Outside the Ring

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

Seeking a warmer climate, Abramson moved to South Florida in 1977. Then approaching age 60, he knew the region wasn't flush with big-name fights. But, he recalls, it had a solid rep for pugilism. Accustomed to having a voice in boxing circles, Abramson hoped to become a force here, a member of the Dundee brothers' in-crowd.

But he didn't. Why? To explain he marches, with uncharacteristic anger, to a file cabinet and pulls out several thick folders, all the while muttering words like archenemy and swindler. He's referring to Hank Kaplan. Kaplan, who lives in Kendall, is one of the most highly respected boxing historians in the world. A biologist turned boxing expert, he has been lauded by authorities around the globe for his collection of boxing memorabilia, some of which dates back to the 19th Century.

When Abramson started a new office for Boxing World in 1977, in Hallandale, he named Kaplan, a tall, elegant man, as editor. In a matter of months, though, Kaplan left to start his own publication, Boxing Digest. "He used me to do his own thing," Abramson contends, adding that Kaplan's hiring was his greatest mistake. Indeed the enmity between the two men runs deep. It is something of an obsession for Abramson, who rifles through his files for more than 30 minutes to provide evidence of Kaplan's treachery.

Tommy Torino has grown fond of Abramson-but not his ideas
Joshua Prezant
Tommy Torino has grown fond of Abramson-but not his ideas
Those ideas inspired New York boxing chairman Eddie Eagan to garner Abramson a spot in President Eisenhower's People-to-People
Irv Abramson
Those ideas inspired New York boxing chairman Eddie Eagan to garner Abramson a spot in President Eisenhower's People-to-People

Kaplan, too, seems to harbor a grudge. He responded to New Times' inquiries by phone in a melodious voice from his Kendall home: "I couldn't talk about him at all.... I will not.... When I hear that name, I can't comment on it. You want to talk about any subject under the name of boxing, I can help. You want to talk about kangaroos in boxing, I can. But I can't help you with that name. Try a valid subject."

Abramson displays evidence of the feud's genesis: an April 1979 cover of Hank Kaplan's World-Wide Boxing Digest. Its masthead is similar in design to Abramson's Boxing World. Both titles are printed in block letters and in each, a logo separates Boxing from the word that follows. Boxing World uses two fighters. Boxing Digest employs a glove. Then comes a more damning claim: Abramson complains Kaplan not only stole his subscriber list, he also used Boxing World letterhead to attract advertisers for Boxing Digest.

Abramson sued Kaplan over the matter in August 1979. "He had good lawyers, and the guy's got a mouth on him like butter," he says angrily. "You have no idea the damage he caused me. I don't like talking about him."

The skirmish dredges up bad memories among the sport's local senior set. The boxing commission's Don Hazelton is cagey in explaining it. "It was a business deal that went bad," he offers vaguely. Pressed for more detail, he refers a reporter to former Florida boxing commissioner Harry Brennan, "but unless we're having a séance, you won't get it from him."

Butch Flansburg, president of the National Boxing Association and a former photographer for both Abramson and Kaplan, is similarly evasive. "Some things happened that pushed them apart," Flansburg states. "They have a personal thing, and that's their number, and I don't get involved."

Abramson sums it up this way: "If [boxing's elite] could get rid of me, they'd have done it a long time ago," he says, then waxes philosophical. "Jealousy is a disease in this business." Almost as large as the Foreman cutout and to its left in Abramson's office hangs a gilded wood-and-bronze plaque with an inscription plate designed to look like a scroll. Dated April 13, 1986, it reads: "To Irv Abramson, for dedicated and selfless devotion to boxing and for his major contribution toward its improvement through the creation of the National Boxing Association."

Before he formed the NBA in 1984, Abramson had grown angrily accustomed to seeing boxers treated like expendable cash cows. "I've seen fighters get in the ring without decent gloves or shoes, and nobody cared," he gripes. "And if they got hurt, they had nothing to fall back on." Even more galling, he adds, were big-name fights in which promoters, eager to cut deals with HBO, would manipulate rankings. The result was unqualified fighters entering the ring with highly skilled (and potentially deadly) pugilists.

An example: In late 1982 Duk-Koo-Kim, a Korean lightweight contender, died from brain damage after being knocked unconscious by former World Boxing Association (WBA) lightweight champ Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini. A streetwise slugger from Youngstown, Ohio, Mancini had a rep for early TKOs. Kim, on the other hand, was a relative unknown with (experts said) a suspiciously high ranking, having fought solely in Korea. "The tragedy of [Kim] is a burden all of us in boxing must carry -- and do something about!" the now-deceased Harry Brennan wrote in the January 1983 issue of Boxing World. The time had come, Brennan urged, for matchmakers to stop salivating over pay-per-view box-office deals and to start putting safety first (which meant, among other things, strict enforcement of ranking rules that prohibit amateurs from entering the ring with professionals). "That's what I'd been saying for years," Abramson remarks.

Abramson hoped his NBA could offer boxers some protection. He named it after a historic sanctioning body that was formed in 1921 and lasted until 1962, when it was usurped by the WBA. It declined when foreign promoters, especially Latin Americans, demanded more say over rankings and title fights. When Abramson reconstituted the association, he didn't plan to stage fights. Rather he hoped to operate it as a nonprofit that offered insurance and pension plans to boxers.

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