It was recorded as a victory for Riddick Bowe, but his fight with Andrew Golota 20 years ago Monday at Madison Square Garden was a night when boxing lost, New York lost and Bowe perhaps lost his future.
It was the night when, for 22 minutes, hooligans took over the Mecca of boxing and rioted from the ring to the cheap seats, a scene remembered in part for the live HBO broadcast. Analyst George Foreman told one rioter, “Don’t do it, son…don’t do that. I know you want to, it’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right.”
It wasn’t all right, though. It was one of the ugliest nights in a sport with no shortage of ugly moments. And I had a better seat for it all than Foreman did. HBO play-by-play broadcaster Jim Lampley expressed fear on the broadcast for the safety of his 16-year-old daughter out there on the floor “somewhere.”
Somewhere on the floor of Madison Square Garden was not a safe place to be. I was there, ringside.
It was such a bizarre night. Bowe, coming off his win over Evander Holyfield in their third bout in November 1995, was embroiled in a contract dispute with HBO that kept him out of the ring until they signed the bout for Bowe to fight Golota in July 1996. That was too long for Bowe to be inactive, and by the time he met Golota, Bowe was more than 250 pounds – 17 pounds over his weight when he took the title from Holyfield in November 1992.
Bowe wasn’t taking Golota seriously – they were looking forward to a long-awaited fight against Lennox Lewis in the fall — and he wasn’t alone. Bowe was a 12-1 favorite against the untested and unpredictable Golota, who was 28-0 but had not fought anyone of note, had bit one opponent and purposely head-butted another. Before the fight with Bowe, referee Wayne Kelly warned Golota about fouls – to which Golota responded, “I do what I have to do to win.”
He wound up doing what he had to do to lose a fight he should have won.
Golota gave Bowe a severe beating. He pounded away with a punishing jab, and, though he didn’t know it at the time, we were watching the end of Bowe’s career. But Golota was as self-destructive as he was destructive. He hit Bowe with low blows in the fourth and sixth rounds, losing points for each infraction, and then two more in the seventh, and that was it – Kelly disqualified Golota and declared Bowe the winner.
Then all hell broke loose.
People in Bowe’s corner ran into the ring, one of them hitting Golota on the head with a walkie-talkie, and the ring erupted in a brawl between the two camps. I was on the phone at ringside, watching and reporting back to the Times desk the blow-by-blow in front of me – which included Golota’s trainer, Lou Duva, going down in what people thought was a heart attack, with the memorable scene of paramedics trying to carry Duva on a stretcher through the chaos.
Finally, I turned around to see that the rioting had spread throughout the crowd of 11,000 at the Garden that night. It was getting closer to press row. Chairs started flying toward us, and barriers fell as Golota’s large Polish contingent and Bowe’s Brownsville hometown fans punched and stomped each other, grabbing anything they could find for a weapon. I saw a young man fall from his wheelchair and be trampled. We were trapped between the ring and the rioters.
Police? Nowhere to be found. The Garden had used their private security that night – even though there were suspicions, given the makeup of the anticipated crowd, that there could be trouble.
It took 22 minutes for the police to show up in the arena. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rushed to the Garden after the riot started, but he was taken to Golota’s dressing room for safety until police arrived and cleared the arena.
There would be a rematch: Bowe and Golota in December at Atlantic City. This time, no riots, but in typical bizarre Golota fashion, he gave Bowe – who had lost weight for the fight but looked weak – another beating, only to lose again by disqualification for low blows. It would be Bowe’s last fight.
Golota continued his bizarre career. Nearly one year after the second Bowe fight, he was knocked out by Lewis in one round. He quit in fights against Michael Grant and Mike Tyson, and he wound up his career in 2013 being knocked out by fellow Polish heavyweight Przemyslaw Saleta in five rounds.
The strangest moment for me, though, came a week after the first Bowe-Golota fight. I got a call from Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos – who I knew well at the time from covering the Orioles. Angelos, a big fight fan, wanted to buy Golota’s contract and manage the fighter. He asked me to set up a meeting with Golota’s managers, which I did.
Nothing ever came of it, though – fortunately for Angelos. That would have been a low blow for the Orioles owner.