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Boxing Matters in Brooklyn

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By Daniel Kravetz


By almost any measure, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center - the sinewy-brown behemoth that now occupies the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues - had a prosperous first year.
 
Since mega-developer Bruce Ratner cut the ribbon on the center in September 2012, the venue has hosted a string of iconic performers from Barbra to Bieber, eclipsing nearby Madison Square Garden as the top-grossing venue for concerts and family shows in the nation. Ticket sales for the Brooklyn Nets, those recent émigrés from Newark, New Jersey, averaged 96 percent of capacity in their first season at the arena.
 

In terms of its notoriety, the center is also meeting the high bar set by its ancestor across the East River.  The Barclays Center is where Jay-Z rode the subway to perform his last of eight consecutive sellout shows. It is where the Rolling Stones celebrated 50 years. It is where Miley Cyrus twerked. Most recently, its floor is where Jason Kidd spilled a cup of soda to buy his struggling Nets an extra timeout.


In spite of its growing place on country’s mental map, the branding strategy of the Barclays Center has been more characterized by a “Buy local” theme. The message: This is Brooklyn’s arena, owned (in small part) by Brooklyn’s hip hop mogul, where the Brooklyn Nets pay 41 regular season games.
 
“Is Brooklyn in the house?” Jay-Z posed to his eight sellout crowds that greeted the arena. “I’ve come home at last!” Barbra Streisand exclaimed to her own full house just a week later. The Nets theme music: “Brooklyn: Something to Lean On” by local emcee John Forte, with the famous “Brooooklyn” chant reverberating through the song’s hook.
 
We are here for you, Brooklyn! Come on down and grab a seat!
 
The Barclays Center’s small but meaningful venture into boxing is no exception to this theme. As part of an exclusive deal that the center signed with Golden Boy Promotions, it has now hosted five boxing shows and more often than not, they have been rife with born-and-bred Brooklyn fighters. Bensonhurst’s Paulie Malignaggi has already fought there twice. So has Brownsville’s Zab Judah. So have native sons Peter Quillin, Danny Jacobs and Luis Collazo.
 
There is nothing novel about boxing venues featuring local fighters yet this instance feels more meaningful. There is synergy between Brooklyn and boxing. Brooklyn’s brand of pride harmonizes with that of fisticuffs. They both have deep roots. They both have panache. They both have Mike Tyson. Barclays Center co-architect Gregg Pasquarelli said the arena is intended to evoke the “grit and glamour” of Brooklyn - two good words for boxing’s culture too.
 
The first boxing show at the Barclays Center, in October 2012, included the first title fight on Brooklyn pavement in over 80 years. It is hardly relevant that during that span, Madison Square Garden hosted dozens of championship bouts and most of Brooklyn’s famous fighters just a two-train ride away. Nor is it relevant that hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites didn’t live in Brooklyn during Tyson’s heyday some 20 years ago. Brooklyn now has ownership of its rich boxing heritage; that is the message and so far, that message seems to be somewhat resonant.
 
Not to say boxing at Barclays has been a success by all measures. That first Barclays card, which featured five Brooklyn-born fighters, received some bad publicity when word spread that 1,000 complementary tickets to the show had been distributed by the Brett Yormark Foundation, the eponymous philanthropic venture of the Barclays Center CEO. Still, each of the four big-budgeted Saturday night shows at Barclays has sold over 10,000 tickets, not a bad milestone in this era of American boxing.
 
Given the arena’s localized campaign, it is a happy accident that the two most prominent Brooklyn fighters, Judah and Malignaggi, fight in the same weight class. The theme of their main event there this Saturday, “The Battle for Brooklyn,” practically wrote itself.
 
Location aside, the fight is an intriguing one: two skilled boxers with colorful personalities, both of whom are knee-deep in the fourth quarters of their careers and fighting to keep their seats at the table of the elite in the welterweight division. The rest of the card is promising as well, with a slate of three intriguing title fights as co-features. But on Thursday, at the final press conference of “The Battle of Brooklyn,” Yormark’s pitch revolved around those three words realtors like to use so often.
 
“Location, location, location,” for the uninitiated.
 
“This is the culmination of our first year of boxing in Brooklyn,” said Yormark, “so it is fitting to have two of the greatest fighters from here taking the ring.” Yormark went on to announce that the winner of the main event, a non-title fight, will receive a belt that recognizes them as the “World Champion of Brooklyn,” a title that unabashedly ditches congruity in favor of symbolism.
 
In conclusion, Yormark said the following, “Barclays Center has become the heart of boxing on the East Coast. It also has become a place for local boxers to be inspired to become future champs.” There was little subtlety to the message. Judah and Malignaggi won’t be around for much longer, nor will the novelty of boxing in Brooklyn. Hosting the first title fight in Brooklyn in 80 years is meaningful, not the case for the 10th or the 20th.
 
The arena’s leadership appears to be thinking long-term. After Judah and Malignaggi retire, it will look to Quillin and Jacobs, who may fight each other next year. After that, it surely hopes things pan out favorably for prospects like Juan Dominguez and import Marcus Browne, the Staten Island-born Olympian who has fought on all but one Barclays Center show. Then who knows if or when another marketable local fighter will emerge?
 
There is another, more important question: How strongly will Brooklyn residents identify with the “Buy local” message in the coming decades? The ongoing wave of gentrification in the borough has already reshaped its identity. The local pride of the growing transient population is inherently less ingrained than it is with natives. “The Battle of Brooklyn” might mean something in Bensonhurst and Brownsville. Does it mean something in Williamsburg and Fort Greene? Will it mean as much in Bensonhurst and Brownsville in another 20 years?
 
Ironically, one of the most significant changes in Brooklyn’s population and identity - the identity to which the Barclays Center is appealing - is the very development that could eventually surround the arena. Plans for Atlantic Yards, Bruce Ratner’s $4.9 billion baby, still call for the construction of 14 high-rise buildings consisting of 6,430 housing units, many of which will surely be occupied by newcomers. If completed, the project will transform Brooklyn.
 
In another twist of irony, the “Battle for Brooklyn” is not just the name of Saturday’s main event. It is also the name of an award-winning 2011 documentary about the divisiveness of Atlantic Yards, about how the development has displaced existing Brooklyn residents to make way for those new, supersized apartment buildings.
 
Were Atlantic Yards to come to fruition, the Barclays Center would have thousands of new residents for whom to market its events. Some of them would probably venture down to the arena at the corner to see the next Jay-Z or the next Justin Bieber perform. Many would probably buy tickets to watch the Nets or the New York Islanders, who will relocate to the Barclays Center in 2015.
 
Would they be wooed by the next Paulie Malignaggi or the next Zab Judah?
 
Questions or comments can be directed to dkravetz@gmail.com and you can follow Daniel at www.twitter.com/DanielKravetz.
 
 

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