Southern California, The Soul of Boxing: part 4 of a 4-part series

A few weeks before Halloween a middleweight fighter from Kazakhstan, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin was making his first ring appearance in Southern California and facing Mexico’s Marco Antonio Rubio.

The outdoor arena was sold out.

Latino fans dominated the attendance that included several movie stars like Sylvester Stallone. But they were not there for Mexico’s Rubio. It was the Kazakhstan fighter known as “Triple G” that appealed to their taste. It was October 18, 2014.

Additional seats had to be constructed at the StubHub for the excess fans that wanted to see Golovkin in person. Latino fans love sluggers and though Rubio was a knockout artist too, it was the champion Golovkin whose professed “Mexican style” of fighting captivated the Southern California crowd.

Several months earlier Golovkin told a nationwide television audience about his preferred “Mexican style” of fighting after he knocked out Australia’s Daniel Geale to retain the middleweight world title. Fans of that slugging style were hooked.

Against Rubio the hard-hitting middleweight Golovkin overwhelmed the actual Mexican fighter with vicious hooks and blows. At 1:19 of the second round Golovkin blew out Rubio. Fans, many of them Mexican fans, erupted into cheers.

It’s a rare instance that Latino fans favor a non-Latino, especially while facing a Mexican fighter. Golovkin had that appeal that few possess. However there have been others over the years like James Toney, Shane Mosley and Manny Pacquiao who have attacking styles that almost all fans love.

Golovkin had spent several years in Germany looking for a world title opportunity that never came. So he decided to come to America and met with several trainers before settling on a Mexican-American trainer whose headquarters was based in Big Bear.

Abel Sanchez grew up in Southern California and had trained several world champions in the past including Lupe Aquino, Miguel Angel Gonzalez and Terry Norris. During the early 2000s he built with his own hands a boxing compound in Big Bear Lake. It was an impressive achievement.

When Golovkin first agreed to work with Sanchez, his style was more European. That would slowly change from boxer-puncher into a more aggressive attack mode to emphasize the middleweight’s daunting power.

The building success of Golovkin under Sanchez led others from Eastern Europe and other countries to drive up the same Big Bear winding mountain road for tutelage. Very quickly boxers from France, Cuba, Russia and Kazakhstan became part of The Summit boxing camp. Even a certain Puerto Rican fighter and a Mexican redhead worked at the Summit.

European Crush

Big Bear wasn’t the only location experiencing a massive import of foreign boxers. In Ventura County and San Diego County similar imports were taking place. Oxnard first saw Argentinian’s Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez and Lucas Matthysse find the ocean side location appealing. Now a small army of fighters from Russia and Ukraine including Vasyl Lomachenko have made the seaside location their training headquarters. Down south, Mexico’s Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has found the San Diego beach area a prime location for training. Even a small town deep in the industrial belly named Santa Fe Springs has boxers from Colombia, Russia and Spain.

Prizefighters from all over the world continue pouring into Southern California for various reasons.

Several Irish fighters are based in the Los Angeles area. Jason Quigley arrived in the warmer climate several years ago after signing with Golden Boy and was soon followed by Michael Conlan and Aaron McKenna. Quigley has since departed for England but the others remain.

From strawweights to heavyweights Southern California has quickly become the base for many of the elite prizefighters in the world.

Recently, a cruiserweight tournament saw IBF cruiserweight titlist Murat Gassiev knock out WBA titlist Yunier Dorticos in Adler, Russia. A week earlier WBO cruiserweight titlist Oleksandr Usyk defeated WBC titlist Mairis Breidis by majority decision. Now Usyk will meet Gassiev. Both are based in Southern California.

Light heavyweight titlists are also finding the warmth of Southern California to their liking. WBO light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev has returned to Southern California and WBA light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol trains in Norwalk, Calif. Both are slated to fight in New York on March 3. Bivol fights Cuba’s Sullivan Barrera who formerly trained in Big Bear.

All of these prizefighters from around the world have found Southern California to their liking for various reasons including the weather, availability of sparring, and the number of fight cards taking place, especially in California.

Fight Capital

Almost every year California leads the world in the number of professional boxing cards staged. When you add amateur boxing cards the numbers are staggering.

Because there are so many boxing gyms throughout the region, the need for sparring and tournaments warrants boxing cards and tournaments just about every single week.

Although Europe has many boxing cards too, the difference in boxing styles available in the U.S. allows European boxers to adjust to the pressure-fighting Mexican style and the slick counter-punching African-American style taught here too. It’s a fighter’s paradise.

Armstrong to Bradley

Black fighters along with Latinos have kept boxing alive in California especially when it seemed the sport was disappearing. They have a very long history of ties in Southern California.

Henry Armstrong arrived during the early years of the Depression and developed his unique style of fighting while hammering it out with Latinos. The legendary fighter lost his first two pro fights at the Olympic Auditorium, then learned how to out-fight everyone with a non-stop attack that reminds some of current welterweight contender Shawn Porter.

Many of today’s African American prizefighters prefer the more deliberate counter-punching style but throughout the decades black fighters have been a successful counterpoint to the aggressive Mexican style. When the best meet the best, history has shown that the fans arrive in droves to see the results.

Armstrong battled Baby Arizmendi in the 1930s numerous times in Los Angeles and twice even traveled to Mexico City to provide entertainment there in 1934. In 1936 Armstrong and Arizmendi fought at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles before a crowd of more than 16,000. It was an epic encounter.

“They had some terrific battles,” said the late Luis Magana who saw those fights in Los Angeles and was later a friend of both fighters. “Every fight was always very close. They were like two blocks of granite.”

When I used to visit Magana he would pull out old 8 mm film of prize fights from the 1940s. There was no sound but you could see the crowds and excitement of the fans that transcended the silence.

Armstrong and Arizmendi clashed a total of five times from 1934 to 1939. When both retired they made Los Angeles their permanent residence. Arizmendi owned a very popular restaurant on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Stadium Way. Today it’s the main entrance to Dodger Stadium.

In 1946 and 1948, the extremely popular Mexican fighter Enrique Bolanos fought the great Ike Williams for the lightweight world title at Wrigley Field in South-Central Los Angeles. Williams could very well be one of the most under-rated lightweights of all time.

“He (Williams) was a great, great fighter. Strong,” said Enrique Bolanos when we met in a restaurant in the Fairfax District in the 1990s. “I came very close the first time we fought. He was just too strong for me.” (Bolanos passed away in 2012.)

During one of our meetings in May 1994 we contacted Ike Williams to meet and discuss their two world title fights. We set up a date to have both fighters talk about their two epic fights before sold out crowds at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. We were unable to reach Williams by phone the next time we called. Sadly, we later discovered the great African American fighter had passed away at his home in Los Angeles. We had missed him by mere days.

Just like Latinos, the continuous number of great black fighters kept boxing vibrant in not only Los Angeles but in the entire Southern California region. Boxers like San Diego-based Terry Norris, Pomona’s Shane Mosley and Palm Springs’ talented Timothy “Desert Storm” Bradley proved that Southern California had world class talent aside from Latinos. Of course, throughout the rest of the country they dominate.

Another still residing in the area is in my estimation the greatest prizefighter in the last 50 years, James “Lights Out” Toney. At his best he could battle and defeat anyone 160 pounds and heavier. Perhaps no one but Sam Langford who fought from 1902 to 1926 could match Toney.

Although the number of Anglo fighters dropped significantly after World War II, the Southern California region still produced nuggets like the brothers Jerry Quarry and Mike Quarry. Some others who battled in Southern California were Jimmy Heair, Randy Shields and Frankie Crawford. Crowd pleasers and fierce competitors, they drew crowds every time they laced up.

And if you think Manny Pacquiao was the first Filipino to make an impact in Southern California you couldn’t be more wrong.

Filipino boxers were very common and very popular during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in Los Angeles. Speedy Dado was among the earliest and he fought from 1924 to 1940 up and down the West Coast. In just 16 years he had a total of 162 pro bouts. Pablo Dano followed Dado’s example and departed the Philippines for Southern California first, then trekked to the East Coast. Perhaps the greatest Filipino fighter based in Southern Cal was Ceferino Garcia who grabbed the middleweight crown and was a popular attraction during the late 1930s. Others like Kid Moro and Jimmy Florita, helped fill out arenas in Southern California long before the arrival of Pacman.

When you add all of the different ethnic groups and nationalities to the massive Latino boxing base in Southern California, you realize why the region has become the soul of boxing.

Female Fighters and the Future

Although female prizefighters have existed for decades here and there since the 1920s, they truly arrived in the 1970s. Since then, with the emergence of female greats such as Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker, the growth of the female fighter ranks ebbs and flows.

Many extremely talented women have passed through time rarely noticed. At one time Southern California had many of the best fighters in the world, but lack of fights chased many of them away from the sport.

The majority of the female fighters in Southern California are super bantamweights and lower. A few like Wendy Rodriguez and Kaliesha West won world titles but seldom fought in front of hometown audiences. Instead they were forced to trade blows in Germany, Denmark, Mexico and Peru. A new crop has arrived and have signed with premier boxing companies such as Mikaela Mayer signing with Top Rank and Seniesa Estrada, Marlen Esparza and Maricela Cornejo signing with Golden Boy Promotions. Just last week a new company, 360 Promotions, announced signing Australia’s Louisa Hawton to their group. All of these women will be fighting in front of Southern California crowds in the next two months.

Women prizefighters as a group in Southern California don’t have as strong a base as those in the East Coast. But it could change rapidly, especially with boxing hungry Mexico as a close neighbor.

Women and men prizefighters fight with little recognition from media giants in television or major newspapers. Only web sites seem to provide fans of the sport with information regarding pro boxing.

Imagine if television and newspapers did just the minimum and provided notices of events coming?

With more than 100 gyms throughout Southern California and many of those gyms filled with over 100 women and men training daily, when you add their families and friends supporting them the numbers are very strong.

HBO, Showtime and recently ESPN discovered that the sport of pro boxing has a strong base of support, especially in the Southwest. If not, they would not be covering the sport. Latinos are the driving force behind boxing.

Soul of Boxing

Several years back, in 2011, when Marco Antonio Barrera arrived in Los Angeles to discuss his last prize fight before hanging up the boxing gloves, he arrived dapper as usual in the second floor of the ESPN headquarters in L.A. Live. It was an emotional moment for the Mexico City titan long considered one of that country’s best ever prizefighters.

“Keeping our beautiful sport of boxing alive is my dream,” said Barrera, who won world titles as a super bantamweight, featherweight, and super featherweight. “I love our beautiful sport and I want to do whatever I can to maintain its popularity.”

They were beautiful and inspiring words.

Power to Change

Newspapers are failing to serve boxing fans. Unless it is a major fight card, none of the more than a dozen newspapers in the Southern California region give readers information or a calendar on almost weekly pro boxing cards that occur in their circulation areas. It’s almost the same in every area of the country.

Readers have the power to change this.

Simply contact the local sports editor of your local newspaper and demand that boxing be covered. At least ask that they mention what boxing cards are coming up. If you live in Southern California, here are editors to contact and demand they include more boxing coverage:

L.A. Times contact – sports editor Angel Rodriguez email address:  angel.rodriguez@latimes.com

SCNG contact – sports editor Tom Moore email address:   tmoore2@scng.com

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Don’t forget to check out:

Southern California, the Soul of Boxing: Part I

Southern California, the Soul of Boxing: Part 2 (How It Came to Be)

Southern California: The Soul of Boxing Part 3