When Jack Kent Cooke broke ground in 1966 for the Forum in Inglewood, his intent was to construct a building that would house his Lakers and Kings.
Neither Cooke nor anyone else had any way of knowing that within a quarter-century, the Forum would also be boxing's premier venue in California, if not the United States.
These days, it doesn't take much of a look to conclude that boxing here is largely being supported by Jerry Buss.
For most of the 20th Century, there has been plenty of room for anyone in the Los Angeles area who wanted to promote regular boxing shows.
At the turn of the century, the sport was anchored at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where there were waiting lists for morning and evening boxing classes. Among the 1890s LAAC boxing graduates was Jim Jeffries, still the city's only world heavyweight champion.
The old outdoor Vernon arena was the battle site for some of America's greatest fighters, among them Sam Langford, Joe Rivers, Joe Gans and Willie Ritchie, until the arena burned down in the 1920s.
Through the first half of the century, boxing clubs were everywhere. On almost any evening in any Southern California community, all you had to do was follow the cigar smoke to find a boxing show. As recently as the mid-1950s, you could go to the fights virtually every night of the week somewhere in Southern California.
Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles area was still in a boxing boom. The Olympic Auditorium, built in 1925 and boarded up for the last several years, was still going strong under matchmaker Don Chargin. In fact, standing-room-only crowds of 10,000 were not uncommon at the Olympic as recently as the mid-1970s.
And at the Forum, matchmaker George Parnassus, heavily promoting the all-time Forum box office champion, Ruben Olivares, was packing them in as no one before or since. Olivares three times put more than 18,000 people in the Forum. When he fought Bobby Chacon in 1975, it brought in the only SRO boxing crowd in Forum history, 18,770.
Not even Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton approached that for their 1973 Forum fight. The crowd was 12,100 that night, but the gate was $548,000, still a state record.
Also in 1970, the Valley Arena in Woodland Hills did good business with biweekly Saturday night shows. And the Sports Arena, then as now, had an occasional boxing show.
For boxing here today, it may be too soon to say the bloom is off the rose. But one wonders where the sport would be in Southern California without Buss. His 1990 goal is to average a world championship fight every month, more than half of the 22 dates scheduled by his three boxing staff members, John Jackson, Mike Garrett and Antonio Curtis.
Jackson, a former assistant football coach at USC, is Buss' vice president for boxing. Garrett, the 1964 Heisman Trophy winner at USC, is Buss' director of boxing. Curtis is the matchmaker.
Nowhere else, in the United States at least, can a boxing promoter claim a monthly world title fight.
Buss, who bought the Forum and the Lakers in 1979, was first a boxing fan. In late June of 1946, for example, 13-year-old Jerry Buss spent a lot of time at the Victory Theater in Kemmerer, Wyo., his boyhood home. "I got so excited looking forward to the radio broadcast of the second Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight, I couldn't sleep nights," Buss said recently.
"And after the fight, I'd go down to the theater every day and ask the manager if he'd found out when the Louis-Conn fight films were coming to town."
Buss had family in post-World War II Los Angeles and on visits here, went with an uncle to fight shows at the Olympic and elsewhere.
"When I moved here and began going to the fights regularly, my first L.A. hero was Art Aragon," he said. "I loved the excitement he generated, just because so many people either hated him or loved him. I still remember a Times columnist, Ned Cronin, writing once that Art Aragon was the 'human equivalent of smog.' "
Although Buss is far and away the sport's major domo in Southern California, he isn't the only player. Longtime Southland promoter Don Fraser holds monthly shows--and grosses about $25,000 a show--at the Irvine Marriott Hotel. Ten Goose Boxing averages a show every six weeks at Chuck Landis' Country Club in Reseda. There also are irregularly scheduled boxing cards at the Sports Arena and in San Diego, Palm Springs, Blythe, Long Beach, Palmdale and Bakersfield. But one of Buss' Forum shows will most often outdraw all the others' combined. Five percent of every ticket to a pro boxing show in California goes to the California Athletic Commission, the state's boxing regulatory body. In addition, another $2 per ticket--a 100% increase, implemented recently--is used to pay for the state's neurological exams, required yearly of all pro fighters in California.
Last year, about 60% of the commission's income came from Forum shows.
The Forum's boxing operation, however, operates at a loss and will continue to do so, according to Jackson, until its season-seat sales approach 2,000. They are at about 850.
At a show Feb. 26, a crowd of 5,664 showed up for a main event matching two relatively non-prominent super-featherweights, Edward Parker and Refugio Rojas. For title fights, crowds of 6,000 to 7,000 have been common.
Fight venues have declined, longtime promoter Fraser says, because fighters have declined in both quantity and quality.
"There aren't nearly as many fighters around today as we used to have, and not nearly the talent," he said. "There aren't as many gyms, either. Kids who used to try boxing at gyms are going into other high school sports now.
"The numbers are way down from 20 years ago, when both the Olympic and the Valley Arena were doing weekly shows. And we had weekly TV coverage, which we don't have now.
"I'd say there're 50% less fighters around today. Look at the Forum cards, a lot of their kids come in from out of state. Used to be, at any show in Southern California, the card was all local kids, top to bottom."
At the Forum, as elsewhere here, the participants and the audiences are largely Latino. The Forum boxing staff happily takes advantage of boxing being a national passion in Mexico.
Julio Cesar Chavez, for example, Mexico's most popular pugilist, has fought three times at the Forum in recent years.
Matchmaker Curtis is perfect for all this. He's Panamanian-born, Brooklyn-raised. Because he speaks Spanish, he closed a big Forum deal recently--the signing of colorful Mexicali featherweight Jorge Paez to a one-year Forum-NBC contract.
Paez, who can earn $1 million in the deal, is a clown in his family's Mexican circus. He can also fight. He's the International Boxing Federation champion and is to fight four times in 1990 for the Forum. The deal is contingent upon his continuing to win, which he barely did in a Forum-promoted February bout at the Las Vegas Hilton against Troy Dorsey.
Many ringsiders had scored that one for Dorsey, but Paez got a squeaker decision.
Some time ago, according to Jackson, Buss said that his ultimate goal with Forum boxing was a title fight every week. Jackson, father of USC football-baseball star John Jackson, winced.
"I said, 'How about every other week?' " Jackson said, laughing.
Actually, it might not be that tough. With three governing bodies, there are 47 world champions. And through January, the Forum did hold a title fight in 10 of the preceding 11 months.
"The one thing we haven't done is a heavyweight championship fight, and that's on our hit list, too," Jackson said. "We feel there are a lot of boxing fans in Southern California who don't go to the fights. If we had a heavyweight title fight here, we think it would do a lot toward getting them into the Forum."
For now, Buss said, he's conceding heavyweight title fights to Nevada and Atlantic City casinos, but when the pay-per-view potential is fully realized, he said, all bets are off.
"The site fee for a major heavyweight title fight would be around $11 million," Buss said. "To get that back, we'd have to have an average ticket price of $650. So in reality, we can't compete yet with Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
"However, as pay per view expands and income potential there grows, the site fee becomes less and less significant. I think at that point, fighters like Mike Tyson (this was before Buster Douglas upset Tyson in Tokyo) would love to fight here, or even in New York."
Said Jackson: "Look at the number of people today who order pay-per-view boxing shows. We'd like to get more of those people in the Forum. We think if we can market ourselves directly to them, we could double our attendance.
"We're very proud of what we've done here. If we do 12 world title fights this year . . . who else did that? No one."
Jackson and Curtis believe that if Paez bounces back from his rocky performance against Dorsey and does well the rest of the year, he could be the Forum's first PPV meal ticket.
In any event, Forum boxing numbers are rising. Since 1986, Forum dates have risen from 16 to 22 a year. And when the Forum began its boxing tournaments in 1982, $40,000 was the winner's purse. Now, it's $100,000.
For several years, after Buss bought the place from Cooke, there was no boxing at the Forum. He started boxing again in 1982.
Curtis, the matchmaker, was born in Colon, Panama, then moved to New York when he was 15. His father was a New York City police detective and a fight fan.
Curtis is focusing on putting heavyweights on the Forum marquee, such as former IBF champion Tony Tucker, who was on last Thursday's card. Another former heavyweight champion, WBA version, Michael Dokes, has also fought recently at the Forum.
"We'd like to match those two here," Curtis said. "It'd be tough, but we can do it. We'd love it if both of them develop a following here. And we've got a young heavyweight just starting out, David Dixon (also on last Thursday's card), who we think can be pretty good."
THROUGH THE YEARS
A look at Forum boxing dates and attendance.
Average Year Shows Attendance 1967-68 1 16,595 1968-69 7 11,588 1969-70 7 14,472 1970-71 9 9,777 1971-72 21 4,937 1972-73 13 5,836 1973-74 7 9,729 1974-75 7 10,067 1975-76 9 7,989 1976-77 4 10,692 1977-78 4 5,770 1978-79 2 12,616 1979-80 3 5,919 1980-81 11 3,362 1981-82 -- -- 1982-83 11 3,692 1983-84 12 3,701 1984-85 13 4,545 1985-86 16 4,711 1986-87 18 4,306 1987-88 18 4,469 1988-89 20 4,628 1989-90 15 5,688
Years shown are fiscal years. Also, attendance data for 1970 through 1984 includes some closed-circuit TV shows. Forum has scheduled 22 boxing dates for calendar 1990.