For decades the Catskill Mountains region of New York State has been euphemistically referred to as the Borscht Belt because it was a weekend and holiday destination for scores of Jewish New Yorkers from the 1940s to the 1970s.
Also known as the Jewish Alps, the well-known resorts that adorned the glorious landscape included The Concord, Grossingers and Kutshers. Families, like those depicted in the film “Dirty Dancing,” flocked to those locations in the summer months and Borscht Belt comics included such renowned and revered names as Milton Berle, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett and Jonathan Winters.
In addition to all of the comedy, scores of notable boxers including Rocky Marciano, Barney Ross, Emile Griffith, Jerry Quarry, Ken Norton and Gerry Cooney, trained in the Catskills regularly.
“Barney Ross put Grossingers and the Catskills on the map as a boxing training facility,” said noted boxing historian Mike Silver. “It worked to the advantage of both the boxing community and the resorts. The Catskills was an incredibly popular destination for New Yorkers looking to escape the oppressive heat of the summer. Having the boxers train there was an added attraction.”
And Bobby Goodman, a lifelong boxing guy whose father Murray was a publicist for many world champions, says he was conceived at Grossingers.
When 59-year-old attorney Jeff Wurst was growing up on Long Island, the Borscht Belt was the place to go for him and his family. As a teenage musician he performed numerous gigs at many of the region’s now shuttered venues.
He laments over the economic downturn of the area that had left such an indelible impression on him, and he has vowed to do something about it.
Wurst is a diehard boxing fan who regularly hosted large parties for pay-per-view events at his home. Several years ago he obtained a small interest in heavyweight David Tua, only to see the Tuaman put on the shelf for a few years due to legal entanglements with his original management.
After conferring with his wife Vera, who is as big of a boxing fan as he is, Wurst decided to become a promoter. He formed Sweet Science Events, which will promote its third show – “Catch a Rising Fist” – at the Monticello Raceway on Friday, May 30.
The main event will feature Zuri Lawrence, 23-13-4 (0 KOS), of nearby Poughkeepsie, vs. Darrel Madison, 9-1 (3 KOS). At stake will be the New York State heavyweight title.
Also scheduled to appear are welterweight Daniel Sostre, 6-0 (3 KOS) vs. Mario Hayes, 4-2 (0 KOS); cruiserweights Corey Cummings, 15-2 (12 KOS), vs. John Douglas, 6-12-3 (3 KOS); welterweight Leon Green, 4-1 (1 KO), vs. Henry White Jr., 2-2 (2 KOS), and lightweight Tim Witherspoon Jr., 0-1, vs. Jose Guzman, 1-3 (0 KOS).
A female special attraction will pit onetime New York amateur sensation Ronica Jeffrey, 1-0 (0 KOS), vs. Canada’s Lucia Larcinese, who will be making her pro debut.
“This is all part of a long term plan,” said the eternally optimistic Wurst, whose positive energy is downright contagious. “The people that live in the area really need a shot in the arm. The only people holding back bringing casinos to the area is the U.S. Department of Interior.”
Wurst wholeheartedly believes that should gambling become legalized in the area, the Borscht Belt’s renaissance would begin in full. There already are slot machines at the raceway, a venue Wurst insists is perfectly suited for world class boxing. He wants to be the one to bring it there.
Wurst’s passion for the sweet science runs deep. Some of his fondest childhood memories include listening to the Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson trilogy on the radio.
“I thought Patterson was invincible,” said Wurst. “I, as well as all of my friends, was shocked when he was stopped (in one of the three bouts).”
Wurst also loved watching Emile Griffith on the Gillette Friday Night Fights, which had a catchy jingle. “All week long, I’d be singing the song to myself,” he nostalgically recalled.
He often sees the ubiquitous Griffith at boxing events these days, and says it is hard to imagine that the fellow he now describes as “such a sweet little man living a humble life” was once such a ring icon.
Among other things, it is those kinds of contradictions that make him such a maniacal fan of the sport and its denizens. “I love boxers,” said Wurst. “As tough as what they do for a living is, to the greater extent they are very kind and gentle people.”
Among the boxers that Wurst is personally acquainted with who fall into this category are Tua, Samuel Peter and Shannon Briggs.
One time, while ringside for a Tua victory at the Hard Rock Casino in Florida, Wurst complimented the sweaty New Zealander by telling him he “looked good.”
“Look good?” deadpanned Tua. “Your wife looks good.”
Wurst’s affinity for Briggs was only enhanced by his being ringside in Phoenix for Briggs’ come-from-behind, final round knockout victory over Sergei Liakhovich to win the WBO heavyweight crown.
“At the beginning of the 12th round, I told my wife that Shannon would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat or his career was over,” said Wurst. “He did just that, during what might be the most exciting final 40 seconds in boxing history.”
What is most infectious about Wurst is the joy he derives from being so intimately involved in something that has long meant so much to him. While he says that he has spent much of the time during his first two boxing shows “writing checks,” he hopes to be able to relax more and revel in the atmosphere of future promotions.
An attorney by trade but a dreamer by nature, Wurst might just be savvy, determined and lucky enough to make his ultimate dream come true.
At Wurst’s August 2007 show, heavyweight Zach Page, who was scheduled to fight Derric Rossy in the main event the following evening, was lounging around his hotel lobby after the weigh-in.
“This place is just like ‘Dirty Dancing,’” Page told Wurst, who says hearing that was like music to his ears.
“I came back up there after 30 years,” explained Wurst. “In a lot of ways, nothing has changed. The paint on the wall hasn’t changed, the stains in the carpet are the same, and the people I once saw running with tennis rackets are now carrying canes.”
Most notable, however, is the dearth of great comics who once called the Borscht Belt home. Even if they were still alive and performing, their shtick would be as much of an anachronism as the glamour once associated with boxing.
But Wurst wants to fill that void. Not only is he eager to see the Borscht Belt revitalized, he wants to be part of the great transformation.
“The Borscht Belt is coming back,” he proclaimed. “I know it is. I want to keep working with Monticello Raceway and, as they get bigger and better, turn it into a major boxing venue.”
For VIP tables, sponsorship and advertising opportunities or to purchase tickets to “Catch a Rising Fist” on May 30, call 516-678-5622.
For more information on the Monticello Raceway, log onto: www. monticellogamingandraceway.com.
*photo courtesy of Jeff Wurst