Danny Milsap, the colorful fight promoter at the San Diego Coliseum leans forward in his chair and shoots out a right hand.
"Now, if I can get you with that reach, I'm going to hurt ya," Millsap says, explaining his decision not to turn professional after a youth spent fighting Golden Gloves. "Here I am working against a four-or-five-inch reach all the time. A fighter that's well schooled can have a left hand in my face all day. And I'm trying to do what Joe Frazier did with Muhammad Ali. I mean, the poor devil is swinging and he's missing and for every punch he lands, he misses ten. It was stupid of me to turn pro."
So, instead of becoming the second Mickey Walker, a dream Millsap once had, he now entertains a different dream, which is nothing less than bringing boxing back to San Diego on a regular, two-fights-per-month basis.
Is it possible? Some boxing fans, looking back over the last two decades, would think not. Millsap, so the speculation goes, would have had a better chance turning pro, short reach and all, than trying to breathe life back into local boxing. Indeed, the Coliseum, at 15th and E Streets, is an aging old structure whose wooden bleachers, bare lightbulbs, and general seedy appearance, show decades of wear and tear. A few coats of paint were added some years back, and the name was changed to the New Coliseum, but no one was fooled. It is the same symmetrically built arena which was constructed 53 years ago as a showcase for boxing. Noted fighters like Archie Moore, Rusty Payne, and Irish Bob Murphy made history inside the Coliseum's ring.
Millsap knows the arena well, and recalls fond memories when, as a young man arriving in San Diego during the mid-30s, every Friday night was fight night. "There have been about three different times in this town since I came here in 1935 when boxing was real popular. There was Shorty and Big Boy Hogue, two white boys from Jacumba. If you didn't have your ticket by six o'clock, you wouldn't get in."
In a Union-Tribune story commemorating the Coliseum's golden anniversary, Linn Platner, 81, a former owner of the arena, remembered when boxing was intrinsic to the San Diego sports scene.
"We ran around 50 shows a year and probably had 10 to 12 sellouts when we had to turn people away. We had some great fighters. They were all looking for work. And we were looking for talent."
There were good fights and good fighters. But over the last 25 years the sport changed, and despite a steady stream of good fighters and a number of promoters, boxing has gone into slow decline. Headliners like Ramon Fuentes, Billy Peacock, and Kid Anahuac fought before slim crowds of 500 to 800. Even big names like Ski Goldstein, Ken Noton, and Charlie Powell couldn't break the town's apathy. Mickey Davies, the promoter who handled the boxing and wrestling cards before Millsap, called it quits after 30 prize fights, citing losses of $50,000.
Millsap is aware of all of this, of course. Sitting in his cramped office that doubles as the headquarters for his wholesale florist business, he is hopeful, once again trying to lure back boxing fans. Over the years, he has managed a number of good fighters including Bobby Valdez, Charles Ansley, and Big Ski Goldstein. His stable of boxers has taken him to London, South Africa, South America, Tokyo, and Rome.
But now, at 61, an age when many men start thinking about that gold retirement watch, Millsap is trying to sell boxing. It may be a tough sell. When little money for advertising and almost no recognition by newspapers or television, just letting the fans know that boxing is back twice a month poses obstacles. And even with advertising it's difficult to say whether there are enough people still interested in San Diego boxing who will get away from the television on a Friday night and come down to the Coliseum.
John Greensmith, a long0time observer of San Diego boxing and an occasional ring announcer estimated the hard-core boxing crowd at 5,000. Millsap isn't sure of the figure because, he says, "There's not enough of them to really know yet."
Putting buns on those empty bleachers is the goal of any promoter. And to do that it takes a good fight card, a task that is always easier said than done. Greensmith, who feels boxing will make a comeback on the national scene, has reservations about promoting local boxing on a regular basis. "It's just too strenuous putting together a good fight card twice a month. The state requires 26 rounds of fighting; that breaks down into your main event and usually three other fights. There aren't that many local fighters to draw from, which means you have to go to L.A. And that's tough because a lot of fighters, the guys who only go four rounds and make hundred bucks, won't show, it's just not worth it."
No-shows area problem facing all small arenas. As Ernie Fuentes, Millsap's matchmaker, said recently, "I really think people are looking for boxing again. At lot of people want to come if you give 'em fights. But you got to five them the fights you announce." But even a good fight card and a minimum of no-shows do not necessarily translate into good paying crowds fight after after. As a promoter, you have to promise a good boxing match and hen you have to deliver. "You can have on bad fight," says Greensmith, "and it can set you back. An early knockout, a lucky punch, or a promising fight that turns out lackluster can sour the fight fan." Or as fight manager Joe Lopez explained it, "The Padres can lose 40 games and still win the pennant. In boxing, you get one bad night and you're a bum."
Promoting small boxing matches seems less business venture than a crapshoot — one where the dice are loaded against you. The obstacles are imposing: small crowds; finicky, demanding fans; and boxers who don't show. You really have to love the sport to risk such a beating. But just when you start to wonder why Millsap, or anyone for that matter, would want to promote boxing when a guy like Mickey Davies, no slouch when it comes to promotion, lost his shirt trying to fill the Coliseum, there emerges a glimmer of hope. After years in the doldrums, professional boxing is on he comeback trail. Within the past year, the sport has never looked healthier.
For a long time boxing meant Muhamed Ali versus somebody. But not anymore. He kept the sport alive during its weakest years, but the time has come for him to move over. After the galloping success of the movie, Rocky, and all those gold Oscars, and last summer's five-gold-medal United States Olympic team fights are back in the public's eye.
Even television, blamed for keeping boxing fans glued to the easy chair instead of the arena bleacher, is eager for more fights. Network bigwigs are going head to head in a mad scramble to gain the rights to top-name fights. ABC quickly moved to the forefront by picking up the rights to program Ali's old fights. And now, following their success, live fights are being desperately sought. Overexposure is the easiest way in the world to dull the viewer's interest, but it's also the quickest way to pump money into the fight game.
A few years ago it was inconceivable that the first professional bout of a young welterweight would have been televised; it was not the kind of offer that made a television executive's pulse jump. Yet this year, Sugar Ray Leonard, the flashy Olympic gold medalist, got $35,000 for his first professional fight. "That's an amazing amount of money," says manager Lopez. It's an enormous sum, in fact; more than five-time world champion Emile Griffith can earn for a nontelevised, nontitle bout.
If money follows the action, then boxing is slowly emerging from a long hibernation. Greensmith believes that the sport's popularity goes up and down depending upon the public's fascination with violence. "Every now and then the public gets interested in violence," he says. "People get interested in that kind of action. Hockey people look for players getting banged into the boards. I think it's an ideal time for boxing to make a comeback." On a national level, Greensmith's prediction looks to be true. But San Diego is quirky when it comes to professional sports. And given the inherent problems with boxing, it only mkaes forecasting its future that much harder.
Obviously, promoter Millsap is one who thinks the town is ready for the return of Friday night fights. And there are indications that he might be right. Attendance, for one, is up. The last three fights, an average of 2700 fans has packed the Coliseum, mostly to watch a string of young, San Diego-based fighters. Another clear sign of boxing's rising popularity is found in the youth programs such as the Community Youth Athletic Association, and Youth for Progress, where boxing attracts hundreds of participants. But perhaps the most encouraging development is the opening of the Fifth Avenue Boxing Gym.
Located at 551 Fifth Avenue, the gym has that shopworn appearance made famous by such movies as Rocky and Fat City. It is a drab place that served as a pool room before tight managers Burke Emery and Joe Lopez and trainer Dick Woods took it over. Now it's a place where amateurs can fight alongside the pros and see if they have the right mixture of strength, speed, and guts to someday get their names put on a Friday night fight card.
Though small and unpretentious — you can walk by the front door and still miss it — the Fifth Avenue Gym is a good indicator of the sport's health; not only is it a place where fighters can work under the close scrutiny of professional trainers, but it helps develop hometown fighters. In fact, boxing success depends on establishing local fighters. "The fight fan gets to know the local fighter," says Lopez, "and he supports the fighter and will pay money to see him fight. The officials will go with a local kid if the fight is even. He has an advantage over the fighter from out of town."
There is a small, cramped viewing section at the gym from which you can see the fighters. Each afternoon, shortly after 4 pm, when it opens, the place is crowded with all types o boxers. One of the most colorful is Jose "Speedy" Gonzalez, a short, fast-punching lightweight who has twice this year been a headliner at the Coliseum, and who has won both fights.
"I think he'll be bigger than Art Hafey," says Emery, who has worked with both fighters and is a former six-time Canadian light-heavyweight champion himlelf. "He had a good chin and a good left hook. In the ring he's difficult to hit. And for a short guy, I've never seen so much mobility." Gonzalez is one of the group of fighters managed by Angelo Dundee, Muhammed Ali's trainer. Not surprisingly, Gonzalez has picked up some of the champ's in-the-ring antics which both delight and infuriate the crowd. "In his first fight," says Emery, "he played with the opponent for ten rounds and was booed. Half the crowd loves him, the other half hates him."
Originally from Miami, by way of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Gonzalez now calls San Diego his home and is listed as a hometown boy on the fight card flyers. But it's anybody's guess how long he'll stay. Emery wants to take him up to Los Angeles for a six-rounder at the Forum. San Diego is a good town for the up-and-coming fighters, but the big money, of course, is in the big cities. When Gonzalez gets the nod from the big-money promoters and moves on, there will luckily still be a growing nucleus of good club fighters coming up through the ranks. Some current names to watch are Burt Lee, David Love, David Wynn, veteran Mike Mayon, and "spud" Murphy, the Irish kid with the flattened nose and the lightening-fast hands.
It's raining outside and the damp shill has crept inside the gym. Joe Lopez walks past several unknowns dressed in sweat clothes and leans against the wood partition that separates the fighters from the visitors. He is wearing a green windbreaker with "Mike Mayon," the fighter he manages, spelled in big letters across the back. Joe, who fought amateur bouts during the early 50s, turns, arms folded across his chest, and watches a young pug hitting the heavy bag. Even the unskilled observer can see that the kid is new to fighting. He moves awkwardly, his hands lashing out as he tries combination punches.
"Fast hands," Lopez comments.
And he's right. Because as the kid circles to his left, you forget about the gracelessness, the unschooled movements, and the strange, off-balance, way he crouches and moves. Your concentration is drawn instead to the fists which hit with incredible speed.
"You think boxing has got a future?" he's asked.
"Yeah, lot of interest in the sport," Lopez says turning away from the kid. "The Olympics, the Spinks brothers, and Sugar Ray Leonard, all good fighters. The movie Rocky. Yeah, I think the public's interested again."