The smell hits you as soon as you walk in. It's the smell of the sweat of a thousand fighters, the spilled beer and cigar smoke of ten thousand fans. It's the smell that's been lingering for the past 41 years at the Blue Horizon, Philadelphia's renowned boxing venue.
On the night of Sept. 20 the building is hosting another set of matches to a packed house that includes everyone from former world champions to Philadelphia construction workers. Hip-hop blasts from the speakers, so loud you can feel the bass rattling you in your seat. Card girls dressed in skintight, rubber band-sized outfits prepare their signs. Promoters hustle from the locker rooms to the ring. The referee checks the ropes, and the ring announcer begins to name the fighters for the first bout.
Suddenly all is quiet, and the bell rings.
It's the opening fight and Nevin Neff is having a tough time. The heavyweight from Toms River, N.J., has gotten in his shots at North Philly's Tyrone Tate, but now, sweaty, tired and out of breath, he's laboring just to leave his corner for the third round. While taunting Tate after knocking him into the corner late in the second round, Neff leaves himself open for a wicked right hand and never recovers. One of the fight doctors and a man from the Pennsylvania Boxing Commission are testing him to see if he's in good enough shape to continue. To verify his adequate condition, one of the doctors asks Neff to identify a well-known figure -- in this case pointing to former World Champion Joe Frazier, who's sitting in the front row.
"Jackie Frazier!" comes Neff's reply. He's confusing the Hall of Famer with his daughter, who's also a boxer.
"Stop the fight, this man can't see!"
Tate, a young fighter who trains in Joe Frazier's gym a few blocks away, raises his arms in the blue corner across the ring as he improves his professional record to 2-1, but the conversation in the other corner is the real story. Indeed, within seconds it has made its way throughout the floor and the balconies of 1513 North Broad Street, naturally being embellished along the way. It has already become just one of the many legendary half-fictions, half-truths that echo through the hallways of the 137-year-old arena.
"Arena" might be a word slightly too generous for the legendary Blue Horizon, known as "the Blue" on first reference to anyone in the boxing world. But, then again, "gym" is a little kind as well.
Typical of Philadelphia, the building itself was originally three separate rowhouses, constructed just after the Civil War. Later it was a fraternal lodge for an organization called the Royal Order of Moose. Nothing out of the ordinary, until promoter Jimmy Toppi bought the building and began using its auditorium for boxing matches in 1961. The old rowhomes were re-christened the Blue Horizon, after a popular song of the 1930s. On November 3 of that year, George Benton knocked out Chico Corsey in a world class middleweight fight -- it was the first of the many legends in the Blue's storied past. Since then, the Blue has hosted 30 world champions, some on the way up, others on the way down. "This is the way up for fighters in Philadelphia," Buster Drayton, world light middleweight champion from 1986-1987, said of the Blue Horizon "This is the way -- there's no other."
On December 2, 1997, the Blue hosted its first-ever world title fight, where Charles Brewer successfully defended his super middleweight title against Joey DeGrandis. Rocky V was filmed in the Blue. USA Network hosted Tuesday Night Fights from the Blue for years. More recently, ESPN2 has occasionally televised its Friday Night Fights at the building.
There was a chance that the building was going to fold in the late '90s. Longtime promoter Russell Peltz pulled out, leaving promoter and co-owner Vernoca Michael with sole responsibility for the venue. The dilapidated structure was near condemnation by the city's Licensing and Inspections Bureau. Fortunately, Michael, among others, was able to secure $1 million in state funding and $2 million in city funding to save the building as part of the city's "Avenue of the Arts."
This may seem an odd benefactor, but the Blue has its own cultural significance. If boxing is the sweet science, then this is its state-of-the-art laboratory.
William Bolar is from State College, Pa., but the announcer reports that he's now making his residence in Philadelphia. It won't help him with the crowd, however, as he's fighting James Spears, a six-foot-six Philadelphia native who also happened to play basketball for Hall of Famer John Chaney at Temple in the early '90s. Spears looks tentative throughout the fight. His corner screams from the early-on, "Step around him!" Apparently, Spears doesn't listen, because his cornermen keep screaming it for all four rounds. Still, he gets the unanimous decision over Bolar, who's listed at 232 pounds but doesn't appear to have seen that weight for quite a long time. Spears smiles and leans through the ropes and looks at Chaney, who's in the front row of the Blue supporting his former player. "You're next!" Spears shouts, eliciting a roar of laughter from Chaney and the entire the south side of the building. The rest of the crowd isn't too pleased with the lackluster fight, however, and the two are booed as they leave the ring.
Being from Philadelphia doesn't guarantee you a great crowd reaction at the Blue. "[The fans at the Blue] won't necessarily care for a hometown guy," said Bernard Fernandez, Hall of Fame boxing writer from the Philadelphia Daily News. "It's Philadelphia. If you fight hard, they're going to like you regardless of where you're from. But I've heard them boo the hometown guy against a guy from California because the hometown guy isn't putting up a good fight."
And it's a no-frills show at the Blue Horizon. There's no entrance music. The ring announcers give the fighter's name, nickname, height, weight, hometown, trunk colors and nothing else. Antonio Tarver found this out the hard way. He fought at the Blue in the mid-'90s, and since he's from Orlando, he goes by the nickname "Magic Man." He was a successful and popular fighter at the time, winning the bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "He pretty much got booed out of the place," Fernandez said. "He came in with a top hat and with a cane, since he's from near Disney World, and [the crowd was] having none of it."
The crowd's a bit wary by the fourth fight on the card. Matt Hill enters the ring dressed like he just came out an episode of Dragnet. He's wearing a brown trenchcoat and an old newsman's hat, and he snarls like a tiger as he dances in the ring. The crowd is naturally a little perturbed, but when Hill flattens his opponent Tyrone Winckler 30 seconds in, the place explodes. Suddenly the support is behind Hill, and not Winckler, the native Philadelphian. But when Winckler fights back, the crowd is drawn into into the best fight of the night.
Hill goes down in the fourth after taking a battering in the corner, and at 2:15 they declare Winckler the winner via technical knockout. Both men get standing ovations. Winckler jumps into his cornerman's arms and gets one of the loudest cheers of the night. It might be second only to the cheer that Hill gets when he politely bows in the center of the ring after putting on a great show. As he leaves the ring, someone in the front row yells at him, "Hey! Hey -- Hill! Good show, man, good show! Fight of the night." The Baltimore native turns at him, smiles and waves. He's done his job. He's 4-16-1, but he has entertained the crowd in the best match of the night. At the best boxing venue in the world.
What more could you want?
The Blue doesn't seem like a place that would draw top fighters. It's really an auditorium -- there's even a stage in the front, now used for extra seating -- and it has a balcony that seems to belong in a New England church. In essence, it's no more than a couple ancient, somewhat renovated, North Philly rowhouses.
That didn't stop Ring Magazine from naming the Blue the best place to watch a fight in the world in 1999. It beat out such ballyhooed venues as Madison Square Garden, the MGM Grand, Caesar's Palace and the Atlantic City Boardwalk Convention Center. Think about that: here's a place that is currently covered in scaffolding, is so old that the men's bathrooms feature the trough and has even developed its own scent, a peculiar, musty odor that no lab could replicate. Yet, it beat out multi-million dollar casinos for the best place to watch a fight. It wasn't named most historic, or most charming, but best place to watch a fight.
Paul Steinberg, ring doctor for 19 years at the Blue, explained the draw: "Number one, the fight fans are very savvy here. Number two, there's not a bad seat in the house. You're right there. The people in the balcony are right overhanging the ring. It's a boxing atmosphere here -- it's not sterile."
In fact, the fans themselves are as much a part of the legend as the fighters -- the Blue is where real boxing fans, and boxers themselves, go to see the sport. Joe Frazier has never fought at the Blue Horizon, but he's out on Friday night supporting the place. "I don't mind coming out here," Frazier said. "The fans like me, I love being here. You might say some bad things about the crowd, but they're really into it."
The fans are a good barometer of how well you're fighting, too. If you have a chance to make it in boxing, you're definitely going to be a fan favorite here. "It's small, it's closed in," Drayton said. "You better fight hard, 'cause there's no place else to go." Ron Aurit, boxing referee and longtime director of the Penn Boxing Club, uses the Blue as a measure of how well he officiates at fights. "If you're going into the Blue Horizon as a referee, the Blue Horizon crowd was a real fight crowd," Aurit said. "They would harass you if you did something wrong. If you got past that crowd, you could referee anywhere in the world. That's how important the Blue Horizon is."
Antonio Colbert is struggling through his heavyweight fight against Eddie Chambers, a good-looking prospect who recently moved to Philadelphia to work on his skills. He's 10-0 professionally, while Colbert is a dismal 5-25. Aurit, who's refereeing this match, pauses the fight in the fourth and summons the fight doctors to check on Colbert, who's being picked apart by Chambers. His cornermen appear bored by the fight. They're not saying anything, and they get most excited when Drayton points out that one of them had dropped his cell phone.
"Thanks a lot, man. You saved me. You rock," one of them says.
But suddenly, the other one comes alive as the fight is delayed. "Don't worry about it," he yells to the fight doctor about the status of his fighter. "He's used to getting his ass kicked."
He turns around and smiles. "We don't even know who he is," he says. "He's just a replacement fighter."
Anyone who has been to the Blue has left with a story. One of the more famous ones was the time in 1979 when no one could find the bell, and they had to use a tank of propane gas and a mallet to start each round. No one was hurt.
There's the night, years ago in July, when "Rockin'" Rodney Moore, the king of the Blue with 26 appearances, won a fight in the 100-degree heat in the non-air conditioned building. Someone asked him if he had any advice for the kids in North Philly. "Never fight in an un-air conditioned building in July," Moore said in reply.
Aurit, once a Philadelphia Golden Gloves champion, recalls a fight in 1976 as one of the greatest moments of his life: losing to then-amateur champion Sugar Ray Leonard. "I had a four-day notice," Aurit said. "When he walked in I said to him, 'Hello, Mr. Leonard, I'm Mr. Aurit, your opponent for the day. I know you'll be world champ one day, and I can tell my grandkids I fought Sugar Ray Leonard.' He gave me the biggest smile you'll ever see in your life."
The legend of the Blue is the fighters, the fans, the promoters, the writers, the card girls, the cornermen and the ring doctors. They say that if boxing is your religion, then the Blue Horizon must be your church.
But for boxing fans, it's more than that.
It's their heaven.