bing crosby bob hope rocky marciano during opening of the new madison picture

Madison Square Garden's Not-So-Grand Opening

A little-known chapter of MSG’s voluminous boxing history was written on February 11, 1968, when Rocky Marciano squared off against … Bob Hope?

Today, when boxing fans want to see a big fight, there are two options: Las Vegas and pay-per-view. But for most of the twentieth century, there was only one: New York’s Madison Square Garden. In the house that legendary promoter Tex Rickard built, Rocky Marciano TKO’d Joe Louis, Jake LaMotta raged, and Cassius Clay floated and stung. Rickard's Garden opened in 1925 and closed in 1968. On February 11th of that year, a new Garden — today’s Garden — opened with as odd a boxing spectacle as New York ever saw

Fight Night for the USOBettmann/Bettmann Archive

The new arena's inaugural bout pitted retired champ Rocky Marciano (49-0) against comedian Bob Hope, a.k.a. Chicken Delight. Bing Crosby officiated. Barbara Eden, of “I Dream of Jeannie” fame, worked Hope’s corner as a nurse.

Opening of the New Madison Square Garden, 1968Ron Galella/WireImage

The gag fight was part of a charity event benefiting the United Service Organizations — a "Salute to the USO" — featuring comedy, song, and dance. After the match, Hope and Marciano did a ballroom act in the ring.

Opening of the New Madison Square Garden, 1968Ron Galella/WireImage

They were somewhat less practiced than variety-show favorite and USO-veteran Joey Heatherton, who also performed.

Bing Crosby (left) and Bob Hope on stage during rehearsal foNew York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

The evening was billed as Hope and Crosby's first public appearance together since their WWII-era shows, and the proceedings had a military theme: retired five-star General Omar Bradley was an honored guest; the West Point Glee Club sang "Anchors Aweigh" and "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder." Mayor John Lindsay made an appearance, too, cracking that after years of touring in war zones, Hope should feel right at home in New York. Hope moaned that Lindsay had stolen one of his best lines.

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In the years that followed, the new Garden did the old Garden proud, hosting the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971 (left) and Roberto Durán’s dethroning of Ken Buchanan in 1972 (right).

A record crowd of 19,959 jams Madison Square Garden for the New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

When the arena’s 82-year-old ring was finally retired in 2007, it was sent to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. If visitors listen closely, they can still hear the echo of Chicken Delight’s nimble footwork on its cushioned plywood floor.