Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Boxing making a comeback in Baltimore

Robert “Bobby” Magruder was one of the toughest boxers in the Washington area. In the spring of 1971, he fought the first of his three matches against rising superstar Sugar Ray Leonard as the defending Golden Gloves of America champion.

Now long after since his early days of fighting at a Waldorf strip club, Magruder says he is seeing a rebirth of the sport. As president of the Washington, D.C., Golden Gloves association, he is bringing more and more amateur boxers to competitions.

The junior division of the association has seen 100 more children register — from 200 in 2010 to 300 this year. The adult division, including women, has grown to 500 from 400, Magruder said.

“I think it’s coming back,” Magruder said. “Maybe due to the fact that there are more at-risk kids, and boxing is a poor man’s sport. Always has been, always will be.”

Watch video from the Baltimore Boxing Club

Baltimore gym owner and boxing promoter Jake “The Snake” Smith is betting that Magruder is right. On Saturday, Smith is staging the “Fed Hill Fight Fest, “an amateur boxing card with eight to 10 matches and with most of the fighters from Baltimore.

The fights will take place in Lot N along Ostend Street across from M&T Bank Stadium. The event will be the first of its kind outside the 71,000-seat venue.

The parking lot can hold around 6,000 for the event, but Smith said he expects a crowd of between 2,000 to 3,000. More than 1,000 tickets have been sold so far, he said. Tickets start at $25, with VIP admission costing $50.

Eight sponsorships with local companies, like Baltimore’s Diamond Detail Inc. and Rew Materials, have been sold for the event. Smith said he expects sponsorships to pick up for other events in the year after companies see the effect of the M&T Bank fight. Smith declined to disclose how much he’s made in sponsorships or the range of sponsorship costs.

Smith said he invested about $20,000 to put on the event. That includes renting the parking lots from the Maryland Stadium Authority and Central Parking System, as well as installing a canopy over the ring.

Several Ravens players will be there, Smith said, as well as Mike Tyson’s former trainer, Kevin Rooney, and former boxer Vinny Paz.

Growing ticket sales, sponsorships

Magruder isn’t the only one seeing more children and young adults getting into the old-school art of amateur boxing. Gyms around Maryland are seeing more children signing up for classes, eager to start fighting in events.

The increase is bringing gyms and trainers more money. Many of those gym owners also promote and organize events for boxers, which are starting to see a growth in ticket sales and sponsorships.

Umar Boxing Program in Baltimore, which has about 50 students, has been steadily gaining three or four students each week lately, said owner Marvin McDowell.

“The crowd that used to follow professional is coming back to the amateurs,” said McDowell, a Baltimore native and member of the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame. McDowell is now president of the South Atlantic Association of USA Boxing after being the country’s number six welterweight from 1978 through 1981, according to the association.

McDowell wants to expand the sport locally beyond his own gym. He’ll soon be partnering with Baltimore City high schools to implement boxing programs into the schools. Not only is amateur boxing picking up in the area, but amateur boxing champions are coming from Maryland gyms, he said.

Local gyms are also looking to produce contenders for the 2012 Olympics in London, where women’s boxing will be among the recognized events for the first time since 1908. Boxing was previously the only summer sport on the Olympic docket without a female counterpart.

McDowell hopes one of his students, Franchon Crews, 24, will be one of the 36 female Olympic contenders.

Matt Pinckney, 17, joined Smith’s gym, the Baltimore Boxing Club in Fells Point, a couple of months ago after competing in wrestling for years and is hoping to start competing next month. Pinckney said he’d always been interested in boxing, and decided to start it when he learned there was a gym near him.

“I feel like I’m getting there,” Pinckney said. “As long as I stay here and train hard, I’ll get good at it.”

It’s students like Pinckney who Smith said are getting into the sport and are likely to stay for a long time. Use of Smith’s gym starts at $55 per month, or $125 for three months.

Mixed martial arts

The rise of Mixed Martial Arts in the past three years has helped grow the interest in boxing, even though boxing is only one discipline of MMA, industry members say. Because MMA has gained a large audience among children, many of them look to boxing as a way to get in the game.

“They’re excited to see what it’s all about,” Smith said. “But MMA is a little bit too tough. And boxing I’m starting to see the kids, they want to stick with the boxing part in my eyes.”

Smith and fellow trainer Chris Nissley are seeing this as an opportunity to start promoting amateur boxing events as a way to keep children interested and competing.

Patrick Pannella, executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission, oversees MMA and boxing, as well the registration of referees, promoters, contestants and mangers.

Although amateur boxing is exempt from the commission’s regulation, Pannella said he sees amateur events, along with professional boxing fights, holding steady. In 2011, five professional boxing events have been held so far, on par with last year’s numbers, he said.

“We see all of this as a positive, and consistent numbers we’re very proud of for Maryland,” Pannella said. “Clearly it’s having a significant economic impact on the state. We’re confident that these numbers will increase in coming years.”

John J. Rallo III started off in the boxing promotions business by organizing professional MMA events at First Mariner Arena, but Rallo has switched to boxing as he sees a potential for more business. The intrigue of watching young fighters turn professional or grow a fan base is what brings the crowds, Rallo said.

Moreover, production costs for a boxing show are lower than for MMA, he said. Rallo said that while he won’t disclose revenue made from shows for his company, “Bang Time Boxing,” his shows stay profitable.

“As long as I don’t lose money, I’ll continue to do it,” he said. “I think it’s good for the city. It keeps the guys busy at gyms locally, it brings a lot of people from out of state to hotels, restaurants, clubs afterwards.”