Early last Saturday evening, as he stepped through the back door of the Apollo Theater and began strolling through its lobby, Jim Strickland suddenly felt as though he had been transported back in time, back to his days as a teenager, when he would make the pilgrimage from his home in Kansas to this Harlem mecca of black history and culture. Upon seeing pictures of singers Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan hanging on the walls—all artists Strickland had seen perform at the Apollo—he was struck dumb. "I hadn't been there in 30 years, and I started shaking, standing there," he said later. "It threw me back in time. I was thrilled to be working there."
The 66-year-old Strickland, who now lives in Chicago, was helping to make a bit of history himself. He's the cutman for Alonzo Highsmith, the former running back for the Houston Oilers who became a professional fighter in 1995 after knee injuries ended his NFL career. Highsmith was one of 14 heavyweights who descended on the 1,467-seat Apollo to compete on a seven-fight card. Once, late in his career, Sugar Ray Robinson took the stage at the Apollo for an exhibition of rope skipping and tap dancing, but Saturday marked the first time the 85-year-old theater had staged a prizefight. Some 900 aficionados, among them as many whites as blacks, paid as much as $200 a ticket to see the show. "I saw Bob Marley and others perform here, but I never thought I'd see a boxing match at the Apollo," film director Spike Lee said from his seat near ringside. "It's fun. This is a national landmark, and it's good to see a lot of people in Harlem who would not otherwise come here."
The night had the flavor of the old days of boxing in New York, when fights were held in smaller clubs. The ring was set on the Apollo stage, and even from the upper balcony fans could hear the punches landing. On this night they landed, as often as not, with a leathery thump. The first four bouts ended in knockouts, two in the first round, two in the second. In the fifth fight the 225-pound Highsmith, who came in with a record of 23-0-1 (19 KOs), did the fastest work of the night, finishing his opponent, Sean Jegen (8-4), in 48 seconds. Highsmith also knew the Apollo's history as a stage for innumerable black headliners—Ella Fitzgerald was discovered there in '34—and he relished being at the Apollo, listening to its vociferous crowd, standing victorious beneath its huge crystal chandelier. "It's an honor to know you're performing on the same stage that Stevie Wonder and James Brown did," Highsmith said. "It was a privilege for me to be on that stage."
The show ended, fittingly enough, with a poignant touch of theater, when Bronx-born Lou Savarese took on David Izon of Nigeria in the main event. Savarese (36-1-0, 30 KOs) was fighting for a shot at WBC heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis. He had personally sold some 300 tickets to the fight, and through the first 4� rounds his partisans had urged him on with cries of "Louuu! Louuuu!"
But midway through the fifth, he ran into a looping right from Izon (19-2, 17 KOs) that scattered his faculties. Izon then dropped Savarese with a hard right to the jaw. Straining, Savarese climbed to his feet as referee Arthur Mercante Jr.'s count reached eight, and for the next minute he teetered helplessly, grabbing and covering to survive as Izon pummeled him. It was over when Izon belted Savarese out of the ring, right in front of Lee and not far from John McEnroe, and for a moment the whole place was on its feet, rattling the chandelier.