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Plenty of Stars, Plenty of Seats

June 22, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

It's not Las Vegas. Staples Center isn't going to replace the Strip as home of boxing's big bouts, but it's not a bad backup choice.

After an absence of almost 45 years, a heavyweight championship fight came to Los Angeles and the 15,939 fans who came to see this battle between heavily favored Brit Lennox Lewis and Ukrainian immigrant and Los Angeles resident Vitali Klitschko got everything they wanted.

There was star power -- Tom Hanks and Sylvester Stallone, John Cusack and Wayans brothers galore. There was blood and controversy and at the end, everybody left wishing for more.

The loser, blood running from a cut over his eye, won the admiration and applause. The sluggish, heavy-breathing champion, a winner because the fight was stopped by a referee, was booed.

This wasn't the Lakers, even though the limos arrived and stars came out.

This wasn't the Clippers, even though Staples Center had empty seats and frustrated scalpers.

The fight was stopped after six rounds because doctors felt Klitschko could not fight on, a cut over his eye both bleeding and swelling. Klitschko, furious, said, "I could fight on. I could see very well."

Billy Moore, son of legendary boxer Archie Moore, had come from San Diego and stood outside Staples Center two hours before the main event. He said he couldn't begin to predict a winner. And maybe he didn't much care. "Fighters aren't as hungry as they used to be," Moore said. "It's a business. But you can lose your life in this business."

Moore said having this title fight in Los Angeles "shows California as a worthy fight state. But Vegas is the Mecca. You get the electricity. Maybe the electricity will gravitate here if you get enough of these events."

Tickets ran from $75 to $950 and plenty had been available right up to fight time. "There's not a demand for this fight," said one frustrated scalper who refused to give his name. The scalper said in Las Vegas he could get $8,000 a ticket. Here he could barely get face value. Next time might be different.

Lewis, an erudite man of mayhem with a British accent and an impolite right hook, fought against Klitschko, the older of two Russian brothers who now live in Los Angeles and whom a desperate fisticuffs public relations machine wants to make into real bad guys.

"Dr. Iron Fist," is the contrived nickname of the older, but less distinguished Vitali.

Twenty minutes before the main bout there hadn't been much action, inside or outside.

There had been perfume. Strong enough that a crow stopped its munching of whatever was in a McDonald's bag left in the parking lot and raised its head into the air.

There were some Jimmy Choo shoes and Prada handbags but also plenty of sneakers and cut-offs. There were bare midriffs and tight jeans, not always worn by the right people. There was big hair and bigger egos carried into the arena.

Roy Harris, from Cut 'N Shoot, Texas, fought Floyd Patterson at the old Wrigley Field in 1958, the last time heavyweights fought for a championship here. Harris hasn't attended a heavyweight bout since he quit fighting. He was at Staples, though, wearing jeans and a shirt with bucking broncos on it.

Harris said he knows why people come to watch the big men fight.

"People look up to heavyweight champions," Harris said. "There's something about two big guys who will go one-on-one against each other, nobody around to help them. You want to see that."

Magic Johnson was at Staples Center. And Derek Fisher. And Rick Fox. Garry Shandling and David Duchovny in addition to Hanks, Cusack and Stallone.

Stallone got the only big cheer when he was noticed.

"There's nothing else to do and they had tickets available," said Angela Audto, 24, of Los Angeles. Her boyfriend, who wouldn't give his name, said he came to fights all the time. But this one, he said, had not captured the interest even of fight fans. "It's two European guys," the boyfriend said. "Nobody cares."

Under gray skies, which spit out drizzle and caused the frizzies on fancy hairdos, eight motorcycle officers and 30 police on foot watched Staples and mostly looked bored. There was a convention of erotica next door, so sometimes it was hard to tell whether the men in tight pants and the ladies in tiny skirts were heading to the boxing or to the convention. Or maybe both.

Two Brentwood roommates, wearing trendy cargo pants and minuscule tank tops with strategically placed slashes, were dressed for, what?

"We wanted to be comfy," said Robin Nagle, 27. "And we wanted to make spectacles of ourselves." Done and done.

Lewis is recognized as the best heavyweight in the world, but he's not a big draw. Klitschko, with not enough boxing history to make him familiar, even though he lives here now and even though he and his brother attend the Ukrainian Church of St. Andrew in downtown, could draw only a smattering of Ukrainian fans who carried the country's blue and yellow flag.

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