The South Broadway Athletic Club is the closest thing St. Louis has to a boxing mecca. A crumbling community hall on the corner of Seventh Street and Shenandoah Avenue in Soulard, the facility has hosted fights at its current location since 1904. It has its own boxing hall of fame (a few framed photos of pugilists, trainers and boxing benefactors), a smoky bar that serves cheap beer and the gritty feel of a place that revels in the way things used to be.
Responding to nearly insatiable popular demand, even old-school boxing institutions like the SBAC have started to book mixed martial arts cards. The club's boxing gym, which trains a handful of inner-city kids free of charge, now rents out space to an MMA trainer to help keep the operation out of the red.
"I'm not crazy about it," says head boxing coach Bill McLaughlin. "But we need the money, and that's where the money is."
Established boxing promoters like Steve Smith, president of Rumble Time Promotions and manager of St. Louis' latest boxing sensation, World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation light-welterweight champion Devon Alexander, are also jumping on the MMA bandwagon.
"Boxing, to be honest, is a lot of dancing around," Smith says. "Physical contact is what people really want to see. That's why Mike Tyson was such a big draw: the violence. In these economic times, people want to get their money's worth."
Meanwhile, the amateur talent pool in the city that produced heavyweight champions Leon and Michael Spinks and Sonny Liston, is drying up.
"We have half the boxers we used to have," says Craig Aldridge, president of the St. Louis Amateur Boxing Association. "We used to have 400 fighters in our Golden Gloves. Now we have 35, 40, maybe 50."
Aldridge says his organization has embraced the influx of young MMA fighters, who enter Golden Gloves in order to improve their ability to trade punches in the octagon. St. Charles Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu & MMA won the novice tournament last year and came in second in 2010.
"We're glad to have 'em," Aldridge says. "It's better for everybody, it helps both sides. It makes the MMA kids more well-rounded fighters, and it helps the pure boxers get better opponents. Some of those MMA kids would make great boxers."