Not long ago a boxing manager named George Kanter, a droll, myopic man of 61 with a generous nose and a non-assertive way about him, crouched beside a ring that had been set up in the Marion (Ohio) Correctional Institution. He wore an elegant ascot of Italian silk beneath his shirt, and each time his fighter jabbed he called out, "Again, again," pronouncing it to rhyme with pain. He might have used another word, or worn other accessories had he wanted to stand out more than he did against the background of rough men in denim and ID badges. For example, he might have shouted, "Fire!" or donned a Sioux war bonnet.
George Kanter had come a long way to that boxing ring—all the way from Harrow, the storied English boys' school where he studied 47 years ago, and which numbers among its alumni seven British prime ministers, including Winston Churchill. The penitentiary at Marion has only one renowned alumnus, Don King, the boxing impresario.
On this day King was staging a quarterfinal round of his United States Boxing Championships at his alma mater. He could not stop grinning and slapping backs, and he seemed as one with the inmates. Not George Kanter. The inmates regarded him much as a trout might regard a bird; it sees a shadow from another world.
That is the story of Kanter's life—contrasts and improbabilities. It is Harrow and Marion. It is his relationship with Don King, a rare match, Kanter digging deeply into his meager ration of hip American idiom to call King "a dynamite man," and King, never at a loss for words of any kind, saying, "George Kanter is my foreign representative. I want to rule the world, and I figure with George I've got a good shot at Europe." It is New York boxing trainer Paddy Flood, a dead-end kid grown up, with his shirt open halfway to his waist, looking in wonder at Kanter in his Pierre Cardin suit, calling him "Mr. Debonair," shaking his head and saying, "George is everything in boxing. He's a trainer, a promoter, a manager, a psychologist.... My God, I don't know what he is."
April 4, 1977
Forty years ago Kanter's father was a wealthy manufacturer of women's gloves in Brussels—"A snob," Kanter says—who wanted his son to take over the business and to maintain the family's high social standing. The boxing scene horrified him, and when he would tell his son, "I didn't send you to Harrow for this," George would say what he has said ever since, "Well, gloves are gloves."
In recent months boxing in this country has risen like Lazarus. There is Don King's tournament, and there are the World Television Championships, run by Henry Schwartz and Don Elbaum. Kanter has found little-known talent for both, for example Kenny Weldon, the lightweight he had at Marion, who acquitted himself well in a loss to Ruben Castillo, and who later complained he had to give Kanter a substantial part of his $7,500 purse to get the fight (see SCORECARD).
But Kanter's principal business is his traffic with Europe. For 28 years he has brought its boxers to the U.S., and for the last 10 he has sent U.S. boxers to Europe, an average of 65 a year. Recently he began calling himself "The International Boxing Entrepreneur." That started after he brought Belgium's Jean-Pierre Coopman—"my latest masterpiece"—to Puerto Rico, where Muhammad Ali knocked him out in the fifth round.
If Kanter is often the butt of his own jokes, Coopman was the butt of the world's. As Kanter put it, "The occasion was too big for him. He froze." That the fight made some money for King is in part a tribute to Kanter—after all, he had seen Coopman fight.
The fight was no sooner announced than Coopman was saying, "I feel beaten from the start." He met Ali at a New York press conference and seemed smitten, smiling and winking at the man the world was waiting to see him fight. Kanter told Coopman that sort of behavior would have to stop. Coopman speaks only Flemish, and Kanter posed the reporters' questions, in French, to Coopman's manager, who would query Coopman in Flemish. Ten minutes later Kanter would get the answer in French. ("Do you think you can win?" "I don't know.")
In Puerto Rico Kanter tried a more imaginative tack. He posed the questions to Coopman in French, and from the mumbled replies gave the world's press answers like, "The fight will not go 15 rounds. Ali is no longer capable of matching my pace."
Kanter took over as Coopman's trainer, but Kanter couldn't fight Coopman's sparring partners for him. One day a Puerto Rican middleweight landed a good punch to the Belgian's belly and Coopman's knees wobbled. Kanter leaped into the ring, stepped between the fighters and yelled, "That's it! You're too sharp already. Let's not leave the fight in the gym."
Kanter then went to the Puerto Rican boxing commission and demanded that neutral officials—no Europeans or Americans—be assigned to the fight. A public relations man who was there says, "The reporters saw that he was serious, and some even began giving Coopman a chance. Kanter would say to them, 'He's been working too hard, so I told him to take it easy, not to show anything.' Jean-Pierre had nothing to show, but who knew it? He had a good record, and no one but Kanter had ever seen him fight. The boxing guys figured, 'Kanter's trying to pull a shrewdie here.' He even had Ali worried, working harder than he had to."
Not everyone was fooled, of course—not Paddy Flood, who thinks Kanter is "everything," and not only in boxing. "Most guys in our business are rough and street-wise," Flood says, "but George is Continental and debonair." With good reason. After Harrow, Kanter went on to mingle with the Earl of Warwick and Viscount Selby at Switzerland's Chillon College, graduating in 1937 with a degree in business. He went to work for his father and did some jumping in horse shows. That was the family sport; Kanter's sister Yvonne was European champion in the late '30s. But Kanter's hero was a Frenchman named Marcel Thil, the world middleweight boxing champion. Kanter had not been a strong boy—he did not have the stamina for soccer—but he had boxed since the age of seven. "Strictly scientifically," he says. "When the going got rough I had good footwork."
When it got very rough he had great footwork. On May 10, 1940, Hitler invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, and the Kanter family fled. George rode in the rumble seat of their Packard convertible, diving into ditches when Stukas strafed the roads. His father had a showroom in New York, and he spent two more years there in the glove business. But after the war many European boxers were coming to this country, and Kanter decided he could make a living bringing them over. In July of 1948 Marcel Cerdan was getting ready for a September title fight with middleweight champion Tony Zale. Cerdan had just reversed a May loss to his countryman Cyrille Delannoit, managed by Fernand Premont, then Kanter's closest friend in boxing. Kanter was sitting in Boston's Touraine Hotel on a weekly sales trip, reading about Cerdan, when suddenly he had an idea. He dashed down the stairs and ran across the street to a Western Union office, where he cabled Premont and asked to represent him in this country.
Premont wired back, "O.K., make me a proposition." Kanter went to Madison Square Garden and told promoter Sol Strauss, "Eve got the guy who beat Cerdan," and he asked for a fight. Strauss suggested Sugar Ray Robinson and said, "We'll murder Zale-Cerdan at the gate." But at the last minute Premont backed off—Kanter says he was afraid to leave his young wife—and Kanter felt his incipient boxing career was over.
Cerdan dominated the boxing news that fall by knocking out Zale to win the middleweight title. But Strauss did tell Kanter, "I like you, young man, and I want to see you in boxing." He mentioned another French middleweight, Robert Villemain, who had a 32-0-1 record, and he asked if Kanter could get him to fight Jake La Motta, then ranked No. 5. "No problem," Kanter said. "His manager is my best friend." But he did not even know the man's name. So he sent a telegram to the Paris newspaper France-Soir, addressed "To The Manager of Robert Villemain," giving his New York phone number. France-Soir called the manager, Jean Bretonnel, and five days later Bretonnel phoned Kanter from Paris and said, yes, he was interested.
Kanter made the match for Jan. 7, 1949, in Madison Square Garden, but in December La Motta suffered a cut eye in training and Steve Belloise of New York fought in his place, winning a 10-round decision, Villemain's first loss. Nevertheless, Kanter's career as an international boxing figure had begun. He was 33 years old, and that year he all but inundated the U.S. with French boxers. Villemain lost a decision to Jake La Motta when his cut healed, and in June La Motta knocked out Cerdan to win the middleweight title. A rematch was set for September, but La Motta strained a shoulder muscle and the fight was put off to Dec. 2. Cerdan went back to France, saying, "I win the title back or I die." On Oct. 28, as Cerdan was returning to New York, his plane crashed in the Azores, killing everyone aboard. La Motta fought Villemain instead, though not for the championship, and lost.
After the fight, Edith Piaf, who had been Cerdan's mistress, called Villemain's dressing room to invite him, his wife, Bretonnel and Kanter to her late-evening performance at the Versailles, a famous New York nightclub of the day. Kanter says, "In her woman's mind she blamed La Motta for Cerdan's death," and in her dressing room she embraced Villemain, thanking him and weeping. She sent champagne to the boxer's table, and she stood there in the spotlight, singing La Vie en Rose. It was the most dramatic moment of Kanter's boxing career. He recalls, "We celebrated our victory in a very melancholy mood."
Kanter was learning how to create interesting fights by matching opponents with complementary styles. In 1954 he engineered what one boxing writer called "the three greatest upsets in one week in boxing history." On Friday night, May 14, Kanter replaced an injured fighter with Jacques Royer against Ralph (Tiger) Jones. The papers derided the bout as a mismatch, but Royer won on points. The following Monday Kanter's fighter, an Algerian lightweight named Hocine Khalfi, was an 8-to-1 underdog against Sandy Saddler at New York's St. Nicholas Arena. Khalfi won a decision. That Friday Kanter had another Frenchman, Pierre Langlois, in with Joey Giardello, a future middleweight champion. Langlois knocked him down and went on to win a decision.
George Kanter's career was going well now, but there was trouble on the horizon. For nearly 40 years Madison Square Garden had been the pinnacle of the boxing world. But in 1959 Teddy Brenner took over as matchmaker and the Garden changed. He had been one of the world's great matchmakers at Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway and at St. Nicholas Arena. In the Garden, Kanter says, Brenner kept using the same fighters, and he showed no interest in foreign talent; Brenner maintains there was no more foreign talent. The only promoter consistently using foreign fighters was Los Angeles' George Parnassus, and they were Mexicans. Kanter's vie lost its rose. But gloves were still gloves, and he went back to selling them.
He still kept one foot in the ring, however, and in 1970 he booked a French fighter in the Garden. His name was Marcel Cerdan Jr., and his opponent was Canada's Donato Paduano. Kanter got $40,000 for Cerdan, an incredible sum for an unranked welterweight. Brenner called it "a holdup." Kanter said, "It's been seven long years." And though Kanter is not an overly sentimental man, he watched the son and saw the father. His eyes betrayed him; young Cerdan lost a decision to Paduano.
But Kanter was in business again. One of the American managers who now deals with him is Harlan Haas, a Texan, who says, "I don't have time to call a dozen boxing people in Europe, so I need one man I can trust. Now I've got George Kanter. He knows the business over there, and he cares about the fighters he works with."
Last fall Kanter called Haas and said, "I need a middleweight for Jean Mateo in Paris, a stand-up guy, not a runner." Haas suggested Willie Warren, a 30-year-old welder from Corpus Christi who rarely made $1,000 for a fight.
Kanter got Warren $2,000, and though he lost a close decision, many French sportswriters thought he had won. A group of fans carried him off on their shoulders. Says Kanter, "I never saw that in Paris before." Two months later he got Warren $3,000 for a fight with Benny Briscoe, then the No. 2 middleweight in the world. Warren got a draw. Kanter next found Warren a slot in the Schwartz-Elbaum tournament at Kansas City, for a purse of $10,000. Harlan Haas says, "Willie was going nowhere and George Kanter resurrected him."
These days George Kanter's alarm clock goes off at 6:30 a.m., but it is already 12:30 p.m. in France, and his phone begins to ring. "Hello, Kanter?" a caller said one recent morning. "This is Marcelin Martin in Marseilles. Have you any ideas for a show at the Palais des Sports?" Kanter tells him, "I'm thinking of going to Australia for Tony Mundine. He's very big in France. Maybe I'll put him in with a top American fighter, like Willie Taylor of New York—he beat the European light-heavy champion—and back up the show with some good French names." Martin says he will discuss it with his partner, and says goodby. Moments later the phone rings again: "Monsieur Kanter? Monsieur Vercoutter in Dunkirk. How does it look for a world's title fight for my boy, Jo Kimpwani?"
"You will have to be patient," Kanter tells him. "The World Boxing Council named him the No. 1 contender, and we'll get a match, probably in Bangkok. But now I am expecting a call from Paris. Au revoir, Monsieur Vercoutter."
Soon Kanter selects one of his 11 Pierre Cardin suits. He leaves his ninth-floor apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and catches a 9:17 train for Manhattan, where he has a desk in the Madison Avenue office of his old friend Murray Goodman, a well-known publicist of boxing and other sports. The desk is littered with Styrofoam coffee cups, Last week's newspapers and the remains of king-size Saratogas, which Kanter chain-smokes. He pays Goodman $50 a month for his little slum. He was offered an office at Don King's, a royal chamber in comparison, but he says he must preserve his "independence." By this he means he must work with many people, and in the boxing business, where everyone seems to hate everyone else, he wants to keep his options open.
On this morning he goes to see Henry Schwartz, a former television consultant and associate of Don King, at World Television Champions, Inc. Schwartz warns Kanter, "If it comes out you're talking to me, you're liable to lose some of your old friends." They discuss a promotion in France. Kanter tells Schwartz about Mundine and Taylor, then rushes out and grabs a cab downtown to the Telstar Gym, run by Gil Clancy, manager of Emile Griffith. Kanter and Clancy have been trying to get Griffith a fight in France—but apparently for different reasons. It would take place in Périgueux, where, Kanter keeps saying, "The p√¢té is very good. I would certainly like to go. That's my problem. I'm always thinking, 'Oh, that town has good oysters....' "But Clancy wants $20,000, and the promoter can only pay $12,000.
Kanter says, "But, Gil, we've worked together for years."
Finally Clancy agrees. "Oh, go ahead," he says, "make the match."
Now it is 4 p.m., time for Kanter's daily pilgrimage to Don King's. As usual, King's other advisers are there—"my family," he calls them—Paddy Flood, who looks like the wrong guy to jostle in the street, veteran manager Al Braver-man, a hulking, vaguely handsome man who seems to have a toothpick built into his front teeth. And now Pierre Cardin has arrived. King is wearing a tan leisure suit with a brightly flowered shirt and a gold medallion, and he, Braverman and Flood gaze at Kanter—like a trout at a bird, one might say—while Kanter tells a joke, an old boxing wheeze.
The joke flops. Kanter shrugs and says, "My mother had a saying: 'It's better to hear that than to be deaf.' "
On the way home George Kanter is happy about the way his life is going. He does not need Madison Square Garden anymore. He has Europe and he has fighters in both tournaments, King's and Schwartz-Elbaum's. He enjoys the respect of many boxing people, who agree about practically nothing else. And boxing, his first love, is making a comeback in the U.S. Kanter says, "It's like the '50s again: the Friday night fights; 'Look sharp, be sharp'; 'What'll you have, Pabst Blue Ribbon'; Don Dunphy...."
Until recently, Kanter had been selling gloves part time, but he has left the business forever, he hopes. "Gloves are strictly a cold-weather item now," he says. "They're not worn for fashion anymore, and you only need protective gloves for three or four months, but I have to make a living all year."
That he is doing. Boxing gloves seem to be back in.