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 Tyson-Trevor Berbick deal, for example. This was a key fight in the heavyweight unification series that Abraham dreamed up. Everybody was committed, and all that remained was for Berbick to sign a contract. He had agreed to do so. In the meantime, Dennis Rappaport, Gerry Cooney's promoter, was announcing that Berbick had agreed to fight Cooney outside the series. Something needed to be worked out here. Berbick agreed to meet Abraham and King at the Las Vegas Hilton to sign for the Tyson fight.

But where was Berbick? The day of the meeting one of his agents showed up at the hotel to express Berbick's regrets but refused to disclose the fighter's whereabouts. This agent, not familiar with surveillance techniques, then hopped into the first available cab. One of King's lieutenants. Duke Durden, got into the next available cab and was able to say—as they do only in movies and boxing—"Follow that car." Durden tailed the agent to Caesars Palace and discovered that Berbick was staying there under the alias Tommy Brown. Durden called King to the scene, and together they went to the fighter's room and knocked on the door. Berbick asked who it was. King said, "Room service." Berbick swung the door open and, wide-eyed, looked at the two men filling his doorway. He said, "Hey, you're not room service."

Papers were quickly signed, and the series remained intact. "This is not a business for choirboys," says Abraham. He adds, "But how can you not have fun with this?"

Some stories: One night in Las Vegas back in 1985, Abraham was hosting a dinner party for 12 friends and relatives. It was strictly a social gathering. But at the time, Abraham had been idly inquiring into the possibility of a Larry Holmes-Michael Spinks fight on HBO. "So who shows up at dinner," says Abraham, "but Don and Butch." This would be King and Lewis, who represented Holmes and Spinks, respectively. "It was about 11 o'clock. Everything stopped. I moved my father-in-law down a spot and moved Uncle Irv. And the three of us, me, Don and Butch, sat there until after two, talking about how to make Holmes-Spinks for HBO. It was like a Passover seder. Everybody else just sat there and watched us."

After Gerrie Coetzee beat Michael Dokes in Richfield, Ohio, in 1983, King and Abraham began wondering if it wouldn't be possible to make Holmes-Coetzee. Let's talk, they said. King phoned ahead to Winston's, a rib joint in Cleveland, and King's and Abraham's staffs repaired there. "They hadn't seen any white faces at Winston's since before the war," says Abraham, "and I mean the Civil War." Two of Abraham's aides, both white, arrived early, looked around the neighborhood and hunkered down in their car until King's limo arrived. They all ate smoked whitefish and ribs until 5 a.m. and pounded out a fight on paper. That fight never took place, but Abraham betrays no disappointment in the telling. The point is, they made a deal.

Another time Abraham found himself dealing with Arum on a series of fights for Marvelous Marvin Hagler, HBO's original meal ticket. This was at the U.S. Open in 1983, and the only available paper on which to scratch out a contract was the tennis program. Abraham took pains not to write near the figures denoting the tennis players' career earnings. "I didn't want Bob coming back and pointing to this $1.3 million figure," he says.

For boxing, such informality represents business as usual. Boxing has resisted the normal principles and practices of commerce and instead moves along by accidents of inspiration and perseverance, its ethics developed on the fly. The working moral code, Abraham says, is "who screws who first." But everyone seems to enjoy the opportunity to do high-stakes business outside a boardroom, in an arena where the only rule is that there are no rules.

So what was HBO thinking of when it got into this business? Like Abraham, did it just not know?

The story: "The idea of boxing? It just came to me. I wouldn't call it a revelation, but it was a very odd experience," Abraham says. He and Fuchs found themselves at a Rangers-Flyers game at the Garden—"This was March of '79"—for what turned out to be one of the great brawls in NHL history. Just as the fights on the ice wore down, the Flyers found a second wind and charged into the stands after hecklers. The mayhem went on for another 30 minutes. Fuchs and Abraham, hardly hockey fans, turned to their reading. Fuchs dived into some Hollywood trade papers, Abraham into the New York Post.

There he came across a story about Hagler, who was proclaiming himself the uncrowned middleweight champion. The idea appealed to Abraham, and he turned to Fuchs and said. "This guy's got moxie." Fuchs was equally intrigued, and Abraham got his go-ahead into the fight business.

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