It's the time of year when a sports fan's fancy turns to college basketball. But there's another kind of March Madness going on in the often forgotten sport of boxing.
A new international league is trying to make boxing relevant again.
The World Series of Boxing wraps up its first regular season this week with playoffs and a championship just around the corner. The WSB has 12 teams in cities from Beijing to Paris to Baku to Los Angeles. It features some of the world's best amateur boxers. They're paid and treated like professionals but with the promise that they can still fight in the Olympics.
The Avalon Hollywood club, just north of L.A.'s legendary intersection at Hollywood and Vine. has seen its share of music and entertainment greatness. The Beatles had their first West Coast appearance there; the club has featured comedian Jerry Lewis, singer/actress Judy Garland, jazz great Louis Armstrong and countless others.
But on a recent Monday night, before a big show, the sounds coming from backstage were the steady rip, rip, rip of adhesive tape. Young boxers, members of the L.A. Matadors of the World Series of Boxing, are getting their hands taped up before a match against a team from Memphis, Tenn.
"If it's too tight, too loose, you let me know," says L.A. head coach Manny Robles, as he uses gauze and adhesive tape to turn Joseph Diaz's hands into padded weapons.
Robles fixes his eyes on 18-year-old Diaz, who's about to fight his first match at the club.
"This is L.A.," Robles says, trying to get Diaz in the right frame of mind. "You don't know what pressure is until you come to L.A. This is your backyard.You ain't gonna let no man come in and disrespect you in your own backyard, right?"
All taped up and wearing bright red boxing gloves, Diaz throws a flurry of warm-up punches into a coach's padded mitts. Wap! Wap! Wap! The sound reverberates throughout the dressing room. Diaz's explosive power is startling — he is small and polite. He's also the reigning national amateur champion in the 125-pound weight division.
His four teammates who'll also fight tonight — each WSB event features five matches in different weight classes — also are amateurs. Or they were before they signed with the World Series of Boxing. Now, they're basically semi-professionals. They'll get paid tonight: Winners get $5,000;losers $1,000. And they'll fight in front of a packed house dotted with L.A. celebrities such as Dr. Jerry Buss, owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and actress/comedian Jenny McCarthy.
To bring home the point, referee Eddie Hernandez gathers the Matadors before the fights.
"You guys are boxing in a professional venue," Hernandez says, "I expect you to act professional. I want you to protect yourselves at all times, and obey my commands at all times. Good luck, guys."
Good luck, Matador heavyweight David Imoesiri can't believe his.
David "The Dream Catcher" Imoesiri, every Matador has a boxing nickname, was one of the first amateurs drafted by the team. All WSB fighters are hand picked. Imoesiri's story is a classic boxer's hard-luck tale. His mom died when he was young.
"I've been on my own since I was 12 pretty much," he says. "So my brother and I, and another brother of ours, we've just kinda been wingin' it."
Imoesiri found boxing which he excelled at, but he also found trouble. He went to jail after he "got into it" with a police officer who cited Imoesiri for being on a commuter train without paying for a ticket. As a Matador, Imoesiri has made about $50,000 in this first season.
"Coming from not being able to have a $1.50 on the train," he says, "To, got my own car. Y'know I'm good now! This is like a big deal. (I) pay my bills, (I'm) just getting my life in order."
David Imoesiri is getting his life in order with the help of a new family of fighters. In professional boxing, it's often a mercenary and lonely life. Not so in the WSB.
Coach Robles says, "We do everything together. We run in the morning, we train together, we eat together. I don't stay with them, but I feel like I do! Because they're always calling me. 'Hey coach I need this! Hey coach I need that'!"
Not surprisingly, Robles has taken on the decidedly unfearsome boxing nickname: Manny the Nanny.
Most of the fighter's needs are met. They sign a three-year contract, have their room and board paid for and receive health insurance. It's the kind of stability that's rare in boxing.
WSB fighters also get a rare opportunity. The International Boxing Federation, AIBA, which created the league, worked out a deal with the International Olympic Committee so the boxers could dabble in the professional game, and still retain their amateur status and compete in the Olympics.
Chris "Sweet Pea" Pearson, a 20-year-old middleweight for the Matadors, says it's a "win-win" situation.
"That was the major thing," he says. "If I could get the pro experience and still be able to make the Olympic team and get a gold medal."
Many of the Matadors talk about winning gold medals in 2012. Their coach isn't convinced.
"They're becoming better boxers, " Robles says. "But it's hard to say."
Robles is skeptical because Olympic boxing means a return to amateur boxing for the Matadors. They have learned how to fight without protective headgear, but they will have to put it back on for the Olympics. And they'll have to readjust their boxing style to the amateur computerized scoring system. It puts a premium on scoring points.
"If I'm the fighter, once I land a punch and score a point, I don't have to fight anymore. I can run as much as I want to and protect that one point advantage that I have," Robles says.
In professional boxing, the judges are watching for much more.
"It's called effective aggressiveness," Robles says. "You've got to be aggressive but you have to be effective at the same time when you're doing that. You have to fight. If you want to win, you've got to fight."
Whether the Matadors take the Olympics by storm, they certainly are making their mark in the new league. With a 4-1 victory this week over arch rival Mexico City, L.A. clinched a spot in next month's first WSB playoffs.
Describing the win at the Avalon Hollywood, Matadors co-managing partner Ray Doustdar called it a "truly epic evening." Boxing legend Evander Holyfield and Lou "The Incredible Hulk" Ferrigno sat ringside "going nuts," Doustdar says.
There was no news of the event in the Los Angeles Times however. California's largest newspaper hasn't covered the team.
It indicates that mass appeal still is an elusive goal for the WSB. And for boxing in general. The sport fell out of favor years ago, and it's a hard road back — especially with mixed martial arts commanding a lot of attention in the fighting sports crowd, and with new concern about head injuries in sport.
A staff member with the L.A. Times says, when it comes to reporting sports event results, "we often wait on start-ups before doing coverage to make sure the enterprise is viable. Should the Matadors return for a second season, I suspect we'll begin running results then."
World Series of Boxing officials say there will be a second season. They're confident year two will capture more attention.
The Matadors, and 11 other WSB teams, will keep fighting. Alone in the ring. Together, everywhere else. That's evident before a match, before a practice when the Matadors gather in a circle, raise their hands and chant "one, two, three family! Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Previous post in Around the Nation