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Provo mayor KOs boxing

Club substitutes martial arts and a pillow fight

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PROVO — To hide their intent from their masters, Brazilian slaves in the early 19th century disguised their martial arts training in the form of capoeira, a dance set to soulful music.

In an anticlimactic end to a busy day on the Provo boxing scene, the dance moves of a group of capoeiristas were as close as anyone got to throwing punches at Club Omni Tuesday night. The administration of Provo Mayor Lewis K. Billings knocked out a planned consensual rumble before boxers could even put on their gloves.

Assistant city attorney Gary McGinn persuaded 4th District Judge Ray Harding Jr. to sign a temporary restraining order Tuesday afternoon that barred dance club owner Ken Merena from hosting a series of boxing matches between college-age men and women. Harding agreed with Provo that "irreparable injury, loss or damage" would have resulted from the boxing, which Billings says is not legal under zoning ordinances for the city's central business district.

Merena disagreed, and he charged a handful of patrons — and even more journalists — $2 each to watch capoeira and a short pillow fight aimed at poking fun at Provo.

"Maybe they've won Round One," Merena conceded. "If we knock them out in Round Two, Round One doesn't matter."

Merena plans to bring in the heavyweights, in the form of attorneys, to a hearing before Harding Friday afternoon. If he is successful in convincing city officials and the court that boxing is permitted in Provo's downtown, he plans to stage boxing there on a weekly basis.

Merena is convinced that teens and college-age residents, who have stayed away from Provo's only dance club in droves in recent years, will shell out $8 each to watch pugilism. But if so, Club Omni will have to recruit its own talent because a group of novice fighters has decided to take its act elsewhere.

"We were just used for publicity," said Brody Wilson, an American Fork man who lined up the boxers who would have entered the ring Tuesday.

Wilson and his partner, Jake Spainhower, said they had split with Club Omni Tuesday after becoming disenchanted with the way Merena handled the affair. Wilson sought to have Merena refund a $400 deposit he had made to rent the club for the boxing event.

Wilson and Spainhower say they will seek to stage a boxing tournament somewhere else, although they acknowledge recent controversy over so-called "fight clubs" makes that a difficult proposition, especially in Utah County.

Billings showed the ability to take a few jabs — and dish some out, too — at an afternoon press conference featuring a bevy of reporters, city employees and would-be boxers. After a short prelude, Billings began his prepared remarks before the cameras by saying, "Now, for the main event . . ."

Jokes aside, Billings clearly took a hard-line stance against the dance club's proposal to begin downtown boxing shows. The mayor said it was a zoning issue; Merena and the boxers accused him of simply disliking the sport.

"I think he feels boxing is inherently evil and he's pandering to a voting constituency," Merena said.

But the mayor disagreed, saying he's only against "boxing or any kind of fighting where there's an undue risk of personal injury."

Billings invited Club Omni to seek a zone change or make an appeal to the city's Board of Adjustment. More likely, the issue of whether the gloves get strapped on will be decided in the courtroom.

If so, Merena has a head start on what he calls his "legal defense fund." At the pillow fight Tuesday night, the dance club collected money to pay Merena's attorneys. Petitions in favor of boxing were circulated and a sign inside the establishment asked, "If the City Council protects us from ourselves, who will protect us from the City Council?"

But the meager entrance fees collected from a few dozen patrons won't even recoup the club's costs for hiring security and paying $50 for some pillows.

Some patrons who showed up were unaware the judge had ordered boxing down for the count.

"We came here for the boxing," said John Ryder of Mapleton. "Everybody's upset it didn't happen."

Provo's defense for its effort to obtain the temporary restraining order hinges on the definition of boxing. For Richard Secrist, community development director, boxing is a sporting event rather than entertainment, which would be permitted downtown. Billings said boxing would be welcome in Provo at a school or sports venue.

It's not the first run-in between Merena and city officials. In 1998, he was cited for permitting a public dance after hours, a class B misdemeanor. In February 1999, city attorneys charged him with disorderly conduct, a class C misdemeanor. Prosecutors agreed to allow Merena to enter a no contest plea, which would be held in abeyance and the case later would be dismissed.

Merena vows this time, he won't back down. Billings doesn't appear ready to throw in the towel, either. While those combatants went to their corners to make ready Tuesday night, the capoeiristas swung their punches but didn't land any.

"We don't call it a fight," said the group's founder, Aaron Laureitzen. "We call it a game."

E-mail: carter@desnews.com