Rising super middleweight prospect Jesse “Hard Work” Hart is looking toward the future, which is obviously the proper thing to do for a talented 26-year-old whose best days presumably are still ahead of him.
But Hart (15-0, 12 KOs), who takes on hard-hitting veteran Samuel Miller (28-9, 25 KOs) in the eight-round co-feature tonight at the 2300 Arena in South Philadelphia (Puerto Rican lightweight Felix Verdejo [15-0, 11 KOs] squares off against Spain’s Karim El Ouazghani [16-5-2, 4 KOs] in the other marquee eight-rounder), couldn’t help but also steal a glimpse at his hometown’s pugilistic past, which seems to again be headed toward a date with the wrecking ball.
At a press conference Thursday at the Stadium Holiday Inn, located across a vast parking lot from where a familiar Philly sports landmark, the Spectrum, used to stand, Hart took his place at the podium and glanced at the first row of seats where sat his father, former middleweight contender Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, 63, who was a staple at one renowned venue that is no longer there (the Spectrum, 12 bouts) and another (the Blue Horizon, 13 bouts) that also could also become nothing more than memory. As a child, Hart often accompanied his by-then-retired dad to fight cards at the Blue Horizon, where, as one of the city’s enduring boxing legends, he routinely was introduced to thunderous applause.
“It doesn’t give you too much of a secure feeling,” Jesse Hart said of increasing likelihood for the razing of the Blue Horizon, which hosted its first fight card on Nov. 3, 1961, when middleweight contender George Benton stopped Chico Corsey in three rounds, and what now looks to be its last, on June 4, 2010, when featherweight Coy Evans scored a six-round unanimous decision over Barbaro Zepeda.
A certificate authorizing demolition of the Blue Horizon has been issued, and if funding issues for its conversion into a hotel aren’t resolved, the historic building, which was constructed as a fashionable private residence in 1865 and converted into a Loyal Order of Moose Lodge in 1912, could soon become history of another sort. It was purchased by current co-owners Vernoca Michael and Carol Ray in 1994, the women going $500,000 into debt in the process. But, despite their receiving a $1 million state grant in 2002, as well as a $1 million low-interest loan from the Delaware River Port Authority, that money amounted to little more than an adhesive bandage placed upon a gaping wound. Michael said it would take another $5 million cash infusion to fully repair the antiquated facility, which proved unavailable, and when the owners reportedly failed to pay taxes on it for several years, it was shuttered by order of City Hall. In August 2011 the Blue Horizon was nearly $60,000 in arrears on its taxes, a figure that likely has substantially increased.
Ray had put the building up for sale for $6.5 million in 2007, with few if any serious inquiries at that price. But in 2011, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett approved $6 million in state tax credits for Mosaic Development Partners to redevelop the property into what was then envisioned as a hotel/arena with a boxing motif. In that initial configuration, the preserved arena still would be used to host boxing events. But, with a projected overall price tag of $18 million for the project, Mosaic partners Leslie Smallwood and Greg Reaves concluded the retention of the arena was not cost-effective and that they would prefer to proceed with a hotel-only plan.
Lines thus have been drawn in the sand, with developers on one side and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which seeks to save the Blue Horizon in its full or near-full entirety, on the other.
“We went to a hearing about a month ago and the Preservation Alliance wants to keep the Blue Horizon as it is, as do a lot of people,” said J Russell Peltz, who promoted fight cards at the 1,500-seat venue for many years and is staging, along with Top Rank, Saturday’s show at the 2300 Arena. “But a permit has already been issued to tear it down.
“There’s an offer of $6 million on the table, but the money’s not up yet. Vernoca doesn’t want it demolished until all of the $6 million is up. I don’t want it demolished at all. I think it’s a disgrace that they would even consider tearing down something like that.”
Peltz said that T-shirts advocating the saving of the Blue Horizon will be on sale at Saturday’s nine-bout card.
Hart, who grew up in North Philadelphia, will be fighting within the Philly city limits for only the second time in his professional career, the first being his four-round decision over Steven Tyner on Dec. 8, 2012, in McGonigle Hall, on the Temple University campus, just 2½ blocks from the Blue Horizon’s address at 1314 North Broad Street.
“I think it’s time we bring boxing back to Philadelphia,” he said. “Man, it means everything to me. Nobody knows how excited I am to be fighting here again. I posted all about it on Instagram and on Facebook.”
But while the 1,200-seat 2300 Arena – which was known as Viking Hall when it hosted its first fight card, and has since been known as the ECW Warehouse, the New Alhambra, The Arena and the Asylum Arena – has some history of its own, it can’t rival that of the Blue Horizon or, for that matter, the Spectrum.
Peltz, 68, noted that Cylone Hart’s rousing 10-round draw with another noted Philly banger, Bennie Briscoe, drew 11,000-plus when it was staged at the Spectrum on Nov. 18, 1975, and was named as the second-best fight anywhere in the world that year by Boxing News, behind only a little scrap known as the “Thrilla in Manila.”
“I met Jesse’s father when he was 17 years old,” Peltz recalled. “We never told anybody that he turned pro before he was 18. In my 45 years in the business, Cyclone Hart was the best left-hooker I ever saw in person, with one shot.”
Jesse Hart isn’t exactly the second coming of his father. He considers himself more of a boxer-puncher than a let-’er-rip knockout artist, which was Cyclone’s ring persona, and the son’s best weapon is his overhand right. But Jesse is a chip off the old block in one respect, that being his fondness for a local tradition that is in danger of fading away, one site at a time.
“I wanted to fight in the Spectrum, in the Blue Horizon, like my dad did,” he said, somewhat forlornly. “It was my dream.
“If I had the money, I’d pay whatever it took to keep the Blue Horizon open. When I was a child, my dad used to take me there after he retired. They called him into the ring to take a bow every time we went, and every time the people cheered him like they did when he was still fighting. Gave me chills.”
Philadelphia is a city heavily steeped in history. People come from all parts of the United States and around the world to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was drafted and the U.S. Constitution ratified, and the Liberty Bell. It’s most iconic citizen remains Benjamin Franklin, dead these past 224 years.
But the city many consider to be America’s true capital of boxing – there’s a reason Sylvester Stallone chose to make his greatest fictional character, Rocky Balboa, a Philly guy – hasn’t had as much success commemorating and preserving its fighting past. In addition to the Spectrum and now possibly the Blue Horizon, such boxing landmarks as the Civic Center, the original Arena and the original Alhambra have vanished from the landscape. Another, Joe Frazier’s Gym, 16 blocks up the street from the Blue Horizon, has been converted into a discount furniture store. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places which means the building, which dates back to the 1890s, also has become a battleground for preservationists who would like to see again used as a boxing gym or possibly a museum honoring the memory of Smokin’ Joe, who passed away on Nov. 7, 2011.
Then again, historic boxing places don’t seem to rate as high a priority as do old buildings used for other purposes. Preservationists in Detroit and Miami Beach weren’t able to save the Kronk Gym and the original 5th Street Gym, respectively. Even Madison Square Garden, the “Mecca of Boxing,” is in its fourth incarnation, three other structures in New York having previously borne the MSG label.
In boxing, as in life, nothing lasts forever.