One weekend last fall a visiting couple innocently ventured into the industrial reaches of Allentown, Pa. Strangers to the area, they were directed to the city's largest hotel, the Americus, a doughty old survivor of the steamer-trunk era. While the husband tended to their bags, his wife strolled into the hotel only to come rushing out moments later looking thunderstruck. "There are all these old people sitting around in there," she sputtered. "And, and...they're fighting in the lobby!"
Like a castaway stumbling upon some strange tribal rite in mid-jungle, the husband decided in a spirit of adventure to check in and have a closer look. At the very least, a geriatric free-for-all promised to be more diverting than the polka band at the Holiday Inn.
The senior citizens were for real; three floors of the Americus are reserved for elderly residents. As for the slugfest, well, delusions of mayhem were understandable, for strutting and shadow boxing their way among the old folks nodding off in the lobby that Saturday evening were all manner of aspiring young pugilists and their bent-nose handlers. But no blood was spilled among the potted palms. That came later in the ring set up in the ballroom of the Americus.
What the visitors had chanced upon was the hotel's monthly amateur boxing night, a scene conjured up not by Fellini but by Ring 23, the local chapter of the National Veteran Boxers Association. As a slice of Americana, the ballroom bouts are as reflective of Allentown's fighting past as is the Old Zion Reformed Church across the street, where the Liberty Bell was hidden when the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777. As a sporting event, the Americus boxing program, now in its third year, is a slam-bang success. The demand for tickets ($4 top) is so great that the hotel recently tore down a ballroom wall and expanded the seating to 650. And in addition to the previous fare of beer and hot dogs, a new bar has been put in so that spectators can sip their martinis at ringside.
February 21, 1977
The action is hard to miss. TV 4, a local cable station that serves an audience of 150,000 in a 40-mile radius, telecasts tapes of Boxing from the Americus every Wednesday evening at 9:30. A hit at the exclusive Lehigh Valley Club, as well as at the American Legion Hall, the TV show also lures fans from distant towns to camp out in Allentown bars on fight night. "I don't know if the appeal is the youthful enthusiasm of the fighters or what," says TV 4 vice-president Don Berner. "All I know is that we have to carry Americus boxing. It's a fixture."
All of which has ringside elders harking back to the good old two-fisted days before World War II when Allentown, the Truck Capital of the World, liked to bill itself as the Boxing Capital of the Eastern United States. Back then, claim the oldtimers, the phrase "built like a Mack truck" was inspired by more than one hometown product. They tell of epic heavyweight clashes at the Allentown fairgrounds and of torchlight parades for Eddie Moy when he brought home the Australian lightweight crown in 1910. They extol faded heroes like Allentown Dundee, Ringtown Reilly and the ever-popular Prince Henry, a featherweight who helped pay for the groceries by fighting exhibition bouts with his wife, the scrappy crowd-pleaser Princess Henry.
Reminiscing, in fact, has always been a favorite pastime of Ring 23. Trouble was, for too many years the group's meetings were little more than beery sessions in which such stalwarts as the late Pep Barone, Sonny Liston's former manager, would recall how he had to install his wayward champion in the Americus for periods of rehabilitation. And eventually some of the younger members began complaining that Ring 23 was neglecting its primary mission, which is to combat juvenile delinquency through the promotion of amateur boxing.
So in the summer of 1974 the group staged an outdoor boxing program at Riverfront Stadium and drew an enthusiastic crowd of 1,400. But when winter came, Ring 23 suddenly found that it had a lot of eager young fighters with nowhere to swing. Enter Al Moffa, the owner of the Americus, who offered the use of his ballroom for a cut-rate $150 because "a hotel should be the center of community life."
At first Ring 23 had difficulty attracting out-of-town talent. But soon such top clubs as the Smokin' Joe's from Philadelphia began taking part as did notables like Floyd Patterson, who brought in his stable of fighters from New Paltz, N.Y.
With everyone pitching in on a voluntary basis, the non-profit enterprise unfolded like a vintage Pat O'Brien movie co-starring the Dead End Kids. Nine months ago, for example, Ring 23 persuaded the city to donate the use of the basement of an abandoned firehouse in the impoverished 12th ward. After a massive cleanup job by the ex-fighters and their young charges, Ring 23 now has the makings of a professional gym and a promising future.
Billy Longo, president of the Lehigh Valley Old Time Boxers Association and a general contractor who, along with other local merchants, has helped with the refurbishing, says, "We're not trying to develop professional fighters. We're building kids, building character. In that respect we're all in the remodeling business. Some of these kids are plenty cocky when they first come in. We let a kid blow off steam before we ever put him into the ring. And when we do let him spar, we set him up against a more experienced guy who will move and tag him. He learns fast that he's not so tough. He gets punched in the nose a couple of times and pretty soon he's calling you 'Mister.' "
Ring 23 venerables go by other names as well. There is, for instance, Dipper Dopsovic, an ironworker who coaches the Lehigh University boxing team, and Battling Andy Haycak, who is 82 and serves as a judge when not training Larry Holmes, the sixth-ranked heavyweight. Eddie Thomas, proprietor of Eddie's Market, doubles as Ring 23's boxing director and TV 4's color man, analyzing the attacks of such Americus favorites as Homicide Jones and Mike (Little Dynamite) Kemmerer. Thomas' appraisal of a flurry that floored Larry (the Tree) Burdine: "Timberrrr!" But the real master of the rolling r's is ring announcer Joe McHugh, a former vaudeville comic whose nimbleness belies his age, which is 72. "Comes from all those years of dodging tomatoes," he says.
Although participation on Ring 23 cards is by invitation, the fact that all but the featured matches are arranged just an hour before fight time induces as many as 60 boxers to crowd into the makeshift matchmaker's room, a small dining area off the Americus lobby.
After fortifying himself with a beer, Billy Longo squeezed through the jostling crowd in the matchmaker's room one recent Saturday evening, and barked, "O.K., everybody strip down and get on the scales." While recording the age, weight and record of each fighter on a wall chart, he suddenly stopped to lecture one of the handlers. "Listen, don't try to con me. I know this kid of yours has had more than three fights. Our main concern here is to keep the kids alive. We don't want to break anyone's spirit by mismatching them."
When Longo stepped back to ponder the completed chart, the crowd pressed forward and a slave-market cacophony began.
Trainer: C'mon, Billy, you give me this one and I'll give you any two of my main boys next time, O.K.?
Doctor: Please stop shouting so I can listen to this boy's heart and lungs.
Trainer: Hey, I'm not going to give away 10 pounds! That's crazy!
Parent: Cut out the shovin'!
Doctor: Keep it down, please!
Trainer: No deal. That's the kid that won the other night in Reading.
Heavyweight: I'll fight anybody up there!
Finally, turning a deaf ear to everyone, Longo filled in the names for eight matches and fled to the bar.
Before the three-round bouts came the introductions by Joe (the Living Legend of the Ring) McHugh. "Laaadies and gentlemen," he trilled, his orotund tones all but tinkling the crystal chandeliers overhead, "welcome to an evening of boxing in the grrand ballroom of the Amerrricus Hotel, the Bicentennial headquarters of Allentown, the All-Amerrica City."
And so it began, rrright there in the great mirrored hall beneath a commanding portrait of General Harry Clay Trexler, soldier, farmer, philanthropist. Tyrone Page, student, boxer, will-o'-the-wisp, set the tone for the evening by defeating Anthony Baker of Kennett Square, Pa. in a stylishly furious opening bout. In fact, Tyrone not only displayed some of the classiest moves of the night, but also served notice that he could well become—remember, you heard it here first—America's first teen-age world champion. First, however, he has to become a teen-ager. Tyrone, who is 12 and weighs 85 pounds, is working on it.
For all the seeming chaos of the matchmaking process, the one distinguishing feature of the Americus bouts was the evenness of the competition. In the only slight mismatch of the evening, Battling Billy Marks, a high school tackle for the undefeated Whitehall Zephyrs of Bethlehem, Pa., pursued Honda Price of nearby Easton as though he were a gimpy quarterback to score the lone knockdown of the evening.
The action was fast, fierce and almost nonstop and there were trophies for all donated by local merchants. For $25 a throw, the sponsors not only received exposure on TV 4 but also got to hear the grandiloquent McHugh intone plugs for such humanitarians as "Mike Fonzone, the frrriendly Fender Dent-ist at Supreme Auto Body, 24-hour towing serrrvice," and "Eddie Haines, the local taxidermist who specializes in deer-head mounting."
At stake in the four-round main event, which pitted Showboat Parker against Allentown's own Bob Alpha, was the amateur middleweight championship of Pennsylvania. Short on finesse, they went at it from bell to bell—and beyond. At the end of the final round of the bout, which Parker won on a unanimous decision, the hammer on the bell broke, and while the timekeeper frantically tried striking it with his knuckles and anything else that was handy the fighters battled well beyond the time limit. Finally, someone in the audience tossed in a beer can, and so it all ended, not with a clang, but a clunk.
But the echoes roll on. If anyone wonders why boxing in the U.S., which has been counted out more times than Muhammad Ali has retired, keeps coming back, let him go to Allentown.