Madison Square Garden is a rather unassuming, not particularly aesthetically-pleasing structure perched atop Penn Station, one of the most obnoxious concentrations of humanity on the planet. If you've made it inside the Garden, chances are you had a rough time getting there. And yet the World's Most Famous Arena continues to inspire a feeling of awe in sports fans, a sensation that has very little to do with what you can see on the surface and everything to do with the momentous clashes that have taken place there over the decades. To paraphrase Raiders of the Lost Ark, we are just passing through history; the Garden is history.
A massive piece of that history was lost Friday night when Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74. Ali's impact goes far beyond New York, or America, or even the world of sports. He was an icon in every sense of the word. Yet it would be impossible to discuss his career without mentioning Madison Square Garden. He fought eight times at the Garden, starting in 1962 with a four-round knockout of Sonny Banks in the old building on 50th and Eighth.
But it was the current Garden which hosted the match children learn about in history class: Ali-Frazier I, the Fight of the Century. It was the apex of boxing, perhaps even of sports, as an arena through which a divided America could play out its own philosophical struggles. It was a proxy for the Vietnam War debate and the Civil Rights struggle. And it was also a pretty damn good boxing match:
It is a strange understanding that we share as fans of one of the Garden's two primary tenants, that the most celebrated moment in the history of your arena has nothing to do with your team. I imagine Rangers fans feel the same way ... or at least they should. For them, there is "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" and Game 7 of the '94 Finals; for us, it's Ewing raising his arms to the rafters, L.J.'s 4-point play (Allahu Akbar!), and Willis Reed limping onto the court. Historic moments, to be sure, but nothing compared to what Muhammad Ali delivered in the ring.
Rest in peace, champ. The Garden will never quite be the same.