As Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. square off at Madison Garden Saturday night, generations of New York boxers are watching closely.
With each visit to Madison Square Garden, Francisco Mendez, boxing guru, mentor and confidant to legions of New York fighters, finds a moment to pull up close to his wide-eyed protégés and speak to them in a gentle voice. “Appreciate where you are, but don’t,” he cautions, “let it overwhelm you.”
Given the chance, he would whisper this to Britain’s Anthony Joshua, a boxing phenomenon across the Atlantic, who on Saturday night brings his international star to the U.S. for the first time in one of the most anticipated fights in years. Stepping into the Garden ring, he and his opponent, Andy Ruiz Jr., promise to give new life to one of sport’s greatest traditions — a World Heavyweight Championship bout in rarified surroundings.
“Take a deep long breath,” says Mendez, the owner of a throwback boxing gym a few blocks from The Garden. “You’ll never feel so alive, but you got to breathe.”
As MSG lore follows Joshua and Ruiz into the ring — the spirits of Marciano, Holyfield, Frazier and Ali remain close — the two men stand to make fresh history. Joshua, 29 years old, has a bracing physique and an easy smile made for the bright lights. He already owns an Olympic gold medal and four heavyweight title belts. The scouting report says that at 6-feet-6, he has both power and reach.
A Throwback Gym
Joshua, whose parents came from Nigeria, did not start boxing until he was 18, turning to it as a way to escape troubles on the streets. He is now a wily student of the sport who took up chess to help him think strategically across the board, as if it were a canvas.
Ruiz, also 29, may be the underdog, but he has won 32 of 33 pro fights. His biggest assets are quickness and a menacing left hook. A victory Saturday night would make him the first-ever Mexican Heavyweight World champion.
On Thursday at a Beacon Theatre press conference, both men said they were humbled by the opportunity. Joshua said that he always envisioned his landing in America happening at The Garden.
He gets what the fighters at the Mendez Boxing Gym feel in their blood. On East 26th Street, down a narrow staircase, they can be found in a space filled with the sights and sounds of boxing. The ties to MSG run deep here. In April, the club sent eight fighters to the Ring Masters Championships at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. In Joshua, many recognize themselves — someone with immigrant roots who found direction in his life through boxing.
Among their coaches is Harry Keitt, who as a young man twice fought at The Garden. Looking back, he says, his mind’s eye still sees the crisp colors and the haze of the lights over the ring. Another coach, Leo Morales, said he would tell Joshua and Ruiz, “It’s ok to be nervous. Use the nerves.”
Francisco Mendez minds his tenderfoots — both men and women — from a windowless office not much larger than a broom closet. He remembers discovering The Garden as a spectator nearly 40 years ago, soon after coming from Mexico.
“Can you say this about a building?” he asked. “It was beautiful.”
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About The Madison Square Garden Company
The Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) is a world leader in live sports and entertainment experiences. The company presents or hosts a broad array of premier events in its diverse collection of iconic venues: New York’s Madison Square Garden, Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and Beacon Theatre; the Forum in Inglewood, CA; and The Chicago Theatre. Other MSG properties include legendary sports franchises: the New York Knicks (NBA) and the New York Rangers (NHL); two development league teams – the Westchester Knicks (NBAGL) and the Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL); and esports teams through Counter Logic Gaming, a leading North American esports organization, and Knicks Gaming, MSG’s NBA 2K League franchise. In addition, the Company features the popular original production – the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes – and through Boston Calling Events, produces New England’s preeminent Boston Calling Music Festival. Also under the MSG umbrella is TAO Group, a world-class hospitality group with globally-recognized entertainment dining and nightlife brands: Tao, Marquee, Lavo, Avenue, Beauty & Essex and Cathédrale. More information is available at www.themadisonsquaregardencompany.com