New York may be the city that never sleeps but it isn’t all that hard to find sanctuary from the frenetic pace or whatever human drama it is that happens to be unfolding on any of its many corners, streets, and avenues.
5th Avenue runs right through the heart of Manhattan: from Washington Square in Greenwich Village at the southern end right up to Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. A six-mile, straight-as-an-arrow walk taking in sights as iconic as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Central Park and, of course, the Museum of Sex.
For hours last Saturday afternoon, a near-three-mile stretch of the avenue was brought to a standstill by an estimated 10,000 protesters as they snaked their way up the southern half of the borough to Trump Towers where they coordinated their disdain and dismay at the turn their country had just taken.
With traffic on the thoroughfare diverted and motorists from the approaching streets seeking a way across, it was all accompanied by a soundtrack of frazzled NYPD cops, tooting horns and the odd rant from drivers as they were finally offered clearance to scoot across hastily cleared intersections. Standing amidst the throng, it felt like the eyes of the world must have been rooted on a protest so topical and so emotive. So it was an education to step away and walk just the one block around the corner to where life on Madison Avenue went on, as shoppers strolled peacefully through high-fashion retail outlets and luxuriated over a cup of coffee.
That’s New York.
People talk about taking over the place but no-one ever succeeds in acting as a magnet for anything other than a small chunk of it. Not Trump, not any of its fabled sports franchises and not even Conor McGregor and the rest of the historic UFC card that took residence in Madison Square Garden last weekend. Which isn’t to say that the UFC didn’t make a splash.
‘Garden of Bleedin’’ was the banner headline on the New York Post that morning and Madonna, Hugh Jackman and Odell Beckham Jr of the New York Giants were among the beautiful people seated in the shadow of the octagon and the arena filled with over 18,000 people paying an average of $900 apiece for the privilege. It was unquestionably the hottest ticket in town.
“I wanted to make sure when we went to New York, we delivered,” said the UFC president Dana White last month. “It’s the biggest, baddest card we’ve ever done in the history of the company.”
The figures back that up, the $17.7m gate smashed by over $4m the previous record for the venue set by the heavyweight clash of Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield in 1999.
“Jesus is gonna have to fight the devil to break that record,” said White.
Money may be the bottom line in all modern sports but the UFC’s Big Apple debut fell short of the truly great occasions held at a venue that has hosted everyone from Elvis to John Lennon, U2, Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, as well as Muhammad Ali and a ridiculous backlog of sport from boxing to basketball and athletics to ice hockey.
Standing above them all still is the first beef between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971 for boxing’s heavyweight crown. Confirmation of that came early on Sunday morning in ‘The Strand’, the iconic bookstore just off Union Square, with a quick skim through “The Great New York Sports Debate’ by Roger Rubin and David Lennon.
“Not only was the first Ali-Frazier clash the greatest ever staged at the Garden,” wrote Lennon, “many consider it one of the most significant sporting experiences in history. Right up there with David upsetting Goliath, only with a bigger television audience. This was one of those rare occasions when the fight actually lived up to the hype.”
UFC 205 was good. Very good. But not great. The card billed by White as the best ever delivered some exceptional performances and some intriguing fights but it was only when McGregor — who has again called out Floyd Mayweather this week by claiming he is “afraid” of him — appeared in the hall, and on eir Sport screens back home in Ireland, that the atmosphere in the Garden really began to bloom.
What the evening needed at that point was an epic. That it didn’t materialise wasn’t the fault of McGregor but of his opponent Eddie Alvarez who froze in the heat of his biggest battle. It gifted the Dubliner a fight perfectly attuned to his talents and established the stage for well-rehearsed scenes of Irish celebrations as the hordes spilled out onto the streets of Midtown. A second belt secured, another string of memorable quotes spouted and a platform set for any number of high-profile fights bouts in the months and maybe even years to come. The UFC could have done with a slightly better product but McGregor could hardly have done more to make New York sit up and take notice.
Like him or not, the man delivers.
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