Cigar Aficionado

Smoking and Boxing for Tuesday's Children

New York's boxing fans have been forcibly separated from their cigars since the smoking ban took over the city, regardless of the fact that cigars and boxing have always had a complementary, almost poetic relationship. It's a tragic breakup that I still mourn. Look at old photographs of boxing gyms, training camps and arena fights and you'll see that cigars and cigar smoke were practically characters playing a role throughout the history of the sport. Granted, the smoking ban is probably better for the fighters in the ring, but the ritualistic puffing of a good cigar while watching two prospects slug it out is now a fond memory and finable offense, which is why the Heroes and Legends…A Night at the Fights fundraiser was such a special event.

Penthouse Pets Krista Ayne (left) and Kimberly Williams clowning around with fight fans.

Held on Thursday, June 7, by Tuesday's Children, an organization dedicated to raising money for families who lost a parent in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the event featured seven amateur bouts at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Manhattan. Seven officers from the Los Angeles Police Department went up against seven officers from the New York Police Department, giving the event an East Coast versus West Coast theme. All the policemen were legitimate amateur boxers scheduled to fight three-round exhibition-style bouts while the spectators enjoyed a three-course dinner.

The evening started with a cocktail hour in an adjacent room where I met up with Jermaine Gurvin, brand manager for General Cigar Co. General was sponsoring the event and provided cigars for each guest, as well as a box of Partagas Decadas for the evening's auction. I've had mixed feelings about boxing events sponsored by cigar companies since the smoking ban. The companies' hearts are in the right place, but you're never allowed to smoke the cigars at the event. You either take them home, or you go outside, forced to choose between watching the fight or smoking a cigar. It's a frustrating choice to make, and cigar-sponsored fight events essentially end up being a big tease.

Almost as much of a tease as the Penthouse Pets who were circulating and signing autographs during the cocktail hour. Krista Ayne (April 2006) and Kimberly Williams (June, 2007) were attending as volunteer ring card girls, and Krista was even an auction item. The winner of the Penthouse auction lot gets a free dinner date with Krista at Robert's Steakhouse -- the restaurant within the Penthouse Club. I nursed a Jameson on the rocks while I eyed the Pets and considered how far this "dream date" at Robert's could go. Probably not too far. The girls in question were not at all like the cheesy B-level rented spokesmodels you normally find at events like this, but polished professionals with natural beauty, impeccable bodies and friendly dispositions, which could potentially be a bad thing. At least an aloof model never gives a guy false hope, especially one who's had too much to drink. Either way, they really helped bring the cocktail hour to life before many of the police officers and sports personalities attending the event filed in, most notably Jake LaMotta (middleweight champion, 1949—1951) and Joe Frazier (heavyweight champion, 1968—1973).

Boxing legends Joe Frazier and Jake LaMotta.

When the cocktail hour was over, we all made the mass exodus to the main ballroom, where round tables were set up throughout the room the way they are in any formal event, only the center of attention was a boxing ring. Every table had a cigar at each setting. Some tables had Punch cigars, others had Macanudos and Helixes. My table had a La Gloria Cubana at each plate, but I noticed ashtrays on the table as well. This was interesting. When I found my seat, one of the event planners came over and pointed to a table of police officers. Once they light up, I was told, it's the green light for everyone to start smoking. And these guys lit up almost immediately, so of course, as hard as it was to believe that I was actually going to smoke at a boxing event in a hotel, I lit up a Partagas 160 Robusto that I had brought with me, the perfect pre-meal smoke. It was difficult to relax at first. I thought at any moment I'd be attacked by a fleet of irate waiters, cleaver-wielding cooks and furious hotel managers, but nothing happened. Every table started lighting up until the whole room was festooned with cigar smoke while the waiters were serving the first course.

By then, the fights had started, and we smoked in peace. Overall, they were pretty good bouts and included all weight classes. The fights ranged from the plodding to the spirited, and I had a very good seat one table away from ringside.

After the first few fights, the ring announcer introduced some of the distinguished guests such as former Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz, former Mets and Phillies closer John Franco, former Knicks All-Star John Starks and Laker-turned-actor Rick Fox. When the announcer introduced Jake LaMotta and Joe Frazier, I decided I needed something more powerful now, so I lit up an OpusX Petit Lancero. LaMotta stood up and waved to a cheering crowd, as did Frazier.

Both of these fighters have something in common, which is why they were always favorites of mine: they toppled boxing titans. When no one thought that Sugar Ray Robinson could be beaten, Jake LaMotta knocked him out of the ring in 1943. Muhammed Ali's angelic aura of invincibility was destroyed when Joe Frazier knocked him to the canvas in 1971 with a head-on left hook, showing the world that an unbeatable fighter can and will be beaten. Fights like that are often traumatic to the boxing world, but boxing needs trauma now and then, because it's the trauma that stays with you, which is why the most memorable fight of the Heroes and Legends night was not the one that was most skillfully fought, but the one with the knockdown.

Alexis Ayala, a heavyweight from New York, opened the fight landing some very hard punches to Rahsaan Fobbs's face. I have to commend Ayala for not getting overzealous once he realized that he rattled his opponent. A hurt fighter is a dangerous fighter, and an experienced boxer knows this. Once Ayala landed two consecutive shots and wobbled his opponent, he instinctively stepped away from Fobbs, knowing that a hard, last-ditch-effort punch was probably coming his way, and he was correct. Fobbs threw an overhand right that missed. Then Ayala came back in, landed a few more hard head shots and again, avoided another desperate overhand. Finally, Ayala put the LA fighter down. The ref stopped the fight, and Fobbs left the ring as the only fighter of the evening to be knocked out, let alone knocked down. He probably could've used a cigar.

George Lopez from the LAPD works the body of Tony Fryre.

At the end of the evening, the NYPD won the exhibition, four fights to three, putting the crowd of mostly New Yorkers in a good mood for the auction. One of the most memorable auction lots was the Davidoff Cigar Experience, donated by Davidoff Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The winner of this lot, and five of his guests, would get private use of Davidoff's smoking lounge from 7—9 pm any day of the week to sample a select flight of Davidoff cigars. It sold for $2,000. Another lot was entitled Golf and Cigars at Trump National, which offered a golf threesome, lunch with Glen Dailey and a box of Partagas Decadas cigars. It sold for $4,000. Of course, there was the Dinner With a Penthouse Pet lot at Robert's Steakhouse in the Penthouse Club, which was certainly the most curious lot of the evening. It ended up selling for $4,000, although one mention of Krista's boyfriend during the date could render the whole experience worthless, but it's for the kids, so no matter.

Tuesday's Children raised over $200,000 at the event, and it was spectacular fun. In an odd way, the whole evening had a sort of rebellious theme beneath the fund-raising aspect. Penthouse magazine has always been the darker, naughtier younger sister of Playboy. This was obvious in Penthouse's untamed erotic photography and the larger number of brunettes represented as Penthouse Pets, as opposed to the more prevalent blonde hair/blue-eyed stock of Playboy's Playmates. Jake LaMotta and Joe Frazier, both brawlers, were never favorites against the likes of Robinson and Ali. Their styles and their images clashed with those of the more popular opponents, and they were the dark princes of their boxing days. And the attendees, as cigar smokers, have been ignominiously shunned. A dignified, sophisticated pleasure has been reduced to being a public nuisance. Even boxing itself is arguably disjointed from the world of mainstream sports. Whether the sports world has excommunicated the sweet science, or whether boxing has alienated itself, is another debate, but this event was not about self-pity or righteous indignation. It was about the children and families who suffered immeasurably and how the cigar, sports and entertainment industries teamed up with the police and Tuesday's Children to make the lives of the suffering a little easier.