THE KIMBALL CHRONICLES: The Prisoner Of Hell's Kitchen

BY George Kimball ON May 04, 2009
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If I’ve done enough wrong in this life that I’m brought back as a boxing promoter in the next one, first thing I do is abolish press conferences -- press conferences announcing fights, post-fight press conferences, photo ops at the Statue of Liberty, the lot of them.

From the standpoint of the working press, they’re all but useless, and from the promoter’s they represent an unnecessary expense producing little of value in return. For a fraction of what they’d save, promoters could spend their money on something truly useful, like health insurance for their boxers.

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There’s a wonderful scene in Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” Mel (Jack Lemmon), afflicted with big-city malaise, has already endured a rough patch in his life that makes the Trials of Job seem trifling by comparison. When a scruffy-looking kid bumps into him on the street, he reaches for his wallet, realizes it is missing, and takes off in pursuit of a mugger half his age.

After a mad dash across Central Park, a panting Mel runs his quarry down and pounces on him. Cocking his fist, he demands his wallet  “or I’ll beat your head in.” The terrified mugger complies. Mel, his sagging spirits lifted by having finally fought back, returns home to report the adventure to his wife Edna (Anne Bancroft), who seems unimpressed. 

“But I got my wallet back!” he says.

“Your wallet’s brown. This one’s black,” she sighs. “You left yours on the dresser this morning. This isn’t your wallet, Mel.”

The excitement drains from Mel’s face.

“My God,” he says. “I mugged a kid.”

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In bygone times press conferences were absolutely essential to putting on a fight show. You hired a restaurant, picked up the tab for lunch, poured a bunch of booze down the throats of the assembled newsmen, and they’d return to their offices and dutifully file glowing stories about that week’s Fight of the Century.  At a time when there were a dozen daily papers in New York and five or six in Boston this made a lot of sense. It eventually got to the point that promoters were so reliant on the practice that they tried to outdo each other. If one of Dan Parker’s colleagues thought the other guy’s lunch was better, he might write about his fight and forget yours altogether. Promoters learned that this could usually be addressed by slipping favored scribes a cash-stuffed envelope on the way out the door.

By the late 1970s Don King had taken this practice to a whole new level, and when word got out in connection with the investigation of the ABC/Ring ‘US Boxing Championships’ it cost some pretty good writers their jobs. Since newspapers today are more ethically circumspect, overt bribery is discouraged, but that doesn’t mean it has disappeared altogether. Nowadays, if the guy owns his own website, the promoter can just write him a check and call it an “ad.”

Back in those days, of course, the post-fight press conference did not exist. Even after the biggest of fights, reporters routinely interviewed both winner and loser in their respective dressing rooms. There was plenty of room to handle the working press, and everybody knew who they were.

I’m not sure when the post-fight press conference started, or why, but I can promise you one thing: they’re not for the press. If you’re writing on deadline you want to get a quote or two to set the mood (and prove to the boss and your readers that you were there) and get your story written and filed as quickly as possible, not sit around waiting an hour or more for the last undercard fighter’s manager to be seated at the dais so a press conference can get started. 

The result is that post-fight press conferences are mainly attended by posses, entourages, relatives, and hangers-on. They’re all but useless for anyone actually covering the event, and if you see a newspaperman or even a legitimate internet reporter at a post-fight press conference, you can pretty much take it for granted that he’s already filed his story. Ninety per cent of the people in attendance have no function and no reason to be there anyway, and the bigger the event, the more true that is.

The same is true for press luncheons and their even more ghastly modern-day counterpart, the Golden Boy Media Event masquerading as a press conference. The latter is as a rule open to the public and overrun with shrieking fans; a reporter who actually tries to interview a fighter at one of them might be shot on sight. 

At any of the aforementioned, there is a pretty reliable way to determine how many frauds are in attendance: the applause meter.

Reporters don’t cheer for fighters or trainers or promoters or television executives, so the more people who break into applause when one of these is introduced, the more interlopers you know are in the room.  You don’t ever hear members of the working press applauding the police commissioner at his press conferences, do you?

Imagine the reaction if a member of the White House press corps showed up at a presidential press briefing and asked Barack Obama for an autograph. Yet there are people who regularly show up at fight press conferences with boxing gloves, posters, and magazine covers they expect the fighters to sign. These people aren’t writers -- and if they are they should be drummed out of the profession.

Today’s boxing writers don’t care about a free lunch. They’re there to do a job, but these things have become so glutted with hangers-on that newspapers often tell their reporters to skip them altogether. It’s the very rare New York press conference today when the Times, Post, News, and Newsday all have a representative there, but the promoter winds up picking up the tab for lunch for sixty, eighty, a hundred people anyway. A promoter could get a lot more mileage out of promising each newspaper, and the four or five internet sites people actually read, ten minutes each alone with each fighter. They’d get more and better coverage out of it, and it sure would be a lot cheaper.

And the really perfectly ridiculous part of this is that the promoters know it, too. Just a couple of weeks ago I drove back from Yankee Stadium with Lou DiBella and listened to him moan the whole way about all the lunches he’d bought for people who as far as he could tell had never written a word about one of his fights. Exactly a week later, Lou was buying lunch for ninety at Gallagher’s. There might have been two newspapermen in the whole bunch. The applause meter almost went off the charts that day.

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If you’ve spent much time around the fight game at all the chances are you know Teddy Blackburn, and even if you’re a casual fan you’ve probably seen his work, which graces the pages, and sometimes the cover, of almost any boxing publication you could name. 

He grew up in Ann Arbor, where his father was a professor at the University of Michigan, but Teddy’s interests veered away from academia when he started to hang around a growing enterprise called the Kronk Gym.  He hung around there with the young Thomas Hearns, and boxed a bit himself, but if getting knocked out by Booker T. Word in the Detroit Gloves wasn’t enough to convince him that his vocation lay elsewhere, a sparring session with the late Mickey Goodwin did. Mickey was trying to take it easy on him but he still broke Teddy’s nose, and when they towelled Teddy off Mick told him he really ought to stick to taking pictures.

Beyond his professional credentials, Teddy enjoys a reputation as one of boxing’s truly good guys. This status was officially recognized in 2001, when the Boxing Writers Association of America presented him with the Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award in recognition of what was essentially a one-man campaign to raise funds and build a support system for Gerald McClellan, the former middleweight champion who has been blinded and brain-damaged in a 1995 fight against Nigel Benn. It was one of those boxing tragedies everybody remembers, but boxing people don’t like to be reminded that things like this can happen, so apart from Teddy and a few guys like Roy Jones, Gerald doesn’t get many visitors.

Over the years Teddy and I have shared rides to fights, bunked together at casino hotels and out of the way flophouses in club-fight towns, and before I went on the disabled list we used to get up two or three mornings a week for a 6 am round of golf at one of the city courses. 

Teddy is one of those friends who’s always eager to help and never ask anything in return. So a few weeks ago, as the aforementioned press conference at Gallagher’s was breaking up, I saw the baleful look on his face and asked him what the matter was and he said “Somebody stole my camera bag,” I knew it was a longshot, but I was determined to help if I could.

He quickly described the bag, one I knew well because he’s had it for years – a black North Face backpack, the principal contents of which on this day consisted of two Nikon cameras and the results of a day’s work, stuff he was supposed to get down to the Reuters office so they could move the photographs of Carl Froch and Jermain Taylor on wire for the papers back in England.  

Since the room was still half full, there seemed at least a chance that the culprit hadn’t yet made good his escape. Our quickly formulated plan called for me to station myself on the sidewalk outside, where anyone exiting the press conference would have to leave from one of two doors, while Teddy circulated among the crowd, hoping to spot somebody who looked as if he’d recently acquired something he hadn’t come in with.

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Security at boxing events, and at boxing press conferences, can be pretty lax, but theft is surprisingly rare.  This has less to do with the integrity of the guests than the fact that even the posse thugs realize that if anything depreciates faster in value than last week’s cell phone, it’s last month’s laptop or last year’s pre-owned camera.  Some of these people wouldn’t think twice about swiping, say, a press kit right off your seat if you turned away for a moment, but the two cameras in Teddy’s bag had set him back $5,000, and a thief would be lucky to get $200 for the pair of them on the street.  It would be a lot less trouble to just sneak out the door with somebody else’s signed boxing gloves.

I’d been out on the sidewalk for about five minutes, swiveling my head from one door to the next as I clocked the clientele exiting the restaurant. Then, in mid-swivel, I found myself staring at Teddy’s backpack.

I hadn’t actually seen the kid come out the door, but he was standing right in front of Gallagher’s. His face was shrouded by a hoodie, and he seemed to sense me staring at him, because he looked around nervously and quickly crossed the street, where he was joined by an accomplice. The crooks headed west on 52nd Street. I spotted them half a block, and, keeping them in sight, followed at what I hoped was a discreet distance while I simultaneously tried to phone for backup.

To my chagrin I discovered that Teddy’s number had vanished from my latest phone. It presumably didn’t survive the data transfer after I dropped its predecessor into a fountain at Caesars Atlantic City. DiBella’s was switched off. I eventually managed to reach Boxing Digest editor Sean Sullivan, who was still at Gallagher’s, and told him I had the perps in sight, but by then I was a few blocks away. Sean couldn’t find Teddy, but said he’d go look for him. Over and out.

I’m not sure when the perps realized they had a tail, or even if they did at all, but they seemed to cast increasingly furtive looks back over their shoulders as they continued in the direction of the river.  By now Times Square was well behind us, and we were in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, between 10th and 11th Avenues, when they made the drop.

The two perps were joined on the sidewalk by the rest of their posse, so now there were at least half a dozen of them. I ducked behind a delivery truck and watched the one with Teddy’s backpack enter a building while the other gang members stood sentinel outside.

When he emerged a few minutes later he no longer had the backpack. Now I was in a real quandary. There couldn’t have been more than five or six apartments in the building, and the cameras were in one of them. Should I keep the drop under surveillance, or follow the perps?

As I was trying to calculate Popeye Doyle’s advice when Frog One and Frog Two split up and went in opposite directions, the delivery truck abruptly pulled away and left me standing there exposed. Across the street, the kids seemed to think this was pretty funny.

I rang Sean’s phone again.

“Oh,” he said. “Teddy was just looking for you. He said to tell you he found his camera bag under a table at Gallagher’s.”

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I couldn’t tell you how many black North Face backpacks I saw on the long walk back to Broadway, but there were a lot of them. For all I know I had just followed some Stuyvesant honor student on his way home to drop off his school books.

“But he had a backpack that looked just like Teddy’s,” I tried to tell my wife later.

“I don’t care,” she said, unmoved. “You were profiling.”

I was about to offer in my own defense the fact that they had behaved so suspiciously while they were leading me on this wild goose chase when I remembered another pearl of Neil Simon wisdom. 

In “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” as he rationalizes his mistake, Mel recalls that he was certain he’d nailed his mugger when the guy abruptly took flight.

“Why did he run?” wonders Mel.

“You chased him, didn’t you?” says his wife. “You get chased, you run.”

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