Outside the Ring

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

In many ways the contrast between Charles Abramson and Torino corresponds to their different opinions on the elder Abramson's career, though perhaps not in the way you would expect. Charles (along with his siblings, Ray and Leslie), has steered clear of pugilism. But he supports his father's commitment to advocacy and reform. Torino, a former middleweight who was once ranked 12th in the nation and has known Abramson 25 years, could do without the old man's ideas.

Last November Charles (along with most of his family and several hundred other people) saw Abramson inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. Ralph Citro, once one of the world's most famous cutmen and a fellow hall-of-famer, says the recognition was long overdue for his colleague. "Irv has definitely put more into the sport than he's gotten out of it. In the arena it's just a dollar sign for most people, but not Irv," Citro says. "He's done many, many things that have been unheralded."

Though happy for his dad and the 12 other inductees listed in the program as "boxing celebrities," Charles was disappointed by the event. "It was sad," the 44-year-old professor says when recalling Abramson's acceptance speech. "He tried to talk about what [a boxing union] meant, but I'm not sure it was the proper forum."

Abramson belted boxing's alphabet soup when he founded the NBA
Joshua Prezant
Abramson belted boxing's alphabet soup when he founded the NBA
Abramson belted boxing's alphabet soup when he founded the NBA
Joshua Prezant
Abramson belted boxing's alphabet soup when he founded the NBA

Torino understands why Abramson got the cold shoulder. No one is looking out for the businessman, he contends. "The fighter is guaranteed this and that," he says, "but what about the people who put up the money?"

These days Torino is a manager at Gerrits Leprechaun gym in Miami. At 48 years of age, the former fighter has gone soft around the middle and gray up top, but he's plenty energetic, almost wired. Unlike young boxers in the gym who wear soaked sweats while jabbing punching bags to the rhythm of house music, Torino wears jeans and a multicolor print shirt that straddles the border between ethnic and garish. His hands jab the air animatedly as he talks.

"Here's where Irv and I have a major, major problem," Torino elaborates. "Irv thinks a fighter, just for being a pro fighter, deserves special support. He makes a big deal out of giving a fighter $20 out of his pocket, and he's done that. But we're not a social agency, we're dealing with millions. Irv's never done that, and in that respect he's looking at it almost like a fan. Once," he adds sarcastically, "I told Irv he thinks like a fucking Communist. He's not, and I'm not calling him one. I'm saying he thinks like one."

Charles believes his father deserves more credit and public recognition. "He doesn't bullshit, and he can document everything he's done," Charles says. "It pisses me off that nobody knows. You got [Jerry] Cooney and Ali getting recognition for pushing boxing safety. My father was doing that years ago. When he dies all this stuff will come out."A four-foot­long NBA championship belt lies across a small desk in Abramson's office. Cushioned with lamb's wool on the inside, the belt's surface is decorated in black velvet embossed with nearly eight pounds of gold-plated metal. Since Abramson began sanctioning fights in 1991, dozens of pugilists, including boxing celebs like current middleweight champ Roy Jones Jr., have been awarded the belt. When Abramson resigned as head of the NBA in 1998, he did so trusting Butch Flansburg would uphold his principles. Four years prior to stepping down from the NBA, Abramson's bad health prompted him to consign Boxing World to Ohio publisher Tom Huff (who reports that readership, almost 40 years after its start, is still strong -- though he wouldn't divulge the circulation).

Abramson spends most of his time fielding phone calls. When Paul Johnson, a former boxer from Minnesota, formed the Boxing Organizing Committee in 1987, Abramson was one of the first people he called. "I knew he was the kind of guy who quietly, behind the scenes, really knew boxing," Johnson says. "Over the years Irving has tried as hard as he could to do the best job [for fighters]."

As a regional BOC organizer, Abramson has been drumming up support for a union. So far he's secured endorsements from local ironworkers, postal workers, carpenters, Broward County teachers, the Miami NAACP, and firefighters. Now it looks like a local hotel union might join the ranks. "I'm really the catalyst for this thing," Abramson declares with a thump on his chest. Aside from union support, Abramson is also encouraged by recent legislative reforms for which he lobbied. In 1996 U.S. Sen. John McCain helped push through the Professional Boxing Safety Act; and last May, President Clinton signed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. Both laws raised safety standards for boxers in the ring.

After ambling back to his office from lunch recently, he jiggled a key in his door, anxious to get to his ringing phone. "I'm expecting some calls," he says. "There are plenty of people who are happy about this union. There's a lot going on, but if you want to listen, I could tell you more things about boxing. And everything I tell you I can substantiate."

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