Of all the unlikely career conceits—I want to be a door-to-door salesman, a hairdresser, a soccer goalie—this is the least likely: I want to study journalism and then do business on a regular basis with boxing promoters like Don King, Butch Lewis and Dennis Rappaport. Somebody actually did this. A man of respectable upbringing (his father is a lawyer), education (a master's degree from Boston University) and seeming sensitivity (his mother-in-law calls him to help draft her thank-you notes) set out to make deals with men for whom piracy would be an absurdly lofty goal, a relative priesthood. Would you like to meet this fellow's vocational counselor? Would you like to meet this fellow? When he gets up in the morning, whistling at his prospects, it might be to do business with Bob Arum, who once dismissed a contradiction with the following reassurance: "Yesterday I was lying, but today I'm telling the truth."
This fellow is Seth Abraham, senior vice-president for sports programming at Home Box Office, a man whose corporate title and bearing are entirely misleading. First, they obscure the fact that he controls, to a large degree, the colorful business of boxing, an enterprise that one rival in cable-TV sports describes as "Guys and Dolls without the music." Second, they give the impression there is something soft or conventional about Abraham. His presence in boxing is so unlikely that it amuses even King, who says, "He's got these big rimmed glasses! He wears suspenders and he enunciates!" Others are not amused. Lewis has called Abraham "very vindictive." King admits Abraham is a "voracious tiger," but that is King's idea of high praise. As for being conventional, Abraham is a man who staked the name and resources of HBO (which is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S publisher) on a problematic series of boxing bouts, each new contract an adventure fraught with risk. Some men like to swim with sharks, but only Abraham enjoys flossing their teeth.
Abraham is not the sort to climb into the ring during the prefight celebrity introductions. Yet it was he who, however anonymously, produced a single heavyweight champion out of three titleholders and many more self-interests. You can give credit to Mike Tyson if you want, but compared with the battles Abraham fought, the boxer's path was greased. Abraham quietly guides boxing's most important division, and he negotiates the Tyson fights you will see on cable TV for some time to come. He helps decide who will be the next Sugar Ray Leonard and, for that matter, when and whom the old one will fight. It is Abraham who, backed by a production and programming budget of $50 million a year, has elevated Saturday afternoon fights, once the transition between cliff-diving and rhythmic gymnastics, into prime-time events.
We'll leave it to the promoters to argue whether he is the smartest man in boxing or just the luckiest. We'll leave it to the social historians to decide whether he has wrought cultural changes on the scale of, say. Monday Night Football. But please! Let nobody dispute that Abraham, whom one friend describes as "prissy" (he is certainly dapper), is the least likely man ever to sit across a table from Don King.
Here's King at that table, finally taking notice of this impossibly well-mannered interloper: "What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing in this business?" This was followed by chilling advice (you would have found it chilling if King had been three inches from your face): "Leave it for me!"
What is Abraham doing in this business? Why not be a goalie? At least, why not remain in the baseball commissioner's office doing gentlemanly deals on behalf of the national pastime, as Abraham did from 1974 to '78? That was a nice living for a kid who grew up down the street from Ebbets Field and saved Borden's ice-cream wrappers to trade in for a bleacher-seat ticket every Friday. But Abraham says he needed more—the adrenaline generated by the ultimate deal, a deal that is almost certainly calamitous, only possibly rewarding. A boxing deal.
Ten years ago, newly hired to a sports-programming job that HBO was thinking of eliminating, Abraham steered the network and himself into boxing as a programming staple. Moving quickly to generate confidence in HBO's little sports division, he negotiated a championship bout between WBC welterweight champ Wilfred Benitez and Harold Weston. It was surprisingly easy. No wonder boxing attracts such scoundrels, he thought: They are drawn to the ease with which high-dollar business can be accomplished. But days went by without attention being paid to his masterstroke. Publicity was scant. Matter of fact, he did not see anything in the newspapers about his fight, and he reads eight papers every day. He called up Madison Square Garden to inquire into the lack of promotion. Well, he was told, as there is no such fight....
"I had bought a fight that didn't exist!" he says. Ten years has been time enough to turn a career-killer into cocktail-party chatter, but at the beginning, time was in short supply. As legend has it, the week before Abraham went to HBO, senior executives of HBO and Time Inc. had voted informally, 6-1, to discontinue sports programming; Michael Fuchs, then HBO's head of original programming and now its chairman, cast the one, persuasive vote that saved Abraham's job. And among Abraham's first acts was to schedule that phantom fight. "You see, I didn't know," he says, uttering the words of every first-time business partner in boxing.
Do you think the Kings and the Arums were somewhat roused by the arrival of this moneyed innocent, this babe with the goods? A man who will sign up invisible fights! Imagine the promoters slavering over the prospect of doing business with Abraham, a fellow who stays up nights reading long history books and dreaming up just the right gifts for his friends and whose real joy is pickup basketball. "He was kinda green," says King. Of course, the point of this story is not that Abraham was fooled—who isn't in this business?—but rather that he's still around 10 years later. Back when Abraham first called him up, all King could manage on the phone was, "Who are you, anyway?"
Telephoning King from his corner office—good view, nice furniture and a lot of sporting knickknacks (signed baseballs, an antique mitt, pictures of celebrities)—Abraham says, "Don, Don, Don." Muffled barking comes out of the receiver. "Don, Don, Don." Abraham appears stricken by what he is hearing. "Don! It's my birthday. For my birthday, you can't give me the fifty? Don, Don, Don." There is more muffled barking and, apparently, the slamming of a phone. Abraham looks up, amused by the little drama. "Jousting," he says.