Buss made his mark in boxing, too
Visionary Lakers owner breathed life into L.A. fight scene in 1980s and '90s
Dr. Jerry Buss is best known for his long stewardship of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers as the franchise's iconic owner. During his 34 years of ownership (1979-2013), a period that spanned the Magic Johnson-led "Showtime" dynasty and the current Kobe Bryant era, the team won 10 NBA titles.
But besides basketball, Buss, who died of cancer Monday at age 80, was an avid boxing fan who had a major impact on the sport as the head of the now-defunct promotional outfit Forum Boxing.
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When Buss bought the Lakers, he also acquired their arena, the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif. He saw to it that both the Forum and the Pond in Anaheim became boxing hotbeds in the 1980s and 1990s, pouring money into Forum Boxing, which put on monthly shows. He put up with losing millions on those shows because he was a fan first and wanted to keep the sport alive in Southern California. Eventually, with losses mounting in the late 1990s, and the Lakers and NHL's Kings about to move into the new Staples Center, he pulled the plug on the boxing cards at the end of 1999.
But during Forum Boxing's heyday, it had a heckuva run. Many fighters represented by the company, or who just fought on its cards, would go on to become major stars and champions: Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, little brother Rafael Marquez, Israel Vazquez, Shane Mosley, Jorge Paez, Hall of Famers Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson, Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez, Daniel Zaragoza and Azumah Nelson and the late Genaro Hernandez and Johnny Tapia.
Acelino "Popo" Freitas fought on a "Forum Boxing at the Pond" card early in his career, and future Hall of Famer Oscar De La Hoya made his professional debut at the Forum in 1992, fresh off winning an Olympic gold medal. Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. fought there. So did the great Thomas Hearns and Virgil Hill.
Buss brought the much-anticipated junior flyweight championship rematch between Hall of Famers Michael Carbajal and Gonzalez to the Forum in 1994. There, in the 1995 fight of the year, Gonzalez dramatically lost the title to Saman Soraturong in what proved to be the final fight of Gonzalez's career.
In 1996, the first card of the long-running HBO series "Boxing After Dark" was held at the Forum, featuring Tapia on the undercard leading up to an unforgettable main event: Barrera's epic battle with Kennedy McKinney, in which Barrera stopped the challenger in the 12th round to retain his junior featherweight world title.
"I think the biggest thing about Dr. Buss and boxing was that he really liked it and was a fan," said TV analyst Rich Marotta, who was a broadcaster on the Forum Boxing telecasts. "So he was willing to lose money to keep boxing alive in L.A on a regular basis at the Forum. He showed up on a regular basis at the fights. I always knew that when I looked through the ropes across the way, he'd be there, and having a great time.
"He was a marketing visionary there, too. Like the Lakers with Laker girls and celebs and courtside seats, Buss had the ring-card girl contests, five different ring-card girls at each show, brought his celebs to the fight, marketed the cards by making [them] part of his year-round Forum program, where people bought tickets to all events, and specifically 'season tickets' for boxing. He expanded Forum Boxing to Anaheim, Vegas and Lake Tahoe. He even gave it a go with a big-time pay-per-view show by promoting Tommy Hearns against Virgil Hill outdoors at Caesars Palace [in 1991]. I specifically remember that one because it was the first PPV I ever did. I called blow-by-blow with Ferdie Pacheco on color and Al Bernstein as the third man with interviews."
Buss' impact on Southern California boxing -- and, really, world boxing because of the caliber of fighters who fought on his company's cards -- can't be overstated. His Forum shows were televised nationally on regional sports channels, allowing fans around the country to watch his rising Forum Boxing stars.
"Dr. Jerry Buss, I will forever be grateful and appreciate all the support you gave me throughout my career. R.I.P.," De La Hoya tweeted Monday.
Mark Johnson was just 13 fights into his great career, in which he became the first African-American flyweight champion and won two titles at junior bantamweight, when he paid his own way to Los Angeles to fight on a Forum card in 1993.
Johnson, who is from Washington, D.C., won his fight and was invited back to face Alberto Jimenez in a 12-rounder, after never having been scheduled for a fight of more than eight rounds. Johnson was the underdog against the former world title challenger, but he won a lopsided decision. Forum Boxing matchmaker Tony Curtis was so impressed with Johnson that he signed him after the fight and Johnson became a Forum regular.
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"When I would go out there [to Los Angeles], we always spent time in his office talking about boxing," Johnson said of Buss. "The Forum was a great place for me. I grew up there. It was an honor to see guys like Barrera and Marquez, and the list goes on. Me and Marquez used to fight on the same shows."
In 1996, Johnson knocked out Francisco Tejedor in the first round at the Pond to win a flyweight world title and made his first two defenses at the Forum.
Johnson praised Buss for helping to shape his career and life.
"Just to be able to fight on the West Coast for Jerry Buss and win a world title, it was an honor," Johnson said. "He was a humble guy. No matter what it took to make boxing run there, he was going to do it. He brought big fights back to the Forum, like Chiquita Gonzalez-Michael Carbajal. He wanted to make boxing big at the Forum, and he did."
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