Las Vegas put the fight game in a headlock decades ago, its glamor attracting boxing’s grit like the opposite pole of a casino-size magnet. Prior to that, though, it was another Western city that helped anchor the sport, serving as a cultural and geographical counterbalance to an East Coast stronghold.
“Before Vegas took over as the fight capital of the world, it was definitely split between Los Angeles and New York,” says Gene Aguilera, a boxing historian and author. “Los Angeles had a big golden era between the ’60s and ‘70s. We had the Olympic Auditorium, which had weekly fights every Thursday night. Also, the Main Street Gym was a place where all the great fighters came in. Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello, Muhammad Ali all trained there. That was the main place, like you see in the Rocky movies.”
Aguilera should know.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, he warmly remembers his family gathering around their black-and-white TV to watch those Olympic Auditorium fights when he was a young boy, sounding like a kid once again as he recalls those moments.
These recollections inform his new book, Mexican-American Boxing in Los Angeles, whose pages are layered in ink and memories alike.
The book was published barely a year ago, but already another chapter may be necessary.
On Saturday night, one the biggest bouts ever between two Mexican-American fighters takes place when Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) and Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) go at it at Staples Center in an ESPN-televised fight (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
Aguilera says he has to go back 41 years to find a scrap of this magnitude—to the night of May 24, 1974, when Bobby Chacon took on Danny “Little Red” Lopez in a now-legendary 126-pound clash.
“It was just a great fight,” Aguilera says. “At that time Bobby Chacon was 23-1 and 'Little Red' Lopez was 23-0. They fought for the mythical city championship.”
Chacon knocked out Lopez in the ninth round, KO-ing L.A. boxing fans in the process.
A little less than three years later, 147-pounders Carlos Palomino and Armando Muniz would throw down in another one of the greatest battles between Mexican-American boxers in L.A.
It remains to be seen if Santa Cruz and Mares can put on the kind of fight that joins those esteemed clashes in the annals of boxing history, but anticipation and expectations are high—especially in their hometown.
“There’s a lot of excitement going on right now in East L.A. about this. Everybody’s talking about it, ‘Hey, are you going to the fight?’” Aguilera says, noting that he expects the crowd to be equally divided between fans of each fighter. “It’s 50-50 Santa Cruz-Mares. There’s no one who’s the favorite here in East L.A.”
To truly grasp the significance of this fight, though, is to understand what boxing means to that community.
“It’s a whole subculture,” Aguilera says. The sport is a source of identity, he explains, the social glue that brings friends and family together to watch big fights at weekend barbecues.
Fighters of this heritage have come to internalize as much.
They tend to fight a certain way, because they’re not just fighting for themselves.
“There’s so much pride,” Aguilera says. “Mexican boxers have that reputation of not taking a step back, not bobbing and weaving like some of these champions.
“These guys have big hearts, and they take them into the ring with them.”
For full coverage of Santa Cruz vs Mares, visit our fight page.