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Boxing is alive and well in Los Angeles

20
Jan

The thrilling Chris Arreola-Travis Walker fight on Nov. 29 at the new Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., is only one recent example of the Los Angeles area's vibrant boxing scene. Photo / Jorge Ramon-hoganphotos.com

It’s not yet official, but with only four days left, it looks like the welterweight showdown between Antonio Margarito and Shane Mosley will sell out.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’ll fill the arena,” said Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank, Inc. and co-promoter of the show, which takes place at Staples Center this Saturday. “There are less than 2,500 tickets left; and all of those are the $25 upper-level seats. The lower bowl is gone.”

Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Mosley, is just as confident as Arum that the downtown-Los Angeles arena will be filled to capacity.

“We’ve sold 12,500 tickets already and the arena only holds around 16,000 for boxing, not including the luxury suites,” Schaefer said Monday afternoon.

The brisk sales have been a pleasant surprise to both promoters, who knew they had an exciting matchup but were unsure whether the fighters – neither of whom are big ticket sellers on their own – could attract large numbers to Staples during tight economic times so soon after the holiday season.

“When the fight was first put together we were looking at having it at the MGM Grand,” Arum said. “But they weren’t that high on it because it was a week before the Super Bowl, and they weren’t sure if fans from Los Angeles would make the trip to see the fight live.

“So Schaefer and I figured if the success of the fight depended on Los Angles fans, why not hold the fight in L.A.?”

The Jan. 24 date was open and, according to Arum, the fight has practically sold itself since the box office opened, the latest indication that boxing in the greater Los Angeles area is making a comeback.

“We had an advertising budget for this fight but we haven’t touched it,” Arum said. “We didn’t spend a nickel on advertising this fight in print, on TV or on radio. Had the fight landed in Las Vegas we would have probably spent $75,000 or more on ads geared to attracting L.A. fans. But fans are less likely to travel to Las Vegas because of the economy. It just costs too much. They’d rather stay home.”

For many years, L.A. fight fans stayed at home even when there were semi-regular boxing shows at the Grand Olympic Auditorium and the Forum in Inglewood. That’s because the quality of the matchups and the magnitude of the events began a downward slide in the late ’80s and continued throughout the ’90s.

During this period, the best fighters and the most popular attractions from L.A. plied their trade in Las Vegas. Los Angeles-based promoters, such as Forum Boxing Inc., and local venues could not compete with the site fees Las Vegas casinos could offer top talent and the sport’s bigger promotional companies.

So L.A. fans were able to watch homegrown talents like Oscar De La Hoya and Mexican phenoms like Marco Antonio Barrera develop into contenders at the Olympic and the Forum, but by the time those boxers emerged as stars both fought almost exclusively in Las Vegas.

Julio Cesar Chavez, who won his first world title at the Olympic in 1984 and fought in L.A. four times between ’85 and ’89 (including two title defenses at the Forum), did not fight in L.A. during his glory years of the early-to-mid-’90s. Once Chavez elevated to Mexican-hero status following the first Meldrick Taylor fight, Las Vegas became his home when he fought in the U.S.

The boxing scene in L.A. seemed to grind to a halt when the Forum closed its doors to the sport in ’99 and the Olympic, which had only sporadically featured boxing during the ’90s and the early part of this decade, followed suit in 2005. Both storied venues became churches.

“They pulled the plug on boxing in Los Angeles last week,” was the lead to L.A Times fight scribe Steve Springer’s column on the closing of Forum Boxing, the Jerry Buss-owned promotional company that put on shows at the Forum for a 17-year stretch.

But boxing was not dead. When the newly constructed Staples Center began showcasing major boxing cards in 2000, there was at least hope that the sport would once again thrive as the venue was willing to compete with Las Vegas for high-profile fights like the first De La Hoya-Mosley fight, and heavyweight championship bouts involving Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko.

Those fights did extremely well at the box-office, encouraging other major Southern California sports venues to follow suit. Big-time boxing, which for a while seemed like an annual event in the greater L.A. area, now appears to be a semi-monthly sporting attraction.

Next month Arum will co-promote a junior bantamweight title clash between hard-hitting unified beltholder Vic Darchinyan and popular Mexican brawler Jorge Arce at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Arum predicts a lively crowd of 10,000 for the stacked Feb. 7 card, a realistic projection considering that Arce drew around 8,000 when he headlined the arena in January of ’07 against unknown South American Julio Ler.

Since that card took place, the Margarito-Paul Williams welterweight title fight sold out the Home Depot Center outdoor tennis arena in Carson in July of ’07. Fernando Vargas and Ricardo Mayorga drew 10,000 to Staples Center in November of ’07 (the day after Thanksgiving). Last March, the breath-taking rubber match between Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez sold out the Home Depot Center’s tennis arena, and two months later De La Hoya drew 30,000 to the Home Depot Center’s adjoining soccer stadium.

It all points to a resurgence of boxing, which comes as no surprise to Michael Roth, V.P. of Communications for AEG, the company that owns and operates Staples Center and the Home Depot Center.

“L.A. is a great sports town and it sits in the middle of Southern California, which has thousands and thousands of sports fans who want to see boxing at its best,” said Roth.

In recent years, Staples has attracted between 9,000 and 11,000 fans for Antonio Tarver-Glen Johnson I (2004), Sergio Mora-Peter Manfredo II (2005), Marco Antonio Barrera-Rocky Juarez I and James Toney-Samuel Peter I (2006), but the venue hasn’t come close to selling out since Roy Jones fought Julio Gonzalez in 2001 and De La Hoya-Mosley opened the arena to boxing in June of 2000.

Arum, who promoted both De La Hoya-Mosley and Jones-Gonzalez, says the key ingredient to a successful L.A. boxing card is a popular fighter of Mexican descent.

“If you want a show to really sell in L.A., you absolutely need to have a Mexican fighter involved,” he said. “If you don’t have a Mexican fighter who stimulates the local Hispanic fan base, you’re dead. You can do 7,000, 8,000 or so, but you’re not going to exceed 10,000. Jones-Gonzalez did 20,000 because we put Erik Morales in the co-feature. We did 12,000 to 13,000 with an old Julio Cesar Chavez against Ivan Robinson in 2005.

“We’ve always done well because we always geared our shows to the Hispanic audience. The majority of the population in L.A. are Mexican-American or from Mexico and they are the most loyal boxing fans.”

Arum believes that his fighter, Margarito, born in Torrance, Calif. but raised in Tijuana, has picked up the torch left by Chavez and Morales

“He’s become a huge attraction in Mexico and to Mexican fight fans,” said Arum. “Mosley’s a respected fighter, but we’ll see who sold most of the tickets when the crowd goes crazy for Margarito Saturday night.”

Schaefer believes the card’s success is the combination of Margarito and Mosley, a future hall of famer and Southern California native.

“Margarito-Mosley was the right fight for L.A.,” said Schaefer. “It doesn’t matter what city you’re in; if you make the right event for the right city, it will sell out.

“You see what Bob (Arum) recently did with Kelly Pavlik in Youngstown, Ohio, and we’re on our way to a sellout with the Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz card at the Toyota Center in Houston. That fight is on Feb. 28 and we’ve already sold two-thirds of the tickets. If you put on good matchups and include local fighters, like Rocky Juarez on the Houston card, the show is going to do well.”

Schaefer also believes that the quality of the venues help bring fans back to the sport.

“I think the Home Depot Center has helped revive boxing in L.A.,” he said. “It’s a spectacular place to watch the sport. It was made for tennis but it might as well have been made for boxing because there isn’t a bad seat in the arena. I think once fans have seen an open-air fight there, especially in the warmer months, they’re going to come back for more boxing.”

With a plethora of young talent from the Southern California area and world-class veterans who live and train in the area, Schaefer says there’s no reason regular boxing cards can’t return to L.A. along with the larger fights.

Roth agrees. He says AEG is committed to competing with Las Vegas for big events but is also interested in holding regular small-to-medium-sized boxing cards at its other venues, such as the new Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., which recently hosted popular Riverside, Calif.-based heavyweight prospect Chris Arreola, and the Nokia Theater inside the recently completed L.A. Live complex adjacent to Staples Center.

Dan Goossen, who promotes Arreola, plans to hold more shows headlined by the undefeated Mexican-American heavyweight at the Citizens Business Bank Arena this year, and Schaefer says that the April 11 middleweight showdown between Paul Williams and Winky Wright might land in the 7,000-seat Nokia Theater, the site of the 2008 ESPY Awards.

Schaefer adds that Golden Boy Promotions, which is based in L.A., is looking at bringing a monthly boxing card featuring local fighters to Club Nokia, a 2,500-seat theater in L.A. Live.

“We’re currently exploring a series that would give young, hungry emerging fighters a place to develop,” Schaefer said. “We want these young local fighters to attract a young, hip, sexy kind of crowd and Club Nokia looks like the perfect place for four- and six-round fights. There are upper-balcony seats that have a great view of the ring, much like the balcony seats at the Olympic did, and there’s a large standing room area by the bar where people can mingle.

“Boxing is back in L.A. and we’re going to let fans, and especially the new generation of fans, know it with monthly shows that feature good food and drink, good music in-between the fights, but most importantly good fights.

“Don Chargin, one of the all-time great promoters, was known as ‘War-A-Week’ for his weekly shows at the Olympic. Weekly fights would be pretty ambitious these days, but we’re going to try to do a ‘War-A-Month’ series and see what happens.”

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