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Fighters, Fans Willing to Go the Distance

Sports: An Irvine hotel is an unlikely, but popular, setting for boxing's Battle in the Ballroom.

March 26, 1998|MARK DRUSKOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After the offices have cleared out and the street traffic has migrated onto the 405, Irvine becomes the backdrop for boxing.

Squaring off in a motley arena, lit by chandeliers and flashing red and blue police lights, young boxers come to earn names for themselves and test their fighting prowess at the bimonthly Battle in the Ballroom at the Irvine Marriott.

The post-5 o'clock graveyard that is corporate Irvine seems an unlikely setting for professional boxing. When the Battle in the Ballroom opened in 1985, promoter Roy Engelbrecht didn't know whether he would sell one ticket. Yet boxing took root, and the Marriott has been the scene of 14 seasons of boxing. The next Battle is today and will lure about 1,300 to witness six bouts.

Although it's one of the longest-running professional boxing venues in the county, the Battle maintains a low profile. Engelbrecht keeps his overhead down and does not do much advertising, instead relying on word-of-mouth from longtime subscribers.

Some come to the ballroom specifically to "bond" with co-workers. Like members of a secret lodge, they avoid giving last names and are vague about what they do or where they're from. For these latter-day pooh-bahs, the ballroom offers conspiratorial allusions, knowing winks and proprietary jokes that will provide grist at water cooler bull sessions for years to come.

Boxing retains a tinge of illicitness and evokes feelings of naughty excitement even in the heart of Irvine.

A January bout lured Glendora residents Bill Condit and Cowboy, who say they've never missed a ballroom fight.

"It's the best fighting deal in the country," Condit says. Tickets are $25-$35, compared to up to $100 for the bimonthly bouts at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim that usually draw 4,000-5,000. But Condit and his friends are not bargain hunters. They are self-proclaimed boxing fanatics. "We travel wherever there is boxing, but this place is one of the best."

Adds Cowboy: "You are close enough to see into the boxer's eyes. That's what makes boxing so great. The sport is so real. I was a boxer; I know. It's just one guy against another guy. It takes a lot of courage just to keep your arms up for three full minutes, and these guys are taking shots."

Even boxing novitiates seem to appreciate the exertion, stamina and power that the boxers must summon in the ring. "TV doesn't do boxing justice," observes Robert Martinez of Downey, attending for the first time. "On TV, you don't see heads pop and sweat fly off."

Frank Martin of Orange, a Chapman University student, says: "I've watched fights on TV, but you have to be here. It's like taking off in an airplane--you feel goose pimples when the fights start."

The Battle has earned a reputation for offering evenly matched fights. That is the reason some fighters, such as Genaro "Chicanito" Hernandez, who have moved on to bigger and better known venues come back to the Battle bouts.

"I started my career here," says Hernandez, who is the current World Boxing Council junior lightweight world champ.

Hernandez, who is called "Irvine's first world champion," says the Battle is a good place to start because young fighters will be matched against someone of equal skill. In the sometimes ethically murky world of boxing, a manager may seek out weak opponents to pump up his boxer's win record.

Hernandez comes back to watch up-and-coming fighters and to give pointers to friends in the ring. "A lot of fighters who became something in boxing have fought here before," he says.

Charles "Chas" Smith, a former Golden Gloves boxer, agrees: "They might not be the best fighters, but they're fighting their hearts out. They go out there and really put on a show." Smith, who lives in Irvine, has attended several Battles.

Leslie Leath of Fountain Valley has been attending bouts for more than a year. Although she doesn't support any one fighter, she is quick to say that "the women are the best."

Female fighters are relatively new to the Battle in the Ballroom.

"I was taken to task over women boxing," remembers Engelbrecht, who first scheduled a bout for women in 1995, before women's boxing became popular.

Some ballroom regulars told him that they didn't think women could box. After the first bout, spectators gave the boxing fan's ultimate compliment--they threw money into the ring. Now Engelbrecht tries to get female fighters to appear in the Ballroom at least once a season (the current season runs through Dec. 26).

There has also been a steady increase in the number of women in the audience. Although men in casual business dress greet each other with slapping handshakes and nicknames such as "Big Joe" and "Big Ted" and hoot at bikini-clad card girls named Samantha and Sherry, Engelbrecht is not surprised that one-fifth of his audience is women. "Guys want to be where women are; women want to be where guys are," he says.

Others attribute the change in attendance to women's increasing interest in kickboxing. One attendee, Lisa, started coming to the ballroom when her boxing coach was scheduled to fight. "He knocked the guy out," she says proudly.

While such random initiations to the Battle in the Ballroom seem common, some attendees do come with a purpose. Greg Labrask works for an Irvine company that has had season tickets for several years. "It's a good way to spend time with the customers--get away from work and spend some quality time together," he says.

The Next Battle in the Ballroom is today at 7:30 p.m. in the Irvine Marriott Grand Ballroom. (714) 261-9456.

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