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From Don King to Eddie Hearn, Eric Bottjer has spent his life deep inside the boxing business

Don King
Eric Bottjer is currently Matchroom Boxing USA’s chief matchmaker. Before reporting to Eddie Hearn, Bottjer – once a wannabe writer – worked with some of the most influential promoters in the world. He’s seen it all, has plenty of secrets to spill, and tells all to Jack Hirsch

EDDIE HEARN stood in the centre of the ring in Kansas City, between fights of a show broadcast on DAZN. As Hearn was being interviewed the promoter’s unhappiness was evident over what had transpired in the matches earlier that night. Although the Matchroom fighters had emerged victorious, the ease of their victories totally went against Hearn’s pledge to exhibit quality matchups for DAZN subscribers. Hearn was in no mood to sugarcoat things when asked about super-middleweight prospect Anthony Sims Jnr who won his bout in two easy rounds. “Eric Bottjer is a great matchmaker, but he has to do better,” said Hearn. Officially, Bottjer – new to Matchroom – had been put on notice.

“I knew I screwed up,” admitted Bottjer. “It was the second show I did for Matchroom and I used three local guys. The fights were not competitive and the fighters were awful. What I did not take into account was that DAZN televises all the fights. So as much as you want to build a fighter’s profile and record, on that stage it is important that it be somewhat competitive as well.”

Whether there are better matchmakers than Bottjer is debatable, but what is apparent is that he has served in that capacity for more promoters than anyone else. It gives him a unique look into the inside of the business that not many have.

Born on March 8, 1964 in Walnut Creek, California, Bottjer’s interest in boxing started when he was 12 in South Korea. His father was employed by the United States Department of Defence and was frequently forced to relocate. Young Eric was a big sports fan, but games were rarely shown on South Korean television. However, they did have Sunday night fights between Korean boxers that were televised which Bottjer always watched, but remembers being frustrated that he was unable to view the rubber match between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton in 1976. Bottjer later came across a copy of World Boxing magazine in which Ali and Norton were on the cover as were Roberto Duran and Carlos Monzon. “It dawned on me that boxing was a major sport. At that point I knew that when I grew up I wanted to be involved with boxing in some capacity,” he says.

At the University of Oregon, Bottjer became a journalism major while continuing to read all boxing material he could get his hands on, his favourite writers being San Francisco columnists Jake Fiske and Eddie Muller. Then upon graduating school got a position as a police reporter in Gilroy, California. Flashing those credentials at the door enabled Bottjer to attend a good number of boxing shows in that State, where he met established promoters such as Don Chargin and Babe Griffin. Although Bottjer’s cover eventually was blown he had become so known around ringside that future admittance never became an issue.

Not able to get a regular gig in the sport he loved, Bottjer started to write freelance in the late 1980s for the now defunct publication Flash/Boxing Update. It was on December 28, 1988 that Bottjer did what he describes as his first substantial thing in the sport. George Foreman, well into his comeback, was in Bakersfield, California to box David Jaco. On the day of the fight Bottjer found out where the former world heavyweight champion was staying. It was a little past noon and Bottjer rang what he hoped was Foreman’s room. To Bottjer’s surprise Foreman picked up and granted an interview that lasted approximately 45 minutes.

By 1990, Bottjer’s parents were living in Northern Virginia. When he went to visit he made it a point of travelling a few hours out of his way to go to a show at Philadelphia’s Blue Horizon. Outside he saw Russell Peltz. They engaged in conversation that resulted in the promoter giving him a ticket. “Today Russell and I laugh about it because he was not known for giving anything away for free,” says Bottjer. While at the show Bottjer made it a point to seek out writer Jack Obermayer at ringside. Obermayer, who passed away in 2016, would become Bottjer’s best friend. Obermayer and his sidekick Jeff Jowett would take Bottjer on many of the long road trips they were famously known for to the most obscure of venues. Although this writer never went with them on those excursions, every year at Hall of Fame weekend in Canastota, we would all religiously have two or three meals together along with historian Neil Terens who usually insisted on picking up the tab. A few others usually joined us for great nights of boxing talk. That tradition continued after Obermayer passed, but his presence will always loom large.

But Bottjer, by his own account, was floundering, a wannabe boxing writer who could not get a full-time job, when he then met the man who would change his life. “In 1990 the WBC was holding their convention at the Penta Hotel in New York City, and it was there that I met Johnny Bos,” he says of the Ruyonesque character. “I was shocked that he even knew who I was, but said he’d been reading my work. He took me across the street, bought me a burger and told me to forget about being a writer, that I should serve as a matchmaker under him. Johnny did not fly or drive, so he needed someone who could physically be there with the fighters when he couldn’t. I learned quite a bit in the time I was with him.”

Bottjer continued to move around, developing a friendship with Fiske. “I stayed with him for about 10 weeks in San Francisco in 1996,” he says. “He had a ton of memorabilia that was disorganised and he asked me to catalogue it for him.” While doing the work he described as fun, the phone rang and it was Dan Goossen on the other end asking Bottjer would he be interested in being the matchmaker for the promotional entity America Presents. Eric was off to Denver and aced the interview, but was there only a couple of months before a misunderstanding led to him being terminated.

Bottjer regrouped, then five months later received a call from Cedric Kushner. “He asked me how big my Rolodex was,” said Bottjer. “He hired me on August 25, 1997 after his series Heavyweight Explosion had gotten underway. They were running it regularly and had been developing good fighters. Cedric already had Bill Benton as his matchmaker and he wasn’t thrilled with me coming aboard to share duties with him. We got along, but he soon quit to start his own company and Ron Scott Stevens replaced him.

“It was fun to work with Cedric. He was strong in the business. We had just signed Shane Mosley and Angel Manfredy after he beat Arturo Gatti. We were running monthly television shows in Las Vegas and New York.”

Bottjer was fond of Kushner and respected his business acumen, but felt his aloofness eventually contributed to his downfall. “Cedric was distant and did not work on building relationships with our fighters,” said Bottjer. “The Hasim Rahman situation was a disaster.”
When Rahman signed to box Lennox Lewis for the world heavyweight championship in South Africa in April 2001, Kushner failed to give him the $75,000 signing bonus he was due. Apparently Kushner felt Rahman would get beat and it was not worth the investment to keep him under contract. That changed the moment Rahman became champion.

“Cedric handled everything poorly,” acknowledged Bottjer. “Usually you want people from your company at the fight to show support for the fighter, but Cedric did not want anyone there. He went to South Africa alone and stayed at a different hotel from the one Rahman was at. Cedric should have been building on his relationship with the Rahman camp, but wasn’t.”

If Kushner was dismissing Rahman’s chances, Bottjer was not. “I knew that Rahman was in great shape, having spent time in [manager] Stan Hoffman’s camp in Upstate, New York. Lewis was doing a movie [Ocean’s Eleven], and did not arrive in camp until 10-11 days before the fight. I didn’t think he was in shape. It made me think of a conversation I had with Jose Torres in Atlantic City a week before they fought. Jose said any professional fighter can lose to a man properly prepared if he wasn’t.

“After the fight Cedric sent Rahman the bonus check, but he smartly did not cash it. In the meantime Cedric was negotiating with HBO for the rematch. They were supposed to bring a cheque for that to the meeting we had them, but failed to do so. In the meantime, Don King heard what was going on and became involved. Jay Larkin of Showtime wanted the rematch for his network and came up with an offer I felt we should have taken. Larkin proposed that Rahman box Mike Tyson on Showtime. And if Rahman lost he would get a chance to come back in another fight that would be worth a couple of million dollars. On top of that our legal fees would be covered in any lawsuit that HBO would bring. But Cedric turned it down saying he wanted to remain loyal to HBO, but when he lost Rahman they did not remain loyal to him. We were in bad financial shape after that.”

Bottjer feels Kushner was not the only one to make a mistake. “Rahman wound up boxing the rematch for a lot less money than he could have gotten had he stuck with us.”

With Cedric Kushner Promotions in an apparent freefall, Bottjer let the promoter know that he was considering leaving the company. It was around the time of the Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad fight in September 2001 that Bottjer delivered that sobering news. “He put his arm around me and we went for a walk” recalled Bottjer. “He said I should hold on, that we’ll turn things around.” But two years later when another job offer came in, Bottjer knew it was time to move on. But making the move was still one of the hardest things he ever had to do. “It was very emotional. I cried. I loved Cedric. He was really good about it. Although he still wanted me to stay he didn’t try to talk me out of it.”

It was 2003 and Bottjer after receiving a phone call from Bobby Goodman was off to Florida, to do matchmaking duties for Don King Productions. “My first year there was wonderful,” he reminisced. “I made a lot of big fights.

“This might surprise you, but it was the most corporate place I have ever worked at. Everything was in writing and there were about 40 employees. The building was two floors. Upstairs was Don, Dana Jamison, and Bobby Goodman. Dana was the one person who Don trusted implicitly.”

So how was it to work for the boisterous King? “The thing that most promoters have in common is they work very hard,” says Bottjer. “Don King was a genius. The best thing about him was his mind. When he set out to do something he’d do everything in his power to get it done. What worked against him was that he made himself the star of his own shows and did not delegate responsibility as well as he should have.

“In my time with Don we only met about six times or so. Although he listened he would do what he wanted to anyway. In 2004, I told Don not to match Evander Holyfield with Larry Donald, that he’ll lose. I told him the same thing about matching Felix Trinidad with Winky Wright. He told me that Donald and Wright could not punch, that Felix’s dad wanted the fight for his son. Had I told Cedric not to match Mosley with a certain opponent it would have jolted him to attention but it hardly left an impression on Don.”

Bottjer was a prophet in that both Holyfield and Trinidad were beaten comprehensively on points.

When Bottjer joined DKP’s the company was thriving, but a couple of years later it was starting to decline. “King started feuding with HBO,” says Bottjer, “and started doing shows on his own that were losing money. People who had been there much longer than me, some 10-15 years, were being let go. I was starting to wonder why I was still there, but when I wasn’t sent to the Floyd Mayweather-Zab Judah show [in Las Vegas], I knew the handwriting was on the wall. But I went anyway, paying my own way. When King saw me at ringside I could tell by his look that he was not happy. When I got to the office the following Tuesday, I was let go.”

So after 26 months with King, Bottjer was on to his next job. Bottjer remained in the Florida area doing shows for promoter Luis DeCubas some of which were on ESPN. Though past his prime, Roberto Duran was the face of the company. Bottjer also worked freelance for other promoters on occasion.

In working for Roy Jones’ Square Ring Promotions for a couple of years, Bottjer made his boss’ match against Danny Green in Australia, one he says they were paid four million dollars for. He also did fights for Jeff Lacy and Omar Sheika.

Traveling man Bottjer found himself employed by Art Pelullo’s Banner Promotions in 2008, replacing Peltz who was moving on from being the matchmaker. He stayed with Banner for seven years. Unlike the infrequency in which he interacted with King, Bottjer discussed potential matches with Pelullo on a regular basis. Pelullo also consented to Bottjer working with other promoters during their time together.

Bottjer’s last stop before joining Matchroom was with DiBella Entertainment, staying with promoter Lou DiBella for a little over a year.

“They weren’t too keen on hiring me,” Bottjer says of how he got the Matchroom gig. “Frank Smith interviewed me at Matchroom’s New York office. When he told me I got the job in July 2018, Eddie [Hearn], came out of another room he was in and congratulated me.”

“It is such a pleasure to work for Eddie Hearn, and I’m not just saying that because I do. Everyone in the company does such a good job. There are a lot of young people which sometimes makes me feel like an old man” joked Bottjer 56, “but I am always learning from them and them from me. We never blame one another, but always try to see how we can improve things.”

Bottjer is lucky enough to have a partner in his life who understands the sport as he does. It is Lisa Elovich, who like her boyfriend has spent considerable time in boxing, being a promoter in the Albany region of New York. Eric also has a young daughter from a prior relationship.

“You deal with so many different people in the business. Shane Mosley was a real nice guy. Felix Trinidad was lovely. Chris Byrd was one of my favourites. Angel Manfredy took me shopping and bought me clothes. He had a reputation as a dangerous driver. After I got into the car I wished I hadn’t, I thought he was going to get us killed” winced Bottjer.

Bottjer rates Jones and Pernell Whitaker as the best two boxers he’s seen from ringside, but puts Sugar Ray Robinson in the number one slot for the best of all – time pound for pound.

In the last few years ring fatalities have affected Bottjer a great deal. “People don’t realise the damage that fighters do to themselves and their opponents” he says, “this is not a cartoon we’re watching. Great fighters make things look easy, but it is so physically tough and mentally draining.” And so is being a matchmaker and all the pressures it brings. The sleepless nights and anxiety in wondering whether he’s made the right matches or worse yet having to plug in a substitute at the last moment can be nerve racking. It’s all part of the job, but Bottjer’s Rolodex is a lot bigger now than it was when Kushner asked him.

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