Two men--or women--stepping into a four-cornered ring and giving a complete and utter account of their being. Of exactly who they are and what they're made of. You can never learn as much about a person as you will watching them fight. A good boxing match will tell you a story, a wordless drama played out in three-minute acts. There is nothing like it.
It is the intimacy of the story that compels the viewer to appropriate the emotions displayed; to take them on as their own and feel the visceral result. You live the fight not through the fighters, but through your own fears and pride. Perhaps you empathize with the boxer who is losing, but hanging in tough. He may have been busted up for ten rounds, but you can identify with his unwillingness to go down, preserving the sanctity of the self. Or maybe your fancy is the outer-worldly skill and stamina of the elite fighter, his transcendent execution of the task at hand giving you hope that perfection is not an illusion, but a possibility.
Then there is the working-class glory and gritty cultural identification that comes with living in a boxing town. The Kronk Gym in Detroit spawned a Friday night fight series where factory workers and big-time hoods rubbed shoulders while cheering on the local prospects. Philadelphia has earned its legendary pugilistic status through the famous "gym wars," where the sparring sessions were often more intense and talked about than the actual fights. And NYC has long been a boxing Mecca, from the Italian-vs.-Irish clashes in tiny neighborhood halls to Frank Sinatra sitting ringside at Madison Square Garden.
Over the past few years, Portland has been developing its own professional boxing scene, and with Oscar De La Hoya promoting fights at the Rose Garden, and local gyms producing serious contenders, the door is wide open for local promoters and venues to make a name in the sport. And being a one-team town, Portland is ready for a non-corporate sport to get behind. River City is on the verge of turning into a true fight town.
Joe Gusman, a diesel mechanic by day, is one of Portland's up-and-coming prizefighters. Gusman has lived in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington state, and has now settled in Portland where he turned pro out of the Grand Avenue Gym in February. Like many kids who move around a lot, Joe found himself getting into street fights more often than not. "I was always fighting. I love to fight," says Gusman. "Boxing is a way for me to vent that. I had no focus in life before, and boxing has done that for me."
Joe--who fights Thursday the 14th at the Rose Garden--is an imposing presence, standing well over six feet and covered in muscles and tattoos. But his intimidating stature softens immediately when asked about fighting in Portland in front of his family and supporters. "Oh, I love it, man! I love being at home, in front of friends," says Joe. "I'd much rather fight here than going out of town to box. It's much better here, and I think the people of Portland are hungry for something different to get behind."
Joe belongs to a stable of young and hungry boxers at the Grand, headed by chief trainer Fred Ryan. Fred credits the recent boom in professional boxing to venues such as the Rose Garden stepping up, as well as state boxing commissioner Jim Cassidy. In the past, both professional and amateur boxing was neglected by Oregon state officials, especially, some say, by former commissioner Bruce Anderson. Pro fight cards were almost unheard of until 1999, and before that there was little, if any, support for the Golden Gloves, which is a stepping stone for young fighters to turn pro. "Anderson tried to kill the Gloves here," says Ryan, "but we kept at it, and all those kids we were bringing up then are now turning pro. Cassidy has been great for the sport here."
With a supportive and enthusiastic commission, Oregon boxing has spawned a ferocious amateur scene, with a week-long Golden Gloves tournament held here every spring. This year's crop of Oregonians are aiming for the nationals, or even farther. "We're bringing home a trophy this year for sure," says Ryan. And if Oregon boxers place well in the nationals, the Olympic trials are right around the corner.
Stan Sittser, marketing manager for the Rose Quarter, has worked to bring regular boxing events to Portland, and is excited about the possibilities. "Before our recent events, local boxers were driving and flying out of state in order to compete. We were exporting our best athletes!" says Sittser, adding, "Now pro boxers can train right here, box right here, and develop a following right here."
Stan started a co-promotional deal with Golden Boy Productions, a major firm owned by current junior middleweight champ Oscar De La Hoya. The series opened on July 18th with a well run and crowd-pleasing show in front of 4000 fans. What made the night a success, aside from the profitable gate, was that for most of the crowd it was their first time going to the fights, and they ate it up. People dressed to the nines, from shiny cowboy boots and pressed jackets to bling-bling gold watches and cell phones. Instead of hitting the same old downtown clubs or sitting behind a Nike banner in the nosebleeds at a Blazers game, Portlanders created their own version of Atlantic City.
Joe Gusman will represent the Grand and Portland in the second Fight Night at the Garden. His bout, along with stable mate Jeff Simmons and Mexican national champion Ricardo Medina (who fights out of the Grand), gives local fans another chance to get behind their hometown scrappers.
The Garden has done a lot to revitalize Stumptown boxing, but there is also a need for smaller venues to step up and promote club shows. Club fights, or local circuit events, are the essence of boxing. It is where local fighters can earn a few bucks in their hometown without being taken advantage of by outside promoters or venues. It is also where fans from the neighborhood can pay eight bucks, drink cheap beer, and root for their local prizefighter. It may not carry the same racial tension of NYC in the early 1900s, but it can unite neighborhoods in the same way major sports teams did during the '70s.
A great club scene is one where you can see two or three fights a month at small community halls. One where there are no TV cameras, strobe lights, or overpriced drinks, with fans wearing T-shirts and patches displaying the colors of their local gym. Instead of announcing the city where a fighter is from, the ring official calls out the street they live on, or what auto shop they work for. And they have meaningful nicknames, like Greg "The Portland Kid" Piper and Billy "Butch" Chapman. A good club fight is one where the winners celebrate with fans at the corner bar, and the losers only have to wait a couple weeks to redeem themselves.
Portland boxing continues its upswing November 14 at the Garden, with the next card set for January 30th. So get out and support your local brawler. There is always that moment while watching a fight, like those moments you experience while watching a great film, or discovering the meaning behind a poem, that illuminates all the humanity and beauty that you have been searching for all week.
Fight Night at the Rose Garden II, Thursday, Nov 14, 7 pm, tickets: $15, $25, $45, and $75.