A Brief History of The Metropolitan Opera House of Philadelphia
On February 23rd, 2019, Hard Hitting Promotions will be bringing boxing back to the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia. It has been over 65 years since the Met hosted a boxing match. Recent renovations on the North Broad venue have brought the Met from disrepair to gorgeous.
Built in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein, it was the home of the Philadelphia Opera Company originally. In the 1930s, Jimmy Toppi Sr started hosting regular boxing events there. Toppi would showcase Philly fighters against regional opposition and helped further the city’s reputation as a fight town. Toppi carried on fights at The Met until 1953 when Jimmy Riggo started using the venue. Riggo’s tenure at The Met was short, with the last boxing match there being held on November 18, 1954.
That year, The Met was purchased by Reverend Theo Jones who stewarded the building for over 30 years. In the late 80s the venue began to fall into disrepair. By 1996, The Met was in such bad shape that the city threatened to demolish it before it was purchased by Reverend Mark Hatcher. Hatcher eventually reached out to developer Eric Blumenfeld and signed on current tenant Live Nation to hold concerts there.
Which brings us to now, the next great Era in this historical building’s life. Hard Hitting Promotions will reopen the venue to boxing on February 23rd and they are doing it with an ensemble card. Showcasing 12 bouts that night, Hard Hitting is delivering an event that is more than worthy of this historic venue. Tickets are going fast and you’ll want to get yours now.
In honor of this event, I am taking some time to examine the long and storied history of boxing at The Met. I wanted to know who fought there and what the events were like. Information on the fights that took place there can be a little difficult to come by, but I’ve managed to find some of the more interesting fighters and personalities that once graced this fine arena.
Jimmy Toppi is one of the looming giants of Philly boxing that people don’t know enough about. The man did it all in this city; many fights to his credit, owner of multiple venues, and all around legend in the boxing community.
Toppi, a 1975 Philadelphia Boxing Hall Of Fame inductee, was the man who put on nearly every fight at The Met until 1953. Pretty much all of the fighters listed in this article fought under Toppi’s promotion. Toppi is as responsible for Philly’s reputation as a boxing town as anyone else.
Toppi purchased the Alhambra Movie Theater in the late 1950s, which the New Alhambra Arena, aka 2300 Arena, aka ECW Arena ( I will throw as much ECW trivia into these as I can) was named for by J Russell Peltz and Joe Hand Promotions.
In 1965, the company which bore his name, James Toppi Enterprises, purchased the Philadelphia Arena and renamed it Toppi Stadium. He also purchased the Blue Horizon in 1961 and renovated it for boxing.
George Costner from Cincinnatti, OH, fought at The Met three times but only needed to put in 4 rounds of work. He knocked out three consecutive opponents; Pat Byers in the first, Kid Pambele in the second, and Doug Ratford in the first at The Met in 1949.
Costner would finish his career at 73-12-4 with his final fight being against Ike Williams at Shibe Park. Costner also fought Kid Gavilan, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake Lamotta, and Met mainstay Gene Burton twice.
Kid Gavilan, born Gerado Gonzalez in Havana, Cuba, is probably the most famous and accomplished boxer to fight at The Met. In 1947, Gavilan fought there in consecutive fights, winning decisions over Billy Nixon and Billy Justine.
Gavilan wasn’t known for his power, reaching a career record of 108 wins to 30 loses and 5 draws, but only 28 of his wins coming by knockout. Gavilan won his world title in 1951, beating Welterweight Johnny Bratton.
Gavilan became a Jehovah’s Witness later in life and was imprisoned by Fidel Castro for preaching his beliefs. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 77.
We had the privilege of having Lew Jenkins biographer, Gene Pantalone on our show before. If you haven’t had a chance to check out his book, do so now. Jenkins was a popular Texas lightweight who compiled a 75-41-5 record in his career. Guys just fought a lot more then than they do now.
Jenkins started his career in Texas state fairs before ultimately finding success in New York City under the guidance of his wife and manager, Katie Jenkins. Jenkins would win the Lightweight title at Madison Square Garden over Lou Ambers.
The hard drinking, hard throwing Texan fought at The Met twice. He scored a decision over Isaac Jenkins in 1949 and returned for a fourth round knockout over Santa Bucca later that year.
Percy Bassett fought at The Met 8 times in his career. Bassett’s career began in 1947 and stretched until 1955. Bassett would compile a record of 65-12-1 with 42 knockouts. Bassett never fought for a title but was considered one of the better contenders in his day.
It’s fun to find the big names like Jenkins and Gavilan coming to Philly to fight, but Bassett represents what boxing at The Met was about. Bassett, born in Virginia but called Philly his home, fought all over the world. But he always came home, fighting Philly fighters in Philly venues like The Met, Shibe Park, The Philadelphia Arena, and the Convention Hall. He fought Philly mainstays like Santa Bucca, Luis Ramos, and Archie Wilmer.
It’s great to see the venue opening up to boxing again. And it’s great to see it in the hands of promoters who showcase what Philly is all about. Hard Hitting Promotions has put on an amazing card for the triumphant return of boxing to The Met. Tickets for the event are going fast so make sure you get yours now.
All that is left is to ring the bell.