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Ringside at the Wilma

Boxing Missoula

by SUSANNA SONNENBERG

In the widescreen version of Missoula, a day in the life of the city includes chemistry class at the University, towels on sale at Penney’s, the thud of videos in the drop-box, cars in line for coffee at Malfunction Junction, the soft pink lunchbox packed with Gogurt, the worn-out scraper on the windshield and the dog who picked a fight with your dog at Blue Mountain. A score of habits, a dozen cares. The same thing on Monday as Friday. It’s the way we live.

Except on Wednesday nights. In the past year a mid-week fever has broken out after dark, the uncommon energy of many people gathered in a dangerous way. Boxing at the Wilma has gradually taken root as Missoula’s best way to step outside the way we live. Like the characters in Fight Club, the boxers, promoters, managers and patrons of Boxing Night are not, in fact, dangerous, but they all court a high that is almost forbidden in its carnal thrill, and they do it in a cinema cathedral.

The story of boxing at the Wilma begins with a run-down theater in desperate need of revitalization, a theater built to be grand in 1920, an elegant theater of rumors that never quite settle to rest. This distinctly urban structure overlooks the banks of the Clark Fork River and was built to house a hotel, apartments, offices, retail space, a restaurant and a swimming pool, as well as a magnificent movie house heavy on velvet and adornments. In the ’20s, the Wilma–at first known as the Smead-Simons–provided travelers with a place to remember, a place San Franciscans could admire and that could make Missoulians proud.

The Wilma belongs to another age, and like a dottering great-aunt, she seems eccentric and confused now, uncomfortable with the changes around her. She has not yet, however, succumbed to the familiar fate of other great movie palaces, which is closure and scrapping. Her underground swimming pool was finally bricked over a couple of years ago, now calm beneath the dance floor of the Green Room and Red Light Bar. The Wilma signals Missoula’s identity as a gentle, quirky town of contradictions. In the past decade, owners have struggled to reinvent her identity, in the process holding up a mirror to Missoula’s as well. For years, Ed Sharp presided over the building with his legendary Chapel of the Dove, the set of subterranean rooms that opened one upon another to reveal glassed cabinets filled with theater programs and bits of decaying costumes, dozens of portraits of his cherished pigeon, the stuffed edifice of the pigeon itself and, finally, Sharp, propped against pillows in his large chair, his IV drip perpetually beside him. He welcomed visitors with a dull nod, barely a sign of being awake, and his specter added to the indescribable weirdness of the building.

The building feels like it should be peopled, but it isn’t. Endless renovations transform the spaces, but no workers are seen at the task. The installation of a new elevator occupied the better part of year, but it never seems to be used. Subtle changes mark each visit. Weren’t the mailboxes over here? Was the floor always marble? Portland developer Tracee Blakeslee, who bought the building in 1996, lavished funds upon the movie theater and refurbished the seats, replaced the sound system and reinstated a high-quality screen. Greyed carpet and shabby wallpaper gave way to bright fabrics and golden flocking. Still, she has felt unattended: movie screens shuffled then disappeared, the overdone glow of Marianne’s restaurant faded into another closure. At last, the Wilma settled into her present identity: small apartments, a basement nightclub, and the grand theater for movies, ballets, concerts and symphonies. And boxing.

Boxing is not Missoula’s regular life. Boxing has no regular venue as bowling does nor a ubiquitous presence like the casinos. Boxing in Missoula has an unreal hype to it, like Brad Pitt or Ted Turner. Big-money games–“real boxing”–are publicized and broadcast on cable, fighters granted celebrity that tempts us to read about them in the checkout line at Safeway, watch Barbara Walters interview them.

But boxing is here now, and it makes an odd sort of sense for it to end up, one night a week, winter or summer, at the Wilma, another institution not exactly indigenous. These fights have a hometown feel to them, the makeshift initiative of the square dance in the barn. The crowd is composed of friends and kids, groupies and on-duty cops who high-five audience members they know. Young men and women gather in groups outside for a smoke beneath the marquee’s yellow bulbs. Big guys in t-shirts stamped SECURITY keep an eye on the entry, and the lobby buzzes for hours with opening night energy.

I have spent a great deal of time in the Wilma Theatre, usually by myself, attending a movie for work on a weeknight when no one else showed, and I would pick a seat out of the 1,000 and submit to the thunderous pulse of the sound system. Just me. This bred its own kind of energy, a high of solitude and space that many Missoulians find in the wilderness and I find in a movie theater.

The Wilma is no average movie theater. It flaunts its glamour and size, honors its past decadence. How rare it is to walk into any space so large devoted to just one thing, especially in a city of this size. Missoula can’t afford Safeco Field or Golden Gate Park. For outdoor bigness we have Glacier, and for indoor bigness we have the Wilma, palace of movies, a giant space meant to be dark, meant to be glimpsed only in a dim glow.

The Wilma really takes your breath away, not only because it is splendid and regal and imposing and not only because Blakeslee has spent such a sum restoring it, but because it’s a dream. This romantic notion of going to the movies died decades ago and sputters weakly against the glare of the multiplex. Only a few current patrons could possibly have experienced movie-going when it last looked like this, and the regular teenaged customer is likely to refer to Jim Carrey’s movie, The Majestic.

Movies place quotation marks around experience. What I knew of boxing, until a few weeks ago, I knew from movies, where the fights revealed themselves in gorgeous angles of slow-motion against a surging score. Movie boxing showed off Brando, Douglas, Holden, Quinn, Stallone, De Niro, and a meaty power that even in defeat had nobility. Movie boxing meant punks and retribution, salvation through endurance, the irresistible cinematic marriage of corruption and principled decency. Movie boxing did not smell.

Ringside in the Wilma, you smell sweat and rank effort, the plywood of your table is damp with spilled beer, blood flecks the air, you can see the doctor’s skin through his latex gloves, and the table beneath your hands shudders. The crowd growls and roars for blood and triumph, for victory and dominance, measured in strength and bodies. Here in the Wilma, the sport is blood sport, a modern gladiator exhibition, the crowd screaming for the kill.

American movies of the West have their own tradition, and no matter the story, somewhere in the middle of the picture, the action moves from horseback to barside, rough arrogance thrust up alongside scrappy spunk, each embodied equally in the roles of the new sheriff in town and the beautiful, resourceful madam. Male and female roles are sharply accentuated. And there’s Marlene Dietrich, who embodies both and confuses each. The real West grasps at its romanticized image: she used to be called Miss Kitty, now she’s called a ring girl.

The woman of Wednesday nights is uber-female, glossed, oiled, waxed, robust and displayed. She is, and would you please welcome, the Budweiser Ring Girl! We’ve already met her, standing at attention in a row of her sisters for the national anthem. They are dressed in matching Old Glory bikinis and each one has her hand cupped over her left breast as she sings. Our ring girl picks her way up the metal steps, steadied by a helpful man’s hand, her six-inch heels (in Lucite, white vinyl and rhinestone) wrong for the job and dangerous for her. She swings a leg up and through the ropes, which he holds apart for her (in this she is accorded the same benefits as the fighters), and she hefts the number board into the air and struts a square around the ring. She preens before the audience, which rates her with cash appreciation and roars of approval. Bills wadded into tight stones hail down at her feet, tossed by friends and patrons. Her revealed flesh demands attention, and up on the stage of the ring, her platform heels set her upon another stage still. Music bursts in: “All I’m asking for is a little respect!” She waves a baby-doll wave to the crowd, smiles and blinks and smiles bigger as the wadded money flies into the ring to bounce off her body and fall to the floor.

When the ring card has been thoroughly exhibited, Bill, the announcer in tuxedo and hair gel, introduces the fighters. His voice throws a Las Vegas curve around the word “Stevensville,” giving the town a reputation it has never deserved. The ring girl crouches from the height of her heels and tries to gather her cash with delicacy, but of course it’s not delicate because she must hurry and get out of the ring and she is in her underwear. In the final moments, Russ “Big Dad” Hansen kicks a few balls of cash across the mat to her and she clutches them to her pierced navel as she descends those treacherous steps. Back on firm ground, she shivers and pulls on a jacket or slips her cutoffs up over gleaming legs. Then she serves beer.

Many women revile the idea of the ring girl, the very concept, but in this context, these women are on equal ground with the men who approach the ring. These young, hapless fighters rip off their grubby t-shirts and strap athletic protectors around their shorts. With their protective helmets allowing for only a glimpse of face, they flash just as much anonymous flesh, parade their prowess, strengths and frailties in the same ways the ring girls do. We inspect their maleness and rate their masculinity, scoring aggression, build and stamina. In boxing–fighter, spectator or supporting cast–we are all reduced to impulses.

Our favorite legends of the West hang on physical hardship and human endurance, the American heritage of raw physical power. On Wednesday nights, right here on Higgins, that power springs to life again, so much bare skin visible, so much nakedness shimmering for inspection. The boxing scene–loud, rowdy, inebriated and chaotic–has the flame of predatory, sexual energy, not because it is particularly sexy (though some may be stirred by bikini-ed breasts and flexing forearms) but because it raises a hallelujah to our epic heritage of mate selection. What recommends modern society is that we all wear clothes and speak in relatively low voices, but some primitive truth buried deep in our cerebral cortex knows this is also our predicament, and it is from here, for the sake of the perpetuation of the human race, that we respond to boxing.

Who boxes? Who chooses hand-on-hand combat with another man, ready to be pummeled and broken? These men (there’s usually a women’s fight as well) pop out of the corners of Missoula, from behind cash registers and restaurant sinks, from the high schools and Frenchtown. They answer the ads on The Blaze: Males wanted aged 18 to 48. You think you’re bad, call Big Dad. They show up Monday nights at The Inn on Broadway for weigh-in and approval, fork over a fee for a license and two nights later step into the ring. Men say to themselves and to each other, “I can fight and get paid.”

It’s a rush, and you can see it. The fighters bounce at the back of the theater from foot to foot waiting their turn, pumping up their blood until their names are called. Then they run down the aisles as their friends urge them on. They bound into the ring, assess each other. The announcer calls for the fight and Big Dad steps forward. He locks them in the brief prayer of sports: good conduct, no dirty fighting, watch the ref. This is about bodies and flesh, appearance and entertainment. Then with a bell, they’re at each other and their focus narrows to a laser zone of opponent and aggression.

Sure, the occasional man knows a bit about boxing, but for the most part, these Wilma Wednesday boys are not good fighters, and these are not good fights. ESPN main events have dictated expectations, but what we get here at home are two rangy, loose, unstructured bodies flying at each other and taking over the ring with no agenda. Within seconds, these men have spent themselves, blown all the energy that adrenaline would carry, and what’s left, for another two and half rounds, is a restless, juvenile lunging punctuated by spurts of poor judgement.

The ref, Big Dad again, keeps a tight eye on his fighters, dancing at their edges with piercing attention, breaking them apart when they seem too close to danger. Hansen, in his pressed black pants, brightly colored dress shirt and stiff black bow-tie, offers a startling contrast to the pale naked boys collapsing in their dirty sneakers.

Big Dad knows it’s a show, and he tells his boys as much before the fights begin. Why do people come? It’s a silly question to him. “You come for the entertainment. You’re sitting in a movie theater and watching live boxing!” He pronounces it “thee-yater,” highly aware of the old-fashioned circus nature of the show. In other words, you can have it all. You can sit in those Wilma seats, face the stage, be a watcher and still have the air fill with the sparks and sweat of gladiators. You’re sitting in a movie theater, and you have permission to scream at the top of your voice that is hoarse and hard with beer, “Knock his fucking skull in!”

The Wilma’s main-floor seats are filled almost to capacity with patrons who have paid ten or 20 bucks apiece sprawled out in various states of attention and repose, Bud beer in hand, coats slopped over the chair in front. They chatter and crane their necks, men eye women, and the cocktail waitress, breasts first, ambles the aisles hawking medical beakers filled with schnapps. On a good night, boxing pulls in about 900 people. This is not the same crowd that has shown up over the years for the annual “Nutcracker Suite” or MCT’s “The King and I.”

Now the stage, with the sudden transformation of all theater, provides the platform for the makeshift ring, its mustard-yellow mat roped in bright red. The ring is crowded by tables and ringside seats, some for the judges, some for the regulars and business groups who buy out the season tickets. Stage right, Dr. Bill McNulty leans back against the gathered curtain and keeps a deceptively disinterested eye on the action. Stage left, a gaggle of women in swimwear help each other with hairbrushes and shoe straps. Ringside, you strain to overhear what the trainer shouts in the fighter’s ear before he wipes him down and tosses the towel inches from your face. You can’t look anywhere else, waiting for the ring girl to squat down to her cash reward or swing her leg through the ropes, ass facing you and covered by only three square inches of cloth printed with the American flag.

The sport gets better and faster and tougher, the tension tightens. The fights mean more, the promoter pairing the experienced fighters as the night goes on. Better matched, the sparring men keep each other going, teeth bared, upper cuts controlled. The tables pushed up against the ring shake with their footwork and the air rings with cries of “Hit him!”

Boxing at the Wilma is nobody’s real life. Even the theater herself has a day job, a demure identity welcoming couples to middling comedies with the smell of popcorn. Not one person present at the fights, it seems, confines him- or herself to this world. Such a high is meant only for the occasional hit, the temporary release and escape. This boxer is a high school student at Hellgate, that one a manager at Holiday; this Ring Girl is a marketing major at the U, that one a stripper. Big Dad, who drives an immense white Dodge Ram with plates that read “BG DAD,” runs a tanning salon and cuts hair. The ringside doc has a real practice in the Bitterroot, the trainers are contractors and carpenters. Then, of course, there’s Shane and Michelle.

Shane and Michelle Cole are ICU nurses at St. Patrick Hospital. Outside hospital hours, they’re a legend in the tight, small, brief world of Wednesdays. Michelle works as a substitute ring girl and Shane judges fights now while he recuperates from an injury. He has been one of the best, going right to the championship in Missoula last year where, after losing his final fight, he famously proposed to Michelle, his Ring Girl, down on one knee in the ring. The winner had to concede the spotlight and step aside. As Shane tells it, 3,000 people leaped to their feet with roars of congratulation. “I wanted it to be something we’d always remember,” he says, explaining how he planned the event meticulously for weeks. Even though he had been throwing up before the fight and even though he’d lost, he and his bride were embraced by their chosen family. Most of the older men managing and supporting the event come from “boxing families,” and most of the fighters have been boxing in one form or another since they were 6 or 8. Shane seems puzzled by the question, “Why do you box?” “It’s in you,” he says.

By the second time I return to the Wilma for boxing, I’m hungry for it. I can’t get the rush from my mind, and this time I want to be closer, drifting up in a haze to find myself clad in shorts and gloves in the center of the ring, the ref with his hand upon my shoulder. I can feel it. I feel the desire to interlock with my opponent, power coursing through my arms. It doesn’t feel aggressive or fearful, only primal. I hear the crowd but I’m not part of it, lost in my thoughts, waiting like Mia Farrow in Purple Rose of Cairo for someone to step down, take my hand and guide me into this dream.

SUSANNA SONNENBERG lives in Missoula, Montana. This article originally appeared in the excellent Missoula Independent, click here to see the stunning photos that accompanied Sonnenberg’s article. She can be reached at: susanna807@earthlink.net