Amateur night comes to blows
The latest event at some bars, matches for novice boxers, draws crowds - and prompts calls for more regulation.
EMPORIA, KAN. — Fridays at Desperado's, the prevalence of beer and blue jeans is a given. Bloody noses, though - they come along only every couple of months.
That's about how often Knockout Events rolls into town, along with an adjustable boxing ring and a concept that, while hardly new, is nevertheless riding a wave of popularity among hundreds of young people, particularly in Western states. At the same time, it's raising the eyebrows of the more squeamish - and the more litigation-wary.
The idea is a simple one: Charge people a few bucks to get in the door, strap 20-ounce gloves on their hands, and let them go at each other for three rounds of one minute each. Add a little advertising to the mix, and hundreds attend every event.
"No matter where we go, if we promote it properly - if we don't drop the ball - we have sellout crowds," says Kevin Shaw, who with his brother-in-law Shane Swartz started "Fight Nights" three years ago.
The formula certainly was working on a recent Friday here. With the fight set to start at 9 p.m., Desperado's was at a capacity crowd of 300 people, each of whom had paid $10 to get in, by 8:30. The sounds of Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock filled the building. People in baseball and cowboy hats, T-shirts, and tube tops lined the ring, waiting impatiently.
The idea for Fight Night was born when Mr. Swartz, himself a professional boxer, witnessed the popularity of fights he organized in his parents' Fort Collins, Colo., backyard. He teamed up with Mr. Shaw, and today the Denver-based business does 12 tournament-style events a month in nine states branching out from Colorado. Knockout Events keeps the door money; the bars have a big night selling drinks.
Explaining the interest of spectators is easy: "These are your neighbors. These are the kids you go to class with," Shaw says. "It's kind of a fascination with, 'Wow, I know this guy, and he's boxing.' "
Explaining the boxers' motivation is harder. Suffice it to say the event teems with adrenaline. It attracts daredevils like a demolition derby. Fighters, win or lose, are treated like royalty.
Jessica Zorn, a 21-year-old who won the women's division at Desperado's first Fight Night last October, decided to jump in the ring after seeing the event advertised at her laundromat. She figured that growing up with three brothers would make her a natural.
"No one ever believes that I fight," says Ms. Zorn, who is wearing navy stretch pants and a pink tank top. "I'm a cosmetologist - I do hair. I just don't look like a fighter."
But stepping into the ring has earned her a certain kind of celebrity. "People come up and talk to me that I don't even know," she says.
It's true: As she talked in the bathroom - the only quiet place in the bar - everyone who came in recognized the blond highlights and white teeth. But make no mistake: The fan club, at least when it comes to boxing, does not include family. "My mom refuses to come out and see someone punch me in the face," Zorn says.
It's not just the moms who worry.
"Boxing is a sport where you're intentionally trying to injure the other person," says Emporia City Attorney Blaise Plummer. "That's the goal. It's inherently dangerous."
But at least in Kansas, regulation of amateur fights is left to local governments, which troubles Mr. Plummer, who would like to see statewide uniformity. Cities like Emporia "don't have the expertise" to regulate events like Fight Night, he says. "Right now ... we're kind of in a gray area from a legal standpoint, and I don't think that's good."
Knockout Events tries to counter the violence of the sport with short rounds, protective gear, and tight officiating. Desperado's, for one, does its part by providing a ringside doctor. Elsewhere, some state governments try to limit the potential for injury. For example, Nebraska requires a state boxing commissioner to be on site.
In Washington - a state that Knockout Events has yet to visit - a bill banning all nonprofessional elimination fighting recently passed the Legislature and is awaiting the governor's signature. More than a half-dozen states have similar bans on extreme fighting..
The Washington State bill was driven by concern over so-called "Toughman" contests, which are notably more violent than Knockout Events' Fight Nights. A number of people have died from the street-style, fight-to-the-finish Toughman fights, whereas Shaw says no Fight Night had ever produced more than a dislocated shoulder.
Regardless, elimination boxing is risky because it doesn't give doctors time to assess damage - or boxers time to heal, says Barry Druxman, president of the International Professional Ring Officials. He pushed for the bill not because he's against boxing, but because he saw that fight sponsors weren't prepared to prevent and then deal with sometimes inevitable injuries. He says the state chose a total ban over regulation for financial reasons.
The status quo is "inherently frightening," Mr. Druxman says. "Could you go into that bar and have a dogfight? Could you have cockfights? So you protect your dogs and your chickens but not your people?"
Shaw concedes that Fight Nights are controversial. "There's always somebody out there who doesn't like it - thinks it's brutal," he says.
But he emphasizes that the business follows each state's rules and has never had an insurance claim. "We've never had any problems - ever," he says. "Could you get injured? Yes. Could you ride a mechanical bull and hurt your back? Yes. Could you go skiing and run into a tree? Yes."
When the action finally got going at Desperado's, the fighters' amateur status was clear: Most punches missed their mark, and swings got pretty slow by the third round. Not until the super-heavyweight division did a punch land square and hard enough to draw blood.
When it did, the crowd's cheering got even louder. "This is what Fight Night is all about," Shaw yelled when the bout was over, gesturing to the loser. "This guy looked me in the eye and said, 'Don't stop the fight, don't stop the fight.' "