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Bob Arum, the fight promoter, was on the phone to London and there was a quaver in his voice that even the wha-wha of a bad transatlantic connection couldn't drown out. He was talking to Mickey Duff, a British matchmaker, about the middleweight championship bout in Grenoble that would pit Colombia's Rodrigo Valdes against Max Cohen of France on April 12. Arum had just sold this package to ABC.
Now Duff was saying he believed that Max Cohen might not be Max Cohen at all, but a guy named Ahmed Ghize or Mahmoud el Tahir. He was saying that Max Cohen had been brought to France by a fight manager named Roger Ben-said, and that the boxer had been de-Arabized and given a more salable name. The very thought of such a thing was upsetting Arum because he had promoted Max Cohen as the last—the very last—of the good Jewish fighters.
"Bensaid gets these kids from North Africa. They say he sews a Star of David on their trunks and calls them his Jewish Lions," Duff informed Arum.
Arum knew there were precedents for such stunts. Back in 1964, a certain Ski Goldstein, a heavyweight from San Diego, fought in Madison Square Garden one Friday night and was discovered by the New York press the next day to be no more Jewish than Cardinal Spellman. And once, in the '60s, a Puerto Rican named Marcos got turned into a Marcus—first name Sydney. His exposure was said to have come at a B'nai B'rith sports breakfast where Marcos called a matzo a taco.
Back came the requested cable from France. "Relax, Max Cohen checks out," it said. "Born 1941, Safi, Morocco. Father, Meyer, a truck driver. Mother, Esther, five sisters, including a Ruth, a Batsheva and a Deborah. Family now moved to Israel. Town of Beersheba. Cohen changed first name four years ago from Nessim to Max. Said it was punchier. He drinks mint tea, eats honey cakes, says he speaks Arabic better than French and uses corner man named Mohammed Benamou. But dossier withstands scrutiny. Certain Cohen is a genuine Cohen."
Max Cohen is the real item, all right, but a strange one. He is as moody as a Bedouin. His half-bald head accents his dark eyes in a way that makes them seem to seethe even when the talk at his bar—Chez Max—is about how Max is going to take Valdes apart, how Max is in such great shape that you could bottle his sweat and sell it in competition with Vichy water.
Everything irritates Max Cohen. His irascibility quotient is stunning. He sucks on a glass of orange and lemon juice ("Not bad but too damn sweet") and complains that he was not invited to a luncheon given by Premier Jacques Chirac for prominent French athletes. "I'm a middleweight champion of France, no? I'm fighting for the world championship, no?" Then the city of Paris refused a tax waiver to the promoters of the Cohen-Valdes fight, forcing them to move to Grenoble. "Now all my fans are going to have to hike into the Alps to see me in my biggest fight instead of taking the metro," Max complains.
Manager Bensaid, complete with cigar and red face, tries to explain Max to outsiders as a bit of a depressive. "Look at his background and his life. You'll get more sympathetic."
Cohen grew up poor, working in a printing shop in the sort of Casablanca neighborhood that produced Marcel Cerdan, who is still probably France's greatest sports hero. In spite of his name, Cohen made the Moroccan amateur team, losing only once in 44 fights, and was chosen for the Pan-Arab Games when he was 20. "Everybody screamed it was a scandal," he recalls. "How could a Jew compete in an Arab competition? Worse was that everybody was afraid I'd win."