One of the fighters was bleeding in the main event and Teddy Brenner, up front ringside in his usual seat at Madison Square Garden, chewed gum and absently flicked commands at a lieutenant. "If this fight is stopped in the next two rounds, we'll bring on the four-rounder," said Brenner from behind his horn-rimmed glasses. "If it lasts beyond that, we'll forget it and go home." And somehow you had to hand it to this ex-shirt salesman from Brooklyn, not so much for the cool authority with which he made decisions as for even daring to sit up front ringside at all. For Teddy Brenner, your best instincts told you, should not be turning his back on people.
Brenner, who is the matchmaker for the Garden, is one of the most controversial men in boxing, a distinction derived as much from his buzz-saw personality as from any dark deeds that his detractors can point to with anything more than innuendo. Like that other kind of matchmaker, the Hello, Dolly! marriage broker, a boxing matchmaker needs plenty of cunning and cuteness to ply his trade. It speaks for Brenner's supply of both that the fights he puts together are more fun to watch, and sometimes last longer, than those arranged by your very best marriage broker.
"I'm the best matchmaker in the business," Brenner allows, and even his enemies readily concede as much. But then some of his enemies reportedly have to shave twice in the morning, once on each face. For the record they talk sweet about Brenner, because he is the man to see about getting a fight in Madison Square Garden, and the Garden, besides being boxing's major shrine, is just about the only show in town. Off the record, Brenner could use a new reputation.
"Let me tell you something," he says, leaning forward at the desk in his underground Garden office. "It doesn't matter what anybody thinks. I have to answer only to myself. The matchmaker can't be popular. He has to deal with people, not ashtrays or suits, and people are always up to something. They're always making deals and then changing their minds. People can be a lot of trouble."
July 20, 1969
During 22 years as a matchmaker, the last 10 of them at the Garden, Brenner has had his share of trouble, people being what they are. Whenever Oscar Bonavena boxed in the old Garden, misunderstandings over the size of his purses almost invariably brought both the Argentine heavyweight and Dr. Marvin Goldberg, a Long Island optometrist and then Bonavena's manager, storming into Brenner's office. On one occasion Bonavena slammed a fist and a foot against the matchmaker's door, while on another Goldberg and Brenner had a noisy go at each other, with the door getting easily the worst of it. In boxing such out-of-the-ring altercations do not necessarily preclude doing business, as evidenced by the fact that until he recently was arrested in New Jersey, one of the Garden's biggest attractions was a light heavyweight named Frankie DePaula, whom Brenner used regularly even though DePaula's trainer, Al Braver-man, earned some measure of renown a while back by flooring the matchmaker with a single punch.
Ask Brenner about the Braverman fracas today and he waves a hand and declares: "You shouldn't believe everything you hear." As the conversation turns to other matters, his brown eyes begin to smolder and a frown forms across his vaguely aquiline, yet unobtrusively handsome, face. His forehead, speckled and tanned, subdivides into furrows, and his toothpaste-white teeth disappear into an outthrusting jaw. The smoldering has turned to a slow burn. "So they're still talking about Braver-man's sneak punch?" he finally asks. "That's what it was, a sneak punch."
Still, Brenner avers that it never pays to hold a grudge, and as a matchmaker he knows only too well that colorful and popular prizefighters like DePaula are in short supply. (DePaula currently is charged with complicity in the theft of $80,000 worth of copper bars, a situation that makes him unavailable for Garden bouts.) The dearth of good fighters, and the occasional loss of gate attractions like DePaula, tempers whatever absolute power the Madison Square Garden matchmaker might otherwise enjoy—or so Brenner claims. "Sure I hold leverage over them," he admits, "but the managers and the fighters, the good ones, hold leverage over me, too."
A certain amount of tension between matchmaker and manager is natural, even unavoidable. "It's the matchmaker's duty to force a manager to fight worthy opposition," says Brenner. Despite this lofty mission, there are those who regard his taste in matches as arbitrary, capricious or worse. When he uses a fighter they accuse him of playing favorites or owning a piece of the action. When he passes over a fighter they call him aloof and arrogant. If a bout is exciting, the fighters get the credit. If it is not, the matchmaker gets the blame. There are even some people who profess to believe that a boxer should get work merely because he has talent. Brenner qualifies as a tough operator largely thanks to the zeal with which he reminds such idealists that this is not the best of all possible worlds, maybe not even second best.
Matchmaking, he advises them, is not simply "a matter of putting the No. 1 and No. 2 men in the ring. Anybody could do that. It is a matter first of determining whether the styles of the two fighters blend. Then you have to decide if it's an important fight. In other words, will the winner move on to a bigger fight? And is it one that I as a fan would want to see? The fans want to see the best fight, and that doesn't necessarily mean the best fighters.
"Take two fighters. One brings in $1,000 worth of tickets. The other brings in his lunch in a paper bag. So I don't use him. Right away they say I'm looking for a kickback or something. Baloney." Here the matchmaker paused, uncertain whether to go on. Finally, as if to have it quickly out in the open and be done with it, he brought up Emile Griffith. Griffith, who is co-managed by Gil Clancy, a close friend of Brenner's, has fought in the Garden no fewer than 23 times. "Everybody said I favored Griffith or that I controlled him." Brenner continued. "Well, nothing could be more of a lie. I've never controlled anybody, and I've never accepted a penny from anybody."
The role of prosecutor happens to suit Brenner far better than that of defendant. When he sets his heart on a particular match he can be a dogged and insistent adversary, wheedling, sulking and threatening until the managers finally relent. Like a poker player bragging about an artful bluff, Brenner was unable to resist telling a newspaperman about the time he approached a manager whose fighter was accustomed to receiving $4,000 a bout. Brenner offered him one for $5,500—correctly anticipating that the manager would routinely ask for time to think it over. When the manager called back later that afternoon to accept, Brenner pretended that he had already found somebody else for the fight he originally had in mind. "But I do have another fight for you," the matchmaker quickly added. "It's only $2,500 if you want to take it." The manager, his previous indecision having taught him a lesson, took it.
It sometimes can be an asset in business to be unpredictable, just to keep the other fellow off balance, and Brenner gives the people he deals with vertigo. "Teddy can be all dripping with honey one minute," says a longtime associate, "and be cold as a latke the next." A couple of days before the Garden's recent Emile Griffith-Kitten Hayward fight, Maxie Shapiro, a pretty fair lightweight three decades ago, stopped by the matchmaker's office for tickets. Sitting down, Shapiro reminisced about the time he was matched with a young opponent everybody described as "inexperienced." It was Sugar Ray Robinson, and he finished off Shapiro in the third round.
Shapiro, now white-haired and 55, chuckled to himself. "I'll tell you why he was inexperienced," he said. "Up to that time he'd knocked everybody out in the first round." Brenner laughed heartily and paced the room, talking animatedly with the former fighter. Pausing by his desk, he suddenly began thumbing through a newspaper distractedly. Then he sat down and doodled on a note pad, rectangles and circles alike. He was utterly lost from the conversation, and Shapiro, at length, got up and left.
If Brenner sometimes seems like a caged cat, it is partly because his office, like those of other Garden boxing personnel, is cramped and windowless. But the simile is apt for another reason: he looks like a lord of the jungle, a solid 6-footer with a penchant for neat color combinations, right down to the pinkie rings he wears, a star ruby one for blue-gray outfits and a gold one, in the shape of a boxing glove with a small diamond in the center, to accompany yellows and browns. When he wears blues even his hair, graying, thinning but with uncanny blue highlights, seems to go with the ensemble.
Arriving at his office one Monday morning, Brenner confided: "I gave away 27 suits over the weekend. I just got tired of them." He soon left, not to return until midafternoon. "Look at these," he said, holding up a strip of assorted fabric swatches, blues and golds, plaids and checks. "I just bought 10 suits." If that left him 17 suits short, he still manages to appear presentable when he goes out in public.
In addition to his matchmaker's role Brenner was recently named vice-president of Madison Square Garden Boxing, Inc., the Garden's wholly owned boxing subsidiary. The new designation came after he approached the Garden's bosses for a $10,000 raise. Instead, Brenner reports, they gave him a $5,000 raise and made him vice-president. At the same time Harry Markson, previously director of the boxing operation, was named president.
Markson comes across as Brenner's precise opposite, a small, sallow man, mild-mannered and slightly rumpled. "Mr. Markson and Mr. Brenner are like night and day, believe me," volunteers Mary, the office switchboard operator. Yet the two men work well together. Markson has ultimate responsibility for the Garden's boxing shows and has to answer to management for profits and losses. He gives Brenner an important voice in areas of general policy and pretty much of a free hand in selecting the fighters and negotiating with them. The elder of the two, as well as the man who hired Brenner, Markson sounds like the permissive father of a gifted son. "Teddy knows boxing," he says. "He's a fine judge of talent and what we should pay for it."
Brenner's $5,000 raise puts his salary somewhere "above $25,000," which may impress Internal Revenue but is hardly a great deal of money for a man given to buying 10 suits at a crack. Some boxing people would have you believe that a man with Brenner's appetites, especially one with a discerning eye for athletic ability, could reap a small fortune placing side bets. "Teddy bets on football and basketball," Markson snitches, "but never on the fights." Ask the matchmaker himself, and there is that wave of the hand and another warning about not believing everything you hear. "When they talk about somebody making a $10,000 bet it's probably really $100 or even $10," he says enigmatically.
Not that Brenner is exactly shy about going into speculative ventures. During his 52 years—or 50, or 49, depending on who wants to know—he has been in business for himself on a number of occasions, both within boxing and outside. And some mornings he has been known to glance at the stock quotations even before turning to the sports page. There are obviously plenty of opportunities for a man to enrich himself. Besides, Brenner buys his suits wholesale.
From his comfortable three-bedroom brick home in Brooklyn, it took Teddy Brenner five minutes to drive one Saturday morning to the Coney Island boardwalk, where he was going out jogging. Having recently quit smoking at the urging of his wife, Judy (the Brenners have two married children, Richard, 26, a resident doctor at Stanford, and Marsha, 22, a French instructor at Berkeley), he loped along the boardwalk at a nice steady pace that would have been unthinkable a few months before. His 1968 Olds Cutlass was parked back at West 4th Street, and Brenner moved over the weathered planks, past the fishermen on Steeplechase Pier and out toward the Half Moon Hotel, where, in 1941, Abe Reles, the Murder, Inc. witness, either fell, jumped or was pushed to his death.
Along the way Brenner passed a figure jogging in the opposite direction, a diminished man of perhaps 60, wearing Bermuda shorts and carrying a briefcase that swung to and fro as he ran. The matchmaker slowed to a walk, breathing heavily. "Reminds me...Central Park...where fighters do...roadwork. There's a colored fellow...runs six miles every morning...with a cigar in his mouth."
Brenner was born in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who worked as a leather cutter and designer. Because of his name, Teddy has sometimes been mistaken for Irish, and to this day he receives mail at the Garden addressed to Terry Brennan, the ex-Notre Dame football coach. Unhappy with a couple of Garden bouts, a writer in The Village Voice recently charged that the choice of fighters was governed by the "dark side of Teddy's Celtic heart."
As a youth Brenner played at just about every sport but boxing, including punchball, stickball and craps, all of which had the virtue on Borough Park's congested turf of requiring limited playing fields. A standout basketball player at James Madison High School, he became friendly with the boxers at Brooklyn's Crystal Gym while hanging around the pool hall in front. But his interest in the world of prizefighting was really kindled by Irving Cohen, a boxing instructor at the Bensonhurst YMHA whom Brenner encountered while playing basketball there in the evenings.
Before long Teddy was accompanying the older man to the fights. "And let me tell you something," Brenner recalls. "You had some choice. Monday night you had St. Nicholas Arena, Tuesday night the Park Arena in the Bronx, Wednesday your choice of three clubs, including the Hippodrome, where Billy Rose produced Jumbo." Brenner glided through the week. "Friday nights," he said with a touch of reverence, "you had the Garden."
On weekends in those days Brenner frequented Stillman's Gym in Manhattan, and he would have spent weekdays there except that he had taken a job after his high school graduation as a shipping clerk and salesman for a Manhattan shirt house. Among the fight crowd at Still-man's, Teddy sometimes was called—literally—the walking encyclopedia, because he learned—and recited—the records of all the fighters. Brenner has always, so far as he can recall, had a retentive memory, and he used it to advantage among the Stillman regulars.
"Somebody would bet me a dollar they could stump me on a fighter," he says. "They'd say. 'In such and such a year Tony Canzoneri fought B.P.' And I'd tell them it was Billy Petrolle in 1932. and I'd pocket the dollar."
The youthful Brenner struck some old-timers as a brash upstart, and there was no doubt that he had a lot to learn. One day Irving Cohen entered the gym with a young zoot-suiter whose hair was combed back in a ducktail. "Get rid of him." Brenner advised his friend. "He doesn't know whether to fight or get a haircut." The man was Rocky Graziano, and Cohen became his manager.
Because of his knowledge of the fighters, promoters had occasionally solicited Brenner's suggestions on matches as far back as those early days at Stillman's. Now, following the war (Brenner was a Seabee for three years), Irving Cohen was matchmaker for a small club in New Brunswick, N.J. but wanted to devote more time to managing Graziano. He turned his New Brunswick chores over to Brenner. "Teddy could match the fighters so evenly that if you had six fights, five would end in draws," recalls Cohen, now retired and living in Hollywood, Fla. Brenner's talent soon brought him other matchmaking jobs, including two separate stints at Manhattan's 3,500-seat St. Nicholas Arena. Because St. Nick's was run by Madison Square Garden, Brenner on each occasion automatically became assistant matchmaker at the Garden, but both tours were terminated by spats with his Garden bosses.
Nowhere was Brenner's uncommon eye for boxing talent displayed to better advantage than on the televised boxing shows of the 1950s. Given the tight requirements of TV scheduling, it was particularly important on such shows to avoid mismatches that would result in quick knockouts. As the matchmaker for Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway Arena, where the Monday night fights were telecast (first by the Du Mont network and later by ABC), Brenner not only avoided mismatches but used Eastern as a showcase for such up-and-coming fighters as Bobo Olson, Gene Fullmer, Walter Cartier and Floyd Patterson. But Eastern Parkway never became known as the "cradle of stars" or anything like that. Instead, an almost uninterrupted string of victories by underdogs gave it the nickname "The House of Upsets."
After ABC dropped its show at Eastern Parkway in 1955, Brenner returned to St. Nick's, where Du Mont was now telecasting its Monday night fights. St. Nick's was no longer affiliated with the Garden, and Brenner this time was promoter as well as matchmaker, with his own money at stake. And so in 1959, when the Garden matchmaking job fell vacant and Harry Markson approached him about the job, Brenner was more than ready to pull up stakes at St. Nick's.
Brenner's most impressive accomplishment at the Garden is that he has survived, his tenure being the longest of any matchmaker in the arena's history. "Let me tell you something," he says. "There have been all those grand jury investigations and district attorneys looking into boxing, and everybody else in boxing has been called down to Washington. But I've never even been called to testify anywhere. If they had anything on me, don't you think they'd use it? Well, there was that one grand jury in Chicago that subpoenaed me, but that didn't amount to anything. I went there for 20 minutes."
Teddy Brenner could hardly have lasted in his present job, and the same goes for Harry Markson, unless the Garden's boxing operation was paying its own way. In better times Madison Square Garden staged some 30 boxing shows a year in its own arena, another 35 or so at St. Nicholas Arena and an occasional super attraction at Yankee Stadium or some other outdoor setting. Today there are barely 35 shows, all told, a dozen of them in the new building's 20,000-seat main arena and the rest in the 5,000-seat Felt Forum. It is a rousing success to break even on a show in the Forum, which Markson calls an "incubator" for promising fighters, and the results are sometimes little better in the arena.
The boxing operation nevertheless manages to show an end-of-the-year profit, although the Garden's financial statements do not disclose, and Markson will not say, just how much of one. In any case, the key to staying in the black is the fact that all it takes to offset a lot of losing shows is a big success or two. One such success was the doubleheader that opened the new Garden on March 4, 1968, featuring two title bouts, Nino Benvenuti-Emile Griffith and Joe Frazier-Buster Mathis. That particular card drew a live gate of $658,503, which is a record for an indoor show.
Everybody in boxing will unblushingly tell you that a bout between a good black fighter and a good white one still makes for big box office, especially in the heavyweight division. For that and other reasons, it required no gift of matchmaking genius to conceive of the artistic and financial possibilities of pairing such brave-bull opponents as Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry. Where the genius came in, to hear Brenner tell it, was in the negotiations that brought the two fighters together.
In dealing with Quarry, says Brenner, "the problem was in selling him on the idea of fighting the greatest offensive heavyweight around. With Frazier it was a different problem. He would rather have fought Jimmy Ellis, to clear up the heavyweight situation. The convincer was one thing, M-O-N-E-Y. A quarter of a million dollars. Frazier's manager, I love him. He gets right down to the nitty gritty: 'Talk money and I'll listen.' Besides, Frazier likes to stick with Madison Square Garden because, he says, 'That Teddy Brenner, he helped get me where I am.' With some guys it's always, 'What have you done for me lately?' "
Frazier is not the only fighter who owes his success to Brenner, according to Teddy's own scorecard. Harking back to his days at Eastern Parkway and St. Nicholas Arena, Brenner says that in his capacity as matchmaker he "discovered" Tommy (Hurricane) Jackson, "introduced" Gene Fullmer and "nurtured" Joey Giardello. In making such claims Brenner employs his verbs interchangeably so that he may actually have nurtured Fullmer, introduced Jackson and so forth.
When it comes to judging winning form a matchmaker probably has an even tougher job than a horse trader, who at least has Thoroughbred bloodlines to go by. In horse racing Reigh Count won the Kentucky Derby, and his son Count Fleet and grandson Count Turf did likewise. In boxing Gene Tunney won the heavyweight title, and his son John was elected to Congress. Instead of studying pedigrees, the matchmaker has to keep individual images of countless fighters etched indelibly on his memory. And he must be able to graft any two of them onto the same image to picture them fighting each other. Brenner is said to have that turn of mind, probably not unlike that of a master chess player, that lends itself to subtle exercises of mental projection.
"Teddy will match a guy you wouldn't think had a chance against another," says onetime Fight Manager Marv Jensen, who remains an admirer despite Brenner's negative first reaction to Jensen's espousal of the cause of Gene Fullmer. "But he knows different. He knows this guy has a style or an asset that will offset advantages of the other guy. And he also knows the drawing power of the fighters. He can predict within a few dollars what a match will draw. He knows the heartbeat of a fighter—and the fight fan."
As the onetime proprietor of the House of Upsets, Brenner also knows the fan appeal of closely matched, unpredictable bouts. He openly prides himself on being able to lull favorites into overconfidence and to fire up underdogs with visions of victory, but he says he does all this merely for the sake of making the match. "Whenever there's an upset they always say, 'That Brenner must know something.' Well, let me tell you something. All the matchmaker can do is suggest the fight. It's the manager who says yes or no." Brenner also insists that he would never move a young and promising fighter into tough bouts before he was ready. One who begs to differ is Cus D'Amato, former manager of Floyd Patterson. "Brenner may make fights that the fans want to see," says D'Amato, "but he doesn't care which fighters get hurt in the process. He'll destroy a guy for a single fight. He's the kind of businessman who only worries about the present, but doesn't worry about protecting his investment for the future."
When D'Amato had Patterson on the way up, Brenner booked Floyd into Eastern Parkway no fewer than 13 times, with Patterson winning 12 of the bouts. Today D'Amato in one breath accuses Brenner of unsuccessfully trying to destroy Patterson while admitting in the next breath that he himself personally approved each of his fighter's 13 bouts. For his part, Brenner claims full credit for discovering—or nurturing, or introducing—Patterson, yet he then turns around and dismisses him as a "second-rate champion." If the Garden management wants another moneymaking attraction, it could do worse than book D'Amato and Brenner for an exhibition in mental gymnastics.
It is Promoter Aileen Eaton and her matchmaker Mickey Davies on the West Coast and the Brenner-Markson team in the East who have, more than anyone, kept boxing alive in recent years. The sport languishes almost everywhere else, with shows held occasionally, if at all, and the lack of action has a demoralizing effect on some fight people, Teddy Brenner among them. It is a rather hollow distinction to be a major league operator if there are no minor leagues, and Brenner sometimes likes to give the impression that the daily crises he endures in the course of his work are no longer worth the bother.
On the wall of his office is a framed newspaper clipping that he points to as an example both of the kinds of challenges he faces and of the kinds of responses he is routinely capable of making. It recounts the time that Doug Jones threatened to pull out of his scheduled 1963 fight in the Garden with Cassius Clay unless Brenner came up with some additional free tickets for him.
"Let me tell you something, Doug, my boy," Brenner told the fighter. "If you don't show up, Clay can shadowbox three rounds, recite poetry for 10 minutes and everybody will have a ball and go home happy. But if Clay doesn't show up, we can announce that you're going to fight a live gorilla and we'll have a riot from people demanding their money back."
His face a mask of weary forbearance, Brenner complains: "You get tired after a while of the way people are in this business. For example, they're always calling you up at 4 in the morning at home. Does a ballplayer bother his manager at 4 in the morning and say, 'Why did you send in a pinch hitter for me today?' But these guys call me up and say, 'Who do I have to see and who do I have to know?' Well, they have to see me, and they have to know me, but let me tell you something. They can see me at my office in the morning."
If they had stopped by one particular morning not long ago they would have found the matchmaker, his back to the door, hunched forward in front of an illuminated fish tank that occupies a corner of his office. "That's a smart fish, that blue one," he said over his shoulder. "Eats all the other fish, then hides behind the rocks when I get near." In one hand was a small net, which Brenner held along his side, as if to keep the fish from seeing it.
Sometimes in boxing's murky waters it requires no less stealth to make a match, and the matchmaker of Madison Square had better keep that net handy. "In matchmaking," Teddy Brenner says as he builds toward what, for a successful businessman, must amount to a painful confession, an expurgation even, "the art is to suggest a match and then show the fighter how he can win. If he loses, you can always say he didn't listen." And doesn't one fighter always lose? "Let's face it," Brenner shrugs, "it's a bit of a con."