Boxing thrives because of folks like Peltz, Hand

Philadelphia boxing fans have taken in thousands of fight cards arranged by longtime promoters J Russell Peltz (left) and Joe Hand Sr.DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Philadelphia boxing fans have taken in thousands of fight cards arranged by longtime promoters J Russell Peltz (left) and Joe Hand Sr.DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: November 25, 2012

By Bernard Fernandez

The casual boxing fan probably knows the names of just a few of the big-time promoters, just as he probably knows the names of just a few of the big-time fighters. Promoters who thrive on the largest of stages include such standbys as Don King (although he is increasingly less visible now that he's 81 and scaling back his operation), Top Rank founder Bob Arum and, in recent years, the Golden Boy tag-team of president Oscar De La Hoya and CEO Richard Schaefer.

They are the modern equivalents of Tex Rickard, who in the 1920s established heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey as an icon of America's Golden Age of Sports on a level with such larger-than-life figures as baseball's Babe Ruth, football's Red Grange, golf's Bobby Jones and tennis' Bill Tilden.

But grass-roots professional boxing has thrived to whatever extent it has due to the efforts of what might be described as the little giants; men and sometimes women whose ongoing battles to keep the pugilistic arts alive in their local markets are no less notable. Current members of that diminishing group include the venerable Don Chargin in Northern California and Jimmy Burchfield in New England, each of whom staked out a geographical area and over decades came to rule it as if it were his personal fiefdom. Chargin, 84, has valiantly soldiered on despite the 2010 death of his longtime wife and partner, Lorraine Chargin.

In Philadelphia, that turf once was presided over by Herman Taylor and Jimmy Toppi, both of whom have passed on into history. But, with a nod to such other active promoters as Greg Robinson, Joey Eye, David Feldman and others who continue to fight the good fight, the names that have taken on a gravitas that only longevity can provide are those of J Russell Peltz, 66, and Joe Hand Sr., 76. They have combined to give 91 years of their lives to an endeavor that hasn't always loved them back.

Friends for 35-plus years and periodic allies, Peltz and Hand rose to their exalted status by decidedly different routes. Peltz, who became enthralled with the sport at 12 and saw his first live fight at 13, is the prototypical boxing lifer. He promoted his first show in 1969 and quickly established himself as the "Boy Wonder" of the Philly fight scene, a designation that changed as he eventually morphed into an elder statesman. Hand, a former Philadelphia police officer, admits to having had little interest in boxing until he was nearly 30, when a desire to rub shoulders with the city's social elite, through a happenstance affiliation with 1964 Olympic gold-medalist Joe Frazier, opened doors into a world he never imagined he would inhabit for as long as he has.

Peltz, whose enthusiasm for continuing to wage the promotional wars has been refreshed by his association with 22-year-old Temple graduate Brittany Rogers ("She's just like I was at her age," he says of his protégé and possible successor), admits to seeing the end of a very long road, or at least realizing, like Taylor and Toppi, that nothing lasts forever.

"At points in the last 5 years, I've thought about [retiring]," Peltz admits. "I think about it now. I'm certainly not going to be doing this when I'm an old man. I don't want to be doing this when I'm an old man.

"Really, I don't know how much longer I'll go on. Maybe I'll get out when I'm 70 or 71. But whenever I think about quitting, I become involved with a fighter like [rising heavyweight hopeful] Bryant Jennings and I just have to pinch myself. This is a guy who says all the right things, who has his feet planted firmly on the ground. And he can really fight. He tells me, 'You handle the business, I'll do the fighting.' You don't find fighters like that very much anymore."

Hand's company, Joe Hand Promotions, is much less involved in boxing than it once was. These days it seldom provides closed-circuit feeds of boxing events to a network of bars and restaurants, the bulk of the family business mostly consisting of mixed-martial arts telecasts of UFC shows. But Hand continues to operate the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties, and he has retained a managerial interest in welterweight Mike Jones and super featherweight Teon Kennedy, each of whom were involved in world-title bouts in June. Whereas Peltz's inner circle primarily consists of Rogers and longtime company vice president Maureen Sacks, Hand works daily with his son and partner, Joe Hand Jr., and daughter Margaret Mary Cicalese.

"It's like playing with your kids every day, except that your kids really aren't kids anymore," Hand says. "A lot of time, families drift apart as the children grow up. I see my kids every day. We live close enough that we can walk to each other's houses. We have summer homes that are just as near to each other"s. I am truly blessed."

In the recent past, Peltz and Hand co-promoted fight cards at the New Alhambra (now the Asylum Arena) in South Philly, and years ago they partnered on closed-circuit telecasts, although that union was not destined to endure because their priorities differed.

"Russell never wanted to get into the closed-circuit end of it," Hand admits. "He wanted to do live fights. That's what makes him happy."

J Russell Peltz

The oft-honored Peltz - he has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, World Boxing Hall of Fame, Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame, New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and Temple University School of Communications and Theater Hall of Fame - first made his living as a sports writer. He covered boxing for the Evening Bulletin upon his graduation from Temple, where he was selected as Outstanding Male Journalism Graduate in 1968. But Peltz didn't just want to report on the action; he wanted to be a part of it.

Peltz soaked up knowledge from his mentor and role-model Toppi, then the owner of the Blue Horizon, during the lead-up to his first show, which paired Bennie Briscoe and Tito Marshall on Sept. 30, 1969. Briscoe won by first-round knockout before a sellout crowd of 1,606 at the Blue Horizon, setting into motion a 43-year career that continues to this day.

"I would sit and talk with Jimmy for hours in the days when he thought I was just some starry-eyed kid who was going to be nothing more than a flash in the pan," Peltz recalls of those listen-and-learn sessions.

Some flash in the pan. After putting on aesthetically pleasing and generally profitable shows at the Blue Horizon for several years, Peltz served as boxing director at the Spectrum from 1973 to '80, staging events that not only involved such local legends as Briscoe, Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, Willie "The Worm" Monroe, Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts, Stanley "Kitten" Hayward, Jeff Chandler and Matthew Saad Muhammad, but also such esteemed imports as Marvin Hagler (five appearances), Michael Spinks, Emile Griffith, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Earnie Shavers, Ernie Terrell and Marvin Johnson.

"We put on 80 fights that first year, 15 shows in 8 months," Peltz said of what has to be one of the most prolific rookie campaigns by any locally based fight promoter, anywhere. "There were 56 knockouts, 28 in the first round. I can never forget those statistics. Of course, I had a lot of good punchers, but those guys weren't always paired as tough as they might have been. I learned that it was good business to put on better fights, more competitive fights.

"You know what the secret is to surviving as a boxing promoter in this town? Making good fights. It's that simple. That, and making good fights involving Philly fighters, which is always a recipe for success.

"People say, 'How can you always make such good matches?' It's because I want to. If you want to make a good match, you make a good match. If you want to get your guy a guaranteed win, pair him easy. But don't charge your customers $50 or $75 to watch that garbage."

Another cornerstone of the Peltz plan is to turn a seeming setback into a capitalized opportunity. On April 28, 1968, Peltz brought in a replacement opponent on short notice, Bronx, N.Y.-based Puerto Rican junior middleweight Jorge Maysonet, to take on local main-eventer Hugh "Buttons" Kearney at the Blue Horizon. Maysonet needed only a minute to stop Kearney in spectacular fashion, prompting Peltz to bring him back to Philly three times, each visit resulting in a knockout victory. That earned Maysonet a shot at then-IBF welterweight champion Simon Brown in Budapest, Hungary, on Feb. 18, 1989. Maysonet never made it out of the third round in that bout, but he and Peltz each made a nice chunk of change during their hastily arranged but fortuitous affiliation.

"There were other examples of that," Peltz remembers. "Billy 'Dynamite' Douglas [a light-heavyweight contender and father of future heavyweight champion Buster Douglas] came here from Ohio in 1972 and knocked Billy Lloyd cold in the first round. He made such a hit at the Arena we brought him back five times. He won every time except the last one, when he was stopped in three rounds by Bennie Briscoe but drew, like, 10,000 people at the Spectrum."

Joe Hand Sr.

As a cop assigned to patrol Philadelphia subway platforms, Hand hardly seemed in position to become a part of Cloverlay, the 14-member investment group consisting mostly of members of the prestigious Union League who backed the early stages of Joe Frazier's professional boxing career after he took gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

"Dr. Bruce Baldwin was named president of the corporation," says Hand, who to that point had never seen a fight in person. "Shares were called 'cocktail' stock, because those gentlemen, all of whom had a lot of money, would go to cocktail parties and say, 'Oh, I own a fighter.' It was kind of a prestige thing. Really, nobody thought they would ever make any money. At $250 a share it was a pretty steep buy-in for someone like me, considering that cops were making something like $3,500 a year at the time. That was nothing to some of the investors, but it was to me.

"Like a lot of people, I read about this local kid who had won a gold medal for his country. I was not a boxing fan. But when I found out about some of the people who were backing Joe, I recognized that they were among the city's foremost movers-and-shakers."

Cloverlay dissolved in 1973, but Hand was front and center when Frazier knocked down Muhammad Ali with a leaping left hook in the 15th round to win by unanimous decision and firmly establish himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion on March 8, 1971, in what is widely considered the most-anticipated boxing match of all time.

"The Super Bowl is nothing compared to that," Hand says of Frazier's benchmark victory. "The World Series isn't, or the World Cup."

Hand caught another break when he volunteered to become Cloverlay's point man in learning the ins and outs of the closed-circuit business, when was then in its infancy.

"Nobody else wanted to do it, so I said I'd find out everything I could about it," Hand said. "That how Joe Hand Promotions came to be."

Not that it was always smooth sailing for Hand's newly formed company. On July 2, 1973, he sank nearly everything he had made from Cloverlay into a closed-circuit show headlined by Frazier against Joe Bugner. It was a rainy, dreary night in Philly and walkup sales were abysmal.

"I went to bed almost in tears. I told my wife, 'I'm sorry. We lost it all. I'll never do this again. It's just not working out.' She said, 'You will do it again, and it will work out. You just have to have faith.' "

Score one for Margaret Hand, visionary. From those early days when Hand had to set up multiple relay stations to get a signal into all of his local closed-circuit locations, "Now I can do a television show in Philadelphia by hitting a button and sending it to China with a 2-second delay. Technology is a wonderful thing."

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