Jerry Lazar paced back and forth beside the ring, hoping for a chance to prove himself. From looking at him you'd never have guessed that he was the lightweight champion of Tuesday Fite Nite, a weekly exhibition at the north-side nightclub Zafire. He was short and thin, weighing 140 pounds and standing five feet, six inches. His cheeks were smooth and round, and at 24 he spoke with the gentle voice of a boy who'd just entered puberty. He was clad in black mesh shorts with a matching tank top, his nickname in white lettering across the back: BABYFACE.
Zafire is a pretty rough joint, tucked between the river and Elston Avenue on Armitage. Every Tuesday night patrons can step off the dance floor and into the ring. "Babyface" Lazar was one of six or seven champions hired to fight audience members; if a challenger could knock one of them out, he'd win between three and five thousand bucks. That night in May 2001, Ramiro "the Mexican" pummeled "Ghetto" Williams in a grudge match. "El Abusador" went three rounds against a six-foot-seven, 280-pound black man with "Psycho Drama" tattooed across his back. And a Latina dressed in a leopard-skin jumpsuit stood in the middle of the ring, her arms in the air, bouncing her breasts one at a time. Three hundred patrons screamed in savage delight, but Lazar hardly noticed. "When I fight," he explained later, "I go in there business, I gotta prove myself. After the fight is over with, then my eyes are on the asses."
A bank teller by day, Lazar had been absent from Tuesday Fite Nite for nearly six months, but that night he was trying to make a comeback--if he could get a fight. Around 3:30, a half hour before closing time, he climbed into the ring and whispered to emcee Kalvin Galva, who was responsible for coercing audience members into signing up.
Galva pointed at a tall man, the largest of about 50 people crowding around the ring. "If you don't give me one round you're a pussy! You walk away from this, you're a big, black pussy. Get your big ass up here." The man stood motionless, expressionless, his chin in the air. Lazar paced the back edge of the ring, stopping occasionally to bounce up and down on the balls of his feet. Galva's trash talking went on for nearly ten minutes. "You're scared, man. Just admit it, you're scared."
The crowd wanted to see a fight and began chanting: "Puss-y! Puss-y! Puss-y!" Stoic, the man ignored them. At ten minutes to four the house lights went up, illuminating the scattered chairs and empty plastic cups littering the floor. "Come here!" Galva ordered the guy, resting his arms on the ropes. "You a big bitch." The man ignored him. Galva smiled and waved. "Good night, everybody! Thank you for being here." Security was clearing the club, and the crowd shuffled out onto Elston. They'd hang out on the sidewalk while the cars screeched off into the early morning.
"Did you see the size of that guy?" Lazar asked as he left around 4:30. "Huge!" Lazar hadn't gotten his match, but at least he had the satisfaction of knowing a man nearly twice his size had refused to fight him. "I feel good. I just hope I get a fight next week."
A meek kid, Jerry Lazar was often bullied. But when he was 11 he discovered that in the boxing ring, matched against kids his own size, he no longer felt small. At 14 he won a gold medal in the Junior Olympics, and by age 17 he'd won golden gloves tournaments in Chicago and Seattle. But as he grew older the competition grew fiercer: at 18 he lost in the final round of the Chicago Golden Gloves, and the next year was the same. Bitter and depressed, he decided to give up. "Boxing is a hard way to make a living professionally, so I quit. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been more confident maybe something would have happened. But I try not to think about it because it bothers me."
Lazar spent several months moping around his parents' home, trying to adjust to life outside the ring. He doesn't drink, but he began spending his nights in pool halls and nightclubs and often found himself on the sidewalk trading punches with someone who'd said something he didn't like.
In June 1997, a few months after abandoning his dream, he heard about a late-night fighting competition at Tropicana de Cache, a salsa club in Bucktown. The following Tuesday he flashed the club's bouncer a fake ID and stepped onto the dance floor.
The place was packed. Two floors of fans screamed as Frankie "Tasmanian Devil" Cruz, the bleach-blond heavyweight champion, trudged around the ring. Multicolored lights flashed in time to the heavy rap pounding through the speakers. Bikini-clad women danced in the boxing ring, and women on the dance floor sweated through tight nylon pants. "I was like, damn, a disco with fights," says Lazar. "Regular, everyday fellas walking into a nightclub and fighting."
Tuesday Fite Nite is the brainchild of local entrepreneur Ruben Pazmino, a native of Ecuador who owns the bilingual magazine Ritmo. Pazmino started the event in 1996 as a late-night adult circus where audience members could hop into a boxing ring and fight. Between matches patrons could take part in bikini, booty-shaking, and mud-wrestling contests.
At first the fights attracted only a modest, exclusively Latino crowd, but word of Frankie Cruz, the fights' first champion, spread quickly. "Frankie was like a human log," says "Crazy Loco" Luis Roman, a former referee at the fights. "He would just put his hands down by his sides and let you beat on his face. And the crowd went nuts for that." Amateur boxers, martial artists, and gangbangers alike flocked to the club, trying to take down Cruz for a $1,000 purse, but none of them could.
Pazmino noted the audience appeal of certain challengers and began hiring them as "champions." There was Shoney "Hurricane" Carter, an "ultimate fighting" competitor who dressed like a pimp; Ramiro "the Mexican," a street fighter who stripped down to a thong after his victories; and Cindy "La Bomba," who could "hit like a man." Soon posters and flyers for Tuesday Fite Nite flooded the streets of Chicago.
In November 1997 channels two, five, and seven all ran stories on the Tropicana's amateur fighting. "It's dangerous and illegal," warned Channel Five's Warner Saunders as the camera zoomed in on "Hurricane" Carter pounding a pinned challenger with his elbow. But it wasn't illegal, and the week after the news stories ran, attendance jumped from 300 people to 1,000.
The fights evolved into a carefully calculated show. "Crazy Loco" Luis, an Indiana police officer and former professional kickboxer, was the trash-talking referee; Galva, a disc jockey on La X Tropical 1200 AM, emceed; and Dr. Luv, a producer at WGCI, provided irreverent commentary from the DJ booth. To attract fighters, Pazmino would draw a sombrero around his head with his index finger, signaling Galva to shout, "Mexico!" When he held up his fist, Galva shouted, "Puerto Rico!" When he held up a limp wrist, Galva bellowed, "You guys are faggots! Who's gonna get in the ring and fight?"
Before long Frankie Cruz was the subject of a flowery feature in the Tribune and a 20-minute profile on WBEZ's This American Life. The Sun-Times described Tuesday Fite Nite as "kicks and hunks of fun," and Channel Seven's Chicagoing recommended the event. Cruz became a full-fledged Chicago celebrity, and Tuesday Fite Nite gained a cult reputation as a place where anything could happen. On a good night Cruz might defeat five challengers from the audience and, inspired by the scene, sexy Latinas would climb into the ring and strip.
Lazar's apartment was only a few blocks from the Tropicana, and he came back three or four times with his gloves. He was too light to fight the hulking house champions, so he fought other comers in his weight class, beating them all easily. One night, about a year after he'd first stepped into the club, he left the "height" and "weight" sections of his boxing waiver blank and was matched with a thick Polish guy nearly twice his size. Lazar looked young but mean, a shock of black hair flopping over his headgear. He weighed only 130 pounds back then.
"Everybody thought he was a fucking wimp," says Galva. "'Who the fuck is this punk?' But he beat the shit out of this guy!" After dancing around his burly opponent for two rounds, Lazar delivered a quick combination and knocked him into the corner of the ring. He buckled over and Lazar landed seven punches into the top of his head. Finally "Crazy Loco" Luis pulled him away and raised his arm in victory.
"Then his friend got into the ring," Lazar recalls. "He was taller and bigger than the other guy, and I stomped him in the second round." The DJ played "We Are the Champions" as Lazar accepted a Little-League-sized trophy from a blond girl in a bikini. Fans on the floor and in the balcony roared as he hoisted it into the air. "When I stepped out of the ring Ruben asked me, 'Do you want to be a champion?' When he first asked me, I was thinking, 'Hell no.' I didn't think it was for me. And he was like, 'Why? I'll pay you.' I still didn't think I would do it, but this friend of mine talked me into it. He was like, 'Why don't you? People will know you and everything.' A few weeks later I was in there and everyone was calling me Babyface."
The job paid about $200 a night. "Plus bets," says Lazar. "People would place thousand-dollar bets, like drug dealers, and they would give me cash. They'd give me a hundred bucks at a time. They'd grab my hands and say, 'How do you hit so hard with these little hands?'"
Lazar became Tuesday Fite Nite's newest hero. He looked small and timid and there was always someone who thought he could knock him out, but Lazar always emerged victorious. "I was hungry back then," he recalls. For the first time since he'd given up professional boxing his life felt complete. At his day job he was promoted to personal banker. At the club women threw themselves at him. "I lived a party. Girls all the time, pager ringing off."
But his biggest thrill was competing again. "One of the most vicious knockouts I can remember was one guy who was over 200 pounds. Mexican. He had to be six-foot-two. He came in there thinking it was a joke, he was a drunk. It was one of my first vicious knockouts. I threw a left hook to the body and a left hook to the head, and he went down hard. And he got up and I threw a right hand. I timed him and he went through the ropes face first. He was done. He was that close to death, I believe."
Before long his soft voice began to echo throughout the club. "I think it was his tenth fight, I told him to get on the microphone," says Galva. "He didn't want to do it, but I was like, 'You're kicking everyone's ass, you might as well say something!'"
"I want to fight punks, street fighters thinking they're bad," he told the crowd. "You know, the kind of guys that think I'm small, I can't fight." The crowd began to scream, and Lazar glanced at "Crazy Loco" Luis in wide-eyed disbelief. "For all us little guys," he shouted, "this is why I took this job! So I could fight the bad guys!" He spread his arms wide, absorbing the frantic applause.
For two years Lazar was the fights' biggest draw. He came every week and never lost. In his speeches he talked about being bullied as a child, talked trash at punks and player-haters. "His speeches would always go into the same thing," says Galva. "He got tired of being a fucking wuss! He's with his girlfriend and a fucking punk bigger than him comes to take his girlfriend--respect the man! 'Can't you see I'm with my girlfriend?'"
"When he would talk to the crowd, he portrayed himself as so innocent," says "Crazy Loco" Luis. "One thing about Babyface, he couldn't stand gangbangers. He was really, really, really against gang members. So he'd make an announcement where, 'You gangbangers think you're tough, this and that, well just bring your butt in the ring,' blah, blah, blah."
And the more he won, the more he boasted. "Doesn't it feel good?" he asked during one of his countless moralizing sermons. "I just got two player-hating motherfuckers outta the way. Player-haters can't stand the heat, stay the fuck out of the kitchen!" Before long the crowd began to give him trouble in and out of the ring.
"People used to pick on him," says Luis. "'I'll kick your ass,' this and that. And he used to fear for that. He used to come to me almost every fight and tell me that he wanted somebody to watch him while he walked home or to his car because he was scared that he'd get jumped."
"I could feel hatred every time I went in there," says Lazar. In the ring he began to plead for the crowd's acceptance. "I love everybody," he said one night. "If you love me, you love me, if you hate me, you hate me. If you don't like me, hey, I'm just trying to give you guys a nice show. I'm not trying to hate anybody."
"I think he took it too personal," says Luis. "He would let any little thing get him mad. If somebody yelled at him and said, 'You suck,' he'd really get offended by it. I would laugh and tell him, 'Why do you let these people bother you? Half of them don't even hold a job.'"
Like any nightclub attraction, the fights faded out after a while. By 2000, Cindy "La Bomba" had got pregnant and quit fighting, Frankie Cruz moved to Miami after getting his throat slit at a local Cuban nightclub, and "Hurricane" Carter and Ramiro "the Mexican" weren't coming around as often. A new wave of champions rolled in: "El Abusador," a 30-year-old bruiser who drove a flower delivery truck by day, and a skinny Jewish-Puerto Rican boxer who wore shorts emblazoned with a Star of David. Two local entertainment promoters took over the Tropicana de Cache and renamed the fights Club PM.
Lazar kept fighting, but his victories didn't mean as much to him. "I lost that hunger," he says. For the first time in his life he fell madly in love, with an older Puerto Rican woman, and he'd had enough of the crowds booing him. A few months after the new management took over, he stopped showing up.
In fall 2000 Ruben Pazmino launched a new and improved Tuesday Fite Nite at Zafire, formerly the Convent nightclub. He hired a troupe of Latinas to perform choreographed dances between the bouts and created the "electric chair contest" to test the endurance of those patrons willing to try it. And he began recruiting his old fight talent: Galva, "Crazy Loco" Luis, "Hurricane" Carter, Ramiro "the Mexican." In October, Lazar and his girlfriend broke up, and almost immediately he started fighting again.
But in winter 2001, with 86 victories under his belt, "Babyface" Jerry Lazar got his first taste of the canvas.
Multicolored light beams washed over the dance floor as waiters in bow ties scurried from table to table, delivering pitchers of Corona and trays of fried plantains. At a table near the ring two girls in T-shirts and leather pants sipped champagne and fed each other maraschino cherries. A sweaty Latina in a white tank top and black miniskirt rubbed her bottom against her mustached boyfriend as they danced to salsa.
"And now, the only champion who still plays with GI Joes and Cabbage Patch Kids," shouted Galva. "'Babyface' Jerry La-zar!" Lazar climbed into the ring, high-fived Galva, and snapped his fingers above his head in time to his theme song, "Baby Love" by the Supremes. He smiled and shook his hips.
"There are kids in grammar school in the thousands going through what I used to go through," he told the audience. "A lot of kids are getting bullied and they don't tell nobody about it." But he, "Babyface" Jerry Lazar, had triumphed in the end. "I fought the biggest guys! Six-five! Six-six! Six-seven! I stood up for myself, and I made myself proud."
Luis tore the microphone from his hands. It was all part of the routine. "Fuck all that bullshit he's talking about! This little motherfucker is challenging people out there, and that's what he wants to say. Five fucking thousand dollars! If I didn't know him, I'd be beatin' his ass. Fuck him!"
Galva strutted across the ring, his arm in the air. "How many motherfuckers need five thousand dollars right now? Come and sign up. Right here. Five thousand dollars in cash!" Lazar left the ring to change into his boxing gear, and Galva began recruiting people for the electric chair contest. "Let me get a Puerto Rican in the house!"
A sea of Puerto Rican hands waved in the air. "Puerto Rico!" shouted Galva, his face projected onto a giant TV screen behind the ring. Ten contestants stood beside the electric chair. Chalo Pazmino, the owner's younger brother, sat behind the chair and picked up the chrome lever that administered the juice, the lamp over the ring gleaming off his slick black ponytail.
"What's your name?" Galva asked a contestant.
"Where you from, Juan?"
"Puerto Rico!" shouted Galva. "You got a big dick?" Juan nodded. "Puerto Rico! OK." Juan gripped the metal handlebars. "A la una, a las dos, a las tres!" Pazmino pulled the lever as the sound system blasted, "Get your freak on, get your freak on, get your freak on..."
Juan's face clenched into a fist, and his knuckles went white on the handlebars; he kicked his legs, shouting, "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" After 14 seconds he shouted, "Stop! Stop! Stop!" and Pazmino dropped the lever.
"He's gonna get some pussy tonight," Galva promised as Juan flexed his muscles for the crowd. A pair of bouncers cleared the electric chair from the ring. "Who's ready to see someone get knocked the fuck out?"
Lazar was in the dressing room changing when word came that he had a challenger. When he got back onto the floor the guy was already in his corner, pulling off his T-shirt. Tall and thin with long, taut muscles, a shaved head, a goatee, and a tattoo on his forearm that read, "Love Momma." In the opposite corner Lazar genuflected, then hopped up and down, stretching his neck and loosening his limbs. His weight was up to about 145, and he looked a bit soft.
The two men met in the center of the ring as "Crazy Loco" Luis explained the rules, then returned to their corners. Pazmino rang the bell.
Lazar didn't throw many punches at first; he danced around his opponent with his guard up. ("Most of these guys throw everything they got in the first round," he says.) But his opponent was shrewder than most: he came at Lazar with a few powerful jabs and then backed away, saving his energy. The crowd cheered and the chatter subsided. The two girls at the table sat up, and the woman in the white tank top was stroking her boyfriend through his pants.
At the end of the first round both fighters collapsed in their corners. One of the club's dancers, her backside barely covered by a black miniskirt, stepped around the ring as men whistled. She stopped to smile at the crowd, her braces sparkling. Then the bell rang.
About a minute and a half into the second round Lazar dropped his hands and stepped straight back. His opponent landed a terrific punch. "It was wild, fast, and I didn't see it coming," Lazar recalls. He stumbled and fell back, as if he were sitting on a chair that didn't exist. The crowd leaped from their seats, cupped their hands around their mouths, and shouted their approval.
Lazar pulled himself off the canvas and rushed his opponent, whose arms were raised in victory. Luis grabbed Lazar and pulled him back to his corner. He put his hands on Lazar's cheeks and looked at his eyes. "I'm fine," said Lazar, shaking him off irritably. He walked to the center of the ring and Luis motioned for the fight to continue. But the challenger had had enough and threw his boxing gloves to the floor.
"I want my money," he said. His eyes narrowed as Luis, holding the microphone away from them, explained that he had to knock out the champion or force him out of the ring to collect the $5,000 purse. The guy declined.
"He said he feels like passing out after he has a little edge," Luis shouted into the mike. The crowd booed. "I'm gonna ask y'all in the microphone, do you want to continue?"
"Now you're trying to make me sound like I'm a bitch!"
"Now see, nobody's trying to do that. Do you want to fight is the question." From a booth above the dance floor, the DJ cued a record: "Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more, no more, no more, no more..."
The challenger picked up his gloves and pulled them back on. The bell sounded and Lazar rushed him. His opponent was tired now and lamely held his fists to guard his head as Lazar threw hits to the body. The challenger waved his hands to stop the fight, and Lazar backed off. Galva climbed back into the ring to announce the winner: "'Babyface' Jerry Lazar!"
The crowd booed. "Hey man, I'm human," Lazar told them. "He knocked me down, I'll give him a lot of credit. He's the first guy, the first guy who knocked me down in two and a half years. I give him credit. He came out, he fought hard. I don't know why he quit, but he quit. He came out, he knocked me down. It was a clean punch." The crowd booed even louder. Men stood on their chairs and shouted obscenities at him. "Hey, I give him credit! I got the W, but I don't wanna win like that. I want him to fight me."
A man near the front gave Lazar the finger, tattoos flaming up the side of his neck. "You're a bitch, Babyface!"
"So, why don't you come fight me?" yelled Lazar.
The heckler grinned. "You're a bitch, Babyface!"
Lazar kicked one of the boxing gloves on the canvas and sent it flying across the ring. "So why don't you go fuck your mother, motherfucker?"
"OK, let's give both these fighters a hand!" said Galva. The crowd booed, and Lazar climbed out of the ring. The boos turned to cheers as five women from the crowd stepped into the ring and kneeled down for the banana-split-eating contest. The ring girl set five pairs of Styrofoam testicles in front of them, placed a peeled banana into each pair, and adorned the faux-genitalia with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
At the end of the night, as the patrons filed out to the street, Lazar's challenger hung around talking to one of the bouncers. "Next week I will knock that nigga out. Watch. That nigga ain't shit. That nigga ain't nothing. He can't handle this!"
Lazar stood beside the ring talking to "El Abusador." "I just don't want to face that crowd," he said, looking worn and sad. "There's a lot of hate out there."
"It happens to everybody, man." "El Abusador" laid a hand on Lazar's shoulder and recounted one of his defeats.
Lazar looked at the floor and kicked his feet. "That's it for me, I think."
"I think you're beating yourself, nigga. You're beating yourself."
The following Tuesday was another riveting night at Zafire. "Hurricane" Carter squeezed an opponent with his legs until the man could barely breathe. "Ghetto" Williams, a security guard at the club turned fighting champion, fought "Super Dan," a bouncer from Club 720, and pounded his face until blood spurted from his nose.
Shortly after one o'clock Lazar showed up in an Oscar de la Renta suit, his black shirt open to mid-chest. His challenger from the week before was waiting for him, but he was out of luck.
Around 2:30, Lazar took the microphone. "This is gonna be the last time I ever talk, so I want you guys just to listen. When I started this job two and a half years ago, I never thought that it would get out of hand like this, man. And then I got undefeated and you know a lot of people don't like me, a lot of people like me. It's OK...I'm not gonna fight no more. This is the last stand, y'all. I'm gonna retire, I'm gonna give it up, undefeated. Hey, when you retire on top, you're on top."
He spoke slowly, steadily. "To the player-haters in the club, the bullies who like to pick on the little guys, don't mess with the little guys that look innocent, because you never know when you might run into a Babyface."
The DJ cued "Baby Love." "Crazy Loco" Luis fell to the floor, faking tears, but Lazar smiled: for the first time in years, people were applauding him.
A few moments later the ring girl was setting Styrofoam testicles in front of five kneeling women.
"The other day I realized that I didn't even miss it anymore," Lazar said a couple months later. "I want to start focusing on my career. I might move to the suburbs." He was thinking about becoming a massage therapist. But he felt restless in his Uptown apartment, which he shared with a parakeet and a beagle. He kept thinking about his moments of glory at Tropicana and Zafire. In April 2001 he started training again. When he returned to Zafire the next month a few people shouted his name. "Hey Babyface, you gonna fight tonight?" The dancers shrieked and hugged him, and Galva did too.
But things were different. Luis Roman had quit in April. ("It was either this or my girlfriend," he told me.) "Hurricane" Carter had stopped coming, and a pair of young Mexican brothers were the hot new attraction. Few people seemed to remember Lazar: only a scattering of applause greeted him as he was was introduced, and no one signed up to fight him. Four weeks in a row he paced back and forth by the side of the ring or sat brooding below the giant TV screen.
Finally, on his fifth night back, he took the microphone. "What's up, everybody, how's it going?" he asked. "I'm not looking to trash talk or nothing, I'd just like to get a fight tonight. This is my fifth week coming back, you know?" The crowd sat in silence.
Galva grabbed the microphone from Lazar. "That's not what you told me," he said. "Tell 'em that they're a bunch of pussies and nobody will fucking fight you. That's what you told me." He turned to the crowd. "He said that there's a bunch of fucking miserable motherfuckers that come over here and don't ever want to fucking fight. You should tell 'em yourself how you feel about these motherfuckers."
Babyface took the mike. "You know what, in that case, I am sick of people fucking pushing me around just because I'm little." The crowd cheered, but he delivered his old routine. "Three years I've been a champion! From Tropicana to Zafire, and nobody beat me up. If I do lose today, it doesn't matter, I still did it for three years. It doesn't matter. I'm here to fight, I'm here to fucking kick some ass!"
"El Abusador" grabbed the mike. "I just got one thing to say. Will someone please get in here and kick this motherfucker's ass?"
When Lazar climbed out of the ring, unchallenged, he looked lost. He neared a group of Latinas sitting by the ring. He knew one of them. Her lips were glossed and her hair hung in curls above her shoulders.
"Hey," Lazar murmured, tapping her shoulder. "How you doin'?" She seemed not to hear him, and he tapped her again and gave a wave. "Hey." The woman smiled, mouthed a perfunctory "hello" and turned back to her conversation.
The following Tuesday, Lazar didn't bring his boxing gloves. He'd agreed to take over for "Crazy Loco" Luis as referee. "I've been fighting here for three years," he told the crowd. "I've been here since Tropicana. Me, Shoney, Ramiro, all of us had our time in the spotlight. I feel all old and shit. It's time to hand it over to the new guys."
"Let's hear it for 'Babyface' Jerry La-zar!" shouted Galva.
As a referee Lazar is gentle and empathetic. He helps the challengers tie on their gloves and he puts his hands on their shoulders, encouraging them to loosen up and have fun. "All right, man, you know the rules, right?" he asked a challenger who was about to fight "El Abusador." "Don't get knocked down in front of all these people, all right? You gonna try your best? You gonna try your best? That's all we could ask for."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.