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"I went to see the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight on closed circuit at the Summit. Most of the people were there for the event of it, but I was really interested and wanted to talk boxing. I got to talking with Bob Spagnola, who'd been an amateur fighter and was working as an accountant for Pennzoil, and he said, 'You seem to know what you're looking at.' I said I did, but that no one would take me to the fights. He said, 'I will. I'll take you around to the gyms and introduce you to some of the fighters and the trainers. Would you like that?' I said I'd adore it, and we began an odyssey of the gyms and fights in Houston."
She had seen real fights and real fighters before. She had seen Sugar Ray Robinson in his purple Cadillac in the south of France, and she had even been in the same room with Sonny Liston. With Spagnola her education went from sentimental to empirical. The gym they hung around most was Willie Savannah's place, an overheated boxing barn with dust in the corners and all the stink you could ask for. At night they went to every fight they could. 'They were real kicker joints personified," says Spagnola. "Cowboy and truck driver places. I'd tell Josephine who I thought would win. and she'd say. I love the one with muscles.' " Abercrombie was hooked. Of course, when she told her family and society friends about her boxing plans, they were unamused. Her sons were against it. One friend said, "Josephine, you are out of your mind to get involved with those people."
Undaunted, Abercrombie and Savannah made plans. They talked about going into business together and putting up a new gym. She would finance it, and Savannah would run the show. The building went up. all gleaming and odor-free. Alas, the deal fell through. "But I didn't care," she says. "It was too late to quit. I figured I was at the dance and I'm gonna dance." HBA was born.
Simple as that. It is a nice, impulsive story, the sort of tale any tycoon might tell by way of describing the quick purchase of a hockey team, a newspaper or a Pacific island.
And yet there is much more to it. Boxing was a wealthy woman's way of forgetting a sorrow and finding something thrilling and consuming to do.
Marriage had been a series of struggles. Her name changed as often as most highway diners. After graduation from Rice University in 1946, she went through husbands with a disconcerting speed. First came Dick Hudson, a Houston boy. That lasted a year. Then came an Argentine architect (Fernando Segura. 18 months), a Kentucky horseman (Burnett Robinson, six years), and another Kentucky horseman (Barry Ryan, one year). Four husbands and counting. "I always thought it would be better, and every time I was wrong." she says. Abercrombie thought she finally had it right when she married Tony Bryan, a Harvard-educated executive with the Monsanto chemical corporation. In the first 10 years of the marriage, Abercrombie followed her husband up the corporate ladder in perfect lockstep, first to Akron, then on to St. Louis. Never mind that she was one of the wealthiest women in the country and that they could have stayed home in Houston clipping coupons. She was "deliriously" happy with her life, her friends, her marriage. Akron was fine, and so was St. Louis. When her father's health deteriorated badly in 1973, Abercrombie and Bryan moved back to Houston to help run the business. Back at home they were the sort of couple you see in society pages, glimmering folks in black tie and ball gown at this charity ball and that company testimonial.
In 1975, the same year that both her father and mother died. Abercrombie discovered her husband was having an affair with Pam Sakowitz. the wife of retailer Robert Sakowitz. Bryan wanted out. The press coverage was bitchy, and the divorce was worse, with the attendant nastiness over Abercrombie's $100 million fortune. Abercrombie tells this story while flying on her plane from Houston to New York for the Tim Witherspoon-Bonecrusher Smith WBA heavyweight title fight. Partly to make her guest feel comfortable, partly to keep herself composed, she tries to brush it all off with that precious sort of irony she has.
"That was not a wonderful time of my life, I must say."
Not wonderful? Not wonderful? After a few moments of letting the jet engines fill in the silence, she lets the facade fall away. "I'd raised his kids for 13 years and my own children, too, so there were five of us. He'd become a vice-president of Monsanto's international division. I was perfectly happy as a corporate wife. That's what I was.
"When he decided to leave the marriage I was devastated. I'd adored the whole life I was living, and now this. It really negated all the feelings I had about myself as a wife and a mother."