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Smoke, Guns, Magic: Mr. ‘War-a-Week’ Back in Sactown

By Ryan Maquiñana, photo by Erik Killin

The man chiefly responsible for Sacramento’s rise as a boxing hotbed 50 years ago has returned in hopes of sparking its renaissance.

“So many memories here,” Don Chargin said.  “I’ve been getting calls from old friends asking to buy rows of seats.  I’m really excited to be back.”

When news spread that the Hall of Famer would co-promote a 10-bout show at the Memorial Auditorium downtown—his first at the venue in a decade—a feeling of nostalgia permeated the air as the voices of yesteryear recalled the glory days.

“I remember it being so dark except for the lights on the ring, like a spotlight,” said former three-time world champion Tony Lopez.  “Back then you could smoke cigarettes indoors, too.  You can see it surrounding the ring like a big smoke bomb.”

With massive columns propping up an edifice resembling a courthouse more than a hallowed fistic theater, the Memorial was a place where a fighter’s legitimacy would ultimately be determined by an unforgiving jury of knowledgeable—and often belligerent—spectators.

“It was wild.  Growing up, my dad fought here in the ring, but some of the best fights happened in the stands,” said former junior lightweight state champion Richard Savala Jr., who appeared in 11 main events at the landmark on 15th and J.  “My biggest memory is probably when I lost the state title to Refugio Rojas and some female fans who were supporting me jumped in the ring and tried to beat him up.”

Working in tandem with his wife Lorraine, Chargin would eventually punch his ticket to Canastota by promoting a “war-a-week” up and down California, mixing and matching club scraps, building local draws into title contenders, and of course, the occasional blockbuster if the public demanded it.

Starting in the 50s with local star Joey Lopes, a virtual who’s who of Sacramento boxing fought at the Memorial.  Lopez, Savala, Loreto Garza, Sal Lopez (Tony’s brother), Pete Ranzany, Bobby Chacon, Joe Guevara, Ron Cummings, Tino Huggins, and even the late Diego Corrales put their skills on display.

“What a scene it was,” Chargin said.  “I’ve had fights that the fans loved so much they would throw hundreds of dollars into the ring.  It was all because of the philosophy of Aileen Eaton, who I worked for at the [L.A.] Olympic Auditorium.  She told me, ‘Your boss is the fans.’  I never forgot that.”

During one harrowing instance in 1969, the former amateur boxer at Bellarmine High School in San Jose was forced to take matters into his own hands to ensure the customers got what they paid for.

“I put together a fight between this local heavyweight, Bill McMurray, who was George Foreman's sparring partner, and Pat Stapleton, a former Irish champion who lived in Boston and Brockton, Massachusetts, Rocky Marciano’s hometown,” Chargin said.  “Well, Stapleton had a personality that just wouldn’t quit.”

Stapleton charmed his way onto the front page of the Sacramento Bee after taking a picture with then-governor Ronald Reagan and was even named grand marshal of the city’s St. Patrick Day’s Parade.  Suddenly, what was initially a middling heavyweight clash turned into the hottest ticket on the street as the people fell in love with “Irish” Pat.

But according to Chargin, come fight night, Stapleton refused to come out of the dressing room for the main event.

“There he was, sitting on the rubbing table, and as soon as he saw me, he didn’t say a word,” Chargin said.  “He just started shaking his head four or five times, then he says, ‘I’m not fighting.’  And I said, ‘What are you talking about?  We got a big crowd out there.’ ”

Stapleton’s reply?  “He said, ‘I don’t care.  I’m not fighting,’ ” recalled Chargin, who subsequently went to drastic measures to keep the bout from falling through.

“I went crazy, and believe me, I have never fired a gun in my life,” he said.  “I don’t think I would know how to fire one.  One of our policemen was there, who stood outside the dressing room, and you know how you do things in a fit?  I grabbed his gun and I put it right in Pat Stapleton’s ear.  And I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”

Reading between the lines, “it” was certainly an occurrence that could land Chargin behind bars for the rest of his life.

“My old partner, Sid Tenner, was there,” Chargin said.  “And Sid said, ‘Pat, he’s crazy.  I’d get in the ring if I were you.’  So just like the movies, I covered the gun up with a towel and we walked Pat into the ring.  He just was rigid.  He was so scared.”

Such was professional prizefighting way back when.

“I think he lasted like 50-something seconds,” Chargin said of Stapleton.  “It was a one-round knockout.  It was a terrible performance from him, but at least we had the fight.”

Although the colorful cast of figures was mainly responsible for its popularity, the structure of the Memorial Auditorium’s interior would also play a part in its success.

“Even in the ring, you look around and everybody seems so close.  It’s like you can reach out and touch the second balcony. Your friends, you can wave to them because you see everybody,” said Lopez, who defended his 130-pound title belt against Jorge Paez in front of 15,008 people at the much bigger Arco Arena in 1990.

Located seven miles south of the NBA venue, the Memorial holds less than a third of that amount, but to “The Tiger,” there’s no contest.

“Arco [Arena] can’t compare to it.  I don’t care how many people you get in Arco,” Lopez said.  You still can’t get that same, ‘Oomph’ that you would here.”

Savala, who now works with his childhood friend Lopez in the bail bonds business, shared his sentiment.

“It’s so compact, and people get to bump shoulders and engage and interact with all the pro fighters,” Savala said.  “You would always run into some famous guy in the past, and I know it’s going to be like that on Saturday again.”

Chargin’s last show at the Memorial produced ESPN’s 2002 Fight of the Year, a 12-round bomb-laden battle where Oscar Larios stopped Israel Vazquez in the final frame.  However, it remains a forgotten classic due to what transpired 24 hours later.

“Everyone was saying it was a shoo-in for Fight of the Year.  Too bad the next day, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward fought on HBO,” said Chargin of an epic encounter that would be labeled by ringside commentator Emanuel Steward as “The Fight of the Century.”

Today’s event will be televised on Fox Sports Net and has unbeaten Japanese welterweight sensation Yoshihiro Kamegai (21-0, 18 KOs) facing Mexican prospect Jorge Silva (18-2-1, 14 KOs).  In the co-feature, former world champion Jorge Linares (31-3, 20 KOs) meets Hector Velazquez (52-17-3, 35 KOs), who incidentally is one of only two people to fight both Manny Pacquiao and his brother Bobby.

“It’s just a privilege—an honor to be able to do a show with Don here,” said Rafael “Paco” Damian, who will co-promote the bout with Chargin, Golden Boy, and Jorge Marron.  “When we decided [on] the prices, he told me to start it at 20 dollars.  I thought it was a joke.”

Turns out Chargin’s longtime associate wasn’t supposed to laugh.

“I eventually understood what he wanted,” Damian said.  “He wanted to give all the old fans another opportunity to come back, but so that all the people here in Sacramento who have never seen a fight at the Memorial Auditorium would not have an excuse to watch a great night of boxing.”

In addition to Golden Boy prospects Hugo Centeno (15-0, 8 KOs) and Chris Pearson (5-0, 4 KOs) making respective cameos on the undercard, Chargin and Damian have stuck to their roots by stacking the show with local pugilists from Northern California.

The hometown duo of featherweight Guy Robb (9-1, 4 KOs) and junior featherweight John Abella (2-0, 1 KO) will appear at different points of the night, as well as San Francisco junior welterweight Jonathan Chicas (7-0, 3 KOs).

“They’re in there where they’re going to fight,” Chargin said.  “Guy Robb is in with a kid, Adolfo Landeros (22-27-2, 10 KOs); he’s got a lot of losses, but he’s got a lot of wins, and he just makes great fights.  I look for that to really be a barnburner.”

The bill also contains the pro debuts of San Jose lightweight Andy Vences, the 2011 National PAL bronze medalist, and Salinas welterweight Preston Freeman, an accomplished amateur standout who originally hails from St. Louis.  Is the sweet science on the verge of a revival in Sacramento?

“I think the people are going to be really happy to see some of these local kids,” Chargin said.  “I’m glad that we started back with the Auditorium because what a venue, what a place to develop them.”

Perhaps the fight faithful will even get a glimpse of that old magic tonight.

*   *   *

TICKET INFORMATION:

Prices are $35, $45, and $60 for ringside ($20 tickets are sold out). Purchase at the Sacramento Convention Center Box Office on 1301 L St., at Paco's Restaurant in Woodland by calling (530) 669-7946, or online at either Pacopresentsboxing.com or Tickets.com.  First fight starts at 4 p.m.

CSN Bay Area Boxing Insider Ryan Maquiñana is a voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and panelist for Ring Magazine’s Ratings Board.  E-mail him at [email protected] , check out his blog at Norcalboxing.net, or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.

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