If you were lucky enough to have witnessed Jack Dempsey's brutal
three-round technical knockout of Jess Willard on July 4, 1919,
in Toledo, Don Elbaum had the ticket for you last month. The
matchless matchmaker promoted a bout in Akron between local
palookas George Linberger (26-8-1, 23 KOs) and Rocky Phillips
(21-9, 19 KOs) as the Greatest Three-Round Heavyweight Fight in
Boxing History. Elbaum said anyone who brought a Dempsey-Willard
stub could get in free.
This is an article from the March 29, 2004 issue
No one did. Nor did the fight last the promised three rounds:
Linberger flattened Phillips in two minutes and 22 seconds.
Though Elbaum called the 6'3", 255-pound Linberger a "white
George Foreman without the grill," the Akron school
administrator's only previous claim to fame had been getting
flattened himself by the immortal Butterbean in 19 seconds. "It
had to be a fluke," deadpans Elbaum. "When George hit the canvas,
he was ahead on all three scorecards."
Prizefighting is reeling because of public indifference, its
roster of bankable stars countable on the fingers of a boxing
glove. And at a time when bouts are billed in bland ad copy (War
at the Shore, Hard Road to Glory), Elbaum is the reigning
champion of enlightened promotions, drawing big crowds to small
bouts with sheer chutzpah since the 1950s.
Has anyone paired more fighters (some 20,000) or promoted more
extravaganzas than this runty, roguish, mashed-mug man? Paddling
in boxing's backwaters, he married off a pug in the ring before a
bout (the groom lost), nearly got Wilt Chamberlain to mix it up
with Jim Brown (the athletes agreed, but Brown's boss, Cleveland
Browns owner Art Modell, nixed it) and helped give boxing's other
Don his start. In 1972 Don King enlisted Elbaum to put together a
Muhammad Ali exhibition in Cleveland. "I've been apologizing to
the world ever since," Elbaum says.
The Boy Promoter made his first match at 15, put together his
first card at 18 and has built a reputation for doing anything to
save the show. Four times Elbaum filled in as a fighter when
bouts fell apart at the last minute. "As the referee gave
instructions in the middle of the ring," he says, "I would lean
into my opponent and say, 'Don't forget who's payin' ya.'"
Listening to Elbaum is a little like dying and going straight to
Ring Lardner. "Don's a firebomb that can light itself," says
former junior welterweight champ Aaron Pryor, who fought for him
in the 1980s. Elbaum is an authentic, a type that sports once
produced in abundance. If today his breed seems like an
endangered species, that's a measure of the diminishing quality
of modern life. "He's incredibly creative, always has another
scheme, another strategy, another wild concept," says promoter
Lou DiBella, the former boxing czar of HBO Sports. "Some of his
ideas are preposterous, but some are truly inspirational."
It was Elbaum who staged a showdown in the early 1960s to decide
The World's Worst Fighter. Records of the combatants were 0-13
and 0-15. (The bout ended in a draw.) It was Elbaum who sold
advertising space on the soles of tomato cans' shoes: "I realized
the second one of them hit the canvas, his soles would become a
billboard that any fan with a good seat could see." And it was
Elbaum who dreamed up posters that touted one fighter as
"undefeated, with the exception of five fights," and another as
"the hardest puncher in boxing history: 11-0 with 18 knockouts."
Then there was the pug Elbaum boasted had "never lost."
Unmentioned was the fact that he had never fought. "A mere
technicality," Elbaum says.
Elbaum has been a cutman, a cornerman and once, in a pinch, a
ring doctor. "The real doctor never showed up," he recalls, "so I
posed as one." Doc Elbaum listened to boxers' hearts, peered into
their mouths and pronounced them fit. "I refused to make them
cough," he says stoutly. "I have my limits."
That hustle pales next to the one he pulled off at a 1965 press
conference for one of Sugar Ray Robinson's last fights. Elbaum
announced that he had found the gloves Robinson wore for his pro
debut, and presented the five-time champ with a pair of battered
gloves, saying, "Ray, don't ask me how I got these, but I did."
Robinson was so moved, he wept.
When an editor asked Robinson to don the six-ouncers for a
picture, Elbaum poked the old warrior in the ribs and whispered,
"Don't!" Sugar Ray studied the gift and smiled. Elbaum had handed
him two left gloves.