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25 JULY 2014

 

If There’s Free Food, Grab It




By Thomas Hauser

There’s a centuries-old proverb, “Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.”

Howard Cosell used to declaim, “You can buy the writers for a ham sandwich.”

“With some writers, it’s in their DNA,” says former Boxing Writers Association of America president Bernard Fernandez. “If it’s free, they have to eat it.”

Put those thoughts together and you have what some think is Rule #1 for being a boxing writer: “If there’s free food, grab it.”

“It’s not new,” says Bobby Goodman of Don King Productions. “The writers could always eat. In the old days, you used to hear, ‘Feed me to read me.’ Lester Bromberg, who wrote boxing for the New York Post, was a notorious eater,” Goodman reminisces. “One time, my father [Hall of Fame publicist Murray Goodman] set Lester up in an eating contest. They brought out what looked like a whole side of beef. Lester ate and ate and ate some more. And then he got sick as a dog. That was a memorable moment.”

“Everybody likes a good meal,” says Alan Hopper (director of public relations for DKP). “And when you serve food at a press conference, the writers show up on time.”

“There are times when it seems like half of my being is about what kind of food and which restaurant,” says Debbie Caplan, who is following in her father’s estimable footsteps as a boxing publicist. “Sometimes the turnout for a press conference is dictated by the restaurant, not the fight.”

“Over the years, I’ve heard more complaints about the food than the fights,” adds father Bill. “You can announce that two undefeated champions are fighting each other. And afterward, if you ask people what they thought about the press conference, you’re likely to hear, ‘So-and-so gave us roast beef and turkey, and you only gave us roast beef.’ Sometimes I think the writers are frustrated food critics.”

As a general rule, kick-off press conferences are held at the fight site or in a restaurant that bears some relationship to the card. If two Mexican fighters are facing off in the main event, the media isn’t invited to a Japanese restaurant.

Promoter Lou DiBella makes a point of holding press conferences for Dmitriy Salita’s fights in kosher restaurants because Salita is an Orthodox Jew. Beyond that, DiBella notes, “It’s no accident that most of the press conferences for my Broadway Boxing series are at Gallagher’s Steak House. The majority of guys writing boxing today are young kids with no money. The free meal, particularly if it’s a steak at Gallagher’s, is an inducement.”

Different promoters feed the media differently. For a big fight, things start with the kick-off press conference.

Years ago, when Don King had an office on the top floor at Rockefeller Plaza, he regularly held press conferences in the Rainbow Room. Now King’s catering varies; but almost always, the food is superb.

“The thing that I appreciate most about Don,” says Alan Hopper, “is that he understands public relations. Don never says, ‘Give them coffee and muffins because it’s cheaper.’ Don wants everything to be first-rate. The food at some of his press conferences is Roman in its excess.”

“Don King has everybody beat,” confirms HBO’s “unofficial ringside judge” and culinary connoisseur Harold Lederman. “When Don goes all out, no one else in boxing comes close. There’s so much food at some of his press conferences that you think you’re at a bar mitzvah.”

HBO vice president Mark Taffet maintains that the “all-time greatest food at a press conference” was served when Jerry Perenchio promoted Oscar De La Hoya against Javier Castillejo. The kick-off press conference was held at the St. Regis Hotel in Beverly Hills. A dozen chefs wearing high white hats were on duty. “The food was so good and there was so much of it,” Taffet recalls, “that we couldn’t get anyone to leave the dining area and come into the press conference. Finally, we literally had to close down the buffet table.”

At the other end of the spectrum, New York Daily News boxing scribe Tim Smith harkens back to Roy Jones versus Eric Harding, which was promoted by Murad Muhammad. “We were in New Orleans, one of the best food towns in the country,” Smith says. “I came to the press conference hungry. This was a big-time fight, and I had high expectations. Boy, was I wrong. All we got were peanuts, pretzels, and soda. Murad was pinching pennies on that one.”

That’s understandable. Last year, Murad hosted a press conference at Gallagher’s to kick off Evander Holyfield versus Fres Oquendo. When lunch was done, he had to give the maitre d’ three different credit cards before one cleared.

Press conferences at Madison Square Garden are catered in-house and follow a formula of deli sandwiches, wraps, salads, chocolate chip cookies, and brownies. “I love the cookies,” says Hopper.

Virtually all press conferences are dry. But that didn’t stop a group of writers who attended a press conference at Tavern on the Green in New York from running up a $400 bar tab and telling the bartender to charge it to HBO. “I was with HBO at the time,” DiBella remembers. “But the press conference was the responsibility of Main Events. I gave the bill to [Main Events vice president] Carl Moretti and told him, ‘This is your problem, not mine.’”

Sometimes the food served at a press conference isn’t for the media. When George Foreman began his comeback, he was defensive about his age and weight. Bob Arum, who was promoting Big George at the time, recalls, “I told him, ‘George, if you’re defensive about it, things will only get worse. You have to make a joke out of it.’ George is a smart guy,” Arum continues. “He understood the point. So at the next press conference we did for him, I had a waiter bring a platter piled high with cheeseburgers to George at the dais. The press loved it; it made all the TV stations. And it became a signature part of George’s press conferences after that.”

In the days immediately preceding a big fight, the culinary scene shifts to the on-site media center. Nostalgia flows when veteran boxing writers talk about the food at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas during the glory years.

Bill Caplan looks to the east coast and recalls, “The best food I remember was when George Foreman fought Evander Holyfield in Atlantic City. Donald Trump was very much into the fight. He had a chef in the media center every minute it was open. George came in every day just to see what they were serving.”

When Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson fought in Memphis, media day for Team Tyson was held at Fitzgerald’s casino in Tunica, where the press was kept in a holding area in 95-degree heat for 45 minutes while Tyson finished a private workout. Thereafter, Iron Mike hit a speed bag for several minutes, toyed briefly with a slip-bag, and left without saying a word. No food (or water) were served.

One day later, Lewis made a lot of friends when he hosted a media luncheon in the grand ballroom at Sam’s Town casino. There were flowers on the tables, harp music in the background, and a memorable buffet.

But the following year, there was grumbling when Gary Shaw took over as Lennox’s promoter for Lewis versus Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles. After repeated complaints from the media that they weren’t getting enough to eat, Debbie Caplan decided to host a barbecue at her home. Those who were privileged to attend still talk fondly about it.

There’s an odd juxtaposition in the fact that, at a time when fighters often are struggling to make weight, there’s so much food in the media center. One student of the scene notes, “You can always tell what’s being served by the stains on Mike Katz’s shirt and the crumbs in his beard.” Meanwhile, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times observes, “When Roberto Duran sees a media center buffet, he says ‘mas’.”

Here, it should be noted that there are times when jostling for position on the food line in the media center resembles “Manos de Piedra” fighting on the inside. Boxing historian Herb Goldman once got into a heated shoving match as he neared the buffet table. “Some jerk was trying to make his presence felt,” Goldman recalls. “It wasn’t really about the food.”

Meanwhile, Dan Rafael thinks back to September 2004, when the media was at the MGM Grand for the mega-fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins and a press release went out heralding a Friday-night press conference for the rematch between Shane Mosley and Winky Wright.

“The Wright-Mosley press conference was at Mandalay Bay,” Rafael remembers. “And the way they got the writers over there was to put on the press release in big capital letters, “FREE SHRIMP.”

The situation is summed up by Bernard Fernandez, who opines, “Bernard Hopkins claims that he hasn’t eaten a donut in twenty years. He’ll never make a boxing writer.”

Then comes fight night.

At Madison Square Garden, if the fights are in The Theater, there’s no food other than what’s sold at the concession stands. If the card takes place in the main arena, there’s an eight-dollar charge for a modest buffet dinner with all proceeds going to the Garden of Dreams Foundation.

Mandalay Bay traditionally serves hot dogs, chili, nachos, and Dove bars on fight night. “If you eat enough Dove bars,” Fernandez says, “you overlook the fact that they’re only giving you hot dogs, chili, and nachos as the entrée.”

Publicist Fred Sternberg recalls working Mosley-Wright I at Mandalay Bay and, shortly before the fight, seeing Jack Mosley in the media center getting a hot dog. “I remember asking myself, ‘Shouldn’t he be in the dressing room with his son?’” Sternberg notes.

The MGM Grand traditionally puts out an elaborate fight-night buffet replete with roast beef, salmon, chicken, several kinds of pasta, salads, cakes, pies, fresh fruit, and tiramisu. Some writers have been known to toke on a joint before going to the media center to indulge a desire for munchies.

But you can’t please everybody.

On the night of De La Hoya–Mayweather, one writer complained to MGM vice president Scott Ghertner that there weren’t any Dove bars.

As for alcohol; publicist John Beyrooty recalls, “We used to have beer in the press room on fight night at The Forum, but we had to stop because a couple of guys got drunk.” Mandalay Bay discontinued the practice of serving beer in the media center on fight night for the same reason.

Meanwhile, there’s a downside to all the free food that’s given to boxing writers. Someone has to pay for it.

Gallagher’s Steak House charges promoters $54 per person (including tip and tax) for a full steak meal. At the Copacabana (another favored New York location), it’s $40 a person but the promoter is charged $2,500 for audio-visual equipment. Madison Square Garden’s deli package is $25 a head. The Rainbow Room charges $10,000 for the room, $3,000 for audio-visual equipment, and $60 per person for food.

At the Las Vegas hotel-casinos, who pays how much for what is determined by the structure of the deal between the site and the promoter. Media center fare during fight week can range from coffee and tea to elaborate buffets for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon break.

Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer reports that, during fight week for De La Hoya-Mayweather, the cost of feeding the media exceeded $100,000. “The food is a courtesy and a convenience for the writers,” says Schaefer. “But there are times when putting the menu together is like planning a wedding.”

Sometimes the courtesies are abused. Dan Rafael of ESPN.com saw a prominent boxing writer walk into the media center at the MGM Grand with a small gym bag and leave with two six-packs of soda and a dozen candy bars.

John Beyrooty recounts an incident that occurred when he was overseeing publicity for Forum Boxing. “Our cards featured Mexican fighters, so we made a point of offering good Mexican food at our press conferences,” Beyrooty recalls. “One day, a guy came in with his mother, filled two plastic containers to the brim, and was walking out to his car when I stopped him. What made it particularly offensive is that they were walking out with the food before the press conference even started.”

And there’s another problem. The free food attracts the writers but it also brings in a lot of freeloaders.

“There’s a problem today,” says Bobby Goodman, “because it’s not clearly defined who’s a boxing writer. Years ago, you knew who the legitimate guys were and you were honored to have them. But things are different now.”

Ed Keenan is the guiding force behind EMC, which handles media relations, credentials, and other services for many of today’s big fights. As such, he’s often responsible for organizing press conferences.

“It’s hard to keep track of all the people who say they write about boxing,” Keenan acknowledges. “In the beginning, it was okay when they showed up for media lunches but now it’s getting out of hand. The Copa has a guy who stands at the front door with a clicker and counts the number of people who come in. Gallagher’s counts plates. At the ESPN Zone [another favored site], they give out wristbands. The cost adds up. If you have fifty people who don’t belong, that can add two thousand dollars to the bill, sometimes more.”

“Also, people who don’t belong take up space,” Keenan continues. “They make it hard for the legitimate writers to get access to the fighters. Under a hundred people works in the upstairs room at Gallager’s. But if you go over a hundred, things get tight. When Don King held a press conference at Gallagher’s for Briggs-Liakhovich, 140 people showed up. Every time someone walked in the door, a waiter ran up to him with a plate so they could charge another fifty-four dollars. It was so crowded that I had to eat in the kitchen.”

On July 31st, Lou DiBella held a press conference at Tavern on the Green to announce the upcoming middleweight championship fight between Jermain Taylor and Kelly Pavlik. The room was jammed; in part because those present thought they’d be getting a free lunch. Instead, they were given what one disgruntled attendee called “rabbit food” (cut vegetables and fruit).

“After seeing who was there, I’m happy I didn’t do a full meal,” DiBella said afterward. “The real boxing Internet sites are carrying the game right now. I have no problem giving the people who work for them a free meal. But there are also a lot of hobby websites and bullshit blogs that aren’t worth the price of a lunch. And quite frankly, there are people who come to my press conferences who I’ve never seen a word from.”

So what happens next?

Alan Hopper says, “I love the freeloaders; they fill up the room. A publicist’s greatest nightmare is that the room will be empty. On a marginal event, the freeloaders help.”

But most promoters don’t have Don King’s budget for food. And one can envision a time in the not-too-distant future when promoters only allow invited guests to attend their press conferences and put teeth in that requirement.

“You don’t have outsiders freeloading like this in any other sport,” says Dan Rafael. “I don’t see why we should have it in boxing.”


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com




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