Inside the Celebrity Boxing Federation

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Few experiences in life are more awkward than looking for someone in a strip club.

It is a challenge to scan a room while trying to avoid seeing anything.

The woman pole-dancing topless on the stage directly in front of me was impossible to miss.

"Excuse me," I said to the nearest bouncer, "but I'm looking for …"

I paused. Never in my life had I envisioned I would be standing in a gentlemen's club, bathed in black light, shouting these words over the pumping bass of techno music.

"I'm looking for Jose Canseco."

Jose Canseco, Rodney King and Michael Lohan step into a boxing ring …

It sounds like the setup for a joke, right? But in reality, it's just another day at the office in the world of the Celebrity Boxing Federation.

This 10-bout event I attended Nov. 6 -- billed as "Celebrity Boxing 13: David vs. Goliath" -- featured Canseco and King as the headliners. Lohan was on hand to promote his upcoming fight with a local city councilman.

The unlikely trio raised plenty of eyebrows. Upon hearing about the fight card, the first question people usually asked me was, "What the … ?"

The second question was, "Why?"

Damon Feldman, the founder of the Celebrity Boxing Federation, had been searching for a long time for a niche in the crowded world of boxing promotion. When he saw disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding enter the ring as part of a short-lived Fox reality show, the light bulb went off.

The challenge was attracting a nationally recognized name to help start the promotion. It took five years for Feldman to find one. In 2007, Feldman reached out to former "Partridge Family" star Danny Bonaduce -- via MySpace message -- to see whether he'd be interested in a fight. And the Celebrity Boxing Federation was born.

Then an opportunity with Canseco came along. Then came King. And when Feldman heard Lohan was calling out Britney Spears' ex-husband Kevin Federline in public, the promoter approached Lohan about the possibility of a CBF fight.

As the list of reality-show castoffs, family members of the rich and famous, and has-been athletes willing to step into the ring grows, so does Feldman's venture.

"If they're just laying around doing nothing, why don't they train and get in shape and do a match?" Feldman said. "It's something that keeps their name out there and gets them a little money. … The thing is, with Canseco and all, what is he going to do? He's never going to play baseball again. He's not an actor or anything like that. It keeps him busy. It's like that with a lot of guys. I'm working with everybody from Eddie Munster [Butch Patrick in real life] to Rodney King."

The promoter knows spectators do not come to his shows because they expect to see quality boxing. They come because the shows feature the ultimate trifecta: scantily clad women, D-list celebrities and the promise of violence.

Before his fight Nov. 6, Rodney King stood in the hallway of the Sheraton Hotel, talking about the defining moment of his athletic career.

"I was like 13, and it was one of the first years I ever went out to play baseball," King said. "My mom didn't let me play all those years, but finally, we got in a cussing match. I had to cuss her out to play -- sorry to say that, Mom -- but we came in first place. I still remember it felt so good to be on a team and win. It was in Pony League baseball with the Sierra Madre Cardinals. I think it was 1976."

He has a picture of that team somewhere. He keeps meaning to find it.

It was an image captured 15 years later that thrust King into the public spotlight and strangely led him toward the celebrity boxing ring.

In the spring of 1991, King was brutally beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department in an incident caught on videotape. The acquittal of those officers a year later sparked the infamous six-day Los Angeles riots.

It was hard to reconcile the person I saw -- wearing a sharp black suit and red shirt, with his Celebrity Boxing Federation heavyweight champion belt slung over his shoulder -- with the man who emotionally pleaded with the city of Los Angeles for calm.

I was disappointed when I did not hear a single shout of "Can we all get along?" during King's bout. King won by technical knockout in the second round, defeating former basketball player and actor Derek MacIntosh.

King is nearly two decades removed from his debut on the public stage, but reality TV has introduced him to a new generation. King recently appeared on both "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew" and "Sober House," battling his lifelong struggle with alcohol.

These were not King's first attempts at sobriety -- just as the CBF was not his first foray into the world of boxing. Both endeavors, however, are going much better this time around.

Five years ago, right after completing a substance-abuse rehabilitation program (he later would relapse), King was approached about the possibility of a boxing match with Laurence Powell, one of the LAPD officers sent to prison for King's beating. (Four officers were originally acquitted of the assault, but the four were later indicted on federal charges of violating King's civil rights, and Powell was one of the two convicted.) King agreed, but the deal fell through.

"That was just not a good time for me," King said. "But it got me thinking about boxing, and then when they asked me [earlier this year] if I'd be interested in celebrity boxing, I said, 'I've been sober for a while. I'm working out in the gym. Maybe I could look forward to it?'"

Now, with 17 months of sobriety under his belt, King credits boxing with providing him a positive outlet.

"Even if some people think I can't box, it just feels so darn good to get in the ring," King said. "A lot of things have happened over the years, and it just feels like things have happened so fast. You've got to take advantage of the moment."

At this moment, Michael Lohan -- father of actress Lindsay Lohan -- sat next to me, flipping back and forth between two cell phones.

A pair of Mardi Gras girls -- employees at the fine establishment I'd soon be visiting -- were "boxing" in the ring. It reminded me of a cartoon as the two women put up their gloves, moving their hands in rapid circles while hopping back and forth.

Between the 30-second rounds, the women returned to their respective corners, where blush and lip gloss were reapplied.

I seized the opportunity to pick Lohan's brain. After all, it's not every day you meet a Celebrity Boxing Federation champion.

The US Weekly headlines are true. Not only has Lohan encouraged Jon Gosselin of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" to step into the ring, but he'd love to go a few rounds with the other half of his bromance.

"Who would win between Jon and I?" Lohan said, scoffing. "He doesn't stand a chance. Not a chance."

The list of Lohan's boxing opponents reads like a who's who of the almost-but-not-really famous. He was supposed to fight former O.J. Simpson houseguest Kato Kaelin, but Kaelin, inexplicably, had a scheduling conflict that prevented the match from happening. Lohan made his CBF debut against a Philadelphia DJ and then took the CBF's welterweight title with a win over pseudo-famous former "Survivor" contestant Jonny Fairplay.

Lohan says he'd take on just about anyone, although he is quick to say he'd fight Canseco only if it were possible to put on 50 pounds and grow half a foot before facing the controversial baseball legend.

But, no one compares to Lohan's dream opponent.

"Perez Hilton," he said, without hesitation. "I would love to get Perez in the ring. I challenged him. He's getting a little closer."

This matchup might seem unlikely, judging by the gossip blogger's Nov. 1 post titled, "Celebrity Boxing 13: Who Cares Anymore?" But Lohan insisted that it is within the realm of possibility.

Before I could follow up, Lohan interrupted me.

"Smile, you're on camera," he said, pointing over my shoulder.

I turned to see we were being videotaped. Lohan pretended to pop me in the jaw, then squeezed my arm. I prayed this wouldn't end up on the Internet.

Celebrity boxing is best described as a series of controlled, off-ice hockey brawls. Strategy seems to take a backseat to throwing as many fists as possible. The punches are real, even if the boxers aren't.

Each fight consists of three one-minute rounds. Fighters wear headgear and are expected to stick to basic rules, like no biting or hitting below the belt. A medic is always present. Otherwise, the setup is relatively flexible.

In Springfield, the ring looked set up for professional wrestling, not boxing. Someone pointed this out to Feldman, but he dismissed the comment with a look that said, "Seriously, you think that's going to make a difference?"

There was little resemblance to the sweet science. But Feldman has no illusions that any of his fights will be the subject of an upcoming HBO "24/7" documentary.

A member of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission came to check out the event, even though it falls outside the realm of the organization's sanctions. Based on what he saw, the state commissioner apparently doesn't believe the event needs to be regulated in the future.

"Come on," Feldman said to me. "You saw it. Do you think that needs to be licensed? Obviously, it's like the WWE of boxing."

Back by the ring, Michael Lohan waved to a family behind us.

"That's my lawyer," he said. "He comes to every fight with me.

"In case I get arrested," he added with a sarcastic laugh.

Lohan might be in need of those services soon. Two days earlier, he released a phone message to the tabloids of his famous daughter hysterically sobbing. According to media reports, her attorney is considering legal action.

It has become apparent that the two of them have a strained, complex relationship, seemingly played out through the media and via Twitter.

I broached the subject reluctantly, expecting to be stonewalled -- or at least given a reproachful look.

"What do you want to know?" Lohan asked, launching into an update.

"We don't really talk," he said. "We probably won't until things straighten out with her whole rehab thing."

His daughter has publicly struggled with drugs and alcohol. He has made it abundantly clear to anyone who will listen -- particularly anyone in the media -- that he feels his daughter needs to seek treatment.

"I just want her to go into rehab and get better," Lohan said, putting his hand over his heart. "I want her to be the old Lindsay she used to be. I want her to appreciate everything she's been given. You don't see her making $7 million a movie like she was making or acting to the best of her ability. Now, if she does get $100,000, that's a big deal for her. That's not how it's supposed to be."

I had to ask whether having such personal issues played out in public is the way it's supposed to be -- but Lohan was unapologetic.

"I don't care what people think," he said. "I'm used to it. People can say what they want to say. I know the truth. Lindsay knows the truth. [Ex-wife Dina Lohan] knows the truth. And most of all, God knows the truth. I'm just trying to help her out, and she can hate me now, but she'll love me in the end when she gets her life back."

He only hopes nothing happens to his daughter in the interim, he said. Then he gave me his e-mail address.

The Canseco bout ended by decision, but it was clear Canseco was going to win two punches into the fight.

Local contender Todd Poulton ended up in the hospital -- but not before posing for a few dazed photos with the former slugger.

The victor was complimentary of his opponent -- likely because he missed Poulton's profanity-laced, anti-Canseco prematch tirade.

"No one's ever hit me before," Canseco said, leaning over the ropes after his win. "Todd's the only guy that's even connected."

But later, amid the purple glow of strip-club lighting, Canseco was more open with me. An opponent did connect once. Canseco was knocked out in his 2008 boxing debut against former NFL kick returner (and one-time Golden Gloves boxer) Vai Sikahema.

"He kind of tricked me and lulled me into it," Canseco said. "I was also going through a really bad time in my life where I was shooting my show, the A&E special 'Last Shot with Jose Canseco,' and I had no testosterone in my system."

The documentary chronicled Canseco's attempt to get off steroids after 25 years, a process he says left him weak and in no condition to box.

"I really went into that fight thinking that we were just going to respect each other and barely hit each other," Canseco said.

Sikahema had a different understanding, knocking out the 1988 American League MVP in 37 seconds. Canseco has been training ever since, seeking to prove that older fighters "have still got it." It is that competitive nature that draws the former major leaguer into the ring. And if Canseco had his pick, he knows exactly the man he'd like to see on the other side of it.

"It would be A-Rod," Canseco said. "He's a liar, and he's a hypocrite, and I don't like people like that. He's just not a good person. I would try to hurt him in the ring. It wouldn't be pitty-patty. He's 10 years younger than I am and about my size, so I would put it to him."

For anyone who has not read "Vindicated," Canseco's follow-up to his eye-opening "Juiced," the "Surreal Life" star-turned-boxer claims Alex Rodriguez made a play for (and possibly slept with) Canseco's then-wife. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez has denied the accusation.

"He lied in front of the media about me," Canseco said. "We all know about everything he did regarding my ex-wife, so he's the one guy who I would really love to get in the ring. We could do a pay-per-view fight. It would be huge; I'd knock his head off."

If not Rodriguez, Canseco has his eye on another opponent -- King.

"I definitely want that belt," Canseco said. "I'm definitely going to fight Rodney. I think that's the next step, to take that belt from Rodney."

Feldman is already in the process of setting that fight up -- most likely in January, in Los Angeles. To the uninitiated in the world of celebrity boxing, the idea of such a meeting might seem ludicrous.

But sitting on a couch next to Jose Canseco, as mostly naked women in 5-inch heels shimmied nearby and a DJ announced that Rodney King "is in the house," it all made perfect sense.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a columnist for Page 2, and covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.