- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Babes, beer and boxing.
As soon as you walk in the doors at Michael's Eighth Avenue in a Glen Burnie, Md. neighborhood surrounded by industrial warehouses, you're bombarded with two of the three ingredients that make Ballroom Boxing a roaring success.
Dorothy, a blonde with enough cleavage to make a Wonderbra irrelevant, is standing behind a large tub filled with ice and cans of beer.
"Cold beer, guys, before you go in," Dorothy yells.
Make that babes, beer and boxing in a ballroom. It's a mixture that has been drawing a large and devoted crowd for six years to a series of club fight shows known as Ballroom Boxing that have gained a substantial television audience in other parts of the country.
"It's a great time," said Dave Phillips of Arbutus, Md., wearing a NASCAR hat and sipping from a can of beer. "It's a great atmosphere. How could it not be enjoyable when you have all these pretty women around?"
Local boxing shows are a very iffy proposition. More often than not, they don't draw well and are held in dimly lit halls or auditoriums. And outside of the small crowds that show up at these events, very few people ever see these fighters.
In Glen Burnie, though, they fight as they will again tomorrow night in a 24,000-square-foot ballroom often reserved for weddings and banquets. They usually fight before a standing-room-only crowd of about 1,200. And, remarkably, they reach millions more via a Home Team Sports-produced television show with Larry Michael, vice president of sports for CBS Radio, doing the blow by blow and USA Today columnist Jon Saraceno the color commentary that is picked up by cable systems across the country, including the New England Sports Network and the Sunshine Network in Florida.
They also have their own Web site (www.ballroomboxing.com) and a merchandise catalog. "It's more than just boxing," said Scott Wagner, who along with his father, Michael, owns and operates Michael's Eighth Avenue. "It's the celebrities, the television, the valet parking, and the whole concept."
That whole concept includes scantily clad waitresses and ring card girls that make it a "guy's night out" for the average Joe, with $20 tickets and $3 cans of beer.
Oh, and, yes, the boxing. There is the boxing.
"This is the heart and soul of boxing, the club shows," said Patrick Panella, executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing in the state. "They consistently run high-quality shows here."
Some local fighters, such as lightweight contender Jermaine Fields of Washington, have built careers at Michael's and moved on to the bigger stages of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Others hope to follow the same path.
"It is a good opportunity for fighters," said Chris Middendorf, a boxing manager from Kensington. "With the television exposure they have, it makes it attractive to fighters and managers."
The fighters come for the exposure. So do the fans.
They start to arrive 90 minutes before the first fight and are greeted by the familiar faces of the waitresses. One patron is particularly upset that his regular, glitter-covered waitress has been moved to another section.
"I have regular customers that sit in the same section every time, and they keep coming back," said Freda, a waitress from Pasadena, Md. "It's a lot like a family getting together every few months."
The decorations around the hall are more appropriate for a family function than a boxing show. Flowers are placed throughout the room and run up the bannister to one of several balconies. Chandeliers hang throughout the room.
In the hallway are tastefully upholstered chairs and couches, along with more flowers. This is not the sort of setting for boxing of classic fight films such as "Body and Soul" or "The Harder They Fall." It's more like "My Best Friend's Wedding" meets "Play It to the Bone."
The soundtrack? AC/DC playing in the background.
Mike Riccobene, 44, of Pasadena has been buying 12 tickets for family and friends for every show since Ballroom Boxing began.
"We used to have six seats in the third row and the second row," he said. "Now we're in the first row and second row. And I would rather let a seat go empty than give these seats up. I'd rather die than give up these seats."
Riccobene, sitting near a bevy of women imported all the way from Gail's Show Bar in Dundalk to serve in the traditional role of ring card girls, smiled as he spoke.
"It's a great guys night out. Of course, I tell my girlfriend how terrible it is to have to sit by the old battle axes that they get for ring card girls."
The girls don't seem to mind, either.
"I really enjoy doing it," said Erin, who later would parade around the ring between rounds in various forms of undress, from a silver jumpsuit to an outfit that had less material than it takes to lace up a pair of boxing gloves.
Oh, yes. The boxing.
The crowd boos when the second fight, between Dana Dunston of Woodbridge, Va. and Anthony Rosser of Philadelphia, is stopped by the ring doctor before the fourth and final round. The local fighter wins, but that is one less round for a ring card girl to do her work.
"I'm proud of this card," Wagner said. "This is the very definition of club fights: Hungry boxers trying to make a name for themselves."
Spoken too soon. The crowd also boos the out-of-shape, mini-Butterbean of a fighter, Scott Jones of Baltimore, who clinches for most of the next fight. Jones' opponent, Anthony Thompson of Silver Spring, Md., wins a unanimous decision.
Later, athletic commission officials eject from the room a ring card girl who put on her own little show, flashing her breasts to a group of raucous fans. Now the crowd really boos.
At intermission, it's time to introduce some of the celebrities in the crowd. It's not a strong night in that regard a few little-known players from the Baltimore Ravens and some other local fighters of note (the most prominent is World Boxing Association super lightweight champion Sharmba Mitchell). In the past, former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson have been among those at ringside.
Mack Lewis, who was in Jones' corner, is not a celebrity. He is boxing royalty. The soft-spoken, elegant 81-year-old trainer remains the heart and soul of boxing in Baltimore. "Mr. Mack" has trained the best of the city's fighters, such as former junior middleweight champion Vincent Pettway, but still has the time to work with a heavyweight with no future like Jones.
"I didn't have a good heavyweight tonight," Lewis said. But he has other fighters on the card and likes bringing his guys to Michael's.
"This is a place where you build fighters," Lewis said.
After seven bouts, it's getting late and the beer is taking its toll. The wind seems to have gone out of the sails of most fight fans, helped by the lackluster final two bouts of the night. James McCallister of Forestville, Md. fights Jameel Wilson of Philadelphia to a draw, and the featured fighter of the night, Del "The Hatchet" Matchett of Laurel, Md., easily wins an eight-round decision over Damone Wright of Omaha, Neb.
The room is nearly half empty by the time Matchett's hand is raised in victory by referee Malik Waleed shortly after midnight, and the room clears quickly. It is a tired but satisfied and well-oiled crowd, just like a crowd leaving a good wedding.
They will be back.
"If we get you once, we will get you back," Wagner said.

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