One of the fighters was bleeding in the main event and Teddy Brenner, up front ringside in his usual seat at Madison Square Garden, chewed gum and absently flicked commands at a lieutenant. "If this fight is stopped in the next two rounds, we'll bring on the four-rounder," said Brenner from behind his horn-rimmed glasses. "If it lasts beyond that, we'll forget it and go home." And somehow you had to hand it to this ex-shirt salesman from Brooklyn, not so much for the cool authority with which he made decisions as for even daring to sit up front ringside at all. For Teddy Brenner, your best instincts told you, should not be turning his back on people.
Brenner, who is the matchmaker for the Garden, is one of the most controversial men in boxing, a distinction derived as much from his buzz-saw personality as from any dark deeds that his detractors can point to with anything more than innuendo. Like that other kind of matchmaker, the Hello, Dolly! marriage broker, a boxing matchmaker needs plenty of cunning and cuteness to ply his trade. It speaks for Brenner's supply of both that the fights he puts together are more fun to watch, and sometimes last longer, than those arranged by your very best marriage broker.
"I'm the best matchmaker in the business," Brenner allows, and even his enemies readily concede as much. But then some of his enemies reportedly have to shave twice in the morning, once on each face. For the record they talk sweet about Brenner, because he is the man to see about getting a fight in Madison Square Garden, and the Garden, besides being boxing's major shrine, is just about the only show in town. Off the record, Brenner could use a new reputation.
"Let me tell you something," he says, leaning forward at the desk in his underground Garden office. "It doesn't matter what anybody thinks. I have to answer only to myself. The matchmaker can't be popular. He has to deal with people, not ashtrays or suits, and people are always up to something. They're always making deals and then changing their minds. People can be a lot of trouble."
During 22 years as a matchmaker, the last 10 of them at the Garden, Brenner has had his share of trouble, people being what they are. Whenever Oscar Bonavena boxed in the old Garden, misunderstandings over the size of his purses almost invariably brought both the Argentine heavyweight and Dr. Marvin Goldberg, a Long Island optometrist and then Bonavena's manager, storming into Brenner's office. On one occasion Bonavena slammed a fist and a foot against the matchmaker's door, while on another Goldberg and Brenner had a noisy go at each other, with the door getting easily the worst of it. In boxing such out-of-the-ring altercations do not necessarily preclude doing business, as evidenced by the fact that until he recently was arrested in New Jersey, one of the Garden's biggest attractions was a light heavyweight named Frankie DePaula, whom Brenner used regularly even though DePaula's trainer, Al Braver-man, earned some measure of renown a while back by flooring the matchmaker with a single punch.
Ask Brenner about the Braverman fracas today and he waves a hand and declares: "You shouldn't believe everything you hear." As the conversation turns to other matters, his brown eyes begin to smolder and a frown forms across his vaguely aquiline, yet unobtrusively handsome, face. His forehead, speckled and tanned, subdivides into furrows, and his toothpaste-white teeth disappear into an outthrusting jaw. The smoldering has turned to a slow burn. "So they're still talking about Braver-man's sneak punch?" he finally asks. "That's what it was, a sneak punch."
Still, Brenner avers that it never pays to hold a grudge, and as a matchmaker he knows only too well that colorful and popular prizefighters like DePaula are in short supply. (DePaula currently is charged with complicity in the theft of $80,000 worth of copper bars, a situation that makes him unavailable for Garden bouts.) The dearth of good fighters, and the occasional loss of gate attractions like DePaula, tempers whatever absolute power the Madison Square Garden matchmaker might otherwise enjoy—or so Brenner claims. "Sure I hold leverage over them," he admits, "but the managers and the fighters, the good ones, hold leverage over me, too."
A certain amount of tension between matchmaker and manager is natural, even unavoidable. "It's the matchmaker's duty to force a manager to fight worthy opposition," says Brenner. Despite this lofty mission, there are those who regard his taste in matches as arbitrary, capricious or worse. When he uses a fighter they accuse him of playing favorites or owning a piece of the action. When he passes over a fighter they call him aloof and arrogant. If a bout is exciting, the fighters get the credit. If it is not, the matchmaker gets the blame. There are even some people who profess to believe that a boxer should get work merely because he has talent. Brenner qualifies as a tough operator largely thanks to the zeal with which he reminds such idealists that this is not the best of all possible worlds, maybe not even second best.
Matchmaking, he advises them, is not simply "a matter of putting the No. 1 and No. 2 men in the ring. Anybody could do that. It is a matter first of determining whether the styles of the two fighters blend. Then you have to decide if it's an important fight. In other words, will the winner move on to a bigger fight? And is it one that I as a fan would want to see? The fans want to see the best fight, and that doesn't necessarily mean the best fighters.
"Take two fighters. One brings in $1,000 worth of tickets. The other brings in his lunch in a paper bag. So I don't use him. Right away they say I'm looking for a kickback or something. Baloney." Here the matchmaker paused, uncertain whether to go on. Finally, as if to have it quickly out in the open and be done with it, he brought up Emile Griffith. Griffith, who is co-managed by Gil Clancy, a close friend of Brenner's, has fought in the Garden no fewer than 23 times. "Everybody said I favored Griffith or that I controlled him." Brenner continued. "Well, nothing could be more of a lie. I've never controlled anybody, and I've never accepted a penny from anybody."