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Hawaii primed to pack punches after boxing officials meet with Honolulu mayor

In this Thursday, May 7, 2019 photo The Neal Blaisdell Center is seen in Honolulu as officials get r
Honolulu’s Blaisdell Center, scheduled for a $750-million renovation next year, is one potential location for boxing in Hawaii.
(Jennifer Sinco Kelleher / Associated Press)

Beyond its international reputation as a vacation destination, Hawaii this week asserted its interest in becoming a regular stop for combat sports dates.

In a meeting with World Boxing Council President Mauricio Sulaiman and North American Boxing Federation officials who conducted their annual convention here, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell expressed the islanders’ fervent interest in fight sports. Sulaiman proposed a pro tournament of four-round boxing matches named for late local trainer Herbert Minn to stoke the revival.

“You tell me what to do and we’ll make it happen,” Caldwell told Sulaiman before receiving a commemorative WBC belt featuring the mayor’s photo next to Muhammad Ali’s. “The interest is here. We can work together to make something happen and more of our people should find out what the sport builds in terms of character.

“You have a partner here. [The tournament] is great news. . . . We pull from all continents and all shores, and bringing a major fight here would be pretty fantastic. We have the facilities, the hotels, the Aloha spirit.”

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Minn’s son, Hubert, a boxing judge, noted that Hawaii hasn’t staged a championship match since 2011 when native son Brian “Hawaiian Punch” Viloria won a flyweight belt at the iconic 7,700-seat Blaisdell Center, where Elvis Presley once performed.

Minn said he envisions Hawaii as a natural locale for “East meets West,” bouts, “with fighters from [Asia] meeting those from Mexico. The people are ready.”

Caldwell said Blaisdell Center will undergo a $750-million renovation on its 22-acre site beginning next year, with the Honolulu Convention Center and Aloha Stadium also available for use.

Bellator MMA staged two sellout cards at Blaisdell Center in December, when the state’s Ilima-Lei MacFarlane successfully defended her flyweight belt, and Bellator President Scott Coker indicated to state officials this week that another card is planned for Hawaii in December.

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“The support here for their local fighters and just combat sports in general is like nowhere else in the world,” MacFarlane said. “It’s the truest sense of the word ‘aloha.’ I feel it every time I step in the Bellator cage, whether I’m competing in San Jose or the Blaisdell downtown — a place I’m fighting [again] in, sooner rather than later.”

Pete Dropick, UFC executive vice president of event development and operations, said the organization has reviewed data revealing that Hawaii ranks as one of the strongest states regarding viewership of UFC fights and online content.

“They’re very engaged, they over-index [beyond average national support], with a Hall of Famer in B.J. Penn and current featherweight champion Max Holloway, so we’re very interested and we want to continue our conversations with the Hawaiian Tourism Authority in trying to bring them an event, because having 50,000 plus in Aloha Stadium would be amazing,” Dropick said.

Mapping out an ideal date to minimize the potential for rain and renewing talks with new members of the tourism authority that has embraced sports by bringing a Rams-Dallas Cowboys preseason game to Aloha Stadium in August could make a UFC date “in 2020 or beyond realistic,” Dropick said. The UFC would likely showcase Holloway and other local talent.

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Sulaiman told Caldwell he’ll operate as an “ambassador” to inform promoters of Hawaii’s interest in luring title fights.

Golden Boy Promotions President Eric Gomez and Top Rank Chairman Bob Arum expressed enthusiasm about the idea.

“You need the right fighters, but if it makes sense, of course, we’d do it,” Gomez said.

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Arum said as long as it’s ensured he can start his card at 3 p.m. Hawaiian-Aleutian time to satisfy the ESPN audience, it makes sense to point his champions such as super-featherweight Masayuki Ito of Japan or super-flyweight Jerwin Ancajas of the Philippines to Hawaii, adding that he’s pursuing a co-promotional deal for elite unbeaten bantamweight Naoya Inoue of Japan, who would also be a popular draw in Hawaii.

“You have an enormously large Japanese and Filipino population there and we have many ethnic warriors who would be perfect there, so I would look with favor in doing an event in Hawaii within the next year,” Arum said.

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire


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