Outside the Ring

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

Abramson began pushing for reforms at the state level. A red folder from his files shows at least 50 letters (dated mostly in 1983 and 1984) to then­Florida governor Bob Graham and state officials like then-senator Ken Jenne. He received responses, including a letter from Graham, stating the issue was under review. In 1984 a statewide boxing commission was formed; among its duties was enforcing requirements for regular health exams for fighters. (Over the years the agency has survived scandals concerning mismanagement, and it remains intact.)

Abramson speaks of himself in the third person when describing the achievements. "All this got done and a law was passed because of Irv Abramson," he declares. "He's not grandstanding."

Present NBA president Flansburg confirms the claim. "Irving's responsible for the rules and regulations we have in place. It was due to his persistent touting that the state did something."

Abramson (standing) looks on proudly as the great Jack Dempsey (right) and friend peruse Boxing World
Irv Abramson
Abramson (standing) looks on proudly as the great Jack Dempsey (right) and friend peruse Boxing World

But Hazelton says Abramson's role shouldn't be exaggerated. "I have talked to many people who are responsible for the commission," he says, recalling the efforts of people like now-deceased state representative Joe Lang Kershaw, a former boxing coach and state official for whom the law creating the commission was named.

After the state commission was formed, Abramson focused his efforts on the NBA. He held dinners to raise money for pension and insurance programs. Abramson invited representatives from what he terms "all the alphabet groups" -- the WBA, WBC (World Boxing Council), and IBF (International Boxing Federation) -- to several dinners at the prestigious Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. "I lost money," he says. "I raised maybe $3000 or $4000, but compared to what it cost to do a dinner in a place like that..., it was nothing." Although several hundred boxing loyalists turned out, the big-money men were no-shows, he explains. "I was getting nowhere with these guys," Abramson says, pointing to a poster in his office covered with the famous mugs of promoters like Chris Dundee, Don King, Bob Arum, and Butch Lewis. "They were patting me on the back, but they did nothing."

Sylvia Abramson, a witty woman who also grew up in Brooklyn, married Irving in 1969 at the trendy Manhattan restaurant, Toots Shor. She says she knew her betrothed's life was dedicated to boxing even before the wedding day. It bothered Sylvia to see bigwigs "give Irv lots of lip service, and that's all. But he never stopped being committed to helping boxers with no thought of reward for himself."

Out of necessity the NBA did more than just offer insurance and pension plans. By 1991 Abramson was sanctioning title bouts. But he contends that he didn't milk fighters. "I didn't take any sanctioning fees from boxers, and I'd use local judges and referees instead of flying them in so you have to pick up their fare and hotel," he says. The tactic allowed him to offer a few dozen pugilists pension plans and HMO membership.

While his fights lacked the celebrity of HBO-sponsored Las Vegas slug fests, Abramson muddled along. He held mostly untelevised bouts from El Salvador to Beijing (and closer to home, at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium), thanks in part to sponsors like Ford Motor Co. and Budweiser. His boxers, including local guys like Duran Williams and Daryl Pinkney, weren't highly publicized stars, but they were solid punchers with good-enough records to draw crowds in the thousands.

"I couldn't attract the big-name fighters, because I didn't have the same kind of money the other outfits had," Abramson says. "But I was giving my fighters a chance to get a title." By 1995, when his health went bad, Abramson had put on 30 championship bouts. "I never really made money at it," he says without elaborating. "But I had lots of fun."

Abramson says one of his most memorable fights was held in Curaçao in 1992. It's not cruiserweight "Fast Eddy" Smulders' second-round knockout of Vernon "Ibi" Zimmerman that makes the fight stand out, he says. It's the fact that the matchup almost didn't occur. "Two days before the fight, somebody told the officials in Curaçao the NBA was a phony outfit," Abramson recalls. "I had to fly down there the next day to get the go-ahead.... People were looking to knock me out of the box because I'm not just running dinners anymore, I'm competing with them."

Although Abramson had some success, by 1998 when he retired from the NBA at 79 years old, his dream of a boxer's union was still just that.Instead of a boxing ring, sunlit trees provide the backdrop for a framed photo of Abramson's son, Charles, on the office wall. Six feet four inches tall and solidly built, the young man cuts an impressive figure alongside famous boxers in Abramson's photos. He has his father's prominent nose and thin lips, but an accompanying article from Oklahoma Today Magazine says nothing about boxing. It describes Charles' work as a psychology professor at Oklahoma State University. Nearby on a desk, a picture from an October 1992 issue of Boxing World shows the flushed face of matchmaker Tommy Torino at an NBA middleweight fight in Lakeland. Torino is watching as Abramson puts an NBA belt on Ian Garrett, a former champ from neighboring Winter Haven.

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