“It wasn’t the nicest place, Sunnyside Garden, but it was our place,” the man with the boxer’s nose tells us, describing what another fight-game lifer calls the minor leagues on the way to the grand stage, of Madison Square Garden.
And, like so many “minor league” parks and players, the stories from Sunnyside, in the borough of Queens, were often a little bit more innocent, and sometimes more tragic, because dreams died hard in that ring. That canvas was pockmarked with sweat and the blood of the ones who were not destined to make it to the big league arenas with the fat purses and the careers they’d be talking about ten, twenty, a hundred years later.
Filmmaker Chris Cassidy, from the fighting Cassidy family of Levittown, Long Island, made a short film long on heart and soul. You can watch it tonight, March 18, at 8 PM, on the cable channel SNY.
“The idea for the film really came from my father fighting at Sunnyside so many times,” Cassidy told NYFights. “It was really part of my childhood. Me and my brother went there so many times as a kid, I wanted to share that part of our lives.” Chris’ brother Bobby is a fight game lifer, covering boxing for the newspaper Newsday, so yes, the feelings that were conjured at Sunnyside, seeing the winners’ euphoria, and the losers’ sadness, and everything in between, infected the family.
Dad Bobby was a world class hitter, who toiled in that “minor league” milieu for longer than was rightly so. In this age, he’d have been graduating to the bigs, and receved title shots and commensurate paydays. But those were different times, in some ways simpler, in some ways as complex as today, because a lot of what could be seen as “luck” was in fact connections.
“While making the doc, I also learned that so much happened there other than boxing. Wrestling was a regular thing there, roller derby and even JFK campaigned there for his presidential race. That’s all stuff I didn’t know,” Chris Cassidy continued, speaking on this labor of love which he produced along with David Schuster, a NY businessman and also a fight game lifer. The joint featured fight cards and more from 1947 to 1977, and it’s shuttering signaled the end of an era. The opportunities for rugged men wanting to turn what was often their only skill source, their fists, into bread and butter to put on the dinner table for their family, became a bit more scarce.
Cassidy explained what he’d like a viewer to feel after they watch the piece, which won a prize at the 2017 New York Short Film Festival. “I want people to know that the people that lived in the neighborhood really loved that venue. It was like a community meeting center. Also, everyone we spoke to who fought there really loved the place.”
“I produced Sunnyside because it was truly an iconic Queens boxing venue where so many great NY boxers fought,” Schuster said. “Vito Antuofermo, Eddie Gregory, Irish Bobby Cassidy, etcetera. It was local, intimate and always fun to see a fight. When I was a kid in the 1960s and 70s my father, myself and my uncle would go there every time there was a Bobby Cassidy fight. He was my local boxing hero. It was a legendary ‘boxing place' that is now gone but a place I wanted boxing fans to never forget. As my uncle Ralph used to say in reference to boxing, ‘The big shots have Madison Square Garden, but guess what..We have SUNNYSIDE!”
We all like to look back at decades past, and reminisce. Sometimes the “good old days” weren’t actually better than now, but our recall of the downsides gets softened with aging. It makes sense, life would be that much harder to handle if we weren’t inclined to slough off the tougher periods. So, were those Sunnyside ‘Good old days’ really that much better than today?
“Tough question,” Cassidy pondered. “One thing that was better was that there were so many amazing small venues like Sunnyside, where a fighter could build a career and a community could come together. And tickets were cheap too!”
Notable and familiar faces in the doc include Gerry Cooney, who made his pro debut at the venue, Mustafa Hamsho, who fought there before graduating to the MSG stage, as well as former world champions Vito Antuofermo and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Showtime’s Steve Farhood and promoter Bob Duffy and US Congressman Peter King have their say.
You don’t have to be a guy of a certain age, looking back on your prime time, to enjoy the doc. You will be reminded that it is intimacy, closeness, which is most rewarding to your soul. The big rooms are where everyone wants to get to, but it’s the smaller rooms that more often uplifted the fighters and fans in attendance. Everyone wants those piles of loot, but so, so often, the money divides, instead of unites. You were fighting in Sunnyside as an A side, chances are your future was ahead of you. Your dreams were still majestic, and within reach. Hope reigned supreme, and those surrounding you shared in the optimism. The takeaway from this doc is nourishing to anyone, fight fan or not. “It was dark and dingy but it was quaint,” a grayed patron recalls. “But you sat in the bleachers, and you felt at home. You went there a half a dozen times and you felt like you belonged there.”
There is a Wendy’s fast food spot where the arena stood. So…yeah…the good old days. Watch tonight, on SNY.