King of the Fights

by John Guaspari
In the sport’s peak era, crusty Sam Silverman ran New England boxing.

Readers of a certain age will know that Monday Night Football was not the first regularly scheduled prime-time television production of a live sporting event. Long before large numbers of Americans watched NFL football played under the lights while simultaneously being annoyed by Howard Cosell, there were the Friday Night Fights.

Officially part of the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, the Friday Night Fights were must-see TV for sports fans in the ’40s and ’50s, or at least for sports fans with access to a television set.

The bouts were held in Madison Square Garden 3.0 (the current MSG is the fourth), and in the early years they tended to feature fighters from three demographic groups: Irish, Italian, and Jewish. As the zeitgeist began to change, more black fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Ezzard Charles began to appear on the show.

Clearing an hour of network airtime was a fairly big deal in those days, and an early-round knockout would leave considerable time to be filled. When live Saturday-night boxing shows began to be broadcast a few years later, producers had a backup sporting event lined up and ready to fill out the hour — one that combined the sheer excitement of a Bill Belichick post-game press conference with the raw athleticism of a Bill Belichick post-game press conference. Make That Spare! came to you live from the Paramus Bowling Center in Paramus, N.J., and featured two professional bowlers . . . making spares. It was not as riveting as it sounds.

The way today’s televised sports events are produced and hyped bears little resemblance to the way it was done in those grittier times. The same can be said for the way boxing matches were pulled together and promoted.

For the better part of four decades, beginning in the 1930s, Sam Silverman was the most ubiquitous figure on the New England boxing scene. As a profession, Sam promoted boxing. As an obsession, he lived boxing, ate boxing, slept boxing. And in 1977, when an all-night return drive from a small-potatoes bout in upstate New York ended in a crash, he died boxing.

Sam used to talk a lot about what was wrong with the fight game, and considering the state of the sport today, his words may still have resonance.

“The outside element has hurt boxing,” said Silverman. “I think it’s all wrong. Outside guys done that all over the country. They done boxing a lot of harm. At least when the promoters made a score, they put the money back in boxing. What did these guys ever put into it before or after? I mean, these strangers enter the game — you read a lot of stories of how managers and promoters and fighters are the thugs, they screw everybody. Now they get into it, they figure they’ll screw you first. In boxing, it isn’t so. You don’t screw people in boxing.” (Which, at the time Sam said this, would have come as news to Leon Spinks.)

Sam was — I’m afraid there’s no other way to put it — Runyonesque. How else would you describe someone who took his wife, Helen, to New York for their honeymoon so that they could catch the fights at Madison Square Garden? Or who on another occasion got word that Helen had been hospitalized and rushed to her bedside to ask, “Whaddaya think of a match between Tommy Collins and [the fighter] Jimmy Carter?”

His appearance suggested a disheveled, slightly confused Alfred Hitchcock. He spoke in mumbles — soft, Runyonesque mumbles explained away by the cigar seemingly grafted to his lips. He operated out of an office on Boston’s Canal Street, a hundred or so yards from Boston Garden. If you weren’t smoking a cigar while you were in it, you felt naked. SAM SILVERMAN BOXING ENTERPRISES was semi-circularly stenciled in six-inch letters, Raymond Chandler–style, on a second-floor window adorned by venetian blinds and years-old grime from the traffic below.

Two metal desks, a hat rack, and a handful of chairs scattered around the also grimy tile floor made up the furnishings. In one corner was a sink — cigar ashes were always in the bowl — and on the walls were dozens of photographs and sports-page cartoons of famous fighters, contract signings, and the ever-popular publicity shots of Silverman separating irate boxers in business suits. One desk was buried under bales of newspaper clippings and 8-by-10 glossies of fighters with fists poised beneath menacing three-quarter profiles. The other desk was for Silverman’s publicity man, who always kept a pocket thesaurus handy, presumably to help him come up with different ways to write “the claret flowed freely.”

Make no mistake. Sam was no bumbler or buffoon. He was a shrewd manipulator and businessman who got things done — his way. It’s just that Silverman’s way, according to Eddie Andelman, then Boston’s leading sports commentator, was never the easy way.

“If,” said Andelman, “I was to say to Sam, ‘Give me fifty tickets at $10 a ticket,’ and hand him $500, that would be too simple. He’d want to meet me at midnight at a friend of his cousin’s half-brother and give me 53 tickets at $8 a ticket. When he bought gloves, I’m sure he got them from some guy in the Philippines or something just to save a buck.”

In the early ’70s, a Boston TV station staged a series of in-studio fights. The station was more than happy to have Andelman handle their dealings with Silverman since, as Andelman put it, “It’s not like dealing with the Red Sox. With Sam, you were dealing with a guy who operated out of his car. Basically, Channel 7 said, ‘We want a fight.’ So Silverman gave them a fight. Then they looked in Ring Magazine to find out if he was telling the truth.”

Before the second studio fight, Silverman had told station management that the same ring would be used as the first time. “Channel 7 had paid for the ring,” said Andelman. “They knew what ring they were getting. They had erected it before, tested it. They knew just what camera angles and lighting they wanted. They had done the setup before, and in television, setup time comes to maybe $200 an hour.

“They’re all set for it, the fight comes up — and in comes a new ring. Sam had saved like $8 for a new ring. And it wasn’t even his own money. Just to chisel and hustle and negotiate is what he lived for.”

Boxing anecdotes aren’t always quite so charming. In his heyday, between 1938 and 1955, Silverman put on 500 shows a year throughout New England. Some people, the kind who demonstrated their displeasure enthusiastically, were not altogether pleased with his success. “I been through a thousand freight-train wrecks,” is how Sam would put it. In 1948 Silverman met a set of brass knuckles to the jaw outside Boston Garden. In 1951, a shot fired through the window of his Chelsea home narrowly missed his wife. Two years later, one of his associates was nearly killed by a man carrying a lead pipe concealed in a paper bag. And in 1954, Silverman’s home was blown up by four separate explosions coming at one-minute intervals. No one was home at the time. Foul play was, as the saying goes, suspected.

Things were quieter for Sam over the next 16 years, with neither sportswriters nor homicidally inclined business rivals quite as concerned with his activities. But in 1970, Silverman was tried in federal court, accused of offering a washed-up fighter $100 to take a dive in a four-round preliminary. FBI phone taps recorded Silverman agreeing to the deal. Silverman said that he had done so just to get the fighter off the phone. The consensus among fight people was that the entire affair was ridiculous. The judge must have agreed, because a mistrial was declared after four days when a juror’s mother died.

“They threw the case out,” said Silverman. “The fella that said I tried to put him in the bag was 41 years old. He was banned outta state. He couldn’t even fight in the state if I wanted to use him. He was barred all over the country. . . . He lied about his age and everything else. He didn’t even have a fight until he was 38 years old. He was a cuckoo.”

It was pointed out to Sam that no one can fight in Massachusetts after his 35th birthday unless he was once champion of the world.

Sam was impressed. “That’s right,” he said. “How’d you know that?”

Told that this bit of information had been found in the state boxing commission’s rule book, he replied, “Geez. That’s something I never read.”

Silverman wasn’t involved only in small-time events. In fact, he almost had the biggest one of all in 1964. Muhammad Ali (he had just changed his name from Cassius Clay) was to defend his newly won crown at Boston Garden, but a strangulated hernia forced a postponement. Silverman had a picture in his office showing himself beaming in the background as Ali signed the contract while challenger Sonny Liston stared at the champion balefully. (Sonny always stared balefully.)

But before the bout could be rescheduled, the state commission discovered that Liston’s character was less than exemplary (which was a lot like discovering that Wilt Chamberlain wasn’t short), and the fight was run out of Massachusetts. Because it wound up drawing an underflow crowd of 2,434 to St. Dom’s Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine, and subsequently caused bigger headaches than could possibly have been caused by the abbreviated knockout punch to Liston’s jaw (which some observers saw as evidence of a fix), Silverman considered himself fortunate that he was not involved when the fight finally happened.

Sam did get the big one in 1960, when Brookline’s Paul Pender won the world’s middleweight championship from Sugar Ray Robinson in Boston Garden. No one, least of all Pender, thought the match could be made. “By then I had been around long enough and could tell which way the wind was blowing,” said Pender. “I didn’t think Sam could pull it off, but he did.”

“It took a year,” said Silverman. “I lived with Robinson for a year on the phone. A lot of times we’d wind up three, four days in New York and nothing happened. I wasted all that time — it must have been six, seven thousand dollars in expenses — hanging around New York all the time. So when I told Pender and his manager Robinson was gonna sign, well, they’d heard it before, and Pender’s manager didn’t want him to come to New York. Finally, Pender was gonna go himself, so his manager followed him.

“So we’re in Robinson’s office, and he has accountants and lawyers there and — of course, Robinson is a nice fella, and I’m not lookin’ to knock him — but Robinson’s greatest ambition was to be a lawyer. You drew up a contract, he’d read it over and — look, he’d love to catch you in a mistake.

“Anyway, he’s ready to sign for the fight, and all of a sudden he got frightened. See, he was his own manager, and all of a sudden he didn’t know whether he was well protected himself. So he was like afraid, see, he disappeared out of the office. There were like 30 people in the office. No one seen him leave. We waited for two and a half hours on a hot day in August.”

Pender picks up the story: “Robinson didn’t come back until 4 o’clock. He says to me, ‘Did you ever see Bad Day at Black Rock?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well go see it. It’s a good movie.’ Thirty people are waiting for him, and he went to a movie.”

Back to Silverman: “I took him [Robinson] into the fight promoter’s office — which was the men’s room — and I put the blast on him. ‘Well, I wanted to think it over,’ he says. ‘You rushed me too much.’ I said, ‘Rushed you too much? We’ve been talkin’ about this for a year!’

“I understood his problems. He ran out on me one night at 7:30 in Boston Garden. Claimed he was sick. He owed me $49,000 in advances. Christ, the ushers were there, the door tenders were there collecting tickets, the police were there. We had to pay all that. Nothing. We had no fight.

“He coulda been sick, too. That can happen. No one believed he was sick. I believed him. But it’s tough to give a guy 49,000 bucks in advance. This ain’t the furniture business. I don’t get 90 days to pay my bills. He don’t fight, it ain’t worth two cents to me, you know?”

Pender: “So I went to New York, and we signed the contracts. Silverman had this big party going on at the Park Sheraton. There must have been 100 people. He had hired a suite, hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and all. So I went to the Park Sheraton and I said, ‘Sam, lookit. I gotta go back into training for two months. I want to have a good time while I’m here. Give me 200, ’cause I’m a little short myself.’

“Sam reached into his pocket. He had $40 in his pocket. He said, ‘All I got is 40. You want 20?’ I said, ‘For Chrissakes! How you holding this big party?’ He said, ‘On the cuff. On the cuff. If this fight don’t draw, I’m dead.’”

Watch video clips from the first season of Monday Night Football and you’ll see the undeniable appeal of the cheesy production values and Cosellian self-importance. (It’s been more than 40 years. Annoyance abates.) But now, along with MNF, there are also TNF, SNF, NFLTV in HDTV and, sad to say, CTE, and with those things has come an equally undeniable sense of lost innocence.

There are no claims being made here that boxing is anything other than a brutal, savage enterprise. It’s easy to make the case justifying the sport’s fall from the preeminence it held (along with baseball) in the ’40s and ’50s. Exhibit A: Another name for CTE is “dementia pugilistica.”

In spite of that, though, it’s hard not to be at least a little bit wistful about the innocence that was also lost when those grainy black-and-white images of the Friday Night Fights began to be replaced by ever more gaudy spectacle, $50 pay-per-view prices, and buffoonish principals sporting diamond pinkie rings the size of second base. You don’t have to be a lover of boxing to have a soft spot for the kind of charming (and charmed) chicanery that could only be provided by men who grew up in gyms, didn’t read the rulebook, and conducted their business out of cars, in men’s rooms, and on the cuff.

— John Guaspari is a management consultant and the author of numerous books and articles about business and management.

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