“Boxing is a Joke!”: An Interview with J. Russell Peltz

J. Russell Peltz in 1997. (Getty Images)

J. Russell Peltz understands that the comments that come out of his mouth these days are not universally welcomed. He’s heard the complaints that he’s too negative (always so negative), from friends and foes alike. That he’s a crank, a perpetual grouser on the order of Holden Caulfield. Then there’s his favorite: that he’s passé, that his way of thinking is outmoded, no longer relevant. And all that, in a way, sits just fine with the longtime Philadelphia boxing promoter.

“Who wants to change with the times?” Peltz said with an audible sneer. “I’m thinking Bob Arum is going to read this and say, ‘I’m not doing business with him anymore.’ He’s too negative.”

Peltz sighed, then added, “But nobody wants to face it straight on.”

Perhaps because doing so would require one to formulate some unpopular conclusions that go against the grain of the ever-churning boxing establishment. And that can be an awfully lonely position to take today, especially when the industry is too busy raking in all those millions funneling down from legacy media dynasties, hedge funds, and a certain Ukrainian billionaire, to give grouches like Peltz the time of day. All that money at stake. Better to pipe down and get back in line. Take that hat off, too.

Didn’t you hear, Russell? Boxing is booming these days. Boxing is back.

“No,” Peltz retorted. “Boxing is a joke.”

Maybe it’s the journalist in him—a role he had much earlier life – but Peltz doesn’t have much tolerance for inaccuracies, from typos to the kinds of lies that circulate in broad daylight in professional boxing. Naturally, this makes Peltz Exhibit A in what it means to be a “hater.” But Peltz wants to assure you that nobody loves the sport more than him. In fact, that’s the problem. Nobody does, at least not anymore. It used to be that guys like him were everywhere in the industry throughout the freewheeling 1970s and ‘80s, when Peltz first started making his mark in the sport. They were businessmen, yes, as committed to the fast buck as the next capitalist fiend on Wall Street, but they were fight guys first, boxing diehards whose affection for the sport could be felt the seams of their wide-lapel polyester suits. Such types, Peltz argues, are harder to spot today.

“Very few people get into boxing today because they love boxing. They get into it for the business of it, okay?” said Peltz, who turns seventy-three in December. “When I started out, I never even thought about the business. All I wanted to do was be involved in boxing because I loved boxing. It’s a different world today. Lots of people in boxing today are not boxing lifers. They’re lawyers, accountants, doctors, and they invest. They don’t get it. These people don’t love boxing. They love the money.”

Granted, if you were as lucky as Peltz was, in 1971, to get tickets to see Muhammad Ali trade punches with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, perhaps falling in love with the sport wouldn’t be such a difficult proposition. A fight of that magnitude tends to live on in the imagination as indelible proof of the sport’s potential on its best days. In short, it sets a benchmark.

“I was there (for Ali‒Frazier I). Nothing could touch it,” Peltz said. “To be alive then. . . . All the buildup for weeks. Nothing better than boxing when it’s done right. Nothing better. No sport. Super Bowl. NBA. There’s no better moment in sport than when there’s a championship fight and the referee says, ‘Seconds out,’ and the house lights go down, and the ring lights go on, and it’s a legitimate fight, a fight that people want to see.”

It’s the erosion of this very standard that has caused Peltz to sour on the sport.

“If boxing today was what I was turning on in 1959, when I fell in love with it, I wouldn’t watch it,” Peltz said. “I wouldn’t know what’s going on. Now some guy is the WBA interim silver champion in recess. I mean, c’mon! I can’t even follow it.”

So with all the hubbub going on today about the apparent renaissance of the sport, Peltz feels obligated to pull out a few examples to prove the contrary. Less than two months ago, a middleweight title fight took place at Madison Square Garden featuring Gennadiy Golovkin and a little-known Ukrainian named Sergiy Derevyanchenko and streamed live on DAZN. There were a reported 12,000 or so spectators in attendance, but the fight—a rousing two-way struggle that saw Golovkin notch a close decision—struggled at the gate, and the word was that many comp tickets had been issued.

“How can you have a middleweight championship fight in the Garden and be giving away tickets?” Peltz asked. “You think they gave away tickets when Sugar Ray Robinson fought Gene Fullmer on January 2, 1957? You think they gave away tickets for that fight? It’s crazy, just crazy.”

Both guys were paid handsomely, though. Golovkin reportedly made $7.5 million in cash and another $7.5 million in DAZN stock. Derevyanchenko took home $5.2 million—not bad for a Ukranian nobody has ever heard of. Surely these gaudy numbers are evidence of the sport’s prosperous health?

“Great for them that they’re making the money. It’s great. But it’s not real money,” Peltz said. “You mean those fighters are worth $20 million between them? You’re kidding. Where’d that money come from? It came from an outlet that is making a big investment in the future of boxing. But right now, they’re hemorrhaging money.

“I wish I were a fighter, you know. It’s insane. I don’t blame them. If I had Derevyanchenko or any of those guys, sure, go grab the money. But don’t talk to me that boxing is getting better.”

But isn’t there something to be said of the fact that there is more boxing on TV than in recent memory? Nearly every weekend, from all corners of the globe, there is a boxing card that gets either streamed or televised.

“There’s eight gazillion television stations today!” Peltz cried. “Of course, there’s going to be more boxing on, because they have to fill the time slots. When there were three stations in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you had boxing on two or three times a week. That was a lot of boxing. Not today. How many channels are on your TV? Hundreds, hundreds of channels. If you have nine hundred channels and boxing is on three or four of them, maybe, what is that as opposed to having three channels and boxing was on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday?”

But what really gets at Peltz, more than the proliferation of gimcrack alphabet belts and boilerplate matchups, is that the heavyweight division remains hopelessly splintered and forlorn.

“That heavyweight title has to be settled,” Peltz said. “No more excuses, nothing. If those guys were real fighters—I mean real fighters—they would want to settle it. What reason is there to watch Tyson Fury fight Tom Schwarz? And then Fury walks around saying he’s the lineal champion—who cares!”

Still, Peltz is happy to concede that he may be wrong, that boxing’s current resurgence may propel it to a permanent new height. Maybe.

“Everybody just wants to make the money. Just suck the TV money, suck it dry. Maybe it’ll work. Three years from now, there could be three million people subscribing to DAZN, and the ESPN app and boxing could be bigger than the NFL. I could be way off here.

“But I doubt it.”

***

It was a very different time when Peltz started out promoting in his native Philadelphia in the 1970s. His first show was at the Blue Horizon and featured Bennie Briscoe in the main event. He would go on to promote Eugene Hart, Willie Monroe, Jeff Chandler, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Stanley Hayward, Bobby Watts, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. But whoever the headliner, big name or small, all of Peltz’s shows were anchored to a particular economic reality: the health of the gate. These were the days before the onslaught of network subsidization.

“You made your money selling tickets,” said Peltz, who recently celebrated his fiftieth anniversary in the sport as a promoter. “If Mike Tyson was fighting Michael Spinks, let’s say, you could sell tickets. That’s how you made your money. And ten-round fights drew big crowds. Today, you get one big name, and you sell him to some television executive, and it doesn’t matter who he fights.

“I was paying guys more money in the ’70s for ten-round fights, when you factor in inflation, than what they are making today on television. And we had no television back then! It’s crazy.”

That promoters like Peltz once upon a time relied heavily on ticket sales sounds like common sense, but in the hyperreality of today’s boxing landscape, an A-side fighter with a dreary style who routinely stinks out an arena can still take home a high seven-figure check. Peltz wonders why more people don’t think that this is a problem.

“If DAZN and ESPN decided tomorrow, ‘You know what, this isn’t working, we’re out of here,’ the fighters would have to go back and be paid what they’re worth,” Peltz said, “and they don’t want to know that. We used to pay fighters a percentage of the gate for the main event. They don’t want to know that.”

Peltz heaps a lot of blame on influential manager Al Haymon for upending the standard equation that typically governed fighter pay.

“I think Al Haymon set boxing back fifty years by overpaying fighters,” Peltz said. “Now, that sounds terrible; I get it. The fighters are entitled. Sure they are, sure they are. But not at the expense of the future of the sport. Al Haymon was paying guys outrageous amounts of money for appearance fights, for tune-up fights, and it hurt everybody else, and nobody could match his money because it wasn’t his money, it was (the hedge fund) Waddell and Reed’s money.

“Paying a $5,000-fighter $20,000 is great for the fighter, but it’s not great for the sport.”

There is plenty of blame to go around, however, and that includes boxing’s most esteemed impresario.

“Listen, Bob Arum is one of the greatest promoters who ever lived, okay? No doubt about it,” Peltz said. “I still think it’s more of a business to Bob than it is a sport. I think like most people in the sport; he is interested in the bottom line. Do you think he’s going to spend all the money that he made in his life before he passes away? How much do you need? Why don’t you do something good for the sport?”

All things considered, Peltz contends boxing today is worse than ever. He traces the current problems back to the aughts, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. began championing the primacy of the undefeated record and HBO, under the leadership of Ross Greenburg, began issuing head-turning license fees for otherwise middling fights. These days economics has reached a new level of absurdity, with new entities like DAZN shelling out millions on fighters with little commercial appeal and uninspiring styles, all in the name of protecting their own business interests. Nothing seems quite to add up. Such moves are a sign of the shortsighted, cash-grab mentality of many of the sport’s participants and proof of boxing’s broken business model.

“If you look at the bottom line of some of these fight cards, if they even do profit-loss statements, the small promoters could never do this if the networks were paying what the fights were worth,” Peltz said.

It’s also why independent promoters like Peltz—boxing’s diminishing middle class—find themselves increasingly pinched, existentially threatened and, yes, a bit peeved. To play ball, they’re strong-armed into giving up their assets to the sport’s 1 percent.

“You can’t make it in boxing without selling your soul,” Peltz said. “If I have a kid today that is a hot prospect and he wins eighteen or nineteen in a row legitimately, what am I going to do with him? I have to turn half of him over to DAZN or ESPN or PBC to get him on television. What’s he going to say? ‘I want to fight on TV; you can’t do that for me, Russell.’ And I can’t.”

(Critics may accuse Peltz of being on the other side of the coin in the late 1990s when he was operating as an independent promoter and matchmaking consultant for ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights, a dual role that had watchdogs at the time crying ‘conflict of interest.’ While conceding that his position didn’t make for great optics, Peltz denied he had ever tried to pry promotional rights from another promoter’s fighters during his tenure as an ESPN. Peltz also denied that he ever played favorites when it came to offering dates to promoters. “I had to say ‘no’ to a lot of my friends,” Peltz responded. “I gave dates to promoters I couldn’t stand. I’m a straight shooter.”)

When fighters are finally paid what they’re truly worth—by the value that their name brings to an event through ticket sales, PPV buys, or endorsements—the sport would be in better shape, Peltz says, especially because it would compel the power brokers to make “good fights”—in other words, competitive ones. Instead, every time a good fight does happen, there is a tendency to overpraise it. The lack of historical perspective hurts the sport, as every positive event is regarded as some kind of historic milestone.

“When you do see a good fight these days, like Spence‒Porter the other night, you make it seem like it’s the greatest fight that ever happened,” Peltz said. “And it was a good fight. But we used to have these fights all the time. Now we get them now and then. Like earlier this year when Julian Williams fought Jarrett Hurd. An excellent fight. But we used to have them all the time.”

The irony is that the latest upswing in the sport hasn’t necessarily led to better fights, though the last few months have been unusually strong. (This interview was conducted a week after Golovkin‒Derevyanchenko). With more guaranteed television dates than ever, network-backed promoters have less excuse than ever to put on quality matchups, Peltz says, but he hasn’t seen that commitment yet from any of the key players.

“I don’t know what Arum’s deal is [with ESPN],” Peltz began. “Let’s say it’s a three-year deal. I know that for three years I have this money coming out. I’m gonna have thirty shows a year. It’s not my money. It’s ESPN’s money. So I’m thinking, it doesn’t matter to me who wins or loses. I’m gonna have this deal for three years. Why don’t I just make the best fights? Why am I protecting guys? I’m still going to have a show next month. I’m gonna have a show in two weeks. Why not just make the best fights and try, try to make a deal with the winners.”

But seldom does sound logic prevail in boxing. Indeed, the recent investment that has gushed into the sport seemingly has further hardened the traditional lines of demarcation. In some cases, it has prevented some of the best fighters in the sport from tapping into their potential.

“Look how big [Terence] Crawford would be if he were the welterweight champ like Emile Griffith or Jose Napoles or Kid Gavilan or any of those great fighters,” Peltz said. “He can’t even get those fights because [the other top fighters] won’t fight him because they’re with another network. It’s childish. Some of the other promoters are spoiled brats, big babies.

“A promoter’s job was to promote a fight, not promote a fighter. We used to have to bid off fights. Today’s promoters are managers, they’re not promoters.”

In the end, it all comes down to making “good fights.” And as simple as that sounds, Peltz knows that it remains a difficult task, requiring more than just a sea change in commitment from the bigwigs. Good fights, Peltz stresses, needs to happen at “all levels, especially the club level,” and there lies the problem Peltz identified earlier: few go into boxing these days with no other motive than to strike it rich at the top. Still, Peltz wants to believe the sport’s weak infrastructure can change because he’s seen how it once worked. Yet with each passing Tyson Fury showcase that has Joe Tessitore bawling “lineal heavyweight champion” on the broadcast, Peltz is reminded of the distance separating the sport today from how he once knew it.

“Those of us who are old enough to know what it was like we still harbor this feeling that just maybe, just maybe they can straighten this mess out and get it back together,” he said. “Nothing is better than boxing when it is done right. We have to figure out a way to do it right, but people have to want to do it right. But I don’t see it.”

 

About Sean Nam 27 Articles
Sean Nam has written for The Cruelest Sport, Undisputed Champion Network, and The Sweet Science. His non-boxing writing has appeared in New Rambler Review, Slant Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Rain Taxi, Mubi Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cineaste. In 2017, he curated the Boxing on Film series for the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.