Boxers Taking Alternate Path to Big Paydays

It happens every year in basketball. And hockey. Players struggle through meaningless, marathon regular seasons, faced with fatigue and often indifferent fans in a race with no finish line. The good teams coast, the bad teams roast and everybody yells, "Bring on the playoffs."

Then, the second season begins and they do it all again. This time, though, it's for keeps and everybody pays attention. After all, the Sacramento Kings could beat the Lakers in a five-game mini series. It's about as likely as William Perry becoming a poster boy for Weight Watchers. But it is possible--and that keeps the fans coming.

Postseason tournaments have done wonders for many sports. Isn't this the first week all season you're paying serious attention to college basketball?

Lakers and Kings owner Jerry Buss always paid serious attention to the value of these tournaments. So when he was looking around for a way to instill some interest in another of his ventures, boxing, he tried the same formula. Thus began tournament boxing.

Bouts were held once a month in various weight classifications. Originally, the field would consist of eight fighters, all local. They had to be ranked by a recognized organization (WBC, WBA, IBF, USBA, NBA, NBC, MTV--just about anything but the PLO) or be a state champion.

It took three victories to win the series of single-elimination matches, usually over a span of six months. Fighters made $1,200 for the first fight and $1,500 for the second, with $40,000 going to the winner of the championship event.

"Some of those guys would never in their careers have fought for $40,000," says John Jackson, who has administered the program for Buss. "When you put that goal in front of a fighter, he sometimes trains harder and goes farther. One of our goals was to raise the quality of local boxing."

There was certainly a need for that. A series of boxing-night riots at the Olympic Auditorium, long the flagship of the local fight game, had given the sport a black eye in the Southland. But in the last couple of years, it has made a comeback. The Forum tournaments have been one reason. So-called yuppie boxing, in places like Reseda's Country Club and the Marriott Hotel in Orange County, have brought the three-piece-suit set ringside.

Tournament boxing is bigger than ever now. The field has expanded to 10 fighters per tournament, and there are plans to boost that number to 16. The winning purse is now $50,000. A planned increase will give winners in the future a total of $100,000 for all their tournament appearances. There are also plans to give winners, who now receive championship belts, a ring similar to those worn by champions in other sports.

It's still an investment in the future for Buss, however. Paid attendance for the matches is still only around 2,500 to 3,000. That leaves about 15,000 empty seats.

The formula has been a success for many fighters. Prince Mohammed became a tournament winner, vaulted from there into the World Boxing Council's rankings as one of its top 10 light heavyweights, and eventually got a shot at the title vacated by Leon Spinks, losing to J.B. Williamson at the Forum.

But tournament boxing is not for everyone. Take Dan Goossen, for example. The North Hollywood boxing manager has two good properties: middleweight Michael Nunn and bantamweight Frankie Duarte.

There is no need to put Nunn in a tournament. Signed to a two-year contract by promoter Bob Arum, he fought last weekend in Las Vegas the day before the Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns doubleheader. He will continue to receive excellent exposure, steadily rising purses and an open road to a title shot as long as he continues to win.

Duarte (37-6-1, 27 knockouts) is a different story. His road has been full of nothing but detours, despite losing on a split decision to then-World Boxing Assn. champion Richie Sandoval nearly a year ago. Duarte has fought a total of just 10 rounds in the last 11 months. In October, he knocked down Freddie Jackson, No. 2 in the World Boxing Council rankings, but emerged with a technical draw when the fight was stopped due to an accidental head butt. Duarte was offered a series of three bouts in Australia that would have paid him a total of less than $30,000.

Instead, he'll make his first appearance in a Forum tournament Monday night, meeting Mike Moreno (19-2-1, 12 knockouts) of Tucson, Ariz. If he can win all three bouts, Duarte can make $40,000 and use the tournament as a vehicle to finally get past the detours and back on the road to a top 10 ranking and perhaps a title shot.

Not a bad deal. Especially when you consider that Sandoval lost his title last week on the Hagler-Hearns card. As a defending champion on an internationally televised show, he earned only $37,500.

Tournament applications are available at the Forum, Richie.

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