This is not your grandfather’s Friday Night Fights. A generation or two ago, a boxing fan in any decent-sized American city could count on finding a professional fight card almost every week in some local arena or club. Those days are long gone, knocked out by television, then pay-per-view and eventually by the 24/7 sports and entertainment stream. As a result, the concept of taking in a live boxing show is about as foreign to most Millennials as going to the drive-in or listening to baseball games on the radio. But in New Orleans one fistic visionary is reinventing the concept of the boxing show, and in the process bringing a new generation of fans to the sport.
Mike Tata is the owner of Friday Night Fights Gym, a decidedly (and soul-satisfyingly) no-frills establishment in a still-rough, if transitioning, stretch of the Central City district. Basically a concrete shell with peeling walls, a single elevated ring, some heavy bags and an array of well-used weight-training equipment, the gym is clearly not meant to attract the Zumba-after-work crowd. The clientele is a mix of aspiring amateur and professional fighters and students and white-collar types interested in the fitness benefits—and perhaps the character-testing challenges—of boxing.
But for Tata—who opened his first gym in New Orleans in 2005, uptown on Freret Street, and then moved to his present location when Freret began to catch on and the rent got too steep—the essence of the Friday Night Fights Gym is, well, his Friday Night Fights. Each of these semi-monthly only-in-Nola extravaganzas (think Mardi Gras meets The Contender) features a slate of USA Boxing-sanctioned amateur bouts held in a ring set up outside on the street and interspersed with entertainment that would have curled your grandfather’s mustache. Singers, rappers, burlesque dancers and drag performers all take turns in the ring. There’s always a beauty contest too, open to women and men.
“There are two kinds of people who come,” Tata says of his shows, which are also enlivened by a liberal BYOB policy. “Those who want to watch the show and those who want to be part of the show.”
Tata’s last edition of FNF, held on March 4, drew 1,400 people, most of whom wanted to do at least a little of both (see video below, by Edward Holub). His next one is this Friday night. As usual, tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door, with all U.S. military personnel admitted free (along with students from one of the area’s colleges, this time around the University of New Orleans).
And, oh, yeah, it’s summer time, so anyone in a swimsuit also gets in free.
Tata says this Friday’s show will have 10-12 bouts, including three female fights. Grammy-winning New Orleans jazz star Irvin Mayfield will play the National Anthem, and Tata promises, among other entertainers, two dance troupes, a drag queen and a burlesque dancer who spits fire while performing a striptease to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
That’s more entertainment right there than in the last six fights of Floyd Mayweather’s career.
But wait, there’s more!
Continuing with the summer theme, there will be a coed swimsuit contest, with the winner, whether male or female, being awarded a cash prize and a crown.
“It usually ends up going to the 400-pound guy in a Speedo,” says Tata.
Proving, as always in boxing, that the heavyweights take the show.
So the next time somebody tells you that boxing’s dead tell them to put on a swimsuit and head down to New Orleans.