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Lord of the Ring

Promoter Bobby Hitz fights to keep local boxing on its feet.

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By Zak Mucha

As soon as Patrick Swan climbs into the ring at the Ramada Plaza O'Hare he's met with jeering that should be reserved for the cloaked villain of a silent movie. Swan has done nothing to precipitate this eruption but show up to box Anwar Oshana, an Assyrian relocated to Hoffman Estates, for the super middleweight championship of Illinois.

Handkerchief-size flags flutter throughout the standing-room-only crowd, and the booing turns to whistles and shrieks as the announcer introduces Oshana. The same flag, white with ribbons of red and blue, is carried proudly into the ring by a cornerman even before the fighter steps through the ropes.

At the first bell Oshana charges toward Swan, throwing hard hooks and uppercuts, going for his tenth knockout in 14 fights. He pushes Swan around the ring, refusing to back off despite Swan's quick combinations. Soon the crowd is standing, cheering every punch Oshana lands. He throws a solid right that rocks Swan out of his stance. Swan turns a defiant shoulder and tries to strut away as if the shot didn't hurt. The crowd screams at Swan, hoping he'll keep his back to Oshana, hoping Oshana will finish him off.

This is the main event in the Ramada Rumble, a fight card put together by boxing promoter Bobby Hitz, who's sitting at a ringside table just outside the spotlight.

When people today think of boxing promoters they think first of Don King, who's run the heavyweight division as a monopoly. But long before King entered the picture, boxing promoters were known--in author Budd Schulberg's words--as "the 'meat merchants' ready to take healthy, hungry boys and throw them to the wolves." Characters like Frankie Carbo, Roy Cohn, and Donald Trump didn't start staging fights out of an altruistic love of the sport. But Hitz says, "The commodity I'm dealing in is human beings, not soybeans or whatever."

Because he used to box, because he had his own dream of becoming a champion, Hitz believes he knows who boxers are. "I can tell a fighter, 'Hey, this is not right for you.' They can respect that because the right hands they get hit with I got hit with. The roadwork they do I have done."

And now Oshana is slowing down before the promoter's eyes. The more experienced Swan comes on to win the last couple of rounds, rounds Oshana has never before gone in a fight. It could be Oshana worked himself too hard in training--this morning he weighed in six pounds under the limit. "I told you to eat that spaghetti last night," Hitz lightly admonished him when he stepped off the scales.

But Swan has rallied too late. When the decision is announced, an exhausted Anwar Oshana becomes Illinois' new super middleweight champ.

"Look at you under that umbrella," says Rick Larson, harassing his childhood friend. "Legs crossed, drinking your coffee..." The two men are seated on the open patio of Nana's, Bobby Hitz's restaurant at the corner of State and Kinzie. After the midday rush the restaurant has emptied and Hitz is taking a break, enjoying some unseasonably decent weather. "The godfather," Larson continues. "What we need now is the music." Grinning, he yells to a busboy with a black eye resembling an ink spill and asks if he has the sound track to The Godfather on a CD somewhere in back.

"Yeah, look at him." Hitz's cousin, Michael Ponti, returns from the kitchen with a cold plate of chicken parmigiana and jumps in. "Waiting to get stabbed by the young De Niro." Ponti sits down and starts humming the Godfather theme.

Passersby who recognize Hitz on the patio interrupt the conversation with their greetings. The ones who don't know him as a boxer turned promoter know him as the big, sweet guy who owns the restaurant.

Behind a pair of thin-rimmed glasses and a slightly dented nose, Hitz at 33 still looks like a tough heavyweight. He moves around the patio lightheartedly, at least until talk drifts to his life's passion. "Boxing gave me my life, gave me something to do," he says. "And not that money is the measure of a man, but a lot of people have been made millionaires in this who would have never had the chance. And there's people who started out with millions before they got into boxing. It doesn't mean they're good promoters. If I do another 10 years, 20 years, of the honest approach we can clean up this game, because the powers that be, the--"

Hitz reins himself in. To protect his fighters and himself, Bobby Hitz is sometimes cautious with words. "There's honest hardworking people in this business," he says, "but it's the bad seeds that get the attention. That's in any business. There's bad chefs that give chefs a bad name.... There's always those people. I gotta just forge ahead."

Since 1991 Hitz has been fanning the embers of Chicago boxing by promoting fights four or five times a year at the Bismarck Hotel and at the Ramada and Hyatt hotels out by O'Hare. His regular fighters are all Chicago guys and Hitz has taken them under his wing. He can rattle off their names in machine-gun fashion: Mike "the Fly" Garcia, Mike Jankovich, Eddie White, Tony LaRosa, Ed Krusnecki. Hitz refers to himself as a "fighter-friendly promoter." Garcia, a 21-0 featherweight, calls him "fair" and "down-to-earth." He's also been called "a lamb surviving in a lion's den."

Chicago used to be a boxer's town. Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano fought here. Floyd Patterson beat Archie Moore for the heavyweight title at the Chicago Stadium in 1956, only to be knocked out by Sonny Liston in the first round six years later and sneak away from the same arena hiding behind a false beard. What became known as the second Saint Valentine's Day massacre took place here in 1951 when Jake LaMotta lost his title but refused to go down against Sugar Ray Robinson. Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, and Ezzard Charles all won, lost, or defended their heavyweight belts in Chicago.

But in the 60s the big fights left the midwest. Casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City could cover the multimillion-dollar site fees and fighters' percentages because the fights brought in enough high rollers to more than cover the costs. And that isn't the only way the world has changed. "Nowadays, for a kid to consciously choose to be a fighter he has to be a really driven athlete, because other opportunities are so plentiful," says Hitz. Boxing isn't the sport it was 30 or 40 years ago, when nearly every neighborhood had its own club and the heavyweight champ was the sporting world's brightest light. A lot of the glamour's gone. Rarely is attention lavished on an amateur boxer turning pro; it's nothing like the celebrity of the all-American drafted as an NFL running back or NBA power forward.

"It hasn't come full circle like basketball or football," Hitz says. "Boxing is the only primitive sport where it's still, from a business standpoint, wide-open territory--where you don't have agents, or kids coming out of college. You don't have to be anything to be in boxing. To be a trainer all you need is someone dumb enough to believe you're a trainer."

Between the championship bouts and boxing's nameless amateurs there's an immeasurable chasm. Hitz works that gap. He knows he's no Don King or Bob Arum. "People seem to mistake kindness for weakness, and I try to avoid the more predatory aspects of the business." He smiles. "I'm more of an herbivore." He cannot even be sure his promoting career will last. But he doesn't seem to mind.

"I need a cigar," Hitz announces, as Larson and Ponti riff on dialogue from Raging Bull. Ponti takes a humidor from its plastic bag and sets it on the table next to his chicken and soup.

"You get these from that restaurant?" Hitz asks, noticing the fat cigars.

"Cubans," Ponti says. "Just laid out 57-hundred for cigars."

Hitz and Ponti begin arguing the authenticity of the cigars. "I'll trade you the chicken for a cigar," Hitz proposes, nodding at Ponti's plate. Ponti figures out how much each cigar cost, notes the imbalance between a free Cuban and a free lunch, and warns Hitz that the chicken breasts better have silicone implants. Everyone laughs and Hitz gets his cigar.

It's early February, the day of the Ramada Rumble. A few minutes after nine in the morning, Bobby Hitz walks into the lobby of the Ramada Plaza O'Hare with a doctor's scale slung over his shoulder. He's with Rick Larson, who gives him a hand on fight days. The two of them don't even make it through the lobby before they're stopped by one of tonight's fighters, Bernard Harris, a lightweight from Detroit. Harris is wondering if he could get his expense money for some breakfast. "You're starting already?" Hitz asks as a friendly caution.

"I'm hungry."

"Let's get you weighed in before you worry about eating, huh?"

"Yeah," says Harris. Hitz wants to know how he's feeling, how he's gonna do tonight. Harris grins proudly, shows off a little footwork to prove he's ready to go. But the bell's nearly 12 hours away and his stomach's empty.

In the conference room where they'll do the weigh-in, Hitz levels the scale. An old man with long hair and an unkempt beard wanders into the room. "Hi, Bobby. What's going on?"

"Nothing," Hitz replies. The old man leaves silently and Hitz is asked who that was. "Some mooch."

Hitz checks the ballroom, where rows of chairs surround an empty square of floor where the ring will be. He notices that two Hitz Enterprises banners are missing from the ceiling. In the manager's office, Hitz finds out that his wife Karen has them. He calls home and asks Karen to bring the banners when she arrives for the weigh-in.

After they check out their upstairs suites, Hitz and Larson find some of the regulars sitting on a bank of sofas in the lobby. Jim Holly is bringing two fighters in from Ohio; Laury Meyer is a cornerman for the Galaxy Gym in Detroit; J.C. Gutierrez helps Hitz match fighters; and George Hernandez from Chicago's Garfield Park manages three of the fighters on tonight's card.

"I been here since six in the morning," Meyer says, his sleepy face obscured by glasses and a baseball cap that says CUT MAN in thin gold letters. Between the words is a tiny pin from Don King Promotions.

"Where'd you get the pin, Cut Man?" Hitz asks.

"I got it," Meyer says, scratching his walrus mustache, "from Don King himself. He recognizes me because of the hat. He said, 'Hey, Cut Man,' and gave me the pin."

"Bobby," Holly interrupts, "I gotta ask a favor."

Hitz says to go ahead.

"It's a big favor." Holly pauses. "See, I was all ready last night. I had everything packed up, all in the big bag. You know, the big bag. I put it in the basement so I wouldn't forget, and I guess I left without it."

Hitz stands there and waits for the end of the story. "Well, what'd you forget?" he finally asks. "What do you need?"

"Everything," Holly says, looking at his shoes. Hernandez, Gutierrez, and Meyer break into stifled laughter. They knew about this, and were waiting for Holly to spring the news on Hitz.

"Everything?" asks Hitz, taking a step back as if he'd been hit. "What? Shorts, shoes, gloves, everything? How do you fucking forget that? That's, that's like a doctor forgetting his scalpel in the operating room." Hitz weighs his options, which are to find this funny or not to. "I don't fucking believe you, you forgot everything." Hitz drops into a boxing stance, cocking his fist level to Holly's face. "You're gonna force my comeback tonight, you know that."

Holly laughs with relief when he sees Hitz clowning around. One of his fighters is a heavyweight, around Hitz's size. "I got my bag at home," Hitz says, and asks Larson to call Karen and see if she can bring Hitz's boxing equipment along with the banners.

"This is pretty typical," Larson mumbles as he dials the cellular phone.

Hitz Enterprises, announces the sign outside the conference room. Rick Larson makes himself comfortable at a round table that has a piece of paper taped to it that says Promoters Only. Two state boxing commissioners shuffle papers at a folding table by the front door. The other round tables in the room are empty, except for the one where a young man with a nose flattened to a near vertical slope is hunched with pen and paper.

"Pick a number between 1 and 14," one of the commissioners tells Bobby Hitz. Hitz says 7, and the commissioner moves his finger down the roster. "OK. Bernard Harris." Before every program, one fighter is picked to take a drug test. A plastic cup is labeled with Harris's name and set aside for the trip to the bathroom.

Hitz moves across the room and checks on the fighter answering his questionnaire. "How's it going? You got any questions?" The fighter shakes his head.

Soon the other boxers start to wander in with their trainers, managers, stablemates. There's no ceremony to the weigh-in. The boxers strip down if they have to, and they get on the scale as the fight doctor watches. While they're here they answer a 20-question true-false test on the boxing laws of Illinois, then they show some form of ID and have their pictures taken. The pictures are to keep them from fighting under false names.

The room fills quickly. The boxers sit at the round tables and look for their opponents among the unfamiliar faces. Bernard Harris is sitting with Patrick Thorns and their trainer, Bill Miller. Jim Holly is pacing in and out, every so often going back down the hall to a pay phone. Last night's HBO fight, where Oliver McCall burst into tears and refused to continue, keeps coming up in conversations. "I heard they pulled him out of a crack house a couple hours before the fight," someone says.

One of the boxing commissioners wanders the room, snapping Polaroid mug shots of the fighters, telling dirty jokes, and celebrating his hangover. "I was at my buddy's exotic club last night. I blew a lot of money," he stops to explain. "You know, once you get a taste--" He steps outside for a cigarette and returns a minute later to ask Rick Larson, "Hey, what's the sound of hillbillies having sex?"

Karen Hitz arrives with the equipment her husband asked for, along with two bouquets of helium balloons covered with little red hearts. A familiar face at Bobby's fights, she's warmly greeted. She sets herself up at the promoter's table between Larson and her husband, and together they start going through ledgers, receipts, tickets--making sure everything's in order for the night. On fight days she does as much work as her husband--maybe more. "OK," Bobby Hitz tells the room, directing the warning expressly toward the fighters, "no one bother me while I'm doing this. You got a question, it can wait."

Before a minute passes Bernard Harris has a question. He's still hungry and he's already weighed in. Having heard Bobby's warning, Harris heads toward Karen's side of the table. Bobby Hitz raises his eyebrows at the sight of the approaching fighter.

"What do you need, honey?" Karen asks.

"I don't want to bother anyone," he says. "I just wanted to know if I could get going."

For an answer Bobby Hitz announces that all the fighters have to stick around for ten more minutes to get their travel and expense money. As he speaks, a hotel employee wheels in a cart with coffee, muffins, and rolls.

Hitz tells the fighters that the matches are going to start right at 7:30 and there will be no intermission. "We're gonna roll right through the fights," he says. He wants all the fighters back at the hotel and in the dressing rooms by 6:30.

"This is the last time I'll bother you." Harris again approaches Hitz, who's still huddled over paperwork.

"You got your money, right? Wristbands? Tickets?"

"Yeah. This is the last thing, then you can kick me out."

"I'm not gonna kick you out. What?"

"I got my own music for when I come out."

"Oh yeah?" Hitz is trying to hide a smile. "You singing on it?"

"No, man. I don't sing," says Harris. "But I rapped it. I rap."

"Seriously? What's it called?"

"'You Can't Hold Me Back.'"

Hitz tells Harris to give his music to the deejay before the fights start. "Go eat something and get some rest."

Bob O'Donnell, manager of heavyweight Andrew Golota, sits next to Hitz and chuckles. "I should get down on my knees and thank God that I'm not promoting anymore."

After the fighters clear out, George Hernandez and J.C. Gutierrez approach Bobby Hitz with a problem. One of the fighters is asking for 14 comp tickets. While it isn't unusual for a fighter to get three or four free tickets for his friends and family, 14 is high for a club fight. The money coming in--money to pay the fighters and the managers and the promoter--is almost all from the ticket sales. If the fight were on ESPN or USA or pay-per-view it would be a different matter. Hitz shakes his head. "Jesus Christ."

"I know," Hernandez says. "What do you want to do?"

"What do I want? What did you tell the kid?"

Hernandez says he told the kid he would talk to the promoter.

"What the fuck. What's 14 times 25?"

Gutierrez works it out at $350, and Hitz and Hernandez curse. "I can't give away that many tickets," Hitz says, "but I don't wanna be the bad guy either."

"I know."

"You know what they'd say in Vegas?" says Hitz. "Take it out of the purse. Don King, he'd take it out of the purse. Bob Arum, he'd take it out of the purse. It's no problem. They'd say sure and just take it without telling the kid. I don't want to be like that. So what should I do?"

"Take it out of the purse." Hernandez and Gutierrez laugh, knowing Hitz won't.

"I'm serious. I can't afford that."

Purses are usually determined by the rank and experience of the boxers. In club fights, a purse for a fighter without much experience can run as low as $100 a round.

"What if you give him the tickets now?" Hernandez suggests. "And later when he goes for a title you get comped for everything out there--the travel and the hotel."

"I thought he was already my fighter." Hitz means those privileges should already be his.

"He is your fighter," Gutierrez assures Hitz. "It's only he says his family can't pay for them. They're poor, he says. It's seven kids and seven adults."

Hitz asks what that has to do with the number of tickets.

"The kids don't have to sit down, do they? They don't take up much room."

"Kids still sit down."

"They're real little," Gutierrez promises, measuring his palm over the tabletop as if the kids were all six inches tall. "That small they take up seats?"

"OK," Hitz suggests. "What if we split the cost three ways? We all take a bite and we get him his tickets. You want to do that?"

No one wants to do that.

"Fine," Hitz says. "Go and ask Karen what she thinks."

"Nooo," Hernandez laughs. The running joke is that Bobby's wife is the one who puts her foot down. He covers his throat with his hands. "I don't wanna ask her."

"You hear what's going on here, Karen?"

Without raising her eyes from her paperwork she announces that she heard everything. Eventually the fighter waiting in the hall gets seven tickets.

Bobby Hitz can look back on his fighting days with some objectivity. "Insubordination was my middle name," he says. "At the time I didn't realize what I was embarking on--it was almost kind of an out-of-body experience. You become a complete person as you get older and you learn to appreciate things and look at life with a different structure. My mind-set changed when I turned 30 and I think now, if I could have manufactured this when I was younger, I would have been a better fighter, a better person. It would have been a better ending. But you learn from your experiences and your ups and downs in life. It was something that had to happen."

The suburb of Glendale Heights, where Hitz grew up, is not the typical neighborhood boxers fight their way out of. "It was a suburb," Hitz says. "People played golf and tennis and all that. Guys' dads were doctors and lawyers, but with my friends we didn't have any prestige like that." Hitz's dad was in sales. Among Hitz and his friends, prestige was earned in arguments over whose dad was toughest. Later it was earned in round-robin boxing tournaments held in friends' basements or garages. In junior high, Hitz got his first set of boxing gloves. "Santa bought them," he says.

At a party after his first day in a real gym, Hitz began his training diet. "I was sitting there with a towel around my neck, my buddy giving me a rubdown--" He laughs at the recollection. "I was in training, so no more beer. I was drinking wine. Girls are asking, 'Why ain't he drinking beer?' My buddy's telling people, 'He's got a fight coming up. He's in training. No more beer, only wine.'"

By 1983 Hitz was Illinois' Golden Gloves super heavyweight champion. In 1985 he turned pro. When he quit in 1990 he'd won 21 of his 25 fights.

"The one thing I'll always remember about Hitz in the ring," says Tony Fitzpatrick, artist, ex-boxer, and fight fan, "is this one time Bobby was hit after the final bell by this guy. It was over and the ref jumped in, separated them, and they were pulled back to their corners. You could see Bobby's mind still going while he's sitting on his stool, and he's just getting more and more pissed off. They're cutting the tape off the other guy and Bobby gets up, walks across the ring, and fucking decks him. A riot went on in the audience for 20 minutes."

"If I got bored in a fight," Hitz recalls, "I would back up against the ropes and put my hands down. Let the guy hit me just so he could get back into it." One opponent Hitz didn't need to encourage was George Foreman in 1988. The ex-champ was making a comeback, and Hitz took the match "with maybe a week and a half notice." That wasn't unusual--many young fighters make the same mistake, he observes. "I'm a fighter, someone wanted to fight me, what was I gonna do? Say 'Wait for a month so I can train?'" Asked how the fight turned out, Hitz laughs and says, "I lost." Hitz was knocked out in the first round, and then he and Foreman went out to dinner together.

Jackie Kallen liked what she saw of Hitz in the Foreman fight. "Bobby started the whole ball rolling for me," she says now, from her ninth-floor suite in the Ramada. Bernard Harris and Patrick Thorns are Kallen's two boxers on tonight's card, and at the moment Harris is on the couch flipping through TV channels.

Kallen, who operates out of Los Angeles, is one of boxing's first female managers. She got into boxing as a publicist for Tommy Hearns, the former light heavyweight champ, and the sport hooked her. Hitz was the first fighter she managed. She took him on after the Foreman bout. She'd seen a fighter with great heart who needed her.

"It was evident he didn't have proper management, almost didn't have any management. He needed someone working for him--some of his matches were not proper," Kallen says. "Like I didn't see how he was to beat George Foreman. And the payoff wasn't great enough for him to merit taking that kind of risk. I wouldn't have put him in that fight with such short lead time.

"I wish I'd had him at the beginning of his career. He would have been a champion."

But no sooner did she pick up Hitz than he suffered the injury that would end his career. "I used to run seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," Hitz remembers. "Weather didn't matter--snow, rain." It was snowing in Detroit when Hitz slipped on the ice during a run. His elbow caught the weight of his fall. At the end of the day Hitz told his trainer that the elbow didn't feel right. They found a doctor who discovered bone chips.

A surgeon in Detroit removed the chips, but during the operation the ulnar nerve, which straddles the elbow, was damaged. The surgeon denied responsibility. "This guy wrecked me," says Hitz. "He went and told my then manager that I was a head case--there was nothing wrong with my arm." Hitz tried to interest a lawyer in representing him. "I told the lawyer, 'You can't tell me to forget about it. What if I told you you have to give up your practice, put down the pencil, and get out from behind your desk? What are you gonna do?'

"I went to the arbitration by myself. The doctor and the hospital said I had guts coming without counsel. I wasn't looking for something I didn't deserve. This was my career, this was something I couldn't put a price on. Because I didn't plan for anything else in my life. This wasn't about money. They told me to come up with a figure and I couldn't. So I eventually said 'OK, fine' and told them I wanted a quarter of a million. They came back and decided I'd get nothing.

"It was just one of these situations where you know you just got fucked right from the beginning. I was devastated and the money didn't really matter. I couldn't believe this, that this guy could completely wreck me and not give a shit, just deny it ever happened. When we left the arbitration I got him in the hall and gave him a piece of my mind."

Two years later another lawyer contacted Hitz about joining a class action against the surgeon. Hitz let it go. Today, he doesn't even want to name him. Too much time has passed, and it wouldn't heal his elbow.

Hitz fought one more bout--winning it--and quit the ring. Between 1989 and 1991 he admits he drifted. "I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't have an identity. I was kinda like, 'This is what I've done for my whole adult life, now what do I do?'"

Besides the injury, Hitz's career foundered on decisions that he doesn't care to say much about. He rolls his eyes, knowing that what happened to him back then happens to most young fighters. There were the fights that he now sees set him back, fights made before he met Jackie Kallen. "People who made the decisions," Hitz hedges, "people on the business end, should have looked out for me a little better." Realizing that this might sound self-pitying, Hitz leans forward and breaks into his Brando imitation. "You were my brother, Charlie. You shoulda looked out for me. I could've been a contender."

His own fight career could have taken a couple of different turns. "If I had been better prepared mentally," Hitz says. "I was going along, being misled by the wrong people. Taking direction from directionless people." But if blame has to be placed, Hitz will accept his portion. He was ignorant. He was impatient. He shrugs and lets the thought slide away.

Bobby and Karen Hitz bought Nana's a year ago because the restaurant business looked steadier to them than the ring. He could do his promoting right there, from a vacant table. Now it's a busy Saturday night at Nana's, months before the Ramada Rumble, and Bobby Hitz is greeting customers and showing them their tables. He's chatting up a couple in back when one of his fighters walks in the door. Hitz excuses himself.

Eddie White is a middleweight with a 15-0 record and a big future. He needs to talk to Hitz. White's been offered a couple of months' work in Germany as a sparring partner. He thinks it's a good idea. Hitz doesn't. "Maybe I should come to the restaurant and talk to you," White had said over the phone.

The two men find a table in the center of Nana's and patiently debate, as waiters hustle back and forth and new customers fill the room. Hitz gives his reasons why sparring in Germany would be a bad career move. White is on a roll; why should he disrupt his career to work as a hired hand for strangers? "Who's gonna look out for you? Who's gonna be on your side out there? You're going to be alone and you're going to have to do everything these guys tell you to do." White argues that he needs the work and the money and he can take care of himself.

Finally White seems to agree that Hitz is right--the job would be a mistake. But less than a week later he flies to Germany.

"Everybody wants a break and fighters look for their breaks through fighting and you can't blame 'em. It's a business," Hitz says with exasperation. "Because the majority of them come from not such a gifted background, these kids are so impressionable that they're just looking to make it. They'll whore themselves out. Very few guys have the loyalty it takes, and they're going for the highest bidder."

Because he was a boxer himself, Hitz likes to think he can defend his fighters in situations where they don't know enough to defend themselves. But his arguments often fall on deaf ears. "Some fighters can't take the hint and they end up being led by the wrong parties," says Hitz. "It's a real hard thing. You try and direct these kids in their own defense. They're hungry--they want to grab the brass ring. And no one likes to be told 'It's not your time yet.' And a lot of the time it's because they're ill-prepared. Or they just don't have the skills. That's a nice way of saying 'Hey, kid, you suck. Go get a job selling shoes.'

"As a fight promoter," says Hitz, "you have to be a psychologist, a father, a best friend, and a disciplinarian." He tells of one fighter matched against Buster Douglas, the journeyman who took Mike Tyson's title from him in 1990. "This kid had three or four months to get ready. On the business end they were buying the fight short, and I, as his promoter, didn't like the fight. But the kid went and made the deal on his own behind my back, looking at the short money." Hitz recalls his unheeded end of the conversation: "If you don't want to hear my advice and you're thanking this guy when all he's doing is feeding you to the dogs, then all I can say is shame on you. I hope you win the fight, I hope you do well. But they're not bringing you there to win the fight--I just hope you know that. You're thanking a guy for using you as cannon fodder. If you upset the applecart I'm there with you, and I'm with you if you don't. But you didn't do the right thing."

Hitz says, "When he's 40 he might say, 'You know, that Hitz was right.' But they don't know because they think they have all the answers. And so all you can do is talk. You spend a lot of time talking to yourself."

It's early February and Nana's is dressed up for Valentine's Day. Heart-shaped balloons hang from the ceiling, and a bouquet of red balloons strung together in the shape of a heart is centered in the front windows. The Ramada Rumble is three days off.

Hitz is sipping coffee in the empty restaurant and discussing menu changes with his chef. Two phones ring at once. A waiter runs to answer the restaurant phone while Hitz works his cellular phone. "It's for you, Bobby. Business," the waiter calls from the kitchen. In a second Hitz has both phones to his ears. As he sits back down there's another call on the restaurant phone. "I don't know who it was," he says when he returns. "Just some guy who wanted to ask about women fighters." Again the phone rings and Hitz excuses himself.

"This guy wanted to ride in like a hero with the big white hat and save the day," Hitz explains once that conversation's over. He's describing the new security man at the Ramada. "He was making demands that were really unnecessary." The security man saw his job as "risk evaluation" and "damage control" and he was questioning every detail that Hitz had to take care of by Saturday morning. "He didn't like how the fight was set up so he tried to suggest postponing it until he was ready. 'Don't you dare try to fuck with my event,' I told him, and he goes, 'Don't you swear at me.' 'Better I swear at you now rather than come over there. In the five years I've been doing this, there's not been one incident. You don't have to worry. It's a goddamned boxing match, it's not like the president's coming to visit.'"

"Tonight you're gonna see Bernard 'Sugarbear' Harris put on a good show. I'm gonna fight for a junior world title in the next few months, or definitely by the summer." Bernard Harris is making his way out after the weigh-in. Tonight he fights J.C. Kuhn. "I'm gonna walk him down and put on pressure. If it looks like he's got some hard punches I'll sit back." Harris bobs into a side-stance, shifting his weight to his back foot to illustrate. "Work on a lot of defensive shots and get my eyes sharp."

Several months ago Harris was supposed to appear on a Bobby Hitz card, but a concussion in training sidelined him. So this is his first Hitz bout. He's fought on cable fives times already, and he's undefeated in eight fights. Harris doesn't recount these achievements with any particular cockiness--he's simply so excited to be fighting tonight that walking casually through the hotel he seems ready to break into a sprint.

"Bobby Hitz is a cool, cool guy," says Harris. They've only met a few times, talked on the phone other times. But Harris reacts to the name the same way most boxers do. "He's a down-to-earth guy."

As Harris goes off for the breakfast he's been waiting hours for, his cornerman, Laury Meyer, drops himself into one of the lobby's plush couches. By his own count, Meyer has worked nearly 1,700 fights, and he says only one was stopped because of cuts. He says, "It's unfortunate that there's not much boxing in the Chicago area. But Bobby's trying to bring it back with good, competitive matches. That's what makes a good card, that's what brings the fans back.

"I never understand," Meyer continues, "why a city with so many tough kids has so few fights. I don't mean to be disrespectful to anybody, but I think one reason is because there are so few good, tough trainers.

"I'm not bad-mouthing anybody, but Bobby Hitz is a first-class promoter. If he continues he's gonna be a great success. He's trying very hard to do the right thing."

Harris cruises back through the hotel lobby after breakfast and breaks into a grin when he sees Meyer still resting on the couch. Meyer hands Harris a stack of snapshots from a previous fight.

"I got a room for $25 so I could get some sleep for a while," Meyer tells Harris.

"Twenty-five dollars?" Harris asks. "You paid that when all you wanted to do was sleep for a couple of hours? You shouldn't of paid that much." Harris tells Meyer to get a cheaper rate. Meyer shrugs it off--he doesn't want to go complain. "Up to you," says Harris.

By midafternoon the ring is partially assembled in the center of the ballroom. Time is now an issue. Counting the rows of chairs arranged into eight sections that surround the metal skeleton of the ring, Karen Hitz notices one section's short a row. She informs her husband, who has to find whoever's in charge of the chairs.

The lion's share of the work is done by Bobby and Karen Hitz and Rick Larson. This reflects their belief that if you need something done right you have to do it yourself, not to mention the fact that they can't afford employees.

LIVE HARD says a tent-size T-shirt hanging on the wall. Live Hard, one of the evening's sponsors, attracted some national attention when Mike Tyson wore one of its baseball caps during an interview on ESPN. When Bobby Hitz returns he points to a Live Hard sign and tells Jeff Rasoff, who works for the company, "You got to hang that higher." He looks around the ballroom to see if anything else is out of place. "You got hats for all the guys?" he asks Rasoff.

"Yeah, I'm gonna stand there and hand them to the guys before they come down the aisle."

"No," Hitz says sharply. "You give it to them after the fight. Climb in the ring and slap one on their heads as the ref raises his hand. Then you give them a hat." Hitz knows better than to have anyone bothering the fighters before they enter the ring. "You got a tuxedo?"

"Yeah, I got mine in the car. I used to video weddings and bar mitzvahs."

Hitz laughs. "He actually has his own tuxedo."

A couple of minutes later Hitz is arguing angrily into a cellular telephone. He moves down the hall to continue the conversation without an audience. There were supposed to be seven fights, but Jim Holly's heavyweight didn't make the trip to Chicago. Once the cellular phone is back in his pocket, Hitz calms down fast. He considers getting in the ring himself--Karen has already brought his equipment. "I could do it. Maybe I'll make my comeback tonight," he says, shuffling his feet and throwing a couple of shots. Larson smiles knowingly. He's heard it before. He doesn't understand what his best friend wants to prove. "What if he knocks you out?" Larson asks to antagonize him.

"Won't happen."

"What if he just gets a lucky punch? One shot, boom."

"Won't happen." Hitz ends the conversation.

Holly's absent fighter is Moses Harris. Holly's other fighter, J.C. Kuhn, is going in the ring against Bernard Harris.

Ten years ago Hitz got in the ring with Holly and broke his jaw in the first round. "He was a lot bigger than me," Holly remembers. "I was a heavyweight, but he was a real heavyweight." Hitz doesn't actually spend a lot of time thinking about a comeback, but Holly considers it a possibility. "I'd like to be his first fight," Holly says.

He also says that Hitz is one of the best promoters in boxing. "I do a lot of work for Bobby and I never had any trouble. The money's always on time--you don't have to wait around after. Other promoters don't have the money in front--you got to wait a couple days."

If Holly knows why Moses Harris didn't show he keeps it to himself. These things happen. Earlier in the morning he'd told a story about a female fighter he managed who was disqualified because she got frustrated and kicked her opponent in the knee.

Before the fights a group of fans gathers in the lobby bar. At one table a man is telling about the 23-foot anaconda his brother keeps in a reptile house near the Wisconsin Dells. One day when his brother was in the cage, the snake clamped its teeth into his thigh. The anaconda coiled itself around his ribs, then his neck, then his nose and mouth. "He felt his ribs popping. He's a big guy, but he never realized how strong those things are. The blood vessels in his eyes broke from the pressure."

A visiting friend stabbed the anaconda 20 times before it let go. By then its owner had passed out and wasn't breathing. Paramedics revived him with paddles and a veterinarian stitched up the snake. The story made the papers. "He was lucky his friend was there. If he wasn't, no one would have stopped by until Monday and all they would've found was a big lump in the middle of the snake. My brother's supposed to be coming tonight."

Metallica is playing tonight over at the Horizon, and a Metallica fan easily pushing 300 pounds sits alone at the far end of the bar. Tattoos march down his arms from the sleeves of a concert T-shirt. "Look at him," says one of the fight fans. "He looks like the guy from Saturday Night Live. Chris Farley." The table bursts into laughter, and everyone watches to see if he'll throw himself off his barstool or crush a table. The heavy metal Farley glares at the laughter and looks away.

Scott Connor walks up to the bar and orders a carry-out lunch. Connor's 2-0 in his brief career, and he's scheduled for the first bout--four rounds against an opponent he knows nothing about. He'll be done for the night before eight o'clock.

"Hey." Connor calls over to Heavy Metal. "There any tickets left for tonight? Can I get them at the door?"

"No. They're gone, man."

By six o'clock a crowd's gathered around the folding tables set up at the entrance to the Ramada ballroom. Karen Hitz and her friend Diana Lopez are selling tickets and checking reservations, and they have to keep explaining that the doors don't open until 6:30.

Fluorescent lights have been dimmed to a sunset orange inside the ballroom and spotlights are now focused on the ring. While the ring ropes are being tightened, one of the boxing commissioners stomps on sections of the mat and checks for bounce. Security guards in red windbreakers emblazoned with the Hitz logo section off the first five rows, separating the $25 general admission seats from the $50 reserved section. Hitz checks his watch and eyes the far corner of the room. "Where's the fucking deejay?"

"The parking lot's already filled up," someone reports. "There's nowhere to park because of the Metallica concert." Hitz goes off to see if the hotel can do something about this.

As the national anthem is played, many of the $50 seats remain empty. Hitz is sitting at his ringside table with Bob O'Donnell and Buzz Kilman. At the press table, two Assyrians from cable channel 25 wait for the main event--Anwar Oshana versus Patrick Swan. Scott Connor opens the card against a fighter whose heavyweight status appears to be due to a high percentage of body fat. Both fighters slug awkwardly; after a minute Connor's body turns a patchy pink from exertion. Before three minutes pass his opponent goes down. He doesn't get up, and the ref standing over him waves his hand, signaling it's over. Connor pounds his chest, not out of cockiness, but from pride and relief. "Yes!" he yells, holding his fists high. This is his third win. A Live Hard baseball cap is placed on his head, though he doesn't notice. On his way back to the dressing room, Hitz slaps his shoulder and congratulates him.

Now the $50 seats fill up quickly and the ballroom becomes standing room only. In the brief intervals between fights, local luminaries are introduced. Buzz Kilman holds up the Illinois super bantamweight championship belt, which Jorge Vasquez will claim by outpointing Jaime Ruiz in the next bout. Andrew Golota, the heavyweight who's become infamous for his shots to Riddick Bowe's groin, climbs into the ring and waves shyly, as if he doesn't like being up there without gloves on.

The last of the local fighters making an appearance is Eddie White, who climbs through the ropes with a big grin. Home from Germany, he's back in the fold of George Hernandez and Bobby Hitz, who've lined him up with fights that have made him International Boxing Organization super middleweight champion. He'll be defending his title later this year in Denmark. "He came back ready to work," Hitz acknowledges.

Hitz wishes only the best for his local fighters, but as the night goes on it's evident that he doesn't line them up with cream puffs. Kelly Rowe, a light heavyweight, is knocked out in the fourth round by Chris Cuellar. Jesse "the Law" Torres, whose day job is as an Aurora policeman, is raked by combinations from Patrick Thorns that would floor a fighter with less heart. Before the inevitable decision is announced after the eighth round, Torres gets a standing ovation for his heart.

Bernard Harris, in red trunks with a string of tassels circling his waist, dances softly in his corner to keep his body loose. Jackie Kallen says a few last words into her fighter's ear, while Bill Miller and Laury Meyer feed him his mouthpiece and wipe his forehead with Vaseline. The opposite corner is crowded by J.C. Kuhn, Jim Holly, and their cornermen. Before the bell, all but the fighters and the referee slip through the ropes.

For the first couple of rounds Harris stays back and watches Kuhn, forcing him to attack. Harris is dancing at arm's length, jumping in to throw slapping jabs. Daring Kuhn, he lowers his hands from his face to his chest and gives Kuhn a still target before slipping away. He soon has Kuhn's timing almost down.

In the third round Harris comes alive. His hands come up and he snaps punches at Kuhn, chasing him around the ring. The more tired Kuhn gets, the more energy Harris finds. Jim Holly frantically shouts orders as punches land on Kuhn's face. Holly's voice catches Kuhn's attention sporadically. Responding, he shifts his stance and brings his arms up to protect himself. When they go back down, a hard hook catches him on the temple and sends him tripping halfway across the ring.

Harris wins by a decision in six rounds. He poses for a picture with his friends and family and heads back to his dressing room.

Between rounds of the Vasquez-Ruiz bout, a ring girl takes charge of the audience. Walking the circuit inside the ropes, the ring card poised above her head, she stops and gives the crowd a wiggle to encourage applause. She scoots to the other side of the ring, shakes her tightly bound breasts, and cups her ear to solicit louder cheers. The referee has to step in and lead her through the ropes because the fighters are ready to go.

Bobby Hitz speaks elusively about what he considers boxing's "bad element"--the crowd whose interest in the sport mostly concerns their own profits. The ways of cheating a fighter can vary from shorting his cut to viciously mismatching him. Hitz won't name anyone. "Only because these guys'll sue you," he says.

"They know who they are. I'm not a sour grapes guy. I do what I do--they do what they do. I recognize what they do and if they can live with themselves, so be it. The rats know who the rats are. There's only a handful of them in this community, but they're loud enough to give a bad name to a lot of people. The reputation as a rat precedes them. They've raped and pillaged this game for a long time and they're always coming out unscathed because they think of themselves first and foremost."

What Hitz hasn't seen the rats do is fix fights. "See, that's one aspect of the business I don't know exists. I never experienced it," he says. "No one ever came up to me and told me that tonight's not my night. I never had any knowledge of that. I would have had to die first. I think people watch way too many movies. They might put a guy in there with a little less competition, but they would never tell a guy--" Hitz cuts himself off. "It's always been a clean deal from my standpoint."

But he knows pro boxing's reputation places it in the sporting world's red-light district. "I'm not going to sit here and say that boxing, as a business or as a sport, is above reproach." But, he asks, what is? "Should they abolish politics? How much backdoor dealing goes on there? Look at auto racing. Boxing becomes more scrutinized, I think, because a lot of people don't understand it. It's no more barbaric than some guy driving his car at 240 miles an hour into a fucking wall."

Bobby and Karen Hitz have a young son, so Hitz has to ask himself whether he wants his own child to become a boxer. "If he wanted to, yeah. If I was involved." Hitz says he'll support whatever his baby boy wants to do in life, but would let him fight only under his father's guidance. "Boxing is a rough game. You have to have a certain makeup to have what it takes." Hitz hopes his son has so many choices in life that boxing's barely visible among them. "The mistakes I made were for the betterment of my son. I want him to have more options than I did. My parents brought me up the right way in regards to discipline and respectability. I'll take what I learned from my parents and pass it on to my son. But I never wanted to be anything but a fighter."

Hitz considers himself twice fortunate. He followed his life's passion, and then he found a way to stay involved with it. "My friends who graduated college, they're selling shoes, they're doing a lot of things they'd never wanted to do with their lives. If I never make a quarter again in my life, I'll feel I'm successful." From Nana's patio Hitz points to a CTA bus grinding down Kinzie. "You think this guy coming down the street one day woke up and decided 'I want to be a bus driver.' Not to say that being a bus driver is a bad thing. But ask 100 percent of the workforce, 'Are you doing what you want with your life?' I bet 95 percent of the people aren't. How many people in life can say that they're doing what they want?"

Hitz's pleasure in life is evident when he speaks of boxing, or his restaurant--or, for that matter, radio or acting. He has a part in an independent movie, The Deal, recently shot in Chicago. "I don't know if I'm any good. We'll soon see." Hitz got a taste of broadcasting at WLUP and WMVP and he's amazed at its possibilities. "Now how could you hate that job? All you have to do is talk. I want to diversify, get myself into everything. I would like to take whatever I'm doing as far as I can. If you try enough, something's gonna hit."

Sitting with Rick Larson and Michael Ponti on Nana's patio, Hitz is approached by a man selling advertising space on the State Street trolleys. No introductions are made but the monologue's directed at Hitz, either because he's sitting closest to the sidewalk or because he'd been the patio's center of attention. The busboys grin as they watch Hitz consider the pitch.

"Who do I ask for?" The salesman has a follow-up visit in mind.

"You can find me," Hitz says.

"What's your name?"

"Bobby."

The man produces a pen and paper. "Bobby what?"

Hitz glances at his friends and quietly spells out his last name. The salesman writes the name down and pronounces it.

"Yeah. Hitz," Hitz says, and slightly raises his voice. "What? You never heard of me?"

"Uh, no. I'm sorry." Flustered, the salesman tries to respond to the man he didn't recognize and now doesn't know why he should recognize. Ponti and Larson are laughing.

"No, it's OK," says Bobby Hitz, letting the salesman off the hook. "I'm just having some fun." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Rober Drea: Bobby Hitz, center with Eddie White, Jorge Vasquez, Mario Cawley, Anwar Oshana/ promotional flier/ unnamed boxer/ Jose Caguitas de Jesus..

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