To Pierce Egan, preeminent scribe of 19th-century pugilism, boxing was "the manly art," a science not recommendable to those "who prefer effeminacy to hardihood." Egan's characters were Englishmen of every sort: swells and clinchpoops, champions as revered as Tom Cribb and Jem Belcher, personages as marginal as Jack (the Young Ruffian) Fearby and "Big" Ben Brain. There is not a notable woman in all the magnificent volumes of Boxiana.
If Egan were alive today and furthering his research for his column in the sporting "Weekly Despatch," he might want to cross the Atlantic and attend the Thursday night fights at the Marriott Brookhollow in Houston. A shock would await him. The promoter for the evening's ballroom sock-up does not chomp a cigar or affect an electrified bouffant. Josephine Abercrombie is what Egan might have called a noblewoman of a "certain age," her age certainly being 60. She has been married and divorced five times and lives on a nine-digit oil, gas and real estate fortune left behind by her mother, Miss Lillie, and her daddy, Mr. Jim, the developer of a device that prevents oil wells from blowing out.
Blue-eyed, razor-boned and possessed of what Don King calls "a luminescent femininity," Abercrombie sits nervously at ringside in a silk dress and a fine fur coat, three strands of pearls at her powdered throat. She is nervous for the fighters she promotes and the fighters that her proxy, Bob Spagnola, manages for the Houston Boxing Association. She is, however, unperturbed by the grease, spit, blood, sweat and other airborne spumes that often lubricate a spectator's evening. One night Abercrombie was so enthralled with the victory of her fighter Choo Choo Dixon that she embraced him without mind to her new Adolfo. "The outfit suffered," she admits gravely, "but it survived. I was lucky it was black, blue and brown."
Mrs. A, as many call her, is a discerning sort. When she finds something repulsive, she says it is "not adorable." At ringside tonight she watches a couple of unadorable cruiserweights, Louis Coleman and Sherman Griffith, make mud of Egan's art. In the first round Coleman puts Griffith on the canvas with his first punch, a parabolic right that could not have halved a sheet of balsa wood. Griffith then does the same to Coleman with an equally artless and pillowy left. Soon all hell breaks loose. Griffith batters Coleman stupid for an endless minute. Coleman, a muscle-bound lug the color of bittersweet chocolate, is suddenly slack and the shade of milky tea. His eyes are rheumy and very far away. "It's over," says the referee. "Not adorable," says Abercrombie.
February 2, 1987
Presently, a tall, guileless girl in a microscopic bathing suit climbs between the ropes holding a card reading round one. Abercrombie is seated near a couple of astronauts, a chirpy Cleveland talk-show host and Michael Hammond, the tweedy dean of the music school at Rice University. Abercrombie notes with evident concern that everyone is watching the snaky way the card girl has thrust herself between the ropes and into the ring, an endearing maneuver that would raise eyebrows even in Rio de Janeiro. "You know, when we started out five years ago, we had the most elegant girls with long white gloves and sequins," Abercrombie says. "That was in the beginning. Then we let the crowd vote on the outfits."
The girl climbs out and another bout begins, this one a snappier affair between a pair of bantamweights. One of them is her fighter Orlando Canizales, and Abercrombie notices a Nixonian shadow on his cheeks. Not adorable. "I do wish he'd shave before his fights, but I guess they'd drum me out of the corps if I suggested it," she says. Such is her sensibility. She has all the delicate reflexes of a Texas gentlewoman and all the savvy of a ring rat. She is, in spirit, a benevolent feudal lord, Tolstoyan in that regard. When she takes her fighters to charity balls, as she sometimes does, she lets them wear the dinner jackets of their choice, "but I won't let them wear blue ruffled shirts." She once brought four of her fighters to a fancy resort in Florida on her private plane. Five miles above sea level she taught "the boys" the intricacies of etiquette: napkin on the lap, this is the fish fork, this is the grapefruit spoon, don't drink from the finger bowl, etc. "I didn't want them to be embarrassed or uncomfortable," she says. "I'd say' 'No! That's wrong!' They were cute about it. They want to be better."
Josephine's own etiquette, when one of her fighters is in the ring, is freewheeling, to say the least. It is an experience to sit next to her. From the moment the warriors come down the aisle in their bathrobes and climb through the ropes she is, she admits, "a shivering wreck." During the referee's instructions she assumes an erect posture, her hands balled into tiny, bony fists on her lap. Her guard is up from the opening bell in a mirror image of Canizales's own defenses. When he bounces off the ropes, so, perceptibly, does she. When a left comes whizzing toward his chin, Abercrombie's head retracts into her shoulders, turtle-like. All the while she is bobbing and weaving, sometimes boring her shoulder into her neighbor's back. A sharp blow to the ribs may follow. "Oh! Did T hurt you?" she will say after belting someone quite unconsciously. "I just completely forget myself!" There is something at once frenzied and repressed about her performance; she is wild, yet mindful of not letting go completely. Which is to say, she knocks no one out.
At the bell ending the first round Abercrombie slumps in her chair. While her fighter is toweled, tutored and greased, she retrieves an ivory linen handkerchief from her purse and, quite delicately, dabs the sweat from her pulse points and brow. Canizales spits into a bucket, though his promoter most certainly does not.
In the second round it seems for a moment that Abercrombie has more endurance than Canizales. Her guard is still up while his is dropping. Canizales takes a stiff shot to the maw, and Abercrombie cringes in sympathetic pain. "Sometimes when he fights I think I'm going to die," she says. But her faith never wavers. Nor does her attention. Suddenly it is over. Canizales stops his man with a cute uppercut to the body and an irrelevant tap to the ear. The telling blow has a deep thudding sound, much like a car hitting a deer. Abercrombie worries for a moment over the beaten man. "I hope he's all right!" A doctor gives the thumbs-up. Now Abercrombie takes on a touching, motherly air.
"Oh, Orlando," she cries. "I'm so proud of you!"
For years, for centuries it seems, boxers have tried to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, a frizzy-haired ex-con named Don King and a wiley Harvard lawyer named Bob Arum. King and Arum control the financial side of the sport. One would not want to cast any aspersions in this space, but it is not unfair to say that King and Arum, while of differing casts, have similar, titanic reputations. Few have escaped one or the other. There are some lucky ones. Sugar Ray Leonard is well served by Mike Trainer, and young Olympic gold medalist Mark Breland has an honorable handler in Shelly Finkel. There are a few others who speak up for fairness to the fighter. May their tribe increase.
For the last four years word has passed in prizefighting that another such figure has entered the business—an immensely wealthy woman in Houston who has adored the prize ring from the moment her parents took a glamorous three-day train ride to New York in June 1938 and she saw Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling in the first round. "My mother was just settling her skirts and all of a sudden there was this man lying on the canvas! She said, 'You mean we came all this way to see that?' Well, my mother couldn't understand it, but I was just fascinated!"
Who could resist the idea of Josephine Abercrombie, so primped and perfumed, in a sport that smells like the snuffed-out end of an old cigar? And how did the fight game greet her? "When I got into it, I think everyone thought I was playing or kidding around," she says one evening at home. "It was like, 'Who's that old broad? She doesn't know what she's doing. It's a game for her. She'll get tired of it.' " The estimable Eileen Eaton used to promote fights on the West Coast from 1942 until she retired in 1980. By phone from Los Angeles she says, "It's not easy, my boy. Men don't want to do business with a woman. Not in boxing they don't. I wonder how Miss Abercrombie is doing."
Abercrombie lives alone in the River Oaks section of Houston, the opulent neighborhood of her girlhood, where ersatz Spanish abuts ersatz Colonial abuts ersatz Bauhaus. Her own manse is behind a wall and shaded by dozens of trees.
The house is a clash of ambitions, a combination of Texas nouveau bigness and quasi-European glitz, with Louis XIV furniture and conspicuous antique volumes of Austen, Richardson, Dickens and Smollet. To guard it all from invaders she has a working alarm and a weimaraner attack dog named Bunker. "Bunker can attack, but I don't know how to make him stop," she says. "Isn't that something?"
The most genuine extension of Abercrombie and her passions here is the horsiness of the paintings and the rest of the library. There are racing prints and portraits on nearly every wall. Issues of the Daily Racing Form dangle from long spindles. Vernon's History and Romance of the Horse and Bayliss's Matriarchy of the American Turf are among the most used-looking volumes in the place.
"I love horses more than anything, don't you?"
The only child of Mr. Jim Abercrombie and the former Miss Lillie Frank, of Lake Charles, La., little Josephine was torn between her father's thoroughbreds and hunting dogs and her mother's acute sense of southern ladyhood. To look at her, so slender, polite and charming, you would think that Abercrombie is Miss Lillie's girl through and through. It was, however, the horses who won out.
She was obsessed with animals of all kinds from the start. When the family was living in a suite at Houston's Warwick Hotel she kept rabbits, birds, chickens, ducks and an alligator in the pantry. She learned to ride at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and at her father's ranch, just south of San Antonio. "I loved it. I loved being with him."
By the time she was 28, Abercrombie had taken 12 first-place ribbons at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had featured her in a story called The Lady Who Won Too Often (Nov. 1, 1954). She was portrayed as "retiring, with a contempt for flamboyance that makes Garbo seem gaudy. She pales at the mention of money, reddens at the words 'Edna Ferber' and took to her bed at the Hotel Pierre during a recent visit when a gossip columnist reported her weekly allowance to be $25,000. ('Absolutely fantastic!')...She hates stuffed shirts, fish and hats, in that order, although she recently commissioned Mr. John to design her 'a hat that wouldn't scare a horse. She likes white gloves, chocolate in any form and hamburgers. 'I love your apartment,' she said recently to Betty Betz, a friend with whom she stays often in New York. 'It's so convenient to Harry Winston (a local diamond merchant) and Hamburg Heaven.' "
Abercrombie is rather less breathless than she was 32 years ago. By way of explaining how she "got into all this," she crosses one ankle over the other and folds her hands on her lap in the demure manner of her station and says, "When I was a girl my mother had me take lessons in everything. I learned ballet, riding, piano, golf, tennis, swimming, ballroom dancing, elocution. She would have adored it if I had put on a hat and gloves and gone out to have lunch or tea with the girls. But I didn't want to do that.
"She wanted me to make my debut, of course, but I didn't want to come out. You know, one of those debutante things at the Allegro Club or the River Oaks Country Club. I thought it was like being put up on an auction block with someone saying, 'Here she is, come and get her.' She would have adored that, too. But I was different. My friends have always thought I was odd, different, because I don't enjoy the things I'm supposed to enjoy.
"I like a man's world. I like what happens in a man's world. I have lots of friends who are women, but I'm more comfortable with a man than I am with a woman. I love competition, and boxing is the ultimate one-on-one competition. You see so much courage displayed; you see chickenism happen, too. You see it all. At the end of the fight they are just exhausted because they've put so much into it. I just adore it."
By now. her ankles are still crossed, but her hands have become fists and are up near her temples in the manner of Floyd Patterson. Peekaboo-style.
Boxing is about the worst advertisement for a free-market system imaginable. It doesn't say much for states' rights, either. Even though the preponderance of commissioners, rulings, hearings and owners tends to sap some of the delight out of baseball, football and basketball, overwhelming them with a righteous brand of bureaucracy, boxing is something of an outlaw game, rife with greed, confusion and sleaze. The only rules are Marquis of Queensberry; outside the ring it's open season. Without a national boxing commission to police it, to enforce and improve safety regulations, some promoters and even some of the state commissions live only by the color of money.
"I want to make boxing better," says Josephine Abercrombie at the HBA gym. "That's what I want more than anything." With sweaty pugs all around her. she is as cool and self-assured as Jackie Kennedy at the Paris Opera. The place is nothing like the gyms of Body and Soul and The Harder They Fall. Carpeted, clean and warm, the gym is bad for movies, good for athletes. There is even a curious lack of stink in the air. although, Abercrombie assures her visitor, "sometimes, late in the day, the place smells just like Gleason's. Just lovely."
In the back there are Nautilus machines, computer-monitored speed bags, a water-filled heavy bag, and a series of conditioning geegaws: a "flexometer" to increase the speed with which a fighter ducks a blow; a "tensionmeter" to measure his isometric strength; a "balanceometer" to help him keep his feet; and. most heinous of all, the StairMaster, a revolving climbing machine that causes the thigh and butt to burn. "I've got one at home," Abercrombie says. "Keeps you hard for skiing."
When the fighters are not working out in Houston under the watch of trainers, a nutritionist and other cornermen, they are often training at the 6,000-acre Abercrombie Cannonade Ranch near Gonzales. Texas. The ranch, which was loaned to the 1984 Olympic boxing team, is a spartan place with a three-mile running course, a gym and a converted bunkhouse that sleeps 13. The fighters eat with the cowboys.
Abercrombie"s programs are financial as well as physical. She recently set up a $2 million investment plan for her fighters that they help control. The fighters can live rent-free in a 20-unit apartment building. She also provides health-care insurance. profit sharing and other benefits not usually associated with sweet scientists. Says HBA middleweight and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Frank Tate, "'She takes care of us. Like a second mother."
There is no doubt at all that Abercrombie's enthusiasm for boxing is pure. She knows the sport imperfectly, but well enough to realize it is "a dirty game that needs cleaning." What's more, she loves everything that is right with it, "the competition, the chance to be better, the art of it all." To explain why she bothered investing her time and "about $1 million up front," Abercrombie has a kind of sanitized version she tells. It is like an oral press kit and goes like this:
"I went to see the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight on closed circuit at the Summit. Most of the people were there for the event of it, but I was really interested and wanted to talk boxing. I got to talking with Bob Spagnola, who'd been an amateur fighter and was working as an accountant for Pennzoil, and he said, 'You seem to know what you're looking at.' I said I did, but that no one would take me to the fights. He said, 'I will. I'll take you around to the gyms and introduce you to some of the fighters and the trainers. Would you like that?' I said I'd adore it, and we began an odyssey of the gyms and fights in Houston."
She had seen real fights and real fighters before. She had seen Sugar Ray Robinson in his purple Cadillac in the south of France, and she had even been in the same room with Sonny Liston. With Spagnola her education went from sentimental to empirical. The gym they hung around most was Willie Savannah's place, an overheated boxing barn with dust in the corners and all the stink you could ask for. At night they went to every fight they could. 'They were real kicker joints personified," says Spagnola. "Cowboy and truck driver places. I'd tell Josephine who I thought would win. and she'd say. I love the one with muscles.' " Abercrombie was hooked. Of course, when she told her family and society friends about her boxing plans, they were unamused. Her sons were against it. One friend said, "Josephine, you are out of your mind to get involved with those people."
Undaunted, Abercrombie and Savannah made plans. They talked about going into business together and putting up a new gym. She would finance it, and Savannah would run the show. The building went up. all gleaming and odor-free. Alas, the deal fell through. "But I didn't care," she says. "It was too late to quit. I figured I was at the dance and I'm gonna dance." HBA was born.
Simple as that. It is a nice, impulsive story, the sort of tale any tycoon might tell by way of describing the quick purchase of a hockey team, a newspaper or a Pacific island.
And yet there is much more to it. Boxing was a wealthy woman's way of forgetting a sorrow and finding something thrilling and consuming to do.
Marriage had been a series of struggles. Her name changed as often as most highway diners. After graduation from Rice University in 1946, she went through husbands with a disconcerting speed. First came Dick Hudson, a Houston boy. That lasted a year. Then came an Argentine architect (Fernando Segura. 18 months), a Kentucky horseman (Burnett Robinson, six years), and another Kentucky horseman (Barry Ryan, one year). Four husbands and counting. "I always thought it would be better, and every time I was wrong." she says. Abercrombie thought she finally had it right when she married Tony Bryan, a Harvard-educated executive with the Monsanto chemical corporation. In the first 10 years of the marriage, Abercrombie followed her husband up the corporate ladder in perfect lockstep, first to Akron, then on to St. Louis. Never mind that she was one of the wealthiest women in the country and that they could have stayed home in Houston clipping coupons. She was "deliriously" happy with her life, her friends, her marriage. Akron was fine, and so was St. Louis. When her father's health deteriorated badly in 1973, Abercrombie and Bryan moved back to Houston to help run the business. Back at home they were the sort of couple you see in society pages, glimmering folks in black tie and ball gown at this charity ball and that company testimonial.
In 1975, the same year that both her father and mother died. Abercrombie discovered her husband was having an affair with Pam Sakowitz. the wife of retailer Robert Sakowitz. Bryan wanted out. The press coverage was bitchy, and the divorce was worse, with the attendant nastiness over Abercrombie's $100 million fortune. Abercrombie tells this story while flying on her plane from Houston to New York for the Tim Witherspoon-Bonecrusher Smith WBA heavyweight title fight. Partly to make her guest feel comfortable, partly to keep herself composed, she tries to brush it all off with that precious sort of irony she has.
"That was not a wonderful time of my life, I must say."
Not wonderful? Not wonderful? After a few moments of letting the jet engines fill in the silence, she lets the facade fall away. "I'd raised his kids for 13 years and my own children, too, so there were five of us. He'd become a vice-president of Monsanto's international division. I was perfectly happy as a corporate wife. That's what I was.
"When he decided to leave the marriage I was devastated. I'd adored the whole life I was living, and now this. It really negated all the feelings I had about myself as a wife and a mother."
Abercrombie began seeing a therapist, working harder than usual at the family business and running mile after mile along the streets of River Oaks. She needed something more to do. In the real world of real salaries and real options, a 60-year-old woman does not have many options. An heiress's choices are wider, weirder. Josephine Abercrombie rid herself of all thoughts of marriage and the other traditional paths of Miss Lillie's "woman's world" and got into the fight game. "I ought to write Pam Sakowitz a thank-you note," she told The Houston Post. "I like my life now and I love what I do. The only thing T regret now is that this whole change didn't come earlier."
It's not that everything is perfect. There are times when the place is so big, and her businesses seem so big, that she gets restless at night. To help her sleep she plays "sleep tapes" that murmur to her: "If you have on any tight clothes, take them off." That is all the pillow talk she wants. Josephine Abercrombie has given up marriage for "the manly art."
In New York, Abercrombie stays with her friend Pat Beavers, who owns the Surf Club and the Zulu Lounge, a couple of East Side cabarets where the graduates of Phillips Exeter and other prep outlets flail their flaxen hair. The apartment is very Fifth Avenue, of course, with a hall the length of a bowling alley and rooms the size of airplane hangars. "Excuse the mess," Pat says, pointing to an immaculate room, "but I'm still a little out of sorts, you see." Pat is just back from the island of Tonga, where she had an absolutely faaaa-bu-lous time. Very unspoiled, you see. And the food? Scrumptious. "It was just perfect." You see she was able to catch up with her son who is sailing around the world and....
Josephine is in a guest room, changing. She changes quite a lot. For the evening's fight she has decided to go with a sweater and a tight blue leather miniskirt. Once a day, it seems, someone compliments her on her legs, and she features them rather more than the average 60-year-old. "She's so gorgeous it's disgusting," Pat says.
One of Pat's sons comes in from jogging and says, "Hey, Mom, why don't you go to the fight tonight with Josephine? You can sit upstairs with the poor folks."
There is a bit of chuckling over this unadorable remark, but Pat says, "I'll pass."
Most of Abercrombie's high-polish friends have passed, too. Those who were interested remember well the first fighter to walk through the doors of the Houston Boxing Association, the inglorious Cedric Rose.
"Cedric was some piece of work. I loved him, we all did, but he was so bad," says Abercrombie. "Oh, he was such a troublemaker, I cannot tell you! He used to come over and have breakfast with me after he worked out, and we'd talk about everything. He'd tell me his troubles. He was the most appealing kid you'd ever want to know. He fought like a tiger and won all his fights, but he wouldn't do what he was supposed to do. He thought he could do whatever he wanted and still win. We just couldn't get him to come to the gym. He'd stay out all night. He'd take out girls and leave them in the middle of the highway. You just can't believe all the stuff Cedric did."
Spagnola finally told Rose, My-way-or-the-highway, and Rose took off. In Dallas he tried to rob a convenience store. He was armed. The initial sentence was suspended, but after a series of parole violations Rose was finally shipped off to slate prison in Huntsville, Texas.
Abercrombie visited Rose there last summer, an experience that jogged her normally right-wing political sensibilities. "It's just terrible, the way they live!" Rose has been in solitary confinement for various violations, and in her letters to him, Abercrombie says, "I tell Cedric to behave himself better in there.... I don't really believe that deep down Cedric is bad. He's just, well, not brilliant. He was just a street kid with knives and guns around since he was a little kid."
Fortunately a few less erratic fighters came to the HBA door, Frank Tate the most prominent among them. The "shows," as Abercrombie calls them, have not exactly taken Houston by storm. "We took some terrible baths in the beginning. We must have lost $1.5 million." The very first of her shows was at the Astroarena, and it was a near disaster. Abercrombie called Arum and asked him to set her up with some "first-class fighters." Arum's traveling pugs were low rent, it turned out, and the evening's entertainment was low comedy. "It was a valuable, and not too costly, lesson," Abercrombie says. "I was taken advantage of, and properly." She immediately hired a matchmaker.
Once at Madison Square Garden, Abercombie is among her colleagues in promotion. They all extol her: Mickey Duff ("a great, honest broad"), Shelly Finkel ("an honest lady") and Don King ("She's adorable not only in her feminine loveliness but also in her business acumen. One minority to another, I love her"). Arum, for his part, calls her "a Houston lady. She hasn't taken the gloves off yet."
In one of the Garden's clubs, Abercrombie stands between Mike Tyson, whose brutish neck seems thicker than Abercrombie's waist, and the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who is as ethereal as Olive Oyl. Oates was once overheard at a party in Princeton saying that she had published "as much as Dickens." Part of her recent concerns have been with the ring. She and Tyson are pals.
"Are you Joyce Carol Oates?" says Abercrombie. "I just love your books."
"Oh! Thank you very much."
"Yes, I just read one. Yes, I can't remember the...."
"And what do you do?"
"I'm in boxing."
"Promoter or a manager?"
"Well," Abercrombie says bashfully, "both, actually."
Oates and a few others less tangentially related to the punching business chat with Abercrombie about her fighters. But the truth is that while her peers are polite, if a bit patronizing about her, they do not see her as much of a threat. They say that for all her resources, Abercrombie has not yet made any significant mark as a promoter and that her hired manager. Bob Spagnola, doesn't know the sport much better than his boss. Most of her shows have been small time, and her best financial prospects, heavyweight Tony Tucker, middleweight Tate and junior welterweight Joe Manley are not exactly setting the world ablaze. "I like Josephine, understand, but with all her millions, she's gone nowhere," says Willie Savannah. "Her organization needs revamping, 'cause she's just spinning her wheels."
"The problem is, she's got to make a decision," says Arum. "To be a promoter or a manager. Unless you're a crook, you've got to do one or the other. With King, he does both to screw the fighter. With Josephine, she leans over the other way. She should manage and negotiate with independent promoters." Which would be dandy, of course, for Arum.
Abercrombie "dearly hopes" that Tucker has a chance someday, somewhere, to dethrone at least one of the 57 existing world heavyweight champions. As she sits ringside watching the one-round Witherspoon-Smith fiasco her face fairly glows with the idea that after winning blue ribbons on a horse in the Garden as a girl, she may one day stand here next to a sweaty, pulpy champion whom she can call, with all due respect, her own.
In Houston she is still watching bouts between, say, a kid fresh out of a trailer park and a weak puncher known as the Fighting Hairdresser. In Atlantic City, she waits patiently as the ring announcer boasts that "Joe Frazier's nephew is here tonight! They call him Tyrone (Puff of Smoke) Frazier!"
So why does she persist? She has skied down mountains, ridden the fastest horses, flashed through marriages, happy and not. She has been just about every place she could ever want to go. What she wants now is the concentrated, thrilling night that, once in a long while, boxing can provide. She wants to be at the center of a night like the one when Joe Louis decked his man before Miss Lillie could settle her skirts, a night when every eye is turned toward two men in a crucible of violence and will. She wants the knowledge that she has done right by her fighters and right by the sport. She wants the Big Night.
"I love the fighters and the competition," she says. "I love fur coats on a hot day, funny hats on strange people, purple dresses, big, gold jewelry, the whole weird, strange life of the boxing world. I love it all. It's adorable."