When Ring Announcer Leonard Jacobsen stood up in his deep tan shoes and heavy-cream dinner jacket before the Patterson-Harris fight and, amplified, told the people that Los Angeles was "the boxing capital of the world," they laughed in 151 movie theaters, but in Wrigley Field a clamorous cheer arose. Although the Southland (a patois collective noun for L.A. and its broad banlieues) is hardly modest territory, Jacobsen had more than hyperbole going for him.
Los Angeles is the only city in the U.S., if not the world, which has two clubs putting on boxing shows practically every week of the year: the Olympic Auditorium on Thursdays and the Hollywood Legion Stadium on Saturdays. And business isn't half bad. Last year boxing admissions in the U.S. totaled $5.1 million. California did $1.3 million—more than any other state in the Union—and the Southland earned $900,000 of that. Now that New York's St. Nicholas Arena, which was subsidized by network TV, is dark, no other city has even one consecutive show with any kind of historical continuity. L.A., of course, does not support boxing in the heroic fashion it rallies to professional and collegiate football and those 13-game-behind arrivistes; even at the fights while all eyes are on the ring, many ears attend the Dodgers or Rams on portable radios. The record gross gate for L.A. and California is a so-so $234,183.25 (Patterson-Harris), a figure which has, however, been approximated regularly by such recent attractions as Halimi-Macias and Bassey-Moreno and is expected to be approached if not surpassed by the Aragon-Basilio fight on September 5.
The major reason why Los Angeles can sustain two clubs and occasional outdoor promotions in Wrigley Field is its large Mexican population and the Mexican nationals in wool hats who make the long bus trip up from the border to see their boxeadores. El culto extremado de los héroes (hero worship) is very big with Mexicans, and it helps make them the best and the most violent fight fans in the world; they say that in Mexico City, a net protects the contestants in the ring from the spectators' sentimentalismo. Although L.A. promoters have, on occasion, frantically telephoned the border ("They're coming in the windows!") to head off the buses, they must continually develop new Mexican fighters (or talent, as they say in the Southland), for el culto extremado demands that as soon as a héroe is soundly beaten, he is ignored and forgotten.
BIG HEART AND BEER
September 7, 1958
And why do Mexicans enjoy boxing? "There are no Mexican football players and no Mexican baseball players to speak of," says auburn-haired Aileen Eaton, who, with her husband Cal, a shallow-chested little man who tilts his hat to one side with both hands like John Barry-more, runs the Olympic. "There are Mexican jockeys," she says, "but who roots for jockeys? Boxing is their sport here because there is no bullfighting or soccer."
"They enjoy that type of entertainment," says Jim Ogilvie, manager of the Legion. "It's cockiness. It's the nature of the people."
"They got big heart, man," a guy told me. "I mean, those Mexicans go. The people just stand up and go ole, man."
The place where the Mexicans "go" is the Olympic, a big mauve-and-gray building erected in 1924 on South Grand with Roman medalions and "murials" of 20-foot fighters posed in front of draped curtains on the outside. Inside, it is a high, dark octagonal hall with the 10,400 seats steeply placed and Mexicans whistling with mucho sentimentalismo and length at the girls, without regard to beauty, whooping at their fighters—"¬°Cigalo! ¬°Cigalo! (After him!)"—and drinking enormous quantities of beer. "They drink beer, have a ball," says Mrs. Eaton. "And thank goodness for that. I have the concession."
The Original Juvenile Band, Mexican boys and girls from the East Side, play bullfight music with great feeling from the gallery between bouts. "We pay them a few dollars," Mrs. Eaton says, "and they see the fights. We bought them uniforms but they didn't wear them. 'Why aren't you wearing your uniforms?' we asked. 'We are afraid we will get them dirty,' they said. So we agreed to pay the cleaning bill but still they don't wear them unless it is an important fight. 'They are too hot,' they say."
The night I attended the Olympic, two bantamweights were in the star bout—Joe Becerra and Willie Parker. "We are going to lose money, on this fight," said Olympic Matchmaker George Parnassus, a somewhat melancholy Greek. "Becerra got knocked out in his last fight here. He has won in Mexico since then, but they do not know about it. But if Becerra wins tonight, we will make money the next time. Things they go up and things they go down. Two or three young fighters come along, and boom! they go up. It is like any other business. Boxing is not on the way out. We are fortunate enough, or crazy enough, to run every week. Many weeks we lose money but that's what develops the talent. A fighter cannot become an attraction sitting on his fanny."
Parnassus was right, the shabby hall was not even a third full. Becerra knocked Parker down three times in the second round and after the last knockdown the referee stopped the fight. "Beccccerrrrra!" they cried. Becerra danced lightly, jubilantly, holding his index fingers above his head. When he left the ring, he was carried by his admirers up the aisle, riding perilously on their shoulders, as a woman riding a jumper sidesaddle.
Becerra, like many of the fighters from viejo Mejico, speaks no English. He is a polite boy with a flat, kind face and wears a light suit with enormous shoulder pads and swooping lapels, from one of which dangle two miniature, jeweled boxing gloves. He smiles gravely and bows when introduced. He shakes your hand like all fighters, as though it were a live bird whose tiny bones would break if squeezed. "You are," a man told him, "one of the five cleanest-living fighters in all of Mexico, Joe. Tell him that, John." John told it to him in Spanish, and Becerra smiled and looked at the floor. It was a grand compliment.
Parnassus, a former manager, has an almost paternal attitude towards the Olympic. "I see a man being taken out by an officer," he says. "Perhaps he had had too much to drink. I say to him, 'Would you like to sit down with me?' So we sit down and I talk to him. I do not like to see anyone taken out of my place.
"And there was the time I saw some people tearing down my retaining wall. So I went up to them and I said, 'What are you doing?' 'We are tearing down the wall, Mr. Parnassus,' they said. 'Why are you doing that?' I said. 'Because we do not like the decision,' they said. 'I do not like it either,' I said. 'Here, let me help you.' And I take out a few bricks myself. They all laugh and stop tearing down my wall.
"But the main thing here is to get the people into the Thursday night habit. I don't want them to ask themselves who is fighting, what is his record, but remember that it is Thursday night and that is the night to go to the fights. Promoting is a business where you have to gamble to make attractions to make up for the losses. I am a gambler."
The Hollywood Legion Stadium is not. Owned and operated as a nonprofit, charitable enterprise by Post No. 43 of the American Legion, the mauve-and-white building with the movie-modern fa√ßade on North El Centro near the center of Hollywood was built in 1938 and seats 6,400.
A CLASSROOM IN HOLLYWOOD
"We're a conservative club," says Jim Ogilvie. "Now that competition between us and the Olympic is getting keen, that's when you have to gamble but we can't; we can't get the post in a hole on the boxing. That's why we're contemplating getting out of boxing."
Sid Ziff, Sports Editor of the L.A. Mirror-News, quotes Ed Underwood, chairman of the post's board of trustees, on this subject: "We believe," says Underwood, "that the day of the small, independent boxing club is gone and feel the sensible thing to do is to get a fixed income from the property. The Great American Public now wants a can of beer and a TV set and the hell with anything else."
The stadium, a spacious and well-lit arena in good repair, is, as Ogilvie says proudly, "wholesome. Fellows can bring their wives and girl friends. Why, until recently, we didn't even sell beer!" But there is an antiseptic, almost classroom air to the place. Elderly Legionnaires of disorderly sizes carry the flag into the ring before the main bout and the announcer tells you that the United States is "the greatest country in the world."
The night I was there, there were many children in the audience but, in curious apposition, wide-open gambling with fingers flourished for odds.
Now there is a third force in the Southland. It is Bill Rosensohn, the first of the Ivy League promoters, thin, as Stanislaus Joyce wrote of a contemporary, as a thrush's shin but dashing, enthusiastic and ingenuous. Along with the Legion, TelePromp-Ter and Jack Hurley, Rosensohn promoted the Patterson-Harris fight and, though the take was not as high as he first expected, it was higher than his predictions in the gloomy days before the fight. "I've got boundless energy," Rosensohn told me during that depressing time. "I look to do things where you put a hell of a lot of energy into a thing and then quit. Sure, I'll go for the big show in the future. And maybe I'll try to put on shows three times a month, too. Win, lose or draw on the Patterson fight, I've learned an awful lot. But whatever I lose is going to be cheap; I've got my foot in the door. You know what concerns me more than the dollar is the quality of the fight. This town has been played for a sucker with Silky Sullivan and Pete Rademacher. You've got to take care of the fans, or they won't take care of you."
Although no one truly knows why Los Angeles is a good weekly fight town ("The boxing's the cheapest place in town," a man told me. "For two bucks you can kill a night.") both the Legion and the Olympic feel that their survival has depended upon the assiduous buildup of local talent. "We made Art Aragon here, for example," says Ogilvie. "We gave him fairly soft opponents. Not too soft, you understand, just soft enough to tease him on. And since there's a small margin of profit in this business, it's cheaper to use a local product. It costs to bring fighters in. If you can keep building up local interest, you got it made." The genial weather and the tradition of consecutive shows have also helped; the Legion has been running 35 years, the Olympic's current series dates back to June, 1942.
Only Ed Underwood, then, sounds a dark note in the Southland. But he will, most likely, have little say in the future. It has been reliably reported that a deal is now being consummated in which new promoters will take over the boxing at the Legion for a figure in the neighborhood of $150,000 for three years. It has also been learned that Truman Gibson and the International Boxing Club, who have favored the Legion and the Olympic with some half dozen shows a year, are contemplating originating a great many more of their programs from Los Angeles.
"I realize we're still blowing dust out of our boots according to the people back east," says Jack Urch, Executive Officer of the California State Athletic Commission, "but I don't see why we can't make Los Angeles the fight capital of the United States."
Shucks, that's what Leonard Jacobsen, in his heavy-cream dinner jacket, was telling the people.