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Historic Boxing Mecca Is on the Ropes

October 22, 1987|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

The Olympic Auditorium, which has hosted weekly boxing matches for most of its 62 years, is padlocked--closed since Sept. 30 when leaseholder Lester Kerschner's agreement ran out. Its garish, yellow marquee is empty and old papers swirl around its entrance.

Opened Aug. 5, 1925, the mauve, concrete fortress at the corner of 18th Street and Grand Avenue had hosted scores of world championship fights and attracted such celebrity boxing fans as Al Jolson, Barbara Stanwyck, Steve McQueen, Sylvester Stallone and James Caan. It was the set for the original "Rocky" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" movies and, when there was no boxing card, it gathered in hundreds of thousands of wrestling and roller derby fans. Briefly, it even served as a home for USC and UCLA basketball.

But the place felt like a boxing arena--and with boxing cards featuring Mexican national and Chicano fighters, it became a rallying place for Latino fight fans.

Now those same fans are wondering whether the Olympic has gone down for the final count.

The only person who can answer that question is owner Jack Needleman, and Needleman has been reluctant to talk. Both Kerschner and former Olympic fight promoter Rogelio Robles say they have been unable to work out a new lease with Needleman, who counts many parking lots among his 58 Los Angeles properties.

In a brief telephone interview, Needleman implied that an earlier Times story that speculated that the Olympic would be turned into a parking lot was incorrect. But he brushed aside more specific questions, adding only: "I'm out and running for lunch now. You do what you have to do."

Wrestling With Possibilities

Fight fans hoping for a reprieve for the Olympic might take solace from the words of Edgar Fajardo of Benjamin Mora & Associates/California Pro Wrestling. Fajardo, who has been seeking a lease to promote wrestling at the auditorium, said Needleman told him that he realized the Olympic's importance to the fight community, and that the building would not be torn down. It looks like the lease for the Olympic will go either to his organization, to a group run by Robles to promote boxing or to both, Fajardo said.

Whatever the machinations of promoters and owners, if the auditorium does go permanently dark, it will be the end of an era for fight fans.

"That Olympic had the magic," said Danny Villanueva, the general manager of KMEX-TV (Channel 34) and a fight fan and one-time boxing promoter. "It was steamy in there and it was boxing like the guy said--down and dirty . . . with those tight, little dressing rooms with the low ceilings. You almost felt claustrophobic.

That atmosphere, Villanueva said, is missing at modern facilities like the Forum and such citadels of "yuppie boxing" as the Irvine Marriott Hotel.

There was a special feeling that swept the crowd, Villanueva remembered, when a "great fighter" like Pajarito Moreno was on the night's card: ". . . when Pajarito left the dressing room, the ripple would go through the crowd even before they could see him. The guy's charisma was so incredible that the people could sense him and that place would shake with chants of 'Me-hee-co, Me-hee-co, Me-hee-co.' " For the person who was there for the first time, he added, "it was almost frightening because of the volume of the noise."

That atmosphere--so real it could have been a boxing arena movie set--didn't escape Luis B. Magana, 77, who for 45 years handled the Olympic's publicity with the local Spanish-language press. "The Olympic smells like boxing gloves, it smells like resin, it smells like sweat," Magana said. "That's what makes the Olympic so great. . . ."

An original seating capacity of 15,300 made the auditorium the largest of its kind ever built for boxing in the West, Magana said, and fans began flocking to the arena almost as soon as the first event could be held.

The place felt like a boxing arena in part because of the seating arrangement. Except for the first 17 rows, fans in casual clothes sat in seats which had been steeply tiered from the lower floor to the balcony, so that a spectator could always see over the person in front of him. It was an atmosphere conducive to yelling and getting involved.

Spectator's Stadium

When the auditorium opened in 1925, Times sports writer Bill Henry observed the tiered seating and also noted that "underneath the ring itself is a tunnel leading to the subterranean caverns where the gladiators are fed raw meat while the preliminaries are on. The tunnel also will serve as a handy means of exit for the humble journalists if the fans get to throwing things." Henry's remark was more on line than he knew.

One of the first Chicano idols was Bert Colima, a Whittier fighter whose real name was Epifanio Romero but who took the nom de plume Colima because he did not want his parents to know he was boxing.

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