The Glory Years of the Olympic Auditorium 1925-2005
In Southern California, one of the hottest spots of professional boxing in the world, the historic boxing palace Olympic Auditorium shut its doors to the sport of pugilism this past decade.
The loss of the famous boxing arena was not the only loss for the opening decade of the 21st century. Several marquee fighters passed away in the last 10 years.
Located on Grand Avenue and 18th Street, alongside the Santa Monica Freeway, the Olympic Auditorium had provided one of the most vibrant scenes for boxing. All time greats like Bert Colima, Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Manuel Ortiz, Baby Arizmendi, Art “The Golden Boy” Aragon, Enrique Bolanos, Jimmy Carter and many more fought among sold out crowds.
The square-shaped building was erected in the 1920s and at one time could seat 10,000 fans in its confine. Almost every seat was a good seat. The person seated in the last round was practically right on top of the arena with its vertical set up. Of course there were negatives because of the seating arrangements.
“People threw beer and piss from those balcony seats,” said George Rodriguez, 75, a frequent visitor to many of the fights from the 1950s until the arena closed its doors in 2005. “You never knew what they would throw.”
From the inauspicious beginnings in 1925 when heavyweight world champion Jack Dempsey shoveled some dirt in front of cameras for the ground breaking ceremony until an even more sedate ending when Vernie Torres fought Sal Casillas in the final bout held at the Olympic Auditorium on June 10, 2005, it’s the thousands of moments in between that are burned in the memories of those who entered the brown colored fight arena.
The Roaring 20s served as the back drop for the Olympic Auditorium when silent movies stars like Rudolf Valentino dropped by. During the age of talkies Al Jolson became a frequent guest that evolved into management of several boxers. Los Angeles at the time was still primarily a sleepy town with little else to do but offer underground speakeasies, movie palaces, minor league baseball, and of course a lot of boxing during the Prohibition era.
Fighters would come and go but the thousands of fans continued to populate the seats until the very end. It was the one entertainment venue that tied the poor with the rich in each and every event.
“My dad would drop me off in line to buy tickets,” said Amado Avila, who was eight years old when he first watched a fight card in the Olympic Auditorium and would later fight in the same venue as an adult. “I would have to wait for hours. The lines were real long. Sometimes older men would try to butt in but I wouldn’t let them.”
It was the ticket everybody wanted and the best place to be seen.
Bennie Georgino, a promoter and manager, grew up in nearby Lincoln Heights and remembers vividly the fight scene that blossomed around the famous venue.
“It wasn’t the only place that had boxing,” said Georgino who also fought there as an amateur. “But it was an event. People wanted to be there, to be part of it. They fought over season tickets.”
“In those days if you had a season ticket on the bottom it was like gold. People didn’t want to give those up. There was nothing else like it.”
Mexican-American fighters made up a large percentage of the fight cards but Irish, Italian, Jewish and African-American pugilists also poured their sweat and blood in the boxing ring.
One of the first popular Mexican fighters to fight in main events inside the Olympic Auditorium was Colima, who grew up in nearby Whittier and developed a following that started in 1919.
“My father always spoke fondly of those days,” says Bert Colima Jr. who recently wrote and published a book on his father called Gentleman of the Ring: The Bert Colima Story. “He used to take me around and introduce me to the old fighters.”
Colima fought a number of great fighters in his day from welterweight to light heavyweight. The speedy boxer with clever footwork fought and beat Tiger Thomas in the main event in 1927 at the L.A. arena.
The fighter known as the “Whittier Flash,” was one of the early Mexican draws in the West Coast. Other’s had come before like Mexican Joe Rivers and Solly (Garcia) Smith, but Colima became a real magnet for Mexican fight fans.
Of course that’s not to discount the fans of other ethnicities.
In the beginning the Filipino boxers were very prevalent and their fans arrived in droves.
“Speedy Dado was a very popular fighter in the Depression,” says Leonard Castillon, 95, who attended many fight cards throughout the decades. “He was a real fancy dresser. All of the Filipinos were fancy dressers.”
Dado fought 152 pro bouts with many taking place in the Olympic Auditorium where he attracted large crowds including many Filipino boxing fans. From 1925 to 1940 the bantamweight prizefighter fought some of the very best. His first appearance in L.A. was against Louie Contreras in a victory, then he fought Newsboy Brown and suffered his first loss. He became a popular fighter that included battles against Midget Wolgast, Canto Robleto, and Freddie Miller who he fought for the featherweight world championship.
“He was an action fighter,” said the late Luis Magana, who served as a publicist for the Olympic Auditorium from the 1930s until the 1980s. “His fights with Canto Robleto were very good.”
Magana, who passed away in 2008, said in an interview in 1999, that unknown to many people Robleto was legally blind after two detached retinas near the end of his short career that spanned 31 fights.
“He would tell them (his corner) to point him in the right direction,” said Magana, whose father was one of the first publicists for the Olympic Auditorium. “Robleto fought Speedy Dado six times.”
Baby Arizmendi, a diminutive boxer with a thick neck and muscular physique of Mexican nationality, became another huge favorite of fight fans. The bull neck boxer is best known for his wars with the one boxer who is considered one of the greatest prizefighters of all time Henry Armstrong.
Armstrong and Arizmendi fought each other a total of five rollicking times with the last taking place on Jan. 10, 1940 for the welterweight world championship. Their first encounter took place 1934 in Mexico City where Arizmendi won by decision. The rematch also took place in Mexico City but this time 1935 they fought for the featherweight world title and again Arizmendi pulled out a win over “Homicide Hank.”
In 1936 Armstrong took the featherweight title with a 10-round victory at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Two years later Armstrong accepted Arizmendi’s challenge and both met at the Olympic Auditorium in 1938. Armstrong won again and in their final encounter too at the historic Olympic. Armstrong’s last appearance at the famed venue took place in Feb. 26, 1945, he won by decision against a boxer named Genaro Rojo. Armstrong would fight one more time in Oakland and finally retire. Later, he would return to Los Angeles to live. He was killed during a break-in at his home in Oct. 1988.
Heavyweights also fought in the Olympic. Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis was too big a draw for the Olympic and fought in nearby Wrigley Field, but others like Ken Norton, Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry worked their stuff at the L.A. boxing palace. Norton lost to Venezuela’s Jose Luis Garcia at the Olympic in 1970. Frazier, though he did not lose, blew by three consecutive opponents in the Olympic then discovered roly-poly looking fighter George “Scrap Iron” Johnson was a whole different matter.
“Joe Frazier always moved forward and just annihilated everyone in front of him,” said Bill O’Neil, a former boxing writer from the Whittier area. “When he fought old Scrap Iron that was the first and last time I ever saw Frazier on his toes. He found out Scrap Iron was a little too tough. It was an amazing thing to watch.”
One heavyweight who was reared at the Olympic was Bellflower’s Irish Jerry Quarry who fought five of his first half dozen bouts there. He quickly became a popular fighter with his familiar bob and weave and rib breaking punches. At first he was seen as a mere gate attraction but in 1966 was matched against fast-rising Mexican-American heavyweight Joey Orbillo to see who would survive the battle. It was Quarry.
After beating Orbillo by decision the popular Quarry was bumped into the elite category of the heavyweight division and quickly proved he was no fluke in beating England’s Brian London, former champion Floyd Patterson and Thad Spencer. The heavyweight division was in a golden age and Quarry was right in the middle. He just couldn’t get past Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton or Joe Frazier. The highest Quarry ever weighed was 209 and that was rare. He mostly fought on the 200 pound level and was often out-weighed by most he encountered in the ring. Quarry fought 18 times in the Olympic.
Pt. two coming up: Two Golden Boys