The Boxers' Rebellion

When a renegade band of artists and writers tries to punch its way into the local fight game, the gloves come off

ROUND 1

On an overcast morning in the backyard of a South City bungalow, amateur-boxing enthusiast Pete Neukirch is giving a lesson in official knockdown procedure. One of his pupils, Pablo Weiss, is on the ground, half faking a knockout, half relaxing on this spring day. "If your opponent falls, you have to go into a neutral corner, farthest from the fighter," Neukirch directs his other student, Jenna Bauer, who obediently retreats toward the chainlink fence that borders the yard.

The coach gives Weiss a standing eight-count: "One. Two. Three. Now get to one knee. Four. Relax, start to stand. Five. Look the ref in the eye and regain your footing. Six. Put your gloves up in defense mode. Seven. Take one step forward: You have to take a step forward. Eight. The ref will check your steadiness and then decide whether to go ahead."

The boxers are training for a March 22 event at the City Museum, downtown, a six-bout card staged by an unlikely band of pugilists who call themselves the International Brotherhood of the Sweet Science. The 36-year-old Weiss, who's scheduled to go three rounds against fellow light heavyweight and City Museum founder Bob Cassilly, has three fights under his belt, and he's unbeaten. He has learned a lot since his first bout, a three-round decision in 2001. "He got the first punch in," Weiss says of his opponent that day, "and I was bleeding out of my nose ten seconds into the fight. That was not in the game plan."

Bauer, an artist who runs South City Open Studio, a summer camp and gallery for children, located in Tower Grove Park, is a newcomer to the sport; this is to be her first fight. She has been training for a month. A week from now, in a gym on South Broadway, a sparring partner will break one of her front teeth.

ROUND 2

Steven Fitzpatrick Smith is a dandy with a shyster's smile -- though he's too sincere to pull it off. He dresses in swank suits, not because he has to but because it looks good. He's one of those guys who can wear a fedora and drive around in a white 1972 Cadillac convertible without looking as if he's trying too hard -- no mean feat for a white guy in his early thirties. Five years ago, Smith's six-foot-three-inch frame held 250 pounds; since discovering boxing, he has lost all but 195 of them. A local boy and a graduate of St. Louis University, Smith used to sell underwriting at KDHX-FM. These days, he works at the City Museum as a consultant and volunteer-bartends once a month during bingo night at the South Broadway Athletic Club. He's always on a mission of some sort and constantly seems to be writing his autobiography in his head, making decisions on the basis of how he believes history will treat them.

Three years ago Smith, Neukirch and another friend, former Riverfront Times staff writer (and still occasional freelancer) Thomas Crone, founded the International Brotherhood of the Sweet Science and began staging sporadic backyard boxing matches, for which they didn't charge admission. The Brotherhood is no ordinary boxing crowd, and neither is its audience. Rather, they all tend decidedly toward art and rock & roll. Among the dozen fighters training for the City Museum event are three professional writers, three visual artists, a restaurateur and a chef.

The Brotherhood's first affair, a single three-rounder in a South City backyard, was attended by a few dozen curiosity-seekers who were treated to a slow, plodding bout between two flabby fighters -- Smith and Neukirch. From there, though, word spread. Bob Cassilly attended a few of the early matches and thought the events would play well as a free event at the City Museum, the quirky downtown attraction he and ex-wife Gail opened in 1997 in the former International Shoe factory. The City Museum card, billed as the St. Louis Hoosierweight Boxing Championships, promises to be the Brotherhood's biggest by far.

That is, unless they get knocked out early.

Steve Smith's organization hasn't made much of an impression on the local boxing scene. But now an agency called USA Boxing -- the only organization in the nation that's authorized to sanction amateur boxing matches -- has gotten wind of the upcoming bouts, and the agency is none too pleased. And if Myrl Taylor, president of Ozark Boxing, USA Boxing's St. Louis affiliate, doesn't want a fight sanctioned in this area, it doesn't get sanctioned.

"Who are these people?" Taylor asks. "Who's refereeing the fights? Who's judging, and what training do they have? All my officials have to go to school, and we have classrooms, and they have to break in with little guys and are under strict supervision.

"These guys have no idea when a guy's hurt and when it's time to step in and stop the fight," he goes on. "They've got no trained corner men, no trained nothing. I don't know whether they've got doctors there."

ROUND 3

For your edification, some basic facts about amateur boxing in the United States:

The nonprofit USA Boxing, the national governing body for Olympic-style boxing and the United States' member organization of the International Amateur Boxing Association, was formed in response to the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which set uniform standards of safety and behavior for sports included in the Olympics. (The U.S. Amateur Boxing Federation, USA Boxing's predecessor, was founded in 1888.) As a national governing body, USA Boxing is responsible for the administration, development and promotion of Olympic-style boxing in the United States. The agency sponsors national and international competitions, as well as clinics and training camps, and comprises 56 local boxing committees -- one of which is Myrl Taylor's Ozark Boxing -- grouped into fourteen regions.

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