IT WAS at a press conference to announce what would turn out to be Sugar Ray Robinson’s last fight in November 1965, where the legend of Don Elbaum was born.
Looking to add a little sentimentality to the proceedings, Elbaum told the assembled media in Pittsburgh, that he had a surprise for the six-time world champion. Turning to Robinson, Elbaum very quickly displayed a pair of gloves that he said were from Robinson’s pro debut, 25 years before. Robinson’s wife was teary eyed. Sugar Ray was choked with emotion over the gesture. The press went bonkers, asking Robinson to put the gloves on for photos. Robinson started to reach for the gloves which were in a box where Elbaum had hastily put them back, when he heard the promoter plead with him not to. Puzzled as to why Elbaum would decline the chance at such publicity, a second glance made Robinson understand why. Both the gloves were left-handed.
“It’s my birthday,” says Elbaum today. “But I won’t tell you or anyone else how old I am.” Elbaum always indirectly makes a point of challenging people to guess his age but will never give them an answer. His darkly dyed hair and enthusiasm make him look much younger than the 92 years he is reported to be.
That he picked up the phone at all was a mild surprise. Over the years Elbaum has been one of the harder men to reach. Locations and phone numbers have frequently changed, but the man himself has not. In many ways, Elbaum has been a trailblazer, a man ahead of his time. We can only surmise what he would have been able to accomplish had today’s forum of social media existed when Elbaum was doing his thing.
Any prolonged conversation with Elbaum results in him reminding us that he was the man responsible for getting Don King into boxing. Then saying, only half-jokingly, that he’s regretted it ever since.
Elbaum has frequently spoken about King’s start in boxing, but what about his own?
Born in Cincinnati, as an only child to his parents Max and Sally Elbaum, the family relocated to Erie, Pennsylvania, when he was six. His mother was a concert pianist, and his father owned a fashion company before getting into the hearing aid business. “When my dad was a teenager he was a waiter in a restaurant in Chicago,” Don explains. “He waited on Al Capone’s table on a regular basis. He took a liking to my dad who never swore in his entire life. Capone left him ten dollar tips which was big money at the time.
“I had an uncle named Danny Greenstein who was unbeaten in 30 amateur fights. Al Weill, who would later manage Rocky Marciano, wanted to turn him pro. My mother’s family owned meat markets in Boston, New Bedford, and Fall River, Massachusetts. While there my uncle took me to see a fight show for the first time. I remember my exact words when watching one of the boxers. I said that’s the most beautiful music I have ever seen. The boxer was Willie Pep.” Little did young Don know that he would one day promote Pep toward the tail end of the featherweight’s career.
“I was about 13 or 14, when my dad took me to shows in Cleveland. The promoter was Larry Atkins. I kept suggesting matchups he should make. He allowed me to make two- and four-round fights on one of his shows. I would later box as an amateur, but knew where my future was in the sport.”
Elbaum claims he was 17, when he promoted his first show, in Erie. That he was licensed at such a young age and could bankroll an event, or get someone else to, is a story in itself. But the career of Don Elbaum is unorthodox to say the least. Elbaum has always dreamed big but has often come up small. Elbaum’s integrity is not the issue, the results are for those putting up the money. As a close friend of Elbaum’s once quipped, “Don makes millionaires out of multi-millionaires.”
Only Elbaum would think about putting on a match billed as the world’s worst fighter. Only Elbaum would jump out of the crowd and enter the ring as a substitute on his own show when one of his fighter’s had pulled out. Only Elbaum would arrange for a boxer’s nuptials to take place in the ring before a fight.
Elbaum was winless in four fights during his pro career but did have one draw to his credit, and the losses were all on points. “I had no power whatsoever,” he says. “I could not break an egg. But I was always in shape and took a good punch.”
The first of his four fights, which all took place in the 1960s, was against Joe Byrd, whose son Chris would later become a heavyweight belt-holder. “Two fights fell out at the weigh-in” says Elbaum, who was that show’s matchmaker. “There was no State Commission in Ohio. We boxed to a draw.” According to BoxRec, Elbaum’s recollection is skewed. Byrd won that one, the draw coming in Elbaum’s next match against Carl Jordan.
As for the wedding ceremony, Elbaum can’t recall the fighter’s name. “I know it was on a show I promoted in Buffalo, and he was beaten on points.”
A little gimmickry never hurt anyone, but heavy financial losses have.
For whatever reason, the night of July 1 1992, at the Metropol Club in Brooklyn, has stayed with this writer. The place was nearly empty, with a reported 55 people in attendance. My eyes were locked on the show’s promoter which, of course, was Elbaum. With no additional revenue coming in outside of the live gate he was a sad sight to behold. What a tough way to make a living I thought, but Elbaum has done exactly that. He is the sport’s ultimate survivor.
“I usually had a backer put up the money,” Elbaum admits, “but I always made it clear that there are no guarantees. There is nothing like your fighter stepping into the ring and winning the world title. Not everyone makes money, but I never lied.
“When I was young, I begged my mother to take me to Stillman’s Gym, where I saw [Sugar Ray] Robinson working out. He took a liking to me and gave me his phone number, and we stayed in touch. Then years later I flew to New York, to try to get him to box for me on that show in Pittsburgh. He still had hopes of being champion again, and asked me that of all the top middleweights, who could he beat. I told him Joey Archer. I knew it would be a tough fight, but Sugar Ray was the greatest fighter of all time.
“I thought that he might still have one big performance left in him. That didn’t turn out to be the case. I begged Ray to retire in the ring right after the fight, but he refused. He never fought again, but his official retirement came at Madison Square Garden.”
It was in the early 1970’s when King first contacted Elbaum about putting on a charity event to benefit a Cleveland hospital. King had not yet started his legendary foray into boxing. A partnership with Elbaum was formed that would not last long.
According to Elbaum, the hospital did not receive a cent. “I got to witness the best and worst of King. He could have made just as much money if he had done things the right way.
“I saw what he was doing, stealing money and underpaying boxers. People in the business were physically afraid of him because of his reputation. I was getting disgusted with how he did things. I had a heavyweight named Jeff Merritt who Don signed. He said not to worry, that he would take care of me. I then decided to walk away from Don King. Let me make something clear: I left him, he did not leave me.”
If age has not softened Elbaum’s feelings toward King, it certainly has for his former adversary. “Is he okay?” asked King, showing genuine concern when reached for this story. When told that the call was not about Elbaum’s demise, King seemed relieved.
“He helped me a lot when I first began in situations I wasn’t familiar with.
“Don Elbaum would always tell stories. Whatever needed to be said he would say.” Asked why their relationship had not flourished, King laughed, then said, “This is Don Elbaum we are talking about. He was the type of guy who was always moving on. But I love Don Elbaum. He’s a really good guy.”
Elbaum left King, but never tolerated a boxer under contract leaving him. “Most have been loyal. Very few tried to get out of the contract I had with them,” he says. “I always stressed that the legal costs would not be worth it to them and that we could always sit down one on one and work out any problems we had.”
When Elbaum goes over the impressive list of fighters he was associated with, be it as a promoter, matchmaker, or advisor, he does so with a high level of satisfaction over what they accomplished. Some he had more clout with than others. Nevertheless, he was a valued member of the team.
Few promoters have the globetrotting history that Elbaum does. For example, he promoted Floyd Patterson for three consecutive matches in the former heavyweight champion’s career in 1971, all in different locations: Terry Daniels in Cleveland, Charlie Polite in Erie, and Vic Brown in Buffalo. Patterson won all three on points.
“I had a great relationship with Floyd, and with Sonny Liston as well,” says Elbaum. “I was involved in the promotion of his fight against Leotis Martin (Las Vegas). I had a contract with Martin that I would promote him if he won the fight. He did, but then suffered a detached retina and was forced to retire.”
Besides the names already mentioned, Elbaum boasts an impressive roster of the men he has promoted at one time or another. Among them are Roberto Duran, Aaron Pryor, Simon Brown, Maurice Blocker, Al Blue Lewis, Tony Tubbs, Hedgeman Lewis, Ronnie Harris, Vito Antuofermo, Mike Weaver, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, and Joey Giambra.
Brown had an ugly split from Elbaum. “I promoted him from his debut, but then people started telling him he could make more money without me. Eventually we got back together.”
In the 1970s, old rival King was embroiled in the scandal of the United States Boxing Tournament. During the same time, Elbaum was putting on a tournament of his own. It too was cut short, but the matches were of better quality than those staged by King. Working in conjunction with others, Elbaum’s tournament had matches such as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad vs Matthew Saad Muhammad and Vito Antuofermo vs Eugene Cyclone Hart. But it was future WBA heavyweight belt-holder Mike Weaver’s thrilling points win over New Yorker Bill Sharkey, which is talked about to this day by those who witnessed it. Ultimately, no matter; as artistic a success as the tournament was, it could not really compete with King’s effort which was bankrolled by ABC television, the broadcasting giant in the United States.
“Hank Schwartz approached me to put on the tournament,” explains Elbaum. “Our television deal did not pay much. We ran out of money and could not continue.”
People have varying opinions of Elbaum but no one can dispute he is a boxing lifer having spent long stretches promoting in Erie, Buffalo, Ohio, the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City, and a variety of other locales. In fact, in a five-year stretch, Elbaum put on 196 shows in Atlantic City, which is an average of, approximately, one every 10 days.
The late writer Jack Obermayer, who arguably attended more live shows than any other person since boxing came into existence, labeled Elbaum his favourite person in the sport. When Obermayer received the Long and Meritorious Service award from the Boxing Writers Association of America at a banquet in Las Vegas, in 2011, he ended his speech with the words, “the bum (for Elbaum), is a great man.” Who would have guessed that just one year later it would be Elbaum receiving the same award from the BWAA.
Include Teddy Atlas among those who are fond of Elbaum as well. Atlas has used Elbaum as a camp coordinator and as a trusted advisor. “I go back many years with Don,” Atlas tells BN. “There are so many great stories. He is a Damon Runyon type of character. He has a core of decency about him, having done so many things on a shoestring, living out of a suitcase.
“I trained Simon Brown for five of his title defences, so I was around Don a lot and got to know him well as not only a boxing guy, but as a person as well. When he was going through times he did not have much he told my young son that for every A (grade), he got in school he would give him 10 dollars. And Don would make sure to send the money. Who cares if the cheque bounced,” jokes Atlas, “his intention was to give the 10 dollars.
“He is a lovable rogue. Being with Don Elbaum is a rollercoaster. You don’t know when you’ll stop. He’s a boxing guy through and through. I used him as a camp coordinator because I cared about him and was in a position to help.
“Without the small club shows that Don and other promoters put on boxing would not exist. Those shows are necessary to keep the sport alive.”
“I met Teddy when he trained fighters,” says Elbaum. “I would sometimes stay at his home in New York. I’ve had a hell of a relationship with him. There are a thousand trainers, but no teachers. Teddy Atlas is a teacher.
“Mike Scanlon, a trainer from Buffalo, was also a teacher. Some of his fighters were Joey Giambra, Bobby Scanlon, Henry Brimm, and Vic Brown.”
Elbaum takes a few seconds to digest the question when asked to name his most exciting moment in boxing. “I would say Aaron Pryor’s first fight with Alexis Arguello (1982 in Miami) when he won by knockout. No one was giving us a chance in that one,” he exaggerates. “Officially I was Pryor’s advisor. No fight could be made for him without my okay and signature.”
Not wanting to be confined to one moment, Elbaum proceeds to rattle off two more matches he was fond of. “Doyle Baird boxing to a draw against world middleweight champion, Nino Benvenuti in a non title match in Akron (1968) was satisfying to me, as was bringing Roberto Duran to Erie, to box Lou Bizzarro (1976) for the world lightweight title.” Bizzarro was a long shot going in but exceeded expectations by keeping on the move and lasting into the 14th round. “I may have been one of the few people who thought he could win,” said Elbaum. “In boxing anything can happen inside of the ring.”
Although he does not rank it among his fondest of memories, Elbaum has a distinct recollection of when one of his fighter’s, Al Blue Lewis, went to Ireland, to take on Muhammad Ali. The risks of putting on a large promotion rose to the surface that day.
“Tickets were going really slow. There were cops all over the place, but no one cared. All of a sudden people were climbing the fence and getting in without paying.”
Elbaum is old school, calling Jack Johnson the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. “He had everything, defence and punching power.” Don’t look for Muhammad Ali to get the runner up spot, either. “Joe Louis was greater Ali, and Rocky Marciano would have beaten Ali in a 15-round fight.”
He’s not finished yet. “The referees today are so bad that they should be banned from boxing,” Elbaum reckons. “And the scoring of fights on points is something I don’t like. I wish they would go back to the rounds system.”
In 2019, Elbaum’s long body of work was rewarded when he was given his sport’s greatest honor, being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame along with his friend Atlas. Both have expressed how much it meant to them to be inducted together.
While his former nemesis King resides in a mansion in Boca Raton, Elbaum is content to be where he is, in Pennsylvania. “The VA got me a great apartment. And author Joe Botti is writing a book on my life. Things are good,” says Elbaum.
Considering what he’s recently been through, that’s a relief to hear. A couple of months ago, Elbaum was attacked and suffered facial damage as a result. “I was coming back to my apartment from down the street and three guys got close to me,” he explains. “One said, you’re the fight guy. He then hauled off and hit me. The other two were startled, shocked it happened, but ran off with their friend. I did not go to the police. I did not want to file a report, but I do want to see them again and discuss what happened. I put the word out to people I know in the neighbourhood who are looking into it for me.”
That the mugging on the street did not cause more harm to Elbaum at his advanced age, should be no surprise. He is boxing’s ultimate survivor, spanning the generations and doing things in a way that only he could.