125 YEARS | THE RING
This City Was Full of Fight
Before football came and went, before the Dodgers and Lakers, boxing was the center of the Los Angeles sporting world.
The Rams, who played only once a week, were the first to make the leap, coming in the 1940s. The Dodgers followed in the late 1950s, the Lakers not until 1960.
But boxing was different. Unencumbered by the need to regularly transport a full team a thousand miles or more, boxing found its way here even before the start of the last century.
James Jeffries, who won the heavyweight title from Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899, began his professional career in his hometown, Los Angeles, where he knocked out Hank Griffin in 14 rounds in 1896.
Jack Johnson, before he beat Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title in 1908, won the black heavyweight championship five years earlier by defeating Denver Ed Martin in 20 rounds in L. A. in 1903.
Over the ensuing century, this city produced one favorite son after another in the ring: Henry Armstrong, Art Aragon, Jerry Quarry and Schoolboy Bobby Chacon.
In the last 15 years, three of the sport's most recognizable figures have emerged from this area: Oscar De La Hoya from East Los Angeles, Shane Mosley from Pomona and Fernando Vargas from Oxnard. Three others — heavyweights James Toney, and Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko — moved here with the hope this would be a launching pad for the top of the heavyweight division.
But although they all lived here, they rarely fought here after their marketability grew. Instead, they followed the money. And except for an occasional championship match at Staples Center, that has meant fighting in Las Vegas. Since the Olympic Auditorium and the Forum went dark in the last decade, in terms of regularly scheduled matches, there has been no major venue for a promising fighter to polish his skills as he moved from club fighter to headliner.
It was far different a century ago.
The city of Vernon was the first focal point for the sport in the Los Angeles area, thanks to a bartender and former railroad worker named Jack Doyle, who opened a training camp in Arcadia in 1908, according to the Tacoma News-Tribune.
Two years later, when he opened a bar in Vernon, Doyle decided boxing would be a great vehicle for getting customers into his establishment. So he began to stage four-round fights, the participants lined up by matchmaker Wad Wadhams.
The fights were held in the indoor Vernon Arena. Another local promoter, Uncle Tom McCarey, built an outdoor Vernon Arena.
By 1914, the state had put strict regulations on the sport. Fights were limited to four rounds, purses to $25.
Fights were also held in the Wilmington Bowl, fighters often training for area matches in Venice and San Pedro.
In the early 1920s, Doyle built a 7,000-seat arena in Vernon, but its popularity was short-lived. On Aug. 4, 1925, L.A.'s boxing mecca, the Olympic Auditorium, opened on the corner of 18th and Grand.
"The Auditorium blazed with glory on its opening night," according to an article the next day in The Times, "the light of many electric lights surpassed only by the sparkling jewels that adorned the persons of several of our well-known citizens and citizenesses. Hollywood and the moving picture colony slipped into their tuxedos and formal apparel and blessed the ringside by their presence."
In the early days of the Olympic, Mae West, Lupe Velez, Ruby Keeler, Al Jolson and later Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck could be found in the good seats.
By the middle of the last century, a fight fan could be entertained all week without leaving the area. Ocean Park Arena in Santa Monica had fights on Tuesdays, the Olympic on Thursdays and Hollywood Legion Stadium on Saturdays.
And the famous and the infamous tagged along, especially at Hollywood Legion Stadium, where entertainers Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jolson, Eddie Cantor and George Raft rubbed elbows with mobsters such as Mickey Cohen.