It was a gathering place for San Diego’s leading citizens, gamblers and occasional visits by Hollywood celebrities, stopping off en route to a weekend of horse racing at Agua Caliente.
They didn’t seem to mind that the old metal and wood flip-down chairs were in constant need of repair. As long as two men were willing to pound away for four to 10 rounds of boxing, they were satisfied.
The symmetrically shaped 3,521-seat arena sprang up in 1924 when professional boxing and wrestling were legalized in California. Around part of the perimeter were “cheap seat” bleachers, called the gallery.
The Coliseum became one of Southland’s three major boxing marquees, along with the Hollywood Legion Stadium and South Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium.
The scene inside the old clubs was like nothing that can be found today. The raucous atmosphere where fighters exited a cramped dressing room and walked down an isle to the ring is missing from today’s matches staged in nightclubs, hotels or casinos.
Inside, mystic sounds might echo the flourishing days of the 1920s and 1930s.
The tiny dressing room became the headquarters and a springboard for future world champions Jimmy McLarnin, Tommy Loughran, Henry Armstrong, Ceferino Garcia and Jimmy Braddock. In later years, there would be Archie Moore and Ken Norton.
Fans would congregate around a concession stand outside the arena before the fights and during intermission. The management finally caved, removing some bleachers and building a concession stand inside, which almost became the club’s undoing when an unattended stove was responsible for a fire in 1938 that destroyed the interior. Fortunately, the solid walls held firm.
The 22-year-old Moore arrived from St. Louis the next day, scheduled to fight in the following week’s main event. Locals found him lodging and a watchman’s job until the club’s interior was rebuilt. The ageless wonder, who fought until he was 49, had a Coliseum record of 22 victories (15 knockouts), four losses and two draws, made San Diego his home until he died in 1998.
The place struggled in the 1950s and 1960s when crowds dropped off. Finally, unable to recover from the losses, its doors closed on Aug. 1, 1974. While 1974 nationally had been a good year for boxing, the club was not so lucky: financial losses reached $50,000.
The original owners, Frank Higgins and Tom Landis, operated the place until promoter Linn Platner took over from 1925 until 1943. The trio of Hugh Nichols — a Hollywood wrestler — Grady Skelton and Travis Hatfield made the most of it through the war years.
“We ran around 50 shows a year and probably had between 10 to 12 sellouts when we had to turn people away,” Platner once said. “And we had some great fighters. They were looking for work, we were looking for talent.”
The glamour long gone, the Coliseum today is just another bland section of a huge warehouse, the interior gutted of chairs, boxing ring and dressing room. Nothing but the outside impressions of the ticket windows — remnants of a forgotten era — remain.
In its heyday, however, the Coliseum saw no shortage of big names, both in the ring and in the bleachers. Curley Morgan, the ring announcer from 1927 until the 1950s, startled a few ringsiders one night.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he opened. “I’d like to introduce you to Al Capone.” The gangster stood up and took a bow.
Yes, everyone came to the Coliseum.