by David P. Greisman
You can – and should – go home again. And again. And again.
Fernando Guerrero will go home for the fourth time Saturday, and for good reason: He is a big draw in a small city, selling thousands and thousands of tickets in an area of Maryland known more for industrial chicken farms than for boxing.
Salisbury is two-and-a-half hours from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., a drive across the Chesapeake Bay and into the Eastern Shore. Once the bridge ends and land begins, the cities, dense suburbs and six-lane interstate highways are left behind. It is just trees, agriculture and bucolic living for most of the rest of U.S. Route 50 on the way to Salisbury, situated no more than 45 minutes from Ocean City and the waves of the Atlantic.
The four surrounding Maryland counties contain less than 4 percent of the state’s population. Salisbury is home to about 24,000 people.
Guerrero, a 22-year-old middleweight and super-middleweight prospect, with just 15 fights to his name, averages more than 5,000 fans per show.
Contrast that with Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver, two top light heavyweights who faced each other twice in the hedonistic oasis of Las Vegas. Their first bout had paid attendance of 911. Their rematch had about 2,100 people, but only 1,426 tickets were sold. Another 1,309 tickets went unsold. The live gate was a paltry $170,820.
No wonder Dawson’s next bout will be in Hartford, Conn. Dawson, once a New England staple as a young prospect, has fought in his home state in just one of his nine bouts since 2006.
Less than one year into his pro career, Guerrero sold out the Wicomico Civic Center, packing in so many vocal supporters that “ShoBox: The New Generation” commentator Steve Farhood described himself on-air as “blown away.” Guerrero was the televised co-feature that night. The crowd treated it as the headline attraction, going quiet for the main event.
That was October 2008. Guerrero’s gone back to the Wicomico Civic Center twice more since then.
“In three fights we’ve drawn over 15,000 fans and had a combined live gate of over half-a-million dollars,” says Russ Young, co-owner of Prize Fight Boxing, which promoters Guerrero. “Obviously, it’s been successful for us.”
Obviously. And so Guerrero, a fighter who is now 15-0 with 13 knockouts, returns this week to Salisbury for a bout against Ossie Duran, this time at the Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, normally home to minor league baseball. Billboards along local roads advertise the bout. Not that they’re needed.
“The fans love him, and he has truly reached out to the community,” says Gary “Digital” Williams, the FightNews.com correspondent and longtime expert on boxing in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. “It’s very similar to what has gone on with [former ‘Contender’ contestant] Jimmy Lange in Northern Virginia. There are many people that come to see Jimmy’s fights because it’s Jimmy, not because they are boxing fans. I think the same thing has happened and will continue to happen with Fernando in Salisbury.”
Lange draws between 3,000 and 5,000 to his fights, Williams says. Up in Westminster, Md., about 45 minutes northwest of Baltimore, light heavyweight Mark Tucker pulled in around 3,000 at his last card.
The bouts between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver failed to draw crowds because the promotions followed an old pattern that no longer works. The biggest fights had long been in casinos, especially in Las Vegas, that paid to have boxing in their arenas. With money in hand, promoters no longer actually had to promote.
But Vegas fights became less accessible to regular boxing fans. And the high-rollers seem to care more for the event than for the sport, arriving in their seats solely for the main event.
And in this economy, even the biggest fights, like the September bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Juan Manuel Marquez, don’t sell out. The Dawson-Tarver matches never had a chance.
Meanwhile, a working model has been in place in areas as different as Southern California; Houston, Texas; Youngstown, Ohio; and Buffalo, N.Y. Local champions – see Shane Mosley against Antonio Margarito, Juan Diaz and Rocky Juarez co-headlining a pair of cards, Kelly Pavlik defending against Marco Antonio Rubio – draw local crowds. And even when a fighter may not yet be as accomplished, people will show up to see the local kid who’s done well.
That was the case with Joe Mesi in Upstate New York. That is the case with Fernando Guerrero.
There wasn’t much, locally, before him. Three small cards in Ocean City since the turn of the century, a card in Salisbury in 1996, a card in Ocean City in 1983. Boxing was much, much more common when it was one of the country’s major sports; there were 17 cards in Salisbury and four in Ocean City in 1930.
And yet when Guerrero looked out into the stands of the Wicomico Civic Center last year before facing Tyrone Watson, the place was full.
“It was like loyalty,” he says. “I knew that everybody was going to be there.”
And the reason why is because Guerrero, who was born in the Dominican Republic but has lived in Salisbury since he was a kid, isn’t just a local product. He’s a member of the community.
“I’ve been to so many events with him,” says Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton. “I always know that Fernando’s there when there’s a crowd of kids around me, and they immediately vanish.”
“What people need to understand is that Fernando’s exploits in the ring did not cause this to happen,” says local fight scribe Tom Luffman of 15rounds.com. “He has visited many if not every high school, middle school and elementary school in the area. He not only lends his name to charity causes and events in the area, but shows up personally to mingle with the fans.
“You can’t build a fan base like Fernando Guerrero has if you aren’t willing and able to be friends, or at least friendly, with your fans,” Luffman says. “And it has to be real. You can’t ‘do’ charitable events and fan events as a cheap way to garner attention. You do it because you actually care, and people will see that and respond.”
Guerrero calls those in area communities “My people.” His manager, co-trainer and father figure, Hal Chernoff, describes Guerrero from the perspective of everyone else:
“He’s not just a kid from this area,” Chernoff says. “He went to school with your daughter, was taught by your brother. He’s the guy who worked for your buddy. We don’t have a lot going on over here. They’re a very proud area. It’s big enough to be big, and small enough to be small. Everybody knows everybody.”
That didn’t mean that success was guaranteed.
“It certainly was a gamble,” Young says. “Hal had come to me and said, ‘We need to consider doing a fight in Salisbury. It’ll really work.’ The Wicomico Civic Center said, ‘You’ll probably sell 1,500.’ Running the numbers on it, we were going to lose a considerable amount of money if we got 1,500.”
Says Guerrero: “All my friends said they were going to be there. I thought that we were going to have 2,000 or 3,000, but not as much as we did. It was like a concert. The whole world just stopped, and all eyes were on me.”
It wasn’t always that way. When Guerrero was an amateur, he didn’t have the sizable following, Chernoff says.
“When he won the U.S. nationals, there was a lot of people who still don’t understand boxing enough to understand what he did,” Chernoff says.
And then, last year, “The community made a bigger deal of him fighting a pro fight against [Tyrone Watson] than they did when he fought the five best fighters in the country five days in a row and won the U.S. nationals,” Chernoff says. “In their minds, that was big: ‘Wow, we’ve got somebody from Salisbury who’s a pro and who’s winning.’ ”
Like the rest of Prize Fight’s prospects, Guerrero has largely cut his teeth at Fitzgerald’s Casino and Hotel in Tunica, Miss., where he has fought eight times. It seats about 1,000, says Young.
Taking Guerrero’s fights home, then, is both profitable and logical.
“When the ticket sales are there, it allows us to keep coming back,” Young says. “His last fight there wasn’t even a TV fight. They’re not just coming because it’s on ESPN or Showtime. They’re coming because they’re loyal fans of Fernando Guerrero. He’s a brawler. He brings the crowd to their feet.
“Sometimes you have local kids who can sell 2,000, 3,000. Maybe they don’t go very far. But with Fernando and his amateur background and the style of fighter he is, if he keeps winning, he could go a long ways,” Young says.
Including outside of Salisbury – though not completely.
As prospects become contenders, they fight less often and on bigger shows. Guerrero fought 11 times in 2008, once in Maryland. This will be his fourth fight in 2009, his third of the year in Salisbury.
Young wants Guerrero to return home once or twice a year. In the meantime, he says, Atlantic City casinos have been sending representatives to Guerrero’s fights.
“I hope he gets an opportunity to fight in Vegas and Atlantic City,” Chernoff says. “Those are all things he deserves. But to forget about the people who helped you get where you’re going? No way. We’ll never do that. Too many boxers sign contracts and are gone and never come back.”
Says Guerrero: “I’m going to fight regularly in other places, but I do want to keep this going. As long as the people in Salisbury are happy, why not? This is my hometown. This is what I want to do.”
The 10 Count
1. Side Note: A pair of interesting fight scenes outside of the United States – Montreal and Germany. What do they have in common? Cards promoted around non-native fighters who have found themselves a new home.
Montreal: Lucian Bute (Romania), Jean Pascal (Haiti), Adrian Diaconu (Romania), and Herman Ngoudjo (Cameroon), just to name a few, all of whom have fought an overwhelming majority of their bouts in Canada.
Germany: Arthur Abraham (Armenia), Zsolt Erdei (Hungary), Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko (Ukraine), and Nicolay Valuev (Russia), again, just to name a few.
2. Vitali Klitschko’s dominant win over Chris Arreola was HBO’s highest-rated boxing broadcast of the year, according to a press release.
John Chavez of TheBoxingTruth.com has the numbers: 2.124 million viewers, the most since Oscar De La Hoya’s showcase bout in May 2008 against Steve Forbes.
This news is a reminder that casual viewers consider heavyweights to be the standard bearers of the sport, even when the best fighters are in the lower weight classes.
Case in point: The July 2006 bout between Sultan Ibragimov and Ray Austin was one of the most-viewed boxing broadcasts ever on the ESPN family of networks.
3. Too bad the Ibragimov-Austin draw only led to the Wladimir Klitschko-Austin mismatch and the Wladimir Klitschko-Ibragimov snooze fest.
4. Boxing Trainers Behaving Badly update: A bench warrant has been issued for Roger Mayweather, uncle and chief second to Floyd Mayweather Jr., who did not show up for an arraignment last week in a Las Vegas court, according to the Associated Press.
Mayweather was due in court for an alleged assault in August of a female boxer he had previously trained. A judge called his name and nobody answered – there was no lawyer there for him either.
Mayweather, 48, a former 130-pound champion and 140-pound titlist, is facing one felony count each of coercion and battery. Police say Mayweather entered a Las Vegas condominium he owns and ordered Melissa St. Vil, a 26-year-old with a 1-1-1 pro record, to get out immediately, according to The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press.
St. Vil lived there with another boxer, Cornelius Lock, a 30-year-old man who is 19-4-1 as a pro. St. Vil refused to leave, and the disagreement between St. Vil and Mayweather apparently then got physical. Police officers said they saw Mayweather choking St. Vil when they arrived at the scene. She was taken to a local hospital, treated and released. Mayweather, who had a lamp broken over his head and had injuries to his head and face, was arrested.
Lock told police that the incident grew out of St. Vil no longer having Mayweather as her trainer and Mayweather not liking that St. Vil still lived in property he owned.
Mayweather spent six months in jail from 2006 to 2007, convicted on battery charges after an incident in which he punched the maternal grandmother of his infant son.
5. Sometimes someone else says it best before I can:
“Must run in the family,” one person wrote on the BoxingScene message boards. “When some responsibility pops up, don’t show up and don’t pay – it’ll go away.”
6. Boxers Behaving Badly, part one: A Venezuelan newspaper says undefeated lightweight titlist Edwin Valero was arrested on domestic violence charges, accused of hitting his mother and sister. Valero says he wasn’t arrested. Valero’s mother says nobody was hit. All of this according to the Associated Press.
What’s the truth? Wish I knew.
This kind of thing happens. Recently, a man called my newspaper to dispute a report that he had been arrested on marijuana charges. A reporter called a local police department and got the truth: Yes, the man had been arrested on marijuana charges.
But Venezuelan police neither confirmed or denied anything, “arguing they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media,” the Associated Press reported.
Valero, 27, held a world title at junior lightweight before jumping up a division. He last fought in April, stopping Antonio Pitalua to capture a lightweight belt. That win improved the powerful phenom’s record to 25 wins, no losses and 25 knockouts.
7. Boxers Behaving Badly, part two: Retired welterweight Eamonn Magee has been charged with assaulting a woman last month in a house in Belfast, Northern Ireland, according to Press Association Ireland.
The alleged incident took place Sept. 22. Magee is due in court later this month, though the report did not say when and did not provide further detail about the alleged assault.
Magee, 38, fought in the 140- and 147-pound divisions, holding national pro titles and being the first person to knock Ricky Hatton down. Magee lost to Hatton and to five other fighters. After a May 2007 loss to Kevin Anderson, Magee left the sport with a record of 27-6 (18 knockouts).
8. Boxers Behaving Badly update: Scottish prospect Gary McArthur has been found not guilty of two charges relating to an incident stemming from a prior relationship – two other charges remain over his head, however, according to The Scotsman.
The two charges dropped were for breaches of the peace, allegations of sending a threatening text message to his former girlfriend and of shouting outside of her home.
In January, the 27-year-old was arrested and charged with vandalism and weapon possession after allegedly taking a baseball bat to the luxury car of the former girlfriend’s new soccer player beau. He is accused of striking a BMW X6 worth £42,000.
McArthur turned pro at the beginning of 2006, fighting at lightweight and junior welterweight. He apparently has more power in a baseball bat than in his fists – of his 13 victories, only one has come by knockout. He is 13-1, and his last appearance was in June, a six-round decision over some dude named Arek Malek with a record of 5-19-2.
9. In SAT format, SecondsOut.com writer Thomas Hauser : HBO :: New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick : ESPN.
10. One more: Jason Campbell : football :: Jermain Taylor : boxing.
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. He may be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]