ATHENS — It was six in the evening in a Greek TAVERNA near the Peristeri Boxing Hall, and Mittelman the Middleman occupied a table surrounded by his friends.
Which is to say, the convicted fight-fixer was sitting all alone.
And, if there had been any doubts about the reason for his presence at the Olympic Games, it was immediately erased by his garb: Robert Mittelman was surely the only 61 year-old man walking around Athens clad in a bright red Jason Estrada t-shirt.
In bygone years, Olympic boxing tournaments brought big and small-time promoters flocking for a quadrennial feeding frenzy. You could take it that Lou Duva, Bob Arum, Shelly Finkel, and Dan Goossen would be there in the boxing venue, if not with some understood future arrangement with one or more of the principals already in hand, then sewing the seeds of bidding wars with one another. Four years ago Lou DiBella went to Sydney and came back with half the US team in what retrospectively appears to have been a gigantic waste of his bankroll, unless you consider tying up almost $10 million in Jermain Taylor (who now represents the sum of DiBella's investment) a wise move.
But over the past dozen years Olympic boxers have proved as a class to be professional busts hardly worth the gamble, resulting in a mass re-thinking of the stratagem. Contemporary reasoning holds that it's probably smarter in the long run to let somebody else sign the Olympians. If any of them turn out to be any good, you can always steal them anyway.
None of the aforementioned American promoters are in Greece this year, then. But Mittelman the Middleman is.
That Mittelman already had his hooks into Estrada, the United States superheavyweight entry and one of four Americans still alive with medal hopes, was not a surprise to us. The boxing bottom-feeder had been conspicuous by his presence at the professional debut of Matt Godfrey, Estrada's lifelong friend and sparring partner who had been defeated by Devan Vargas at the US Trials. At a Godfrey fight at Foxwoods this summer Estrada and Mittleman had sat side-by-side in the audience, and in Athens just a few days before we ran into Mittelman at the sidewalk café, Estrada had told me that his personal rooting section due to arrive from Providence would include his mother and father, Godfrey, and “Bob Mittelman, a friend.”
The first question that sprang to mind when we heard this was: “How can Robert Mittelman possibly still have a passport?”
“Maybe,” supposed IBOP editor-in-chief Charles Jay, “he's there to fix the Olympics. Come to think of it, I did see an awfully suspicious result in badminton the other day.”
In April of this year the US District Court in Las Vegas unsealed documents confirming that Mittelman had pleaded guilty to two counts of sports bribery and one count of bribing a public official. He was due to be sentenced by federal judge Robert C. Jones on July 26, but the sentencing was deferred until October.
How this left Mittleman free to roam the world, continuing to ply his dubious trade, was another question entirely, but when we put it to Mittelman the Middleman shortly after he invited us to join his table, he slyly smiled and said, “Let's just say I'm on very friendly terms with the federal government right now.”
That Mittelman had already ratted out several people – heavyweight Thomas “Top Dawg” Williams, matchmaker Bobby Mitchell, and Danish promoter Mogens Palle among them – was a matter of record, and his information is widely believed to be the basis for other probes, possibly including the one that resulted in a mass toilet-flush at the Top Rank offices when the feds showed up there last winter.
The assumption must be, if one is to believe Mittelman – which can be dangerous in its own right – that the feds believe he has some lingering usefulness on the street, although it's difficult to imagine how credible his testimony against anyone would be at this point.
Mittelman said US authorities never made any attempt to seize his passport.
“Look, I made a mistake, but I'm not a career criminal,” he said, disarmingly. (After acknowledging his complicity in L'AFFAIRE Top Dawg once it became public back in April, Mittelman had similarly insisted “I am not a serial fixer.”)
Mittelman is, to be sure, an engaging fellow, not without a certain raffish charm, which helps to explain why he has been able to pull off as many scams as he has over the years.
Although he has made no effort to conceal his presence in Athens, USA Boxing officials seem oblivious to Mittelman's role, and, indeed, to his unsavory past. When he showed up at the Peristeri Boxing Hall for Estrada's first Olympic bout, in fact, one USA Boxing spokesperson had to ask who he was and what he did.
“Fixes fights, mainly,” she was told.
At Barcelona twelve years ago, it was widely assumed that Finkel, who had paid the hospital bills and funeral expenses for Oscar De La Hoya's cancer-stricken mother, had the inside track on the Golden Boy's professional services, but Mittleman (in partnership with Steve Nelson) “stole” (Mittelman's word) Oscar right out from under Shelly's nose. Then ten fights into his pro career, by Mittelman's calculation, Chicken De La Hoya flew the coop.
“I'm sure if we'd gone to arbitration a court would have awarded us 33% of Oscar's purses for the next five years,” said Mittelman. “Just think how much money that would have been.”
Like a broken-down horseplayer who can recite you a litany of near-misses that kept him from being a millionaire, Mittelman reminds you of the occasions he nearly hit the big time. De La Hoya would have been the biggest, of course, but remember, Mittelman latched onto Hasim Rahman when the future heavyweight champion was 5-5 and helped move him up the ladder, only to be dumped just before Rahman traveled to South Africa to fight Lennox Lewis in 2001.
As a felon convicted of boxing-related offenses, you might suppose that Mittelman would be considered PERSONA NOT GRATA by the sport, but there has been no move to lift his license in any jurisdiction, simply because there was nothing to revoke.
“There was no license to take away. I've never been licensed as a manager or a promoter,” said Mittelman, doing his best to make that sound as if he were operating from a higher moral imperative. “To me, it's unconscionable to take a third of a kid's earnings. I'm more of what you'd call a boxing agent.”
Now, one might reasonably have supposed that the feds would have made it a condition of any plea-bargain that he discontinue his association with a sport he admitted having corrupted, but that Mittelman would show up in Athens with designs on the United States Olympic team while he was awaiting sentencing appears to have been a move so brazen it never even occurred to the United States Attorney for Nevada.
This past summer a group of Estrada's friends and well-wishers threw a fund-raising extravaganza in Providence to help defray the cost of the boxer's family's trip to the Olympics. One couldn't help but wonder whether these backers had unwittingly paid Mittelman's way to Athens as well, but since we knew we weren't likely to get a straight answer, we didn't ask. Mittelman the Middleman, by the way, insists that he has no designs on managing or promoting Estrada once he turns professional, which Jason plans to do right after the Olympics.
“No, I'm just here as a friend of the family,” he told us. “I have no designs on being his manager or promoter, and in fact I don't expect to even have any say on who he DOES sign with. But once he turns pro I will help map out his course by helping choose opponents. Say what you will about me, NOBODY can pick opponents like I can.”
Of course, he might wind up picking a few of those opponents from the slammer. In theory he faces up to five years in prison and a US$250,000 fine on the sports bribery charges, and 15 years and another $250,000 fine on the bribery of a public official count, but Mittelman is hopeful that if he can do enough favors for the feds in the meantime, he may escape the sneezer altogether.
“Right now I'm supposed to be sentenced in October. I may not do any time at all, and at worse I'm probably looking at a year,” he said cheerfully.
Over the course of the dinner conversation Mittelman, who had obviously researched the matter, dropped another interesting piece of information.
“Did you know the United States doesn't have an extradition treaty with Greece?” he asked.
In that case, we wondered, why don't you, you know, just STAY here?
“Believe me, if I had eight million dollars I probably would,” said Mittelman. “But I have a wife and a nine year-old son back in Chicago who mean the world to me. I can't abandon them.”
Having acknowledged his odoriferous history in court documents, Mittelman makes no attempt to hide it now. He freely admits having greased the skids for all those fixed boxing matches, but, he asked, “Was what I did really that bad? These guys were probably going to get knocked out anyway. I just got them some extra money.”
Indeed, when the federal authorities set out on a shark hunt with their “Big Frankie” Manzione sting a few years ago, they came back with, mostly, minnows. Mittelman, to the best of anyone's knowledge, didn't engineer any big-time betting coups or facilitate any mob-arranged title takeovers. His stock in trade appears to have been producing inept opponents to pad the records of nearly-as-inept boxers like Brian Nielsen and Richie Melito, often skimming his take from both particpants and sometimes from the promoter as well, while occasionally slipping one of his clients a grand here and a grand there to ensure a desired result.
In the eyes of the feds, then, Mittelman's transgressions might not have even been severe enough to warrant prosecution, but he compounded them as the net closed in on him, and attempted to wriggle his way out by making a $1,000 down payment on what was supposed to be a $15,000 bribe to a federal judge.
Mittleman may be adept at navigating the murky waters of boxing's netherworld, but he was clearly in over his head in the world of jurisprudence. As any wise guy could have told him, it takes a lot more money than THAT to bribe a District Court judge. The feds may have opted to throw the book at him just because they were so insulted by the penury of his offer.
Mittelman the Middleman appeared to be considering that the other night as he polished off his plate in the Greek TAVERNA.
“I've made some mistakes in my life,” he sighed. “But the biggest one was the last one.”
A former recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Distinguished Boxing Journalism, George Kimball is a columnist for the Boston Herald.