Originally created 08/27/99

Augusta is a "sleeper" of a city

Brian Kenny, host of ESPN2's Friday Night Fights, was talking about Vernon Forrest's fight tonight when he asked about what kind of fight town Augusta is.

You see, when your sports pedigree centers around one week in April, everything tends to be brushed behind the Washington Road green monster.

My response to Kenny was that Augusta's a sleeping player, especially when you consider we don't have a major casino for the area to trumpet. I know that statement may rankle the folks at Fox Creek Junction, but it would be tough to stage a championship fight in its blackjack room. Especially since there are only five seats there.

With Forrest and Brandon Mitchem, two rising local professionals, fighting tonight at Bell Auditorium, ask yourself whether Augusta and boxing can coexist annually. There's also Denise Moraetes, establishing a niche for herself in the women's boxing world.

Is there enough interest in Augusta to help bring future Forrest fights, future Mitchem fights, future Moraetes fights, future marquee amateur events, to the area?

We're never going to be mistaken for Las Vegas, that's for sure. You're not going to get Evander Holyfield to fight his rematch with Lennox Lewis -- or even Vaughn Bean -- at The Bell.

But there's no reason why Augusta can't join the circuit of boxing cities, staging quality shows two or three times a year to satiate area boxing fans.

Since Augusta majors in minors sports, why not with boxing? Up-and-comers need a place to box, too. Augusta could be that city, if the city's business and government officials would want to commit to a sport so temperamental with its personalities and image.

"If we want to, I think we can," said Ed Presnell, president of the Augusta Sports Council. "It will take some unity from the business community. Would people like Frank Lawrence (president and owner of Bobby Jones Ford) and other prominent folks commit themselves to doing it?

"We need to pick the events that we think will benefit the community. Certainly, bidding on a national event like an AAU championship or a (Police Athletic League) tournament will help our exposure."

Boxing has helped the Mississippi towns of Bay St. Louis (near Biloxi) and Tunica (near nothing, but 60 miles south of Memphis, Tenn.) gain sports exposure.

Boxing turned Atlantic City and the Vegas Strip into something of sports centers. And boxing is helping areas such as Mashantucket, Conn., home to February's U.S. Olympic Trials at Foxwoods Casino.

Augusta's resume appears quite remarkable considering the closest roulette wheel may be three states away.

Heavyweight Ray Mercer, a two-time champion with losses to Holyfield, Lewis and Larry Holmes on his record, calls Augusta home. He fought here in 1992, knocking out a tomato can named Mike Dixon.

The Olympic Box-Offs in 1996 drew a sold-out crowd and NBC cameras to Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.

And thanks to Tom Moraetes and the Augusta Boxing Club, Augusta played host to the first women's national amateur tournament and the first women's golden gloves. Moraetes' group is pining to bring the first women's world amateur here.

The Forrest-Mitchem card is the third prominent boxing event this year, but easily the one that will help shape our city's boxing future.

A large, enthusiastic crowd tonight almost certainly will entice a return trip from ESPN2, and quite possibly, bring an HBO Boxing After Dark show here. If tonight's atmosphere is stale, or if the expensive seats are abundantly empty, nix any plans for Augusta's boxing future.

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.


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