With safety paramount in the minds of those who organize live sporting events these days, it’s no surprise to learn that the attendance figures for big boxing fights have taken something of a dip.
In the 1920s, it was not unheard of for the big fights to bring in 100,000 or more paying punters – that seems almost an impossibility these days in the ‘seated’ era with restrictions on venue capacities.
Fire up YouTube and you will note the incredible atmospheres generated at fights involving the legendary likes of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, and that’s partly due to the sheer volume of bodies in attendance.
104,943 crowd at Jack Dempsey vs Gene Tunney at September 22, 1927
Of the most attended fights in history, a large percentage have been in New York. Of course, Madison Square Garden doesn’t have the biggest capacity going – around 20,000 are able to take their seats there – but other venues in the Big Apple have put on mammoth shows.
Sadly, many of those great landmarks are no longer standing. The Polo Grounds, a monster multi-sport complex in Manhattan, once welcomed more than 80,000 for a Jack Dempsey fight, but that venue was demolished in 1964 and is now covered by housing instead.
And then there was the old Yankee Stadium, which played host to some of the biggest bouts of the 1920s and ‘30s, bringing in huge audiences of more than 70,000. Sadly, that too was demolished and replaced with the new Yankee Stadium. Fans of the eponymous baseball team have had plenty to cheer about in recent times, while current tenants New York City FC are amongst the favorites in the Space Casino betting on football to win the MLS Cup in 2021.
But with a capacity of just 55,000, the contemporary Yankee Stadium can’t lay a glove on its predecessor – which welcomed some of the biggest bouts of the twentieth century through its doors – in terms of size and atmosphere generated.
So what are the best-ever attended boxing bouts on US soil?
Jack Dempsey vs Gene Tunney (120,557)
It’s almost mind-boggling to think that 120,000 people would be allowed into a stadium to watch anything, let alone a boxing contest.
But the 1920s was a world away from life as we know it now and, back then, Jack Dempsey was one of the most famous sports stars on the planet.
The KO artist fought Gene Tunney twice in a year, and the rematch, which Tunney won to retire Dempsey for good, was enjoyed by 104,943 people at Chicago’s Soldiers Field.
But it was the first fight that broke all records. A staggering 120,557 crammed into the Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia, and they witnessed a huge shock as Tunney won on points to bring an end to Dempsey’s reign of terror in the infamous ‘long count’ contest.
Jack Dempsey vs George Carpentier (91,613)
In a move that would have health and safety officials rocking in their chairs today, tickets for the fight between Jack Dempsey and French World War I veteran George Carpentier were so sought-after that a new stadium had to be built to house the crowd.
Made almost entirely out of wood, Boyle’s Thirty Acres in New Jersey welcomed more than 90,000 for the fight, which saw both men wobble the other with huge punches before Dempsey landed a knockout blow in the fourth round.
Jack Dempsey vs Luis Angel Firpo (85,000)
New York’s Polo Grounds played host to a contest that became famous for the iconic image of Dempsey being punched through the ropes and out of the ring by the hard-hitting Argentine.
THE FINAL KNOCKDOWN It lasted just 4 minutes, but Jack Dempsey vs Luis Firpo at the Polo Grounds in 1923 may be the most electrifying clash in division history. Dempsey won by 2nd round KO after 11 knockdowns, one of which sent him out of the ring. But Dempsey, who landed on a reporter’s typewriter, was able to beat the 20-second count for out-of-the-ring knockdowns – with the help of a number of journalists – and regrouped to secure another astonishing victory.
New York has hosted many of America’s most-attended fights in recent years, but this trio across the United States will surely never be beaten for sheer scale.