The Blue, the Box, and the Science

By Daniel Kravetz on May 8, 2015
The Blue, the Box, and the Science
The television set is no longer the ruler of the media that it once was. (Tracy Levesque)

The gadget that fostered the decline of the sport in Liebling’s day is the medium that today is accepted as central to its very salvation…

I. The Man in Blue
On a warm evening in April, a brown-skinned man named Thomas stood outside of the front doors of the Blue Horizon boxing arena in North Philadelphia. He wore a plain blue shirt—the same color as the doors—and close gray stubble. His narrow eyes suggested that he had not been seeing much sun.

“You know that they’re gonna turn it into a hotel, right?” This was the first thing he said when I came up to him from the street below. “They’re supposed to have started, but they ran into some problems.”

He disappeared inside and returned with a November 2014 copy of Scoop USA, a local weekly. On Page 3, in a thick box, was an ad titled “Proposed Blue Horizon Development.” In the ad, a modified photo depicts the unaltered Blue Horizon façade flanked by a luxurious five-story hotel. The new building is in the foreground, with big windows and square compartments jutting from its front wall. It is not obvious that the old building is part of the concept.

Today, the Blue is a shell. It hosted its last fisticuffs in 2010 and has descended into disrepair. Thomas was keeping an eye on the building for the owners, Mosaic Development Partners, and followed his instructions to deny entry. But by pressing against the doors, I could see a pile of busted sheetrock lying on the floor between two vacant concession windows. A piece of paper taped to the side of one of them read: “We do not accept $50 or $100 bills for payment!”

Many local historians and boxing enthusiasts—the labels seem to bleed together in Philadelphia—rue that the Blue will soon disappear. Joe Hand Jr., President of Joe Hand Promotions, whose family is a fixture in the local boxing scene, told me his company looked into buying the building a few years ago, to see if they could save the club. “The property had a lot of issues,” he told me. “It needed a tremendous amount of money invested in it just to get it back to code.”

They decided to pass. “I hate to see the place go,” he said. “I feel bad. It’s got a great history in the city.”

From appearances, the lament over the Blue’s fate stems not just from the venue’s intrinsic appeal—its roster of alumni; its drawn-in balconies—but also from its context. The Blue opened in 1961, when the other local clubs were dying away, then survived more than half a century of urban tides. It is the last treasure of the golden era of Philadelphia boxing; the only one to overcome white flight, urban decay, and the magnetic pull of a wired box that was popularized not long before the Blue’s first show.

The ad in Scoop USA begins: “North Central Philadelphia is an area of focus for development and making significant progress towards revitalization. The proposed Blue Horizon Hotel project, called Hotel Indigo, to be located at 1310-1316 N. Broad St. will further support this growth.”

II. A Ridiculous Gadget
In introducing his post-war boxing anthology, The Sweet Science, A.J. Liebling directs his scorn at “a ridiculous gadget called television.” Liebling writes:

The clients of the television companies, by putting on a free boxing show almost every night of the week, have knocked out of business the hundreds of small-city and neighborhood boxing clubs where youngsters had a chance to learn their trade and journeymen to mature their skills. Consequently the number of good new prospects diminishes with every year, and the peddlers’ public is already being asked to believe that a boy with perhaps ten or fifteen fights is a topnotch performer. Neither advertising agencies nor brewers, and least of all the networks, give a hoot if they push the Sweet Science back into a period of genre painting. When it is in a coma they will find some other way to peddle their peanuts.

In Boxing in Philadelphia, released this year, author Gabe Oppenheim makes it his cause to “capture the fighting city’s essence.” This essence is overwhelmingly one of urban decline: of fighters; of gathering places; of opportunity; and, as Liebling had predicted, of the sweet science itself. The book’s subtitle, “Tales of Struggle and Survival,” suggests a duality—negative and positive—but in the context of Oppenheim’s histories, both words take on similar connotation: most of the “survival” is sad, too.

In simplest form, Oppenheim’s account of the decline of Philadelphia’s boxing tradition—the loss of its clubs and arenas and heroes—is as follows: deindustrialization and white suburbanization, abetted by racist federal policies, decimated the city’s post-war economy, the clubs included. And what allowed new middle-class suburbanites to keep an arm’s length from the urban crisis—to see boxing without having to see what was left of their old city—was the invention that Liebling so despised.

“Already at such a distance,” Oppenheim writes of the migrants, “they were unlikely to return to the city for fights,” but “television would make such a return totally unnecessary anyway.” One journalist of the day that Oppenheim cites found it “utterly ironical” that boxing’s growing audience coincided with such a steep decline in live venues for the sport.

The sweet science, of course, prospered on the networks after the war. Marciano, Patterson, Ali, and Leonard all did mammoth numbers in their days. But some of the public lost its appetite for the sport when Emile Griffith mortally bludgeoned Benny Paret live on ABC in 1962, and even more did twenty years later, when Ray Mancini did the same to Duk Koo Kim live on CBS. In the meantime, HBO entered the fray, claiming the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila in the 1970s, then signing fighters like Hagler and Chavez to multi-fight deals. Football exploded, and the networks found other ways to peddle their peanuts. Boxing’s audience shrunk, and the clubs never returned to Philly.

In March 2015, Manager Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions outfit began paying to broadcast boxing live on NBC and CBS, and the return of regular high-level bouts to network TV has the boxing world humming. On the night of April 7, junior welterweight Danny Garcia, the current pride of Philadelphia, narrowly outpointed foe Lamont Peterson on NBC for a peak audience of over 3.4 million.

Boxing’s modern irony has now become a twist on the old one: the gadget that fostered the decline of the sport in Liebling’s day is the medium that today is accepted as central to its very salvation. And as the Blue Horizon awaits its last nail, boxing is making its ballyhooed return to the public eye, bells and whistles in tow. In the current era, the success of the local clubs is, by all appearances, moot.

III. The House of Pain
In the sad stories that comprise much of Boxing in Philadelphia, the Blue Horizon often plays in the ensemble. And as it recurs, its moniker, “The House of Pain,” takes on new subtexts.

Jimmy Young’s story starts at the Blue, in 1969. Young would go on to lose a disputed decision to a faded Muhammad Ali, which Oppenheim details vividly. He later beat George Foreman into a ten-year hiatus, then lost another disputed decision to Ken Norton. All three fights were broadcast live on ABC. The heartbreak of stolen glory, along with pilfering promoters, drugs, and a predictable dose of punch-inebriation, led Young to destitution and death at age 56, still in Philadelphia.

In 1990, after boxing had migrated to HBO, Meldrick Taylor had his own heartbreak: the TKO he suffered to Julio Cesar Chavez in the final seconds of their infamous first fight. After Taylor’s next TKO, to Terry Norris in 1992, his promoter Lou Duva referenced the Blue as the place Taylor would end up as “a $300 fighter” if he did not fight like the “real” Meldrick Taylor. Taylor never did, and “his life went to shit,” according to Oppenheim, who proceeds with the unpleasant details.

Teon Kennedy, who Oppenheim profiles as one of Philly’s new hopes in the late aughts, fought twice in the Blue Horizon. On the second occasion, he killed his opponent, Francisco Rodriguez. In the epilogue of Boxing in Philadelphia, Kennedy is in his late twenties and is in a freefall as a professional fighter.

Boxing has always survived tragedies, and so did the Blue, at least for a long stretch. And what kept the Blue alive was television. Oppenheim writes that the national exposure the Blue received from regularly televised cards from 1986 to 2001—first on USA and then on ESPN2—was what recaptured white collar patrons to fill its seats. “Suddenly, the Blue was big,” he writes, “and a 95 percent white crowd was venturing from the suburbs into the heart of the ghetto.”

Now that this demographic is coming to stay, however, the Blue’s most efficient use is no longer to host monthly scraps. As cities have attracted well-to-do new urbanites—and modern sports arenas for them to patronize—dedicated boxing venues remain relics, even in the fighting city of Philadelphia.

IV. The New Blue Horizon
On a warm evening in April, in the farthest corner of southeast Philadelphia, a diverse set of locals gathered around a ring in an old warehouse. In the ring’s southwest corner—the blue corner—stood a pre-teen named Jalite Chance. He wore blue protective gear and blue attire. Chance was fighting for the title in the 60-pound division of the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves Eastern Regional Championships.

Chance’s opponent, Juan Rivera, was a good four inches taller than he was. The fighters approached each other with well-schooled footwork, eyes narrowed through the thick headgear. But in exchanges, they both flailed wildly, like the kids they were. Rivera’s arms were longer and quicker, and he almost always came out better. Chance shook off the blows, reset his balance, and reengaged.

The PA Announcer offered sparse commentary between rounds: “These young fighters look like men! And you have to listen to their corners, the way these young guys are taking direction!”

Chance was all poise as Rivera was announced as the winner. He gave Rivera a pound and walked back to his corner, where he stood still, neck craned, as his trainer—a short man wearing a high white head wrap—dabbed his bottom lip with a paper towel. The red smudges were about the size of a penny.

The venue, the 2300 Arena, is now the only true home for fights in Philly. Oppenheim recounts how longtime local promoter Russell Peltz identified the site as his new home for local cards in 2004, soon after ending a 30-year tenure promoting shows at the Blue. Sitting under the ugly shadow of a long elevated stretch of I-95, this site faces no threat of redevelopment.

The Golden Gloves has become one of the arena’s staple events. Joe Hand Promotions has orchestrated the tournament for 19 years, and Joe Hand Jr. says that Philly’s amateur program has been growing stronger during that time. “The afterschool programs are all getting cut back because the schools are all running out of money,” he told me. “So the kids in the community are looking for an alternative.”

Concurrently, Hand says, the 2300 Arena “is starting to build itself as the new Blue Horizon,” primarily through this local pipeline. Golden Gloves participants, he says, usually see boxing as a potential future career. Christian Carto, a hard-faced 114-pound amateur who won a National Golden Gloves title in 2014, is already developing a local fan base at just 18 years of age. At the 2300 Arena that night, Carto’s introduction for his regional title fight produced a surge of noise from the crowd.

Hand says that Carto, who won his ticket back to nationals that night with a fiery and persistent attack, aspires to fight in the Olympics in 2016. Perhaps he will soon return to the 2300 Arena as a pro.

In appearance, the 2300 arena is almost opposite to the Blue. The Blue is a near-vertical assembly in a tightly-bound room with a curved ceiling: the seats rise steeply and the front balcony row hovers above the ring. In the 2300 Arena, folding chairs form even rows on the warehouse floor. Behind them, the black walls make the room seem unending.

Hand was excited to tell me about the next boxing event at the arena: this Friday’s bout between Amir Mansour and Joey Dawejko, two regionally-based heavyweights. Hand said the tickets were on pace to sell out two weeks in advance. “And the fight is going to be on national TV,” he said. “It’s going to be great exposure. It’s going to be an exciting night for boxing in Philadelphia.”

V. Changing Science
The television set is no longer the ruler of the media that it once was. Still, it is ubiquitous enough to continue to inspire a sort of meta-media, in which the success and importance of major programs and events are measured—and discussed ad nauseam—based on how many people turn it on.

In boxing, a sport in which the word “dying” is dispensed like pepper spray at protests, TV exposure and viewership has taken on an exceptional potency. One of the major subplots of the mega-fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao—the subplot most associated with the “mega” part—is how many pay-per-view purchases the fight elicited.

ESPN Front Row, a platform via which the sports media empire essentially covers itself, published a story two days before the event entitled “Holyfield: TV bouts crucial to boxing’s past, present, and future.” The story begins: “Growing up in the 1970s, young Evander Holyfield fell in love with boxing – in part – by watching ABC’s telecasts of professional and Olympic bouts.” It proceeds to quote retired Holyfield lauding boxing’s long broadcast history on ESPN and ABC, its parent company.

The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight may have been pretext for the topic, but the article-cum-press release was timelier for another reason: in mid-March, Haymon announced a multi-year deal to bring his PBC fights to the ABC family of networks. He will stage 24 cards live on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN Deportes over the next two years. Naturally, Nielson numbers will be the primary gauge of PBC’s early success.

How one views the relationship between boxing and television is ultimately a signal of how he sees the sport itself. If he sees boxing through Liebling’s eyes—as a powerful form of self-expression, a history-rich culture that is purest when a product of communities—then he might not be keen on PPV and PBC. If he sees boxing as a form of mass entertainment, a participant in a popularity contest, or especially as an opportunity to make money, then the medium of TV is truly a wonder.

There is no debate on either end that the box is powerful. Television took off and the clubs closed. HBO and pay-per-view took off and elite boxers became very wealthy. History was often the sad casualty of opportunity, and much of what Liebling predicted came to fruition.

But in the end, the networks did not put boxing into a coma. Then again, neither did its long hiatus from the networks. Nor did the growth of suburbs or the ascendance of football, no matter how many future stars they both swallowed. Perhaps only well-funded afterschool programs and greater opportunities for poor youth can do away with the sport. (Liebling wryly observed that television was only a crisis insofar as a greater crisis, one that would result from “high living standards,” had not yet occurred.)

Change is a constant, and these changes have changed boxing, making it safer or glitzier or more niche or more global or smoother around the edges. But in perspective, the sport is not so different than it was before the TV was even considered. If you want to find talented men and women boxing, whether on a high-on-the-dial station or in an old warehouse, you will find them. They will not be kicking or throwing their opponents, or hitting them with sticks or poles. They will be trying to beat them to the punch, to hit and not get hit. Or taking three punches to give one, if they prefer.

They will have gloves to wear, ropes to stay within, referees to obey, judges to impress. They will usually give their opponents a pound or a hug after the fight is over. They will often dab blood off of their faces.

VI. The Signpost
“Beyond the blue horizon,” the tune goes, “waits a beautiful day. Goodbye to things that bore me. Joy is waiting for me.” The song was originally composed by Leo Robin in 1930 but was covered by many, including the great Johnny Mathis, in 1964. The most recent version to chart was sung by Lou Christie. That version hit the Billboards in February of 1974, about three years after Ali and Frazier fought the Fight of the Century for a TV audience estimated at over 300 million viewers worldwide.

Christie sings like he is on his fifth piña colada, sitting in a dirty fold-out chair on a beach in Bermuda. His pitch rises and falls with intoxicated hope. He is a young man with his life ahead of him, or a wistful old one conning himself out of inner despair. You can hear the song either way.

“I see the new horizon. My life has only begun. Beyond the blue horizon lies a rising sun.”

Approaching the Blue Horizon from the south, the first indication that I was in the right place was the wink of its blue front doors. The north wall hosts a more explicit nod, a mural portraying Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and Holmes on a blue canvas. But only when I got close to the building did I notice the signpost by the curb. It was titled “THE LEGENDARY BLUE HORIZON,” and it read:

Built to house wealthy businessmen and their families (1865), and later the headquarters for the Moose Lodge (1912). By the 1960s the Blue Horizon was known as the center of African American community life and as a world renowned boxing venue.

Soon it would once again be housing wealthy businessmen. The Blue was returning to its roots.

I asked Thomas what he will do when the Blue is gutted and Hotel Indigo is finally completed. “I haven’t figured that out yet,” he said, flatly. When I walked up past the building to see the mural, I turned back and saw him walking out to the curb, past the signpost. He threw something small into the street, in front of a passing taxi. Then he turned back and hustled up the front stairs, into the hollow building.

Daniel Kravetz is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. You can e-mail him at dkravetz@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @DanielKravetz.

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  1. Kid Blast 10:36am, 05/09/2015

    I think of guys named Worm and Cyclone and Kitten and Gypsy and Bad and the like. I also think about going to Bookbinders after the Blue and getting their Martini’s and signature oyster crackers with horseradish.

  2. Adam Berlin 08:58am, 05/09/2015

    Strong, strong writing.  As Daniel Kravetz suggests, fighters will keep punching—somewhere.  It’s too bad they’ll no longer be able to refine their talents at the Blue.  I drove to the Blue Horizon many times with my brother, and whether you sat ringside next to Don Elbaum or in the balcony alone, the view was always dramatic and the fights were usually dramatic too.

  3. Joe G. (R.I.P. Alexis Arguello) 08:18am, 05/09/2015

    Growing up North of Philadelphia by 20 minutes it breaks my heart to read this column. My father would always tell me stories of the men who gave everything they had in this temple of boxing. The blue is sacred to me and never will be forgotten. CH glad you touched on the other venues that closed. Thank you for the article Mr. Kravetz. Means more to me then you know because that is my home and where I spent the first 25 years of my life. When the general public thinks of Philadelphia boxing the first thing that comes to their mind, in most cases, is the Rocky movies. Nothing wrong with that but to true a fan and someone involved in the sport Rocky Balboa is way down the list when I think of TRUE Philadelphia boxing.

  4. Kid Blast 06:36am, 05/09/2015

    ch, 1963 is a righteous date. Very old school.

  5. ch 03:40pm, 05/08/2015

    Saw my first show at the BLUE when Harold Johnson beat the tough Henry Hank in 1963. Unfortunately I saw other great Philly boxing venues close during my life. Cambria, The Arena, Alhambra, Spectrum, 69th Street Forum. Very good story Daniel, thank you.

  6. Kid Blast 09:19am, 05/08/2015

    A whole lot of work went into this article and it shows.

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