After half a century, boxing returns to SF Armory

Boxing ring inside the Armory's drill court in 1928.

Walking into the San Francisco Armory’s drill court, the 40,000-square-foot space located inside the ex-National-Guard-base and ex-porn-studio, feels a lot like jumping into the deep end. Not only do you seem to float in the middle of the acre-long expanse, it’s also uncannily devoid of echoes.

What seems to reverberate, however, is the room’s history.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the court was used for some of the West Coast’s highest-profile boxing matches, bringing in thousands of spectators every week and earning itself the title “Madison Square Garden of the West” for its sheer size.  

On Saturday, October 21, history will come full circle. The Armory will hold its first prizefight in more than half a century. Karim Mayfield, a San Francisco native, and Miguel Dumas will square off for the WBU Welterweight Americas Belt. On the same night, undefeated San Francisco native Raquel “Pretty Beast” Miller will be defending her ranking against Louisiana’s Sydney Leblanc.

“The Mayfield-Dumas match will be the first championship in City since 1992,” said Mike Stabile, an Armory spokesperson. “We’re particularly excited that we’ll launch with two SF natives competing for titles.”

Stabile said the decision to bring boxing back to the Armory has much to do with the venue’s “flexibility” to host a wide variety of entertainment. He said the venue is also trying to reach a wider demographic.

“It’s a way for us to pay tribute to the Armory’s history, and to bring in crowds that have probably never been in the Armory,” he said.  

In fact, the Armory is undergoing some rebranding after Kink.com founder Peter Acworth decided to cease porn production in the building. The studio’s focus has now been on transforming the Armory into an events space. In April 2016, it won approvals to use the drill court for events, and later took out a $4 million loan to revamp the court and other areas.

Matty McCauley, who was initially hired in May to do the Amory’s “porn tours,” is now the studio’s resident historian in charge of leading Armory’s historical tours. He has been researching the venue’s boxing history and discovered that one of the first fights happened on March 22, 1920 between Jimmy Duffy (a.k.a the Oakland Shadow) and Frankie Farren. Duffy prevailed.

Things looked different then: the drill court lacked a roof, and the arena hadn’t yet been transformed into a true venue.

Oakland Tribune article primes fans for a bout between Oakland Jimmy Duffy and Joe Roche at the San Francisco “State Armory” on Nov. 23, 1925.

McCauley isn’t certain why the Armory, which was built for the U.S. National Guard in 1912 and then called the “State Armory,” started hosting fights, but did note that fights between guardsmen were a common pastime at the fortress.

“In their training course, they had something they would call ‘manly competition,’” McCauley said. “That could mean a lot of things, but one of the things they would [do for] exercise was fights between soldiers.”

Prizefights might have also begun at the Armory because of money. A San Francisco Chronicle article from February 1920 notes that the National Guard official who arranged some of the initial fights was “anxious to bolster up the recruiting fund of the National Guard.”

Nevertheless, after a five-year lull while the roof and more bleachers were being installed, the Armory grew to become the one of the city’s marquee destinations for boxing. It featured fights with Jim Corbett III, Jackie Fields, Mike McTigue, Armand Emanuel, Jack Thompson (“The Frisco Flash”) and Peter Myers.    

Portraits of Jackie Fields and Young Jim Corbett III still hang on either side of the drill court entrance.

“You know, it’s hard not to look through old photos of the Armory, set up with the boxing ring, without imagining this space as it once was — a cheering crowd, packed to the rafters with sports fans, with two champions battling it out in the center,” Stabile said.

Saturday, Oct. 21, 5:30 p.m., tickets $40 to $250, 1800 Mission St., San Francisco, sfarmory.com. Buy tickets here.  

Portrait of Jackie Fields at the entrance to the Armory’s drill court. Photo by Julian Mark.

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