Promoters Inaugurate Wing-Side Fight Night

Times Staff Writer

The promoters wanted to attract an upscale crowd.

So the snack bar, spread lavishly at one end of the humongous Spruce Goose dome, featured an array of trendy delights from Cajun chicken for $5.25 to ham croissants for $3.75. And right next to the Kirin beer were ample supplies of white wine and Scotch.

What they got at the first boxing event to hit this city in 15 years and the first ever held under the wing of the famous wooden airplane, was a decidedly mixed bag of spectators. More beer enthusiasts than wine connoisseurs, reported the waitresses who circulated while dressed in uniforms with sleek red skirts. And definitely more men than women.

Within half an hour, the price of the chicken had been slashed by a dollar. And sitting next to those wearing three-piece suits with ties were die-hard fight fans in plaid shirts and baseball caps.

Organizers said they needed to sell 1,000 tickets to break even. They sold slightly more than 600. Yet the event was a success, they said, because it hailed the coming of Yuppie boxing to Long Beach.

'It's a Good Crowd'

"Next time we'll be turning people away at the door," predicted Frank Berglund, an advertising executive representing Kirin Beer, which sponsored the event.

Said Joseph Prevratil, president of Wrather Port Properties Inc., which manages the Spruce Goose and Queen Mary: "It's a good crowd."

His company, he said, hit on the idea of boxing matches as a way to make extra money by using the Spruce Goose dome during the slow winter months when it ordinarily closes at 6 p.m. "Boxing is very much Americana," Prevratil said, "and God knows the Spruce Goose is part of Americana. We have a facility that is unique and different, and this fits our marketing strategy of promoting more special-event type activities."

So Wrather contracted with Don Fraser--the promoter of a wildly successful series of boxing events at the Marriott Hotel in Irvine--to do for Long Beach what he had done for Orange County. And for at least the next six months, according to Prevratil, local boxing aficionados will be able to enjoy not only their sport, but a tour of Howard Hughes' famous airplane for a once-a-month Wednesday night admission price of $17 to $27.

"Long Beach has never been considered a red-hot boxing town," Fraser said. "Now we are going to test it to see if (the town) can support our concept. Howard Hughes was a very mysterious guy; I think he would have liked it."

Yuppie Contingent

To be sure, there was the hoped-for contingent of Yuppie types, many of whom are recent boxing fans. People like Ben Davis, a La Crescenta physician who brought his 5-year-old son, Ben Jr., to see in person what until now the two had mostly watched on television. "My wife (also a physician) is out of town at a conference and this seemed like a fun thing to do," Davis explained. "She thinks it's barbaric, but I think it's fun. It's a release from the day-to-day tension--you get to see people do things that you'd like to do yourself."

Or 19-year-old Gina Wagner and her friend, Jennifer Wright, 20, both dressed to kill, who said they have been attending the Orange County matches regularly for about a year. "I like moving things," said Wright, a communications major at California State University, Fullerton. "I like action--something always happening."

But there was also a generous representation of more traditional boxing fans. Heavy beer drinkers in jeans and T-shirts. Regular working stiffs out for a night with the guys. For them the event afforded all the usual delights, including the poker-faced ringside physician peering intently at the gore and the gut-wrenching spectacle of ambitious young fighters knocking each other senseless for fees ranging from $300 to $500 for one of the five preliminary bouts, to $2,750 for the main event.

The crowd cheered wildly for the two hometown hopes--Anthony Holt, who won after four rounds, and Zeke Thompson, who got knocked out after one. And whooped lustily as scantily clad women paraded around the ring with placards announcing each new round.

Wagner, who is a Mission Viejo aerobics instructor, and Wright said they take no particular pleasure in half-naked men methodically pummeling each other into something resembling bloody hamburger patties. Instead, said Wright, it's the drama of the unexpected that holds their interest.

'Like an Accident'

"It's exciting, but a scary kind of excitement," said Wright, who was wearing shell earrings and black high heels with a Navy blue sweater dress. "I don't look forward to knockouts, but when they happen they're exciting--kind of like an accident on the freeway."

Added Wagner, wearing a diamond necklace and earrings with her two-piece forest green linen suit, silk headband, black high heels and white lace stockings: "I get sweat on me sometimes. It adds to the atmosphere."

Occasionally, the women said, they even come close to getting spattered with blood. "Maybe we'll sit up there (ringside) and try for it today," Wright quipped.

Is that something she would enjoy? "It depends on where I get it," she said. "Not on my clothes."

As the evening progressed and the beer flowed, the crowd grew more expansive. Not many seemed even to notice that Jaime Garza, the night's favorite, had been replaced in the main event by Luis Hernandez after Garza came down with the flu. Only after opponent Darryl Thigpen scored a knockout in the fifth of 10 scheduled rounds did the groans begin.

"These guys don't have enough experience," complained Pat Lubash, a Long Beach swimming instructor who described himself as an avid fight fan. "It's still all amateurs--the talent isn't that good."

Said Ed Fleming, an employee of General Telephone: "There were too many slips. It just wasn't a quality fight."

But they all said they would come back to the next one scheduled for Dec. 10. And as the crowd filed out after the last blow of the last bout, promoters representing companies involved in various aspects of the production were waxing enthusiastic.

"It's a horrible sport, isn't it?" muttered one, standing at the periphery of the audience, dressed in a suit and tie.

His companion was quick to reply. "Hey, anything that works. . . . "

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