Boxing returned to Baltimore last night. I mean, really returned, harkening back to the days when Leo Saenz, Larry Middleton and Buddy Boggs used to pack them in at Steelworker's Hall.
At 9:30, they were still queueing up for tickets for a show that started two hours earlier. The capacity for Pikesville Armory is 1,800, but maybe a few more than that squeezed in to see:
* Vincent Pettway get by a final obstacle to a world title shot in a bruising split-decision victory over Gilbert Baptist.
* Les Johnson, losing ground fast as the result of a mysterious pain in his side, battered Willie Gallawango into submission along the ropes with only 45 seconds remaining in an eight-rounder.
* Eddie Van Kirk, rapidly approaching the point where he needed a knockout to win, thumping Jose Torres to the canvas in the last round of their eight-round brawl.
Talk about action, there weren't as many as a half-dozen backwards steps taken all during the seven-bout card and half the fans spent most of the evening standing on their seats hollering.
Pettway's charge to the USBA junior middleweight crown could have been staged in a six-foot ring, as he and Baptist hammered away at close range throughout. The Baltimorean grabbed an early lead and just was able to hold off his opponent in the eyes of the USBA-appointed judges. Two favored Pettway by 116-112 counts while the third went for Baptist, 115-113.
Baptist left the ring distraught, stalking to his dressing room alone. Then he trashed the place. So many friends and relatives from his native Newark, N.J., had come down to see him, though, he soon calmed down and played the perfect host.
"Pettway knew all he had to do is run and hold and stand up for 12 rounds and he'd win," the loser complained. "The only shots I did feel from him came after the bell, it seemed."
The victor scoffed at the suggestion that he didn't get the better of it in the punching department. "Sure, I held a little bit," he admitted, "but that's because I had to until the ref could step in and break us up. He was jumping in head-first and coming up from a crouch using his head every chance he got."
A ridge of bumps resembling the Canadian Rockies ran the length of Pettway's eyebrows, attesting to the ruggedness of the in-fighting."
Regarding the roughness at close quarters, Baptist said, "I'm a warrior. I do whatever it takes to win. If I hadn't pressed the action, hell, there wouldn't have been a fight."
"Bull," answered Pettway. "His jumping in like that, leading with his head, dictated that whatever he did to me I did to him. He threw some big shots and I proved I have a chin."
The closeness of the fight suggested a rematch might be in order. Such a suggestion was met with diametric replies.
"I'm a pro. This is my business. I'll fight anybody, anywhere, anytime," said Baptist.
"No, I won't fight him again. It would be stupid," said Pettway. "Another fight with him doesn't mean anything to me now. He wouldn't fight me again if he had won. We did what we had to, getting over this hurdle and now we're in line for a title shot."
Not quite. Vince, now 35-4, is second in line, the IBF champ Gianfranco Rosi being committed to a mandatory defense against Gilbert Dele of France in May.
Johnson, a ramrod-straight middleweight from Rockville, was handling the more experienced and higher ranked Gallawango until he caught a stitch in his side. Gallawango pressured and he was close to being back in it at the break before the last round.
"That's when my trainer [Bill Green] looked at me and said, 'This is when you show everyone you want it. You have to have the heart to go get it,' " said Johnson. A crisp right hand put Gallawango against the ropes. As he bounced off, Johnson didn't go for the head but planted a left into the midsection. Curtains.
Until the main event came along, the Van Kirk-Torres scramble qualified for the rough-housing award. "He was a tough guy, very awkward," said Van Kirk, who added that his ears were still ringing and the back of his head hurt from being cuffed there repeatedly.
With the crowd egging him on, however, Eddie dug deep and through sheer will and determination put his man away. He was trailing on the cards of two of the three judges at the time. As Van Kirk's trainer Tony Longo noted, "One thing you can always rely on with Eddie is he won't quit."
George Wright, Baltimore's George Foreman lookalike, won his second pro fight on the undercard, decisioning Carlton West.