Philly Fight Night is the brainchild of three Wharton students who went to the Blue Horizon on a lark one night five years ago. When they came out, R.T. Arnold WG’05, Schuyler Coppedge WG’05, and Dave Birnbaum WG’05 couldn’t shake the venue from their minds. Carved out of a row of brownstone mansions whose facades date to 1865, the smoke-stained auditorium has been called the best place in the world to watch boxing by none other than Ring magazine. The ring sits in a cavity taller than it is wide, framed by wooden balconies that dip down so close to the ropes that a spectator could almost lean over and land a bareknuckle punch.

In the city of Joe Frazier and Rocky Balboa, where “fighters come out of the womb knowing how to throw a left hook”—as local sportswriter Bernard Fernandez once put it—the Blue Horizon is a landmark unlike any other. It boasts of having hosted 30 world champions since opening in 1961. Stand in the hall when it’s empty, and the idea of 1,200 people cramming inside makes you wonder how much the fire marshal gets bribed. Experience a packed house, and you’re bound to fall under the spell that gripped Arnold, Coppedge, and Birnbaum.

“We kept talking about it for a week or two afterwards,” Arnold recalls. “So we came up with the idea that maybe we could convince Penn grad students to get in the ring for charity.”

Choosing a beneficiary was a cinch. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia serve some 15,000 local kids, and sports are a major component of their programming.

Recruiting boxers turned out to be surprisingly easy as well. The trio managed to coax 16 fighters—experienced and otherwise—onto their card in fairly short order.

The volunteer pugilists, of course, would have to do considerably more than just skip rope until it came time to lace up their gloves. Each one committed to a demanding training and sparring regimen supervised by Cliff Johnson, a former boxer and longtime coach who had recently become involved with the Penn Law and Wharton boxing clubs.  Johnson’s task was arguably the tallest of all, for he would be Fight Night’s matchmaker, as well as its referee.  

Yet Arnold and company still faced a daunting order: getting a critical mass of their classmates to a part of town where few had ever set foot, to watch a sport that almost none had ever paid money to see. It was the same challenge every promoter faces, only no ring fixer in history has been deluded enough to rely on grad students to churn turnstiles.

By noon on the big day, it looked like the trio was about to learn why.

“We had sold about 200 tickets,” Arnold says. “I mean, hardly anything. We were looking at each other. We weren’t even sure we were going to be able to cover our costs, let alone give any money to the Boys & Girls Clubs.” A couple hours before show time, Arnold was pulling down folding chairs. Fight Night was bleeding before the first punch had been thrown.

Then, minutes from the opening bell, a huge crush of people hit the box office. Eight or nine hundred bodies poured inside. Yet the mood was still uncertain, skeptical even. No one seemed sure what exactly the night had in store.

“People didn’t believe that the students were actually going to fight,” Arnold remembers. “They thought it was going to be a joke, or some sort of performance. No one could really get it. And when the first fight started, and they realized that it was actually for real, the place just blew up.”


May|June 09 contents
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Ultimate Fundraising Championship By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo

Donal McElwee and Nathan Dyer go for broke in the legendary Blue Horizon.

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Last modified 4/30/09