Boxing returns to Causeway Street next Saturday night with a local kid, Danny O’Connor, taking on another local kid, Derek Silveira, in the 10-round feature bout. O’Connor is from Framingham, Silveira from Salem, and they both tip the scales around 145 pounds.
The fight game, too often its own worst opponent, will try once again to muscle its way back into Boston’s consciousness.
“Boxing still has its niche markets around here and throughout New England,’’ said Al Valenti, the longtime fight promoter who cobbled together Saturday’s nine-bout card. “For it to work at the Garden, you need star power, and Danny’s right on the bubble of becoming a star right now. He’s exciting. He’s gathering a following.
“If he wins, then, hey, he’s the kind of kid who can bring people back for more.’’
Long ago, before the old Garden opened on Causeway Street in 1928, boxing and Boston were a hand-in-glove fit — even prior to gloves being an essential part of the sweet science. The South End’s John L. Sullivan, the famous Boston Strong Boy of the late 1800s, made his name as a bare-knuckle brawler. Flamboyant and tough, he was America’s first sports superstar, the first pro athlete to make $1 million in career earnings.
“By day, he worked at the stockyards in Brighton,’’ noted sports historian Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum that is housed inside the new Garden. “History has it that he drank a quart of cow’s blood each morning he trained. How’s that?! Tell Rocky Balboa to stick that in his ski hat.’’
Suffering his only defeat in the final bout of his career — knocked out by Jim Corbett in the 21st round — Sullivan retired to Abington, died virtually penniless in 1918 at age 59, and was buried in Mattapan. Food and drink proved a near-constant and oft-devastating 1-2 combination throughout much of his life.
The original Boston Garden, which stood in the area in front of the current arena for nearly 70 years, was designed for the Bruins, then the new NHL entry, and for boxing. Its sightlines were steep, the severe pitch of its upper bowl (balcony) bringing spectators within intimate reach of ring or rink. To carry a beer back from the concession stand to the front row of the balcony was a (sometimes) sobering act of profound balance and dexterity.
Tex Rickard, who founded the New York Rangers, built the Boston Madison Square Garden, intending it to be one of a string of franchise arenas around the US that would house NHL teams and boxing matches, the fight game then its heyday. No surprise, then, that boxing opened the state-of-the-art arena on Nov. 17, 1928, with Dick “Honeyboy’’ Finnegan, from Dorchester, defeating the Bordeaux-born Andre Routis in the featured bout.
Boxing’s debut on Causeway Street that night was an expanded and raucous card, somewhat of a carnival, one that helped inspire Saturday’s show, according to Valenti. There will be the eight other fights (three pro and five amateur) as well as a memorabilia show, hosted by Sportsworld of Saugus, that will bring 30 dealers to the Garden floor beginning at 6 p.m.
Former champs Micky Ward, Vinny Pazienza, and Marlon Starling will be on hand for autographs at an extra charge. A curtain will cut the arena in half, with the memorabilia dealers on one side, the boxing ring on the other. According to Valenti, seating for the fights will be only on the floor (sold out) and the loge ($35-$45), with the upper bowl kept dark.
“We’re using about a quarter of the building, maybe 3,800 seats total,’’ said Valenti. “We think it’s an atmosphere conducive to really bringing fans close to the action — again, reminiscent of the old building.’’
O’Connor, 27, grew up in Framingham and is 19-1, winner of his last five bouts, including a third-round TKO of Josh Sosa Sept. 29 at Foxwoods. He trains in Houston and for the last year or so has been cross-promoted by Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys, who refers to O’Connor as a “well-spoken, humble kid, and a pretty terrific fighter all wrapped up in one.’’
Casey, who lives in Hingham, is on tour with the Dropkicks and won’t be at the fight.
“That’s a bummer,’’ said O’Connor by phone from Houston. “Kenny’s been a corner man for my last five fights. One of the best spit bucket guys in the business. Tough to replace.’’
O’Connor never visited the old Garden, but has been to the new building to see the Bruins and Celtics, and he once met Marvin Hagler, the last great boxer to work on Causeway Street. Marvelous Marvin was a regular at the Garden through the 1970s and into the ’80s, routinely packing the old joint when he was becoming the world middleweight champion.
Hagler’s last appearance inside Rickard’s building was his fourth-round win (by retirement) over Vito Antuofermo on June 13, 1981. Other than Ricky Hatton’s World Boxing Association welterweight win over Luis Collazo on May ’13, 2006, it has been pretty quiet on Causeway since Hagler left his corner there nearly 32 years ago.
“The one time I met Marvin was in Brockton, when I was working out at the Petronellis’ gym,’’ recalled O’Connor. “To be back in Boston, where he fought, it’s a dream come true for me, really . . . to be inside the Garden, the epicenter of Boston sports.
“Maybe I could help bring back some of the good ol’ days, right?’’