Philly long past its fighting prime as ‘Boots’ Ennis enters his

The Spectrum closed on October 31, 2009. The final fight card at the Blue Horizon came on June 4, 2010. Jaron “Boots” Ennis was 12 years old when Philadelphia’s two most iconic boxing venues exited the game.

Poor kid never had a chance.

Ennis, who headlines in Philly above the club-show level for the first time in his career this Saturday, facing substitute opponent David Avanesyan atop a DAZN-streamed card at the Wells Fargo Center — the 21,000-seat arena that took over for the Spectrum as the home of the NHL’s Flyers and NBA’s 76ers in 1996 — may well prove to be Philadelphia’s next great boxer. But he’ll never get to shine at a time when Philly is truly Philly.

Ask local boxing historians what the “golden age” of Philadelphia boxing was and, assuming they aren’t going to reach back to Jack Dempsey fighting Gene Tunney in front of 120,557 fans at Sesquicentennial Stadium in 1926, they’ll largely isolate two periods.

One kicked off on September 30, 1969, when a then-22-year-old Russell Peltz promoted his first show at the Blue Horizon, igniting a run that led to Peltz being hired as the Spectrum’s director of boxing in 1973 and to many of the biggest stars in the sport waging war in South Philly. Locals Briscoe, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Jeff Chandler, Tyrone Everett, and more packed the Spectrum, and future Hall of Famers from outside Philly including Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, and Bobby Chacon engaged in sanctioned violence there as well.

And it certainly didn’t hurt Philly’s reputation as a top boxing town in the ’70s that, even though he hadn’t fought in Philadelphia since 1968, heavyweight “Smokin’” Joe Frazier called the city home, as did the most famous fictional heavyweight champ ever.

That golden age petered out as the decade came to a close, thanks to the combination of local cable network PRISM — which launched in ’76 and aired Spectrum events — providing a cheaper alternative to buying tickets to the fights, and Atlantic City casinos paying site fees and luring away many of the big bouts that otherwise would have been landed in Philly.

But another golden age followed not too long after. In 1986, USA Network’s Tuesday Night Fights aired one of Peltz’s cards from the Blue, and the little throwback fight club gradually became the national TV series’ favorite venue. Maybe the fights weren’t as big as, say, Duran defending the lightweight championship of the world, but every show sold out (and then some) and the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Arturo Gatti, Fernando Vargas, Tim Witherspoon, Junior Jones, Robert Hines, and Sharmba Mitchell all fought there (usually either on their way up or on their way down).

When TNF ended its 17-year run on USA in 1998, however, this follow-up golden age ended with it.

“Maybe as far as the big fights, the ‘70s were the golden age, but the ‘90s at the Blue Horizon can’t be discounted,” Peltz reflected. “The thing about the Blue Horizon in the ’90s was everybody wanted to fight there.”

END OF DAYS: The Blue Horizon as it looked in October 2019

Nigel Collins, an International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee like his old friend Peltz, was the editor-in-chief of The Ring for part of that ‘90s run at the Blue and was a correspondent on the Philly boxing beat throughout that magical period in the ‘70s.

“When Russell opened up the Blue Horizon and later moved to The Arena and eventually the Spectrum, he had this pool of really good Philly fighters,” Collins said. “You had good, hungry fighters and a young promoter who was progressive and really wanted to do things, and it was perfect timing.

“They had a number of five-figure crowds at the Spectrum — I think the biggest was Tyrone Everett’s title fight where he got screwed,” recalled Collins of Everett’s highly controversial decision loss to Alfredo Escalera in ’76 that drew paid attendance of 16,019, still an indoor boxing record in Philly.

Collins and Peltz both single out Saad Muhammad’s 12th-round stoppage of Marvin Johnson in ’77 as the best Philly fight of the era (or possibly any era). The two-year stretch of ’76 and ’77 saw the Spectrum host that incredible Saad-Johnson war, Duran against Edwin Viruet, the Escalera-Everett record-setter, and three Hagler fights against local contenders Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, and Eugene “Cycle” Hart — not to mention playing fictional host when Sylvester Stallone and Frazier shared the ring briefly in a Best Picture winner.

I was a few days from my second birthday when Saad stopped Johnson for the regional NABF light heavyweight title, plus I was a suburban toddler; my only actual Philly exposure was visiting my grandparents on Girard Ave. (where Stanley “Kitten” Hayward was among their neighbors). So I can’t exactly claim any first-hand knowledge of what it was like being in that ‘70s Philly fight scene.

But Collins does a pretty damned good job capturing it.

“When you’re young, you know, I knew intellectually that I’d really gotten a juicy beat and I was doing stuff that I never thought I’d do — covering great fights, going to the gyms and meeting the fighters and everything. And you think it's never going to end. I mean, of course, you do know it’s going to end. But you're not really thinking about it,” Collins said. “I was like a pig in shit when it was happening. I was loving it. And I think I have a better appreciation now for how great it was than I did when I was actually experiencing it.”

Even when in a valley rather than a peak, Philly has never been dead as a boxing town. There are always club fights. There are always championship-level fighters. But it just hasn’t quite fully clicked in the last couple of decades — in part because Philly fight fans have generally proven discerning and would rather pay for a great fight than a big name.

Mike Tyson’s second post-prison contest, against Buster Mathis Jr. in December ‘95, was at the Spectrum, but proved forgettable and didn’t usher in a new era of major Philly fights.

Hopkins is easily Philly’s greatest fighter of modern times, but you couldn’t have scripted a worse homecoming for his first Philly fight in 10 years than his atrocity at the Spectrum in March ’03 against happy-footed Frenchman Morrade Hakkar. Peltz also notes that Hopkins moving to Delaware around the time he won his first title wasn’t helpful in building him as a Philly attraction.

The Liacouras Center on the campus of Temple University has hosted most of the biggest Philadelphia fights of the last 15 years, including a Hopkins fight in 2009, a Danny Garcia fight in 2016, and Julian “J-Rock” Williams’ upset title loss to Jeison Rosario as the pandemic loomed in 2020. The biggest and best Philly fight of this time frame, however, was between a Russian and a Ukrainian: Artur Beterbiev stopping Oleksandr Gvozdyk in 2019 for the lineal light heavyweight crown at Liacouras.

Now Philly’s best hope is Boots Ennis, a pound-for-pound-level talent who, at age 27, is 31-0 with 28 KOs but hasn’t been able to convince many serious contenders to get in the ring with him so he can prove his worth. Nine of his first 18 fights were in Philly, but he hasn’t fought there since headlining a ShoBox card at the 2300 Arena (formerly ECW Arena) on November 16, 2018.

For his last fight, a Showtime main event one year ago from the smaller room at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, a passionate crowd of Philly fans made the hour-or-so drive to the Jersey Shore, filling the 3,200-seat venue nicely. Ennis has all the pugilistic gifts you could ask for and a reasonably fan-friendly style (especially in that last fight against the aggressive Roiman Villa), and the crowd size Saturday for his Matchroom Boxing debut will go a long way toward telling us whether, with his likeable but low-key personality, Boots is gaining steam in his home city.

When we do hear the Wells Fargo Center attendance numbers, whatever they are, the old-school Peltz will be skeptical.

“The arenas these days have a reputation for discounting tickets, because they want to get bodies inside and make money on the concessions,” Peltz said. “At the Blue Horizon, just to stay clear of the fire marshal, we actually used to reduce the amount of people that were officially in the building. But, I know that the figures are usually inflated today. You never know who’s really paying and who’s being comped.

“Discounting tickets, comping tickets — we certainly didn't have to worry about that sort of thing when Briscoe was fighting Hagler.”

Eric Raskin is a veteran boxing journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering the sport for such outlets as BoxingScene, ESPN, Grantland, Playboy, Ringside Seat, and The Ring (where he served as managing editor for seven years). He also co-hosted The HBO Boxing Podcast, Showtime Boxing with Raskin & Mulvaney, and Ring Theory and currently co-hosts The Interim Champion Boxing Podcast with Raskin & Mulvaney. He has won three first-place writing awards from the BWAA, for his work with The Ring, Grantland, and HBO. Outside boxing, he is the senior editor of CasinoReports and the author of 2014’s The Moneymaker Effect. He can be reached on X or LinkedIn, or via email at

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