So Far, It's Working : Irvine's Ballroom Brawls Popular

Times Staff Writer

Something strange is happening with the two-month-old professional boxing series at the Irvine Marriott Hotel.

It's working.

In testimony to such theories as a) less is more, b) thinking small, and c) giving the people what they want, the Irvine series is succeeding where previous Orange County boxing programs--from the Anaheim Convention Center to the Orange County Fairgrounds--have drowned in a sea of red ink.

Of course, two nights' worth of boxing is a mighty skimpy measuring stick, and the real test of any business venture is the long run. But the early returns are in and promoter Don Fraser is sensing a mandate for his sport in, of all places, Irvine--a.k.a., Yuppiesville, USA.

"It's been phenomenal, outstanding, astounding, amazing . . . any adjective you can find," Fraser said. "I've never had anything go like this before, and it seems to be ongoing. You couldn't ask for anything more."

The Irvine Marriott ballroom, which seats 1,500, has been filled to capacity both nights. The first card, held on Feb. 11, resulted in several hundred fans getting turned away at the door. The March 11 card, relying almost entirely on mail-order ticket sales and word-of-mouth publicity, was sold out nine days in advance.

The hotel, which offers fans free parking and charges Fraser no rent for use of the facility, is making money--pulling in an average of $10,000 a night on concessions alone. And that's not counting the business being done in the hotel's restaurants and bars.

"We've been filled to capacity from 5 to 8, right before the fights," said Ed Proenza, the Marriott's director of marketing. "And this has been on Monday nights, which tend to be our slower nights."

Fraser, too, is making money.

"We're in the black--very well in the black," he said. "I've been on the other side, believe me, and this is a good feeling. The people have been so receptive."

Fraser, a veteran of 25 years of boxing promoting, including some of the ill-fated Anaheim events of the mid-1970s, has been so encouraged by the early success at Irvine that he has moved out of his office at the Olympic Auditorium, set up shop at home and is now concentrating all his efforts on the monthly Orange County shows.

"Everything revolves around the Irvine boxing now," Fraser said. "It was difficult to keep sending out literature and mailers for events that weren't being held at the Olympic. So, I decided to buy an answering machine, take one of my rooms at home and turn it into an office.

"This is my only promotion now. It's just too much fun."

Oh, and one other thing: The boxing has been pretty good, too.

The Feb. 11 card featured seven fights and no knockouts. Each bout went the distance. The second card had three knockdowns and was highlighted by the appearance of Los Angeles' Avery Rawls, considered to be one of the brightest young talents in the heavyweight division.

"The crowd likes the heavyweights," Proenza said. "Rawls is a real quality fighter--you're going to hear a lot about him--and we're going to try and bring him back. Our purses are going to build and we're going to keep getting fighters like him."

That has been a big part of the Irvine boxing success thus far: small purses. Fraser has emphasized local boxers over big-name fighters and pays them accordingly.

The preliminary, four-round bouts pay $250 per boxer. Six-rounders pay $350, eight-rounders $800. Ten-rounders are negotiable. Bert Lee and Tim Harris, who will headline the April 22 card, will get $2,000 apiece.

Thus, with small purses and no rental fees, Fraser has a small overhead. He also doesn't have many seats to fill. Bert Lee and Tim Harris may not be enough to pack the 7,500-seat Convention Center, but they'll bring out an SRO-crowd to the Marriott ballroom.

As Proenza puts it, "We're a small, 1,500-seat ballroom--not Caesars Palace."

Said Fraser: "At the Convention Center, you needed a big show to get the people to come out. And years ago, the Convention Center shows relied heavily on (fans from) Anaheim. We get hardly any fans from Anaheim now.

"A lot of our crowd comes from Irvine, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa."

Those aren't exactly communities typically associated with boxing. There aren't many heartwarming tales of some underprivileged youth fighting his way out of the slums of Newport Beach.

But, then, the Irvine boxing crowds are hardly typical boxing crowds.

"The stereotypical boxing fan is a working class man with a cigar in his mouth," Proenza said. "We get the business crowd--computer executives, company groups, very affluent types."

The boxing fans who show up at the Marriott come dressed in coats and ties and three-piece suits. They also come dressed in furs, dresses and high heels.

"We get more women than the usual boxing crowd," Proenza said. "I'd say 10%-15% of the crowd are women. The businessmen come and bring their spouses. It's the boys' night out at Irvine."

This is precisely the type of audience Proenza hoped for when he first contacted Fraser about the idea of bringing boxing back to Orange County.

"Our objective was different," Proenza said. "We wanted to draw some really nice people to the boxing, business-type people who might eventually become customers of ours."

So, Proenza and his staff set out to provide the necessary creature comforts: free parking, plush restaurants and bars, chandeliers above the boxing ring and carpet on the floor. ("We don't allow any smoking during the fights," Proenza said. "We don't want cigarette butts on the carpet.")

It seemed the proper strategy. But, Proenza admits, some initial doubts existed.

"Some of the people at the hotel had reservations," he said. "They thought we wouldn't get a (large enough) crowd, they thought boxing would attract an unruly crowd and we'd have difficulty controlling the people.

"There was concern that we wouldn't do well financially, and there was concern over whether this was good for our image."

Image? That was a problem that found a quick solution.

The boxing has proved so popular that the hotel's gift shop is now designing a polo shirt bearing a "Marriott's Boxing" logo.

Yes, boxing has become chic at Irvine, much in the same way pro wrestling has begun to garner a following from among the legions of the rich and famous.

But that leads to another point: Is Monday Night Boxing at Irvine a mere novelty? Or, will the fans who turned out for cards Nos. 1 and 2 show up for 3, 4 and 5?

Proenza estimated that half of the March 11 crowd also attended the debut card. Fraser believes there are true fans of the sport in Orange County--"people who want to see good boxing but don't want to drive to the Olympic because it's too rough or the Forum because it's too far."

Still, obstacles remain.

"Will attendance drop off?" Proenza said. "We have to see if any of these fans are curiosity seekers and if they'll come back. And when Monday night football rolls around, we may have to consider switching dates."

Fraser and the Marriott have a month-to-month agreement, but Fraser, who has staked his future on it, sees a long future for the Irvine wrestling program.

"I think this will be an ongoing thing for several years," Fraser said. "If we keep doing this once a month, it'll be fine. If we go more than that, it's too much.

"This is a tremendous area for an idea like this. The people here have money to spend on something like this."

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