TD Garden Night at the Fights Answers Old Questions About Boxing’s Future in Boston, Poses New Ones

Danny O'Connor and Derek SilveiraIn boxing terms, five years is a lifetime. Fighters can make, break, re-make and re-break careers in that span of time. Fans can just as easily fall in and out of love with the sport in half of a decade.

On Saturday night, boxing returned to the TD Garden for the first time since 2007. If those in attendance — promoters, fighters and boxing fans — have their way, the Garden will host many more matches in the months and years to come.

Fans paid good money to watch New England’s finest boxers (both professional and amateur) fight at the region’s premier indoor facility. While some came for the sport itself, others came for the spectacle. Regardless of their motivation, the entire 4,200-strong crowd was treated to a full-fledged boxing revival meeting in Boston.

“Bring boxing back to Boston” was the rallying cry, but it was clear by the end of the night that boxing never left the city. While the sport may not enjoy the popularity it once did, and the new Garden doesn’t host regular bouts like the old one did, the region’s vibrant boxing community flocked to “the Hub” in celebration of the sport’s rich tradition in New England. They left with ignited hopes for the future.

Fight night was a two-pronged event with a curtain cutting the arena in half. On one side sat sports memorabilia vendors who sold their goods. Former world champions Marlon Starling (from Hartford, Conn.), Vinny Pazienza (Cranston, R.I.) and Mickey Ward (Lowell, Mass.) signed autographs before the action started. On the other side was the boxing ring, floor seats and a crowd packed tightly into the Garden’s lower section. The upper section was dark and empty and everyone was close to the action.

Organizers deserve applause for their efforts. Relative to team sports that enjoy wider participation, the region’s boxing community is small and close-knit. Many of the fighters know each other personally, and the crowd was full of their friends, family and supporters. Organizers took that community’s intimacy, combined it with star power and the bright lights of the big stage to produce a unique event. This mix made “TD Garden Night at the Fights” authentically local and unforgettably special.

The five amateur and four professional bouts gave fight fans everything they’ve come to expect, appreciate and even despise about the sport. There was some blood and brutality, but also technical proficiency — even excellence in some cases. The Boston Bruins Ice Girls served as ring girls, providing the eye candy between rounds. There was a phantom bell in one fight and controversial decisions from the judges in another. Fans seemed to enjoy every minute of it, especially the thrilling main event between welterweights Danny O’Connor and Derek Silveira.

O’Connor cruised to victory over 10 rounds, but won the fight on a curious split decision from the judges. The Framingham, Mass., native was happy to improve his record to 20-1, but fighting at the Garden meant so much more than another win. O’Connor has made it a personal mission to raise boxing’s profile in Boston, and Saturday was better than he could have imagined.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I wanted to tear up when I was walking out. It’s a moment that I’ve dreamed of for so long. For it to actually happen and to really feel what it’s like, it’s indescribable  It’s a dream come true. If I never pick up a pair of gloves for the rest of my life, I can always come back and say, ‘I fought in the Boston Garden. I was the main event and I won.’

“Everything about this is a dream come true. I couldn’t imagine being here, but like I said before I can’t even come close to taking all the credit. There is so many more people who made this happen.

“I mean just before when I got injured and the fight was postponed, I thought it was going to be cancelled. But the staff at the Garden stepped up and understood how much of a dream it was. They were willing to postpone it and do all the work again, so I can’t take credit for this.

“I just got to go in the ring and do what I love to do, so many other people made this happen and I just thank them. Representing the city of Boston is the biggest honor I carry, as a person, so I just want to represent it well and make everyone proud. Hopefully one day bring some world championship belts back to the city and one time, maybe, the next time I fight here it’ll be for the world championship belt.”

“TD Garden Night at the Fights” didn’t end O’Connor’s crusade, but it was certainly a personal high point. The local boxing fraternity and sorority shared the moment with him on a night that paid homage the sport in New England. The region has produced a number of good fighters in recent years who never had the chance to fight at the Garden. Their hopes and dreams, both realized and unfulfilled, were on display inside the ring.

Fans joined the trio of retired champions to watch generations of pugilists in action. Amateur stars went first, then gave way to the professionals. Billy Traft (Dorchester, Mass.), a 33-year-old Boston police officer, won the third bout of his fledgling  career. Time may not be on his side, but the former Golden Gloves champion is living his dream of fighting professionally. Exciting 23-year-old Ryan Kielczewski (Quincy, Mass.) improved to 15-0 with the only knockout of the night. He graced the Garden with his talents for the first time Saturday, and it’s likely that he’ll do it again. And then there’s the 27-year-old O’Connor who, in the prime of his career, has assumed the flag of Boston boxing and proudly waves it around the world.

These fighters and fans from all corners of the region came to “the Hub” wanting to bring boxing back to Boston. The size and energy of the crowd proves that it never left the region, but it makes one wonder if the success can be sustained. The event in itself was great, but time will test its legacy.

Will the next generation of fighters get this chance? Will these local fight fans have to wait another five years to watch boxing at the Garden? Will they support the next event with their time, money and energy? Crucially, will they be joined by new fighters and new fans who might help fill the upper section of the arena? Only time will tell, and those are questions for another day. However it turns out, “The Hub of Boxing” has a nice ring to it. It has an even better feel.

Have a question for Marcus Kwesi O’Mard? Send it to him via Facebook, Twitter at @mkomard, or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

Photo via Facebook/TD Garden

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