BATTLE AT THE BOAT X
Emerald Queen Casino 2102 Alexandria Ave., Tacoma, 628-0888, $20-$75 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 22
ON A FRIDAY afternoon at the Edgewater Hotel bar, I attempt to match event promoter Brian Halquist beer for beer as he fills me in on his peculiarly successful "Battle at the Boat" boxing series at the Emerald Queen casino near Tacoma.
"This is a great boxing market," says Halquist, a former college heavyweight wrestler who cut his teeth producing local TV and radio shows. "If there's one thing that goes hand in hand, it's gambling and boxing. It's an adult playland. You can eat, you can dance, you drink, you gamble."
Halquist put on his first show at the Queen in 1996, a middleweight title fight featuring Tacoma native Emmett Linton. Since then, he's put on 15 shows and has signed on for eight more in 2002. His "Battle at the Boat" series has consistently sold out the Queen's 1,600-seat venue. And if the Puyallup Tribe, which owns the Queen, has its druthers, the casino's boxing venue will soon be much larger—perhaps seating as many as 5,000.
Last September, the Emerald Queen played host to the heavyweight title bout of the World Boxing Organization (WBO). This sounds mighty impressive until you realize that there are 64 sanctioning bodies recognized by the American Boxing Congress, all of which are permitted to tout themselves as "world" caliber at will. Over the last decade, as Don King and rival mega-promoter Bob Arum, in lockstep with Vegas, monopolized the sport's big three organizations (IBF, WBA, WBC), the number of title belts within boxing has proliferated, mainly to give local promoters a way to inject fights with crowd-energizing sex appeal.
Seattle itself used to be a big boxing town, but "it's just not anymore," laments Cappy Kotz, proprietor of Cappy's on Union in Seattle's Central District, which trains mainly recreational boxers, many of them women. Interest began to wane with the closing of boxing-friendly downtown venues like the Eagles Auditorium and the retirement of Boone "Boom-Boom" Kirkman, who used to attract upward of 12,000 fans to the Coliseum (now KeyArena) in the '60s and '70s for matches against top-ranked heavyweights like George Foreman and Ken Norton.
These days, the Don Kings of the world stick to the biggest casinos like shit on a shoe. In fact, major ticket bouts have become so Vegas-centric that even massive markets like New York and Los Angeles only occasionally land topflight title fights.
"Why you can't compete is because the MGM [Grand Casino in Vegas] has a 20,000-seat arena, they'll pay a $20 million site fee, and every hotel room in Vegas will be booked," explains Halquist. "In the old days, you had [undefeated '50s heavyweight champ] Rocky Marciano fighting in Shelby, Mont. You used to see that sort of thing 'cause there was no Vegas."
A handful of Seattle boxers, such as Kenny Ellis and Martin O'Malley, have risen toward the top of their respective weight classes in recent years, but they do most of their fighting far from home. "O'Malley couldn't even sell any tickets," says his former promoter and trainer Bob Jarvis. "I had to do that guy-girl thing," he says, referring to his infamous October 1999 card during which Margaret MacGregor defeated a male opponent, Loi Chow, at Mercer Arena.
BUT TACOMA still has some positive ringside rep. The City of Destiny—which gave rise to Olympic medalists Sugar Ray Seales (gold in Munich, '72), Davey Armstrong (silver in Munich, '72) and Leo Randolph (gold in Montreal, '76)—maintains its gritty underdog status as Seattle's ugly blue-collar brother.
Impossible as it is to imagine Greg Nickels, Paul Schell, or Norm Rice showing up at the Emerald Queen, let alone sticking around to watch two men pummel each other, both the current mayor of Tacoma, Bill Baarsma, and his predecessor, Brian Ebersole, were in attendance Jan. 12 for the ninth "Battle at the Boat."
That night, a multiethnic crowd screamed for an assembly line of no-name fighters to follow through on four-punch combos, instead of dancing away after token left jabs. One of these fighters, Scott "Slugger" Lansdon, a short, splotchy tub of shit, lost an uneventful opening fight to Tacoma native Michael Sams. The second bout was the bloodbath du jour; it was won by wild-eyed Josue Cielos from Seattle, who was showered with boos in the bout's closing moments for ceasing to attack his opponent, even with victory in the bag. The scantily clad ring girls, who looked as though they'd been recruited via a Pac Highway cattle call moments before the opening bell, strolled around with free souvenirs and placards announcing the correct round amidst shouts of "take off your shirt" from the predominantly male throng.
Three uneventful bouts followed before the most spirited fight of the night, at least in terms of crowd reaction—a rematch between Spokane heavyweight Chauncey Welliver and Olympia's John Williams. The flabby, cherubic 260-pound Welliver sported pink Hawaiian jams opposite Williams, a muscular 200-pounder with standard- issue gear and "backne" to rival the face of a 12-year-old who eats pizza for a living. Williams, whose crouching, stalking style is equal parts Marciano and Mike Tyson B.C. (before cannibalism), prevailed. The main event between Patrick Byrd of Michigan and Florida's Trevor Brown, while heads and shoulders above the rest in quality, failed to elicit much crowd response.
Some local trainers grumble that Halquist should be booking local boxers exclusively. "They got this guy, Byrd, fighting in the main event," former trainer Bob Jarvis says of the Jan. 12 show. "He's got six losses. What the fuck is he doing there? There're [local] guys around who can fight whom they just don't use."
Halquist is sharply dismissive of such notions. "As a promoter, you're looking for the best matchup," he proclaims. "Some of these managers, they run a fighter's record to 20-0 against cream puffs. Then they step 'em up, and they get their asses kicked."
Despite his qualms, Jarvis admits that Halquist is "on the right track" with the "Battle at the Boat." "Action's action," says Jarvis. "This is the most action we've had since the '30s."
This piece is dedicated to the loving memory of William Donahue Sr., boxing fan and patriarch par excellence.