King of the Fights
In the sport’s peak era, crusty Sam Silverman ran New England boxing.

Sam Silverman


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.”