BIKER BAR TO THE CHAMPIONS : In a Leafy Glade, Men of Iron Fists Find Quiet Haven
One thing about the Big Oaks Lodge--it may be the only biker bar in America that doesn’t need a bouncer. Well, not a salaried bouncer, anyway.
On one recent weekend morning, while several bikers in black leather and chains drank beer and watched, heavyweight boxer Tony Tubbs, Mike Tyson’s next opponent, loosened up for some roadwork. And Michael Dokes, former World Boxing Assn. heavyweight champion, whacked a heavy punching bag that hung from a century-old oak.
Dwain Bonds, another heavyweight boxer and also Tubbs’ sparring partner, couldn’t think of anything else to do, so he flexed his impressive biceps. The bikers watched silently, and drank beer.
Bikers and Fighters. That’s the Big Oaks Lodge near Saugus.
If that sounds like trouble, forget it. Trouble? What trouble? No trouble here.
“We got no law enforcement problems here,” said Matt (“Please don’t put my last name in the paper, someone’s lookin’ for me.”), the bartender. “And even if we did, there’s a loaded shotgun upstairs and we got Dukers, over there.”
“Dukers” is the lodge cop. He’s a 6-year-old German Shepherd who personally inspects every visitor. If you pass muster with Dukers, he crawls back under a picnic table on the patio and goes back to sleep.
And then there’s Big John. John Smyth is the Big Oaks co-owner, with Dee White, and a heavyweight in his own right. Smyth worked his way through Cal State Northridge years ago as a sparring partner for Jerry Quarry. And Big John is still in shape.
Around Big Oaks, they like to tell the story of the 5-foot 5-inch biker who had one too many one afternoon. Big John, they say, carried the biker outside, hoisted him over his head, and threw him down on his bike so hard, he broke it. The Harley, not the biker.
Recalls Matt the bartender: “The biker took Big John to court, but the judge liked the story so much, he threw the case out.”
Big Oaks Lodge is a hideaway, in Angeles National Forest, on a winding canyon road rimmed by oaks and sycamores. You want to call it a quiet canyon road, and during the week it is. But on weekends, well . . . we’re talking unmuffled Harleys in squadrons of 20 and 30, going by at 75 m.p.h.
The canyon road is Bouquet Canyon Road, not far from Canyon Country. A few miles up the road, on the way to the Antelope Valley, is Bouquet Canyon Reservoir.
Big Oaks is a rustic saloon-restaurant, near Saugus. Legend has it W. C. Fields was a sometimes 1930s visitor here. Mary Pickford and Joan Crawford had cabins nearby. And long before that, when Bouquet Canyon Road was a stagecoach road, Tiburcio Vasquez, a known stagecoach holdup man of the late 1800s, lurked behind the oaks and rocks above the road, waiting for the next stage.
In the late 1980s, on weekend afternoons, one might find a hundred motorcycles parked around Big Oaks, and bikers and their girlfriends drinking beer. On weekend evenings, after the bikers leave, another type of crowd arrives--for Big Oaks steak and lobster dinners.
During the week, as Matt the bartender puts it, “It’s just me and the rabbits.”
And the fighters.
Above the lodge building and next to two small cabins, where boxers are bunked, there’s an outdoor ring, shaded by a huge eucalyptus. A small, dry creek bed runs by, 30 feet from the ring. Two small bleachers are set up.
It’s hardly a setting for pugilism. When the bikers aren’t roaring by on the road below, the only sounds are jays and woodpeckers, flitting about in the old, gnarly oaks.
Co-owner Dee White says Big Oaks has been a get-away-from-it-all boxing training camp for about 15 years.
“The ring was built for Bobby Quarry (the youngest of the three boxing Quarry brothers), and at about that time the place just sort of became a place for boxers to get out of the city and train in a clean-air environment,” she said.
“Tubbs, Dokes, Sean O’Grady, Tex Cobb, Mark Wills . . . a lot of name boxers have trained here.”
This week, there are about a half-dozen fighters at Big Oaks, preparing for upcoming bouts. Tubbs is training for his March 21 fight in Tokyo against Tyson. Dokes has a bout with James Tillis coming up in New York. Derrick Kelly, the state junior middleweight champion, defends his title against Felipe Canela in March at the Forum.
Boxers quartered at Big Oaks do their morning roadwork on Bouquet Canyon Road, do some bag work right in front of the bar, and some “shake-out” work in the outdoor ring. Sparring work, however, is done at an indoor ring at a ranch, a half-dozen miles down the road.
Once, Big Oaks was a place where a guy could buy a good chew.
“I’ve traced the place back to at least the 1920s, but I’m sure there was some kind of establishment here well before that,” Dee White said. “In the last century, they found gold in these canyons, before the California Gold Rush, up north. And there was ruby mining, too. I’ve been told the miners would come here for supplies, whiskey and chewing tobacco.”
As a participation sport, Matt the bartender has had it with fighting. He much prefers talking about boxing, with patrons.
Matt, in his 50s, has one of those rubbery faces that looks like he’s got a perpetual hangover. He said he worked at a tough bar in the San Fernando Valley as a bouncer, found it too tough, and sought peace and tranquility, behind the bar at the quiet little biker bar on Bouquet Canyon Road.
Here, the closest Matt gets to a fight is talking about fights. Or watching them on the overhead television. When there’s a fight on television, don’t even think about asking someone to change channels.
“This place in the valley was a tough topless joint,” Matt said. “Did about $35,000 a month. One time I had to throw out a five-foot-tall mailman. I threw him through the door, and he bounced right up off the pavement, hit me on the chin . . . and I was out for 20 minutes.
“That’s the trouble with fighting . . . too many surprises. I was getting too old for that, anyway.
“Another time, I had to throw out this drunk because she’d gotten out of control. I had her by the hair and had just dragged her out the front door, when she turned around, bit into my wrist, and bit right through two veins.
“So I’m standing there under the neon sign, watching myself bleed to death, and an off duty cop who was a friend of mine, pulls up to show me his new TransAm. I asked him to help me subdue this broad, and he puts a choke hold on her, but she starts kicking his new car with her spiked heels. She put about a dozen dents in it.
“See what I mean? Too many surprises.
“Now, this place . . . it’s actually pretty quiet. We might have a hundred bikers in here on a Saturday afternoon, but by 4 o’clock everyone of them’s gone. Other people who live up and down the canyon, they come in and sit at the bar, and talk sports.”
Two bikers walk in, as two heavyweights, Dokes and Bonds, walk out.
“Are those guys fighters, or what?” one asks.
“Yeah, Michael Dokes and Dwain Bonds,” Matt says.
The two bikers order a couple of beers, walk outside, and sit down with Dokes and Bonds. In five minutes, they appear to be fast friends, exchanging stories about bygone battles and choice choppers.
Inside, Matt is trying to look through the far window. At the sharp turn down the road, about 150 yards away, a biker is down. He’s motionless, on the pavement, his motorcycle on its side against the hill.
Another biker runs up the stone steps and into the bar, and shouts to Matt: “Some guy just ran his rice grinder (Japanese motorcycle) into the hill, better call nine-eleven.”
The call is made, but two police cars have already happened by, and stopped. About 40 minutes go by before paramedics arrive. Almost dispassionately, the boxers and the few Big Oaks patrons stand to watch through the window. The biker is placed on a stretcher and lifted inside the ambulance.
Alex Ramos, a junior middleweight, watches this and mutters: ". . . and I thought fightin’ was tough. . . “