current record
Died April 12, 1981, age 66, less then 24 hours after attending the
Larry Holmes -Trevor Berbick fight in Las Vegas.
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Last updated: 08/05/17.