Fight to the Finish

The lumpy soup that is the Houston professional boxing scene bubbled once again last week, as yet another set of promoters presented a fight card. During the last two years a number of people have labored mightily to make the city a viable fight town. Locals have taken their shots, as have such big-name promoters as Lou Duva and Roy Foreman. They've rented venues ranging from the wild and woolly Unicorn to the Summit and Hobby Holiday Inn. For the most part, however, these illustrious-sounding locales (okay, the Unicorn is the exception, in more ways than one) have all been different names for the same place: the rat hole into which dreamers pour good money.

On paper, at least, last week's promoters looked to be on steadier ground than most of their predecessors. Their venue, the cozy Arena Theatre, is an appealing place to watch a fight. And the fact that one of the Arena's upcoming acts is Liza Minnelli gave it a vaguely Vegas air of class. More to the point, the Heights Gym fighters, the best-known stable in town, were out in force. Raul Marquez would be making his post-surgery hometown comeback, joined by other Top-10 fighters Stephen Martinez and David Gonzalez. So all looked good for promoter Richard Viscusi, who owns the Heights Gym, and the businessmen who joined forces with him to form Heights Boxing Enterprises.

They expected a sellout. But when the lights went down, the Arena's seats were not even half filled. The promoters needed to sell the place out. But given that there was a Rockets game at the Summit that night, and that the Rodeo was in full swing as well, it shouldn't have taken a genius to see that the timing wasn't ideal. But there the promoters were, kissing their money goodbye. They needed to sell 2,000 tickets to break even; according to Henry Villagomez of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, they sold fewer than 900.

Hearing this, G.L. Van Horn gives a snort. Another competitor has hit the canvas. While others have been sweating to get fighting up and going in Houston, Van Horn has put on the most successful fight series in town. He began at the Uptown Downtown Club, moved to the Hyatt Downtown (The Riot at the Hyatt), and is now drawing over 2,000 fans to his Big Fights promotions at the Astrodome Sheraton.

Van Horn isn't exactly gleeful when he talks about the poor attendance at the Arena fight -- after all, he drew only 350 to his first Houston bout -- but he does sense his opponents' weakness. He smells blood. "The war is over," he says in regard to other promoters. "We're still doing the body count." Roy Foreman has folded. Attorney Steve Munisteri and his Hobby Holiday Inn fights are no more. And, of course, "Richard Viscusi [just] committed suicide."

Van Horn is contemptuous of his competition, men he views as would-be fight promoters. Are they willing to live in their offices, to work "ten hours a day, six days a week," as do he and his one assistant, Denise McCarthy? Not a chance, he says. They're just Rocky-wannabes blinded by what they consider the glamour of boxing. He, too, is taken in by boxing's romance, he says, but he also knows its practical side. And that's why he's still here while the others are all but gone.

Van Horn isn't taken with the Vegas glitz; he's far from fancy. He works out of a large office next-door to the Main Street Gym. He lives there as well, sleeping in a bed that is the room's only furniture except for a desk and a couple of chairs. The room's walls are bare, unadorned sheetrock.

"Since we started, everybody with a subscription to Ring Magazine has wanted to promote," he says, leaning forward against his desk. "These people think you can work a few weeks and put on a show."

In fact, Viscusi and others at the Heights Gym do blame the major media for not writing reams of copy about them in advance of their fights, but Van Horn doesn't buy that. Nor does he rely on anyone else to sell his show.

A month before a fight he begins working on Hispanics, who generally make up 50 percent of a Houston fight crowd (blacks and whites split the other 50 percent). "Some Hispanics like bullfighting, and some like soccer, but they all like boxing," Van Horn says. Spending very little on advertising, he gets small notices in the Spanish papers and mentions on the radio by liberally dispensing tickets to the media. He also works on getting key corporate sponsors such as Fiesta. Doing their own legwork, he and McCarthy put up posters all over town. Only two or three days before a fight does he approach the mainstream media. "Anglos only plan a month in advance if they're going to do something with their families," Van Horn notes. "They come on the spur of the moment. The Hispanic will save his money to see a fight. So you've got to let them know it's coming."

Van Horn learned the basics of promoting over "25 years of setting up rings, cleaning toilets, curing colds, everything that it takes to make boxing go. This is all I do for a living. I'm not a lawyer, like these other guys."

He came to Houston a year ago when his son, Darrin Van Horn, was training to defend his Super Middleweight world title. Van Horn recalls that Houston was once a huge fight town, but when he arrived in 1993, there were so few fights, and local fighters were so out of practice, that Houston was the area code for the graveyard of boxing. "If you wanted a stiff, a guy who looked okay in the ring but who had no chance of winning, you called Houston," says Van Horn. So he decided to take the city on. And now, he says, "they don't call down here looking for a dead man anymore."

Van Horn says he isn't in boxing for the money, and, given his living conditions, that's plausible. "The only time I got money is when I find a wallet on the floor," he says. Instead, he is passionately dedicated to the sport.

And passionately dedicated to making the sport locally popular, which he's convinced he's about to do. "I'll be the fourth Houston major [along with baseball, football and basketball]," Van Horn says, leaning forward intently toward his listener. "No matter how much mud, blood or crud it takes.

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