Patrons of Missoula’s downtown nightlife aren’t easily impressed by stories of quick fists flying; the mud, the blood and the beer, the tinkle of loose teeth hitting the sidewalk like craps dice, the inevitable red and blue flashing of a police cruiser. “There was a brawl downtown last night” is an opening line to a well-hashed Missoula story only slightly less predictable than a winter inversion. Recent developments, however, have put a new twist on an old theme. “Did you see the fights at the Wilma last night?” is a question you can expect to hear Thursday mornings in the next few months, though unless you’ve noticed the marquee that advertises the movies and concerts in the Garden City’s grand dame of concert halls, you’ve probably overlooked the fact that the Wilma is now hosting live boxing on Wednesday nights through April.
Tonight, Butte fight promoter Bob LeCoure is hoping to make a buck or two, and perhaps even restore some of his sport’s lost lustre. LeCoure can’t pull himself away from his duties for an interview, but according to more than one local boxing fan, LeCoure is nothing short of a legend in Montana boxing. Stevensville residents and brothers Mike and Ross Prather remember LeCoure from their youth, when boxing clubs for teens were as much a local recreation staple as soccer and baseball leagues. “Bob had young fight clubs going all over the state in the mid-sixties,” says Ross. “Amateur, of course, but he was also organizing professional fights. I think it just got too expensive, too regulated.”
“And of course, boxing has kind of fallen out of favor with the public,” surmises his brother Mike.
Which begs the question, what kind of boxing is featured at the Wilma? According to the rules, all comers are welcome to fight. All that’s required is a weigh-in and a willingness to sign away one’s amateur status, not a problem for most takers in Missoula, given that the winner gets $150 and the loser pockets an easy—or not so easy—$50. Not bad for a maximum of four-and-a-half minutes of work, or three 90-second rounds. But will the same stage that’s been graced by the soulful presence of John Prine and shook with the funkadelic delight of George Clinton be cheapened somehow with pasty fraternity brothers trading haymakers while their brethren swill three-dollar cans of Bud in the cheap seats? Will a blood-thirsty crowd push inexperienced fighters to dilute whatever dignity remains in a sport that has sunk from producing one of last century’s greatest athletes and heroes, Muhammad Ali, to ear-biting, low-brow sagas that make professional wrestling seem a cultural gem?
The answer might be found perusing the ringside seats, which go for $30 a pop, some of which are reserved for the sponsors of the Wednesday night fight series. Topping the sponsorship list is Budweiser, dispensed locally by Earl’s Distributing. Just before the first bout I ask one of the guest at the Earl’s table whether the night’s cards will be mostly street fights or boxing. He answers me this way: “I’m here for two reasons: The Bud and the Bud Girls!” The latter are young, beautiful bikini-clad women who parade giant Bud placards around the ring announcing the number of each upcoming round. For a five minute, three-round match, this display seems about as imperative as flashing the current GNP of Portugal.
Sitting behind the Earl’s guests near stage left is Shane Cole, a quiet, serious looking guy with close-cropped black hair. Cole watches the second bout intently as Justin “Giant” Gergen squares off against a green Nick “The Violator” Vyletta. Vyletta is summarily beaten like a circus monkey, and the fight is stopped midway through the second round after Gergen lands a flurry of punches that leaves Vyletta twitching on the canvas. The Earl’s boys throw more dollar bills in the ring and let out a cheer when the Bud girl-of-the-moment stoops to pick them up. Vyletta is attended to by the ring physician and squeegeed off the canvas.
I chat for a while with Cole, who grew up boxing in Colstrip and continued to fight during a ten-year stint in the Navy. He fought the first week boxing was held at the Wilma this year, won his bout, and is waiting for someone the right size and experience to match with in the weeks to come. Prudently, LeCoure won’t overmatch experienced fighters with those with little or no experience. Still, the last match was enough of a blowout that a mishap seems possible again. “Somebody might get hurt, but I think the shorter rounds and the experienced referee work to make things safer,” says Cole. “It is boxing, though. There are some fighters here who actually train and have experience sparring, and then there are guys here who come out just because they have something to prove.”
Cole gets up to congratulate and give pointers to the winner of the first card, Deak “Dueling” Dollard, a Missoula smokejumper who was a top finisher in the Wyoming strongman competition.
Their conversation is interrupted by the ring announcer’s query: “How many of you want to see a girrrl fiiiiight?” The crowd erupts in a frenzy. Sitting on the lap of one of the Earl’s gang is “Wild Wendy” Wolff, one-half of the night’s featured women’s bout. “I don’t know if I’m going to fight tonight,” says Wendy loudly. “I heard the chick I was supposed to fight is in jail for a DUI. Too bad. I was ready to kick some butt.”
Resuming their exchange, Dollard is grateful for Cole’s pointers. “I was a wrestler in high school and college, and so the only thing I know is to get in close and react to the way the other guy moves,” he says. Unlike most of the other winning fighters, Dollard won’t be around for the grand finale in April when the Wilma’s top fighters compete for a $12,000 purse. “I’m leaving to go to Italy and France in January to study art,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the Louvre and some of the other museums, but what I’m really attracted to are the sculptures in Italy. I’ll probably be back to [fire] jump another season, then go back again to study some more.”
Like any good fighter, Dollard anticipates my comeback question about the perceived dissonance between his interests. “Remington, the painter, he was a fighter,” Dollard explains. “The self-discipline aspect is something that’s common to both art and anything like this. I don’t know, my art friends think I’m crazy. But then I don’t always fit in with them either.”
At intermission, Dollard slips out. Meanwhile, Wild Wendy puffs a cigarette outside on Higgins Avenue, awaiting her match. Later, after the Earl’s boys have lost more dollars to the Bud girls, Wendy loses a unanimous decision to an exuberant childcare worker named Melissa Garry.
Barbara Bick, who runs the Wilma, claims that Missoulians can thank Judy Martz and the Legislature in part for the fights. “Judy Martz and company deregulated energy, and one of the immediate impacts was that it became a lot more expensive to heat this place,” she explains earlier in the evening just before the first of seven scheduled bouts. After checking in with ticket agents, doormen, concessions, and gently reminding patrons to keep their feet off the seats, Bick steps outside onto the balcony overlooking the Clark Fork, lights a cigarette, and talks about the financial high-wire act of keeping the Wilma’s heat and lights on.
“This is a town where only 237 people paid to see McCoy Tyner,” she muses about the jazz pianist who played here recently. “The next night he’s in New Orleans playing for 2,600 people. I’ve got to find ways to pay the bills. The first Wednesday we did this, we drew 700 [people] and tonight looks to be about the same.”
Bick steps back into the Wilma, where the testosterone-thick atmosphere is palpable. “You’ve got people from down the Bitterroot driving up here to see this. We keep the house lights up, because I thought things would tend to get too rowdy, beer getting spilt and what have you, if they were down,” she explains.
But she thinks that so far, boxing fans are well-behaved. “This whole place is clean 15 minutes after the last fight ends. It’s better than some concerts we’ve had here, where I’ve literally had to clean every seat. And you know what? I think this will probably take care of the big heating bills this winter. Now, would I like to be able to do that without the boxing? Hey, I’m just a girl trying to make a buck,” she says, with a coy smile.