A man in a tuxedo is singing the national anthem and about 250 people, hands and hats over their hearts, are facing a huge American flag hanging from a back porch, bellowing along at the top of their lungs. For blocks around, drivers are slowing down, rolling down their windows and making "What the?" faces at their passengers.
Although this is the third time today that "The Star-Spangled Banner" has been belted out from this crowded backyard, this isn't a gathering of some patriotic group, not exactly, but rather a meeting of the unsanctioned and highly unofficial International Brotherhood of Sweet Scientists, Local 529. Friends, acquaintances, workmates, roommates and at least one grandma have gathered to drink beer, listen to music, eat barbecue, gossip and watch a select few of their number lace up the gloves and try to beat the snot out of each other.
Backyard boxing, an old tradition revived here over the last two Memorial Days, has branched out to Labor Day.
Backyard boxing is undergoing a bit of a revival around the country, possibly in response to the 1999 movie " Fight Club." An Internet search on the phrase reveals a scattering of Web sites chronicling the informal adventures of young people who slug it out with each other, usually amid much drinking and with few rules.
The International Brotherhood is less "Fight Club," more "Fat City." The boxers wear gloves, mouthpieces, foul-proof cups and headgear. The ring is homemade, but it's a ring. The surface is carpet fragments duct-taped together over the grass, with nylon straps and garden hose-wrapped cable for ropes. (Full disclosure: This writer loaned the organizers a utility knife for carpet cutting.) There are judges, referees, seconds and an official timekeeper.
"The way I got the idea of doing it in the backyard was from my grandmother," says Steve "Iron Skillet" Smith, 28, the founder and organizer of these semi-regular events, the last one of which earned coverage in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He's also the defending heavyweight Hoosierbelt champion, a bottlecap-festooned belt he'll defend in the main event. (In St. Louis parlance, a hoosier is a lowlife, a redneck.)
"Her father, Tom Murray from Ireland, he used to have the kids invite everybody over," Smith continues, "and when I started boxing she started telling me that's what they used to do. I never thought anything of it until I just wanted to just box, just how I played fuzzball in the schoolyard, which I still do. Just, 'Hey, you wanna go play?' and we'd go play."
Smith, who sells underwriting at community radio station KDHX, got into boxing as a way to get into shape. After training for a while, he wanted to get into the ring and test his skills in a match. He fought a sanctioned amateur bout, but found the competition too intense. He just wanted to have fun.
"To do amateur I've gotta go in and box in the same ring as these 8-year-old kids are boxing in, and that's just a completely different level than what I want to do," he says. "And then you'll get the 18-year-old kids, who'd just kick my absolute ass up and down the ring, and I'm not going to learn anything or have any fun doing that."
So, inspired by tales of his grandfather and the boxing tradition of his town -- this is the city of Sonny Liston and the Spinks brothers, as well as decades worth of less famous pugs -- he went to the backyard. He fought his pal Peter Neukirch, a giant of a chef, to a draw, then beat him by decision in a rematch. Unfortunately for Neukirch, Smith's been shedding pounds in training, so they're no longer at comparable weights. So Neukirch will referee today as Smith defends his title against Thomas "Akita" Crone, 32, editor of stltoday.com, a Web site affiliated with the Post-Dispatch.
On the undercard, Smith's friend Glen "Bad Intentions" McBrady, a 32-year-old apartment building manager, will make his debut against Pablo "Jabbin' Jew" Weiss, also 32, the owner of the Rocket Bar, a local punk club, and the light heavyweight Hoosierbelt champ. Both fights will consist of five two-minute rounds.
The anthem is sung before each bout, and there are round card girls -- and boys -- as well as barbecue grills and Port-a-Potties, a sideshow performer and an Irish harpist. The yard is festooned with not only the Stars and Stripes but with the flags of St. Louis and Great Britain -- odd, because Smith is proudly Irish-American -- and a Jolly Roger.
But before the boys start slugging, the card gets underway with a three-round women's exhibition. "Vicious" Virginia Remus is about to square off against "Lethal" Lisa Kindleberger. "Vicious" Virginia is a 17-year-old high school student with an 0-1 amateur record.
As a former newspaper boxing writer, I've asked a lot of fighters how they got into the sport. The answers tend to fall into one of three categories: Fighters either wandered into a neighborhood gym, idolized a fighter they'd seen on TV, or saw "Rocky" on the late show. "Vicious" Virginia's answer is a little different.
"Well, when I was in eighth or ninth grade I read 'The Power of One' by Bryce Courtenay," she says. "It deals with a guy named Peekay in South Africa, and he grows up and he boxes and that's how he deals with all of his issues. And I read it and I was like, 'That sounds really cool,' because I'm the middle of three girls, I know what it's like to not always be on top. So I started boxing."
When I ask her if she has a strategy against "Lethal" Lisa, a 28-year-old grad student, she sounds a little more like a fighter.
"Win," she says. "Beat her down."
Kindleberger has other ideas. "Lethal" Lisa got into boxing when she went to work out with her mom at a gym called Maryland Fitness and saw the club's boxing trainer, a former pro named David Gamble, working with someone. "I thought that person looked like a badass and I thought I could do it," she says.
Although their bout is an exhibition and not judged, Kindleberger gets the better of Remus, consistently beating her to the punch. The crowd supports both, encouraging them, cheering their better moments and applauding loudly at the end of each round. Like boxing crowds everywhere, they shout pointless instructions: "Come on, Virginia, use your left, use your left! Use your right!" says one fan, covering the bases admirably.
At the conclusion of the fight Gamble, 33, who trains both and had refereed the bout, tells the fans, "I want you to show my girls some love," and they do.
"I feel like I could have done better but you always say that in retrospect," says "Vicious" Virginia. "I'm proud of myself, and that's all that matters."
"I think I pretty much dominated all three rounds," says "Lethal" Lisa matter-of-factly. "I was really nervous going in. I was surprised how out of breath I got with two-minute rounds. Usually I spar three-minute rounds with no problem. I think the adrenaline was going so hard that I got out of breath."
Glen "Bad Intentions" McBrady would have a similar problem in the second bout of the day, his debut. Earlier in the week, McBrady had sparred, as he often does, with Smith and Crone at the South Broadway Athletic Club, a red-brick boxing and wrestling gym near the Anheuser-Busch brewery that's seen better days since its founding in 1899.
"In the gym it's no big deal getting in there," he'd said, "but I'm curious to see how it's going to be in front of a crowd, how much pressure there is."
McBrady is a crafty left-hander who gives Weiss, the "Jabbin' Jew," problems early. Weiss has gone in with a definite strategy: "Smoke him in the sternum in the very beginning, and if that doesn't work, I'll just stay outside and every time he throws, cross back, hit him in the head, hit him in the stomach, knock his air out." It's not working, but Weiss is having his moments, employing a variety of tactics, not all of them Marquess of Queensbury approved.
Smith, acting as McBrady's cornerman, shouts instructions in his face between rounds: "Keep your hands up. He's hitting you with some crazy-ass punches, OK?"
In the second round McBrady is starting to look winded. By the end of the third, he's had enough, and like Sonny Liston 37 years ago against Cassius Clay, he retires on his stool. He'd later learn that he'd been leading on all three judges' cards, but the nerves he'd been wondering about had gotten the better of him.
"I wasn't breathing. I was holding my breath," McBrady says. "It was one of those deals where, I mean, the shots, it wasn't that big a deal. I mean, obviously they hurt like hell, but it wasn't like I was groggy, or, it was just, I was hittin' him and hittin' him and he kept coming. Finally, in between rounds I felt like I was going to throw up and I just said, You know what? This is it. First time out, it's in a backyard, so I told Steve, that's it."
McBrady says he'll be back to try again on Memorial Day. "With everything going and the crowd and all the excitement and everything, I just didn't have the fundamentals hammered into my head enough to keep 'em going," he says.
I ask Weiss what the key to his victory was. "You know, I always spar without headgear, so wearing headgear during the fight, I didn't even feel the hits, and I think he was hitting me pretty hard," he says. "So the key is to spar without headgear, and then when you wear headgear in a fight you don't even know the difference."
I ask him what he's going to do the rest of the day.
"Well, I'm going to drink heavily, eat some bratwurst and go to the Washington Avenue Beat Fest [an electronic music event] and pump it up," he says.
Meanwhile the crowd, which grows throughout the afternoon, is having a fine old time. Between bouts a sideshow performer puts on an exhibition of fire-eating and glass walking, and someone breaks out watermelon, soft pretzels and brownies. I ask Adam and Nikki, a pair of self-confessed hipsters, what the appeal of backyard boxing is.
"It's a beautiful idea," Adam says. "You're drinking beer in a backyard, watching people hit each other, for Chrissake. You really don't need to ask that question. It's backyard boxing!"
Nikki says she's not much of a boxing fan but that she's thinking of putting on the gloves. "I like violence," she says.
Gate Rettig, 26, came all the way from Chicago for the matches, sporting his best Nader-LaDuke T-shirt. "It's nice to see this many people getting together and the cops not putting a stop to it," he says. "It's a lot of fun. There's no harm done. And it brings the community together too, because all the neighbors are here, which is great. It's nice to see people not watching television. That's the most important part."
The cops do show up. A cruiser, noticing the commotion from the street, pulls up behind the backyard in the alley. The officer watches part of the second fight, then bids nearby spectators a good day, climbs back in his car and continues on his beat.
"I checked with the prosecutor's office, kind of," Smith says. "The guy down the street, his wife is a prosecutor, and she says she has no interest in prosecuting anybody for doing anything like this."
But Myrl Taylor, St. Louis president of USA Boxing, the American amateur boxing sanctioning body, wishes someone would prosecute.
"I think they're going to get somebody fucking killed and the thing of it is we're going to get the black eye for it," he says in a telephone interview. "We have amateur boxing, the Olympic-style boxing, and we've got trained officials there to make sure nobody gets hurt. We've got a doctor on site, we've got oxygen on site, we've got all that. They ain't got shit."
Taylor notes that sanctioned amateur fighters, like pros, have to be examined before and after they fight, and are subject to examination by a doctor during the fight. He's angry that because the backyard boxers don't charge admission or fight for prize money, authorities are unwilling to hold them to the sport's accepted standards.
"They're trying to say, well, they're just in a backyard," he says, "but if somebody gets hurt with that shit, what are they going to say? 'Somebody got killed boxing.' They ain't gonna say it was some ignorant asshole that got killed."
Dr. Michael Schwartz, chairman of the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians, agrees that no matter how careful and prudent the backyard boxers are, they're treading on dangerous ground.
"I think it's ridiculous," he says. "I think it's incredibly dangerous." Schwartz points out that the inherent nature of boxing is to injure your opponent. "So what happens if one of these guys gets critically injured and there's nobody there, such as a physician, there's no control?"
I mention Smith's comparison of what the backyard boxers are doing to a pickup game on the schoolyard. "There's no problem if they want to have it in their backyard," he says, "but they should utilize the same rules and regulations that there are in amateur boxing, and the reason there are rules and regulations is because statistically we've made mistakes over the years, and said, 'Look, how is this different than a basketball game?' Well, the intent of this is to hurt the other individual. Therefore, people do become injured. Most of the injuries are not severe, but the possibility exists for catastrophe."
The backyard boxing crew does seem concerned with safety, but there are no doctors, no EMTs apparent. Maybe just by dumb luck, there is no catastrophe this day. Nobody gets killed, or even hurt beyond a bloody nose.
The crowd has built to an anthem-belting fever pitch by the time of the main event, "Iron Skillet" vs. "Akita" for the heavyweight Hoosierbelt championship. Smith enters the ring to the theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," dressed as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, complete with tiny cigar. He lifts his poncho to display a hand-lettered sign: "A Fistful of Skillet."
"There were probably about 30 people there who got it," he'd say later, "but at least those 30 people thought it was funny." The nickname was chosen one day after Smith, in need of a moniker, and friends had stopped at a roadside restaurant of that name.
None of this impresses Crone, an intense German-born St. Louisan who'd gotten himself into the proper mood before the fight by driving around for an hour and listening to a Korn tape. "It's stuff I don't even necessarily like," he'd said of the hammering music, "but it kind of put me in the frame of mind I want to be in."
Crone lands the heavier blows in the first two rounds, though Smith is able to land one big overhand right. After the second round, and each subsequent round, Crone lets out a primal roar as he walks back to his corner: "Yaaaagghhh!"
In the third, Crone begins landing solid left hooks to the head. Smith shakes his head as if to say that the blows don't hurt, but (old boxing joke) they don't help either.
Kati Fischer, 25, is a graphic artist and Smith's girlfriend. She designed the International Brotherhood of Sweet Scientists seal as well as posters for the fight. After the fourth round, I ask her how it is to watch her man in the ring.
"It's awful. There's nothing pleasant about it," she says. "It's like watching a horror film, it's like your eyes in between your fingers, going like this: 'Ooh, I can't watch it but ooh, I have to.'"
I ask how she thinks the Skillet is doing.
"Ummmmmmm, he could be doing better? I'm hoping he'll do better? I'm hoping he'll kick his fucking ass!"
He doesn't. Crone continues to score effectively despite this unorthodox boxing advice from his corner: "Keep your head up, Tommy!" At the end of the fifth and final round, he spits out his mouthpiece and yells, "Fuck yeah! Fuck yeah!" as the crowd roars.
The cheers turn to groans as referee Neukirch announces the judges' decision: a draw. The crowd seems to think Crone has won, which is how it looks on the Salon card. "I think I won," Crone says without anger. "I think I won 3-2. It was fun." Smith, who'd looked frustrated as the bout ended, says, "I'll go with the judges, but I'm disappointed in my performance."
In an e-mail the next day, Smith relinquishes the belt. "I feel my performance on Sunday was unbecoming of a champion," he writes.
Perhaps so, but his 88-year-old grandmother, Elaine Fouche, who first saw her father fight in 1920 and told Smith about the backyard boxing of her youth, loved it. "It was a lot of fun, and I'm so proud of him," she says. "But I could hardly watch it when he was getting all beat up."
And even though nobody's happy with a draw, most people seem anxious to come back for the next backyard boxing show, presumably on Memorial Day.
"It's a lot of fun for everybody," says Larry Weir, a co-worker of Smith's and one of the judges. "I don't know if it'll catch on, but if there's another one, I want to be there."
Smith's grandma says she'll be there too.
"Oh yes. I'm into it now!"