Outside the Ring
When Irv Abramson opened his Hollywood office in the mid '70s, he didn't set out to create a boxing shrine. It just happened, the result of stuffing 60 years' worth of paraphernalia into a two-room, paneled, windowless office.
"Don't mind him, he fools everybody," Abramson tells a visitor who's startled by the life-size cardboard cutout of George Foreman, sledgehammer fists raised, that faces the door. "He was a great fighter." At age 81 Abramson has more gravel in his voice than he used to, but his Brooklyn accent hasn't dulled.
Foreman stands like a watchman guarding other boxing collectibles. On the walls are photos of Rocky Marciano poised to drive home a right, Muhammad Ali in his dancing prime, Mike Tyson before the ear-biting. Bookshelves are crammed with biographies, some yellowed with age and wrapped in clear plastic. Filing cabinets are stuffed with clippings and stat sheets. There are awards presented to Abramson by boxers' associations, autographed gloves from local legends Kid Gavilan and Alexis Arguello, and a heavy, ornate National Boxing Association championship belt splayed across a desk. Perhaps dearest to Abramson are reams of Boxing World, a newspaper he edited from 1963 to 1994. These things merely hint at Abramson's long career as a writer, publisher, promoter, manager, inspector, ring judge, and stubborn advocate for the small-time fighter.
Aside from a paunch and sagging skin around his neck and arms, Abramson has a lean physique that's perpetually covered by a golf shirt and creased slacks. Atop his balding pate is a white-and-silver golf cap with a National Boxing Association emblem. At five feet ten inches, he stands erect but teeters slightly when walking. Several years ago Abramson had a run of bad health. He suffered two heart attacks, the result, doctors said, of clogged arteries. When informed in 1994 that he'd have to undergo open-heart surgery, Abramson says he "told the doctors, 'You can't do this, I've got my paper to get out!'" He nevertheless underwent the operation and has felt great ever since, although he admits to occasional bouts of forgetfulness, possibly an aftereffect of 1996 brain surgery. He can't recall the exact diagnosis that occasioned that procedure, "but I'm fine. I can take these things and they slide off my back," he says, making a wavelike motion with large, veined hands.
Abramson is concerned these days about the state of boxing. Indeed, after six decades he's still working because of his dedication to the Boxer's Organizing Committee, a group of fistic pros from around the nation that is trying to unionize the sport. "I'd like to quit, but right now things are really busy with this union," he pronounces, then eagerly launches into a discussion of the merits of the campaign, which he hopes will eventually accord boxers the same benefits other professional athletes enjoy. "When a fighter signs with a manager, he's hooked for life, the manager owns him," Abramson declares, his bifocals magnifying a frown. "But if he would stop boxing, there'd be no managers, no announcers, no rings. He's entitled to something."
That attitude has kept Abramson outside the big-money center of the boxing scene for the past 40 years. Dozens of newspaper clippings and pictures show him occasionally mixing with storied figures like Don King and Chris and Angelo Dundee. But Abramson never basked in the same kind of spotlight. He never sought it. He has managed to live comfortably, though, thanks to smart investments and budgeting. Today he and Sylvia, his wife of 30 years and a former political consultant, tool around in a royal blue, late-model Chevy Impala and live in a modest Hallandale Beach condo assessed at $64,000. Although he's content with his life, Abramson is frustrated by the fact that, in his waning years, he has yet to realize his dream. A boxer's union would prove that, despite his low profile, Abramson has had a lasting impact.
"It's a noble effort, and I wish it would be successful," says Don Hazelton, who served as executive director of the Florida State Boxing Commission from 1987 to 1996. "Will it succeed? Probably no. But does that mean Irv Abramson wasn't successful? Well, look at Mike Tyson... what's he really done for the sport? Overall I think Irv has been a credit to this game, which has very few credits." In the second, smaller room of Abramson's office hangs a poster announcing the September 22, 1927, title rematch of heavyweights Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney at Chicago's Soldier Field. (Aside from being a collectible, the advertisement commemorates a $2.7 million gate, a record that endured for 49 years.) Tunney, whose cool head and solid footwork helped him strip Dempsey of the heavyweight crown a year earlier, won a controversial decision against the jittery ex-champ, Abramson recalls. Dempsey was a likable brawler whose handsome features turned fiendish in the ring. "Lots of people were upset over that [match] because of the long count," Abramson says, referring to the 14 seconds a referee postponed a count, allowing Tunney to recover from a seventh-round knockdown. The count was delayed because a hyped-up Dempsey did not immediately retreat to a neutral corner, which may have cost him the fight.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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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