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23 DECEMBER 2014

 

The Matchmakers




By Thomas Hauser

"Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match,
Find me a find, catch me a catch
Matchmaker, matchmaker, look through your book,
And make me a perfect match."

Lyrics by Shelson Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof

Pity the poor matchmaker. He has the toughest job in boxing that doesn't involve taking punches.

Ron Scott Stevens (now chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission) recalls making forty telephone calls a day when he was putting together Cedric Kushner's "Heavyweight Explosion" series. "There are times when matchmaking is like trying to surf with no waves," Stevens says. "And as soon as I finished with one card, I had to start on another."

"You don't know what it's like to be a matchmaker until you've done it," says Eric Gomez of Golden Boy Promotions. "The pressure is incredible."

Most matchmakers are a little nuts. "How can it be considered normal," asks Top Rank's Bruce Trampler, "to call two people and arrange to have them punch each other in the head in front of an audience?"

Regardless, most matchmakers echo the thought of Mike Marchionte, who says, "I love the challenge."

Matchmaking is an art, not a science. The first thing to know about it is that the matchmaker works for the promoter, not the fans. Thus, he serves the promoter's interests.

The threshhold question a matchmaker asks when filling out a card is, "What do I want to accomplish with these fights?" He might be trying to develop one of his promoter's fighters into a world-class boxer. That means finding an opponent who will be a good learning experience, go some rounds, and test the fighter to determine where his skill level is. The way a fighter wins is also important in terms of developing him as an attraction. Sometimes, the promoter is simply trying to develop a boxer into a ticket-seller whether he can fight or not.

"Some people just don't get it," says Bruce Trampler. "I used to get calls all the time from guys who'd say to me, 'I have a kid who will kill Butterbean.' And I'd tell them, 'Thanks; why are you calling me?'"

There are times when all a promoter cares about is a win for his fighter. Here, conscience can be an impediment for the matchmaker, who is expected to arrange what is essentially a bloody public sacrifice. In other instances, the matchmaker is simply putting together bouts to complete a card without regard to who wins or loses. Fortunately, there are also occasions when the matchmaker's primary goal is to make action-packed fights that will entertain the fans.

As Russell Peltz notes, "It's not rocket science. Either you want a good fight or you just want a "W" on your guy's record. If you want a good fight, you make a good fight. You have to give fans their money's worth or they won't come back."

Once the purpose of the matches is established, the next question a matchmaker asks is, "How big is the budget?"

If a promoter like Top Rank or Golden Boy loses money on a small show, it's liveable withable. They're developing their fighters. For small promoters, the financial imperatives of each card are more urgent. Obviously, matchmaking is a lot easier when there's an ample budget with some trickle-down dollars for the undercard.

But budgeting involves more than fighters' purses. There's hotel and airfare, which makes local boxers more attractive. Not only do they sell tickets; they're cheaper to maintain. Most promoters have small staffs; so often, the matchmaker doubles as a travel agent. Medical requirements are a consideration. Will a fighter be approved in the state where the fight is taking place; and what will his medicals cost?

Matchmaking starts with the main event. That's the anchor for a show. Sometimes, the entire "A" side of the card has been set aside for fighters that the promoter has under contract. In those instances, the matchmaker has to find opponents. Other times, both sides of the ledger have to be filled.

Matchmakers have a far-reaching network of contacts. Some they trust; some they don't. As soon as he has his marching orders, the matchmaker picks up the telephone and starts making calls.

The best matchmakers are well-organized and pay attention to detail. The tie that binds them is that they're fans with a passion for boxing. They immerse themselves in the sport and are knowledgeable students of the game.

A good matchmaker knows more than the old axiom, "styles make fights." He can spot flaws that make one fighter vulnerable to another.

Bobby Goodman of Don King Productions says, "A matchmaker can put two boxers with equal ability and similar records together and still give the edge to his guy."

Don Elbaum adds, "You have to know the skills of each fighter, the style of each fighter, and the character of each fighter. Before I make a fight, I always ask myself, 'How do I expect my guy to win this fight and how could he lose?'"

The more a matchmaker knows, the better he is. Matchmakers are always gathering information for the future.

The patron saint of matchmakers is Teddy Brenner, who plied his trade for more than four decades in and around New York. Brenner had a three-pronged theory of matchmaking: (1) the styles should mesh; (2) a fight should lead somewhere for one or both of the fighters; and (3) a matchmaker shouldn't make a fight that he wouldn't pay to see.

In the 1950s, when Brenner was making matches for Eastern Parkway, the arena was known as "The House of Upsets." Fifty-seven of the 156 televised fights that Brenner made there were later booked as return bouts at Madison Square Garden. Then he moved to The Garden itself. Old-timers still talk about "Teddy Brenner fights" when MSG boxing at its peak. "He was the greatest matchmaker who ever lived," says Russell Peltz.

But let's not forget; Brenner was making fights at a time when every fighter in America wanted to fight at Madison Square Garden. Also, as Bobby Goodman notes, "Teddy was a great matchmaker, but sometimes he destroyed his own talent."

Ron Katz has been called "Little Teddy Brenner." Katz is known as a fan's matchmaker. But in the eyes of some, there are times when he makes fights that are "more competitive than they should be."

"Yeah; I've bumped off a lot of guys, Katz says. "But how many of them were my fighters?"

Butterbean for one. Bob Arum was livid at Katz when "the King of the Four-Rounders" was clearly outclassed and suffered the first loss of his career on a second-round stoppage at the hands of Mitchell Rose at Madison Square Garden.

Still, everybody makes mistakes. A bigger problem, according to Don Elbaum, is the fact that, "The way things are today, no matchmaker can be as good as the great ones used to be."

Matchmaking is more difficult now than in the past. For starters, there are fewer fighters. Don Chargin has been making matches and promoting fights in California for more than fifty years. "I used to go to my office at The Olympic on Monday morning," Chargin says, "and there would be a line of managers waiting in the hope that they could get a fight for their fighter. The lines are gone now. And the pool of acceptable opponents keeps getting smaller because very few promoters make an effort to build opponents back up after they lose a fight by matching them against other opponents."

"Another reason matchmaking is harder today," Chargin continues, "is that managers don't have the final say on who the fighter fights anymore. It used to be that a manager could say 'yes' right away to a fight. Now it's a committee decision. 'Let me talk to the trainer; let me talk to the fighter.'"

"And no one wants to go in tough," adds Russell Peltz. "Either the fighter doesn't want to fight anybody or nobody wants to fight the fighter. In the old days, if you were ranked number eight, you wanted to fight the guy who was number seven. If you were number seven, you wanted to fight number six. Now a guy gets in the top ten and he won't go in tough unless it's a title shot or a fight on HBO. Promoters spend as much time protecting their fighters as they do developing them."

Getting contracts signed is also a problem. In boxing, a man's word isn't necessarily his bond, so it's prudent to memorialize agreements in writing.

"That isn't easy," says Mike Marchionte. "After the fighter agrees verbally to a fight, he talks to twenty people who tell him, 'You deserve more money; this guy is too tough; they're setting you up.'"

"You send the manager a contract," explains Joe Quiambao of DiBella Entertainment. "It doesn't come back. You call and ask the manager where the contract is, and he has fifty excuses why he hasn't sent it but he promises he'll fax it to you in an hour. An hour goes by. Still no contract. You call again and get the guy's answering machine."

The bigger the fight, the more contract disputes there are over the size of the ring, travel expenses, and dozens of other variables. Then, finally, the contracts are signed. Now the hard part starts.

"Life would be bliss," says Russell Peltz, "if every time you signed a fight, the fight happened." But as Ron Katz observes, "You can do everything right, and there's still always that one thing that goes wrong."

Fighters get hurt in training, flunk state athletic commission physicals, miss planes, fail to make weight, get cold feet, and have personal dramas with the criminal justice system. Over time, matchmakers learn which fighters, managers, and trainers are reliable. They also know which state athletic commissions are soft in terms of accepting overmatched opponents and looking the other way when it comes to medical standards.

"In the old days," says Bobby Goodman, "it wasn't that big a problem if a fight fell out because there were always other fighters in the gym who were ready to fight on a few days notice. Now most fighters need a month or more to get ready for a fight. The days of a matchmaker walking into a crowded gym and saying, 'I need a welterweight to fight so-and-so on Friday night' are gone."

"You have to figure that some of your undercard fights will fall out," explains Ron Katz. "But the main event is the heart of the show. That's the call you don't want to get. If the main event falls out, it's like a blow to the solar plexus."

"The last few days before a fight," says Bruce Trampler, "you cringe every time the phone rings. Sometimes you get so worn out, you make a fight just to make a fight."

But then the fighters arrive at the arena and the matchmaker's worries are over. Right?

Wrong.

"You can lose a main event at the last minute," says Ron Katz. "I had Calvin Grove fighting Irving Mitchell in a USBA title fight. Mitchell started puking in his dressing room right before the fight and couldn't go out. Another time, Epifanio Mendoza tore a tendon hitting the pads in his dressing room while he was getting ready to fight Lonnie Bradley. ESPN put a lot of studio time on the air that night."

"That's life as a matchmaker," acknowledges Carl Moretti of Main Events. "The fighter has food poisoning. He's throwing up in the dressing room and his manager tells you that he ate spicy fish that afternoon. What am I supposed to do? Tell every fighter, 'Don't eat spicy fish on the day of a fight.' There are times when I think it's easier to get a bill through Congress than it is to make a six-round fight."

The best matchmakers are good salesman. They have to explain to a fighter's camp why the fighter should take a particular fight. That means telling Fighter A, "I know Fighter B is 10-and-0 with nine knockouts, but styles make fights. If you use your jab, it's an easy fight." Then the same matchmaker tells Fighter B, "Fighter A stands straight up and can't get away from the hook. If you use your hook, you're home free."

But at the same time, matchmakers need credibility. "You're more effective," observes Carl Moretti, "if you have the trust of the fighters and managers that you're working with. That means you can't tell someone that the opponent is righthanded and comes straight at you and put him in against Winky Wright."

Matchmakers need patience.

"It helps to be lucky," adds Eric Gomez.

"And you've got to go with your instincts," says Bobby Goodman.

Those instincts are important. "I caved in once against my better judgment," says Bruce Trampler. "I let Kery Davis [of HBO] insist on Joel Casamayor as an opponent for Kid Diamond. It was the wrong fight at the wrong time, but Kery asserted himself. There were a lot of guys Kid Diamond would have looked sensational against, but Casamayor wasn't one of them and the fight ended in a draw. I made a mistake."

When all is said and done, there's mutual respect and camaraderie among matchmakers and a sense that they're in the same crazy business together.

Sometimes, in addition to the hassles, there are moments of depression. "You do your homework," says Eric Gomez. "You watch videos; you cross-reference; you ask around. Then you make a fight; the opponent turns out to be tougher than you thought; and your guy loses. You know you can't control the outcome. But sometimes you still feel that you let the fighter down rather than the other way around."

There's also the possibility of what people in boxing dread most. "You make a match," says Mike Marchionte. "And God forbid, something really bad happens. You carry that with you for the rest of your life. But it's an odds game and the more matches you make, the more likely it is that you'll be there when a fighter dies. I don't know if I could stay in boxing after that."

But the other side of the equation is voiced by Don Elbaum, who says, "The thing that keeps us all going is when we put together a four-round fight and it's a barn-burner and the fans are on their feet cheering. That feels so good."

"And there's another thing I love," adds Bobby Goodman. "To me, the most satisfying thing about being a matchmaker is to take a kid who's coming out of the amateurs and help him over all the bumps and hurdles and develop him to the point where he's a champion and part of history and, in some instances, a great champion. That's special to me."

So there you have it. Being a matchmaker has its highs and lows. But for those who do it, the rewards far outweigh the downside. Chris Mittendorf speaks for his brethren when he says, "I love being a matchmaker. It's hard but it's not hard like digging a ditch eight hours a day is hard. Sure, there are bad moments and times when you spend all night on the telephone begging people to make a fight. Sometimes you have to tell a fighter who sold two hundred tickets to his friends and neighbors that his fight fell out an hour before the bell for round one. But I'm constantly talking with people about boxing. I sit at ringside for some great fights. And I get paid for doing it. What could be a better job than that?"

* * *

And a note on the weigh-in for Castillo-Corrales III --

A lot of people are outraged by the failure of Jose Luis Castillo to make weight for his aborted June 3rd lightweight title fight against Diego Corrales. Castillo, as the entire boxing world now knows, weighed in at 140 pounds; five pounds over the division limit.

"When I saw him get on the scale and he weighed 140 pounds, I was absolutely beside myself because I'd been lied to," Bob Arum (Castillo's promoter) said. "We'd all been lied to. He came into town on Monday. We put a calibrated scale in his suite at the Wynn Hotel. The report was that he weighed 139 pounds on Thursday night, the night before the weigh-in. The report was that he went to bed at 137 pounds. Naturally, you lose a pound sleeping, so to make 135 was easy. We were getting numbers which led us to believe that there was absolutely no problem."

But it's not that simple. The WBC has a policy of tracking the weight of the champion and challenger prior to each of its world championship fights. The WBC rules are not legally binding upon state athletic commissions. They are safety guidelines and a source of information for anyone who is concerned about a fighter's weight.

Under the WBC guidelines, a fighter is to be no more than ten percent over the required weight (148.5 pounds for a 135-pound lightweight contest) thirty days before the fight and no more than five percent over the limit (141.75 pounds) seven days before the fight. The promoter is responsible for monitoring weight and reporting it to the sanctioning body. If the promoter is unwilling or unable to do the monitoring, the WBC will do it for a fee.

The WBC sent mixed signals where Castillo's weight was concerned. In a May 12th letter, it advised Top Rank, Gary Shaw Productions (Corrales's promoter), and the Nevada State Athletic Commission that Castillo had been two pounds over the 148.5 pound limit thirty days before the fight. Then, in a May 17th letter to the same parties, WBC president Jose Sulaiman wrote that, as of the 17th, Castillo's weight was 146 pounds. However, Sulaiman characterized the fighter's weight on the 17th as "within the parameters of the mandated weigh-ins to prevent dramatic weight loss in a short period of time."

The WBC letters should have raised a red flag. Remember; in addition to being overweight for Castillo-Corrales II, Castillo also had trouble making weight for his February 4th fight against Rolando Reyes.

Then, to make matters worse, the Castillo camp proceeded to ignore the WBC's seven-day weigh-in requirement.

After Castillo failed to make weight, Gary Shaw announced his intention to sue Castillo, Top Rank, and others. "I believe he never tried to make weight," Shaw proclaimed. "He and his people perpetrated a fraud and a charade upon the public. He thought he'd bargain his way to another fight. Arum and Betran (Castillo's Mexican promoter) knew he was not on weight, but they never said anything. Something like this breaks down the fabric of the sport. If we were car salesmen and if we were selling something on TV and we said we're delivering this product and didn't deliver it, the United States Attorney General would be down on our backs. I think this needs an in-depth investigation. This is a flagrant violation. The public has been defrauded."

Meanwhile, on June 8th, the Nevada State Athletic Commission filed a disciplinary complaint against Castillo, who now faces a fine of up to $250,000 in addition to the suspension or revocation of his license.

Shaw and the NSAC are right in that a lot of people lost a lot of money because of the Castillo-Corrales fiasco. Some of these losses (such as airfare and hotel expenses incurred by fans who traveled to Las Vegas for the fight) could have been avoided had there been advance warning of the problem. Of course, had there been advance warning, there would also have been more empty hotel rooms than usual during fight week.

The entire affair brings to mind Captain Renault's words from Casablanca: "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here."

Sometimes people find it convenient to be lied to.

It should also be noted that, in the past, the NSAC was lied to about Marco Antonio Barrera having undergone brain surgery prior to fighting in Nevada. No one was punished.

The NSAC was lied to about Lamon Brewster having undergone eye surgery prior to fighting in Nevada. No one was punished.

Martin Sanchez was killed in a fight. The NSAC failed to investigate the possibility that phony medicals contributed to his death, and Flip Homansky was removed from the commission after he raised the issue at a public hearing. Of course, phony medicals facilitate fights.

Now Jose Luis Castillo, looking like a skeleton, weighs in over the lightweight limit and the commission is considering whether to fine him $250,000 and revoke or suspend his license for up to one year.

I don't like what Jose Luis Castillo did, but I also don't like the farce of fighters competing to see how little they can weigh when they step on the scales 24 to 30 hours before they step into the ring to fight one another.

Does the NSAC care about fighter safety or does it just want big fights to happen?

Nevada should act like a leader and get its priorities in order.


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



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