Outside the Ring

To protect boxers from the fight game, Irv Abramson wants to form a more perfect union

Born eight years before the rematch, in 1919, Abramson was too young to box during Dempsey's heyday. But by the 1930s he had learned a few skills. One day, while selling newspapers in Brooklyn's movie-theater district, he had a run-in with a local gang. "A guy put an egg in my apron and squashed it," he recalls, "and that was after weeks of taunting me. I was so mad I kicked him, and then I knew I had to fight. Boom... boom... boom. His face was covered in blood." The bully, he says, was an amateur boxer. Abramson figured if he could punch out a fighter, he must have some talent. So in 1938 the young amateur competed in the New York Golden Gloves competition, where he was a clever but unspectacular performer. The experience spurred him to begin organizing amateur bouts after joining the Air Force during World War II.

For two years, while officially fixing airplane radios in places like Italy, Hawaii, and New Guinea, Abramson staged fights that attracted thousands of servicemen. "They called me the Mike Jacobs of the Air Force," Abramson quips, referring to the man who managed Joe Louis. It was a compliment and a portent. When he left active duty in the late '40s, Abramson returned to Brooklyn, where he and another ex-GI, Pete Montesi, put on professional bouts at the Jamaica Arena. "Irving Rudd, the same public relations guy they had for Madison Square Garden, was with us," Abramson boasts, gesturing toward a photo on the cluttered desk that shows Rudd standing over Abramson's shoulder as the latter signs his licensing paperwork.

But Abramson didn't turn into another Mike Jacobs. Without big financial backers, he wound up doing more writing for Ringside (a publication of the New York Managers and Trainers Association) than matchmaking. He did hang out with Jacobs at the Garden, where he met former champs like Dempsey and Mickey Walker, a middleweight roughhouser whose tenacity earned him the moniker "Toy Bulldog."

Abramson's connections and mastery of pugilistic trivia won him a trip to Australia at age 43
Irv Abramson
Abramson's connections and mastery of pugilistic trivia won him a trip to Australia at age 43
Abramson (middle) was officially repairing radios during WWII. Unofficially he was following his fistic muse.
Irv Abramson
Abramson (middle) was officially repairing radios during WWII. Unofficially he was following his fistic muse.

Around 1960 Abramson met Eddie Eagan, former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. Soon thereafter Eagan helped Abramson garner a spot on the People-to-People Sports Committee, an Eisenhower-era group that tried to foster goodwill among nations through sports-related activities. "We'd become friends, and while I was in his office one day, the phone rang," Abramson recounts. "It was [People-to-People's] Australian group, and they were holding a boxing quiz contest, but Eagan couldn't go." Eagan asked Abramson to attend. "I had a grand time," he says, glancing at an eight-by-ten glossy taken in 1962 when, at age 43, he sat in a boxing ring in Sydney alongside pugilistic-trivia whizzes from as far away as Hong Kong. The weeklong experience helped solidify Abramson's presence in boxing circles to the benefit of his new publication, Boxing World.

Abramson started the paper for a couple of reasons. For one thing he felt boxing could be opened to a broad range of readers, not just stat-obsessed followers of boxing's bible, Ring magazine. Further Abramson wanted to set an example for others to follow. "With my own paper, I knew I'd be able to fight for the things I wanted," he says, "including boxers' rights." Living in New York, Abramson had ready access to boxing celebs who, during the '60s, could be found six deep at Jack Dempsey's place on Broadway. There he chatted up (and of course had his picture taken with) ex-champ Floyd Patterson, whom he describes as a kind man tortured by self-doubt. Abramson also shared a meal with Marciano, whom he calls "a great fighter, but not a nice guy -- a cheapskate who'd stick you with the tab." Dempsey, on the other hand, "was a very popular guy who made you feel like he knew you," Abramson says. "Anybody who came to his restaurant, that's how he treated them."

Dempsey was almost 70 years old when he granted Abramson an interview for Boxing World in 1964. Back then the paper wasn't making money and had fewer than a thousand readers. During their talk Abramson discovered Dempsey shared his views on boxers' rights. "Jack also feels there should be a pension fund established for boxers," Abramson wrote in his June 13 column, repeating a familiar refrain. "This could be in the form of a trust fund where every boxer contributes a percentage of his earnings... and promotion should also contribute, plus a small gate percentage."

The message was barely noticed in the boxing world, but that didn't stop Abramson from repeating it again and again. "My paper gave me power, and I always looked out for the boxer," he declares with conviction, even while acknowledging Boxing World's circulation never reached more than a few thousand copies.

"One quality Irv always had was that he looked out for the best interests of the fighter," says José Torres, a light heavyweight champ during the '60s. "Irv has respect for fighters' intellectual capacity. He's always looking to prevent fighters from being negatively exploited, and he knows they're not a bunch of musclemen who can only learn about left jabs and right crosses and uppercuts."

Although Abramson's principles scored well, some of his business decisions turned out to be off the mark.A framed cover of Boxing World hangs crookedly on the wall in Abramson's office. Gingerly he rights it. The issue, dated April 1964, has aged almost to the point of turning orange. But the image of Cassius Clay howling while leaping toward ringside cameras at the Miami Beach Convention Center remains clear. "What's C. Clay Saying?" reads the bold headline. Clay was proclaiming himself king of the world, showing the kind of guts Abramson admired. Aside from marking the downfall of then­heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, the historic bout added juice to Miami Beach's reputation as a boxing mecca.

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