The fighters have Mount Rushmore faces. Tank cannons for arms. Fists like bowling balls.
But if boxers at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s casino are tough, the crowd is tougher.
“Quit slappin’! Start punchin’!”
“Gimme a pair of gloves! I’ll fight ya both!”
And when Spokane fighter Frank Vassar is in the house: “Let’s go, Franky! Knock this cat out!”
For the tribe, that racket is a sweet, sweet sound. Every cheering fan with throbbing neck veins means at least $12.50. Or for better seats, $25. Or for a spot where your face and clothes get stained with blood and sweat, $50. It’s so successful that Northwest boxing, for years all but KO’d, is making a comeback.
The tribe even is planning a 3,000-seat arena, set to open in March 1998. Good nights at the House of Fury now draw 2,200 people, raking in upwards of $28,000. And that’s just for tickets. Each fight, Marketing Director Laura Stensgar said, brings bigger money from casino gambling.
More people are lacing up the gloves, too - the Lilac City Boxing Club has three pros of its own.
“I’ve gotten an awful lot of calls in the last few months,” said Matt David, who sponsors the club and owns Spokane Karate and Boxing Center.
“Most of my calls are for boxing, … more than self-defense, even.”
Fights occur about once each month, but Stensgar said she hopes to start holding two a month. There’s even talk of having wrestling, and David wants to see kick boxing.
“It’s done real great out here, and I tell you, the Coeur d’Alene Indians have been wonderful to work with,” said Moe Smith, the tribe’s fight matchmaker. “The shows that we bring here are just as good as the ones brought to Vegas.”
Fights have featured Montell “Ice” Griffin, WBC light heavyweight champion. He’s trained by Eddie Futch, an 82-year-old who has worked with fighters from Joe Frazier to Riddick Bowe.
And of course, the House of Fury has featured Vassar - a former U.S. Boxing Team member as an amateur, now an undefeated cruiserweight pro.
“That’s almost the who’s who of boxing, fighting out in a cow pasture,” Smith said.
The pasture isn’t very pastoral come fight night.
Red and blue lights swoop around the ring and white-hot lamps beat down from above. Heavy metal music bludgeons the humid air.
On a recent Wednesday night, the place was jammed - even though attendance was down by 600.
Most who attend are men. That’s the tribe’s target market, Stensgar said. They wear baseball caps and cowboy hats, ties and tattoos. Some look just 18; others long since have gone gray.
In the ring, tribal member and former radio announcer Chuck Matheson is on the mike and dressed in a tux.
“Let’s give a big welcome to Wendy!” Matheson boomed. The crowd complied. Wendy was in a bikini.
“We try to get it as professional as possible,” Stensgar explained. “We have the typical ring girls, the announcer, the lights, the sound.”
When a fight’s slow, the crowd reacts. During one bout, the boxers danced. They jabbed. They looked smooth - but at first, no one landed anything.
“Kiss him!” someone screamed.
But when a fighter really drives one home, you can hear it - people quiet down for that hollow, wet thud. And once fighters warm up, covered with a shiny film, each blow kicks a spray of sour dew onto the front row.
Between rounds in the lone women’s fight, a female voice in the crowd yelled, “Where are the ring boys?!” That was not long after someone had blurted, “Punch like a man!”
A popular fight was, of course, the Vassar bout. He fought Tex Miles, a wiry guy from Tacoma with a cheese grater for a stomach and T-E-X carved into his haircut.
Vassar was a rock. Tex dodged like a ferret; he struck like a cobra. He’d raise a glove in a “come get me” taunt, then he’d spring away. Real rope-a-dope style.
At first, anyway. But by the end, Tex was all teased out - Vassar’s fists were mortar shells.
“Let’s hear it for these warriors!” Matheson trumped. “Last round comin’ up!” The ring girl strutted, holding up an “8” to signify the next round.
Soon a chant broke out - quiet at first, then thunderous.
“Franky,” it began. “Frank-y! FRANK-y! FRANK-Y!”
Then, a lone voice in back:
Vassar, as hometown heroes always should, won the match. The fighters gave each other a quick atta-boy pat on the arm.
Sometimes, though, it gets ugly. One fight was stopped. A blow to the head had sent blood running from a boxer’s eye and down his cheek.
Boxing seems like a novelty in the Northwest these days. Smith said it wasn’t always so.
“Back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, there was a lot of fighting,” said Idaho native Smith, now 66. Then, colleges like Gonzaga had boxing. Spokane attorney Carl Maxey once won an NCAA title as a GU boxer.
And there was Joey August - who, as an amateur, boxed under the lights of Madison Square Garden.
Smith said that way back when, Post Falls hosted a 20-round stand-still that Jack Dempsey called “The Battle of Blood.”
But then came televised fights. And fewer fighters.
“The tougher the times, the more fighters you get,” Smith said. “You gotta eat, y’know.”
Smith brought the idea of boxing to the Coeur d’Alenes two years ago. Smith had been a Vegas promoter - he’d brought shows to the MGM, Harrah’s, the El Dorado in Reno, Nev. After decades of that, he moved back to Idaho.
“I was gettin’ older, and everyone comes home when they’re old,” Smith said.
One year after Smith proposed the idea to tribal casino management, the bell sounded. Fights began there in May 1996.
“Boxing seems to fit casinos. Fits gambling. Brings out the sportier people,” Smith said.
But when the tribal fights began selling out, Smith admits, he was amazed. Old men went to relive old days. Young people - men and now women - saw live fights and became hooked. Vassar said that for many people, tribal boxing is their only chance to see live matches.
“They’re growing up watching soccer, basketball, stuff like that. Boxing’s not accessible, … but at Worley, they’re actually going and watching. It’s a whole different thing to be at an actual competition.”
Smith says he expects it only to grow. “If you bring something good here, people will come,” he said. “People are sports-hungry, and we haven’t had good boxing here in a long time.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (2 Color)
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