Simply put, Chicago isn’t viewed as a fight town. There are other markets such as Los Angeles and New York that deal with some of the same factors the city deals with but Chicago doesn’t attract the attention of promoters like other metropolitan areas. The last time HBO televised a card in Chicago was in December 2009 when Juan Diaz and Paulie Malignaggi needed a neutral city for their rematch. Other than that, the sport’s top promoters continue to ignore the “Windy City.”
It wasn’t always that way of course. Chicago used to have a historically rich boxing scene in the ‘60s and years before that. In the “Golden Age of Boxing,” Chicago produced fighters like former middleweight champion Tony Zale and Battling Nelson.
The city was also a spotlight for notable heavyweight fights. Sonny Liston made his name at Comiskey Park by knocking out Floyd Patterson in the first round. In 1927, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney fought at Soldier Field in a rematch where referee Dave Berry issued the infamous long count. Dempsey-Tunney II remains one of the biggest events in boxing history, doing an incredible $2.5 million gate (worth around $34 million today) and drawing 104,000 people.
It was a different era then.
However, despite competition from other professional sports and ongoing events in the city, Chicago has seen a notable growth in boxing the last few years. The city has hosted three “ESPN2 Friday Night Fights” events in the last year and often hosts monthly cards at the UIC Pavilion.
On Friday night, another notable card will happen at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, hosting a televised tripleheader with light heavyweights Andrzej Fonfara and Gabriel Campillo in the main event of “Friday Night Fights.”
Responsible for Chicago’s boost as a boxing town are promoters Dominic Pesoli and Frank Mugnolo of 8 Count Productions/Round 3 Productions. Quietly, the two have carved out a niche in trying to put Chicago back on the map.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel, per se,” Pesoli said. “Boxing was very prominent and big 50 years ago. We’re just bringing it back.”
Said Mugnolo, “What we’re trying to do at [U.S. Cellular Field] is make it a yearly thing. Why should the Chicago guys go out of town? Let them come here. This is the best city in the world.”
Friday’s card will mark the first time in 51 years that boxing will be at a Chicago baseball stadium. Pesoli and Mugnolo said they hope the card will attract new fans to the sport. The promoters are anticipating that fans will come to the stadium since the town’s baseball teams are playing poorly and other major sports are off season.
The card itself poses a risk, Pesoli said. U.S. Cellular Field is being scaled for 15,000 people to attend the outdoor show. During the last few years, Pesoli’s biggest show has drawn around 4,200 with Fonfara headlining against Tommy Karpency. What was a great number for them at the time is still obviously but a fraction of 15,000.
“Everything’s calculated,” Pesoli said. “We sit there and do the numbers. We look at our risk-versus-reward factors and then we decide. Are we going to forward with it? Are we not going to go forward with this?
“Even though it’s a costly event, it’s a very calculated decision,” he added.
While the move might be carefully thought out, it’s a philosophy Pesoli’s learned through experience of promoting. For the last 15 years, Pesoli has been a promoter in Illinois.
Pesoli’s start in boxing started as a teenager when he boxed as an amateur under the guidance of his uncle. After hanging up the gloves, Pesoli switched to training fighters with his uncle and taught boxing classes at a local health club.
It wasn’t until 1995 when the idea of promoting crept into his head when the head club owner asked him to increase awareness in the club’s boxing program. That led to Pesoli brainstorming a celebrity fight night with former television star Danny Bonaduce and then local sports broadcaster John Kelly.
“A lot of people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You’re a natural at this,’” Pesoli said. “I sat on it for a couple of years but in 1997, I formed 8 Count Productions.”
He soon learned the ups and downs of the boxing business in his first few years. While he secured local talent, Pesoli found it wasn’t as easy securing quality opposition as he thought.
“It was your typical A-side vs. D-side,” Pesoli said. “I didn’t know anything better. That’s the way boxing was in Chicago, build up the fighters’ records and ship them off to Europe. I learned pretty fast that the match-ups were not appropriate and if I was going to sustain my business, I was going to have to make some changes.”
Perhaps Pesoli’s biggest learning experience happened in 2000, three years into his venture. Like many promoters, Pesoli found casinos the easiest way to be profitable and he struck a deal with the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, Ill. to host his cards. However, the deal went bad and Pesoli was faced with two options: learn to promote without the backing of a casino or get out of the business entirely.
“Most of my early shows outside of casinos were all losers,” Pesoli said. “I kept losing money but we had to build a reputation, a name – credibility…after I lost the casino deal, there was a period of time I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to last in this business.’ I had to refocus and change the wheel a little bit.”
Pesoli spent the next part of the decade hosting cards as well as working with other promoters. In 2005, he worked with Main Events to host Fernando Vargas’ fight against Javier Castillejo. Two years later, he co-promoted David Diaz’s return against Erik Morales, a fight which drew around 10,000 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, a suburb outside of Chicago.
In 2008, Pesoli started the “Windy City Fight Night” cards at the UIC Pavilion. Pesoli had long wanted to host a monthly card to attract and build a fan base. Once the Pavilion gained its liquor license, Pesoli worked out a deal.
The “Windy City Fight Night” cards drew a decent crowd of around 2,000 people on average. Wanting to be more innovative and attract a bigger crowd, Pesoli partnered with Mugnolo in 2011.
“Our families have known each other a lifetime,” Pesoli said. “There are certain elements that Frank is great at. He’s great at a lot of things…I think we make a complete picture.”
Mugnolo is a wordsmith. While Pesoli is more reserved, Mugnolo is the Don King of 8 Count Productions. Mugnolo likes to use catchphrases to help sell fights. He’s quick to call Chicago the “best city in the world. Period. Exclamation point!”
More importantly, behind Mugnolo’s running mouth is an innovative business mind. Since joining Pesoli, Mugnolo has created various ideas to draw new customers - such as letting a film crew shoot a reality show about the company to holding open workouts in the heart of downtown Chicago.
His latest idea? Put Chicago boxing back in a ballpark.
Though Friday’s card is an outdoor event, Pesoli acknowledges that it’s the fighters people come to see and not the event. Pesoli has a decent sized roster of fighters, ranging from younger prospects to journeyman to fighters knocking on the door of a world title. His roster stems mostly from local talent.
Pesoli believes Fonfara, who has cultivated a sizable following among the region’s Polish population, is close to a world title shot. His job is to help get him there. “People want to surround themselves with winners,” Pesoli said. “They want to feel like they’re part of a winning team or a winning fighter. I would say a good percentage of it is the fighters and another key element is a marketing strategy.”
Part of that includes getting his fighters noticed in Chicago. But it also means getting them noticed outside of the “Windy City.”
“It’s very tough,” Pesoli said. “You always have to be on your toes. You have to think outside of the box.”