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The Nassau Coliseum went through a $260 million renovation

Not since March 10, 1986, when an 18-0 ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson made the commute from upstate Catskill to Uniondale on Long Island to lay out journeyman Steve Zouski in the third round with a picture-perfect left hook, has the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum exhibited an evening of professional boxing.

It took long enough. Especially for those of us who utilize the New York minute by which to keep time and care very little for scenarios of the hurry-up-and-wait variety. And after the announcement of a card scheduled for April 29 turned out to be a false alarm thanks to Adonis Stevenson no less.

Finally, thanks to Long Island’s own Lou DiBella as well as Brett Yormark, CEO of Barclays Center’s Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, that thirty-one year-long fistic cold spell will end on July 15 with a PBC on Fox triple-header. Former lightweight world titlist Omar Figueroa Jr. will return from a 19-month layoff by proving that he ain’t afraid of no ‘Ghost’ when he goes toe to toe with Robert Guerrero, who has lost 4 of his last 6 fights, albeit to the elite of the welterweight division, including Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Born in Coram here on Long Island, Jamel Herring, whose only loss to date occurred by way of a 10th round TKO against Denis Shafikov last July, takes on Jose Pedraza who suffered his first career defeat defending his IBF Super-Featherweight against Mayweather protégé Gervonta Davis in January at the Barclays Center. Undefeated light-heavyweights Sean Monaghan and Marcus Browne square off in a potential world title eliminator with regional bragging rights also at stake (more on this to follow). Though it is unlikely to make the broadcast, a battle of Polish heavyweights will also take place as local fan favorite Adam ‘Babyface’ Kownacki goes to war with Artur Szpilka, who hasn’t fought since being brutally knocked out by Deontay Wilder in January 2016.

Billy Joel performed for the April 5 grand reopening of the Coliseum, the doors to which had previously admitted only contractors and construction workers since August 2015. One of the assemblages of union laborers brought in for the $170 million refurbishment of the dilapidated arena was Local 66, the employer of light-heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr. It would have been poetic, not to mention well-deserved, had Smith received the shot at WBC belt-holder Adonis Stevenson on the proposed April 29 bill. Stevenson, the so-called ‘Superman’, has emerged from his Fortress of Solitude only three times in the last two years, and only then for low-risk defenses against cautiously selected foes.
Mastic-Shirley’s ‘Irish Bomber’ scaled his way to the #3 WBC ranking with a shocking first-round knockout of Andrzej Fonfara on PBC last June, followed by blasting Bernard Hopkins out of the ring and into retirement the week before Christmas. It was far from an unfathomable stretch of the imagination, therefore, to believe that Smith would be the presumptive candidate for a celebratory Long Island homecoming, world championship contention included.

The Stevenson camp alleged that Smith priced himself out of the fight. Those close to Joe maintain that the offers they put on the table were swept away unanswered. If so, the silent treatment would have provided the champion a convenient escape hatch through which he could descend to the relative safety of the lower rungs on the WBC ladder where 10th-rated Sean Monaghan resides.

The thirty-five year-old Monaghan, born in Mineola and living now in nearby Long Beach, boasts an undefeated record and yet is something of an unknown quantity as none of his 28 victories (17 via KO) have occurred against top-tier or well-known opposition. Which is certainly not to imply that Monaghan, especially with his well-earned reputation as a murderous body puncher, is incapable of pulling off the lead role in an against-all-odds Cinderella story of his very own and becoming more than just the talk of the Long Beach boardwalk.

Since neither of them will be opposing Stevenson now that he abandoned negotiations with Seanie and opted instead for a rematch with Andrzej Fonfara in Montreal this June, Joe Smith has inked a deal to face Sullivan Barrera, who was recently stripped of his IBF mandatory challenger status after backing out of an elimination fight with Artur Beterbiev for the second time, at the LA Forum (on the same night as the Coliseum card, coincidentally) and Monaghan gets assigned a stiff test against 2012 Olympian Marcus Browne, the 19-0 southpaw fighting out of Staten Island.

Just slightly over three years were required for the original construction of the Nassau Coliseum which presented its first event on February 11, 1972, as the ABA’s New York Nets took to the hardwood to host the Pittsburgh Condors. Julius Erving would join the Nets the following season, helping the team hoist two ABA championship banners to the rafters. The Coliseum was also home to the Islanders of the NHL who temporarily elevated themselves beyond obscurity (and the shadow cast by the Rangers, their inhospitable neighbors from Manhattan) to win four consecutive Stanley Cup trophies from 1980 to 83.

When the sagging Coliseum’s desperately needed cosmetic surgery got underway, the Islanders departed for Brooklyn where they once again share a common address with the Nets who found a welcoming new home at the Barclays Center after having returned to, and been bounced around, New Jersey since just after being absorbed into the NBA, an exorbitant changeover which cost the cash-poor Nets their star player, Dr. J. The Nets may not exactly be lighting up the league these days but the Islanders’ conversion has hit some major black ice and, with the situation devolving into a skid that can’t be corrected, it is rumored that there is an imminent return to Long Island in their near future.

The defunct Long Island Arena, once located on Veterans Highway in Commack in Suffolk County, had been putting on boxing shows on a sporadic basis since 1961 until it bowed out of the fight game in 1980. So, for a while during the late 70’s anyway, Long Island’s pugilistic enthusiasts had two venues in which to cheer on local favorites and see some nationally renowned fighters ply their violent trade.

Before we welcome a new era of prizefighters into Nassau County, let’s first take a little stroll down memory lane (or Hempstead Turnpike, as the case may be) and reflect upon the history shared between the Coliseum and professional boxing.

Jerry Quarry headlined the inaugural prizefighting bill at Nassau Coliseum on May 8, 1974 with his second showdown against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden looming one month away. In the very first round, the unremarkable Joe Alexander shot up from a defensive crouch and nailed Quarry with a counter left hook that produced a flash knockdown and mandatory eight count. Still in the process of shaking off the cobwebs in the second, Quarry would floor Alexander twice with a right hook each time, the second occurring as time expired. Unable to be saved by the bell, Alexander was counted out by Arthur Mercante.

It wasn’t until eleven months later that the Bobick brothers took their show on the road from Minnesota to Long Island with a pair of victories at the Coliseum, a unanimous decision for Rodney over Pedro Agosto and, for Duane, a second-round knockout of Roy Wallace.

Roberto Duran was the reigning WBA World Lightweight titleholder when he traveled to Uniondale on September 30, 1975 and used his Hands of Stone to pound out a unanimous decision over Edwin Viruet in a ten-round non-title fight. Not quite the “two or three round knockout” that color commentator Chuck Wepner predicted. Their main event was the prelude to the closed-circuit broadcast of the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ which Duran would hang around to watch, but not before scuffling once more with Viruet. The Puerto Rican sensation fighting out of New York City who Roberto dismissed as “a nobody”, was discontent with the verdict and made the mistake of airing his grievances in the dressing room, setting off an altercation which necessitated police intervention. Edwin would receive the rematch he belligerently lobbied for, but wound up being outpointed yet again at the Philadelphia Spectrum two years later with Duran’s belt on the line. Happy as ‘Manos de Piedra’ confessed he would have been to beat up the entire family, Duran would take sadistic pleasure in subsequently disciplining Edwin’s younger brother Adolfo at Madison Square Garden after having avenged his first career loss to Esteban DeJesus for the second time in the final fight of their trilogy, taking Esteban’s WBC Lightweight Title for good measure.

The following spring, future light-heavyweight contender Eddie Davis, a resident of Hempstead, Long Island by way of Dillon, South Carolina, outworked DC Walker over six rounds in only his fifth professional tussle. Little did Davis know then that he was to tangle in the coming years with some of the greats that the division had to offer including Marvin Johnson, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Michael Spinks, and Donny Lalonde.
On the very same March 31, 1976 card at the Coliseum, a featherweight by the name of Randy Gordon was knocked out midway through the second round by Gerald Odum. This was both the sunrise and sunset of Gordon’s pugilistic journey. However, after transitioning from fighting to writing, Gordon would become better known, it goes without saying, for his stints as editor-in-chief for The Ring magazine, co-host and analyst on several basic cable boxing programs, and Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. These days, Randy and his old pal Gerry Cooney, who we will meet again shortly, can be heard discussing all things boxing on their satellite radio show “At the Fights”. As for his conqueror, Gerald Odum’s career lasted only two more bouts, a matching set of KO losses to Northport’s Paddy Dolan, one of which occurred at the Coliseum on June 2, on the same card that Eddie Davis returned to notch a third round TKO over 5-25-1 Sixto Martinez who was in the midst of a 19-fight losing streak which would ultimately close out an ignominious career that began with 9 straight defeats.

Even if the result more or less resembled that of Joe Frazier’s first ill-fated meeting with George Foreman, the setting and circumstances were in no way identical. Nor was Frazier for that matter. For starters, there were three more rounds and four fewer knockdowns, not to mention no iconic Howard Cosell catch phrase uttered this time around when Foreman, the defending NABF Heavyweight Champion, and his no longer smokin’ challenger would both take home a cool million dollars for their joint participation in this closed-circuit telecast originating from Uniondale, New York. Jack Dempsey, unable to maneuver into the ring to acknowledge the fans due to a recent stroke, waved from his ringside seat instead. Joe’s impulsive decision to shave his head and therefore appear more menacing may have perpetuated the illusion presented to the Coliseum’s capacity crowd, which lustily cheered Frazier while offering Foreman a rude Long Island welcome, that he was anything other than irreparably damaged goods. Big George was neither falling for the ruse nor for the ghost of Smokin’ Joe’s left hook. No sooner did Foreman clobber Frazier into a horizontal posture for the second time in round five than the benevolent Eddie Futch personally intervened once more on behalf of his beloved and beleaguered fighter, sparing Joe further indignity when he leapt onto the apron and insisted that referee Harold Valan halt the onslaught.

On October 24, 1980, Long Island played host to an HBO broadcast entitled “Collision at the Coliseum” pitting Ron Lyle, the former convicted murderer who had rehabilitated himself into a heavyweight contender, against 24 year-old knockout artist Gerry Cooney. It was believed that the winner was in line for a crack at the following day’s WBA title fight between new champion Mike Weaver and South African challenger Gerrie Coetzee. With Marv Albert, Larry Merchant, and ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard (one month away from his rematch with Roberto Duran) calling the shots, a short left hook to the liver of Lyle unholstered in the waning moments of the opening round by the heavy-handed ‘Great White Hope’ (a label he always categorically rejected) from my hometown of Huntington, sent the fearsome Lyle tumbling between the ropes and into a heap on the ring’s outer perimeter. This turn of events helped establish ‘Gentleman’ Gerry Cooney as a legitimate force to be reckoned with, having previously carved Jimmy Young up like a jack-o-lantern earlier in the year. Denied a shot at Weaver in favor of James ‘Quick’ Tillis, Cooney would instead demolish Ken Norton in less than sixty seconds at Madison Square Garden in preparation to oppose Larry Holmes in their racially charged 1982 heavyweight title fight. This Coliseum undercard also featured a victorious outing for 17-1 Wilford Scypion, three years down the line from middleweight title contention, who forced Mike Herron to remain on his stool in lieu of coming back out for round five.

The Nassau Coliseum’s penultimate boxing card up to now, on December 14, 1984, showcased the talents of Brentwood’s legend in the making, James ‘Buddy’ McGirt. 16-0-1 at the time, McGirt took out Felix Nance of New London, Connecticut inside the distance for the second time in ten months. 1976 Olympic gold medalist Howard Davis Jr., who was born and raised in Glen Cove and destined for a future get-together with ‘Buddy’ McGirt (Howard’s third and last unsuccessful world title bid in 1988), bounced back from his first professional championship disappointment against WBC World Lightweight belt-holder Edwin Rosario by earning a ten-round decision over Bobby Johnson. In one of his final ring appearances, former middleweight king Vito Antuofermo, who lived at different times in both Bethpage and Commack, earned a fourth round TKO over Marcus Starks, the very last fight for the 16-12-2 Hartford, Connecticut resident.

DiBella and Yormark plan to promote three or four cards annually at the Nassau Coliseum with the next to take place hopefully by the time the leaves change color. Perhaps the Stevenson/Fonfara victor will see fit to defend against Joe Smith Jr., Sean Monaghan, or Marcus Browne when the smoke clears after the already scheduled light-heavyweight fireworks this summer. And just maybe Heather Hardy and Shelly Vincent will finally have their hotly anticipated rematch which, assuming Vincent’s past Facebook posts to have been factual, was supposed to happen on April’s postponed show.

With Joe DeGuardia’s Star Boxing back to staging monthly fight nights at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Huntington, where Chris Algieri and Joe Smith Jr. cut their teeth, the return of professional pugilism to Nassau Coliseum gives us not-easy-to-please Long Islanders reason to rejoice.