Remembering the Roseland Ballroom

By the time I arrived at the Roseland Ballroom, the preliminary card was already underway. A skinny Italian-American kid with a weird haircut was jumping around the ring like an over-caffeinated kangaroo, never in one spot long enough for his bewildered opponent to land a meaningful punch.

It was far from enthralling stuff, but the kid's gaggle of supporters was making so much noise you would have thought they were watching their homie battling for a world title at Madison Square Garden -- not a four-rounder at a dog-eared venue destined for a date with a wrecking ball.

It was my first and only visit to the legendary Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, but it proved a memorable one, an unsettling evening that added another bizarre chapter to the colorful history of a New York institution that dates back almost 100 years.

The final chapter will come on April 7 when Lady Gaga brings down the curtain for the last time. But before Roseland closes its doors forever, boxing will have its own farewell party, this Wednesday, when Lou DiBella, who has promoted 11 of the past 13 cards at Roseland, presents "The Last Dance."

In spite of its nostalgic moniker, the card itself is really about the future. Roseland might be going down for the count, but boxing staggers on, and Wednesday's roster is stacked with up-and-coming local talent. Hopefuls such as Boyd "The Rainmaker" Melson, Bryant "Pee-Wee" Cruz, Heather "The Heat" Hardy and New York Golden Gloves champion Travis Peterkin will have the honor of being among the last pugs to display their wares at the venerable dance hall.

"It's very sad," said the Brooklyn-born DiBella. "My parents were ballroom dancers and used to dance at Roseland. It's part of New York history and soon it will be gone."

Roseland opened in 1919 at 1658 Broadway as a "whites only" dance emporium. By the 1930s that particular racial barrier had fallen by the wayside and appearances by such renowned black musicians as Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb and Count Basie made it one of the hottest jazz clubs of the Swing Era. In the 1940s it was also the site for marathon dances, an infamous fad depicted in the movie "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

When the original building was demolished in 1956, Roseland moved to its current location, a converted ice-skating rink on West 52nd Street, where it has hosted eclectic events ranging from concerts by The Rolling Stones and Madonna to tattoo conventions and Hillary Clinton's birthday party.

Although professional boxing did not become a regular attraction at Roseland until the 21st century, the hall featured parody bouts between chorus girls in the 1920s. They boxed on stage in front of a band playing appropriately frisky tunes. The women's flailing was admirably spirited and every now and then one of them got clipped. Between rounds, the combatants had their hair brushed and makeup repaired.

Flash forward to the evening of Nov. 23, 2001: Powder puffs and lipstick had been replaced by Q-tips and ice packs, and ESPN's cameras captured the action instead of an antique movie camera. Some things never change, however, and snarled midtown traffic prevented me from arriving in time to see Paulie Malignaggi's four-round decision over Cornell Jackson in its entirety.

Yes, that skinny Italian-American kid, who was having just his fourth pro bout that night, turned out to be a pretty good fighter and would soon outgrow New York's club fight circuit.

It was not Malignaggi or any of the other preliminary fighters that made the night so unforgettable. It was what happened in the immediate aftermath of the super middleweight main event between Richard "The Alien" Grant and James "The Harlem Hammer" Butler.

While not particularly original, their nicknames suited them.

Butler was a scowling stalker who tried to end fights with virtually every punch he threw. He had legitimate knockout power, but relied on it too much, waiting and waiting for the perfect opportunity, instead of just letting his hands go. Those who beat him usually outworked him, as was the case when he'd lost a title fight to Sven Ottke in his previous fight.

Grant, who dyed his hair a yellowish white for the occasion, was an eccentric scrambler who, at the bat of an eyelash, would switch from an orthodox stance to prancing around with his hands down around his waist. He was also partial to winding up exaggerated bolo punches and sticking his chin out in a taunting manner. Still, on a good night, against the right style, the transplanted Jamaican was a difficult puzzle to solve.

Against Butler, Grant used his superior speed, employing constant lateral movement, flicking jabs and an occasional offensive outburst to keep his adversary off-balance and lunging. He built a decent lead and had enough left to ride out a rough final round, when Butler finally broke through with some heavy shots.

The fight had provided little in the way of entertainment, but it was hard to argue with the unanimous decision in Grant's favor. It had been one of those uneventful and highly forgettable affairs, but didn't stay that way. Suddenly, things went horribly haywire.

Butler pretended to approach Grant for the customary post-fight handshake, but instead sucker punched him flush in the face with a wicked right. Butler's gloves had already been removed and the sickening impact knocked Grant to the floor and broke his jaw.

It was perhaps the most cowardly act I've ever seen a boxer commit in the ring. The sight of Grant on the canvas, blood leaking from his mouth as one of his handlers cradled him in his arms, was heartbreaking -- a pugilistic version of Michelangelo's "Pieta."

Justice was swift. Butler couldn't have picked a worse night to commit such a barefaced crime. The event was a benefit for the Twin Towers Fund and around 500 police officers and firemen were in attendance. As he left the ring to angry chants of "Lock him up!" Butler was handcuffed and hauled away. Although temporarily freed on bail, he was ultimately convicted of assault and spent four months in the Riker's Island detention facility.

Tragically, the brutal episode foreshadowed an even more atrocious act of violence. Three years after mugging Grant, Butler murdered Sam Kellerman (brother of boxing broadcaster Max Kellerman) and set fire to Sam's apartment in a failed attempt to cover up his crime. In 2006, Butler pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and arson, and is currently serving a 29-year prison sentence.

Grant recovered from his broken jaw and lacerated tongue, and fought on until 2007 with modest success. If remembered at all today, it is because he was the victim of one of the sport's most notorious cheap shots.

If Butler's post-fight depravity represented the worst of boxing, the 10-round junior middleweight bout between Delvin Rodriguez and Powel Wolak, held at the Roseland Ballroom on July 15, 2011, embodied some of the sport's finest qualities. Self-defense wasn't one of them, but if you enjoy relentless slugging, stubborn courage and white-knuckle drama, the scintillating draw between Rodriguez and Wolak was all you could wish for and more. The fight was selected as SI.com's 2011 Fight of the Year.

I watched at home, riveted to the TV screen as Rodriguez and Wolak whaled away at one another round after round. Wolak developed a humongous hematoma over his right eye that eventually spread to form a ridge-like protrusion covering most of his brow. But he told the doc he could see and kept plowing forward.

There were moments of sheer insanity, and at one point, "Friday Night Fights" play-by-play guy Joe Tessitore yelled, "It's a left to the hematoma," bringing an unintended note of levity to an otherwise ferocious situation.

When the final bell rang, an animal-like roar erupted from the crowd and Tessitore screamed, "Was that brilliant? Was that absolutely brilliant?"

Yes it was. So brilliant, in fact, that they did it again that January -- at the Garden for a lot more money. By then Wolak was a spent bullet. He'd given everything he had that glorious night at the Roseland Ballroom and retired after losing a decision in the encore. Rodriguez is still trading punches for a living.

Boxing is frequently one of the last attractions to play a faded nightspot. Prize fighting would never have been tolerated during the early years when Roseland billed itself as the "home of refined dancing," but decades of taxi dancing, disco nights and mosh pits have created a shabby-chic atmosphere and semi-outlaw vibe. Down the homestretch, boxing was a perfect fit.