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Tales of the Canvas

Boxing History Is Rich with Stories of Courage, Pain and Smoke
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

It's a sticky summer night at the Blue Horizon in North Philly. Outside this citadel of sweat a patron warns, "If you park your car, pay somebody to watch it." No matter. Didn't Rocky, The Set-Up and countless other fight films show us that boxers spring up from tough, uncompromising neighborhoods? These streets of Philadelphia are hardly streets of brotherly love. But they are familiar streets, especially to 16 pugilists paired off inside for the evening's fights.

This fortress of fistiana is 75 years old, but it looks as if it was built during the Pleistocene Era. The ceilings are cracked porcelain; wooden seats fill the balcony and metal folding chairs crowd the floor, accommodating 1,300 fight fans. Members of the press, athletic officials and a doctor sit at ringside, crowding the canvas. At the center of it all is the square ring, bathed in white-hot TV lights from the USA Network.

Some fans complained about the fumes, so new rules have forced smoking outside. Thus, no Runyonesque reporters bang out copy on deadline with a smoke. But a fire escape just 10 yards from the ring is a magnet for professionals and fight-wizened vets to light up their smokes. From there they can see the action and hear the distant thud of heavy punches. Cheers and whistles greet the ring card girls--Amy and Karyn--who prance about in bikinis. Another card girl, a newcomer to the profession, is showered with boos for not jiggling enough, the crowd chanting "Bor-ing, Bor-ing" in the same cadence that baseball fans mock Strawberry with the chant of "Dar-ryl, Dar-ryl." Philadelphia, you must understand, is the same town that once lustily booed Santa Claus during an Eagles football game.

The Blue Horizon is a last outpost, a throwback, an all-male sanctuary--plus a few females on dates--that brings us back to the kinds of cozy arenas that once dedicated themselves to fistic fury. Light heavyweight champ Harold Johnson fought here in the 1960s, as did welterweight title holder Curtis Cokes. On the streets outside they are the stuff of legend.

While no fighter on tonight's card is a household name, each is a dedicated pro. All fights are between four and 12 rounds and earn a boxer between $400 and $10,000, depending on the length of the bout and whether it is a main event. For such modest fees they fight their hearts out. The sellout crowds come to see war, not some artful dance or display of "sweet science," so extolled by the boxing scribe A.J. Leibling. Fights are short, energy is high, crowds rarely disappointed.

"What makes a good fight is two guys who come to fight like Tyson or Frazier," says Russell Peltz, matchmaker par excellence for the Horizon. "People come out to fights to see people get hit and clocked and see street fights. Not too many are interested in the manly art of self-defense." If Peltz were offered a match between two guys as gifted and elusive as welterweight Pernell Whitaker--regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet--he says he would refuse it.

Believe him. In the sixth bout on the card, lightweight Ivan Robinson lands a glancing blow, cutting Jimmy Deoria's right eyelid. Since the eyelid is the thinnest skin on the human body, the wound causes a fountain of blood--the kind of absurd geyser that Martin Scorcese had spouting from Robert De Niro's forehead after Sugar Ray Robinson's blows in Raging Bull. A local cop and crowd favorite from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Deoria is not hurt but a ringside doctor checks him out. "Only in Philadelphia would they allow this to continue," says Peltz, who has been matching young fighters since 1969.

Robinson now turns his attention to aggravating the cut with a deft series of right hands. First row notes and scorecards get showered with blood. The doctor investigates again and this time stops the contest. A discussion ensues about whether a head butt caused the bleeding, but after five minutes it is ruled that the cut resulted from punching, and Robinson is declared the winner. Deoria, unhurt, pleads his case to no avail.

A break in the action allows ticket holders to head for the fire escape. An attorney, Scott Cooper, draws on an Arturo Fuente and explains the appeal of the fights. "This is like stepping back into the 1940s," he says. "It's the right kind of place to see this stuff."

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