In a thriving gym and in festive open-air fights, the spirit of a city that always had a puncher's chance is on full display
A COUPLE OF YEARS back, when he was in New Orleans filming the boxing comedy Grudge Match, Sylvester Stallone came to the Friday Night Fights Gym. He was looking for a gritty, "authentic" location, and Mike Tata's Central City setup, with its concrete floor, peeling walls and tattered ring, fit the bill.
"He shot here some," says Tata. "But then he wanted to lower the speed bag on the wall so he could reach it better. I told him to stand on a box like everybody else."
That was the last Tata saw of Stallone. But now, in a showbiz twist of his own, the 53-year-old Tata is pitching a reality series centered on his gym and the semiregular outdoor boxing shows he stages. Tata's is a suitably Rockyesque, up-from-the-canvas saga. It's also one tied from the beginning into the singular rhythms and resilience of New Orleans.
Owner of a gym in New York City for seven years, Tata bailed on Manhattan's soaring rents and moved to New Orleans in 2003. ("I'd heard there was only one other place in the country as unique and interesting [as New York]," he says.) He opened his first gym there, on then largely dilapidated Freret Street in the Uptown section, in January 2005. "Eight months before Katrina," he says. Forced to evacuate after the storm, Tata never considered throwing in the towel. "We were the first commercial business to reopen on the street," he says. "I knew people wanted to keep punching."
In the decade since—even as Tata was forced three years ago to relocate to his current spot, not by rising water but by rising rents along the newly fashionable Freret—several more boxing gyms have opened in New Orleans, from Treme to the Lower Ninth Ward, revitalizing a sport that had all but disappeared from the city.
For now, though, Friday Night Fights' quarterly card remains the showcase event. Each of these only-in-NOLA extravaganzas—think Mardi Gras meets The Contender—features eight bouts sanctioned by USA Boxing, held in a ring set up outdoors just off St. Charles Avenue. Crowds of more than 1,000 BYOB-fueled fans are also treated to between-fight entertainment from singers, rappers, burlesque dancers and drag performers. There's always a beauty contest too, open to women and men.
"There are two kinds of people who come," Tata says. "Those who want to watch the show and those who want to be part of the show."
That, of course, applies to a lot of New Orleans action. On a recent sweltering afternoon in the Friday Night Fights Gym, though, the focus was clearly on doing, not watching. There was 22-year-old middleweight Asani Woods, preparing for an amateur card out of town; there was 28-year-old Wayne Banks, newly released after 13 years in prison, who said he was "just trying to get my body back"; and there was 33-year-old criminal defense attorney Bobby Hjortsberg, a Friday Night Fights Gym veteran. Up in the ring former WBC super welterweight champion Tiffany Junot worked the mitts with trainer Aaron Navaro. Born and raised in the Algiers Point neighborhood, Junot, 36, had to train in Houston after the storm. The pro scene there was strong but, she said between rounds, "I couldn't wait to get home."
Looking around the gym, she added, "There's so much desire here, so much strength."
For more on Tiffany Junot, along with five other video stories on post-Katrina New Orleans, go to Time.com/NEW-ORLEANS-HERE-AND-NOW
WILL WIDMER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RING LEADER When Tata (left) brought back his gym, he aided a civic recovery and gave a home to displaced fighters like Junot (right).