The Alumna Behind the Blue Horizon

Boxing at the Blue Horizon goes back to 1961, but the venue itself has been on the ropes more than once in recent years. Perhaps no person has done more to keep it in business—and out of condemnation proceedings—than Vernoca Michael SW’72 GCP’74.

In 1994, Michael and business partner Carol Ray quit their jobs and took on $500,000 in debt to buy the Blue Horizon. What primarily attracted them were the building’s architecture and its potential to become a cultural hub on Broad Street, which Philadelphia was rebranding “The Avenue of the Arts.”

“I was supposed to be just an investor,” Michael says. She ended up being far more. She started a nonprofit educational foundation, helped to orchestrate a badly needed, $3.5 million renovation of the historic building, and became the first African-American woman boxing promoter in Pennsylvania. “From a legal standpoint,” she says, “I think there are now about four in the country.”

None of it was easy. A month after the purchase, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections cited the Blue Horizon for dozens of problems, including fire and electrical code violations. Its new owners knew the building needed work, but hadn’t realized just how much. The city had promised $2 million for the Blue Horizon that year, but that line item never made it from the budget to the bank. Michael and Ray managed to scrape up enough money to patch up problems here and there, but more rounds of daunting code violations followed and at times it seemed like every fight at the Blue Horizon could be the last.

They kept at it, eventually pulling down a $1 million state grant and a $1 million low-interest loan from the Delaware River Port Authority to make the renovation a reality in 2002.

Since then, Michael has carved out an unusual niche in the male-dominated world of pugilism. “That proved to be challenging,” she says. “However, attending the University of Pennsylvania when I did, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, helped prepare me for that kind of thing.

“I had the experience of challenging larger institutions when it came to some areas of discrimination,” she explains. “In those days you had very few African Americans attending Penn. And Penn would make statements like, ‘We couldn’t find any qualified candidates.’ Well, you can’t find any qualified candidates if you’re not looking! So I had to challenge the school to step up to the plate and begin to find qualified candidates.”

Almost 40 years later, Michaels says Penn has been a longstanding partner to the Blue Horizon’s nonprofit arm, which provides job training, internship opportunities, and other social services geared toward preparing young adults for the “world of work.”

“Many people don’t know the kinds of things that we do with the students in the community,” she says. “They only want to see us from a boxing point of view. And I say to them, ‘We do boxing approximately 10 days a year; what do you think I do the other 355?’”

Of course, a lot of Philadelphia sports fans might consider Michaels’ efforts to keep the punches flying in this hallowed hall a social service in its own right. As the Gazette went to press, the next round of fights was on the calendar for May 15.


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