By 5 p.m., people had been beating on each other at an unsanctioned boxing and mixed-martial-arts tournament for four hours, and not a single tooth had gone flying out of the ring. Not one. And precious little blood had been spilt. The tournament was held outdoors, there was no smoke-filled room, and not a single low-life promoter, win-at-all-costs coach or steroid-injecting boxer could be found. Wasn't there supposed to be a cigar-chomping fat guy somewhere, quietly offering wads of cash to gullible fighters? What kind of illegal boxing tournament was this, anyway?
The event was held in a parking lot behind Boxing Zone in Imperial Beach on a Saturday afternoon in February, the first big unsanctioned boxing tournament held in San Diego County in months. What had for decades been a monthly occurrence of informal gatherings of boxers and mixed-martial-arts fighters, known as “smoker fights,” dwindled to just a couple last year. The Boxing Zone tournament was the first held since November, an unthinkable drought as recently as 2005.
The trouble with events that are against the law, no matter how technical the violation, is that, eventually, the authorities catch up with them. Last year, the California Athletic Commission began its crackdown on smoker fights, sending out cease-and-desist letters to gym owners across the county. But the rules don't seem to apply to karate tournaments, and Victor Beltrán, Boxing Zone's owner, thought he'd found a loophole.
One upside to a diminishing number of events is that more people want to see the ones that happen. Some 500 people paid $15 to watch 116 fighters duel that day. The audience sat on metal folding chairs lined up in rows facing the ring, with a couple of Port-o-Potties in the back. Beltrán's ring was elevated four feet off a patch of dirt at one end of the parking lot behind his gym. The fighters flowed in and out of the gym in various stages of battle-readiness, whether still in their satin blue, black or red trunks or fully clothed in sweats. The ringside announcer and the timekeeper's table faced the audience from across the ring.
Each fight would go a maximum of three, two-minute rounds, after which the official scorers would declare a winner. There would be traditional boxing, which involves punching only, but also two other marital arts, Muay Thai kickboxing and Pankration. Muay Thai, which combines kicks, punches and throws to score points, would be the dominant art form on display (Beltrán refers it as “the art”). Pankration, known as submission wrestling, combines body punches with traditional wrestling maneuvers.
A pair of pig-tailed 5-year-old girls climbing into the ring for an exhibition match provided the first hint of the day's wholesome violence. The two girls were practically buried beneath their padded helmets, shin-guards and oversized padded gloves. When the bell rang, spectators shouted encouragement: “Punch her! Kick her!” The audience could have saved their voices, as the girls gamely set about beating the stuffing out of each other.
What sort of parent arranges for their precious punkin' to get lessons in efficient pain delivery? Dustin and Leela Weyngardt, parents of Shaylin, cheerfully videotaped the fight from ringside.
“She didn't like dance class,” Dustin said.
“She was always a bit of a roughhouser,” he continued. “She saw a flier and decided that was what she wanted to do. She loves it.”
When the bell rang after two minutes, the girls had to be pulled apart by the refs while the crowd cheered.
Back at the scorer's table, Beltrán grinned. He may not fight anymore, but his heart is still in the ring. Medium-height and stocky, Beltràn carries himself with confidence. He's 42 now, but in 1996, he was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic Taekwondo team. He spent the ensuing years as a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter before opening Boxing Zone in 2004. Now he focuses on teaching, especially kids. On weeknights from 5 to 8 p.m., Boxing Zone is filled with children and teenagers learning how to fight.
“It's important to keep them busy,” Beltrán said.
His 15 year-old daughter, Victoria, a sophomore at Mar Vista High School, recently traveled to England for the famous Battle of Bournemouth (Muay Thai) kickboxing tournament. Young Victoria also began her career in smoker competitions.
That's also why Beltrán loves smoker fights. “These are for novice fighters, for learning,” he said.
A lean Muay Thai fighter with a tattoo of the biohazard symbol and a mohawk (the official haircut of Boxing Zone smoker fights), Sergio Lopez may be Beltrán's greatest success story. Lopez tells a tale of drugs, gangs and a two-bedroom apartment filled with seven family members, including two parents who worked five jobs between them. After nearly getting stabbed in a school cafeteria fight and dropping out, Lopez found his way to Boxing Zone, almost on a whim. Beltrán gave him a scholarship to learn Muay Thai, and after a year of training, Lopez has already won major tournaments in Las Vegas.
At this event, Lopez fought above his weight class to practice for bouts with more experienced fighters. With his bristly mohawk and his head bobbing and swaying, Lopez looked like an angry lizard about to snatch some prey.
Lopez coaches a lot of fighters at Boxing Zone (including Shaylin Weyngardt), so he was a favorite with the crowd. Each kick drew a cheer, but his opponent seemed unfazed. In the second round, Lopez kicked and his opponent stepped up and delivered a series of heavy punches, knocking Lopez back into the ropes and onto the mat. He got up quickly, but it didn't matter. To protect his dazed and overmatched fighter, Beltrán ended it.
The tradition of inter-gym sparring goes back almost a century, at least to the 1920s, when a boxing gym was the social focal point for many inner-city neighborhoods. Given the de facto geographic segregation of the time, the matches frequently became tests of ethnic pride, with Italians, Jews, African-Americans and Latinos battling for bragging rights. The tradition extended to the World War II Navy, where sailors would stage impromptu bare-knuckle fights on the smoking deck of their battleships and aircraft carriers—hence the name “smokers.”
Over time, the smoker tradition lost its ethnic and neighborhood overtones. These days, the matches are arranged by coaches looking to test their fighters against some fresh meat. They compare the weight class and fight experience of their students to arrange an even match. For a young kickboxer like Lopez, the fights provide crucial experience for becoming a licensed amateur. Gym owners sell tickets to the events and use the proceeds to replace worn-out equipment or, as Beltrán does, to fund scholarships.
In San Diego's boxing community, Beltrán has earned a reputation for fairness and safety. At the February event, his refs were evenhanded and scorers fair. Some coaches thought Beltrán ended some fights too soon, but Beltrán wears his conservative approach with pride. He doesn't have a full medical staff, but he does have a Navy hospital corpsman (a sort of Naval EMT) watching each bout. All boxers and kickboxers wore helmets, shin guards and 16-ounce amateur boxing gloves (professionals wear 12- or even 8-ounce gloves, with commensurately less padding). Beltrán said he had insurance and all the proper event permits from Imperial Beach. On his limited budget, he'd made this event the safest setting for blood sports he could devise.
All the precautions clearly inspired trust in the fighters. Mixed in with the hotheaded 5-year-olds and teenagers were supposedly sensible white-collar professionals. Heck, one fighter, Jessica Hughes, 27, is a registered nurse at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. How can a trained healer get in the ring and beat on someone? Do her colleagues know?“They all know,” she said, laughing.
Hughes walked into a gym for the first time just looking for a way to get in shape. Then she started sparring a little. Six months later, she was beating some poor young woman into submission. Clearly “boxing for exercise” is just the gateway to future pugilism.
Melinda Sheklow followed the same path to Muay Thai fighterhood.
“Now I'm addicted,” said Sheklow, 28, a real-estate professional.
She remembers her first fight at a smoker and the awe of standing for the first time in front of another human being who, with no malice in her heart, wanted to beat her up.
“I thought, ‘Oh. My. God,'” she said.
She lost that fight and then traveled to Thailand to spend four weeks training. When she fought, she wore the red and black armbraids traditional among Thai kickboxers. Before that Saturday in February, her record was 2-1, and the time had come for a rematch against Suzanne, the woman who beat her in that fateful first fight.
Earlier, Suzanne had been sparring in the gym, waiting for her turn to fight. Other fighters in various states of preparation surrounded her, some listening to music while others stretched and loosened up muscles stiff from sitting. Many of these fighters had to wait four or even five hours for their chance at glory.
“Boredom can be as tiring as fighting,” said Kalina Fernandez, a coach and former amateur boxer.
Fighters with bouts approaching warmed up in an adjacent room where the double doors lead directly to ringside. Coaches helped combatants lace up their gloves and tighten their gear while dispensing last-minute advice: “Keep your hands high,” “Go for the body,” or this one from a Fight Ugly gym coach: “Punch him hard.”
Finally Melinda and Suzanne's names were called. The two women circled and tested each other with quick jabs and kicks. Their coaches yelled from the sidelines, “Go high! Go high!” and “Get in there!” (The most common corner advice all day was, “Breathe!”). Finally, Suzanne drove in, landing hard punches that sent Melinda reeling. The three-round bout did not end in a knockout, but Suzanne was the clear winner.
Sheklow had no regrets, even though both of her career losses now came from the same opponent.
“I feel great,” she said. Then she walked away.
The day wore on and the sun set. It wasn't until the 31st fight before a traditional boxer named Hugo Quiñones finally got some blood flowing. The 25-year-old dental hygienist from City Heights had fought before, but never in front of such a big audience. Earlier, in the ready room, he'd been bouncing from foot to foot, banging fists with coaches and teammates, explaining that he's a precision fighter.
“Fighting with emotion is exhausting. I use good technique,” he said.
When his name was finally called, Quiñones practically leapt over the ropes of the ring. When the bell rang, he charged his opponent with both arms punching. A blow broke a vessel in his adversary's nose, and pretty quickly there was bright red blood on his skin and on the canvas. The ref ended the fight when the trainer couldn't stop the hemorrhaging.
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Round after round, bout after bout, fighters climbed through the ropes, engaged in some mayhem and climbed out. One fellow, having won his fight, got carried out of the ring by his coach, having burned his last reserve of energy. He sat, glassy eyed on the gym floor for 20 minutes before he could begin enjoying the fruits of victory as his father, mother and brother congratulated him. Was he really OK? Would the corpsman know enough to be able to tell?That's probably the sort of thing that makes the California State Athletic Commission forbid smokers. In sanctioned bouts, all fighters are licensed amateurs, with official records of their fights. They have a battery of medical tests before ever getting in the ring. Inspectors are on hand for the morning weigh-in and to take blood samples for drug and steroid testing. Refs are specially trained both in scoring and in ensuring the safety of the fighters. They make certain that the appropriate medical personnel are on hand, and that the promoter and gym owner have the necessary insurance.
But the commission only started closing smokers last year. Commission administrator Bill Douglas says the commission turned something of a blind eye to the smokers for much of its history. But in 2005, responding to complaints that fighters in Southern California were getting hurt, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made revitalizing the commission a priority. He assigned a permanent executive director to replace the acting director, who'd run the place for nearly 15 years. He funded the hiring of 55 inspectors, 20 more than had ever been with the commission before. The smokers have always been illegal but, Douglas said, the commission only recently had the manpower to enforce the law.
The commission's approach to smokers makes Beltrán and other area coaches furious. Becoming a licensed amateur is a very expensive process, he says, and not all fighters are ready to make that kind of commitment. And, he points out, what about karate?
“I see karate tournaments in Long Beach where [promoters] make $150,000 an event! Why aren't they regulated?” he says.
Ernest Johnson, a coach with Knockout Fitness, calls smoker fights “glorified sparring sessions.”
“It doesn't go on the kids' record,” he said. “It gives them a chance to get in there and get some experience, move around in front a crowd.”
He believes Los Angeles is “way ahead of San Diego. They host amateur boxing competitions almost every weekend, whereas in San Diego we are lucky if we have five [or] six amateur competitions a year.”
And that's a major problem for San Diego fighters of all stripes. Without smokers, where will they fight?
“I would ask them to come down to San Diego and observe [the smoker fights] and see how safe they are. Most referees at these events are overprotective,” Johnson said.
Some fighters do see a need for some additional regulation, though.
“I think smokers are important for experience, and I don't think they should be taken away,” said Brodie Farber, a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter. “But they do need to be regulated more. Occasionally, you'll see guys at a smoker doing a kickboxing bout, but he has 15 boxing bouts and it's not mentioned at weigh-ins. These are serious mismatches which aren't fair, and that's probably one reason why [smokers] were taken away.”
Even at the Imperial Beach event, a coach stepped in to change a match at the last second when he realized he had a rookie fighter going against someone with far more experience.
“He was trash talking—I knew something was up,” said Vernon Lee, from City Boxing.
Beltrán figures if he calls his events “tournaments” instead of “smokers,” he might be OK.
“I had a lot of back and forth with them on the telephone,” Beltrán says. “I rewrote my rules. I made sure we used the biggest gloves and all the equipment. And I sent them a letter telling them about my event.”
But Douglas, whose job it is to know about every boxing event in the state on a given weekend, hadn't heard about anything in Imperial Beach. And he confirmed that if there was boxing and no inspectors present, it was not a sanctioned fight.
“That was a smoker,” he says.
Perhaps it was. But there was a distinct difference between professional boxing—even the pros back in the day—and what happened that day in I.B. The novices brought into the ring a raw enthusiasm the pros can no longer muster. After hours of bouts, the best part of every match was always the same, no matter what the fighting rules were. In the last 10 seconds of every round, the timekeeper banged her hammer on a wooden board: Tock! Tock! Tock! Coaches shouted, “Ten seconds! Give it to her!” and “Now! Do it now!” and “Arriba! Arriba!” The crowd went crazy, and the fighters, feeding on the energy, gave up all pretenses of defense. They rained haymakers and wild kicks on each other, accompanied by the percussive breaths and grunts of their opponents.
It was not controlled, and no student of “the art” would call this a moment of technical prowess. But it's a kind of wild abandon that governing bodies tend to smother. For these reasons, it would be a shame if this were the last smoker fight.
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