Paramount Ballroom, 2708 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., via Google Street View.
Note: Here’s a post from my Times colleague Carlos Valdez Lozano about an adventure he had with the late George Ramos and former Times reporter Robert J. Lopez. Here’s a piece he wrote in 2011 on Norm’s.
I pulled up to the Paramount Ballroom around 5:30 p.m. and already the line snaked around the building and down the block. We had bought our $40 tickets in advance but now I was beginning to wonder if we were going to get in at all. From the looks of the line — hundreds deep, it was clear that they had oversold the place.
Not to mention, there were 10 police cars parked out front alongside two ladder trucks. The fire marshal couldn’t be far behind.
George and Robert were already in line when I got there but they were far from the front. They were hardcore boxing fans just like everyone else standing on the sidewalk that evening along Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights.
A program from the Oscar De La Hoya-Julio Cesar Chavez fight, listed on EBay for $14.99.
“Orale!” George said as I walked up. “The big night is finally here. Are you ready to see your Golden Boy get his ass kicked?”
George was always on but he was particularly charged up on this night. And he had good reason to be.
Tonight’s main event was billed as the biggest Latino fight of all time: East L.A.’s Oscar De La Hoya vs. Mexico’s Julio Cesar Chavez, which was being screened at the Paramount via closed-circuit from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. But for my money, there was no better place to see this fight than in Los Angeles.
There was a title and a lot of money at stake, of course. But even more than that there was a lot of honor and pride on the line.
De La Hoya was the homeboy, born and raised in East L.A. At 22, he was the antithesis of your typical pugilist. You know the type: crooked nose, puffy eyes and cauliflower ears.
No, De La Hoya oozed charisma. Here was a guy with leading man looks who years later would sing and record a CD of silly love songs while he was still pulverizing guys in the ring. Wherever De La Hoya went, the women went.
Once I was out at a parking lot sale at the old Tower Records on Sunset. The store was closed for a special event. I had no idea what was going on but there were dozens of women standing by the curb craning their necks as they tried to peer around the corner.
A few minutes later a white stretch limo pulled up and De La Hoya stepped out to Beatle-like screams. He was there to sign copies of his new Grammy-nominated record titled — what else? — Oscar De La Hoya.
This was a fighter from the barrio of East L.A.? Someone who made his living with his fists?
Not hardly. Not to a lot of Latino male fight fans, anyway. Especially those whose girlfriends and wives were in love with the guy.
Sure, De La Hoya had won the gold medal in Barcelona in 1992 along with the hearts of millions around the world because in doing so he had fulfilled the dreams of his biggest fan, his beloved mother, Celia, who died two years earlier from cancer. But the ‘Golden Boy’ – the nickname given to him by sportswriters – was no hometown hero.
He had been cast as the bad guy in what was up to this point the biggest fight of his career. He was mocked as a pretty boy and a “pocho” — not a real Mexican. He was even attacked as a traitor when he moved from East L.A. to neighboring Montebello.
“The dude sold out — cabron!” said George, who grew up in the same area. “He left the ‘hood.”
“He’s making $9 million tonight,” I countered, “and you want him to live in the ghetto?”
Even though he grew up in a working-class neighborhood, De La Hoya was considered a privileged kid to many Latino fight fans. He was chided for not showing enough respect toward the champion whom he once idolized. Never mind that he had 21 professional fights of his own, with 19 knockouts. De La Hoya’s real crime seemed to be that he was Mexican-American.
The 33-year-old Chavez, on the other hand, was beloved for his toughness and his “real” Mexican roots. A devastating body puncher, he boasted a record of 97-1-1, with 79 knockouts. He had as much style as a tank, whose only strategy was to keep moving forward. For many Latino fight fans, Chavez epitomized Mexican manliness.
He didn’t just walk and talk machismo. He was machismo.
“If De La Hoya thinks I’m going to go in like a little dog and follow him around, he is wrong,” Chavez said before the fight. “I am the champion. He has to come to me.”
Chavez, though 10 years older than the challenger, insisted he was in the best shape of his life.
“That’s good,” De La Hoya said. “I don’t want there to be any excuses.”
This was the mood on that simmering summer night as both men prepared to do battle in 100-degree heat in the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace.
Meanwhile, things were getting more tense outside the Paramount Ballroom. Police and news helicopters hovered overhead, keeping a close eye on the increasingly anxious crowd gathered below.
Several streets around the ballroom were closed to traffic as officers in riot gear suddenly appeared.
The bout was scheduled for 8 p.m., but by 7: p.m. it was clear that there were more people standing outside the building than there was room inside. And we were nowhere near the front.
“This is not looking good,” George said.
“Where else can we go to see the fight?” Robert said, ready to bolt. The other closest spot was East L.A. College, about a 15-minute drive.
We were considering our options when suddenly there was a big commotion in front. They had locked the doors to the ballroom and the crowd surged forward, with people fighting to keep their place in line.
Dozens of helmeted officers, wielding batons, responded and for a moment it seemed like all hell was going to break loose.
A short time later, Los Angeles Fire Inspector Robert Gladden emerged from the ballroom and announced that the place was filled to its legal capacity and no one else would be allowed in. The ballroom held about 900 and there were at least 300 disgruntled fans left stranded outside.
George and Robert were in a panic. The fight was getting ready to start and there was no guarantee that we would get in anywhere.
Being Times reporters, they had promised the city desk that they would call in with a feed from the scene if there were any problems. George started to make the call, while we tried to figure out a backup plan.
I looked at my watch. It was 7:50 p.m.
“Listen, why don’t we just tell the fire inspector that we’re reporters and we’re here to cover the fight for the paper,” I said. “It’s our only shot. There’s no time left.”
“Fuck it!” George said. “Let’s go.”
Gladden, looking all official in his over-sized helmet and shiny gold badge, was standing in front of the ballroom’s locked entrance directing traffic. He seemed to revel in his role in this spectacle, as he tried to calm nerves and reassure unlucky ticket-holders that they would get their money back.
“Excuse me inspector, we’re with the L.A. Times,” I said, holding up my press badge. “We’re here to report on the fight. We have to get in. Can you help us?”
Gladden smiled to himself, rocked back on his heels and rolled his eyes. We thought the jig was up when suddenly he took a second look at George.
“Hey, haven’t I seen you on TV with that woman reporter who always wears those big funny hats — what’s her name?”
“Patt Morrison!” George said. “She also works at the paper. We’re on the show ‘Life and ‘Times’ every Thursday night.”
“I thought so,” Gladden said, laughing and winking at us, as he shook George’s hand. “OK, gentlemen, follow me.”
Once inside, I turned to George and Robert, “you guys promised the desk you would call in with some color from the scene. I didn’t promise anything, so I’ll see you at the bar.”
As we made our way into the dark ballroom, it was clear the place was still way over its capacity. The Paramount — a popular dance spot in the ’50s — was now a dump. The two-story brick building was like a sweat lodge inside because of poor ventilation. The walls were painted blood red, the ceiling was sagging and the place reeked of urine. It was soon obvious why. The line to the men’s room was longer than the beer line and guys were relieving themselves in every corner.
I asked George if he thought there were any illegal immigrants in the room. He laughed and said, “only the guys in cowboy hats.”
The ballroom was a sea of cowboy hats, of course. Which meant a lot of Chavez fans.
The three of us split up to try and get the best vantage point we could of the giant screen set up in the main ballroom.
I got a beer and planted myself at the back and waited.
Shortly after 8:30 p.m., De La Hoya appeared on screen as he emerged from his dressing room surrounded by his team of handlers. He was wearing a colorful hooded robe that was half U.S. flag, half Mexican flag.
As the National Anthem played in the background, many inside the ballroom began booing and hurling beer bottles at the screen.
There were other De La Hoya fans inside the Paramount that night, besides Robert and myself. But we were a small minority and didn’t dare scream “Oscar!” for fear of being mugged.
As De La Hoya made his way to the ring, a trumpet-heavy band of mariachis erupted in song and the crowd grew more furious, chanting, “Chavez! Chavez! Chavez!”
Right on cue the TV cameras switched to the scene outside Chavez’s dressing room just as the door swung open.
The crowd cheered its approval as the champion — in appropriate red, white and green trunks — stepped into the tunnel leading outside and slowly began shadow-boxing his way to the ring amid thousands of flashing camera lights.
As Chavez danced in the hot desert night, the Mexican national anthem was played over the arena’s loud-speakers and many of the 15,000-plus on hand began singing along.
Announcer Michael Buffer joined the two fighters in the ring and quickly turned up the volume another notch with his famous rallying cry: “LET’S GET READY TO RUMBL-L-L-L-L-E…!”
The crowd in the Nevada desert — and in the equally hot confines of the Paramount Ballroom — roared in excitement.
As the bell sounded for the opening round, ringside announcer Larry Merchant tried to put the fight into proper context for the TV audience: “This is youth, talent and ambition against experience, will and pride.”
The first round started off slow, with both fighters circling each other in the middle of the ring like two gunslingers trying to measure the other man’s guile. An occasional exchange of blows set the crowd off but appeared to hurt neither fighter. Then about a minute into the round, De La Hoya connected with a hard left jab to Chavez’s forehead, opening up a cut just above his left eye.
De La Hoya continued to use his jab with stinging efficiency, as blood poured from Chavez’s brow, making it difficult to keep his eye on the young and now aggressive challenger. For the rest of the round Chavez’s rowdy fans fell silent, as the champion, now under attack, began backpedaling.
At one point, referee Joe Cortez called for time to allow the ringside doctor to examine Chavez’s cut. But the fight continued.
In the second round, De La Hoya continued to land left jabs and right hooks but proceeded cautiously.
Chavez stood his ground but was unable to connect on many of his shots as blood flowed freely from his brow. The crowd did its best to rally the champion, chanting “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!”
The round ended with De La Hoya again throwing and landing almost twice as many punches as his rival.
Chavez’s corner-men worked furiously to stop the bleeding. But the wound was so severe it was evident that even the lightest tap would send it gushing again.
In the third round, De La Hoya, exploiting his height and reach advantages, continued to control the fight with his powerful left jab.
Chavez, for his part, was unable to get inside and land a single body blow and spent most of the round trying to avoid the challenger’s punches. He was bleeding profusely and it was clear he was in trouble. His only chance now was to become the aggressor.
At the opening of the fourth round, the champion launched his fiercest attack of the fight, throwing a flurry of punches that sent De La Hoya reeling back into the ropes and brought the crowd to its feet. Chavez landed several more solid left hooks.
But the younger De La Hoya quickly recovered and fired back, this time knocking Chavez into the ropes. He landed several hard left-right combinations to the champion’s head, his face now completely covered in blood. At 2:37 of the fourth round, referee Cortez waved off De La Hoya as he called for the doctor to again examine Chavez’s wound.
Seconds later, Cortez declared the fight over and De La Hoya leaped into the arms of his cornerman, who twirled the fighter around the ring with his arms thrust up in triumph. De La Hoya’s fans jumped on chairs, cheering and screaming, “numero uno!”
“The old guy was never in the fight because the young guy didn’t let him get in it,” Merchant said. “He looks like the Golden Boy but he’s got some iron and lead in those gloves.”
Times’ columnist Jim Murray, writing for the next day’s paper, declared it a mega-mismatch. “This was not a fight. This was an execution,” Murray wrote. “As one-sided as an electric chair.”
I found George and Robert and we headed toward the exit along with a large contingent of cowboy hats. As we made our way through the hallway leading outside, you could see a long parade of low-riders, their tricked out cars bouncing up and down, as they made their way along the street in front of the ballroom.
They were honking their horns, flashing their lights and screaming at the top of their lungs at the hundreds of sweat-drenched fight fans pouring out of the building and onto the sidewalk. I couldn’t make out what they were saying until we got outside. And then we heard it loud and clear:
“Go back to Mexico!”
Everyone burst out laughing, even George.
Postscript: After the fight, Chavez claimed that he had suffered a cut in training and that De La Hoya simply reopened it. He said he never mentioned it because with so much at stake he didn’t want the fight to be canceled. He insisted De La Hoya never hurt him and that he wanted a rematch. The fighters met again two years later in 1998 in a grueling slug-fest dominated by De La Hoya. Chavez, bruised and bloodied, was unable to answer the bell for the ninth round and in a post-fight interview said, “I learned that De La Hoya is a great fighter.”