Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Rodney Berman: Promoter, Humanist

There's an adage in the business side of boxing: Never fall in love with a fighter. This mantra of emotional distance I'm sure made its way into the boxing vernacular because of the many things that can go wrong with the fighter/representation dynamic. Fighters will leave. They will get into trouble. They will underperform. Often fighters won't appreciate those who helped guide them once they make it towards the top. 

And yet here's Rodney Berman, the legendary South African promoter who has been in the game since 1977, and he's not one for creating barriers between his company, Golden Gloves, and the fighters he represents. Working in the Golden Gloves offices every day is former junior lightweight champion Brian Mitchell. Berman regards Mitchell as a son. They have been in business together for 40 years and it's a relationship that Berman cherishes. 

Rodney Berman
Courtesy of Golden Gloves

Or how about this: Berman no longer allows anyone to sign with Golden Gloves that doesn't enroll in their pension program. And yes, you read that correctly. They have a pension program that is invested in one of the leading South African financial services firms. 

"We really care about our fighters," said Berman. "Every time one of our guys fight, we take 10% of his purse and it goes into Old Mutual, a leading investment finance company in South Africa. We have a life insurance policy for our fighters without any expense. We have a funeral policy without any expense. 

"And regarding the retirement policy, we take out a five-year tax-free investment. There is one caveat to it. In the first five years of the plan, if a fighter wants to withdraw his money, he needs my permission...And I've shown them when you don't touch the policy for five years, the growth in that policy is unbelievable with compound interest. Many keep their money in for much longer. It's very gratifying to me that the fighters have taken to it. And a lot of these fighters have done very well from it."   

Berman takes great pride in how he looks after his fighters. He's not interested in his boxers becoming "opponents." He believes in matching them appropriately, knowing when to roll the dice and when to understand that a given opportunity isn't worth the cost/benefit analysis. 

And this takes us to Kevin Lerena (30-2, 14 KOs), Berman's heavyweight, who takes on undefeated Justis Huni (8-0, 4 KOs) on Friday's Joshua-Ngannou card. Lerena might best be known as the heavyweight who lost a controversial fight to Daniel Dubois. In a surprising development, Lerena knocked down Dubois three times in the first round. Dubois, who was seriously hurt and took a knee for two of the knockdowns, was allowed to continue and then wound up knocking Lerena out at the end of the third round from a punch that connected well after the bell rang. Berman appealed on his behalf, but a no-contest or even a rematch wasn't granted. 

Lerena rebounded since that defeat with two victories, including a win over former cruiserweight champion Ryad Merhy. Berman admits that he's rolling the dice with Lerena against Huni, who is one of the top young fighters from Australia and has a deep amateur background. But he likes the fact that Lerena has the greater professional experience in the matchup and that Huni isn't a huge puncher. 

And it's here that Berman's humanism shines through again. Berman wants Lerena to have a fulfilling life after boxing and believes in matching him compassionately. Berman's plan for Lerena involves his fighter, win or lose against Huni, aiming for the bridgerweight world title instead of going after the big boys at heavyweight. 

"In his everyday life, Lerena is a paramedic," said Berman. "He drives around saving people’s lives. He's a breath of fresh air...Kevin is one of the strongest-minded people that I've met. He's very philosophical. He takes things in stride...

"However, he's in the unfortunate position, that he has the heart of the lion, but it's inescapable with the giants in the ring today that size is against him. And even with Huni, size and weight are against Kevin. But it doesn't deter him.

"Kevin can be a fireball. He has very fast hand speed. It's going to be a very intriguing fight. I think it's going to be a distance fight, because I don't think either man will be able to stop the other. And I think Kevin's ability is being very underrated."

Berman has heard the criticism regarding bridgerweight, but he believes that for the right fighter it serves a purpose. And Berman admits that he's not too keen to match Lerena with any of the other huge hitters at heavyweight. Although Lerena has decent enough power, Berman is concerned about his relatively small body frame. Lerena had fought at cruiserweight until 2020. Lerena is already 31 and Berman wants him to have a fruitful life after boxing. 

Berman with Marvin Hagler (left) and Roberto Duran (right)
Photo courtesy of Golden Gloves

Berman has had dozens of world champions in his 45 years in the sport. One of his greatest accomplishments has been his role in helping to integrate South African boxing. When he started promoting during the height of Apartheid, it was illegal for a white promoter to represent a Black boxer. In the stands there were roped off sections for Black patrons. There were still South African Black champions and South African white champions.

"They were terrible times," said Berman. "It was shocking. When I think back to the Apartheid days, it was surreal...Welcome Ncita, for example, was training in a one-room schoolroom. The conditions were pathetic." 

Berman was one of the first promoters in South Africa to have an integrated promotional company and he worked with the IBF in particular to help promote Black South African fighters. His first world champion was Ncita, a Black fighter who won the 122-lb. title in 1990 and made six title defenses. Another early Black champion was Vuyani Bungu, who defeated Kennedy McKinney twice and made 13 junior featherweight title defenses. 

Boxing has taken Berman, 81, around the world and back. He relishes the South African underdog role in the world boxing scene and his fighters have sprung major upsets, including Sugar Boy Malinga over Nigel Benn and Corrie Sanders over Wladimir Klitschko. He was the lead promoter in Hasim Rahman's upset victory over Lennox Lewis in South Africa, where Berman had a memorable hour-length phone call with Nelson Mandela in the lead up to the fight.

Although Berman has lived a full boxing life, he still is heavily involved in the next generation of South African boxing talent. In particular, he's very high on junior middleweights Shervantaigh Koopman (13-0, 9 KOs) and Roarke Knapp (17-1-1, 12 KOs). And he's still trying to develop world-level fighters despite the weakness of the South African currency (which makes it tough to pay for opponents) and the distance of South Africa from the world's boxing hot spots. Throughout his time in the sport, Berman has had to navigate myriad constrictions and he takes pride in what he's been able to accomplish despite exceedingly challenging social, political, and economic headwinds.  

This week Berman will be in Saudi Arabia looking after Lerena's best interests. Berman is no stranger to going on the road. He'll be hoping that his fighter can pull off the upset, but most of all, he will want his fighter to make sure that he can fight for another day. 

The sorrow in Berman's voice is still there when he talks about Corey Sanders' untimely death from the hands of armed robbers. To Berman, Sanders was one of the sweetest people he has ever met in the sport. Berman understands how life can be precious, how a boxer's life in or out of the ring can change in the blink of an eye. He wants his fighters to accomplish great things in the ring, but also to have a fulfilling tomorrow.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of
He's a contributing writer for Ring Magazine, 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 

1 comment:

  1. good piece. one correction though: Old mutual is a leading investment finance company in South Africa, not South america