Championship boxing returned to the Washington area Saturday night with a D.C. Armory crowd that was smaller than promoters had hoped for but big on enthusiasm for the hometown contests.
District officials praised the event, which featured a full card of young professionals slapping leather before two championship bouts that were broadcast on cable television's Showtime network -- the first defense of an area champion at home in three years.
But the evening did not quite reach first-class status. The audience for the undercard bouts was sparse, and even the marquee event -- local hero DeMarcus "Chop-Chop" Corley's successful defense of his World Boxing Organization 140-pound title against Randall Bailey -- drew only 3,196 fans to a facility that seats more than 5,000.
Most of the attendees, who paid $50 to $100 a ticket, arrived fashionably late. Even D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), big supporters of holding more professional fights in the District, did not arrive until the main event.
"It's your first time, so you've got to build your market -- so it's good," said Williams, who was pleased with the worldwide showcasing of the city.
Williams's entrance was met with a split decision of boos and cheers, while former mayor Marion Barry was greeted with a raucous roar of approval and shouts of "Barry! Barry!"
In the pecking order of the seating chart, Williams found a prime seat right behind the judges. Barry had a better perch inside the interior perimeter, right behind the red corner post.
Ringside at the armory lacked the typical celebrity turnout and star-power hype, as fighters with such nicknames as "Happy," "the Polish Giant" and brothers "Murder" and "Homicide" battled.
But a hint of the glitz of championship boxing was evident in the television lights -- and in the glitter of sequins on a red, white and blue denim jacket of boxing promoter Don King, who clutched two miniature U.S. flags and sported a front full of buttons featuring President Bush.
Fans cheered the thuds of gloves pounding flesh again in the District, but King and some others bemoaned the lack of publicity for the event.
"It ain't been organized," King said. "They're already fans. We have to teach them how to be better fans. This is a kiss."
The crowd was eclectic. There were men in leather pants and full-length furs. A Nicaraguan boxer found a chorus of whistling supporters, while Corley, who is from Northeast Washington, saw his own well-dressed group of family, friends and hangers-on sipping $7 cocktails.
Their title bout proceeded with the holds and halts of a morning commute, but the stands were filled with homers happy to root for the local champion.
Kim Lensing and her fiance, Jason Neureiter, trained opera glasses on the ring from the armory's upper deck. The Chevy Chase couple were cashing in on a Christmas gift -- from Neureiter to Lensing.
"I think it's great for the town, but there has to be a better venue," said Neureiter, 31.
"I enjoy it, I enjoy it. My family thinks I'm crazy," said Lensing, 32, a lawyer. "I don't want to have to go to Atlantic City or Vegas for fights. It should be here."
Daniel and LeeAnne Blueitt, a couple in their forties from Alexandria who say they spend a few thousand dollars to travel to casino cities for big-time fights, said they were happy to sip $5.25 beers on the floor of the armory.
"We've got fresh meat," LeeAnne Blueitt, a real estate settlement officer, yelled as a young fighter named "Too Sweet" danced toward the ring ropes and a technical knockout loss.
"We need more title fights," said Daniel Blueitt, co-owner of a construction company. "You get into it. You feel it."
The District faces competition for big-time boxing from other non-casino cities, including Cleveland; New York; Atlanta; and New Orleans. King said he rates Washington in the top 10 cities, and with a "trillion-dollar budget here," the promoter would like to see more scheduling continuity.
"I believe in Washington," King said. "All we're doing now is seeding the ground."