A party with punch

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GLEN BURNIE - L'il George is sagging.

No one at ringside is surprised to hear that he once weighed 320 pounds, because he's all sagging pecs and dripping abs now, his flesh like pudding, his belly below his belt. He weighs 262, not an inch of it firm. Dressed for the street in this diminished state, he might be a walking advertisement for Subway low-fat sandwiches. Bare-chested under TV lights, he looks like a melting Carvel ice cream cake. He doesn't look like he could last one round, never mind the scheduled four.

But here he is, set to fight a muscular, hip-hop heavyweight climbing through the ropes and into the ring, looking like some pumped-up Eminem in a watch cap, all biceps and neck and shoulders.

L'il George's opponent is Jed Phipps. Phipps is 40 pounds lighter and, at 25, 12 years younger.

In his first three professional bouts, Phipps has had two knockouts. He's undefeated. He's fresh. L'il George has not had a fight in six years. His record back then was 5-10.

Ladies and gentlemen! This is not looking like one of Ballroom Boxing's finest moments!

This past September, all the boxers squaring off in this oddity of an arena, the chandeliered ballroom at Michael's 8th Avenue banquet hall in Glen Burnie, were young and hungry, lean and fast. Every fight was good, all the match-ups but one pretty much perfect - lots of action, a good dose of knockouts. It was a big night for the father-son team that makes this show happen six times a year: former Maryland state senator Mike "Daddy Wags" Wagner and his son, Scott Wagner.

But here we are six weeks later - time for another taping of Ballroom Boxing, a cable-distributed fight night that airs up and down the East Coast and beyond - and this looks like televised disaster in the making.

Mike "L'il George" Whitfield, a Mack Lewis-trained fighter from Baltimore, has the bald head and sweet face of another man who fought late in the boxer's life, George Foreman. But there's a spooky sadness in his eyes, and all of us at ringside are a little worried about the guy. Notes prepared by matchmaker Chris Middendorf describe Whitfield as "experienced fat journeyman." By contrast, his opponent, Phipps, has arms like Schwarzenegger's - and he can move.

The bell sounds. Phipps dances, Whitfield waddles.

But as pathetic as this looks, you cannot take your eyes off it. There's something compelling about it. Viewers who might see this fight when it is distributed a few weeks later to the several cable networks that air it, will not be able to stop watching, wondering if the older fat guy will be able to hang with the younger muscleman with the buzz cut and heavy brow.

In his entire career, Whitfield has never been knocked out, or even knocked down. Phipps is a developing heavyweight and he needs a challenge, but maybe not one that will set back his career ambitions. If he can KO Whitfield, he'll achieve something no other boxer has ever done. And that might not be much, but it's something.

Whitfield waddles in the middle of the ring, Phipps circles him. Phipps punches and Whitfield takes it. But there seems to be little damage done. Phipps can't quite get to Whitfield.

Then, another remarkable thing happens. Round one ends and Whitfield is still standing. In fact, he's able to waddle under his own power to his corner, and a big whoop and howl goes up from the crowd of 1,200 plus in the ballroom.

It's not, however, for L'il George's underdog performance, but for the tall woman in the shimmering blue dress now stepping to music into the ring, long legs made longer by clear-plastic platform stilettos.

"Whooooaaaa! A-hoooo!"

It's all part of the ritual that is Ballroom Boxing: Ring card babes in dresses that are more slits than anything else. They keep coming, round after round, in outfits of diminishing fabric, and the men gathered for these fights - business partners and their clients, former boxers, retired guys in "Shut Up and Fish" T-shirts, schmoozing attorneys, local contractors, union truck drivers and steel workers, Ravens offensive linemen, beloved old Baltimore Colts, Ferndale-Linthicum boyhood pals of promoter Scott Wagner - certainly get what they pay for.

Six times a year, in the Las Vegas-meets-Glen Burnie bull-roast setting of Michael's 8th Avenue, they get a night of mostly good fights, and they get the tease of the ring-card girls (viewers of the cable show do not get to see the barely clad women). Later, if they happen to subscribe to Comcast, they might see themselves in the background of a Ballroom Boxing show.

Selling the classy fight

Now in its eighth year, Ballroom Boxing might be, in terms of show biz, the biggest thing to hit Glen Burnie since John Waters filmed scenes of Polyester at La Fontaine Bleu. The show does not generate huge numbers of viewers, as do other professional sports carried by Comcast, such as the Orioles, the Washington Caps and Wizards. But it has a loyal, niche following on the East Coast, and may soon have more viewers worldwide.

The show is the brainchild of Scott Wagner. He came up with the classy fight-club idea while searching for money-making uses for his father's catering hall, something the former industrial park roller-rink could be used for when it wasn't being rented for weddings and banquets.

He tried concerts first.

"Oh man," he says, "I had Slayer, Megadeth, the Beastie Boys in here. They all did well, except for Eddie Money. I couldn't give tickets away for Eddie Money. It was me and 100 friends here to see him.

"It's a tough racket, promoting concerts," he adds. "I was competing with venues in D.C. and Baltimore."

Wagner then hooked up with a matchmaker named Josh Hall to bring fight nights to Michael's 8th Avenue. They set up matches with regional boxers but lost money.

"We had a hard time selling tickets," he says. "Boxing people were skeptical and people generally think of club fights as being seedy - you know, one light bulb dangling over the ring in some smoky, dark club or union hall."

Wagner decided he would dress it all up - chandeliers, waitresses in tuxedos and big-screen video replays of knockouts ("So no one would say a guy went down from a phantom punch.") And he went one step further, approaching Home Team Sports about televising his fights.

Scott Wagner was not new to television production. In 1992, he struck a deal with HTS to carry the National Cheerleading Championships from the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore. After doing that for three years, Wagner persuaded HTS to try his banquet-hall boxing show. He and his father owned the show and paid HTS to produce it and air. They made money then - as they do now - from the gate at Michael's 8th Avenue, concessions and any on- or off-air advertising they could sell.

After those early shows, the Wagners hired an independent video production company to tape and edit the shows. Toyota became a major sponsor in 1998.

And Ballroom Boxing has grown. It now airs on Comcast Sports Network (formerly HTS), New England Sports Network, Sunshine Network in Florida, the Armed Forces Network, and the Urban American Network. Fox Sports International carries a Best of Ballroom Boxing show into Africa and the Middle East, and an outfit called KOTV carries it into the United Kingdom. The Empire Sports Network in upstate New York will pick the show up in January.

Larry Michaels of CBS Radio describes the action from ringside - usually while chewing gum - and columnist Jon Saraceno of USA Today provides commentary. Someday, Scott Wagner hopes, Michaels' and Saraceno's voices will be dubbed into Spanish for broadcast on cable in Latin American countries.

"As a viewer, I enjoy it a great deal," says David Nevins, the Baltimore public relations man who until recently served as president of Comcast Sports Network. "You have fighters who are mostly unknowns giving it their all, local guys who are trying to make it in a very tough sport, who have not been corrupted by big money, who get into it more for the love and enjoyment and competition of the sport. The fights seem legitimate - and they're frequently very good.

"It's not one of our most highly viewed shows," Nevins added, "but the feedback, all anecdotal, indicates a strong following. The Wagners are very clever and they seem to be among the few [promoters] who are able to stage fights this way."

Scott Wagner estimates that people in as many as 30 million households can now see, if they choose, the likes of L'il George Whitfield and Jed Phipps go at it.

Exposure for local guys

Whitfield-Phipps might not have been the prettiest fight ever on a Ballroom Boxing card, but it turned out to last longer than any ringside expert predicted.

Whitfield and Phipps went the distance - four rounds. L'il George survived. The 37-year-old "fat journeyman" was not KO'd. Phipps won by unanimous decision, but not without getting a warning from the referee for hitting Whitfield below the belt - something that might have seemed excusable since so much of Whitfield's belly was there anyway.

(Later, after the fight, Phipps stopped by Mike Wagner's cluttered and busy office on the second floor of the catering hall and said of his opponent, L'il George: "I knew he wasn't going down. I could have hit him over the head with that computer over there and he wouldn't have gone down.")

The matchup seemed dubious, but it served a purpose - it filled out the evening's undercard, gave an old boxer a chance at comeback, a young one a modest challenge, and provided exposure for two local guys.

Still, local heavyweights do not have most-favored fighter status on Ballroom Boxing. Lighter, quicker boxers, matched in four-round pressure-cookers, seem to be the ones that get the crowds the most excited. Former heavyweight champ Joe Frazier has come to watch the young fighters, and Riddick Bowe visited in September.

"We really have expanded our fighter base," says Scott Wagner. "You're not just seeing the guy who cooked your dinner at the Sunset [Restaurant & Lounge] who can box. We're getting quality boxers."

There have been some great fights, too, and some good-looking boxers with promise - and ambitions to make big money one day - have sought out exposure on the show.

"Most of Scott's fights are competitive," says retired Sun boxing writer Alan Goldstein. "He's showcased area boxers such as Jimmy Lange, a popular junior middleweight from Virginia; Darnell 'Ding-a-ling Man' Wilson - all 10 of Wilson's wins have been by KO's - and Baltimore middleweight Ishmail Arvin, a longtime student of Mack Lewis.

"Scott Wagner is a hard worker," adds Goldstein. "You need continuity to be successful in promoting club fights, and there have been too many fly-by-night operators in this area. But Wagner is doing it the right way. He doesn't need big names to succeed, only young, aggressive fighters."

On this November fight night, Mike Wagner, the former state senator who broadcaster Michaels calls "Daddy Wags," sits back and watches with considerable pride as his son hustles through the crowds in the catering hall with a walkie-talkie, making everything move forward. Even when the matches aren't working out so well, the bouts run dull and too long, and the main event might not happen before midnight.

"Scott is full of energy and enthusiasm, piss and vinegar," says Daddy Wags. "I used mine all up in politics and business. I looked at his Nextel [cell phone] bill last month, and he spent three days - about 72 hours - on the phone making all the arrangements for the show. He's really learned a lot about the fight game. ... He's learned that you might see a guy with a record of 19-0 and a guy with a record of 9-20, but the guy who's undefeated might have fought nothin' but cab drivers, while the guy who's 9-20 has fought a lot of great fights. You have to study this stuff."

The elder Wagner considers Ballroom Boxing an "artistic success," and while it has gone cable - and may soon reach even more households through additional television deals - it remains a local show, drawing a big crowd of regulars, old friends and business associates from the Baltimore area.

"I'll tell ya something," says Daddy Wags, as an employee hands him a neat stack of cash receipts from the ballroom concessions. "Glen Burnie ain't Mayberry, but it ain't too far from Mayberry, and this show of ours is a big social event for people here."

It's the first taste of TV for a lot of fighters, too - the young, lean ones, and sometimes, even the old, fat, resilient ones.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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