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50 Years in Boxing: Philly’s J Russell Peltz Shares His Golden Memories

Bernard Fernandez

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When he was a 22-year-old kid embarking on a boxing journey that might have ended almost as quickly as it began, J Russell Peltz – with big dreams and not-so-deep pockets — never considered issuing anything as portentous as a mission statement. But if he had, it might have read something like this:

You know what the secret is to surviving as a boxing promoter? Making good matches. It’s that simple. If you want to make a good match, you make a good match. If you want to get your guy a guaranteed win, pair him easy. But don’t charge your customers $50 or $75 to watch that garbage.

Peltz said that for a story I did for the Philadelphia Daily News in November 2012. Making good, competitive and entertaining matches has always been the touchstone of his remarkable longevity in a cannibalistic sport which tends to devour those not smart enough or tough enough to survive in the long term. But while Peltz has known both flush and lean times, adapting as necessary at junctures along the way, the guiding principle of Philly boxing’s onetime “Boy Wonder” has never changed. It is why he has been inducted into seven Halls of Fame and outlasted a host of competitors who sought to knock him off the local throne upon which he remains firmly ensconced. He said he still gets as much of a charge from seeing a dandy scrap as he did when, for his 14th birthday, his father took him to his first live fight card. What young Russell – the J in his full name, as was the case with the S with former President Harry S Truman, stands for nothing — saw that night left an indelible impression. Somehow, some way, he would make the fight game more than an avocation, but his life’s work.

Peltz’s first foray into the business end of boxing came on Sept. 30, 1969, when middleweight Bennie Briscoe needed just 52 seconds to dispose of Tito Marshall at the Blue Horizon, the main event of a card that included such young, future Philly legends as Eugene “Cyclone” Hart and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts. It was an astounding debut for Peltz, with a standing-room-only crowd of 1,606 jamming the 1,300-seat arena.

There would, of course, be some whiffs along with the home runs before Peltz evolved into an entrenched, iconic figure in his hometown’s fight scene. Both the hits and the misses have contributed to making him who and what he is, the sum total of his five-decade love affair with the sweet science to be celebrated first at an invitation-only Golden Anniversary Reception on Thursday, Sept. 26, at the 2300 Arena in South Philly, preceding an eight-bout fight card at the same site on Oct. 4. Dubbed “Blood, Sweat and 50 Years,” that show – topped by a six-rounder pitting Victor Padilla (5-0, 5 KOs) of Berlin, N.J., by way of his native Puerto Rico, against Romain Tomas (8-2, 1 KO) of Brooklyn, N.Y. — will be staged by Raging Babe Promotions’ Michelle Rosado, a Peltz protégé. In addition to her mentor being the guest of honor, Peltz also is serving as matchmaker, a role for which he has justifiably gained much distinction.

It also might be the last time Peltz acts in that capacity, an indication that, just possibly, his 50-year anniversary in boxing might mark the beginning of the end of a storied career which he has been contemplating for some time. In that same November 2012 Philadelphia Daily News story in which he issued his ersatz mission statement, Peltz dropped hints that nothing, not even his involvement in boxing, can last forever.

“At points in the last five years, I’ve thought about retiring,” he said then. “I think about it now. I’m certainly not going to be doing this when I’m an old man. I don’t want to be doing this when I’m an old man.

“Really, I don’t know how much longer I’ll go on. Maybe I’ll get out when I’m 70 or 71. But whenever I think about quitting, I become involved with a fighter (who piques his interest).”

And now? Peltz turns 73 on Dec. 9, hardly an old man in terms of his energy and enthusiasm, but he is inarguably a senior citizen according to the Social Security administration.

“I don’t think I’ll be making matches after Oct. 4,” he said when contacted for this story. “I don’t have the temperament to do it anymore. I can’t tolerate the mentality of a lot of the fight people in Philly who don’t want to fight other Philly guys. That’s what made Philly the fight town that it was.

“I go around the house screaming and Linda (his wife) says, `I know why you’re screaming. You’re making matches again. You said you weren’t going to do it. When you do it, you’re impossible to live with.’

“I think what I want to do is to advise fighters, maybe manage fighters. Some of these kids today deserve their own careers rather than being served up as cannon fodder for top prospects for Top Rank, Golden Boy, Eddie Hearn and PBC.”

If Peltz does in fact hew to that somewhat altered philosophy, it would in some ways represent his coming full circle. Despite whatever misgivings he might harbor about professional boxing as presently constituted, he has always gotten an adrenalin rush from identifying and nurturing young fighters who remind him of the twentysomething firebrand he used to be. For all his musings about stepping aside, it would stun no one if he elected to keep on keeping on in the manner of Top Rank founder Bob Arum, an occasional associate who is 87 and still active, or his dear, departed friend Don “War a Week” Chargin, a licensed promoter in California for a record 69 years who was 90 when he passed away on Sept. 28, 2018. Chargin was another staunch proponent of the concept that fans deserved real fights, tough fights, and not setups designed to make protected house fighters look better than they probably are.

But regardless of what the future holds for Peltz, the past 50 years make for an improbable tale even in a sport where improbable tales are more the norm than the exception. It starts even in advance of the Briscoe-Marshall bout that the golden anniversary celebrants will cite as his official launching point.

Then a sports writer for the now-defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Peltz had been squirreling away portions of his salary for the express purpose of establishing enough of a nest egg so that he could take the plunge. Toward that end, he says he spent “countless hours” in the Blue Horizon office of building owner and veteran fight promoter Jimmy Toppi, pestering the older man with questions about how to make his dream of doing what Toppi did a reality.

Two weeks before Briscoe-Marshall, Peltz resigned as a full-fledged member of The Bulletin sports staff, although he did keep his hand in as a one-night-a-week, part-timer as a hedge against possible disaster on fight night.

“I had saved up about $5,000, which was a lot of money back then for someone my age,” Peltz recalled. “The woman who became my first wife asked me, before we got married, ‘What makes you think you can do this?’ I told her it’d take me about six months to blow the five grand, but then I’d have this great scrapbook to show my kids one day about the time their daddy was a boxing promoter.”

Not that he completely went through his savings, but Peltz – whose contingency plan was – gulp – to go back to sports writing if the grand experiment came a cropper – hit some dry holes after Briscoe-Marshall. He was obliged to seek and receive a loan of between $2,000 and $3,000 from his dad, Bernard, to help underwrite his second year as a struggling fight promoter. It also didn’t help that Peltz’s wife, he said, absolutely hated boxing and was providing no moral support on the home front.

“I told my father that if I couldn’t pay him back by the end of the season, I’d just go back to the newspaper business,” Peltz said. “I was making $7,500 a year at The Bulletin. My first year putting on shows at the Blue Horizon I cleared $4,600 from September through May. But in the summer of 1970, I accidentally found out that Bennie Briscoe’s contract was for sale. I knew that was my ace in the hole after I asked my brother-in-law (Arnold Weiss) to buy Bennie’s contract, which he did.”

But even that ace in the hole –- Briscoe, who three times fought for the middleweight championship of the world and appeared 45 times in all on Peltz-promoted or co-promoted cards – might not have been enough to keep Peltz’s nascent operation moving forward. What was needed was some positive publicity, which he got from then-Daily News sports writer Tom Cushman.

“If it hadn’t been for Tom Cushman, I never would have made it,” Peltz noted. “I met him when he came east to cover Temple  (Peltz’s alma mater) in the All-College (basketball) Classic, which they held every December in Oklahoma City. I was there covering for The Bulletin and The Temple News. We got friendly. So when I decided to become a boxing promoter, Tom, who by then was at the Daily News, thought it was really cool that a 22-year-old kid would do that. He gave me a load of good press, even more than I got at my own paper.”

There would be other puzzle pieces that fell into place at precisely the right moment. Now reasonably established if not exactly getting rich doing shows at the Blue Horizon and The Arena in West Philly, Peltz got his shot at the big time – or what seemed to be the big time – when in 1973 he was approached about becoming the director of boxing at the 18,000-seat Spectrum, home of the NBA’s 76ers and NHL’s Flyers.

“I got a call late in 1972 from Lou Scheinfeld at the Spectrum,” Peltz recalled. “Monday nights were dark there and it was costing them money to have nothing going on. I met with the Spectrum people and they hired me for a salary against a percentage of the profits. The first year we ran 18 shows and lost money on 16 of them. We were hemorrhaging money, and it had nothing to do with Monday Night Football in the fall.

“Allen Flexor, who was the Spectrum’s vice president and comptroller, asked me to go to lunch, ostensibly to fire me. We talked for a while and I said, `If I can get the Philly guys to fight each other, I can turn this thing around.’ He basically said `OK, we’ll give you some rope and see what you can do.’ I put up signs in all the gyms in the city about a meeting to be held at Joe Frazier’s Gym on such-and-such a night in December. I wanted all the managers and trainers to come to that meeting, and 50 to 60 of them showed up. I said, `Look, the Spectrum has the Sixers, the Flyers, concerts, Disney on Ice, the circus. They don’t need us. Unless you guys start fighting each other, we’re going to go back to The Arena, and I know you don’t want to do that.”

Given the depth and quality of Philadelphia fighters at the time – a mother lode of talent with Briscoe, Hart, Watts, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Jeff Chandler and other main-event-worthy locals – it was a plan that could not have failed. But it might have, had not one influential dissenter passed away unexpectedly.

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left to right: Bob Montgomery, Harold Johnson, Peltz, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Jeff Chandler

“If Yank Durham (Frazier’s manager and trainer) hadn’t died in September of ’73, we would have had big problems because he was against Philly vs. Philly,” Peltz continued. “But Eddie Futch took over after Yank died and he knew the value, coming from the Olympic Auditorium (in Los Angeles) when all those great Mexican fighters fought each other. Eddie said, `Let’s make Willie the Worm against Cyclone Hart,’ which was a monster show with a turnout of 10,000-plus. From the beginning of 1974 until the end of ’78 the Spectrum was as big as (Madison Square) Garden and the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Everybody wanted to fight at the Spectrum, and everybody did.”

But when the casinos in Atlantic City opened later in the decade, that siphoned from the Spectrum’s fan base to the point where the fight dates diminished, along with the massive crowds. But, Peltz says, wistfully, “Those last five years there were wonderful. I got a bonus every year.

“When Briscoe fought (Marvin) Hagler, it was a 10-round fight and we had a crowd of 15,000. It wasn’t for some bulls— title, either. We had good fighters and they weren’t afraid to fight other good fighters.”

There were occasional missteps for Peltz, too, which probably was to be expected. “A lot of good fighters slipped through my fingers,” he said, citing Hagler and Buster Douglas as two he might have signed to promotional deals before their price tags exceeded his budget. “You learn as you go, but you never stop making mistakes.”

So, if he had to choose his single best moment in boxing, and the worst experience, what would they be?

“You always fall in love with your first fighter,” he said of his continuing devotion to Briscoe, who was 67 when he died on Dec. 28, 2010. “That’s never going to change.

“My most memorable moment was Bennie’s fifth-round knockout of Tony Mundine on Feb. 25, 1974, at the Palais de Sport in Paris. “Mundine, an Australian, was like the heir apparent to (middleweight champion Carlos) Monzon. He was a certified star, who had beaten Emile Griffith and Max Cohen in Paris.

“I saw Reg Gutteridge (a British sports journalist who was doing color commentary for the telecast) in the hotel lobby before we left for the arena. He said, `I don’t get it. Mundine is the toast of Paris. He can name his price to fight Monzon. Why would he tune up with Briscoe?’

“It was a monster fight, as big as it could be without it being for a world title when world titles really meant something. Just a magical night. I was shooting film from the top row and when Bennie finally got him out of there, the camera was shaking because my hands were shaking.”

Another significant plus, both on the professional and personal levels, was Peltz’s marriage to second wife Linda, who understood she would have to share her husband with boxing and hasn’t minded it at all. It’s amazing what domestic tranquility can do for a fight promoter’s peace of mind at the office and at ringside.

“We started dating in February of 1976,” Peltz said. “Her first fight was the rematch between Briscoe and Hart, which drew 12,000 people to the Spectrum. She sat with me in the first row.

“Everybody loves Linda. People say, `How bad can Russell be? Linda married him.’  And there’s no doubt she’s smoothed over a lot of things through the years. She brought together some people in boxing I just couldn’t talk to, just like she brought together some estranged family members I hadn’t spoken to in years.”

The giddy highs of Briscoe over Mundine, and spousal bliss, were countered by what Peltz said remains his greatest disappointment in boxing, even more painful than the horrendously unjust decision that went against Peltz’s fighter, Tyrone Everett, in his Nov. 30, 1976, challenge of WBC super featherweight champion Alfredo Escalera at the Spectrum, a split decision that remains high on the list of boxing’s most outrageous heists.

“The low point of my career had to be my relationship with ESPN when I was hired to be their director of boxing (in October 1998),” Peltz said. “It was just a scam, a setup. I lost most of my power pretty quickly. At first I thought, `After all these years of making good fights, it’s finally paid off. They’re hiring me because they know I’m going to make more good fights.’

“Three or four months into the deal the people who hired me moved on to ABC and I was left to deal with the ol’ boys club which essentially turned me into an errand boy. I hung in there until the fall of 2004, but after six to eight months it was just agony. I got blamed for a lot of bad fights that were on ESPN I had nothing to do with.”

Peltz needn’t worry about any blame he might have received when weighed against the credit he has deservedly gotten. Seven Halls of Fame are proof enough that he has done far more right than wrong, and that some Boy Wonders can age gracefully with their place in history forever secured.

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Stonewalled by the Coronavirus: Dee-Jay Kriel’s Unhappy Story

Arne K. Lang

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They say that good things come to those who wait, but that old bromide gives little solace to a boxer whose career has been frozen by the great pandemic. Some cases evoke more sympathy than others and the case of Dee-Jay Kriel in particular strikes a sympathetic chord.

It’s been 13 months since Kriel last had a fight of any consequence. Opportunities arose but then for one reason or another were pulled off the table. And then finally the logjam was broken, a match with IBF title-holder Felix Alvarado on a big Golden Boy Promotions card later this month on April 25.

The pandemic torpedoed that show and ultimately every other boxing show slated for the month of April and who knows how far beyond? And once again, Dee-Jay Kriel was left in limbo, not knowing when he would fight again.

Chances are you are not familiar with the name Dee-Jay Kriel. Boxers in his weight class, with very few exceptions, toil in anonymity outside the Orient. But Dee-Jay is no club fighter; he actually won a world title, achieving that distinction on Feb. 16, 2019 in Los Angeles when he upset previously undefeated Carlos Licona.

If you missed it, you weren’t alone. The match was left off the televised portion of the show which aired on FOX. In fact, some ringside reporters missed the fight, or at least left it off their post-fight story. It was the walkout fight and they were likely busy interviewing the victorious headliner Leo Santa Cruz  back in his dressing room.

That’s what happens – indifference or downright disdainfulness — when you compete in the smallest weight class. Licona vs. Kriel was contested for the IBF minimum-weight title. And, so it is that when Dee-Jay Kriel looks back at the proudest moment of his pro career, his self-satisfaction is tempered by the realization that few people got to share the moment with him.

“That’s too bad,” he says, “because it was a very exciting fight.”

Indeed it was. Heading into the 12th round, Dee-Jay was ahead by one point on one of the cards but trailed by seven points on the others. It wasn’t sufficient that he go out and hammer Licona from pillar to post in the final stanza; he needed a knockout to win. And he rose to the occasion, scoring three knockdowns before the referee waived it off with less than a minute remaining on the clock.

“It was like a Rocky movie,” says Kriel.

Kriel is from Boxburg, South Africa, a community on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The Licona fight, which he took on short notice, was his U.S. debut. He had come to Las Vegas six months earlier to hone his game under the tutelage of veteran trainer Kenny Adams.

“There just wasn’t enough opportunity in South Africa,” he said. Like many other boxers around the world looking for that one big break, Las Vegas was seen as the promised land.

In Las Vegas, things have not proceeded as quickly as he had hoped, but frequent sparring sessions with Nonito Donaire sharpened his tools and increased his confidence. “I learned a lot from Nonito,” says Dee-Jay.

It’s a long way from Johannesburg to Las Vegas, more than 10,000 miles. You can’t fly there non-stop and you can’t get there in one day. And for a young boxer leaving home for the first time, heading off to a strange land, the trip must seem even longer. Kriel is very close to his extended family and came here without his wife Denica (pictured) who wasn’t able to join him until October of last year.

When he was just starting out, Kriel seemed like the longest of long shots to win a world title. He was 0-3 as an amateur and lost his pro debut. But he stayed the course and would not lose again. He currently sports a 16-1-1 (8 KOs) record, the most recent “W” coming in an un-taxing, stay-busy fight in Tijuana.

Kenny Adams, who turns 80 this year, has had health problems that have forced him to cut down on his workload. Brandon Woods has assumed the role of chief trainer. Woods is a fixture at Bones Adams gym in Las Vegas, or was until the coronavirus turned the world upside down. Now, instead of working with boxers in a communal setting, Woods trains fighters one-on-one in his home.

“I still work out every day,” Kriel told this reporter by phone. “I run and jump rope and work the mitts with Brandon.”

It can’t be very much fun. Woods is a no-nonsense trainer. In the gym, he runs the show like a drill sergeant. It is the camaraderie that makes it easy to digest; there’s a sense of community there, a family-like atmosphere that can’t be replicated in a one-on-one setting.

Winning a title wasn’t life-changing. The IBF ordered Kriel to defend the belt against Pedro Taduran, but Taduran’s management offered less money than Kriel had made fighting Carlos Licona and they insisted that the fight had to take place in the Philippines. Ergo, Kriel relinquished his belt without defending it, moving up to a higher weight class.

Kriel’s dream fight was a unification bout with long-reigning WBC title-holder Wanheng Menayothin, aka Chayaphon Moonsri, whose record, currently 54-0, gives him a Mayweather-like aura, if only in his native Thailand. (Ironically, Menayothin was also slated to appear on Golden Boy’s April 25 show, but against an opponent who would not have posed as big a threat to him as Dee-Jay Kriel; such are the politics of boxing.)

Dee-Jay could be forgiven for walking away from the sport in frustration, but returning home right now isn’t an option. South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown is among the world’s most stringent. Jogging and dog-walking are prohibited. In Johannesburg, the militia are patrolling the streets.

The Republic of South Africa has produced a few good heavyweights and one great junior lightweight in Brian Mitchell, but for whatever reason an inordinate number of South Africa’s best fighters have toiled in the smallest weight classes. Baby Jake Matlala, who had to stand on his tiptoes to be five feet tall, became a national hero after upsetting Michael Carbajal at Las Vegas in 1997. Zolani Tete, a former two-division champion, began his career at 111 pounds. Moruti Mthalene is the reigning IBF world flyweight champion and former world minimum-weight title-holder Hekkie Budler is currently ranked #1 by the WBC at light flyweight.

As shown by Matlala, and many years earlier by mighty-mite Vic Toweel, South Africans revere their world boxing champions, no matter how big or how small. When Dee-Jay’s sponsors Ryan Erasmus and Kagiso Mokoduo chose to back him, the potential return on investment was obviously a lesser motivation than the chance to be involved in a project that would hopefully uplift the spirits of their countrymen. Erasmus and Mokoduo are the co-founders of a prominent South Africa law firm.

“They are good guys,” says Kriel. “They look after me.”

Does he worry that in these troubled economic times his sponsors may be compelled to pull the plug? “It preys on my mind,” he says, “but so far there has been no indication of that.” Should that transpire, Dee-Jay couldn’t count on financial help from his wife. Denica was a bookkeeper for a financial services firm in South Africa but is in the U.S. on a student visa that prohibits her from entering the work force.

Dee-Jay knows that he has it a lot better than other fighters who can no longer afford to keep their nose to the grindstone. He’s also lucky to live in the Internet age where keeping up with the home folks doesn’t involve the post office. He communicates with his family in South Africa by video every day. His father has a small towing business. “We were never poor,” he says, “but my parents never had a lot of money. I want to help them out. That’s my first goal and then I would like to leave a legacy.”

Dee-Jay bucked big odds when he snatched away Carlos Licona’s title. Licona had 75 amateur fights, was schooled by the renowned trainer Robert Garcia, and was fighting in his backyard. And he will be a substantial underdog again when and if his bout with Nicaragua’s Felix Alvarado comes to fruition. Alvarado is 35-2 with 30 knockouts, has won 17 in a row, and has been in with stiffer competition. His twin brother Rene Alvarado recently won the WBA 130-pound title.

Alvarado seemingly has another factor in his favor. As I write this on April 3, Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega has yet to impose social distancing. One presumes that Alvarado’s regular routine hasn’t been disturbed.

“I believe a fighter needs to fight,” says Kriel, “just as a footballer (i.e, a soccer player) needs to keep playing football.” Expressed more tersely by an old-time fight handicapper of this writer’s acquaintance: rest makes rust.

The Dee-Jay Kriel story isn’t a great tragedy like so many COVID-19 stories, but it’s hard not to feel for him and for all the other boxers who have been marooned, in a manner of speaking, by this surreal situation.

Hang in there, guys.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 91: Los Angeles Boxing Nights 1960s

David A. Avila

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A name popped up recently that shot memories of 1960s boxing nights at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.

That name was Sho Saijo, a Japanese featherweight prizefighter.

The night Saijo fought Jose Pimentel for the first time at the Olympic Auditorium on February 15, 1967 was my first time watching a prize fight live. All my previous experience was amateur boxing or watching pros fight on television.

Just walking down the slanted aisles toward our seats at the Olympic Auditorium was an experience. The gray smoke drifted around the boxing ring and the smell of cigars and popcorn permeated the air. Vendors were hawking beer and other stuff and people seemed generally excited to be there.

My father was a former prizefighter and we had strong ties to Pimentel, who was a close friend of my cousin. Also, the trainer and manager of Pimentel was Harry Kabakoff, my dad’s former trainer and manager when he began fighting as a pro in the early 1950s.

We arrived a little late from our home in East L.A., so the only fight we saw that night was the main event that featured Japan’s Saijo against Mexico’s Pimentel. It was special.

Both fighters showed tremendous technique and surprising durability. They whacked each other with shocking impact with concussive sounds that left an impression on me. It was an exhibition of power that made me understand the difference between professional and amateur boxing.

It seemed every time one guy connected solidly with a booming shot the other guy returned fire with an equally impressive blow. This went on for 10 rounds and the crowd shouted each and every frame.

The Japanese fighter had four losses when he walked in against the undefeated Pimentel, but that night in Los Angeles, he convinced fans that he was equal or better than Pimentel who was the younger brother of contender Jesus Pimentel.

Finally, the featherweight clash ended and fans cheered both fighters for their electrifying performance. Two judges favored Pimentel but one judge saw Saijo as the victor. It was a split decision win for the hometown fighter, but Saijo’s performance endeared him to the knowledgeable L.A. boxing crowd. Aileen Eaton, the promoter, would bring them back again to the same venue in a month. In the rematch, Saijo was determined the victor by decision.

A year and a half later Pimentel would travel to Japan to face Saijo a third time but for the WBA featherweight world title. It ended in a knockout win for the Japanese fighter who defeated a slew of Los Angeles-based fighters along the way. Among those he defeated were Tony Alvarado, Pedro Rodriguez, Marcello Cid, Felipe Torres, Frankie Crawford, and Raul Rojas, who he defeated to win the WBA featherweight title in September 1968 at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.

But the night Pimentel defeated Saijo, we met the boxer after the fights at a local late night spot on Figueroa Avenue. It was across the street from the Pantry at some place named the Limelight or Candlelighter or something. The actual name is a foggy memory.

We waited along with my cousin for Pimentel at the downstairs restaurant and he arrived with his trainer and manager Kabakoff.  When the husky manager saw my father they hugged and chatted a bit. The trainer had talked with my father about training me and asked me my weight. At the time I was about 135 pounds at six feet. But I declined. I had stopped boxing regularly and was concentrating on baseball fulltime. He said my size would give me a big advantage. But after watching pros like Saijo and Pimentel whack each other for 10 rounds, I was certain I made the correct decision.

Later, a few fighters like Ruben Navarro and Mando Ramos stopped by to say hello. It was a pretty exciting moment for me to meet all these boxing stars face to face. Watching them perform on television was one thing, but watching them actually trade blows and hear the impact was extremely impressive. It also made me have the utmost respect for all prizefighters, not just the winners and champions.

Those were different times.

Boxing Life

When I first met the late Bennie Georgino, famed manager and trainer, he would invite me to breakfast to talk boxing. He loved to talk about prizefighting in the 1950s and 1960s. He called that era a very exciting time, but claimed it was even better in the 1930s when boxing was really the king of sports in Los Angeles.

He had a point.

During the 1960s he ran a sandwich spot that he strategically located across the street from the long defunct Herald-Examiner newspaper and also walking distance to the Olympic Auditorium.

“Lots of the reporters like Bud Furillo and Mel Durslag would stop by for a sandwich,” said Georgino to me in an interview in 2000. “It was a heck of a time for boxing. We’ll never see that again.”

Georgino grew up in Lincoln Heights, a section of East Los Angeles that was primarily an Italian neighborhood back in the 1930s. He and his brother were boxers and, according to Georgino, there were boxing shows every day of the week if you include amateurs. He also claimed that amateurs got paid a small sum.

As a youth he boxed amateurs and as an adult he became involved as a trainer and manager of prizefighters. He was a close friend of Art “The Golden Boy” Aragon who was a massive gate attraction during the 1950s. Both would later own bail bonds businesses located next to each other in Los Angeles.

“Art was quite a character,” said Georgino. “You never knew if he was kidding or serious.”

Georgino later moved to Riverside, California. He was still promoting boxing shows in the state of Washington into his 90s.

Boxing in 1960s Los Angeles was a much different era.

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Remembering Hedgemon Lewis (1946-2020); Welterweight Champ, Hollywood Pet

Arne K. Lang

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Hedgemon Lewis, who came up short in three stabs at the world welterweight title but won the New York version of this diadem, died on Sunday, March 30, at an assisted living facility in Detroit. Lewis, who was 74, had health issues in recent years that made him vulnerable to COVID-19, and that vulnerability was compounded by residing in Detroit which has become one of the epicenters of the scourge. The evil pathogen sought him out and in his debilitated condition it wasn’t a fair fight.

Lewis was 72-6 as an amateur and won a National Golden Gloves title as a lightweight and AAU and National Golden Gloves titles at welterweight. He was 53-7-2 (26 KOs) as a pro. But those numbers barely tell the story of a fighter who led an interesting life and was admired by his peers for what he accomplished outside the ring.

Hedgemon Lewis turned pro in 1966 under the guidance of Luther Burgess who would be best remembered as one of Emanuel Steward’s chief lieutenant’s at Detroit’s fabled Kronk Gym. Burgess, a fine featherweight in his fighting days, had been trained and managed by Eddie Futch.

Lewis was eight fights into his pro career and not quite 21 years old when Burgess brought him to Los Angeles where Futch was then plying his trade. Futch loved what he saw and Burgess left his young fighter in the care of his former mentor who was better able to “move” Lewis as the Southern California fight scene was then percolating.

Undoubtedly it wasn’t merely Hedgemon’s potential that excited Eddie Futch. The two had much in common. Both had been born in small towns in the Jim Crow South and had spent their formative years in Detroit. Moreover, a Futch Fighter was a fighter who conducted himself like a gentleman outside the ring and Hedgemon Lewis fit that mold. Futch had no tolerance for loudmouths.

Hedgemon became a staple at the Olympic Auditorium where he had 15 pro fights. When paired against a top-shelf opponent with a Mexican bloodline, these bouts drew big crowds. An estimated 4,000 were turned away when he fought Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez on July 18, 1968. The teak tough Lopez, then ranked #2 in the world, saddled Hedgemon with his first defeat, winning by TKO 9. The bout was so exciting that Lopez’s manager and chief cornerman Howie Steindler fainted during the battle and would be taken to a hospital for observation.

By then, Hedgemon had wealthy backers that allowed him to give boxing his full attention, or we should say his full attention when he wasn’t studying for his real estate license or taking classes in speech and drama at Los Angeles City College.

When Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier turned pro, they both had syndicate backing. The syndicates were comprised of wealthy businessmen in Louisville and Philadelphia, respectively. A California man named Dell Jackson put together a syndicate to back the next world heavyweight champion but with no good heavyweights available, the consortium settled on Hedgemon Lewis.

Jackson had friends in show business. The actor Ryan O’Neal, the comedian Bill Cosby, and the Broadway star and recording artist Robert Goulet hopped on board. The Hoover Street Gym, where Lewis trained and where his backers were constantly popping in to check on their investment, became a hot spot for the paparazzi. Lewis always looked good in the gym because he was a stylish fighter (which curried no sway with the legendary LA Times columnist Jim Murray who was partial to boxers of the blood-and-guts stripe; Murray did Hedgemon Lewis no favors when he described Hedgemon’s style as “mostly ballet.”)

Lewis won six straight after his setback to Indian Red, advancing his record to 28-1. The sixth was a rematch with Lopez wherein he avenged his lone defeat, winning a close but unanimous decision, but Indian Red won the rubber match, stopping Hedgemon in the 10th at the LA Sports Arena.

The top gun of the welterweight division in those days was Jose Napoles, a fighter of consummate skill who left Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power and settled in Mexico City. Napoles held both of the meaningful welterweight belts when Hedgemon caught up with him on Dec. 14, 1971 at the Inglewood Forum. Napoles prevailed in one of his toughest fights. Had he not won the final round, the bout would have been scored a draw.

They would fight again 32 months later in Mexico City and this would be a much easier fight for Napoles who scored a ninth round TKO. Between these two world title fights, Hedgemon had two 15-round affairs with Billy Backus on Backus’s turf in Syracuse, New York. Lewis won both by unanimous decision, winning the second fight by a more lopsided margin than the first.

Backus, the nephew of the great Carmen Basilio, had dethroned Napoles in December of 1970 in a fight stopped on cuts, some say prematurely. It was The Ring magazine Upset of the Year. In a better measure of their respective skills, Napoles dominated the rematch. Backus was a bloody mess when the bout was stopped in the eighth round.

The New York State Athletic Commission, in their infinite wisdom, demanded a rubber match. When Napoles refused, the NYSAC stripped him of his title. Both of Hedgemon Lewis’s bouts with Billy Backus were billed for the New York version of the world welterweight title, which was something of a joke although in an earlier day the New York version of a title had considerable cachet.

Lewis’s third stab at the world welterweight title came in what would what be his final bout. He walked away from the sport after suffering a 10th round stoppage at the hands of John H. Stracey in London.

Unlike so many fighters, he knew when it was time to say goodbye. “It’s such a strange thing when that happens to you,” Hedgemon told LA Times sportswriter John Hall, reflecting on his match with Stracey. “I trained well. I felt good. But once the fight began, it all went in an instant. Nothing worked. My legs, my hands. Suddenly I was a stranger in my own body.”

In retirement, Lewis became an assistant trainer under Eddie Futch, dabbled in fight promotions, and looked after his real estate investments. And he remained great friends with Ryan O’Neal who stayed with Lewis until the very end as other members of the syndicate dropped out.

Hedgemon Lewis was the oldest child and only boy of his mother’s five children. She raised her children alone after her husband walked out one day, never to be seen again. Lewis was very close to his mother and his sisters and when his mom took ill, circa 2002, he returned to Detroit to live out his days. Mrs. Lewis died in 2017.

This reporter first met Hedgemon Lewis in the late 1980s when Team Futch – Eddie Futch, Thell Torrence, Hedgemon, and the tyro, Freddie Roach, were training Virgil Hill at the long-gone Golden Gloves Gym in Las Vegas. In hindsight, I have come to believe that this quartet was the greatest team of trainers ever assembled. If not, it was undoubtedly the team with the best chemistry. “Everything we did was formulated around Eddie’s knowledge and techniques,” said Torrence.

The news of Lewis’s death prompted a call to Torrence. Eighty-three years young and still in-demand as a boxing coach, he had just gotten off the phone with Ryan O’Neal, informing him of the sad news. And he was kicking himself for not following through on the recent promise that he had made to himself to go visit his friend and former associate in Detroit. “And now it’s too late,” he rued.

Thell Torrence believes that Hedgemon left the sport in better shape financially than any boxer in his weight class who had a similar career. He credits O’Neal with making this possible, although when Lewis invested in a parcel of real estate, he had done his homework.

Lewis allowed himself a few luxuries. “He drove the first Mercedes I had ever seen,” said Torrence, and when he started to make good money, he moved into a fancy apartment in fancy Malibu. But he could have had many more luxuries if he had not felt an obligation to help out his family. He purchased a home for his mother in Detroit and, according to Torrence, put several of his sisters through college.

Hedgemon Lewis was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006 and into the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame — he was born in Greensboro – last year. Health problems prevented him from attending the induction ceremony in Tuscaloosa. Two of his sisters accepted the honor for him.

To reiterate, Hedgemon Lewis was 72-6 as an amateur and 53-7-2 as a pro. And that barely touches the surface of a very good fighter who was a credit to his sport.

R.I.P. Champ.

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