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People are still finding their seats when the house lights dim at the Marin Veterans' Memorial Auditorium. A tape of "Small Town" by John Cougar Mellencamp strikes up as a video montage chronicles the life and career of San Rafael boxer Paul Nave.
A capacity crowd of 2,000 watches the images click past: Nave's baby photos, sports shots from high school, girlfriends and wives, ski trips and boxing victories. Everybody here knows Nave. He's a local hero, the well-to-do kid from a big family who went to San Quentin for dealing drugs, then turned his life around and boxed his way to the World Boxing Federation welterweight championship (see "The Great White Nope?" March 18).
Tonight, Nave will defend his title in a rematch with former three-time world champion Greg Haugen. In the ever-shrinking world of Bay Area pugilism, this is as big as it gets. Last March, the two fighters duked it out for the same title. Nave won. Friday night they were back in the same place, two stubborn white guys in their late 30s, fighting for a secondary title in a young man's sport.
The song and video finish, and a flash of white light illuminates the stage, to whoops and cheers. Twelve rounds later, when the crowd quietly files out, Nave will have lost his title in a split decision. But that doesn't mean it wasn't an exciting evening at the fights.
Attending a boxing bout in one of the nation's wealthiest counties seems the height of incongruity. Boxing usually springs from poor neighborhoods, where kids slug it out in crumbling gyms, hoping to climb their way out of the ghetto. There's little to fight over in white-bread Marin, at least nothing that couldn't more easily be resolved with a credit card or a phone call. And yet this isn't the tennis-and-chardonnay set. These folks are upscale working-class -- ruddy ex-jocks in rugby shirts and work boots, who like to chew tobacco and punch each other in the restroom. And tonight they want to see the fists fly.
The lineup features four preliminary bouts, mostly young unknowns without much pro experience. Action is intermittent, but the semi-main event, an eight-rounder between San Mateo's Eddie Croft and San Diego's Frankie Lizarraga, goes the distance in an exhilarating brawl. This is what makes boxing fun to watch -- a close match between two guys with speed and energy who go at each other like human rototillers. It's the most exciting fight of the night, and Croft takes it in a very close decision.
In the bowels of the building, Nave and Haugen sit in their respective dressing rooms, getting their hands taped, going through those final thoughts. Both have been divorced, injured, and bankrupt. Each has children, and could use another couple of big paydays.
"They're both gettin' a little long in the tooth!" laughs a middle-aged woman, waiting in line for beer. "It's the Over-the-Hill Gang."
Before the main event, the lobby fills with blond Marin men and women and an abundance of high school girls in slinky black dresses. People seem almost freakishly attractive, complementing the image of event promoter Peter Howes. His fight program features shameless cheesecake photos, and he hires voluptuous "ring girls" to parade around in microscopic swimsuits. Guys scream out their home phone numbers. Howes knows that 60 percent of his audience comes for the girls.
Tonight's crowd may be the beautiful people, but Greg Haugen is not one of them. With his stubbled chin, pocked face, and slept-on hair, his nickname "The Mutt" fits. Before turning pro, the boxer from Auburn, Wash., fought over 300 amateur fights, often taking on guys twice his size. In racking up a 37-8-2 record, including 20 knockouts, he's beaten the best -- Jimmy Paul, Hector "Macho" Camacho, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. But most of his juice was in the '80s and early '90s. Bad investments wiped out all his money. Then his wife tried to run him over with a car.
Haugen was favored to beat Nave back in March, but lost after tearing a rotator cuff in the first round. He underwent surgery, and now wears metal pins in his right shoulder. As Haugen runs into the ring, he has probably three friends in the room, judging from the cacophony of boos. But he knows how to sell a fight. He blows everyone a kiss, confident to the point of cockiness.
Nave's entrance, on the other hand, is a pageant worthy of a pro wrestling match. Two cheerleaders bounce into the ring, high-kicking and shaking pompons. Then the handsome Nave dashes in, punching the air, wearing a floor-length leopard-print robe. His corner men wear matching leopard shirts, with "Paul Nave, World Champion" stitched on the back. Nave again goes in the underdog, with a pro record of 16-5-2 and eight KOs. Preliminary hype still focuses on Haugen, but Nave showed a lot of heart in their previous bout, and his victory was unanimous.
The bell rings, and the fighters begin testing each other. The difference between the two is obvious. Nave is a trained wrestler, and likes to come in low, as if he's going for a takedown. He's clearly not as quick as Haugen, but he's strong. Nave swings so hard that when he misses, the momentum lifts both his feet off the floor. He keeps coming, and some of his best blows seem improvised. Haugen fights like a cagey, street-wise punk, his punches sparse and unexpected.