FIGHTS TONITE. Trouble this morning.
Bennie Georgino—bail bondsman, saloon owner, fight manager, at age 60 no longer a lightweight—descends a staircase, his shoulders roiling like an angry sea. It's 10:43 on a Thursday morning, and as Georgino walks down a corridor in the Olympic Auditorium, the fight arena at 18th and South Grand in downtown Los Angeles and the last bucket of blood left in America, he isn't smiling.
"Struggling," Georgino says. "I'm struggling. We had a fighter fall out this morning. Abedoy. The guy who was supposed to fight Montes."
Johnny Montes, 20 years old, 20-0, a promising lightweight, had been scheduled to go 10 rounds tonight against Manuel Abedoy. That isn't going to happen now, and Georgino, who manages Montes, is aggravated. "There's nothing I can do," he says. "But Don is upstairs going crazy."
In his office tucked in a corner under the arena's octagonal balcony, Don (War-A-Week) Chargin, the Olympic's matchmaker, is working the phones. There are two of them, each with 15 lines, and they're blinking like the tote board at Churchill Downs on Derby day. There are 15 minutes before the weigh-in, and Chargin has six fights scheduled. But he has only 11 fighters to step on the scale.
"Abedoy's manager called me at one o'clock this morning," Chargin says. "The flipping fighter disappeared. His wife doesn't know where he is. His manager doesn't know where he is. He's had something like 50 fights. He just gave Tony Baltazar a tough 10 rounds. He's past disappearing because he's scared."
Lately, this kind of thing has been happening all too frequently. Twice in the preceding two months Chargin has had to alter cards on 48 hours' notice because his headliner—a welterweight from Guadalajara—couldn't get a work visa. A couple of weeks ago he found a substitute at four o'clock for a bout that was to begin at eight.
Chargin is calling San Diego and Las Vegas and San Diego again. Eric Bonilla, a journeyman with a 28-20-4 record, would be a suitable opponent for Montes. He's willing and able to fight, he's in shape and he knows how to get to the Olympic. Moreover, $1,500 for a night's work sounds good to him. However, there's a small problem. Fifteen days earlier, in a fight in Las Vegas, Bonilla was involved in an incident which resulted in his mistakenly being placed on suspension by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. There are still six days left on the suspension and Chargin has to get the Nevada commission to clear Bonilla so the California commission will allow the fighter to work tonight.
"They're making an old man out of me," says Chargin, who's 54. "But what kills me is that it was such a good fight. It isn't easy to get fights for Montes."
By the time of the weigh-in, though, Bonilla is set, Georgino is satisfied, and Chargin feels young again.
Ben Lopez is young. He's sitting at ringside at 11 a.m., waiting to be called to the scales. Lopez, 20, is wearing a grease-stained, short-sleeve blue work shirt with his first name embroidered in blue script on a little white oval over the left breast pocket. In his right breast pocket are three ballpoint pens and a tire pressure gauge. Lopez has already put in two hours at Joe Evans' Tire Service in Glendale. He has the rest of the day off because tonight he'll have his first pro fight.
Like so many kids who have come here, Lopez, a superfeatherweight, is trying to leave something behind. "I want to fight because I want to better myself in life," he says. "Before, I wasn't getting nowhere. I was smoking marijuana, drinking beer. Nothing too heavy, but I didn't feel good about myself. Now I feel good, I feel clean, I feel closer to God."
Lopez is trained by Franck Muche, whose 55-year-old face sags from the weight of the 317 fights he had between 1940 and '51. For the last three decades Muche has been training fighters at the Pasadena Y. He has never had a champ or a kid who went very far. "I'm a pari-mutuel clerk, and the racetrack's my bread and butter," he says. "But working with the kids is what I love."
In this building they have been playing out that love affair for almost 57 years. The history isn't important to Lopez—he wants to make weight and get on with business—but he's part of the tradition of the Olympic that refuses to die.
The Olympic Auditorium opened on the night of Aug. 6, 1925, with a card featuring a bout between two fellows named Young Nationalist and Newsboy Brown. L.A. Mayor George Cryer cut the ribbon to dedicate the building. Among the first-nighters were Rudolph Valentino, Joseph Schenck, Jack Warner, Sid Grauman, Sol Lesser, William Desmond and Jack and Estelle Dempsey. Were such an opening held today it surely would be the subject of a two-hour TV special.
At the time, the Olympic was an architectural gem. With 10,096 seats it was—and is—larger than any other U.S. arena built specifically for boxing. Spectacular murals, now obscured by dirt and by a Crosshatch of extra beams added as the building deteriorated over the years, decorated the 70-foot-high ceiling. Red velour drapes guarded the entry way of each aisle and added to the air of elegance.
The Olympic was the brainchild of Frank Garbutt, founder of the tony Los Angeles Athletic Club, which owned the arena until 1980. It was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood & Company in the style of the Italian Renaissance: big, blocky and stucco, and was built by A.C. Pillsbury. It was named the Olympic in the hope that L.A would someday host the Olympic Games. In 1932 it was, in fact, the site of boxing, wrestling and weightlifting competitions during the Games. Even then, however, its essential nature was that of a fight club—smoky, dreary, devoted to machismo and honor.
By 1942 the arena had become unprofitable and, out of desperation, Garbutt asked the club's advertising director, a widow named Aileen LeBell, to revive the operation. She enlisted Cal Eaton, an inspector for the state athletic commission. When they arrived at the Olympic, Babe McCoy, the matchmaker and perhaps the building's most valuable asset, threatened to quit; he had no interest in promoting fights with a woman. "Cal told Babe I came with the lease, but that I wouldn't last more than a couple of months," Aileen says.
Aileen lasted as the promoter at the Olympic until 1980. During her 38 years there she refused to buy the building for $80,000 ("That was in 1943," she says. "Cal and I decided not to gamble, and kept on paying rent. I don't know how many millions in rent we wound up paying"); married Cal in 1948 ("We had a wonderful life together before he died in 1966"); kept alive the last weekly boxing club in America; and, in the years between the International Boxing Club scandals of 1959 and the advent of zillion-dollar closed-circuit television championship bouts in the '70s, became one of the most powerful and important figures in the game.
Ask anyone why the Olympic survived, and you usually get a two-word answer: Aileen Eaton. For approximately $125,000 a year, she held the master lease and ruled the place as if it were her fief. She's 73 now and as she sits in the living room of her spacious home in Hancock Park, she's having a good time reflecting on her accomplishments.
"I shouldn't say this," she says, "but I think I made the Olympic survive. I just love boxing. I love the kids. I love to watch them from the time they're amateurs to when they win the title. I loved it even when business was bad."
When business was bad, she lived off the receipts from professional wrestling and the Roller Derby. When times were good she promoted her shows like crazy. As the population changed—as the fighters and fans changed from ethnic whites to blacks to Latin American immigrants—she changed with it. For the last 15 years they've been boxing to a decidedly Salsa beat at the Olympic.
This doesn't mean, however, that brotherhood has always been fostered. In 1964, for instance, Hiroyuki Ebihara, a Japanese flyweight, had the bad luck to win a 12-round decision over Alacran Torres, a local favorite by way of Guadalajara. Seats, jagged signboards and beer bottles rained down from the balcony. Eaton was at once distraught and filled with admiration. "We had wanted to get new seats, but we couldn't get them out of the cement," she says. "But, somehow, they got them out. After that, we borrowed $185,000 and fixed up the place."
Later that evening, a reporter from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner was interviewing casualties as they left the building. He saw a man with a heavily bandaged eye. "What did you get hit with? A bottle? A chair?" the reporter asked.
"A left hook in the third," said the man, who had fought on the undercard.
Eaton's proudest memories are of raw prospects maturing to become contenders and champions: Jerry Quarry and Joe Orbillo and Mando Ramos and Ruben Navarro and Raul Rojas and Art Aragon and Frankie Crawford and Hedgemon Lewis and Danny (Little Red) Lopez. And there were the legends who stopped by on the way up or the way down: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson and Sugar Ray Robinson.
But all of them pale in Eaton's heart when compared with Carlos Palomino, who grew up in the Olympic, defended his WBC welterweight title four times in the Olympic and now returns as a retiree to watch the Thursday night fights.
"I think my fondest memory was when Don sent Carlos to London to fight for the welterweight title," she says. "He told Carlos to win, come home and defend the title here. At three o'clock in the afternoon Carlos called from the dressing room in London to tell Don he'd won the title from John Stracey. He said he wanted us to hear it from him. It takes a nice kid to do something like that."
Eaton put on 49 boxing shows a year—taking off only Thanksgiving and two Thursdays around Christmas and New Year's—at her beloved Olympic. "I was," she says, "retired by force."
In 1980 the L.A.A.C. put the Olympic up for sale. Eaton wanted to buy it this time, and she tried to make a deal. The athletic club wanted $5 million. But the interest rate set by the banks—about 19%—was too high for Eaton's group to purchase the building at that price.
Then a local parking-lot and real-estate mogul named Jack Needleman saw a report on television that the Olympic would be doomed—i.e., would be razed to make way for a parking lot—if the club couldn't find a buyer willing to operate the building as an arena. He offered $3 million for the Olympic—and the L.A.A.C. took it. Eaton fumed. "If I'd known they'd take $3 million, I could've arranged that without any problem," she says. "I thought they owed me. I was their tenant for 40 years."
Eaton's lease was up, and Needleman searched for a new tenant. "He said I was too old—I was 71 at the time—and I didn't know what I was doing," Eaton says. "I've got about 20 million trophies, and I didn't get them from not knowing anything."
Under Needleman's ownership, boxing got off to a shaky start; in fact, for several months in 1981 there weren't any weekly fights at the Olympic. Then last summer Rogelio Robles, 33, a partner in his family's company, La Reina, Inc., which is one of the largest manufacturers of frozen tortillas and other prepackaged Mexican food, became the promoter.
The youngest of 12 children, Robles came to Los Angeles from his native Guadalajara to work in his brother's food business and became a regular patron of the Olympic. In 1976 he started promoting bouts in L.A. And now he's reaching deep into his pocket to keep alive a tradition in a city that has precious few.
There is about the Olympic an urban flavor that's absent from most of Los Angeles. An hour before the fights the congregation gathers along South Grand Avenue, crowds around the three taco vans that pull up to the sidewalk along the parking lot and argues the fight game in a cacophony of English, Spanish, and, every once in a while, Japanese.
By 8 p.m. the fans are seated and ready. They assess the potential of the kids working the four-rounders and cast a critical eye on the veterans in the main events. Punchers are preferred; art doesn't sell well in the Olympic.
It's the fans' custom to show appreciation by throwing coins into the ring. A few weeks ago there was a hailstorm of quarters, nickels and dimes. The seconds collected the booty in a bloody towel and took it to the dressing room to divide evenly between the two fighters. Each one took home $200 extra. "You can always tell when it's been a good fight," says Allan Malamud, the executive sports editor of the Herald Examiner. "The ringsiders are covered up." As Malamud speaks, it's raining cold cash and his sweater is pulled over his head.
"You shut down the Olympic and you kill boxing in L.A.," says Georgino. He started going to the building in 1936 when he was a star of the weekly amateur bouts. "Now when they ask you where you boxed and you say the Olympic, they say you must be a pretty good fighter."
The Olympic is also pretty important to the movies. From the original Body and Soul (1947) to the Rocky trilogy and Raging Bull, most every fight movie has been shot in part in the Olympic. It is, some say, Hollywood's busiest studio.
Bonilla, the last-minute substitute, certainly doesn't care about that. What he's interested in is surviving. He has earned his $1,500 by taking a beating from Montes. After four rounds he quits on his stool. The crowd proves it can be unappreciative, too. It boos Bonilla.
"That's the one thing I really feel bad about," says Chargin. "When you get a guy to substitute for you in the middle of the night and the people boo him."
Chargin, resplendent in baby blue, set off by a touch of gold jewelry and wavy silver hair, is in his customary seat: seccond row, aisle. This has been his command post since he moved from Oakland in 1966. From here he orchestrates fight night, calling out orders into his hot line, a red telephone he keeps under his seat.
All things considered, Chargin is having a pretty good night. Compared with Ben Lopez, he's having a great night.
In a quarter of an hour, Lopez will make his debut. Now he's in the catacombs, the dank, decrepit warren of dressing rooms. The walls are covered with blistered yellow paint; hot-water pipes along the low ceilings provide the most inspiring decoration. The showers don't drain, and it seems that fresh air hasn't breezed through since the place was a hole in the ground.
Now in Room 5, a cell 10 feet long and perhaps four feet wide, Lopez is warming up. Muche holds out his right hand and Lopez pounds it. He jabs, he throws combinations, he grunts, he breaks a sweat, he makes a hell of a racket. And all the while, Arturo Leon, a warhorse who is to lose to Cubanito Perez, a fine prospect, in the 10-round lightweight main event, is asleep on a Formica counter top six feet away. He's stretched out from the sink to the wall, covered by his robe, using his gym bag for a pillow.
A voice tells Lopez the world is ready for him. He pulls a ratty black robe over his ratty white trunks and walks up the steps and down the aisle toward his dreams. A kid named Steve Sotelo, who was victorious in his pro debut a couple of weeks back at the Olympic, is taking the same walk.
Lopez acquits himself nicely in the first couple of minutes. He moves, he jabs, he stuns Sotelo. Then, with 15 seconds left in the first round, Sotelo connects with two rights and a left, and Lopez is knocked down. He's up at eight and holds on until the bell. Thirty-two seconds into the second round, Lopez is defenseless in Sotelo's corner. Almost before it began, Lopez' pro debut is over. He's led back to his cell.
He sits in a chair in a corner and Muche stands over him. This was a class, Muche explains; you went to school, and it's time to review what was learned.
"You had the guy on the ropes and you let him off," Muche says. "Then you stood there and he tagged you."
"Why'd they stop it?" Lopez asks.
"It ain't like the old days," Muche says. "A couple a punches and they stop the fight. You ain't hurt, are you?"
"No," Lopez says.
"O.K., it might be a good lesson for you, then," Muche says. "You got knocked on your ass, and it's a painful lesson, but at least you didn't get hurt."
"I didn't even know I was down until I got up," Lopez says. "I never felt the punch hit me."
"You took your shots, but there ain't no disgrace in that," Muche says. "Now you got to go to school. You got to work harder. You ought to be in the gym every day. This is when we find out whether you want it or not. One win don't make you a champ. One loss don't make you a bum. This is life in the raw right here. Now we find out what you're made of."
And that is exactly how they have been doing it here, at 18th and South Grand in downtown Los Angeles, for the last 57 years.