The next chapter in Wyoming’s experiment with bare-knuckle boxing unfolds tomorrow, June 23, in Gillette (pop. 32,000). Eight bouts are scheduled in the central pavilion of a complex whose chief annual event is a high school rodeo competition. The fights will be livestreamed on the FITE TV app. The price is $9.99.
Bare-knuckle boxing is not this reporter’s cup of tea, but Don Elbaum is involved and the event afforded me an opportunity to chat with the legendary Elbaum, a man that I have never met face-to-face.
A walking encyclopedia of boxing, Elbaum, affectionately called “The Bum,” grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. His age is a well-guarded secret but he will tell you that he became addicted to boxing as a boy when an uncle took him to see a Willie Pep fight in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The date (we looked it up) was July 15, 1947. Seven years later, when he was in the 11th grade, he promoted his first show. It was held in the auditorium of Erie’s Gannon College. So while Elbaum won’t tell you his age, one can deduce with a fair degree of confidence that the first digit is “8.” But you wouldn’t know it. The man — who bears a close resemblance to the actor Harvey Keitel — is a bundle of energy.
Elbaum is commonly credited with promoting or co-promoting 1000 boxing shows. An article in the May, 2015 issue of Newsweek set the number at 1300 but who’s counting? None of these fights were “Fights of the Century”- type fights although Elbaum likely hyped most of them as such.
He even hypes boxing shows that are long over and done. Back in 1965, he staged a show in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, that included Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep, the only time they ever appeared on the same bill. But both were long past their prime — Robinson was 44, Pep 43 — and they were both matched soft with the result that the promotion was a dud. The attendance paled in comparison to a high school football game being played down the street.
Years later, reminiscing with Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, Elbaum recollected that having Robinson and Pep together on the same show “was the biggest thing to hit that town since the great Johnstown flood of 1889.”
Elbaum has co-promoted fights all over the world, but this is his first foray into Wyoming. He was summoned there by promoter Corey Williams who one can fairly call the godfather of bare-knuckle boxing in Wyoming.
Williams, a former Arena League football player, heavyweight boxer, and MMA fighter, laid the groundwork for the sport in Wyoming, but was beaten to the punch, so to speak, by a Philadelphia-area man, David Feldman, who promoted a card three weeks ago in Cheyenne that was widely hailed as the first legal bare-knuckle boxing event in the United States in more than a century.
The Cheyenne show was the first event of its kind since the Wyoming State Board of Mixed Martial Arts set forth the rules of competition in an official document released on March 30 of this year, but Williams had been promoting quasi-legal shows in the Cowboy State since 2014. Tomorrow’s event is billed as “Fight Club 4.” (Don’t invite Corey Williams and David Feldman to the same dinner party. Feldman, in the eyes of Williams and his supporters, is a carpetbagger who would be wise to steer clear of these parts in the future. On one of Williams’ social media pages, Feldman’s June 3 show has been re-branded “the fake bare-knuckle take-a-dive event.”)
Don Elbaum tells us that he’s very impressed with Williams. The bare-knuckle enthusiast, 38, looks like a barroom brawler (and he’s been that), but, says Elbaum, Corey is one of the most well-spoken individuals that he has ever met. (In a 2015 interview with a UK writer, Williams claimed to have a Ph.D. in women’s psychology. He did not identify the college.)
Elbaum, who promoted more than 100 shows at Atlantic City’s Tropicana Hotel in the mid-1980s, can open a lot of doors. He introduced the Wyoming man to Larry Hazzard, the longtime head of the New Jersey Athletic Commission, with the hope that Hazzard would be amenable to exploring the possibility of allowing bare-knuckle boxing in New Jersey. If the Garden State ever goes for it, Elbaum plans to design a belt for the champions featuring the likes of John L. Sullivan.
Elbaum is on a first-name basis with more active and retired boxers than anyone alive. Over the years he may have made more money as a booking agent than as a promoter. For tomorrow’s show he is bringing in Robert Daniels. Daniels is a former WBA world cruiserweight champion and therein Elbaum has his hook.
The last world champion – legitimate world champion – to appear in a legally sanctioned bare-knuckle match, says Elbaum, was the aforementioned Sullivan. Ergo, Daniels’ fight with Casper, Wyoming’s Tyler “The Cannon” Canning, billed for the vacant Bare Knuckle Fight Club Cruiserweight World Title, is an historic event. (What Elbaum doesn’t volunteer is that Daniels is 51 years old and has fought only once in the last 12 years, that coming in 2012 on a small show in Salinas, Puerto Rico.)
Don Elbaum, who can talk about his experiences for hours without repeating himself, has had a rich life. Sometime down the road I hope to renew acquaintances with him and let him fill me in on the time when he squired Marla Maples around Atlantic City as a favor to her future husband Donald Trump.
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