The Ridgewood Grove Arena was, at one point in time, our neighborhood’s answer to Madison Square Garden. The venue on the Brooklyn/Queens border attracted thousands of local residents for evenings of entertainment, from boxing and wrestling matches to even the circus.
Opened in 1926, the Ridgewood Grove Arena carved a small, yet unique place in sports history. Two of boxing’s greatest stars at the time — Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep — fought there, and wrestling legend Antonino Rocca made his American debut at the Grove.
On Nov. 3, 1939, it was also the site of the first televised indoor boxing match, which was produced by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). However, by the 1950s, the Ridgewood Grove was but a memory — closed and replaced by a King Kullen supermarket.
But years after the supermarket came and went, in 1982, two intrepid individuals — Frank and Nancy Sciacca — decided to try and revive the Ridgewood Grove Arena as a sporting venue.
Then-Ridgewood Times editor (and, later, owner and publisher) Maureen Walthers wrote about the Sciaccas in a “Community Cavalcade” column published on Sept. 30, 1982, headlined, “A New Round.” Excerpts of the column follows:
Exactly 56 years after its original opening day, the Ridgewood Grove, at St. Nicholas Avenue and Palmetto Street, again becomes a mecca for boxing fans.
“It was down for the count,” says fight promoter Nancy Sciacca, “but will now regain its former title.”
The doors to the Grove were shuttered in 1956, and it was turned into a supermarket, but the building, which has stood vacant for the past few years, was always a source of colorful and exciting stories for residents in the community.
“I grew up in the Ridgewood area, went to school here and was married in St. Joseph’s Church,” said Nancy. “My husband Frank and I worked together in our realty and construction business in the Bushwick section, and it was during that time [that] my husband introduced me to boxing,” she added.
In 1978, Nancy promoted her first show at Pratt Institute. “It wasn’t exactly the greatest boxing card in the world, but it was a beginning,” she added.
Her progression in the fight promoting business picked up and she scheduled three shows in 1978, followed by a series of other boxing shows in Harlem, Atlantic City, Pennsylvania and Florida. In 1981, she ran a boxing card at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, which paired John Verderosa, ranked fifth in Junior Lightweight Division, against Enrique Solice.
“Any promoter is not considered a major force unless they have their own site,” Nancy explained. “Since both my husband and myself knew the tradition of the Ridgewood Grove, we decided to direct our energies into restoring the Grove and reactivate the growing interest in boxing.”
After three years of negotiations with the previous owner of the property, a settlement was reached and work on the restoration of the Ridgewood Grove began. The current seating capacity is 2,500, and will eventually be enlarged to the original 5,000 seats.
The first card at the new Ridgewood Grove took place on Nov. 6, 1982, followed six days later by a Nov. 12 professional wrestling card that was advertised in the Ridgewood Times’ Nov. 4 issue.
The wrestling card, promoted by Sciacca Boxing Promotions, features some names recognizable to longtime fans.
The main event featured Bruno Sammartino Jr., the son of the legendary, longest-reigning World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) Champion, taking on Larry Zbyszko (name misspelled in ad), who went on to become one of the top wrestling stars in the American Wrestling Association and World Championship Wrestling.
The next month, the World Wrestling Federation (the original name of what we know today as WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment) held the first in a string of regular wrestling cards at Ridgewood Grove.
The WWF ran 16 house shows at Ridgewood Grove between Dec. 12, 1982, and Aug. 15, 1984, according to wrestlingdata.com. Going through the results of each shows, you’ll come across a who’s-who of professional wrestling legends who entertained fans in Ridgewood.
The main event, for instance, of the April 29, 1983, card at Ridgewood Grove featured none other than Andre the Giant, “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” teaming up with “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka and Tony Garea to defeat The Wild Samoans (Afa and Samula) and Don Muraco via disqualification.
Before Hulk Hogan came on the scene, Andre the Giant was biggest star in pro wrestling at the time — literally and figuratively. Hailing from “Grenoble in the French Alps,” Andre stood well over 7 feet tall and more than 450 pounds at his peak. A few years later, Andre gained worldwide fame for his role as Fezzik in “The Princess Bride.”
Andre the Giant returned to Ridgewood on July 15, 1983, for another six-man tag team match, teaming up with Rocky Johnson and Salvatore Bellomo to defeat three of the WWF’s top villains at the time: Sgt. Slaughter, Big John Studd and Mr. Fuji. Andre’s team swept the two-out-of-three falls contest.
Andre and Studd would face each other two years later in March 1985 at the first Wrestlemania, held at Madison Square Garden.
A few weeks later, on June 3, 1983, WWF Champion Bob Backlund successfully defended his World Heavyweight Championship at the Ridgewood Grove, besting Ivan Koloff. Backlund would lose the belt the following December to The Iron Sheik, ending his five-year run as champion.
Backlund would return to Ridgewood in January 1985 as a member of the AWA. He defeated the Masked Superstar in an undercard match via disqualification.
For all its history and the Sciaccas’ attempt to recapture the arena’s past glory, the Ridgewood Grove struggled for much of the 1980s and would eventually close. It became a warehouse that would be ravaged by a fire in 1997.
Today, multiple businesses occupy the former Ridgewood Grove site, including Arena Billiards and Cafe, whose name references its past history.
What are your memories of the Ridgewood Grove Arena? Send us an email or a letter, and we’d be happy to share them with our readers.
Sources: The Sept. 30, 1982, and Oct. 23, 2008, Ridgewood Times, and wrestlingdata.com.
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