Harry Kabakoff doesn't work the corners much anymore. He's carried too many hopes into the ring: carried out too many fighters. "I've put more kids on a bus back to Mexico than the Immigration Service," he says. Kabakoff, a Los Angeles fight manager, is an ex-bantamweight who came into the world as Melville Himmelfarb, and is now 49, balding, and far more than half as round (50 inches) as he is tall (77 inches). Not that all of his warriors have been stiffs. Hardly. He had, for example, Jesus Pimentel, a kid with a grin as dazzling as his left hook, and only promotional politics and, finally, age kept him from being a champion. And he had Tury Pineda, who twice beat up on Guts Ishimatsu, then the WBC lightweight champion, but in the wrong place—Tokyo. The first fight was ruled a draw; the second they gave to Ishimatsu. "They kept smiling and bowing and robbing us," snarls Kabakoff, bowing and smiling. Well, trying to bow.
And at the moment, Kabakoff has Vicente Saldivar, a lightweight from the mold of Willie Pep, and Mando Muniz, a brawling welterweight with a master's degree in education, and either or both could be a world champion before spring. Muniz is scheduled to fight Carlos Palomino, the WBC champion, on Jan. 22 at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles; Saldivar is close to a March fight with Esteban DeJesus. With people like that, plus a few other fast-rising contenders in his stable of 60 to 70 fighters—almost all of them Mexicans—in other years it would have been impossible to keep Kabakoff from leading his own parade down Wilshire Boulevard. While the Mad Russian's eternal optimism flares as high as ever privately, years of handling boxers like Chango Cruz, a recent import from Mexico, have at last made him publicly cautious.
"That bum destroyed my image," roars Kabakoff, who just a month or so ago was telling people that Cruz was the greatest fighter to come out of Mexico since Pancho Villa. "The next time you see me working a corner you'll know my guy has got to be at least a 4-to-1 favorite."
A few months ago Saldivar spotted Cruz fighting in a small arena in Duran-go, Mexico. "You should see this kid." Saldivar told Kabakoff. "He's a great featherweight. He hits like a middleweight. You better grab him quick before somebody else does. He's had nine fights, lost only one—and that was on cuts—and right now I think he could beat Gerardo Aceves." One of the world's finer featherweights, Aceves had a record of 23-1.
"Tell Cruz to get on a bus to Mexicali right away," yelled Kabakoff, and he rushed off to see Vic Weiss, one of his partners. Kabakoff surrounds himself with partners. "I have a financial need to be in business with wealthy men," he says. He has been known to check a prospective partner's financial statement. Weiss and his partner, Jerry Cutter, own large and lucrative Ford and Rolls-Royce agencies in California and Hawaii. Weiss, an ex-college and All-Marine football player, was ecstatic when he was told about Cruz.
"Let's go and get him fast," he told Kabakoff. Then Weiss called Cutter and told him the good news.
Cruz came to Mexicali, where he spent 10 days waiting for a visa and being observed by Pimentel, who years ago fell easily into a father-son relationship with Kabakoff. Pimentel's last son is named Melville. "And he's not going to be a fighter," says Pimentel.
"If I have my way," says Kabakoff. "Melville Pimentel is gonna be a rabbi."
Almost daily. Pimentel phoned Kabakoff with reports on Cruz. All were the same: strong, good puncher, powerful legs. And ugly.
"God, is he ugly," says Kabakoff. "He makes Pineda look like Rock Hudson, and Pineda looks like Dracula."
Weiss says, "When this Cruz was born he was so ugly the doctor slapped his mother."
Rumors began circulating in Los Angeles about Kabakoff's latest tiger. Twice he was signed for fights; twice the other fighters heard the latest rumor about his ferocity and dropped out. Finally. Frankie Baltazar Jr., a southpaw with just six professional fights, said he needed the money and he would take on Cruz.
When Cruz finally arrived in L.A. Kabakoff and Weiss quickly signed him to a five-year contract and then rushed him off to the Bank of America, where they opened a savings account for him.
"With the shaky peso situation, I told him he'd be better off leaving his money here," Weiss said. "I told him the president of the Bank of America was a close friend, and when he needed money just to call him and he'd have it sent to Mexico." Weiss looked at Kabakoff and grinned. "I think we also mentioned something about a new car."
Kabakoff nodded. "Yeah, we always mention a new car."
The night of the Baltazar fight arrived. Kabakoff and Weiss urged all their friends to make bets. The fight was televised, and Kabakoff and Weiss were both there in the ring, taking bows. "I hope he don't kill Baltazar," Kabakoff said.
Baltazar lived. He stopped Cruz in the eighth round on cuts.
"The bum was up and down so many times I thought he was an Otis elevator," said Kabakoff. "We figured he was just a slow starter. He kept coming back to the corner and saying he was slipping."
"He was," said Weiss. "In his own blood."
"By the fourth round he had these lumps all over his head," Kabakoff said. "Now he looks like Quasimodo. Finally, in the eighth round his face splits open and they stop the fight. We gave him the whole purse, our end and everything, and sent him back to Mexico. We told him we'd give him another chance."
"Yeah," said Weiss.
That night Cutter called Weiss from Honolulu. "How did our tiger do?"
"TKO in the eighth round."
"It took him that long?"
"Yeah. To lose."
Melville Himmelfarb was born on Friday the 13th, in July 1927, in St. Louis. The day was one of the hottest and muggiest anyone could remember. Melville's father, Sam, out of Whitechapel, London, drove a bread truck. Before that, Sam Himmelfarb had ridden with the U.S. cavalry on the Mexican border, mostly discouraging wetbacks. "Little did he know that his son would grow up wishing he had been born in Mexico," Kabakoff said.
Melville's mother, born Stella Kabakoff, was from a small village 20 kilometers outside of Minsk. Her family moved to England, then to the U.S. They were turned back at Ellis Island on their first try because Stella's brother Harry was discovered to have pink eye. They went to Canada and later slipped across the border. Stella is now a naturalized American citizen.
Known as the Ghetto Ghost, her brother Harry fought the top bantam and featherweights from 1914 until 1930. After amassing a fortune in California real estate, he died in 1975.
"That's all I heard about when I was growing up—the Ghetto Ghost," Kabakoff said. "So when I took up boxing I took his name. He never give me a dime. And the name didn't help me none either."
Kabakoff's early years were spent on Biddle Street, a gangster-ridden area in downtown St. Louis where Harry's grandfather was a butcher. Later, the family moved to The Hill, where he grew up as the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of Yogi Berras and Joe Garagiolas.
"My first love was baseball," Kabakoff says. "I played against Joe and Yogi. At second base. But I was too small. Later, someone wrote, 'Yogi went to the Yankees, Garagiola went to the Cardinals and Kabakoff went to the Browns—as a bat boy.' But I was with a winner. I was the bat boy for the visiting teams. You could say I played second for the Browns. Who's gonna remember who played for them bums?"
After that, the saga of Harry Kabakoff ricochets betweeen St. Louis and Los Angeles. He went to eight different schools, was bounced from them all. "I had fast hands and a fast mouth. One or the other always had me in hot water."
At 16 he paused long enough in a small town in Arkansas to get a local belle in a family way. Doing the honorable thing. Kabakoff carried her across the border into Mexico, where they were married. When he returned to Arkansas, the girl's father convinced Harry that the honorable thing to do was to get an annulment and then run for his life.
"I also got a 26-year-old son named Carlos in Mexico," Kabakoff said. "He's a double for me. So if you ever run into a 5'7", 275-pound blue-eyed Mexican who's balding and looks Jewish...."
In 1944 Kabakoff went into the Navy. He became a cook-baker with the rating of Seaman 1/c and was assigned to minesweepers. When he was discharged in late 1947, he was still cooking and baking, but had been broken to Seaman 2/c.
"All because of a lousy ham," Kabakoff said. It happened one night during a crap game in the galley. Some of the crew decided the game had made them hungry for ham sandwiches. Unfortunately, the only ham Kabakoff knew of was in the admiral's private locker on the U.S.S. Terror. Soon the crew was eating ham sandwiches. But someone told the admiral, who had Kabakoff reduced in rank and fined $50. "I still remember the charge of the court martial," Kabakoff said. "It was for pilfering the admiral's pantry."
Kabakoff's amateur and professional boxing careers, which he somehow managed to run concurrently, were undistinguished. As an amateur, Mel Himmel won 40 of 47; as a pro, Harry Kabakoff won six, lost seven and had two draws. For his 15 professional fights, he had 10 managers.
Why so many managers? "Too many 'gets,' " said Harry. "First I'd get an advance, then I'd get pneumonia, then I'd get out of town. I had no trouble getting a new manager. In the gym I was beautiful. I looked like Barney Ross. I just never went to the gym too much. All my fights, I win the first round. After that I looked like a guy with emphysema."
Kabakoff even made a comeback. It was close to Christmas, and as usual he needed the money. "I always needed the money. It was in Tucson, and by the fifth round I decided to hell with it. The other guy throws a punch which is a powder puff, and I go over on my back. Then I hear some broad say, 'My God, I think he is dead.' I have to roll over on my stomach, I am laughing so hard."
Retiring for the last time, Kabakoff set up a permanent base in the old Main Street gym in Los Angeles, where he slept nights on a rubbing table and spent his days learning from the masters. He became an excellent trainer and cornerman. In time, some of the country's top managers began sending him to training camps to prepare their fighters for bouts, even sending him overseas for fights they couldn't get to themselves. He worked with 14 champions, including Floyd Patterson, Ezzard Charles, Davey Moore, Johnny Saxton and James Carter. Kid Gavilan had him in his corner for all of his California fights.
"Camp was great because everyone ate good there," said Kabakoff, who began doubling as cook and baker. "The first big fighter they gave me was Willie Bean. He fought Clarence Henry, either 1949 or 1950, and they drew a $25,000 gate. I made $60. But I was happy, I had eaten good."
His skills as a cut man became legendary. "I can close any cut that ain't a total beheading in just 50 seconds. A guy could come back with his eyeball hanging out of the socket and I'd have it back in and have the guy reading the small print on a dollar bill at 100 yards in less than a minute. I shoulda been a surgeon."
In the early '50s Kabakoff took out his manager's license. His first fighter of note was Eddie Rodriguez, whom he baptized the Little Hawk. Kabakoff always baptizes his fighters. His next good one was Don Jordan, whom he instantly turned into an Indian. Some said Kabakoff was only a front man for Babe McCoy, the California boxing czar later banned from the sport.
"Bull," growled Kabakoff. "I borrowed $1,000 from Bob Nunes, a movie producer, to buy Jordan. Then some guys stole him from me. I loved him, but he was a bad kid, always drinking wine, smoking pot. All he ever wanted to be was a gangster. When they stole him they gave me $900. That's all I could prove that he owed me. Eight fights later he wins the title and is making $50,000 a fight. I was sick. This is a dirty, nasty business with a lot of political intrigue. I think I'm sharp, but there are a lot of people sharper. That's why I've never been on top. What the hell. A lot of people look upon me like some kind of court jester. I make them laugh until they cry. It's a gift. The dogs eat the dogs, but once in a while I get a laugh. A lot of people never even have that."
A scuffler from birth, Kabakoff seemingly has never developed any measure of respect for money. What he makes he either lends or gives away. Usually to his fighters. He seldom cuts a fighter's purse until it passes $2,000, and few ever get that far. And when he does make a dollar, it is often spent on gifts for friends.
"He's just too soft-hearted for the business," says Aileen Eaton, the Olympic Auditorium promoter. "Not cutting a purse is the least of it. Even after they retire, or when they are between fights, he keeps on giving them money. He's 1,000% loyal to friends. I have to fight with him to keep him from giving me expensive jewelry. Because of the movies, people think managers are some kind of monsters. They should know Harry."
Don Chargin, the Olympic Auditorium matchmaker, who has known Kabakoff for 30 years, long ago gave up trying to curtail his generosity. "He'll bring some young kid up from Mexico," says Chargin, "and when the kid gets off the bus he'll look a little tattered. The first thing Harry does is put him in a new $100 suit, slip some money in his pocket and feed him. And that's before the kid has even fought a four-round prelim. He just gives away everything he's got. Everything."
In the late 1950s, Julian Velasquez, a Kabakoff fighter, was injured in a bout, needed brain surgery and almost died. Kabakoff turned in his manager's license.
"I was sick with Julian night and day," Kabakoff remembers. "I've never been much for prayer, but when you're in trouble, what else is there? I lived on my knees. I nursed that kid until he recovered. Suddenly, boxing seemed like a dirty blood business and I wanted no more of it. I hustled other things. Finally, I opened a bar. Then another. A beer and wine joint. A strip joint. Then another beer and wine joint. If them bums hadn't stole me blind, I'd probably still be running a bar."
Disenchanted with bartenders as a whole, Kabakoff made a trip to Mexicali, where a friend, local promoter Nick Rodriguez, wanted him to work overseas with one of his fighters. There Kabakoff met Jesus Pimentel, who was pumping gas at a station owned by Rodriguez.
Pimentel had tried his hand at boxing earlier, but without a competent trainer and teacher, he had given up. Years earlier, Pimentel, his father and mother, his eight sisters and brothers and their families had crossed the Mexican border on their stomachs. They had crawled along a railroad track to a spot near San Ysidro, from where an uncle drove them to Los Angeles. A few years later, after Jesus had learned to speak English and become a New York Yankee fan, the family's illegal entry was discovered and they were sent back to Mexico. That was in 1958.
"Then I met Harry," Pimentel says with a great smile. "Right off I didn't like him. He couldn't speak Spanish then and he had this great mustache. I thought he was a Mexican-American making believe he was something else."
Kabakoff remembers, "I wasn't fat then and I had let the hair grow on my lip to cover up this big ugly wart. I guess I did look like a Mexican. I couldn't figure out why the kid didn't like me. How'd I know he thought I was a Pancho? I hadn't learned Spanish yet and Rodriguez couldn't speak English. We used Pimentel as our interpreter."
Then one day Kabakoff saw Pimentel working out in a gym and offered to take him north.
"Aw, you don't want him," Rodriguez said. "He likes baseball. And he smokes. Besides, he don't like you too much."
Quickly, Kabakoff convinced Pimentel that he was a Russian Jew, and to give up smoking. Under Kabakoff's careful guidance Pimentel, baptized Little Poison, won 42 of 43 fights, 39 of them by knockouts. By 1964 he had become the No. 1 bantam challenger, but the way had been long and painful.
"A lot of times there was only enough for one to eat, so Harry would go hungry," said Pimentel, tears forming in his large and soft dark eyes. "We'd get one room and Harry would make me take the bed. He'd sleep on the floor."
Their big chance came in 1964. Pimentel was signed to meet Fighting Harada, another top-ranked challenger. Then Pimentel developed stomach trouble and the fight was postponed.
"They really stiffed us after that," Kabakoff said. "They made the second match too soon. I told them that. Pimentel was still sick. No way we could fight."
Pimentel and Kabakoff were suspended in California. The fighter went home to Mexico, with a huge knot in his stomach. California doctors had given up on his case. All tests had come back negative. The villagers in Mexicali took one look at Pimentel and diagnosed his problem as an ancient Mexican affliction called empacho.
According to legend, an empacho develops when food in the stomach turns into an immovable ball. The first cure tried was a calf's hoof burned to charcoal. Pimentel ate the dust. Then he drank pottery paint mixed with honey. And a consommé of boiled weeds.
"Nothing worked," Kabakoff said. "Then someone recommended this old Indian lady who was a super empacho curer. We went. She tells Jesus to take off his shirt and lay on his stomach. She starts pulling the skin on his back. She pinched and pulled, and when she gets to the spine we hear this snap. She had hit the jackpot. The empacho was gone. I told Jesus that was because the damn thing wasn't in his stomach but in his head."
Cured, Pimentel was offered a fight in San Antonio against Eder Jofre, the champion. The promoter was a Texan, but to this day Kabakoff insists that George Parnassus, a Los Angeles promoter who handled Jofre, set up the fight. Jofre was to get $40,000; Pimentel $15,000 plus $5,000 for radio rights back to Mexico.
"I told Parnassus that San Antonio hadn't drawn $25,000 for a fight in its history," Kabakoff said. "It didn't make any sense. The whole thing was a setup. Jofre weighed 140 pounds and couldn't have made the weight if they cut off one of his legs. Everybody but me knew it. Then his manager, Abe Katzenelson, comes to me and says there's no money in the bank, no advance sale, and he's worried. I go nuts and start screaming. The fight is called off and I get blamed. And suspended. Now we are suspended by everybody everywhere except in Mexico. Beautiful. Now I am not a vindictive person and I would never wish for someone to drop dead. But I did pray a little that a few people would spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung."
For Kabakoff and Pimentel it was back to the tank towns of Mexico. Years passed. Time and apologies got the suspensions lifted. Pimentel's fists took care of the rest. By 1971 the gentle little Mexican with the frowsy black hair and the broad smile had amassed 77 victories in 83 fights, with 70 knockouts. Once again he was ranked the No. 1 contender. He was 31 years old.
Kabakoff fingered the gold-and-diamond religious charm he wears on a gold chain around his neck. "Jesse and me went through some hard times," he said. "I had this in hock more than I wore it. But we held on. I guess when Jesse got to be 31, Parnassus decided to go for the jugular. He figured Jesse was too old to beat Ruben Olivares, then the champion, and we got a title fight. But I made that old Greek sweat first. Then I heard he had offered Ruben a $5,000 bonus if he knocked Jesse out in the first round, an LTD if he did it by the fifth."
They fought on Dec. 14, 1971. Olivares, a 5-to-l favorite, came out booming big hooks, but Pimentel held his own with a stinging jab and a smashing right to the head. At the end of the round, Kabakoff leaped out of the corner, ran over to Parnassus and screamed, "You ought to give him the five grand anyway!"
In the third round, Olivares suffered a cut over his left eye; in the next, he sagged under a hook to the jaw. In the fifth, a hook sent Pimentel crashing out of the ring, but he bounced back in. At the end of the round, Kabakoff again rushed Parnassus, this time screaming, "You oughta give him the new car anyway!"
But time had caught up to Pimentel. Except for one brief flurry in the eighth, the rest of the fight belonged to the 24-year-old champion. At the end of the 11th round, after Pimentel had been battered savagely, Kabakoff leaped into the ring and yelled, "Ruben, you're still the champion."
"Five years earlier and Olivares wouldn't have lasted two rounds," Kabakoff said later. He gathered up the $25,000 purse, put it in Pimentel's wallet and watched sadly as the little bantamweight walked away into retirement.
"Title or not, my son was the best bantamweight ever," Kabakoff said.
While rebuilding his stable, looking for a new star, Kabakoff divided his time between Los Angeles and a small ranch he had leased near Heber, Calif. It is on the border; Pimentel and his family live just on the other side.
"A lot of days Jesse would bring his oldest boy over to stay with me," said Kabakoff. "I lived for those times. During the day I'd cook something for Jesse to take home to his family. Night was bad. I was alone. I hated the lousy TV set. I had my dog. I've always had a dog, always a Pekingese. I call them my daughters. I had no one else, nothing else. Some nights were very long. The manager is supposed to have it good; the fighter, bad. But I'd sit there thinking of Jesse home with his family and me sitting there alone."
Kabakoff's dark mood passed. "Shoot, no one ever had it as good as me," he said. "I'm happy. Now I've got Saldivar. I've got Muniz. We're going to bring Pineda back. The last few years haven't been too good. But this year, this year is mine. With any luck I'll have—me and my partners will have—two champions before spring. And if not them, hell, there's always someone else you can find and try with."