Fisticuffs and Facial Hair: Hipster Boxing at the Hollywood Athletic Club
Not that many decades ago, the three leading sports in the United States were baseball, boxing and horse racing. On November 20, Schlitz attempted to bring back that bygone era at the Hollywood Athletic Club in Los Angeles. Baseball was out, with the Dodgers having been summarily bounced from the playoffs the previous month, and the horses wouldn’t fit inside the gym.
That left boxing: four sanctioned amateur matches in four weight classes, dubbed “The Schlitz Bouts, a Night of Heritage Boxing, Style and Entertainment.” The matches were gussied up with trappings of the 1920s, in a combination that might never have been seen at a party of that era: a swing band, a barbershop quartet, bartenders making old fashioneds, postcards fresh off a letterpress and cigars being rolled by hand (although generally not smoked, given current L.A. municipal codes).
There was also a crowd of about 200, attempting to replicate the styles of the early 20th century. Women unearthed flapper outfits, and everybody seemed to wear a hat. Despite the best efforts of Pharrell Williams, the hat is largely a fashion accessory of the past, but on this night, millinery and haberdashery were on full display: straw boaters, feathered headbands, sparkling hairnets, bowlers, newsboy caps, shapeless derbies with red carnations in the band. (Many of them would have been taken off indoors back then, but a hatcheck is also a thing of the past.) In the men’s room, a well-groomed gentleman in a top hat reported, “It feels like I’m carrying a basket of fruit on my head.”
In a dressing room upstairs, just past the engravings paying tribute to Johnny Weissmuller and Rudolph Valentino (movie stars and members of the Hollywood Athletic Club), eight amateur boxers changed into their trunks and had their hands taped. If they didn’t have much time to consider the strange confluence of nostalgia and corporate branding that had brought them to a simulated speakeasy, they were grateful nevertheless: many of their previous matches had been in sweat-infused gyms before a handful of friends and family. “I’ve never seen anything that was set up like this before,” said visiting celebrity “Sugar” Shane Mosley, the retired boxer with a record of 47-9-1 who was champion in three different weight divisions.
“We’re bringing back the old,” said soft-spoken boxer Jermaine Powell, 25. “There’s nothing new under the sun – it’s a black-and-white night.” By which he meant it felt like he was living inside a monochrome photograph. Powell spends his days working as a janitor at an elementary school; he said that many of the kids at his school knew he had a boxing match and were pulling for him.
“Are you ready for an evening of pugilistic excellence?” asked the announcer. The four matches went by at a quick clip, three rounds each. Dancing girls filled the time between bouts, and a ring girl strolled the perimeter between rounds. (“If I ever lose my job, I want that job,” one woman confided in a friend.) With the fighters’ heads covered in protective headgear, the matches were all won by decision. In the heavyweight division, the Indian-born Dharmveer Sharma pummeled hometown fighter George “El Guero” Alvarez. In the welterweight division, Powell (billed as Jermaine “Gentleman” Powell) showed great skill but was outpunched by Hassan MacDowell. When the decision was announced, a joyful MacDowell was handed a silver ceremonial cup; excited, he ran around the ring, with the lid clattering to the ground.
After the fighting, the crowd returned to the dance floor. The band played a swing version of Wham!’s 1984 single “Careless Whisper.” One girl wore a flapper dress with fringe and beads, with a flask tucked into her garter – her period look was disrupted, however, by the anachronistic detail of her hair, dyed bright green. As she did the Charleston, the decades spun around her at a dizzying speed.