SI Vault
Richard Hoffer
January 15, 1990
Through hair-raising, 12-round negotiations with promoters like Don King, HBO's Seth Abraham has become the heaviest hitter in the world of professional boxing
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January 15, 1990

Fists Full Of Dollars

Through hair-raising, 12-round negotiations with promoters like Don King, HBO's Seth Abraham has become the heaviest hitter in the world of professional boxing

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The two are negotiating the licensing fee for the March 17 Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor fight, which Abraham has essentially created for HBO. He has been trying to turn Chavez, the WBC junior welterweight champion, into an HBO star. He has already paid the fighter $5 million for six fights, and Abraham needs a matchup with another undefeated champion—Taylor, the IBF junior welterweight titleholder—to secure the payoff. Abraham has been working on this for nine months, trying to overcome the reluctance of each fighter's promoter to risk his championship franchise. Promoters agree that a division should be represented by a single champion, but only if he is their fighter. This cannot be guaranteed.

Nevertheless, Abraham has brought King. Chavez's promoter, together with King's hated rival, Dan Duva, Taylor's promoter. And the fight has been made. All that remains to be resolved is the difference between King's asking price of $2.9 million and Abraham's offer of $2.85 million. They had begun with a $1.3 million spread and narrowed it to these...pennies. Fifty thousand is loose change to these men, but it is clear that each enjoys the opportunity to dive for it. The phone rings in Abraham's office. Muffled barking comes out of the receiver. King, it turns out, is reminding Abraham of a favor to be returned, a time when King delivered Tyson, gratis, for one of Abraham's corporate functions. Abraham, as if he had been waiting for King to remember this all along, says, "You got the fifty," and they quickly move on to other pleasantries, such as possible sites for a planned Tyson-Razor Ruddock fight. (The bout was later postponed when Tyson became ill and has not yet been rescheduled.) Off the phone Abraham says, "Don knew I was going to buy the Chavez fight, and he knew that I knew he knew." The back and forth was just for fun? Not entirely. "I'm not going to roll over for even one dollar."

Abraham is one of life's strange discoveries, a man of apparent contradictions who is, nevertheless, entirely at peace with himself. He battles King for that dollar and then, minutes later, remembers how he always manages to come up with the perfect gift for King. "I was with him at a hotel once, and I noticed he left a wake-up call," says Abraham. "So I went over to Tiffany's, and I bought him a beautiful traveling alarm clock." Odd.

Abraham is comically meticulous, given his tolerance for workaday chaos. Describing the way to his weekend farm north of New York City, he indicates perhaps a dozen turns, each with a mileage reading. "At 9G," he will say, "turn north. Set your odometer. At point-five miles, you'll see an antique store. Set your odometer." Once done, he says, "Let's go over it again." He loves to recount past deals, always starting with the date. "August of '87," he'll say, leaning back into the story. He's the kind of guy who, when he leaves his office, picks up an index card from his secretary with all the calls he must return.

Yet he makes million-dollar deals on napkins at oyster bars. At last year's U.S. Open tennis tournament, he invited King to the quarterfinal match between Ivan Lendl and Tim Mayotte, and between points they worked on details of a proposed lifetime contract for Tyson. It wasn't the first time Abraham had sketched a contract on a tennis program. For all his fastidiousness, he is not a man of corporate caution.

Reconcile this: Abraham wanders around his new farm in a dream state—a Brooklyn kid gone goofy—pointing out butterflies and hawks to his four-year-old daughter. Sari, while the phone rings off the hook inside the big red barn of a house. The next day he leaves for his regular pickup basketball game at the 23rd Street YMCA in New York City—"do-or-die basketball," says another participant, advertising legend George Lois, the man who gave us Mr. Whipple. Plays defense with his teeth, says Lois, and shocks the street kids—"these aren't yuppies"—with his shooting. Sulks mightily when he loses. Abraham has been going to city gyms for a decade or so, same gyms, same players, and doesn't even know the players' names. He is 42, 10 years past retirement age for most guys at the Y, and just 5'10" in his hightops. "I don't play basketball for fun," he says. And then, his fires banked, he returns to his family.

Or this: He can bluster with the best of them. In an early deal King tried intimidation and sprang at Abraham, stopping just short of physical contact. Abraham sat there impassively and then lit into King. He says he recently had to insult a promoter for 15 minutes, which is about three days short of the time required to hurt a promoter's feelings.

And all the while he might have been plotting his wife's 40th-birthday party, an elaborate surprise no other husband should allow his wife to read about. Champagne and chocolate cake aboard the Orient Express from Paris to Venice, then a flight back to Paris and a front-row seat at an Yves St. Laurent fashion show, where she could turn to Catherine Deneuve or Paloma Picasso and say, "Lynn Abraham, New Jersey." The party took more than a year to plan.

What is he doing in this business? Abraham never even saw a live fight until he was 27, when Lynn surprised him by getting tickets to a bout at Madison Square Garden.

Well, how does someone prepare for the boxing business, anyway? Take the Chavez-Taylor deal. For nine months Abraham worked to reconcile the two parties, making just the right promises, extracting just the right concessions. A fight involving the principals' stable-mates had to be guaranteed, even if it wasn't Abraham's idea of an HBO-caliber fight. Yet as boxing deals go, this was straightforward. Many deals for bouts are far more exciting than the fights themselves.

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