Boxing scene 'surreal' before and after 9/11

There comes a point during the morning commute from the suburbs of northern Virginia to downtown Washington, D.C., when the buildings and trees that line the side of the road fall away, and there is nothing but the Potomac River beneath you and the imperial grandeur of the nation's capital ahead.

On the Metro, the city's subway-rail system, the blue and yellow line trains emerge from a tunnel to cross the river before once more disappearing beneath ground, and as they do so, the first glimpse of the memorials on the Mall almost invariably has tourists reaching for their cameras. Five years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the sight of the memorials, of the White House, of Congress, and indeed of the Pentagon, are reminders that, although New York City took the brunt of the devastation of that day, D.C. was a target, too.

"It could have been us," reflected D.C. boxing writer Gary "Digital" Williams. "That's the scary thing."

Williams recalled the day as being one when the capital of the free world descended into disarray.

"I was working downtown at the time, and I just remember complete chaos in the city," he said. "Usually, my trip home by subway took about 30 minutes, tops. I couldn't take the subway at all, because the subways were completely jammed. That's the thing I remember most about that day, being not that far from the White House and seeing a real nice part of the city turn into complete and utter chaos.

"That whole week, boxing was just the furthest thing from my mind."

Interestingly, however, Williams, who runs the blog "Boxing Along the Beltway," felt that the events of that day had a minimal impact on the city's boxing scene, particularly when compared to a local tragedy a couple of months earlier.

"To be honest with you, 9/11 itself didn't really have a major impact on the D.C. boxing community, and there's two reasons why," he said. "No. 1, there wasn't a whole lot going on at that particular time. No. 2, we had just gone through a tragedy in the boxing community. Two months prior to 9/11, one of our boxers, Beethaeven Scottland, died after injuries in the ring [sustained in a bout against George Khalid Jones]. He died on July 1. And the injuries took place on June 26. That really was the major impact for us. Everybody knew him, he was well-liked, everybody wanted him to do well. Three days after the fight, he was still in a coma, and I had to cover a fight in D.C., and it was the first time in all the 15 years I'd been covering the sport that I didn't want to be at a boxing match."

One difference that Williams did notice following the terrorist attacks, he said, was at a card at Glen Burnie, Md., on Sept. 27.

"We have this little strange ritual at sporting events in the Baltimore area when, during the national anthem, right at the part where it goes, 'Oh say, does that star-spangled banner,' fans really shout out the 'Oh' [in tribute to the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, known colloquially as the O's]. Well, that night it stopped, and it stopped for a long time after 9/11."

Up the coast, promoter Gary Shaw, then chief operating officer for Main Events, was in his kitchen in New Jersey, making preparations for a Fernando Vargas fight card at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, when the second plane struck the World Trade Center.

"Everything that happened was surreal," he recalled. "My son was going out to work for me at the time. He was getting ready to fly out to Vegas. The limo driver was in the kitchen. And we're watching a plane crash into a building. So, in that respect I will never forget that scene in the kitchen. The next scene was that the first thought that came over me was, 'How am I going to get my whole staff to Las Vegas?' Not realizing the enormity of what was going on because it was so surreal. So I was calling up trains, buses, everything else, thinking, 'How am I going to get those people there?' And it was a question: 'Is the fight canceled, does the fight go on? And when do we schedule it for? And how do we handle it, and what kind of dedication do we do for the people who died during the tragedy?'

"My first thought was that the show has to go on. Even after the enormity of the tragedy had sunk in, I thought that, maybe the best thing we can do for all these people is to show that as Americans we never quit no matter what, you won't hold us down."

The fight did indeed go on, with Vargas defeating Shibata Flores via seventh-round stoppage on Sept. 22. But at that card, as at others around the country for several weeks to come, it was difficult for those involved to focus fully on the task before them.

The evening after Vargas' victory, remembered publicist Fred Sternburg, "America Presents was doing a show in San Antonio, and I remember that it just felt weird. I said something about it at the press conference, and I think we had a minute's silence. I would rather have been doing anything else. I would rather have waited six months. But sometimes the best thing to do is move on."

It was, of course, a while before the nation could move on fully, and that was particularly true even in some cities that were not directly targeted by the terrorists. According to Erika Yowell of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the biggest fight town of them all saw overall visitation drop several percent following the attacks, and remain lower than it had been for several years until fully recovering in 2004 and, since then, booming continuously. But here, too, despite layoffs and concerns over The Strip's immediate future, the doors stayed open, and the shows went on -- including, almost exactly one year later, another major fight card at the Mandalay Bay, again involving Gary Shaw and again featuring Fernando Vargas, this time Vargas' grudge match against hated rival Oscar De La Hoya.

The fight, which took place on Sept. 15, 2002, was a huge promotion, but even so, said Lee Samuels of Top Rank, De La Hoya's promoter at the time, "on the actual anniversary, we shut down the media center for the day, maybe left it open so people could get coffee, but otherwise closed everything down. It was difficult, a really difficult time."

"I think for me personally, life must always go forward," said Shaw. "I try to always preach good karma, go forward, never look back -- but, never forget. Never forget.

"I think we have to be vigilant, living in this country, and we have to remember all those who perished on 9/11, or for that matter those who have died defending our freedom in Iraq. So when I put on a fight, they're always on my mind. You can never forget anything like that; you can't forget what's going on now."

As if to underline Shaw's point, just last month, the media room buzz in the final few days before the Hasim Rahman-Oleg Maskaev heavyweight championship bout in Las Vegas was less about the fight than the apparent disruption by British intelligence of an alleged plot to blow up several airliners flying between the United Kingdom and United States. The discussion was mostly a comparison of airport horror stories in the immediate aftermath of new restrictions on carry-on baggage, but the undercurrent was an acknowledgment that things could have been much worse.

It was a stark reminder that even though boxing is a sport that, unlike any other, truly can be a matter of life and death, at the end of the day it is still just a sport -- one that is far from immune to the interruptions and disruptions of the outside world.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.