Thursday, September 12, 2019

20 Questions with Russell Peltz

J. Russell Peltz, an institution in Philadelphia boxing, will be celebrating 50 years in the sport next month. In his honor Raging Babe Promotions will be presenting a boxing card at the 2300 Arena on Oct. 4 in South Philadelphia, toasting the achievements of a favorite son from the famous fight town. (Undefeated lightweight prospect Victor Padilla will headline the card.) 

Peltz, a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia and a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin before turning to boxing, is synonymous with the now-defunct Blue Horizon, one of the most famous boxing venues of the 20th century. He also promoted a legendary series of middleweight fights at the Spectrum during the '70s, featuring a combination of future world titlists, contenders, local tough guys and visiting stalwarts (Marvin Hagler lost his first two fights during the series). That golden era of Philadelphia boxing featured names that still resonate 40 years later: "Bad" Bennie Briscoe, Willie "the Worm" Monroe, Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts, and Eugene "Cyclone" Hart (the father of current light heavyweight contender Jesse Hart). 

But Russell's influence was not merely local. He promoted numerous world champions and Hall of Famers, such as Jeff Chandler and Matthew Saad Muhammad. Many of his champs and contenders are fondly remembered decades later, while others may not be as well-known, including Charles Brewer, Marvin Johnson, Robert Hines, Gary Hinton and Charlie "Choo Choo" Brown.

Photo Courtesy of Russell Peltz

Peltz, an inductee of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the World Boxing Hall of Fame, The Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame, as well as many other shrines to the sport, continues to ply his trade: promoting local fight cards, signing fighters, providing his vaunted matchmaking skills, and serving as a mentor for emerging promoters. And although the tough Northeast winters have sent him to Florida for part of each year, Philadelphia and Philadelphia boxing will always be in his bones.  

I recently had the chance to interview Russell about his 50 years in the sport. He provided reflections on his career, touching on his most memorable triumphs, the fighters who got away, how boxing has changed during his time in the sport, what will keep local boxing thriving and much more. 

Interview by Adam Abramowitz
The interview has been edited and condensed. 

Russell, what’s your lasting memory from the first card that you promoted in 1969? (Bennie Briscoe and Tito Marshall headlined at the Blue Horizon.)

I don’t think I saw more than 30 seconds of it. Just the size of the crowd. I think it’s the only show my first wife ever came to. Being interviewed by Sandy Grady on the way out. He was the daily sports columnist from the Bulletin, where I used to work, and was one of the finest writers I ever knew. 

At what point in boxing did you feel like you belonged, that you could cut it?

There was one time where I borrowed two or three thousand from my dad and said if I can’t pay you back in a certain period of time that I would go back to the newspaper business. That was probably in the fall of 1970, the start of the second season. (Back then we didn't promote in the summer unless it was a big show because few arenas had air conditioning; the fall started each new season.) By that time we already had Bennie Briscoe and we were on our way. But mostly I never thought like that. I just kept going. 

As a promoter, what was your favorite victory by one of your fighters?

Bennie Briscoe against Tony Mundine in Paris in February 1974, not even a question. That was the best. 

What’s been the best Philadelphia fight card in the last 50 years?

I was fortunate enough to promote the best fight I ever saw, between, then Matthew Franklin, you know, Saad Muhammad, and Marvin Johnson [their first fight in 1977]. That was incredible. 

Who’s a fighter that turned out to be much better than you thought?

Jason Sosa’s doing a pretty good job of that right now, when you consider that I didn’t want to sign him. I had to take him as a throw-in. His win [over Javier Fortuna] in Beijing in 2016…as I told someone else the other day, if Briscoe-Mundine was number one then that was 1-A, especially in the time of my career that it happened. 

Who’s a fighter that got away?

Oh my god. I turned Hagler down after he lost a second time in Philly. I released Buster Douglas after he lost to Mike “The Giant” White for me in ’83. I think I had to pay him $2,500 for the next season and I said no, because I had the one-loss thing at that time. Tito Trinidad’s people called me years ago when he was coming up [starts laughing] and I told them that I didn’t have the time. I wasn’t interested. Oh well. 

What’s been the toughest negotiation you’ve ever been involved in to make a fight?

I know I had to go behind people's backs to make the first fight between Briscoe and Eugene Hart. I had to go behind Hart’s managers and trainer and go directly to the fighter, which is really a terrible thing to have to do. But I had to do it. I just had to do it. 

Fight you are most proud of? 

Franklin-Johnson, whoever thought the first one was going to turn out to be like that? But the first Briscoe-Hart fight – how I was able to make it, what it meant to the city and the crowd that it drew. Boxing News called it the second best fight in boxing that year behind the Thrilla in Manilla. That would be it. 

What’s the sweatiest, most disgusting gym you’ve ever seen in your years of boxing?

You know you can’t make a fighter in a pretty gym. There were several reincarnations of Champ’s gym over the years. Boy, they were all pretty disgusting. I’d say the first one on the second floor walk-up over Roach’s CafĂ©, aptly named, on Ridge Avenue in North Philly.  

Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (2004)
Photo Courtesy of Russell Peltz

Where’s the most obscure place you’ve traveled to for a fight?

There was Liege, Belgium, which is the handgun capital of the world. I never forgot that. Briscoe fought there. There was Lucca, Italy, where Gary Hinton won the IBF title. There was a 600-seat casino in Campione d’Italia, which is on the Swiss/Italian/French border where Briscoe fought Rodrigo Valdez for the third time. I would say those were the most obscure places – places I had never heard of before I went there. 

Who has been your best friend in boxing?

[The late] Don Chargin, followed closely by Teddy Atlas and Nigel Collins.

How good was Jeff Chandler? 

He was probably the most talented fighter I ever had and was still learning on the job when his eyes went bad. 

As a promoter, what’s the best feeling in boxing?

When people are standing and cheering one of your fights. There's nothing like it. 

What’s the hardest part about promoting club shows?

The hardest part today is getting Philly fighters to fight other Philly fighters, which used to be a staple. Getting them to fight each other...that's the hardest thing today. 

Peltz with bantamweight champion Jeff Chandler
Photo Courtesy of Russell Peltz

Who’s a celebrity that you never expected to cross paths with in boxing?

Bill Cosby.  

What made the Blue Horizon so special?

The fights. 

How would you characterize Philadelphia boxing fans?

Probably as knowledgeable as any, up there with the Hispanics in Southern California who used to go to the Olympic [Auditorium]. The Philly fans and the Mexican, Mexican-American fans in Southern California in my experience are the two most knowledgeable. That might get me in trouble, but what can you do? [laughs] 

What has been the best performance you’ve ever witnessed, either for one of your fighters or on one your shows?

Charles Brewer’s complete domination of Frank Rhodes at the Blue Horizon in March of ’96, which catapulted him to the world title shot. Certainly at the Blue Horizon that was the most dominating performance that I ever saw. 

How will boxing survive on the local level in the next 20 years?

I don’t know, Adam. I really don’t know. 95% of the money today is generated by 5% of the people. And the other 95% of us are generating 5% of the money. If I get a fighter today…just take a guy like Sosa. If a guy gets 10, 15 wins, how am I going to get him on TV today without partnering with someone? 

I’ll tell you how it can survive: Bring back the neighborhood rivalries, but you certainly can’t do it in Philly. Because most of these guys don’t get it. 

What’s been your biggest accomplishment?

Staying in boxing for 50 years.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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