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The Man Who Made Madison Square Garden Relevant Again

Bobby Goodman
Meet Bobby Goodman who, in his seven decades in boxing, ran with Marcel Cerdan, made friends with Joe Louis, worked alongside Muhammad Ali and became a Hall of Famer

BOBBY GOODMAN, 82, is now retired from boxing, but when he sits in his home in Mays Landing, New Jersey, there are more than enough memories to sustain him. For a good part of seven decades Goodman was a boxing lifer, introduced to the sport at a very young age – or born into the business, as he likes to say.

The boxing bloodlines run deep. Bobby’s dad, Murray Goodman, handled the public relations for some legendary boxers. “My father was always taking me to training camps when I was a kid,” says Goodman. “The camps were either in New York or New Jersey. I grew up in those camps being around fighters like Marcel Cerdan, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Rocky Marciano.

“It was my first job in boxing. You could say I was a messenger boy. I would get things for the fighters in camp.

“I would wake up Marcel Cerdan in the morning and we would go out running together. He did not speak English and I didn’t speak French, but we communicated wonderfully. I had the run of the camps. It was like being in fantasy land.

“I used to play ball with Rocky. He was a pretty good ball player who once had aspirations of making it to the major leagues as a catcher. We were at the pool one day in Grossingers and he was squatting down while I threw pitches to him. Suddenly his trainer, Charley Goldman, showed up and he was furious. ‘Bobby Goodman, get the bleep out of here!’ he yelled. ‘Rocky ain’t no ball player, he’s the heavyweight champion of the world!’ Rocky and I used to have a big laugh about that.”

Goodman was born in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. He moved to New Jersey, when he was 12, but was still close enough to the Big Apple to take advantage of the boxing activity it had to offer. There was much to do as a teenager in New York City, but for Bobby a perfect way to spend a weekend was to hop on the subway and take a ride to Stillman’s gym.

After spending a year and a half at the University of Miami, Goodman joined the United States Coast Guard where he served for four years. “We would be out at sea two to three months at a clip” he says, “but we had boxing tournaments the whole time.”

Upon his release from the coastguard, Goodman went to work for his dad, who had opened a sports agency. A big part of the job was to make their clients more marketable. Among Goodman’s were Bob Foster and Ken Norton, both of whom he grew to be close with not only on a professional level, but on a personal one, too.

“Myself and Bob Foster were close pals,” says Goodman. “I lived with him for months at a time. To me, he was the greatest light-heavyweight ever. But his problem was that he could not gain weight. Because of that, he could not compete with the heavyweights. Ali told me after they fought that he was glad Foster could not gain 10 more pounds, because he sure hit hard. Foster had a great jab that was like walking into a right hand. In training camp, we would try to get him the foods he liked, but nothing seemed to help. I even took over as chef for a little while, but he just didn’t eat much.

“The second Ali fight was the first time Norton and I started to work together, but I knew him personally before that through Joe Frazier. Norton was a good guy; smart, an ex-marine who came from a good family. We became very good friends. After speaking to me about the services I could provide, Norton said he would talk with his managers about hiring me. They did and we were together for the rest of his career.

“Ken Norton liked to say ‘anything the mind can conceive the body can achieve’. If he was confident going into a fight, then he was a tough man to beat. But he was not confident before challenging George Foreman for the title.Maybe it was because he knew Foreman was such a big puncher.”

Norton and Frazier were sparring partners and close friends. That, along with the timeline in their careers, prohibited them from ever fighting. The general consensus is if they had, then Frazier would have prevailed. Goodman disagrees. “Watching them train together all of the time, I could see it had gotten to the point where Ken could handle him.”

Shortly before the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, promoter Don King, still relatively new to the business, hired Goodman to work for him full-time. He became King’s right-hand man. Officially, the title was publicity director, but the responsibilities were so much more. “I never wanted to be recognised as just a PR guy,” says Goodman. “I coordinated training camps, set up rings, and did whatever was needed to get done.” And what Goodman needed to get done for the promotion in Zaire was substantial.

“A few of the government officials got together with me a few months before the fight. I gave them a list of what was needed. They were in over their heads in putting on a promotion of this magnitude and would sometimes ask dumb questions, like ‘why are we allowing the press to write negative things?’ Those meetings would continue in Zaire. I had Angelo Dundee there to keep me calm, otherwise I might have lost my temper.

“I told them to keep the ring, the gloves and the other equipment in a cool place not out in the hot sun, but they didn’t listen. The ring was put up days before the fight. As a result the ropes stretched out and the canvas got swampy. Angelo and myself were on our hands and knees sweating, trying to tighten the ropes when Archie Moore, Sandy Saddler and Dick Saddler, who trained Foreman, stopped by. Angelo and myself asked if they wanted to help, but they just sat and watched. After the fight Foreman complained about the ropes, but when his people had a chance to do something about, it they didn’t,” laughed Goodman.

Goodman believes that the fiasco in Zaire resulted in the birth of the Rope a Dope. “Ali had intended to dance a lot more than he did, but because of the new canvas and padding being left in the sun, he could not. His feet were sinking into the canvas. Because of that, he fought off of the ropes.

“I spent quite a bit of time in Ali’s camps. He always enjoyed coming up with new ideas and would do whatever I asked.” However, Ali did reject Goodman’s request once, sending him into a tizzy.

“It was in the dressing room after the Thrilla in Manila,” says Goodman. “I needed Ali to talk to the press, but he was too exhausted. The press were on deadline and I was unable to deliver Ali to them. I was starting to panic. I then went to Frazier’s dressing room and told them the problem. Eddie Futch said, ‘Let’s go, Joe’. Frazier was such a gentleman. They were a class act going out to speak to the media the way that they did.

“While Frazier was speaking to them, I ran into Ali’s dressing room. He was stretched out, exhausted. He could not believe that Frazier had the energy to go out and speak with the press. When he heard that, Ali forced himself to go out and meet with them as well.”

Goodman stayed with King until the mid-’80s, when he got an offer from Madison Square Garden to run their boxing department.

Madison Square Garden and 2 Penn Plaza

“When I told Don that I needed a day off to interview, he wished me luck and told me I’d get it because I was the best man for the job. We parted on good terms. We had been together around 10 years at that point. Then later in my career I worked for him for about another 10 as well. Off and on, we were together about 20 years or so. It was never dull working for Don. He took fights to places around the world like no one had ever done before.

“Working at Madison Square Garden was like going back home, being that I grew up around the old Garden. My father had worked there for Harry Markson at the International Boxing Club. It was where I started as a messenger boy when I was a teenager.

“My goal was to get the Garden back into the boxing business. Although they put on fight shows, they did not have one boxer under promotional contract. At Don King Productions we had about 55-60 signed, but the Garden had none. I could not understand why Madison Square Garden never took advantage of all the young talent they had in the New York area.”

Goodman was criticised for not always putting on the best matches, seemingly more concerned in building a boxer’s profile than catering to the fans. This was in sharp contrast to his predecessor at MSG, Teddy Brenner, who was more interested in putting on a good fights than protecting their promotional interest. For what it is worth, Brenner was criticised too.

What is indisputable is that MSG became relevant again under Goodman’s direction. Among the boxers they developed and/or signed to promotional contracts were Junior Jones, Kevin Kelley, Tracy Harris Patterson, Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson, Buddy McGirt, Aaron Davis, Juan LaPorte, Michael Dokes, Alex Stewart, Renaldo Snipes, Michael Olajide, Lonnie Bradley, Hector Acero, Howard Davis and Glenwood Brown.

“Of all the places that I worked at, Madison Square Garden was the most satisfying because I had worked there as a kid, it was in my DNA,” says Goodman.

Goodman’s tenure lasted approximately 10 years before MSG decided to disband their boxing department. The nature of the business had changed in that the vast majority of big fights were now taking place in either Las Vegas or Atlantic City.  

Undeterred, Goodman went across the river to New Jersey and started a new entity called Garden State Boxing. “MSG released most of the fighters from their contracts to sign with me,” says Goodman. “We were in the same building as Main Events, who we partnered up with in promoting them.

“What you have to understand is that I did things that were not normal for a promoter. I would set up accommodations and arrange sparring for the fighters. I would stay with the fighters at their training camp. I was a product of boxing.”

After a few years, Goodman transitioned back to King. Then toward the end of his career he worked for Roy Jones’ Square Ring Promotions, where he stayed a little over a year before deciding it was time to retire. “I owed it to my wife Kathleen to be home more,” says Goodman. “She did a great job of raising our four daughters when I was on the road. Kathleen passed away three years ago. The couple had a great run, which lasted 57 years. There are nine grandchildren who Goodman dotes on.

Bobby Goodman and Peter Frutkoff at the Seventh Annual Induction and Awards Dinner for the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame, Class of 2018. Sponsored by Ring 8.

In 2009, Bobby was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. He joined his dad Murray, who had been inducted 10 years previously. He has also been inducted into the HOFs of New York State, New Jersey, Florida, and Atlantic City. “Individual honours are nice, but the greatest compliment someone can give me is to call me a boxing guy,” says Goodman.

To Goodman, it is the relationships along the way that have meant the most. “I was only a kid when Cerdan died in that airplane crash, but it was like losing my best friend.

“I loved Joe Louis. We were close. When I owned a bar in Richfield, New Jersey, he came by a couple of times. Jim Braddock lived in the next town and whenever he stopped in, I sat him at the end of the bar and we talked boxing. He told me that Louis’ jab was like a jackhammer and he was such a smart ring technician.”

Unlike other old timers who predominantly think the fighters of the past were better, Goodman disagrees – at least in part. “Today’s athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger. For basic skills, Louis was one of the most talented ever, but I don’t think he would have beaten Ali.”

Goodman even pushes back on the consensus of Sugar Ray Robinson being the greatest ever, pound for pound. “He is certainly up there” states Goodman, “but it always bothered me that he declined to have a rubber match against Carmen Basilio. I don’t think you can automatically put Ray at number one. Roberto Duran and Julio Cesar Chavez at their absolute peak were on the same level. I loved working with the smaller guys like Wilfredo Gomez, Salvador Sanchez, Chavez and Duran. I called them the little giants.

“Buddy McGirt and Tom Johnson were favourites of mine. Johnson was an overachiever. McGirt had a great attitude. Both guys won world titles on the road. McGirt beat Frankie Warren in a rematch in Corpus Christi after losing to him there. He did not have to take the rematch in Warren’s hometown but had no hesitation doing it.

“I owe my success in the business to guys like my dad, Gil Clancy, Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Joey Fairello and Lou Viscusi, who managed Bob Foster and brought me aboard.

“For the most part the boxers were loyal to me and me to them. Personal relationships with a promoter are important to the boxers. Once you get their name on a contract, you have an obligation to do your best for them.

Goodman pauses, then laughs before saying, “I am giving you too much material for your story. If I decide to write a book, I’ll have nothing new to tell!”

Don’t believe that for a moment. With all that Goodman has experienced, it is safe to say he’ll never run out of stories.

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