Olympic Auditorium – Rumors are floating that the Olympic Auditorium, that grand lady of boxing arenas in Los Angeles, will be re-opening its large doors for the fistic sport again.
Oscar De La Hoya, who twice performed inside the L.A. arena including his first world title bout in 1994, said to this reporter that negotiations to re-open the famed arena are underway.
“We want to do regular shows at the Olympic,” said De La Hoya, the president of Golden Boy Promotions.
The Olympic Auditorium held its final boxing show in 2005 and was converted to a Korean-American church. But the success of boxing in the downtown Los Angeles area and the surrounding suburbs has convinced De La Hoya that a resurgence in the sport has taken hold.
So what has changed after 11 years of closure?
More than a few point to the surge in new condos in the downtown L.A. area that had been abandoned and forgotten for the past 50 years. Lately, condos are springing up near L.A. Live in the south to Little Tokyo in the north. With the new condos have come thousands of hipsters, students and urban dwellers.
Restaurants, night clubs, and cafes are shooting up in areas that were lost in darkness for decades. It was those same areas that had formerly scared off visitors and customers. Now the streets are filled with night-goers including a vibrant boxing crowd whenever a fight card is held.
The Belasco Theater has flaunted a walk-up crowd that waits in line at 3:30 p.m. for the doors to open 90 minutes later. Several blocks south sits the Olympic Auditorium that seats 10,000. It’s an inviting arena originally built for boxing in the late 1920s.
Located on Grand Avenue and 18th Street, alongside the Santa Monica Freeway, the Olympic Auditorium had provided one of the most vibrant scenes for boxing. All-time greats like Bert Colima, Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson, Manuel Ortiz, Baby Arizmendi, Art “The Golden Boy” Aragon, Enrique Bolanos, Jimmy Carter and many more fought among sold out crowds.
“People Threw Beer”
The square-shaped building could seat 14,000 fans in its heyday and almost every seat was a good seat. The person sitting in the last row was practically right on top of the arena with its vertical set up. Of course there were negatives because of the seating arrangements.
“People threw beer and piss from those balcony seats,” said George Rodriguez, 75, a frequent visitor to many of the fights from the 1950s until the arena closed its doors in 2005. “You never knew what they would throw.”
From the inauspicious beginnings in 1925 when heavyweight world champion Jack Dempsey shoveled some dirt in front of cameras for the ground breaking ceremony until an even more sedate ending when Vernie Torres fought Sal Casillas in the final bout held at the Olympic Auditorium on June 10, 2005, it’s the thousands of moments in between that burn in the memories of those who entered the brown colored fight arena.
“My dad would drop me off in line to buy tickets,” said Amado Avila, who was eight years old when he first watched a fight card in the Olympic Auditorium in 1942 and would later fight in the same venue as an adult. “I would have to wait for hours. The lines were real long. Sometimes older men would try to butt in but I wouldn’t let them.”
It was the ticket everybody wanted and the best place to be seen.
Bennie Georgino, who recently passed away two weeks ago, grew up in nearby Lincoln Heights and remembers vividly the fight scene that blossomed around the famous venue.
“It wasn’t the only place that had boxing,” said Georgino who also fought there as an amateur and later became a trainer, manager and promoter. “But it was an event. People wanted to be there, to be part of it. They fought over season tickets.”
“In those days if you had a season ticket on the bottom it was like gold. People didn’t want to give those up. There was nothing else like it.”
Mexican-American fighters made up a large percentage of the fight cards but Irish, Italian, Jewish, Filipino and African-American pugilists also poured their sweat and blood in the boxing ring.
Whittier Flash and others
One of the first popular Mexican fighters to participate in main events inside the Olympic Auditorium was Bert Colima, who grew up in nearby Whittier and developed a following that started in 1919.
“My father always spoke fondly of those days,” says Bert Colima Jr. who recently wrote and published a book on his father called Gentleman of the Ring: The Bert Colima Story. “He used to take me around and introduce me to the old fighters.”
Colima fought a number of great fighters in his day from welterweight to light heavyweight. The speedy boxer with clever footwork fought and beat Tiger Thomas in the main event in 1927 at the L.A. arena. He later tangled but loss to the great Mickey Walker.
The fighter known as the “Whittier Flash,” was one of the early Mexican draws in the West Coast. Other’s had come before like Mexican Joe Rivers and Solly (Garcia) Smith, but Colima became a real magnet for Mexican fight fans.
Of course that’s not to discount the fans of other ethnicities.
In the beginning the Filipino boxers were very prevalent and their fans arrived in droves.
“Speedy Dado was a very popular fighter in the Depression,” says Leonard Castillon, 95, before he passed away in 2011. “He was a real fancy dresser. All of the Filipinos were fancy dressers.”
Dado fought 152 pro bouts with many taking place in the Olympic Auditorium where he attracted large crowds including many Filipino boxing fans. From 1925 to 1940 the bantamweight prizefighter fought some of the very best. His first appearance in L.A. was against Louie Contreras in a victory, and then he fought Newsboy Brown and suffered his first loss. He became a popular fighter and had battles against Midget Wolgast, Canto Robleto, and Freddie Miller who he fought for the featherweight world championship.
“He was an action fighter,” said the late Luis Magana, who served as a publicist for the Olympic Auditorium from the 1930s until the 1980s. “His fights with Canto Robleto were very good.”
Magana, who passed away in 2008, said in an interview in 1999, that unknown to many people Robleto was legally blind after two detached retinas near the end of his short career that spanned 31 fights.
“He would tell them (his corner) to point him in the right direction,” said Magana, whose father was one of the first publicists for the Olympic Auditorium. “Robleto fought Speedy Dado six times.”
Baby Arizmendi, a diminutive Mexican boxer with a thick neck and muscular physique, became another huge favorite of fight fans. The bull neck boxer is best known for his wars with the one boxer who is considered one of the greatest prizefighters of all time Henry Armstrong.
Armstrong and Arizmendi fought each other a total of five rollicking times with the last taking place on Jan. 10, 1940 for the welterweight world championship. Their first encounter took place 1934 in Mexico City where Arizmendi won by decision. The rematch also took place in Mexico City but this time in 1935 they fought for the featherweight world title and again Arizmendi pulled out a win over “Homicide Hank.”
In 1936 Armstrong took the featherweight title with a 10-round victory at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Two years later Armstrong accepted Arizmendi’s challenge and both met at the Olympic Auditorium in 1938. Armstrong won again and in their final encounter too at the historic Olympic. Armstrong’s last appearance at the famed venue took place in Feb. 26, 1945, he won by decision against a boxer named Genaro Rojo. Armstrong would fight one more time in Oakland and finally retire. Later, he would return to Los Angeles to live. He was killed during a break-in at his home in October 1988.
Others who made their mark at the illustrious Olympic were Art “The Golden Boy” Aragon who could fill the arena faster than anyone before or since his last fight; especially when he fought Mexican favorite Enrique Bolanos.
“I cried when Bolanos lost,” said Johnny Ortiz who passed away in 2014 and formerly co-managed the Main Street Gym. “Enrique Bolanos was my favorite boxer and Art Aragon just was too strong for him.”
Heavyweights also fought in the Olympic. Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis was too big a draw for the Olympic and fought in nearby Wrigley Field, but others like Ken Norton, Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry worked their stuff at the L.A. boxing palace. Norton lost to Venezuela’s Jose Luis Garcia at the Olympic in 1970. Frazier, though he did not lose, blew by three consecutive opponents in the Olympic then discovered that a roly-poly looking fighter George “Scrap Iron” Johnson was a whole different matter.
“Joe Frazier always moved forward and just annihilated everyone in front of him,” said Bill O’Neil, a former boxing writer from the Whittier area. “When he fought old Scrap Iron that was the first and last time I ever saw Frazier on his toes. He found out Scrap Iron was a little too tough. It was an amazing thing to watch.”
Mando Ramos led the charge during the late 1960s with his skinny legs, speedy blows and power in his lightweight frame. He became the youngest to win a lightweight world title when at 20 he knocked out Carlos Teo Cruz in the 11th round in February 1969. Ramos could sell out the Olympic Auditorium.
Jackie McCoy managed Ramos and told me back in the 1990s that the kid from San Pedro was one of the most talented boxers in his memory.
“He could do everything and do it well,” said McCoy who passed away in 1997. “But I had to babysit him every day. He would sneak out of his house and go drinking all night.”
Ramos career didn’t last long. But a short time later another Mando came along.
Mando Muniz was a former U.S. Olympian in 1968 and then moved into the pro ranks. He was an instant success with his pressure fighting style and inability to make a boring fight. Fans loved his gutsy style that saw him in title fights against Jose Napoles and Carlos Palomino. His very last bout came against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978.
“If Carlos Palomino was the Cadillac of the era, then Mando Muniz was the Chevrolet, because he was built tough. Muniz will forever be our “Uncrowned Champ” due to the horrendous decision he suffered in Acapulco, Mexico vs. Napoles. It could be called the crime of the century in the ring,” said Gene Aguilera, author of Mexican American Boxing in Los Angeles about Muniz’s loss to Napoles for the title.
Aguilera, whose book was published in 2014, was a regular at the Olympic Auditorium and saw many of its five star fights in the 1970s and 1980s. Another of his favorites was Bobby Chacon.
“Schoolboy Bobby Chacon was one of the greatest fighters from Southern California. He had it all: natural skill, charisma, and knockout power in both hands. But becoming a two-time world champion also provided Chacon a vehicle he couldn’t always control,” Aguilera said.
Chacon, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Albert Davila, Ruben Navarro, Art Frias, Jaime Garza and Richie Sandoval are just some of the others that shed their blood, sweat and tears in the Olympic boxing ring.
De La Hoya says a return of the Olympic and a return of that golden era is one of his primary goals.
“I want to make boxing big again like the old days,” said De La Hoya while at a recent fight card at Belasco. “I want it to be a fight town again.”
Golden Boy Promotions has found great success with its boxing shows at the Belasco Theater which is a mere half mile away. The larger Olympic fits right into its plans.
“I want boxing to be big again like is used to be,” said De La Hoya who won his first world title inside its doors in 1994 by stopping Denmark’s Jimmi Bredahl for the WBO super featherweight title. “Wouldn’t that be great?”
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