Although the notion of computers was still very futuristic in the late 1960s, the enterprising Shelly Finkel, who had just dropped out of New York University, where he majored in marketing, was hustling a living by handing out flyers for a computer dating service outside of a dance club.
A guard came outside and took Finkel and his partner, a longtime friend named Eli, into the club to meet with the four absentee owners. They asked Finkel if he knew anything about running a club. Although the obvious answer would have been no, the 23-year-old Finkel, who was full of youthful exuberance, answered in the affirmative and got a job he had not even been seeking.
“I built it into the most successful club on the East Coast,” said the now 65-year-old Finkel. “I brought major acts of the day there, bands like Cream and Procol Harum.”
Fire regulations did not allow more than 890 patrons in the club, but Finkel said there were often as many as 3,000 people trying to get inside the Action House in Island Park, a suburb of New York City.
Thus began Finkel’s circuitous journey, first to the echelons of the music industry and later to the top of the boxing world.
Along with referee/commissioner Larry Hazzard Sr., promoter Wilfried Sauerland of Germany, matchmaker Bruce Trampler of Top Rank Inc., and longtime Associated Press journalist Ed Schuyler Jr., Finkel will be inducted, in the Non-Participant category, into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, in June.
Managing the Action House made Finkel, a Brooklyn native, realize what a natural born promoter he was. He soon did concerts at the Village Theater in New York, which was renamed the Fillmore East. He also promoted shows at the Singer Bowl in Flushing Meadow Park, where Joe Frazier, the eventual gold medalist, fought Buster Mathis in the 1964 Olympic Trials.
Over the years Finkel also promoted The Doors, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Chambers Brothers. He later learned that a young Billy Joel once claimed to be a road manager to sneak into one of his concerts.
He brought Jethro Tull to the New Haven Civic Center in Connecticut, even though the venue owner had never heard of the artist. The same thing occurred with Ed Powers, who Finkel said was “the man” at the Boston Garden, but had no idea who Hendrix was when Finkel did a concert there.
The highlight of Finkel’s musical career was convincing the owner of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway in upstate New York that he could fill the venue with a quarter of a million people. He and his partner, Jim Koplik, actually brought an estimated 600,000 rock fans there, in July 1973, for the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, which featured the Allman Brothers, The Band and the Grateful Dead.
As Finkel built a thriving music promotion empire, he never lost his love of boxing. He had warm childhood memories of watching Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, and others, on the Friday Night Fights with his father. Because Finkel lost his father when he was relatively young, he always had an affinity for youngsters in the same position. When his own children were still very small, Finkel befriended a 7-year-old neighbor who had been devastated by the loss of his dad.
He took him on regular outings, which included Golden Gloves matches around the New York area. While doing so, Finkel became a big fan of amateur sensation Alex Ramos, who was known as The Bronx Bomber. He followed him throughout his career, and jumped at the opportunity to manage him when he turned pro in 1980.
When President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympic Games that year because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Finkel hooked up with Lou Duva to also manage the likes of Johnny Bumphus and Tony Ayala Jr., both of whom were scheduled to represent the United States in the ill-fated Games.
Things took off at a breakneck pace, as Finkel, a master navigator, was able to skillfully maneuver through the shark-infested waters of professional boxing. It was Ramos who introduced Finkel to Mark Breland, the latter of whom Finkel still believes just might just be the greatest amateur boxer in history.
When he signed Breland after he won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Breland’s influence led fellow Olympians Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor and Tyrell Biggs to him as well.
Throughout his 30 years in boxing, Finkel has experienced no shortage of ups and downs. None was worse than his successful development of Ayala Jr., a sensational prospect who was on the verge of superstardom when he was jailed for 17 years for a particularly vicious sexual attack.
“We did all the right moves with Tony, got him to the title, only to see him lose it all before he even fought for it,” said Finkel. “That was very disappointing.”
The greatest highlight of Finkel’s boxing career was watching Holyfield dethrone Buster Douglas in 1990. Holyfield won that heavyweight title that Douglas had wrested from Mike Tyson nine months earlier.
“I couldn’t believe that I managed the heavyweight champion,” said Finkel. “It was a great feeling.”
Because Holyfield has meant so much to Finkel from both a personal and professional standpoint, he is extremely saddened that Holyfield is still boxing despite the fact that he is in his mid-forties and has earned well over $100 million in purses.
“To have made the kind of money that he did, and not have it now, is very disappointing,” said Finkel. “He had received good advice.”
Finkel is as active as he’s always been, and now manages or advises scores of top-tier fighters, including the Klitschko brothers, Robert Guerrero, Victor Ortiz and Vanes Martirosyan.
Despite the often repeated advice of Ernest Hemingway to never fall in love with one’s fighters, Finkel said it is often hard not to. He relates a story written by the late Jimmy Cannon about a full-time mechanic who was a part-time fighter of nominal skills.
“When people asked him what he did, he’d say he was a fighter, not a mechanic,” said Finkel. “It’s hard not to respect that kind of pride and dedication.”
He was particularly impressed with the grit shown by Ortiz, who was being groomed for stardom by HBO when he was shockingly stopped in six rounds by Marcos Rene Maidana in June 2009.
“I knew he’d bounce back,” said Finkel. “But there’s always a little doubt. You never know how fragile a fighter’s psyche may be, especially one who had never been dropped or hurt before getting stopped for the first time. Ortiz has great ability, and he is a great story.”
Asked if he is forlorn over the scores of perceived unhappy endings in the sweet science, Finkel said that unhappy endings can sometimes be found in the unlikeliest of places. What constitutes a happy ending, he believes, is not just leaving the sport with a hefty bank account and one’s brains intact.
He questions whether Vitali Klitschko will ever be completely satisfied with his career because he was not able to avenge his loss to Lennox Lewis. Or if Marvin Hagler, despite having immense wealth and a great life as an actor in Italy, will ever rid himself of the bitterness he can’t seem to shake over the result of his controversial fight with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Or whether Breland, who had so much success as an amateur, will forever lament the fact that he didn’t hold all of the professional welterweight belts?
“Regardless of how things ended, every fighter I’ve ever dealt with that made it will say that they wouldn’t trade their experiences for anything,” said Finkel.
Neither would Finkel, the married father of three grown children, none of whom are involved in boxing. He’s proud of the work he’s done with all of his fighters, especially Breland who followed his advice and is financially set for life.
“A lot of people are second guessers, they always wonder if they should have taken this job or bought that stock,” said Finkel. “I grew up not far from Mike Tyson, but was able to move on and have a great family. My children were able to finish their educations, and will achieve more than I did.”
Finkel has never lost his affinity for boxers or for a great boxing match. He still gets excited when fighters like Guerrero, a Mexican-American world titlist, or Martirosyan, a 2004 American Olympian who is Armenian by birth, draw big hometown or ethnic crowds.
He also finds it hard to believe how fortunate he’s been to have had such a rewarding journey, one that will lead to him being enshrined alongside so many boxing legends.
“I’m honored,” he said when asked about his upcoming induction. “I feel honored to be in the company of the greatest people in the sport.”
The IBHOF induction weekend is scheduled for June 10-13, 2010. For more information call 315-697-7095 or log onto: www.ibhof.com.