Harry Kabakoff doesn't work the corners much anymore. He's carried too many hopes into the ring: carried out too many fighters. "I've put more kids on a bus back to Mexico than the Immigration Service," he says. Kabakoff, a Los Angeles fight manager, is an ex-bantamweight who came into the world as Melville Himmelfarb, and is now 49, balding, and far more than half as round (50 inches) as he is tall (77 inches). Not that all of his warriors have been stiffs. Hardly. He had, for example, Jesus Pimentel, a kid with a grin as dazzling as his left hook, and only promotional politics and, finally, age kept him from being a champion. And he had Tury Pineda, who twice beat up on Guts Ishimatsu, then the WBC lightweight champion, but in the wrong place—Tokyo. The first fight was ruled a draw; the second they gave to Ishimatsu. "They kept smiling and bowing and robbing us," snarls Kabakoff, bowing and smiling. Well, trying to bow.
And at the moment, Kabakoff has Vicente Saldivar, a lightweight from the mold of Willie Pep, and Mando Muniz, a brawling welterweight with a master's degree in education, and either or both could be a world champion before spring. Muniz is scheduled to fight Carlos Palomino, the WBC champion, on Jan. 22 at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles; Saldivar is close to a March fight with Esteban DeJesus. With people like that, plus a few other fast-rising contenders in his stable of 60 to 70 fighters—almost all of them Mexicans—in other years it would have been impossible to keep Kabakoff from leading his own parade down Wilshire Boulevard. While the Mad Russian's eternal optimism flares as high as ever privately, years of handling boxers like Chango Cruz, a recent import from Mexico, have at last made him publicly cautious.
"That bum destroyed my image," roars Kabakoff, who just a month or so ago was telling people that Cruz was the greatest fighter to come out of Mexico since Pancho Villa. "The next time you see me working a corner you'll know my guy has got to be at least a 4-to-1 favorite."
A few months ago Saldivar spotted Cruz fighting in a small arena in Duran-go, Mexico. "You should see this kid." Saldivar told Kabakoff. "He's a great featherweight. He hits like a middleweight. You better grab him quick before somebody else does. He's had nine fights, lost only one—and that was on cuts—and right now I think he could beat Gerardo Aceves." One of the world's finer featherweights, Aceves had a record of 23-1.
"Tell Cruz to get on a bus to Mexicali right away," yelled Kabakoff, and he rushed off to see Vic Weiss, one of his partners. Kabakoff surrounds himself with partners. "I have a financial need to be in business with wealthy men," he says. He has been known to check a prospective partner's financial statement. Weiss and his partner, Jerry Cutter, own large and lucrative Ford and Rolls-Royce agencies in California and Hawaii. Weiss, an ex-college and All-Marine football player, was ecstatic when he was told about Cruz.
"Let's go and get him fast," he told Kabakoff. Then Weiss called Cutter and told him the good news.
Cruz came to Mexicali, where he spent 10 days waiting for a visa and being observed by Pimentel, who years ago fell easily into a father-son relationship with Kabakoff. Pimentel's last son is named Melville. "And he's not going to be a fighter," says Pimentel.
"If I have my way," says Kabakoff. "Melville Pimentel is gonna be a rabbi."
Almost daily. Pimentel phoned Kabakoff with reports on Cruz. All were the same: strong, good puncher, powerful legs. And ugly.
"God, is he ugly," says Kabakoff. "He makes Pineda look like Rock Hudson, and Pineda looks like Dracula."