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.

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Afefe L. Tyehimba