After 50 years in boxing, promoter J. Russell Peltz doesn't like where the sport has gone

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
J. Russell Peltz (C) is about to celebrate 50 years as a boxing promoter, and he's seen the sport change drastically over the years. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli)

In 1976, Marvin Hagler wasn’t marvelous yet, either by name legally or in the ring. He was an aggressive, talented middleweight from Massachusetts who was willing to fight anyone at any time, anywhere.

He made frequent forays in that time from New England to Philadelphia, where a young promoter named J. Russell Peltz controlled a number of elite middleweights, including Bennie Briscoe, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts.

Peltz dearly loved to make a fight where two guys would just meet in the center of the ring and have at it. Hagler was fearless, though not always successful. His first two pro defeats came to Peltz-promoted fighters in Philadelphia.

He was spouting poetry before fights at the time, a la Muhammad Ali, in what was likely a desperate bid for attention. His first loss came at the Philadelphia Spectrum on Jan. 13, 1976 to Watts in a bout everyone but the judges felt he’d won.

Watts took a majority decision by scores of 48-44, 46-44 and 46-46. Given Hagler’s pre-fight propensity for poetry, the Philadelphia Daily News’ Stan Hochman’s account of the bout began with this gem:

Marvin Hagler, the fighter from Brockton;

Fought at the Spectrum and barely got socked-on.

Booglaoo Watts he did carve;

And guess what happened to Marvelous Marv?

Hagler complained in Hochman’s story that he won every round. Despite the robbery, Hagler returned to Philadelphia less than two months later to fight for Peltz again at the Spectrum on March 9, 1976, against Monroe.

Monroe, Peltz said, was slated to fight Vinnie Curto, but not many close to the situation were expecting Curto to go through with the fight. Hagler did not, and he trained with the thought he’d get a call to replace Curto when he inevitably pulled out.

Two weeks before the fight, Curto withdrew and Hagler was in, albeit with a bit of a different contract. His managers, Goody and Pat Petronelli, demanded a percentage of the gate from Peltz, who complied.

It didn’t turn out as they expected, though, even though Peltz was the one eventually left to ponder what might have been.

A late winter snowstorm dropped nearly seven inches of snow on Philadelphia on the day of the fight, and winds were howling. The attendance dipped to just 3,459 and Hagler didn’t make nearly what he’d hoped.

“The Petronellis were sick,” Peltz said of the attendance. “After the fight, they cornered me outside of Marvin’s dressing room. They said, ‘Russell, you have Briscoe, Monroe, Watts and Hart. Why don’t you take us on? We’ll cut you in.’ I said, ‘Well, if you can’t beat the guys from Philly, what am I going to do?’ ”

Had he accepted their offer, he would have had a piece of Hagler’s contract as Hagler blossomed into one of the greatest middleweights who ever lived. After getting beaten by Monroe on that blustery, snowy night in Philadelphia in 1976, Hagler dropped to 26-1-1.

He would then go 36-0-1 in his next 37 fights, become one of the biggest stars in boxing and didn’t lose again for more than 11 years, until he lost a decision to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987 that is hotly disputed to this day.

“I’d have been out of the business by now, because I’d have had enough money to get out,” said Peltz, who on Monday will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of his promotional career.

29 Apr 1997: Promoter Russell Peltz handles all the fights during Fight Night at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)

It’s been a long, memorable journey for Peltz, who fell in love with boxing as a pre-teen but has become disillusioned by what has happened to the sport.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were promoters like Peltz in most major cities in the U.S. and there were fights nightly all over the country. Those small promoters were able to make a living by putting on competitive bouts on each show.

When a reporter congratulated him on his anniversary, he sighed.

“I know people say I’m too negative, but there is a lot to be negative about,” Peltz said. “It’s not the sport I fell in love with as a kid. I’m sure it was always a business, but it is so much business today that the sport part is emasculated compared to the business part.

“Even now, go onto the internet to read a boxing story and the percentage of stories about a fight is minuscule compared to the stories about the business and promoters ragging on each other. Do you think the average fan cares about what the promoters say about each other? They want to read about the fighters and the fights.”

Peltz, who was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004, bemoaned the demise of the local fight clubs. Those shows were where young fighters learned the trade, and promoters put them in tough. So there weren’t nearly as many so-called appearance fights as exist now.

Though there is a lot of boxing televised now, Peltz isn’t certain it’s made the sport healthier.

“When the clubs were going full bore, we’d have three, four, even fight cards in Philly every week,” Peltz said. “We don’t have that anymore. You’re just talking about what’s on TV. I’m talking about all the fight clubs that dried up over the years because they couldn’t compete. There’s no way an independent promoter like me can survive without turning a prospect over to Golden Boy, Top Rank, Eddie Hearn or PBC.

“If I get a hot prospect and he wins 20 in a row ⁠— a legit 20 in a row ⁠— I can’t get him on television without turning over half the contract to one of those promoters. You could do that back that. You could do that as recently as 1998, which I considered the first nail in boxing’s coffin when USA Network’s ‘Tuesday Night Fights’ went under.”

Peltz said promoters get too concerned about protecting a fighter’s record and not about putting on bouts fans would enjoy. The result, he said, is that 5 percent of the promoters control 95 percent of the money in the sport.

As an example of his point, Peltz noted that in the 1961 Ring rankings, when there were only eight divisions, there were 89 fighters ranked, with a champion and 10 men ranked per division. The middleweight title was split, so there were two champions there, but only five were undefeated.

He compared that against a recent WBC ranking of fighters in those same eight divisions. Of those, 31 were undefeated.

“What that tells me is that nobody is fighting anybody,” Peltz said.

Chairman of Top Rank Boxing Bob Arum and co-promoter Russell Peltz answer questions from reporters at luncheon press conference for the upcoming Pacquiao vs. Margarito fight at the Friars Club on October 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Tom Briglia/FilmMagic)

He’s loved boxing much of his life. He went to college to be a journalist and was working at the Philadelphia Bulletin with the goal of being the primary boxing writer. In 1969, he was making a $7,500 salary and wasn’t satisfied covering the action.

He wanted to be part of it, so he quit his job, got $5,000 he had saved and started Peltz Boxing Promotions. He went from making $625 a month to $575 a night running his own promotion after making profits of $4,600 eight months into his new gig.

He hasn’t turned back since. People frequently ask him the best fighter he ever saw, and he always quickly answers the late former middleweight champion, Carlos Monzon. Of Floyd Mayweather, who dubs himself “TBE” as an acronym for “The Best Ever,” Peltz will only say he believes Mayweather is one of the top 100 fighters of all-time.

“I’ll leave it at that other than that,” he said. “I will say this: I don’t think he’d have been undefeated if he had had [Sugar Ray] Robinson’s schedule, or [Harry] Greb’s schedule.”

He loves the sport and has an intricate knowledge of its history. But he knows he is one of the lone voices out there decrying what has become of the sport he loves.

“Boxing desperately⁠ — desperately ⁠— needs the heavyweight title to be unified,” Peltz said. “I hear guys today say boxing is getting better, but who is saying that? Do people going to the Eagles’ game say it? Do people going to the Sixers’ games say it? The title needs to be unified now. This upcoming [Anthony] Joshua-[Andy] Ruiz fight is going, but the winner has got to fight the winner of [Tyson] Fury and [Deontay] Wilder. They have to do it. It’s got to happen. It’s a joke if it doesn’t.

“It’s like [welterweight title-holders Errol] Spence and [Terence] Crawford. This is the kind of s--- that bugs me about boxing. They’re supposedly the best two guys? Then why aren’t they fighting. And I don’t buy that the fighters are powerless in this. Spence should go to [Al] Haymon and demand to fight Crawford, and Crawford should go to Arum and demand to fight Spence. If these guys are real fighters, they should want to fight Crawford. You shouldn’t have to beg and plead with them to do it.”

He could, he said, go on and on. He’s seeing the beautiful shiny new car he so treasured rusting out, with the paint dulled and the engine croaking. It’s hard to look at.

He’ll go on promoting his shows, and explain why they won’t make him rich. He’ll get at least some satisfaction knowing he’s doing what he can to make the sport right.

“Make the best fights you can make for this card, and then for the next cards, make the best fights you can for that one,” Peltz said. “I know I get criticized for negativity, but it’s just being honest. I don’t even know if that is enough anymore.”

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