I made a promise to a friend, and I kept it since that is what friends do when they give their word. But in this instance I felt a special obligation since the friend in question, Don Elbaum, is one of long-standing and maybe the last member of a once-populous club of truly original boxing characters.
“Give it a look and tell me what you think,” Elbaum, who might be described as an aging leprechaun with a lived-in face were he Irish and spoke with a brogue, said in asking me to pony up the $9.99 subscription fee to a pay-per-view event Saturday night in Gillette, Wyo., billed as Bare Knuckle Fight Club 4. The second such state-sanctioned bare knuckle card in less than a month in Wyoming (the prior one was staged on June 2 in Cheyenne by Philadelphia’s David Feldman), Elbaum’s inaugural gloveless, Wild West fling purportedly would consist of three three-round bouts and five five-round bouts.
I registered online, but I didn’t get to see all the “action,” or even much of it. Less than 20 minutes into the program, which to that point had mostly consisted of a lengthy commercial for a brand of Mexican tequila featuring former Saved by the Bell star Mario Lopez and promoter Corey Williams apologizing in the ring for some of the no-shows who were supposed to have appeared but apparently got lost on their way to the Cam-plex Central Pavilion, my computer screen froze with the message that it “Cannot load M3U8. Cross domain access denied.” All I got for my 10 bucks minus a penny was some guy named Ethan Kelly scoring a one-punch, second-round knockout of an unidentified opponent (whose name I didn’t catch because I got the PPV feed at the start of round two) and a supposed member of the Arapaho tribe, Terence Brown, so badly nicking a sort-of traditional rival named Chris Dove (hey, Wyoming is officially known as the “Cowboy State” and local resident Dove looked like he’d be at home tending cattle during the week and heading for the town saloon on Saturday nights) that the just-returned ring doctor ordered a cessation to the hostilities only a half-minute or so after the opening bell.
Brown’s tomahawking of Dove was delayed because the only ring physician apparently in attendance had been required to attend at some length to the guy whom Kelly had earlier bludgeoned into unconsciousness.
The main lure of Bare Knuckle Fight Club 4 dangled to the merely curious and however many of Elbaum’s pals who made the same promise as I, was the announced participation of an honest-to-God former world boxing champion, Robert “Preacherman” Daniels, 51, who posted a 49-10-1 record with 41 KOs in a career that spanned from 1984 to 2012. Daniels won the WBA cruiserweight title by upsetting future Hall of Famer Dwight Muhammad Qawi on a 12-round split decision on Nov. 27, 1989, in France. Daniels retained that belt for two defenses (one a draw) before relinquishing it on another split decision, to Bobby Czyz on March 8, 1991, in Atlantic City.
I was not able to track down the result of Daniels’ scheduled clash with a mystery man named Tyler “The Cannon” Canning, possibly because the Pony Express rider did not get the information to the telegraph office in time. Just kidding, but a few days before the fight Daniels did tell Mark Harris, a writer for the Gillette News Record, that “I always used to see, like, in the old days when they would boxing with bare knuckles and stuff like that. So when my agent Don (Elbaum) came to me and asked if I wanted to do that, I said, `Sure, let’s do it.’”
Bare-knuckle fighting has been around maybe since Cain slew Abel, and there can be no denying that two guys balling their fists to settle a dispute holds an undeniable attraction to spectators, be it a barroom brawl involving grown men or a couple of kids going at in the playground. I’ve found myself in that situation any number of times. All of us would like to believe we can channel our inner tough guy as the occasion warrants. Going gloveless is familiar territory that has been mined repeatedly in actuality and in art, be it those borderline-legal “Tough Man” contests that launched the legitimate boxing careers of Tommy Morrison, Greg Haugen and Eric “Butterbean” Esch or on film (1975’s classic Hard Times, starring Charles Bronson as Chaney, and two Any Which Way flicks, more comedic fare with Clint Eastwood as Philo Beddoe).
I also remember getting a call from the older of my two sons, Randy, when he was away in college, excitedly telling me I needed to check out a YouTube video of two street-fighting legends, Kimbo Slice and Tank Abbott, throwing down in somebody’s back yard. Kimbo won in brutal fashion, possibly deluding boxing promoter Gary Shaw into believing that the now-deceased dude with the withering scowl could someday be groomed into a future heavyweight champion.
But there is a huge difference between well-trained, highly conditioned professional boxers and truck drivers, stevedores, longshoremen and former football players who think they have what it takes to do what the pros do just because they once beat up a classmate in sixth grade.
Personally, I believe that the decision to approve bare-knuckle fighting by the Wyoming State Board of Mixed Martial Arts, which was created in 2012, is dubious at best and potentially tragic at worst.
“In (kickboxing and MMA, which Wyoming already regulated), you could take an elbow to the head, a knee to the head or a shin kick toe the head,” reasoned board chairman Bryan Pedersen. “Go out in your yard and punch a basketball and kick a basketball and see what goes farther.” (Makes at least some sense when you look at it that way, but try telling that to the family of the guy laid out by Kelly, whose thrill-seeking bid could have ended with horrific consequences, and possibly has.)
I also worry about the irrepressible Elbaum, who has always been coy about his actual age, which probably falls somewhere between the late 70s and early 80s. Boxing once boasted many such one-of-a-kind personalities, but we have sadly said farewell to Lou Duva, Angelo Dundee, Bert Sugar, Richie Giachetti and others who made the real fight game so much fun. Whenever Elbaum – who has been inducted into several boxing halls of fame, and maybe isn’t finished being saluted for his contributions to the sport – heads to heaven (let’s hope that is the destination) to join the aforementioned for a celestial bull session, I’m hoping this bare-knuckle thing doesn’t comprise the final chapter of a wild life’s ride that always has sounded more fictional than factual.
“The Bum,” as Elbaum is affectionately known, still can sell a woofer of a fight card like nobody’s business. He hyped Daniels-Canning as being for the “Bare Knuckle Fight Club Cruiserweight World Title,” as if such a title actually exists.
Some of the tricks of the promotional trade previously plied by Elbaum nearly making a fight between basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain and all-time great running back Jim Brown (the athletes agreed, but Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell nixed it) and once promoting a matchup of an 0-15 fighter with an 0-13 one as being to determine the World’s Worst Fighter. Of course, it ended in a draw. He also arranged for disgraced baseball hits king Pete Rose, forever banned from his sport’s Hall of Fame, to be inducted into the Summit County (Ohio) Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002, as an honorary member, for having punched out New York Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson because Harrelson had taken offense at Rose’s hard slide into second base during a game years earlier.
But as is the case with Don King, whom Elbaum introduced to boxing in 1972 (“I’ve been apologizing to the world ever since,” The Bum often says), there does not appear to be much road left to travel by either Don. The World’s Worst Fighter just might have been the most inept loser on Saturday night in Gillette, and Elbaum riding the range in Wyoming in the long term seems unlikely and very probably inadvisable. Bare Knuckle Fight Club 4 is heavily bankrolled by former movie director Danny Provenzano, who recently began a business partnership with Williams. Uh, that would be the same Danny Provenzano who did a five-year stretch in prison for racketeering and tax evasion, a detail apparently unknown to or overlooked by the Wyoming State Board of Mixed Martial Arts. I’m guessing Provenzano’s legal trouble was no big deal to Elbaum, who also was nailed for tax evasion, which almost by definition requires a certain stretching of the truth.
Another friend, former Philadelphia Inquirer boxing writer Don Steinberg, recently invited me to be a talking head for a documentary he and a Conshohocken, Pa., filmmaker are putting together on the life and times of Don Elbaum. I would have done it, too, because I have a wealth of Elbaum stories – I mean, who doesn’t? – but at the time of my scheduled appearance at the studio, I was really sick and confined to bed for the better part of two weeks.
Maybe there is a happy ending to Elbaum’s Wyoming adventure. Williams, in apologizing for the absence of some of the invitees to the bare-knuckle bash in Gillette, said that all of those present or not had been or soon would be inducted into the Who’s Your Daddy? Hall of Fame. Or maybe it’s the Hoosier Daddy Hall of Fame, since one of the honorees was supposed to be coming from Indiana. Suffice to say that If Williams ever wants to include Elbaum in his hall of little consequence, make book that The Bum will be there to accept and make an acceptance speech that figures to be as entertaining as his fertile imagination allows.
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