ESPN The Magazine
The Blue Horizon
In fighting Philly, boxing loses its crown jewel to the cold hand of progress.
AT NORTH PHILLY’S JOE HAND GYM, there’s no sign that this fighting city has suffered a brutal blow. A featherweight in blue trunks slaps at the heavy bag. Another fighter skips rope. Two others shadowbox in the ring. A buzzer sounds the round. Boxing as usual. But less than two miles away, a boxing mecca is closing. The Blue Horizon was the soft pretzel, the Liberty Bell and blue-collar pessimism. The Blue Horizon was Philadelphia.
The building first housed Gilded Age aristocrats after the Civil War. The Moose Lodge moved in a while later. In 1961, the site became the boxing Blue Horizon, a ring shoehorned into an Ivy League–style dining hall. Some said it was the greatest boxing venue in the world. The place held 1,500 people with the intimacy of a high school gym. If you reached out from the last row, you could almost touch the boxers. Fall from the balcony and you would land in the ring. The Blue was a musty building with no air conditioning, brutal for eight rounds in Philly’s tropical summer. The Blue was named for an old song.
And now it has sold for a song. At least that’s what they say. Vernoca Michaels, co-owner these last 17 years and the only black woman to promote fights in America, had to sell due to mounting property taxes. The Blue will adapt once again, becoming a hotel-restaurant, part of the city council’s plan to beautify the rough north side of town. “That’s all they need up there,” says Greg Sirb of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. “Another restaurant.”
At the Joe Hand, the young-boxers-turned-old-trainers have difficulty accepting the reality of the Blue’s fate. “It’s a crying shame,” says Danny Davis, who fought there a couple of times. “We’re losing the foundation of boxing in Philly,” adds Ronnie Hammonds, who fought there more than a couple of times. “The Blue was like the Cotton Club. It was like being in a bar fight.”
The old-timers point out their forebears, posters on the gym wall, and rattle off the names as their eyes go glassy. Gypsy Joe Harris. George Benton. Boogaloo Watts. They all came up through the Blue Horizon, a Philly proving ground for the Spectrum, New York’s Garden, Atlantic City, Vegas. More than 50 fighters who appeared at the Blue held world championship belts in their careers. Bernard Hopkins got his first win there. Sugar Ray Leonard fought as an amateur there. Matthew Saad Muhammad battled at the Blue. Meldrick Taylor. Tim Witherspoon. Bert Cooper. Eddie Chambers. Philly guys, and plenty more from other places: fighters on the way up, fighters on the way down and fighters who never went anywhere at all.
Traffic streams along North Broad Street past the Blue Horizon’s brownstone facade a few blocks from Temple University, past Barb’s Soul Food Kitchen and the New Freedom Theater. The Blue wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. But the Philly boxing fraternity has overcome disbelief before. A furniture store now sits where Joe Frazier once trained and later trained his son Marvis. The promoters and managers and boxers move on to local venues like the Asylum Arena and the Northeast Armory, middling joints without the charm and arc of the Blue Horizon. There is a new Yankee Stadium, a new Boston Garden. There will be no new Blue Horizon, and as the sun fades behind it, the dying light takes time and memory for a ride.
Looking south down Broad Street from the Blue, City Hall stands distant and apart, superintending the diminishment of municipal heritage. The state government in Harrisburg has disbursed $6 million for the Blue Horizon’s redevelopment, a migration from rough-and-tumble to antiseptic sameness. The bottom line doesn’t allow for dumping that kind of money into a mildewed boxing hall in need of plumbing, wiring and flooring. A tragedy is death in the ring; the Blue Horizon’s closing is simply what life brings. And now the fledglings sweating at the Joe Hand and Philly’s other alleyway gyms are disconnected from the past, this long Philly lineage broken.
Up the semi-grand staircase from Broad Street, beneath a moose-head frieze, a note from City Hall hangs on the Blue’s front door. It is written there that the Blue Horizon has been shuttered, that it is a “public nuisance.” Several people walk past on the sidewalk. They do not look up.