Professional boxing has always thrived in an atmosphere of greed, larceny, poverty and casual violence, so it has always been at home in Philadelphia, a tough town with an attitude, where the mob still dumps a few bodies into the Delaware River every year. Open the Yellow Pages in Philly, and the first thing you notice are big ads for a pair of ambulance chasers, who offer a seductive menu of potentially actionable mishaps—bus accident, dog bite, slip-and-fall. Unemployment is high, scams mutate and multiply, bookies proliferate, and hard drugs are easy to find. Crack cocaine has turned certain blocks into piles of rubble as bombed out as any in Belfast or Beirut, and the young men who live there are sometimes desperate enough to put on the gloves and aim themselves toward The Legendary Blue Horizon in hopes of escaping.
There isn't another sports arena in the country remotely like the Blue Horizon. It's the sort of raw and smoky cavern that George Bellows painted early this century, a throwback to the era of straw hats, stogies and dime beers. Only 1,500 fans can be crammed inside for an event, but the crowd compensates for its lack of size with its animal howling. From the rickety balcony, an overexcited spectator can practically reach down and slug the participants. The degree of intimacy is both upsetting and illuminating. It conveys not only the brutal side of the fight game but also its cardinal virtues: the supreme courage of the boxers, say, and the physical beauty of the action. To watch a bout up close is to be one with the dance, a visceral experience that's the direct opposite of sitting on your hands through another pay-per-view charade. Indeed, if boxing has a soul, it might well be located in the City of Brotherly Love.
Whenever the USA Network broadcasts a match from the Blue Horizon, the ring sparkles like a jewel under the lights, so you might expect the building to resemble Carnegie Hall in miniature. Instead, it's a battered four-story row house in North Philadelphia that was constructed as a residence around 1865. It has many arched windows and a mansard roof with dormers, and it gives the impression that it's about to fall down. The overall effect is chilling and brings to mind the Addams family and spooky Halloweens. It wouldn't surprise anybody if a vampire bat interrupted a scrap someday, just as a paraglider dropped in on a fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe. Boxers prone to cuts must be pleased that the Interstate Blood and Plasma Center is just down the block, hard by Good Deal Discount Transmissions and the Magic Hair Salon. The empty lots on the block all have fences topped with concertina wire, and the early-morning drinkers gravitate toward the cavelike splendor of Vito's Lounge.
First-time visitors to the Blue are often struck by the sculpted moose head over the front door. It is a relic from the days when the Loyal Order of Moose, Lodge 54, owned the building and transformed it into a clubhouse. The Moose tenancy began in 1914, and the brethren gutted most of the building and constructed an auditorium with a stage, plus a rathskeller with a 100-foot-long bar. They added two plaques honoring the Moose war dead and past Moose presidents. Other groups rented various rooms for dances, cabarets, weddings and frat parties, but pro boxing didn't catch on until 1961, when Jimmy Toppi, a canny promoter, acquired the building and decided to name it after a big-band tune that he liked, Beyond the Blue Horizon. The name also suggests the floaty, disoriented feeling that fighters have en route to being KO'd, but Toppi claims that is purely coincidental.
Toppi, who used the building as a fight venue and banquet hall, might have carried on indefinitely, but he suffered a couple of heart attacks in his 60s that slowed him down. In 1987 he reluctantly sold his treasured Blue Horizon to a TV evangelist from Miami, who sold it seven years later to the present owners, Vernoca Michael and Carol Ray, both African-American community activists. (They have a third partner, but he's largely silent.) If you had to compare Vernoca to a boxer, the obvious choice would be Sugar Ray Robinson. Educated at Harvard and MIT, she is the daughter of a respected minister and has the same classy, deceptive style that Robinson used to outwit his opponents. Carol is more of a brawler on the order of Carmen Basilio. She grew up in a family of 13 children and had to fend for herself from the very start. "Hurt me, and I'll hurt you back," she's been known to say, and no sane person ever doubts her.
The partners are both veterans of the civil rights movement, and before they tackled their current project, Vernoca worked in corporate finance and Carol as a teacher. They want to renovate the Blue Horizon and make it a symbol of hope for a neighborhood sorely in need of one, with programs for the elderly and for teens in trouble. Where the money will come from is an open question. After the three partners put up $600,000 as a down payment on the Blue and another $200,000 for improvements, it was difficult for them to finance their mortgage. No bank in town would lend them any money. Only drug dealers, loan sharks and mafiosi stepped forward, but Carol and Vernoca felt obliged to refuse, figuring they'd end up dead behind a dumpster. When they did get their funding lined up at last, with the help of a state minority development agency, they were slapped with 27 building-code violations by the city. The requisite repairs were soon completed, but the Blue remains a masterpiece of decrepitude. Paint flakes from the walls, cracks riddle the plaster, mold sprouts in dark corners, and a sump pump churns in the blighted basement.
If you ask Vernoca and Carol how they'll raise the capital for renovation, they borrow a page from the Catholic Church and point to bingo as their possible salvation. "Philadelphia, it's a bingo kind of town!" Carol says brightly, but she promises that boxing will continue to play a major role at the Blue. Russell Peltz, who began promoting fight cards there in 1969, still puts on shows that include Top 10 boxers, and the three DePasquale brothers, novice promoters from New Jersey, recently launched an inexpensive series of Friday-night fights. Those bouts always feature some of the underexposed pugs who toil in the city's gyms. For a mere 20 bucks, the friends and relatives of such hometown talent as Will (Stretch) Taylor and Gerald (The Jedi) Nobles can convene in the balcony for the rare opportunity to watch their favorites trade punches in public, cheering or booing to their heart's content.
No writer of prizefight fiction would dare to invent a character called Ludovico (Luddy) DePasquale and cast him as a budding promoter who sells late-model used cars for a living, but those are the facts. As a beginner, Luddy seeks out expert help whenever he's drawing up a fight card. Usually he turns to Rob Murray, who hosts a boxing talk show on WHAT-AM. Murray was raised in North Philly's Strawberry Mansion district and knows the gym scene well. He, too, is a part-time fight promoter, as well as a part-time manager and trainer and also a part-time purveyor of T-shirts that say, PUT DOWN THE GUNS AND PUT ON THE GLOVES, a slogan he dreamed up himself. For Murray, boxing is a way to teach young black men dignity and discipline and maybe lead them out of the ghetto, an old line of thought that sounds suspicious until you see the neighborhoods where the young men get trapped, or trap themselves.
The DePasquales try to serve up enough boxing on their cards to satisfy even the gluttons, so on one Friday in September they put together a 10-bout program. On the day before the matches, Murray set out to check on the boxers he manages, including Taylor, who would headline on Friday night. Taped to a rear window of Murray's 4x4 truck was a poster advertising the fights. It listed several local boxers, but it didn't name a single opponent, and even Murray couldn't fill in all the blanks.
Murray is a big, shambling, friendly man who's always dressed in sweats and a baseball cap. You'd never guess that he used to work as a private eye. He has a taste for celebrity, and he kept up a running commentary while he drove, pointing out the spot where Eddie Murphy shot scenes for the movie Trading Places and a restaurant where he, Rob Murray, once ate dinner with Muhammad Ali.