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Marc Abrams is Proof That Even a Boxing PR Guy Can Be a Fighter

Bernard Fernandez

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It is somewhat ironic that 15rounds.com, the boxing website owned by publicist Marc Abrams, invokes memories of champions of yesteryear and those who attempted to usurp them, rather than an era where titlists and challengers are only asked to survive the arguably lesser hell of going 12. Those nine additional minutes in the crucible of the ring sometimes served as a line of demarcation separating simple fatigue and utter exhaustion, and the kind of pain any fighter accepts as an occupational necessity and a level of agony that can make the difference between the merely well-conditioned and the fanatically determined.

The 46-year-old Abrams performs just about every task required of a boxing lifer with the exception of actually taking punches, but by any manner of assessment he has demonstrated he has already gone 15 hard rounds, many times over, in a decades-long battle within himself that he might soon be on the verge of winning.

If the third and final stage of a surgical cycle that began 10 months ago is successful in late October, Abrams is hopeful of resuming a normal life, or however normal that life is for a man who has surrendered all or parts of several diseased and malfunctioning internal organs. Until his body relays the message that he is finally all that he needs and wants to be, it will be because the bouts of incapacitating pain, waves of nausea and occasional hemorrhages necessitating blood transfusions are forever in his past. Maybe then he will be free to eat and enjoy more than a mouthful or two of food at a time without vomiting, an unwelcome development that has seen his weight precipitously plunge from 177 pounds to 138. He proudly notes, however, that he has put 1½ pounds back onto his scrawny frame, a telltale sign that his stomach is not quite as rebellious as it so long has been. Even a small step forward is a welcome development after so often being told by doctors that his quest for better health again was on hold or, worse, stuck in reverse.

“It literally has been hell,” Abrams said of the most recent period during which his plethora of medical issues, which might have cost him his life or at least significantly shortened it, took a foreboding turn. “But I am very optimistic that this next stomach surgery will be the end of it.”

Given his history of frequent hospital visits and grim prognoses, it is a wonder that Abrams has been able to mostly maintain a schedule and work ethic that would sap energy from presumably more able-bodied competitors. Although the native Philadelphian is known mostly as a publicist to the not-yet stars and never-weres, there is virtually no task in boxing he would refrain from taking if called upon. He said it is not unusual for him to put in 15 to 16 hours to his myriad duties each and every day, with perhaps a few hours taken off on Sundays.

“Before (his most recent surgery), I’d get up and start at 9 in the morning, maybe 8:30, and put in an hour before taking a shower,” he related. “I’d be in the Banner office (he has something akin to a full-time job with Philly-based promoter Art Pelullo) from 10 a.m. to maybe 5 in the afternoon, working the phones, sending out or answering emails. Whatever is needed. After that, I work on my own things or whomever I’m doing stuff for, until midnight, and often later.

“The next day, I do it all over again.”

It had always been Abrams’ hope to one day have a job in sports, although initially he believed he’d be involved in the NFL or NBA. But, he said, “I’ve always loved the big fights, when they would come on network TV. I was a big fan of Larry Holmes because all his fights were on TV, and because he was the heavyweight champion.

“I guess I caught the boxing bug even more when the Jack Newfield book (Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King) came out (in 1995). It had so much fascinating stuff in it, I wanted to learn more about boxing. That’s where my passion for the sport really began.”

Although Abrams has worked his share of bigger fight cards – he points out that he has done HBO, Showtime and ESPN events – he is most associated with promoters, managers and fighters who live and work in the Philly metropolitan area, the outer limits of which might extend westward to Reading, Pa., and to Atlantic City to the east. He estimates he has been associated with 50 to 75 such clients, most of whom appreciate his bulldog style although some were unwilling to reciprocate his loyalty, moving on to more established PR types as their place in the boxing pecking order rose.

“I can handle bigger shows,” Abrams stressed.  “I’ve done stuff nationally and internationally. But before that you have to take pride in being kind of the main guy in your area. There are still a lot of great stories that need to be told about kids in and around Philly. OK, so maybe it isn’t the heyday that it was 20 or 25 years ago, but there still are a lot of good fights and good fighters locally. This is where I grew up and still live. I want to see local promoters and local fighters succeed and go on to the next level.”

Marshall Kauffman, president of Reading-based King’s Promotions, has worked with Abrams often and he cites him as an example of someone who never gives less than his best effort, and has not forgotten where he comes from.

“Marc has helped me tremendously by doing PR and commentating for some of my shows, and he’s been just as helpful to numerous other local promoters,” Kauffman said. “Not having Marc around would be like not having boxing around in this area. If he weren’t here, that would make for a very empty space.”

Pelullo is also effusive in his praise of Abrams, saying, “I think Marc is one of the more knowledgeable publicists in the business. He has tapes on everybody, and what he doesn’t know about somebody he can find out within 30 minutes. He is very conscientious about his job. And he tells me what he really thinks rather than what he thinks I want to hear, which is very important.”

When he lived in an apartment in Center City Philadelphia, it was a messy bachelor pad with videotapes of boxing matches stacked from floor to ceiling in the living room and almost everywhere else. Since his December 2016 marriage to the former Ronnit Zalayet, the daughter of a British mother and Israeli father who was born in England, Abrams has relocated to more spacious digs in the Queen Village section of Philly, a living space that definitely shows the signs of a woman’s touch. Ronnit has urged her husband to transfer as many of the videotapes as possible to DVDs, significantly cutting down on the clutter. And, yes, Mrs. Abrams knew what she was getting into when she said “Yes” to Marc’s proposal of marriage, which came in Verona, N.Y., when Marc was there working the Ruslan Provodnikov-John Molina Jr. fight for Banner Promotions on June 11, 2016.

“She’s gotten into (boxing) a little bit,” Marc said of Ronnit, who has dual citizenship in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. “She knows who the local people are, and a lot of the big people, too. When Vasiliy Lomachenko was fighting Luke Campbell (on ESPN+ from London), she told me, `I’ll be watching my shows on Netflix, but call me down when the British guy comes on.’”

More importantly than any shared interest in boxing, however, Ronnit was at her husband’s side when daunting medical news of more recent vintage came flowing down like floodwaters through a ruptured levee. She provided assistance beyond moral support by scouring the Internet and helping put Marc together with an internationally known colon and rectal specialist, Dr. Feza Remzi, in New York City. It was Remzi who successfully performed an intricate, nine-hour-plus J-pouch reconstruction operation on July 18, and urologist William C. Huang, also of New York, who performed a partial nephrectomy in April to remove a four-centimeter mass from his right kidney that turned out to be malignant. There were some complications that followed such delicate surgeries, which likely was to be expected, but Abrams can now claim to see light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel.

Not that anything can make up for years of suffering – Abrams said he was 15 when evidence of ulcerative colitis, the first of his many medical problems, became apparent – but perhaps a small gesture from the writers whom he has helped for so long might provide some measure of consolation. The Boxing Writers Association of America first presented its Courage in Overcoming Adversity Award, now co-named in honor of Bill Crawford and John McCain, in 2006. Crawford, a onetime amateur boxer, was the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor and Purple Heart for his battlefield heroism during World War II; McCain, a Navy fighter pilot, former Naval Academy boxer and avid fight fan, was subjected to horrific abuse as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before going on to a long tenure as a United States Senator from Arizona and 2008 bid for the presidency as the Republican nominee.

Kassim Ouma, then a recently dethroned IBF junior middleweight champion, was the first person to be recognized for the prestigious award, a testament to the horrors he had endured as a conscripted child soldier in Uganda before he defected to the U.S. By the time Ouma took the stage to accept the award, his story was fairly common knowledge in boxing circles. A year later, the second honoree was some guy named Muhammad Ali.

In all, there have been 18 persons associated with boxing who have been cited for courage in overcoming adversity. Almost without exception, all recipients had at least a modicum of name recognition with the BWAA electorate. Here’s hoping that the trials and tribulations faced and overcome by Marc Abrams, who may not be as well known to BWAA voters outside of the Philadelphia area, at least earns him a place on the ballot.

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Book Review

“Sparring with Smokin’ Joe” is a Great Look into a Great, Complicated Man

Phil Woolever

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BOOK REVIEW – Some rare moments arrive, as either a blessing or a curse, to cast definitive impressions of how someone might be remembered. As anyone reading this should well know, such a moment occurred 50 years ago today (March 8, 1971) at Madison Square Garden for Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

For Frazier, a punishing 15-round victory became the foundation to his legacy. That leads us to Sparring with Smokin’ Joe by Glenn Lewis, the latest biographical volume to focus on Frazier, with a timely release date close to the “Fight of the Century” anniversary that should provide plenty of solid promotional material for the book.

As a piece of literature the book, published by Rowman & Littlefield, stands up quite well on its own, and as a piece of boxing literature it stands out, through previously unpublished situational information on Frazier.

I found it to be a must-read for Frazier fans and a solid plus for most boxing libraries.

Author Lewis is a graduate school professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and director of journalism at the affiliated York College with decades of expertise on his resume. This project is expertly constructed and reads very smoothly throughout. Beside the many insightful instances regarding Frazier himself, a very thoughtful portrait of his son Marvis Frazier runs through the narrative, which also conjures a vivid depiction of Frazier’s Broad Street Gym in North Philadelphia.

The book’s unique highlight is the ongoing tale of traveling with Frazier and his all-white band (with multiple Berklee school members) during a tour of southern states.

The first 140 pages or so (out of a listed 256), make up a fascinating memoir of getting to know Frazier and his circle during 1980, around four years after his second crushing defeat to George Foreman. At that point in his life, Frazier was trying to settle into retirement, guide Marvis’s culminating amateur career, and transition from boxing superstar to fledgling vocal attraction.

I devoured the opening sections of the book with reader’s glee, far more than enough to highly recommend Lewis’ book, but toward the end it seemed maybe he should have quit while and where he was ahead.

The last third gets substantially less engaging. The author grew distanced from his subject’s proximity and it shows, as the tale becomes far more familiar in relating already well-documented fight data.

There is still some fine perspective from Lewis like Joe’s hugely destructive obsession with rushing Marvis into disaster versus Larry Holmes, but for many of the closing segments you could cut and paste the same period of Frazier’s career out of Mark Kram Jr’s recent book Smokin’ Joe (2019) and gain a bit more personal touch.

That’s not at all to imply that the boxing writing is weak. Lewis makes an excellent case that Frazier won the rematch with Ali, not only the first fight; which leads to justified speculation on what could have occurred had Frazier gotten the second nod. Back then I shared Lewis’ opinion on the scoring, and his detailed analysis inspires taking another look at the replay.

Some minor gym characters or business associates become animated as if they’re standing in front of you, but I was disappointed in how a charming, complicated guy like Jimmy Young was overlooked and how larger-than-life characters like Gil Clancy and especially George Benton (a living example of where playwright August Wilson drew inspiration) came across rather subdued compared to the boisterous conversationalists I spoke with many times not long after the year Lewis’s story begins.

There are also a couple of minor omissions that, though based on very brief listings, still stick out when considering Lewis’s scholarly, journalistic credentials.

James Shuler is mentioned, but there’s nothing about his tragic death in a motorcycle accident a week after losing to Tommy Hearns in a minor title fight, nor the touching story about Hearns at the funeral, offering to put the belt in Shuler’s coffin. Frazier’s restaurant, Smokin’ Joe’s Corner, is also listed a couple times but there is no mention of the horrible murders that took place there during an inside job robbery and how that tragedy probably put the final nail into Frazier’s aspirations in the food industry.

I also hoped for some tidbits from Frazier’s thoughtful and wise older brother Tommy who provided me with some rare insights (and had an offbeat sense of humor about his name), a stoic trickster who seemed to lovingly enjoy putting his famous sibling on the spot.

Still, the overall impression I got was fantastic. A memoir should share time, location, emotion, and reflection. Lewis achieves all those things many times over.

Which leads to my primary, personal takeaway of this very worthwhile book. Based on a few of the lengthy encounters I was lucky enough to share with Joe Frazier (boxing and non-boxing related), it’s difficult for me to imagine that a canny observer like Lewis didn’t emerge from the amazing and enviable access he got with more wild tales, especially from nights on the road.

So, I’d have to guess, and bet, that Lewis let some of the more sensational situations or quotes remain aloft in the mist of the past, which to me is admirable, even more so in these social media dominated days.

Here’s a non-controversial quote that is included, which provides a sample of the many fine nuggets to be found:

“I don’t think you’re less of a man for crying,” said Joe, taking me by surprise. “It’s healthy for you. I cry if something goes wrong- I’ll cry right out. But if I cry out of anger, look out! Somebody’s in trouble. Crying shows a man has heart and helps him out of his pressures. Just don’t cry for nothing.”

I could almost hear Frazier’s voice when I read that, and descriptions of places I’ve been like Frazier’s gym read true enough to give the entire book an aura of accuracy.

A dozen excellent photographs serve as a first-class coda.

Fifty years after his biggest triumph, Joe Frazier remains a compelling topic in the discourse of sociological significance. This well written tribute does him plenty of justice.

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The Fight of the Century: A Golden Anniversary Celebration

Arne K. Lang

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In professional boxing, fights can be rank-ordered as generic fights, big fights, bigger fights, mega-fights, and spectacles. The first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier wasn’t merely a spectacle, but the grandest spectacle of them all. This coming Monday, March 8, is the 50th anniversary of that iconic event.

Ali-Frazier I was staged at three-year-old Madison Square Garden, the fourth arena in New York to take that name. It drew a capacity crowd: 20,455 (19,500 paid). An estimated 60 percent of all the tickets sold fell into the hands of scalpers.

The fight was closed-circuited to more than 350 locations in the United States and Canada. At some of the larger venues, it established a new record for gate receipts, and this for an attraction that wasn’t produced in-house. In Los Angeles, 15,333 saw the fight at the Forum and 11,575 at the nearby Sports Arena.

Bill Ballenger, the sports editor of the Charlotte (NC) News, saw the fight at the Charlotte Coliseum. He reported that the audio – Don Dunphy did the blow-by-blow with Burt Lancaster and Archie Moore serving as color commentators – was loud enough to be heard outside the arena and that many folks, either unable or unwilling to purchase a ticket, loitered outside and followed the action in 30 degrees weather.

An estimated three hundred million people saw the fight worldwide. In England, by some estimates, half the population tuned in, watching either at home on BBC1 or at a theater where one could watch the fight unfold on a movie screen. Now keep in mind that in England the fight didn’t commence until 6:40 in the morning on a Tuesday!

Inside Madison Square Garden, the large flock of celebrities included many folks one wouldn’t expect to find at a prizefight. Marcello Mastroianni, Italy’s most famous movie star, made a special trip from Rome. Salvador Dali was there and Barbra Streisand and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy, seated next to her escort, crooner Andy Williams. Frank Sinatra was there working as a photographer for Life magazine. Lore has it that Sinatra wangled the assignment after failing to boat one of the coveted ringside seats.

The scene was made brighter by human “peacocks,” the label applied to Harlemites with an outrageous sense of fashion, and the electricity was palpable. When Ali appeared at the back of the arena, making his way from his dressing room to the ring, everyone had goosebumps.

The late, great New York sportswriter Dick Young once wrote that there is no greater drama than in the moments preceding a big heavyweight title fight and that was never more true than on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.

Ali (31-0, 25 KOs) and Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) were both undefeated. Both had a claim to the heavyweight title, Ali because the belt had been controversially stripped away from him for his political beliefs. Opinions as to who would win were pretty evenly divided. In Las Vegas, Joe Frazier was the favorite at odds of 6 to 5. Across the pond in England, bookies were quoting odds of 11 to 8 on Ali.

Those that favored Ali were of the opinion that ‘Smokin’ Joe was too one-dimensional. That much was true. Joe was as subtle as a steam locomotive on a downhill grade. He ate Ali’s hardest punches, said Boston Globe reporter Bud Collins, as if they were movie house popcorn and he eventually wore Ali down. There was little doubt as to how the judges would see it after Joe knocked Ali down in the 15th round with a frightful left hook. When Ali arose, it appeared that he had been afflicted with a sudden case of the mumps. The decision was unanimous: 11-4, 9-6, 8-6-1.

This wasn’t the greatest fight of all time, but it was a fight that more than lived up to the hype. And, as several people have noted, the event took on a life of its own without the benefit of modern technology to push it along. The buzz was fueled in a large part by newspapers, the “antiquated” sort of newspapers that a fellow fished from his driveway or purchased at a newsstand on the way to or from work. If twitter and facebook had been around during Muhammad Ali’s prime, Ali would have blown the doors off the internet.

A cultural touchstone is an event that remains sealed in our memory. As we slide into old age, if we are lucky enough to live that long, we may not remember what we had for breakfast in the morning, but some long-ago events are as vivid as if they had happened just yesterday.

Boxing historian Frank Lotierzo has written poignantly about how overjoyed he was when he was surprised with the news that his father would be taking him to the fight. “To this day it remains the biggest thrill of my life!” wrote Lotierzo, who was then in the seventh grade. “And it’s not even close!”

I didn’t see the fight, but I can recall the faces of people that I overheard talking about it, people whose interest in the fight struck me as odd as I knew they had little interest in the world of sports. So, when the fight is replayed in its entirety on Sunday – it airs on ABC at 2 p.m ET and again at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN – I will be watching it for the first time. And it will be bittersweet as I will be reminded that I am in the twilight of my life and my thoughts will inevitably drift to my friends and loved ones that have left this mortal world in the years since that grand night in 1971 when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier locked horns in the Fight of the Century.

I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

Arne K. Lang

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

March 8 is International Women’s Day which is actually a formal holiday in many parts of the globe. It was somehow fitting that female boxers were on display on the Friday feeding into it, a weekend without a must-see attraction on the men’s side.

Today’s activity began in the French port city of Nantes where 2016 Olympic gold medal winners Tony Yoka and Estelle Mossely, husband and wife, kept their undefeated records intact, both advancing to 10-0, against European opponents. Yoka (10-0, 8 KOs) was matched against Joel “Big Joe” Djeko (17-3-1), a 31-year-old Brussels native of Congolese and Cuban extraction who had fought most of his career as a cruiserweight. Mossely, a lightweight who now goes by Yoka-Mossely, drew Germany’s Verena Kaiser (14-2).

At the Rio Olympiad, Yoka got by Filip Hrgovic in the semis and Joe Joyce in the finals to win the gold, winning both bouts by split decision. Both would be favored over the Frenchman in a rematch fought under professional rules.

Against the six-foot-six Djeko, Yoka controlled the fight with his jab, repeatedly backing his foe against the ropes. Very few of Djeko’s punches got through Yoka’s high guard. Had the fight gone to the scorecards, it would have been a rout for Yoka, but it didn’t quite get there as Djeko turned his back on the proceedings midway through the 12th round after absorbing a sharp jab and it went into the books as a TKO for Yoka. At stake was some kind of European title or a derivation thereof.

Mossely’s fight with Kaiser, slated for 10 two-minute rounds, followed a somewhat similar tack, save that it went the full distance. With only one knockout to her credit at the pro level, Mosseley, typical of female boxers, lacks a knockout punch. But she’s a good technician and had too much class for the German.

Flint

A Covid-19 limited crowd of perhaps 300 was on hand to watch hometown heroine Claressa Shields oppose IBF 154-pound title-holder Marie Eve Dicaire at a 4,400-seat arena in Flint. There were five bouts on the undercard, three of which were women’s bouts.

Claressa

Claressa Shields

Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was seeking to become a four-belt title-holder in a second weight class, having previously turned the trick at 160. Dicaire, a 34-year-old southpaw, brought a 17-0 record but she had never won a fight inside the distance and all of her previous bouts took place in French-speaking Canada.

The self-proclaimed GWOAT, Shields has no peer between 154 and 168 pounds. Heading into this contest, she had hardly lost a round since meeting Hanna Gabriels and tonight was another total whitewash, her fourth overall in 10-round fights.

Claressa Shields, now 11-0 (2) may be too good for her own good. Her fights are so one-sided that they are monotonous. Her TV ratings have actually been falling. Today’s show was a $29.99 pay-per-view on FITE when the established networks refused to meet her purse demands. It will be interesting to see how many tuned in.

In another fight of note, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza, in her first fight as a bantamweight, dominated Toronto’s Shelly Barnett en route to winning a 6-round unanimous decision. There were no knockdowns, but the scorecards (60-54, 60-53 twice) were indicative of Esparza’s dominance.

Esparza, who pushed her record to 9-1 (1), came in ranked #1 by the WBC in the flyweight class. Her lone defeat came at the hands of rugged Seniesa Estrada. Barnett declined to 4-4-3.

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