There was a fight in Washington last night, but not the one fans were hoping for in the D.C. Armory.
The fisticuffs took place at a press conference after the scheduled title bout between world light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks and contender Eddie Mustafa Muhammad had been canceled.
As reporters looked on at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, fight promoter Butch Lewis attempted to eject members of Muhammad's retinue at a 7 p.m. press conference.
Muhammad, who failed by 2 1/2 pounds earlier in the day to reach the required weight, causing the fight to be downgraded from championship class and resulting in Spinks bowing out, pushed Lewis out of the way, shouting: "Get out of my face."
At that point another fighter on last night's card, Dwight Braxton, charged Muhammad. A dozen D.C. police officers intervened, pushing the entire crowd out of the room.
Lewis was screaming as Muhammad was led away in the midst of the chaos.
For his part, Lewis waxed emotional for reporters. Tears welled in his eyes and his voice choked.
"Be strong, brother," said one supporter.
Spinks, too, looked as though he were about to cry, and for good reason, since his purse--had Muhammad made the weight--would have been $1 million. Cora Wilds, chairman of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission, also wiped away tears.
Following the announcement of the cancellation, Mayor Marion Barry, who worked hard to get and then sell the District's first championship fight since 1959, issued a terse three-sentence statement saying he was "extremely disappointed."
"This action is the result of a series of tragic events," Barry's statement said.
His press secretary, Annette Samuels, declined to say whether Barry would seek any new fights here.
Barry said he has asked the city's boxing commission to review what happened.
Across town at the Armory, scene of yesterday's no-show, the stands were empty and the spotlighted ring a lonely place. Slightly fewer than 4,000 tickets had been sold to the 10,000-seat arena through Thursday night.
Most ticket-holders stayed home after hearing news of the cancellation around 6:30 last night. A few stood incredulously outside a police barricade on the sidewalk, or just drove by in their cars, after hearing the fight had been called off.
At the moment the first bell was to have rung, workers were busy stacking hundreds of chairs city officials and fight promoters had hoped would be filled with boxing enthusiasts.
Few were more disappointed than Starplex Manager Robert Sigholtz, who supervised the premature dismantling. "We feel very, very badly," he said. "Because of this cancellation, some people might think Washington is not the wonderful sports city that it is. In fact, the mayor and this city supported it 100 percent. We'd have sold the place out."
One dejected fan stood ringside in front of television cameras in a tuxedo. Sugar Ray Leonard, former world welterweight champion, was to have delivered color commentary for HBO.
"I can relate to anything in the ring, but I can't relate to this," said Leonard.
"For a championship fight, I think it's unfortunate for something as bizarre as this to happen in the nation's capital. For a fighter (Muhammad) to self-destruct . . . What promoter will use him? It's history for him. It's ugly."
Another fan, Duke Queen of Southeast, and his father William arrived at the Armory at 7 p.m. thinking they were in for a night of boxing. "We just found out. I'm disgusted," Queen said.
"I understand now why D.C. hasn't had a title fight in a while. This was just badly mishandled."
Christopher Green of Northeast, who was at the Armory looking to earn some money as a vendor, said he hopes this incident will not kill the city's chances of getting another good fight.
"It leaves me frustrated," he said. "It's a shame for the city to have this happen after waiting all this time. People were looking forward to it."
The family of Jimmy Smith, who was to have fought Braxton in a 10-rounder on the undercard (which also was canceled), drove down from their home in Wilkes Barre, Pa. "We're very disappointed that we traveled so far and didn't get to see him fight."
"Jimmy was ready and strong. But Jimmy had to lose 29 pounds to make his weight, so this postponement will help him get used to the new weight."
"I spent all this money! Oh holy God," said Rodney Churchill, dropping the overnight bag he had carried on the five-hour train ride this morning from New York City. "I am from Jamaica. I don't know Washington. I don't know this fighting business. It is all craziness."
Russ Neill, an 18-year-old art student who had come by subway from Alexandria, had more distant concerns. "I hope this doesn't mess up our chances for another title fight," said Neill, as a small crowd gathered in front of the Armory.
"That depends on whether Butch Lewis comes back," said Burtell Jefferson, the former D.C. police chief and a member of the District's boxing commission. "I think he has lost some credibility."
Ralph Hawkins, the shop steward for the RFK Stadium/Starplex Armory vendors, was talking about the lost wages. "Everybody's unhappy," said Hawkins, carrying a box of vendor buttons through the police line set up on the steps of the Armory.
"It's a shame that this has to happen during a title shot . . . we haven't had one in many years."
Asked what cancellation of this bout meant, vendor Warren Cunningham said, "This is a bill I should have paid but didn't because I thought I'd make it tonight. This is the only way people like us can make money. There aren't any other jobs in this city."
"We've been robbed," said Patricia Benbow, another suddenly unemployed vendor. "Who do we talk to about this?" CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Fight Point, Counterpoint Eddie Mustafa Muhammed makes his point with promoter Butch Lewis. The scene was more subdued when champion Michael Spinks joined Lewis and trainer Nelson Bryson. By Craig Herndon--The Washington Post; Picture 3, Light heavyweight champ Michael Spinks lost a $1 million payday. By Dudley M. Brooks--The Washington Post