One weekend last fall a visiting couple innocently ventured into the industrial reaches of Allentown, Pa. Strangers to the area, they were directed to the city's largest hotel, the Americus, a doughty old survivor of the steamer-trunk era. While the husband tended to their bags, his wife strolled into the hotel only to come rushing out moments later looking thunderstruck. "There are all these old people sitting around in there," she sputtered. "And, and...they're fighting in the lobby!"
Like a castaway stumbling upon some strange tribal rite in mid-jungle, the husband decided in a spirit of adventure to check in and have a closer look. At the very least, a geriatric free-for-all promised to be more diverting than the polka band at the Holiday Inn.
The senior citizens were for real; three floors of the Americus are reserved for elderly residents. As for the slugfest, well, delusions of mayhem were understandable, for strutting and shadow boxing their way among the old folks nodding off in the lobby that Saturday evening were all manner of aspiring young pugilists and their bent-nose handlers. But no blood was spilled among the potted palms. That came later in the ring set up in the ballroom of the Americus.
What the visitors had chanced upon was the hotel's monthly amateur boxing night, a scene conjured up not by Fellini but by Ring 23, the local chapter of the National Veteran Boxers Association. As a slice of Americana, the ballroom bouts are as reflective of Allentown's fighting past as is the Old Zion Reformed Church across the street, where the Liberty Bell was hidden when the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777. As a sporting event, the Americus boxing program, now in its third year, is a slam-bang success. The demand for tickets ($4 top) is so great that the hotel recently tore down a ballroom wall and expanded the seating to 650. And in addition to the previous fare of beer and hot dogs, a new bar has been put in so that spectators can sip their martinis at ringside.
The action is hard to miss. TV 4, a local cable station that serves an audience of 150,000 in a 40-mile radius, telecasts tapes of Boxing from the Americus every Wednesday evening at 9:30. A hit at the exclusive Lehigh Valley Club, as well as at the American Legion Hall, the TV show also lures fans from distant towns to camp out in Allentown bars on fight night. "I don't know if the appeal is the youthful enthusiasm of the fighters or what," says TV 4 vice-president Don Berner. "All I know is that we have to carry Americus boxing. It's a fixture."
All of which has ringside elders harking back to the good old two-fisted days before World War II when Allentown, the Truck Capital of the World, liked to bill itself as the Boxing Capital of the Eastern United States. Back then, claim the oldtimers, the phrase "built like a Mack truck" was inspired by more than one hometown product. They tell of epic heavyweight clashes at the Allentown fairgrounds and of torchlight parades for Eddie Moy when he brought home the Australian lightweight crown in 1910. They extol faded heroes like Allentown Dundee, Ringtown Reilly and the ever-popular Prince Henry, a featherweight who helped pay for the groceries by fighting exhibition bouts with his wife, the scrappy crowd-pleaser Princess Henry.
Reminiscing, in fact, has always been a favorite pastime of Ring 23. Trouble was, for too many years the group's meetings were little more than beery sessions in which such stalwarts as the late Pep Barone, Sonny Liston's former manager, would recall how he had to install his wayward champion in the Americus for periods of rehabilitation. And eventually some of the younger members began complaining that Ring 23 was neglecting its primary mission, which is to combat juvenile delinquency through the promotion of amateur boxing.
So in the summer of 1974 the group staged an outdoor boxing program at Riverfront Stadium and drew an enthusiastic crowd of 1,400. But when winter came, Ring 23 suddenly found that it had a lot of eager young fighters with nowhere to swing. Enter Al Moffa, the owner of the Americus, who offered the use of his ballroom for a cut-rate $150 because "a hotel should be the center of community life."
At first Ring 23 had difficulty attracting out-of-town talent. But soon such top clubs as the Smokin' Joe's from Philadelphia began taking part as did notables like Floyd Patterson, who brought in his stable of fighters from New Paltz, N.Y.
With everyone pitching in on a voluntary basis, the non-profit enterprise unfolded like a vintage Pat O'Brien movie co-starring the Dead End Kids. Nine months ago, for example, Ring 23 persuaded the city to donate the use of the basement of an abandoned firehouse in the impoverished 12th ward. After a massive cleanup job by the ex-fighters and their young charges, Ring 23 now has the makings of a professional gym and a promising future.