1st Woman Boxing Referee Rolled With Punches

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Belle Martell's moment as queen of the boxing ring was almost as short as a knockout countdown, but she did it gracefully.

The first woman licensed in California to referee boxing matches, Martell learned the sport in the 1930s by watching her husband train boxers. She was also an amateur fight promoter, ring announcer and timekeeper.

And this summer, she will be inducted posthumously into the California Boxing Hall of Fame -- 66 years after she passed the referee exam.

"I don't know how it happened, but we overlooked this woman all these years," said former boxing promoter Don Fraser, chairman of the hall of fame's selection committee.

Los Angeles Times stories of the era describe her role, and old-time boxers remember her.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, Los Angeles was pretty much a minor-league town, with amateur boxing tournaments. "We didn't have professional teams here, but we did have the annual Golden Glove tournaments sponsored by The Times, beer companies and law enforcement -- they were the biggest matches around," veteran boxing figure Bennie Georgino said in a recent interview. "And it was Art and Belle Martell who managed these fights."

Both Martells were former vaudevillians, and Art Martell was a boxing promoter and matchmaker. "The first time I ever saw [Belle] was in a hotel lobby [in 1920] bawling out her stage partner," Art Martell said in a 1954 Times interview. "I said to myself, 'Heaven help the man who marries her!' I did marry her, and heaven has helped."

At first, Belle Martell was merely a fight fan. Then, in 1930, Art Martell built a gym in the garage of their Van Nuys home, where he trained boxers. By the time he had 40 students, Belle was giving them their first lessons and teaching footwork. She learned by watching.

"We had one chin-crazy kid who couldn't learn to keep his elbows in," Art Martell said in the 1954 interview. "One night while I was out at a boxing club, Belle worked along with him.

"When she told him to get his elbows next to his body, he said, 'What would a woman know?' Belle put on gloves, jumped into the ring, waited for him to drop his guard, and socked him so hard in the solar plexus, she knocked him out. After that I figured she was ready for anything in boxing.

"It isn't every man who has a wife with a one-two punch."

In 1931, the Martells took over former heavyweight boxing champion Jim Jeffries' red dairy barn in Burbank, which Jeffries had converted to a boxing gym. (In 1954 it was moved to Knott's Berry Farm, where it remains as the Wilderness Dance Hall.)

That was where Belle learned to be an announcer. "I fell into my announcing role because no one else seemed to have the necessary stage sense and timing to introduce fighters and ringside celebrities" to the crowds, she told The Times in 1954.

In 1934, the Los Angeles Athletic Club hired the Martells to run amateur fights at L.A.'s boxing mecca, the Grand Olympic Auditorium at 18th Street and Grand Avenue. Club members thought Belle Martell would attract more women customers -- and she did. Soon the first few rows were filled with the likes of actresses Mae West, Lupe Velez, Ruby Keeler and Barbara Stanwyck. Ordinary housewives came too.

Belle Martell had Hollywood friends, a show business flair and a booming New Jersey-accented voice that rumbled across the Olympic. At 5 feet 10, she was an imposing figure in her black velvet gown. When she wasn't announcing the fights, she was the timekeeper.

She also put together exhibition boxing matches at jails at the request of Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz, former state boxing commissioner and veteran referee Joe Olmos said.

"It was a Depression-era sport," boxing promoter Fraser said. "Fans paid 50 cents or a buck for a front-row seat to see good, clean boxing." Professional fights cost more.

At some point, Belle Martell decided to get her referee's license but, on April 29, 1940, she failed the state exam. Undaunted, she went home and crammed and took an oral exam the next day, scoring 97%. The test, given by one of five members of the California Athletic Commission, made her the first woman to be licensed to referee amateur boxing matches throughout the state.

A piqued Times columnist wrote at the time that " ... screwy as it sounds, Mrs. M scored no 97% legitimately. She took one examination from Chief Inspector Willie Ritchie, did not do too well, went home and boned up on the items she had flunked, came back to take the same examination over again. Why that 3% was missed under such circumstances is a mystery."

Belle Martell, 46, made her debut as a referee May 9, 1940. Wearing a shirtdress below her knees and a silk scarf around her neck, she refereed eight bouts in Pasadena, where a crowd of 700 watched Johnny Mongz knock out Jimmy Archuleta.

"When the fallen man rose [after the count], the belle of the ring gently took his hand [and] led him to a place of safety," The Times reported.

About two weeks later, on May 24, all five state boxing commissioners "drew up and adopted Rule 256, which read: "No license will be granted to members of the female sex to referee, second or manage in the ring when other performers are of the opposite sex," The Times reported. The commission offered no explanation.

"I have taken a great deal from a certain class in the boxing game during my years in it," Belle Martell told The Times after her license was revoked. "But the stupid and ridiculous charges stirred up during the past month have brought about my decision to step out and give the men who have been blasting so loudly a chance to see what they can do for boxing."

The Times didn't report what those "charges" were, and none of the former boxers remembers. "I think she became too much of a nuisance to the old guard of boxing," Fraser said.

In June 1940, the Olympic ended its amateur matches. The Martells opened Martell's Arena on Main Street near 98th Street, where they promoted such boxers as Lou Filippo and Olmos.

During World War II, Art Martell continued to coach boxers for the annual Golden Glove tournaments. Belle joined the Women's Ambulance and Defense Corps of America, teaching women self-defense.

The Martells were fighters to the last. In the 1950s, they tried to revive amateur boxing at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, but big crowds were interested only in the annual Golden Glove tournaments held there.

Belle died in 1972, followed by Art four years later. Belle will be inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame on Aug. 19 at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City.

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