It's fight night at Municipal Auditorium. Boxing fans begin to stream in early on this muggy Thursday evening in August. Thumping car stereos announce the arrival of a few; others stroll in from the French Quarter, pounding down the last remains of their go-cups.
A few people march directly to the box office window. There, Anna Beth Goodman is scrolling through an index of names and numbers on her cell phone. Fashionably clad in an all-black ensemble, she appears cool and calm in the evening heat as she searches for tickets for two West Bank men whose phone orders are lost. Next, she has to find a table for a group coming from the mayor's office. Problems solved, Goodman hustles inside --until a security guard halts her entrance at the gate to the ringside VIP tables. He points to his wrist, looking for the required wristband.
"Don't worry -- I'm the promoter," Goodman responds, a hint of frustration in her voice. She blows past the man and into the VIP section, where a whirlwind meet-and-greet session begins. Moving deftly among shouts of "Anna Beth! Anna Beth!" she shakes hands with everybody and exchanges kisses on the cheek with City Council President Eddie Sapir. She slows down when she comes to a table of Budweiser representatives, here tonight for the beer company's crucial first sponsorship of one of her events. When she confirms the Budweiser men have everything they need, she moves on.
Tonight is Kingfish Boxing Productions' eighth show since debuting last December. Goodman says it's all coming a bit more easily now. "I've totally entered a boys' club," she says. "I've been called 'little schoolgirl,' and I do hear, 'You're a woman, you don't need to hear this,' but I haven't had any real problems whatsoever. I think I had to walk in and state my case and let them know, 'This is what I'm all about. I'm not a pushover. This is business.'"
Just before Kingfish's debut fight, Goodman made clear her determination to stay and succeed in the boxing world. "The guys were weighing in, and I turned around and this little guy had completely stripped down. It didn't faze me a bit, and they saw that."
It's nearing 8 p.m. There are six bouts on tonight's card. The lights dim and the ring announcer welcomes the crowd. For Goodman, the politicking ends and the fights begin.
Sitting ringside is Peter Brody, a man whose fame in boxing circles was won decades ago in the gyms of Los Angeles. He is slowly munching his way through a bag of popcorn, his casual demeanor and dress -- along with a wild frock of unkempt blonde hair -- revealing that his focus is solely on the night's fights.
Goodman takes a seat next to Brody, who is her partner in Kingfish. Aside from a few shoulder-taps from her assistant, she keeps her attention inside the ring. Her brown eyes open wide, unblinking in the bright lights as she surveys her fighters.
It's a good night. The first bout features local boxer Emmett "Scooby Doo" Wilson, weighing in at 170 pounds, the motto "God's Gift" embroidered on his velvet trunks. Round one speeds by with little heavy hitting, as Wilson and his opponent, 170-pound Junior Dupree from Hot Springs, Ark., dance about, exchanging a few jabs between repeated tie-ups. In the second round, Wilson storms out in a fury, landing a series of rights to the head: clean, solid punches with the deep, precise thump of leather pounding flesh and bone resonating through the cavernous auditorium.
Less than a minute later, Dupree is dead on his feet, punch drunk and staggering. Veteran referee Elmo Adolph calls the fight, and Wilson wins on a technical knockout. It's his second professional win. He begins to run about the ring, bowing to all four sides before jumping on the rope in the corner, pumping his gloved fists and facing his considerable -- and boisterous -- fan base perched far away in the balcony seats. They chant and cheer loudly for their victorious friend.
The third bout also showcases a local boxer: Tony "Mad" McDonald, who like Wilson is a Kingfish trainee. Two years ago, McDonald moved here from Los Angeles with his wife and two young children on the dream of making it as a professional boxer. As fate would have it, he landed at Kingfish soon after the gym opened in late February. He immediately recognized Brody, who ran the L.A. gym where McDonald worked out as a 10-year-old.
Tonight, the long, wiry, 135-pound McDonald moves quick and wild, flinging haymaker punches at Martin Gomez, a 135 pounder from San Luis Potosi, Mexico. McDonald stays clean but doesn't land a devastating punch. The judges deem his performance good enough to award a split-decision win.
With a title fight coming in October, the tightly wound 137-pound Eleazar Contreras is a rising talent and gem of Goodman's current crop -- he's been with Kingfish for more than three months now. He's small and muscular, with his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., spelled out diagonally from left to right across his silver-and-black trunks. Contreras is in tonight's fifth fight, and he's clearly superior in strength and style to the outmatched Len Walton from Kansas City, Mo. During the first two rounds, Contreras methodically toils before landing a series of body blows that ends with a knockout punch -- right at the second round's bell. Contreras is congratulated by Esteban Garcia, a cornerstone of Kingfish renowned for his work with fighters like Hector "Macho" Camacho, Robert Duran and 14 other world champions.
The sixth fight is tonight's main event. Local hero Ron Weaver and his dozen-strong entourage -- young boys, peers and old men, all dressed in the same black T-shirt bearing the image of Weaver's face -- march to the ring. Holding high his two championship belts to the rousing hip hop of Ludacris' "Roll Out," the group enters to loud cheers and a standing ovation. Pre-bout formalities -- introductions and referee instructions -- last longer than the actual fight. Weaver feels out his opponent, Floyd Williams, with a few jabs until connecting a cracking right to the jaw that sends spit and mouthpiece flying; Williams is knocked out cold one minute 50 seconds into the first round. Weaver ups his record to 29-10, with 21 knockouts.
The fights over, Goodman stands up to make her exit through the VIP section. A few days later, she says that one of the reasons she started Kingfish was to help give a break to fighters like Weaver, who despite his obvious talent has endured too many losses due to bad management.
"Ron is one of those guys that no one ever paid attention to," she says. "He has more talent than just about anyone around. Ron's just so good, but he's been overlooked and mismanaged. That's a shame, a real shame. It's tough overcoming those losses, and it hurts him. If we put him against the right opponent, and Ron wins, on TV, then suddenly that record is going to disappear."
The fans at Thursday's fights are enthusiastic, but a sea of empty seats in the Municipal Auditorium proves that professional boxing is still a risky venture in New Orleans, a city with a storied pedigree in the sport.
Kingfish began with something as simple as a sister looking out for her baby brother. Preston Hartzog was gaining exposure in professional boxing circles in Los Angeles and called Goodman, his big sister and a successful storeowner and real estate developer for advice. She agreed to become his manager and soon became enthralled with boxing -- both the sport and the business.
Following Kingfish's December debut, Goodman opened the full-service Kingfish Boxing Club in February. (Other local boxing gyms include the prestigious Neutral Corner in Mid-City.) Kingfish is now reaching Goodman's goal of becoming a complete boxing operation, equipping a growing stable of fighters with a workout facility, trainers, management and, through the monthly fights, an opportunity to prove themselves.
Local fans have hailed Goodman for helping to bring boxing back to the city where, despite past glories, it had been largely dormant for decades. Boxing started here in the late 1800s, when a combination of municipal and state legal loopholes allowed for boxing in New Orleans during a time when "the rest of the nation wanted no part of the bare-knuckled violence, and it was outlawed," according to Kathleen Mulvihill's documentary film Men of the Ring: Boxing Legends of New Orleans. In 1892, the first championship bout sanctioned under present-day Queensbury Rules was held at the ornate Olympic Club, at the corner of Royal and Montegut streets. In an event with a then-astonishing $25,000 purse, James Corbitt defeated John Sullivan in an epic match captured in the 1942 Errol Flynn movie Gentleman Jim. Round-by-round results were carried from New Orleans over telegraph to New York City's Pulitzer building, where the news interrupted Broadway plays. The nation was in love with its first major sport.
Mulvihill reports that New Orleans' relative preponderance of wealthy young men helped boxing flourish. A death in the ring in 1894 resulted in the sport being outlawed in Louisiana for two decades, but a 1920s local revival would eventually spawn six world champions and four Hall of Famers. The sport vanished again in the 1960s, and the once-household names of local champions are now only recognized by a few: Pete Herman, Jimmy Perrin, Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas, Tony Canzeroni, Joe Brown -- and Percy Pugh, the 1967 U.S. welterweight champion who now is one of Ron Weaver's trainers.
Jimmy LaCava was born into this tradition as world featherweight champion Jimmy Perrin's son. Himself a former fighter in the Marine Corps, for 35 years LaCava has presided over local boxing as one of the seven members of the Louisiana Boxing Commission, overseeing a region that includes New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
"New Orleans belongs in its former place as the boxing capital of the world," says LaCava, who at 66 is energetic, short and still taut with muscle. "We produced all these world champions here, all with that New Orleans style -- hit and run, slide and move. But by the end of the 1960s, the decline began, and we've never recovered.
"People here just don't have the money to promote fights anymore. When I was coming up, every Catholic school had its own gym, its own team," says the 1948 graduate of St. Loisaus, now Brother Martin. "Any night in the '40s and '50s, you'd have 400 to 500 youngsters fighting every night, somewhere. It was a neighborhood thing, you'd go up against each other from your home gym, whether it was the 9th Ward, Irish Channel, whatever. Men today can't set up a club like they used to back then, when you could just throw up a ring in the back of bar rooms and let people have at it. You can't afford to do that now, people would sue."
That's not the only current barrier to boxing, LaCava says. "One problem is now there's not enough clubs to bring the kids in. You can textbook learn how to box to a degree, but you have to be in a club to really grow. That's the way it used to work. Each generation taught the next fundamentals in the clubs. But we don't have too many of the old-time fighters around anymore -- they've all died off. The boxing commission is working on getting some money together to bring back some of the amateur programs. That's the way to make it come back."
Yet LaCava sternly says short cuts are not the answer to returning boxing to the city: he was part of the 7-0 boxing commission vote rejecting a bid to bring convicted rapist Mike Tyson to New Orleans, saying he would have resigned his post if Tyson had been allowed to fight here. "New Orleans boxing has always been done with class," he says. "It's never been a place where you could come in screaming, hollering and cursing. One reason boxers loved New Orleans so much, it was known as a town where everyone would get a fair shake."
LaCava is talking during a lunch break from his job with the downtown Crescent Bank & Trust, and he's eager to share anecdotes and local boxing lore. He recalls lunch breaks spent at Curly's Gym on Poydras Street, standing in a crowd of hundreds wanting a glimpse of new and unknown out-of-towners working out. He also remembers a night when, as trainer for writer (and occasional ring announcer) Ronnie Virgets during Virgets' fighting days, he barely got out of Venice, La., alive. "Our boys laid out those shrimping-boat boys. We had to get a police escort out of the gym. The crowd was angry we beat their hometown kids. They were throwing things; they wanted to hurt us," he says, laughing.
LaCava reserves his greatest animation for thoughts on Kingfish's new role in the city's tradition. "Anna Beth Goodman is a breath of fresh air. She's got that glow. You can see the attitude, the desire to succeed, in her. She's over the hump now; she's got four or five guys you could put up against anybody in the country. Nobody else is starting anything; it's just her and (promoter) Lester Bonano, who used to be the only game in town.
"I hope she stays in the game for good. I know she's got Jimmy LaCava in her corner."
Last December, says Preston "Bogalusa Boogieman" Hartzog, he fought "nervous as hell" at Kingfish's debut -- which also served as the 26-year-old's professional debut in Louisiana, and only his second bout as a pro. He won that fight with a knockout. Since then, he's had four straight wins, and has become the undisputed crowd favorite of Kingfish boxing. Whenever he makes his nonchalant entrance, he's accompanied by the night's loudest welcome, sometimes with chants of "Boogieman! Boogieman!"
Equipped with a massive 6-foot-tall, 265-pound frame, Hartzog seems to have the gift of the knockout. The southpaw's powerful left has ended many of his fights, having recorded four KOs in his six total wins. Besides the glory of that one punishing punch, Hartzog possesses a technically sound stance and style that reveal 15 years of training.
Boxing fans love to pull for the hometown fighter, and Hartzog is true to his roots in Bogalusa, a hardscrabble, blue-collar mill town sitting on the banks of the Pearl River in Washington Parish. His fighting days started when, as an 11-year-old, he ventured into the Bogalusa YMCA and peered into a back corner where the boxers were working out. "They looked like Greek gods to me," he says. "They were all types of sizes, but to me, it just looked like a bunch of bad-ass guys. Really tough, really athletic. I started hitting the speed bag, and the next thing you know, I'm a boxer."
Hartzog is drinking cranberry juice at the dining table in a two-story brick apartment just off Robert E. Lee Boulevard. The three-bedroom dwelling is owned by Anna Beth Goodman, Hartzog's older sister, and it serves as a way station for Kingfish boxers enduring the itinerant lifestyle required of young boxers on the professional circuit. Some boxers stay for a few nights, others for months. Hartzog is the only constant here.
While Hartzog talks, roommates Eleazar Contreras and another man known as Joey are engrossed in a PlayStation game of football on the adjoining room's large-screen TV. Joey's not a boxer, although he boasts, "I can beat Preston's ass." Their wisecracks to Hartzog come in varying intervals from the TV room.
Hartzog is wearing a T-shirt bearing "I love Poppa Funk" across the chest, a gift from Art Neville. A tattoo bearing the inscription "What Doesn't Kill You Only Makes You Stronger" is stamped on his right arm. Hartzog says he grew up an overweight kid -- strange, he says, since "boxers are supposed to be ripped."
"Boxing was kind of my get-away from football," he recalls. "My dad -- God rest his soul -- was a really good football player. He played for Bogalusa (High School Lumberjacks), Southeastern (Louisiana University Lions) and was a free agent for the Chicago Bears. A lot of people in town respected my dad for that, and I had to live up to it in a sense. Finally, one day I realized I needed to get away from football.
"Growing up, nobody ever really believed in what I did, and I was kinda glad. I didn't want to be outspoken about it, I just wanted to box. I just felt good doing it. But they started paying attention by the time I was fighting at the Gold Gloves."
At 14, Hartzog began his climb through the boxing ranks with the National Gold Gloves Competition, making the long trip up to Milwaukee with a young group of local fighters that included Kingfish champ Ron Weaver. After graduating from St. Paul's School in Covington in 1996, he spent four years in the U.S. Army, long renowned as a fertile training ground for young boxers.
"I loved the Army," Hartzog says. "I was stationed in Colorado Springs, working in what the Army calls the World-Class Athlete Program. We were considered ambassadors. We went to different countries, fought in international competitions like the Citizen Games."
In 2000, Hartzog left the service as an Army superheavyweight champion. He headed to Boise, Idaho, as a nationally rated Olympic hopeful, but lost early and never made it to the trial finals. Feeling "bummed," he traveled Europe before returning to New Orleans.
"At this point, I tried to come to grips with myself and what I'm doing," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to do something different -- I'm going to move out to L.A.'"
In Los Angeles, Hartzog worked as a bouncer and a bar back and started fighting "no holds barred," a particularly brutal brand of fighting done with neither gloves nor enforced rules. Hartzog enjoyed no-holds-barred fighting, but the pay -- $300 a fight -- wasn't worth the pain. Hartzog soon began training at L.A.'s world-renowned boxing gyms, sparring with star heavyweights Michael Moore and Francois Botha.
"I began to feel L.A. was my place, my home," Hartzog says. "John (Goodman, Anna Beth's husband) called me up one day and asked if I wanted to come live with him. At the time, he was shooting Normal, Ohio. Living with John was a real kick; we had lots of fun. We'd barbecue, burn some steaks. I ate red meat consistently for seven months. Danny Aykroyd was living with us, too. It was his place; John was renting from him. It was fun, but I was partying way too hard."
Hartzog moved into his own place and started to train harder. Word began to spread. "I started getting calls from all these promoters. I guess the word got out about a big heavyweight -- a white guy, a southpaw. I guess that means money.
"I started to get asked a lot of questions -- money, contracts -- and I didn't know how to respond, really. I needed some help, some guidance. I picked up the phone to call Anna Beth, thinking, 'She likes boxing, I'll ask her if she wants to be my manager.' She jumped right on it."
With his big sister signed on and providing financial security, Hartzog could devote all his time to boxing. And when Anna Beth Goodman decided to venture into the New Orleans market, he was ready.
Well, sort of. Preparing for last December's fight, he tensed up. "I was freaking out," he admits. Goodman agreed to his request to board him in the Canal Street Sheraton, where the fight would take place, for a week leading up the fight. "I didn't want to be around anybody," Hartzog says. "They made me nervous."
Now a hometown hero, Hartzog fights as the Bogalusa Boogieman, a name derived from both the title of his favorite Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown tune and a doll, nicknamed the boogieman, that his older brother used to torment him as a child. He goes into some detail about those childhood taunts, as if they had occurred just yesterday. But now, he's happy with the little-brother treatment.
"I'm so proud of my sister; she's doing great. I was really scared for her when she first started -- I know boxing can be a cruel business. But she's tough, she knows how to handle her business. My plan is to one day fill the Municipal Auditorium, to pack the stands.
"As far as Kingfish, our facilities, we have the best gym around. A lot of space, it's clean and it's gaining soul. We'll start having some champions in there. That's how you gain soul in a boxing gym."
Kingfish Boxing Club is inconspicuously nestled in a long row of office spaces and warehouses, roughly a half-mile deep into Jefferson Parish on Jefferson Highway. Inside are two rings and punching bags. A Gatorade machine, fight posters, merchandise like Kingfish T-shirts and hats, and a wall of mirrors are the only adornments. There's no air-conditioning. One recent morning, Hartzog is furiously crunching out sit-ups on a mat, drenched with sweat. His trainer, Mike Roberts, is impressed with Hartzog's workout and sparring session, saying he's "on fire."
The Kingfish group moves to a collection of folding chairs next to one of the rings. Hartzog jokes about a midget wrestling event at Bally's Casino, and Brody counters with a stream of anecdotes and potential money-making ideas. The idea of using kangaroos in the ring is discussed in jest. They talk about staging events with casinos, which Brody describes as "bottomless pits of money."
Elmo Adolph is here to pick up his check for last night's work at the Municipal Auditorium. Famous for having officiated in fights with everybody from Roberto Duran to Mike Tyson, he is most recently remembered for the controversial finish to this summer's title bout at the New Orleans Arena between local fighter Clifford Etienne and Francois Botha. (The match ended in a draw.) Adolph animatedly spins yarns about local boxing history, including a raucous dinner with Rocky Marciano. The conversation and laughter eventually die down, with the only sound remaining being the synchronized pounding of the punching bag.
"This is a fighter's gym," Goodman says. "I don't want to advertise this place as a health club. I don't make any money on the club; I lose money on it. But that's fine, because eventually, I'll get it back.
"When we first starting talking about this as a business, sitting down and talking with Peter (Brody), I thought, 'I like this, I like what you guys do,'" says the 33-year-old Goodman who, before Kingfish, had worked primarily as a real estate developer and owner of the children's retail store Pippen Lane. "It's all really interesting -- the negotiations, the deals. It's all about taking risks, which I thrive on; it's fun for me."
Being the wife of actor John Goodman might seem to be an advantage, but it also presents its own share of problems. "If anything, it works against me. I've heard, 'She doesn't really know what she's doing, it's John Goodman's money and they're just throwing it around.' That's certainly not the case. I specifically try to keep my husband out of this. John's very supportive and he's there for me, but this is my thing."
Kingfish's debut at the Sheraton was dominated by a VIP section boasting tuxedo-clad waiters, lavish buffet and $150 tickets. Goodman has learned her lesson. "It's hard to make any money doing a show like that. If you do something like that once a month, it's a pretty big hit on somebody's wallet, so you can't expect to sell many seats at $150 a pop. At least not here. In L.A., it would be no problem." Tickets for this week's show start at $10.50.
With sponsorship and television deals -- "where the real money is," Goodman says -- looming on the horizon, Kingfish appears to be finally ready to produce returns on her investment. Goodman has met with the national Fox Sports Net, and she says the national network channel has expressed "extraordinary interest" in showing Kingfish's fights. Crucial to securing a television deal is corporate sponsorship, so Budweiser's first-time sponsoring of the August Kingfish fights was a good sign.
"The reason why it's been tough getting sponsors around here is because there's never been anything consistent here, not lately at least," Goodman says. "It's taken me a year to prove to everybody that I'm here and I'm going to do a show once a month. I'm not going anywhere; it's not a fluke. Unfortunately, it's cost a lot of money -- a big investment -- in order to prove that I'm going to stick around. But now, it's starting to come around."
Some of that expense results from Goodman's ultimate goal -- helping the fighters succeed. "To be honest, I never even dreamed of being a promoter when I first got into it," Goodman says. "I was really looking at myself more as a manager for Preston. It snowballed from there. And then I thought, let's bring this to New Orleans. There's no reason it can't be big again."
- 'I've totally entered a boys' club,' says Anna Beth Goodman. 'I had to walk in and state my case and let them know, "This is what I'm all about. I'm not a pushover. This is business."'
- Preston 'Bogalusa Boogieman' Hartzog started his fighting days as an 11-year-old, when he first saw boxers working out in the local YMCA. 'They looked like Greek gods to me,' he says.
- With a title fight coming in October, Eleazar Contreras works out at Kingfish with trainer Esteban Garcia, who has produced 16 world champions over his career.
- Eleazar Contreras
- The sparse decor at Kingfish includes photos of boxers and posters of past events. 'We'll start having some champions in there,' says Preston Hartzog. 'That's how you gain soul in a boxing gym.'
- 'I'm so proud of my sister,' says Preston Hartzog. 'She's tough, she knows how to handle her business. My plan is to one day fill the Municipal Auditorium.'