Detroit Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs envisioned Briggs Stadium as a multi-use sports palace along the lines of Yankee Stadium. To that end, he periodically rented his park for prizefights, including the only two title bouts staged at The Corner.
On September 20, 1939, native son Joe Louis met Bob Pastor in a scheduled 20-rounder. It was the Brown Bomber’s eighth defense of his heavyweight title but the first held in Detroit, an occasion that drew 33,868 to The Corner on a misty Wednesday night. They saw the 25-year-old champion floor his challenger six times, the last in the 11th round, en route to his 36th professional knockout.
“Bob didn’t quite follow our plan,” Pastor’s disconsolate trainer told reporters after the fight.
For his night’s work, Louis won $118,000 – three times what his favorite Tiger, Hank Greenberg, made that summer as baseball’s best-paid player.
Ten years later, Louis was retired from the ring and was promoting bouts with the International Boxing Club. He and James Norris arranged for the second title fight at The Corner.
On the rainy evening of June 16, 1949, a bull-nosed brawler from the Bronx named Jake LaMotta squared off against middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan at brightly lit Briggs Stadium. A disappointing crowd of 22,183 saw LaMotta mash the face of the 32-year-old Algerian fighter, who gamely fought the last several rounds with a left hand that was useless because of a shoulder injury.
“I’ll kill myself first,” Cerdan told his handlers as they repeatedly urged him to quit. Finally, before the start of the 10th round, they asked the referee to stop the fight. The technical knockout was the first time in 100 fights that Cerdan had been KO’d.
“It was the worst break a champion could have,” Louis told Cerdan in the dressing room.
The gate flop cost promoters and fighters tens of thousands of dollars. Despite poor advance sales, the IBC had spurned radio, TV, and newsreel films in anticipation of packing Briggs Stadium and drawing $350,000 in receipts. The 5,000 ringside seats, priced at $20, sold out. But the $15 and $10 grandstand seats remained half-filled. Cerdan, who reportedly rejected a $100,000 guarantee in favor of 40 percent of the net, wound up getting half that for losing his crown.
Bad luck soon gave way to tragedy. While LaMotta went on to forge a national reputation as boxing’s “Raging Bull,” Cerdan died in an airplane crash in the Azores during a flight back to the States for a rematch with LaMotta.
Outdoor boxing never caught on in Detroit. Most bouts continued to be held at Olympia Stadium, a venue controlled by the Norris family. Which was OK with Briggs, said his grandson, Mickey Briggs.
“My grandfather looked at the fights as being more of a civic obligation than a way to make money,” Mickey said. “He always hated what it did to his grass.”