SI Vault
Mark Kram
November 06, 1967
She is Aileen Eaton, a woman in a man's game—fight promotion—that abounds in stealth and triple trickery. Dictatorial yet feminine, she is loved by some, hated by others and feared by all
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November 06, 1967

The Lady Is A Champ

She is Aileen Eaton, a woman in a man's game—fight promotion—that abounds in stealth and triple trickery. Dictatorial yet feminine, she is loved by some, hated by others and feared by all

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Now there she is sitting under an apple tree, like some sweet, aging lady who looks for unusual birds and thinks that Oil for the Lamps of China was the last great picture made. What a gentle, uncomplicated sweetheart she is, sitting there talking about the Indian summers of her Vancouver youth and the music that was made at twilight of every evening in her father's house. Next time, you think, you must take her for a nice long ride in the country so she can see the billboards and say: "My, how everything has changed."

Certainly this cannot be the feared Lady Aileen of boxing's gold coast, not the woman known by such names as Madame Nhu, The Dragon Lady, Ma Barker, The Man-Eating Lotus Flower and The Woman, the one who knows how to tape a hand or a fight manager's mouth, scale a house to the seat or shave a pitchman who thinks he has all the pitches? That's her, all right, under the apple tree: Aileen Eaton, the biggest and maybe the most powerful boxing promoter in the world today, the same Aileen Eaton who last week staged the Jerry Quarry-Floyd Patterson heavyweight elimination fight in Los Angeles.

So do not think of her as a delicately declining lady on the brink of warm milk and a shawl and nice long drives in the country. For one thing, no one takes Aileen Eaton for a ride. She does the driving, in the longest Cadillac in southern California, and usually to a place where you pick up cards and dice. The Lady moves, that is, when she has time. Politically lethal, she has been a forceful figure in at least two campaigns, in one of which Attorney General Thomas Lynch won and Pierre Salinger lost. She once ran for the city council and lost, too, but that was the exception. Do not try to beat her on her own turf.

Currently, the major areas of boxing promotion in this country are New York, New England, Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles. The best of these is L.A. Monolithic Madison Square Garden is impersonal; Subway Sam Silverman of Boston, Worcester, Portland and points unforeseen in New England is a freebooting ferret who makes a score only occasionally; Herman Taylor, Philadelphia, a grumpy patriarch, is an anachronism; and Miami's Chris Dundee knows how to turn a dollar—any way he can.

All of these promoters are professional, meaning they are able to count, are sufficiently learned in the art of buncombe and have just the proper amount of probity in them to survive. Aileen Eaton is no different. She has all these qualities that are considered so necessary to the marksman in boxing, but she never cuts herself in on a fighter's earnings, an illegal practice for a promoter but one that is still rampant in the sport.

"A couple of her matchmakers used to have pieces of fighters or cut them," says Harry Kabakoff, alias Melville Himmelfarb or, as he calls himself, El Ruso Loco (The Mad Russian). Melville must be considered an authority on this subject. Once an assistant matchmaker for Mrs. Eaton but not unreasonably larcenous, Melville was never known in those days for his excessive charity. "But Ma Barker," he says, "never cuts a fighter. She has the power, she could have all kinds of fighters; you know, a manager comes up to her and says, 'Here, take my part of my boy. You can make him.' "

Aileen Eaton does not want part of any boy. She runs her polished operation like a business, one that is refreshingly interested in the people who allow her business to exist. Quite simply, she performs. Dictatorial and charming and often intolerant of imperfection, she is everywhere during her weekly shows at the Olympic Auditorium, an ancient, graying, high-ceiling fortress of boxing on South Grand Ave. She is on television selling her next show, or gently or un-gently reprimanding a customer for bad manners. Her security, despite a riot in 1964 that forced her to take out a bank loan so she could restore the Olympic, is the best one can attain at a fight. Sartorial untidiness—television is the influence—also distracts her. She constantly badgers referees to wear blue shirts and ties and insists ringside customers facing the cameras wear jackets.

Before a show she is just as conscious of detail, busying herself with such things as seating comfort for her spectators. In the days preceding the first Quarry-Patterson bout at Memorial Coliseum, she could be seen on her hands and knees measuring the space between each chair with a tape; there was not a cramped seat in the house. On other days she hears complaints from customers concerning decisions, keeps club members (who get choice seats at $1 off on each ticket) informed of forthcoming cards and schemes to build young fighters into attractions. Finally there is the relentless, daily jousting with managers who, with the skill of the best quarter horses, can cut a buck out of the rubble of a city dump, and have robbery in their souls and disloyalty forever in their minds.

The treatment of these old pirates, a curiously likable tribe, is a delicate diplomacy, requiring at various times cajolery, intimidation, sabotage and tenacity. Be kind, a bit servile and honest, and the manager will be suspicious, if not repelled by your ignorance of his character and ethics. He is only confused briefly, though, and then you are relieved of your ignorance and your bank account. Be crude, profane and stealthy, and the manager is respectful because he knows that you understand the nature of his game, a deeply shadowed realm of migratory and marginal people who live lives of half-truths and no truths, tricks, double tricks and triple tricks.

"In the last 20 years," says Melville, now the manager of Jesus Pimentel, the No. 1 bantamweight behind Champion Fighting Harada, "I've seen her put fear into managers, many of them trying to give her hell. I've seen her attack managers with her purse, kick 'em downstairs and even raise her fist to them. But you always get a good count even if the lights are out, which no doubt she shot out in the first place arguing over a quarter."

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