A look back at the history of Puerto Rican boxing in the Big Apple as the great Danny Garcia faces Jose Benavidez Jr. Saturday night in a PBC event on SHOWTIME live from (where else?) the Barclays Center.
This Saturday, July 30, two-division world champion and undisputed King of Brooklyn Boxing, Danny “Swift” Garcia, faces former interim world champion Jose Benavidez Jr. in a crossroads 154-pound bout from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, in a Premier Boxing Champions event on SHOWTIME (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Though the Barclays is the home of the Brooklyn Nets, Garcia (36-3, 21 KOs) has been the venue’s most consistent star. The Nets’ biggest names - Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant – have asked to be traded and the original star, the one whose picture lit up Flatbush Avenue at night, Deron Williams, ended up being bought out of his contract after only a handful of seasons.
Garcia, a proud Philadelphia native who headlined the first ever boxing card at the arena, has stuck around. And if local pressure resumes to rename the arena after the Brooklyn Dodger’s second baseman Jackie Robinson, rather than the Barclays, we can call Garcia “The Ace of Flatbush Avenue.”
Garcia has a tough out in Benavidez (27-1-1, 18 KOs). Entering the ring after the longest layoff of his career and fighting in a new division, Garcia was also recovering from a series of personal issues which left him, according to his father and trainer, Angel Garcia, mentally drained. In a virtual press conference with the media, Angel said, “Danny wasn’t all there mentally. He wasn’t crazy, just going through a lot and sometimes athletes suffer mentally, and no one notices.”
Not many have noticed that Garcia, who says he is 100 percent ready now, has become one of the most prolific headliners in New York’s history. When he enters the ring against Benavidez, he will become tied with Carlos Ortiz for second most main events in a major New York City venue by a Puerto Rican.
It wasn’t that long ago when fighters used to dream about headlining at Madison Square Garden. The first Puerto Rican to do so was Sixto Escobar, a bantamweight with arms the width of sugar cane stalks that hurt just as much when he struck you with them. Sixto was considered a mini-Joe Louis and was considered one of the better punchers in the games by those whose memories have long faded.
The next big Boricua star was Pedro Montanez, who arrived in New York after leaving European lightweights with broken jaws and their promoters in France and Italy with expensive hospital bills. The Spanish press called him “The Devil” and when he left for New York, a reporter in Spain wrote a “good riddance” piece and personally went to the dock to make sure the terror from Cayey boarded the ship for New York.
When Montanez arrived and settled into an apartment across the street from Central Park, he quickly joined “Two Ton” Tony Galento as the biggest attractions at New York’s 5,000-seat Hippodrome. When he crossed over into the main venues, the ones with capacities over 10,000, he did so against the likes of Henry Armstrong and Lou Ambers a total of seven times.
“ Who would have guessed that the next great Puerto Rican star to conquer the Big Apple would be a kid from the Juniata section of Philly? ”
By the time Carlos Ortiz had become the main Puerto Rican attraction in the city, promoters were leery of the Nuyorican crowds. One can almost conduct a sociological study of the Puerto Rican experience in New York by looking at the crowds that attended boxing matches. From the fedora-wearing crowds of the 1930s, to the leather clad activist types of the 1960s, the crowds reflected what was going on only a few subway stops away.
New York in the 1960s was a place rife with blatant racism. The city’s sanitation workers neglected El Barrio and only occasionally picked up trash in the area. Garbage heaps spilled into the streets and rat and roach populations multiplied. Residents organized and began to pile the trash in the middle of the streets, setting it ablaze, and blocking the streets that sanitation officials used to commute to home. The city started picking up the trash after that.
That militant nature spilled over to the boxing fans, many of whom protested loudly whenever a Puerto Rican fighter got the shaft from so-called subjective judges. Flags were waved and congas were beat and, whenever the judges got it wrong, bottles were thrown. One night, The Garden’s piano was pushed off the stage one night. After a couple of “demonstrations,” the bad judging – like the trash – went away.
Wilfred Benitez and Hector Camacho were next, both headlining frequently at the smaller Felt Forum. Benitez topped the bill upstairs in the big room six times; Camacho did so twice. While both were popular with the crowds, neither boxer excited them like a knockout puncher does. Edwin Rosario headlined often at the Felt Forum, mostly against soft touches looking for soft landing spots on the canvas. The crowds cheered for Rosario—just not as loudly as they did for Felix “Tito” Trinidad.
Trinidad, who walked the streets of the city without security and shook every hand he saw, attracted fans with conga drums and trumpets that they nagged and blared between rounds, cascading the marijuana-filled arena during each of the six times Trinidad headlined. Young, flashy and fly fans could be found up and down the line outside, waiting to get in and looking for anyone willing to bet $1000 against Trinidad.
Trinidad set a high bar, but it was one met by Miguel Cotto, the all-time leader of main events in New York among Puerto Rican boxers. The soft-spoken Cotto headlined twelve times in total at either The Garden, Barclays and Yankee Stadium. Once again, this wasn’t your ordinary boxing crowd. Yes, it was still predominately Puerto Rican, but with more hip-hop and reggeaton vibes. Not to mention the baby strollers in the aisles.
When Garcia answers the bell for his fight against Benavidez, it will be his ninth appearance in one of the city’s main arenas. Who would have guessed that the next great Puerto Rican star to conquer the Big Apple would be a kid from the Juniata section of Philly, one who grew up playing ice hockey and baseball and spent many of those years without a father? Against all odds, Garcia became one of the most popular attractions New York City has ever seen. On Saturday night, he returns to the city that made him famous for the latest episode of the boxing novela we call “The Danny Garcia” show.
For a closer look at Danny Garcia, check out his fighter page.