It’s named after the fourth President of the USA. It’s where George Harrison had his concert for Bangladesh, Elton John and John Lennon performed together, and Elvis Presley played his first and last gig in NYC. It’s where Bill Clinton bagged his Democratic nomination in ‘92, Pope John Paul II lifted up a six-year-old girl, and where Marilyn Monroe notoriously sang Happy Birthday to Mr. President.
Birthed from the mind of ‘The Greatest Showman’ P. T. Barnum in the 1870s, the original venue housed an aquarium, aviary, museum, and menagerie, and staged cattle wrangling, exciting chariot races and, presumably less exciting, walking competitions.
It became known as Gilmore’s Garden when the famous bandmaster Patrick Gilmore moved in, hosting the New York Dog Show, concerts by Theodore Thomas’s famed orchestra, and botanical shows. Millionaire William K. Vanderbilt and the Harlem Railroad Company took over the property and when an offer of a $40,000 renewal to Gilmore was rejected, the businessman reportedly proclaimed, “I hardly think we shall lease the building again, at all.”
On May 30, 1879, Vanderbilt instigated a notable rebrand: from then on ‘Gilmore Gardens’ would be known as Madison Square Garden.
There have been four MSGs, with the most recent incarnation opening in 1968 at a cost of $123million. In the heart of Manhattan between 7th and 8th, it’s also home to the New York Knicks basketball franchise and National Hockey League team the New York Rangers and holds the honour of being the oldest arena in both the NBA and NHL. Below we take a look at five of the best sporting moments across Madison Square Garden’s illustrious history, from Muhammad Ali to Mr. T...
Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier I
Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis notably fought at the third MSG in 1951, but there’s only one boxing event that truly comes to mind when the venue in discussion is The Garden.
‘The Fight of the Century’ was watched by 300million worldwide but only 20,000 were privileged to watch the first in the historic Joe Frazier & Muhammad Ali trilogy ringside, on Monday March 8, 1971. Even Frank Sinatra was unable to get a ticket. The fight went the distance, lasting for 15 incredible rounds, with it eventually being scored in favour of the champ Frazier retaining his crown and belt. Of course, Ali would have his revenge.
Knicks Get Their Kicks
Despite being just one of two NBA franchises who still retain their original city, the New York Knicks have just two Championships to their name. That’s why devout Knickerbockers’ reminiscing about those triumphs in the early 70s still resonates.
At the start of the decade, as Eastern Division champions they faced the Western Division’s best the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that had future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain on their roster. The Garden, like it would prove less than a year later with Ali v Frazier, knows how to put on a show with the Finals having gone all the way.
In the final game of best-of-seven series, the Knicks prevailed four games to three, fittingly concluded at The Garden in a score of 113-99 for their first-ever NBA title. Another, so far their last Championship, would follow three years later, the Lakers once again their unfortunate victim with the final game notably becoming Chamberlain's last ever professional match.
The Great One Bows Out
Memorably, Madison Square Garden was the theatre in which the Rangers won the 1994 Stanley Cup. Five years later it was the setting for an equally significant occasion. Even those with the most casual awareness of ice hockey will be familiar with the name Wayne Gretzky.
‘The Great One’ placed fifth in ESPN’s SportsCentury compilation of the Top 50 American Athletes of the 20th Century, and is the only NHL player in history to accumulate over 200 points in one season - and Gretzky did that four times. The four-time Stanley Cup winner spent the last three years of his two-decade career with the Rangers before announcing his retirement in April 1999.
The final game of the Ontario native’s career was a 2–1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 18, 1999, in Madison Square Garden, with both the American and the Canadian national anthems playing pre-match. Despite the loss, Gretzky was upbeat.
“My last game in New York was my greatest day in hockey,” he said, “Everything you enjoy about the sport of hockey as a kid, driving to practice with mom and dad, driving to the game with mom and dad, looking in the stands and seeing your mom and dad and your friends, that all came together in that last game in New York.”
One expects there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The First WrestleMania
Despite a headliner that was bombastically billed as ‘The Brawl To End It All’, 35 years later, Wrestlemania is still going strong (quite literally). It made its bow in the beating heart of NYC on March 31, 1985.
In perhaps the most 80s line-up ever devised the main event match pitted Hulk Hogan and Mr. T - a few years fresh from their iconic performances in Rocky III - against future Hall of Fame inductee ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. If you could time-capsule-bury an event to encapsulate an era in order to educate future generations, this would probably be it.
John McEnroe Defeats Arthur Ashe
In 1978, two of the greatest ever American tennis players came head to head, one at the closing stages of his career, the other just getting warmed up.
Three-time Grand Slam winner Arthur Ashe was a perpetual history-maker, the first black player ever selected for the United States Davis Cup team, and the first black player to win the men’s singles titles at Wimbledon, the US and Australian Open.
McEnroe, however, was the new kid on the block - 'the Superbrat' was just being birthed. In the final of the Masters Grand Prix (now known as the ATP Finals) at Madison Square Garden, the 19-year-old McEnroe defeated Ashe, 35, in three sets, two of them tightly contested. McEnroe would go on to win his first Grand Slam later that year, at Flushing Meadows, and notably experience unmitigated success throughout the next decade, with a combined 12 major singles and doubles titles by the 80s end.
Ashe, meanwhile, would later undergo heart surgery by the year’s end and officially retired by April the following year.