By Neil Rudel
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski.
The floor at the Jaffa Shrine is aglow with spotlights and smoke for Friday’s card.
T hrough the old days when shows were staged at the Mishler Theatre to the occasional cards over the past two decades at the Jaffa Shrine Center, Altoona has always been a good boxing town.
It proved that again Friday night.
An estimated crowd of 2,700-plus nearly filled the Mosque for the first local go-round of the Mixed Martial Arts, and, judging by the raves of the organizers, it will be back.
"I'm very happy," promoter Lionel Royer of Martinsburg, W.Va. said. "I think we've found a home base."
Lee Kerns, the Jaffa's business manager, was equally elated.
"They say there's no money around," he said. "But the $100 seats went first."
Indeed, the floor seats, $100 and $40, were packed, and the cheapest ticket was $25. Apparently, fighting in a cage is recession-proof.
"This seems to be the up-and-coming thing," Kerns said, adding plans are in the works for another two dates here before the end of the year. "We're very well pleased."
Of course, it helps to have Charlie Brenneman in the main event. Brenneman is an up-and-comer on the MMA scene, and his big following crescendoed upon his introduction and during his three-round decision.
The night also was stocked with a number of local entries.
"This is awesome," Brenneman, now 9-1, said. "The hometown support for myself is great, but it's also good for the sport itself. Fighting in Atlantic City is cool, but being able to hang out at home all day today and then come here and have the community involved is like a dream for me."
Brenneman fought in Johnstown three months ago and drew a similar crowd. Royer hopes to bring former Steeler Carlton Haselrig, who was also featured on the Johnstown card, over the mountain.
"If we can get Haselrig here, that would be a plus," Royer said "But Charlie is a big draw."
Boxing has suffered nationally, largely because of the emergence of the MMA, which features a more aggressive kicking and wrestling style as ring dances have given way to no-elbows-barred action.
That's been a mixed blessing for Andy "Kid" DePaul, on hand as the president of the Pennsylvania Boxing Commission. Ranked among the top 10 middleweights in the world in the 1940s, DePaul, based in Pittsburgh, is saddened by the state of boxing.
"We [commission] turned down the MMA three times before we allowed it," he said.
But he's impressed with the enthusiasm, and he always loved the Mosque, having refereed professional wrestling here 30 years ago.
"This is fantastic," he said. "These guys can fight, and this is a great hall."
Royer seconded that.
"The MMA is exploding here," he said. "It's huge all over the world, but especially in Pennsylvania, where wrestling is so big."
And its products, like Charlie Brenneman, feel perfectly comfortable in a cage.