The misadventures of a boxing manager

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boxing manager
‘It seemed like a sweetheart deal. I was a frontman. I knew my s**t. Well, I thought I did.’ Nigel Collins recollects his stint as a boxing manager

I left Madison Square Garden before the main event started and headed for the parking lot, depriving myself of the only opportunity I would ever have to see Muhammad Ali fight live – against Earnie Shavers, no less. But I surrendered to an uncontrollable urge to leave, and the only thing I knew for sure was that I had to put some miles between boxing and me before sunrise.

The opening bell must have rung by the time I exited the Lincoln Tunnel on the Jersey side and gunned the car into the early morning gloom. I was not angry or upset, just tired. I wanted to go home and sleep. Tomorrow would be soon enough to think.

That night marked the beginning of the end of an adventure into territory for which I was unsuited and ill prepared, a stranger in a strange land. Circumstances persuaded me to step out of my comfort zone and I did, willingly diving into a parallel world where it’s virtually impossible to fly above the fray. Long term it wasn’t for me, but I have no regrets. The best part of slipping into darkness is the stories.

★ ★ ★

The deal went down at the Pub Tiki on Philly’s Walnut Street, one of those kitschy Polynesian-themed joints that were popular in the 1970s. There were three of us, promoter J Russell Peltz, trainer Leon Tabbs and myself, hashing out the details of a transaction that would make me manager of junior lightweight Jerome Artis.

I sat there sucking up a rum drink called Missionary’s Downfall, as Russell explained the terms of the arrangement: I would be Artis’ manager and Peltz (the Spectrum’s Director of Boxing) would promote him. We’d take 10 percent off the top and split it fifty-fifty between us. How Jerome and Leon divvied up the other ninety per cent was their business.

We had similar contracts with welterweight Alfonso Hayman [pictured above], light-middleweight Fred Jenkins, welterweight Leroy Jefferson and later super-featherweight Wade Hinnant.

It seemed like a sweetheart deal. I would be managing boxers backed by the biggest promoter in town. There would a few bucks coming my way and a new measure of respect. I was suddenly a guy with connections. I had been a boxing fan since I was in short pants and The Ring magazine’s Philadelphia correspondent for around three years. I knew my s**t. Well, I thought I did.

I was a frontman, the managerial face, the guy who officially held the contracts on the Fab Five, but I wasn’t the money, power or brains. My job was to shepherd my little stable the best I knew how.

★ ★ ★

Jimmy Arthur had a second-floor gym at 17th and Reed, where Alfonso Hayman trained and I loitered. It was a dusty, barebones affair, brought to life during training hours like a movie set, when the lights go on and the director yells “action.”

Arthur was born James Arthur Washington, and after a brief pro career as Jimmy Arthur, he became a trainer, but kept his fighting name. Most everyone called him Art, anyway. He was a slim, wiry man who ran with his boxers and kept a half-a-pint in his locker. He was, as Peltz likes to call him, “the greatest trainer you’ve never heard of.”

Hayman was one of those guys who always had a toothpick in his mouth. When he trained he took it out and carefully, almost reverentially, placed it on a small white towel. His workout routine was uncannily precise, always the same in the same order, except on sparring days. When he was finished, he’d change into his street clothes, put the toothpick back in his mouth and leave. Sometimes he never said a word the whole time.
The first Hayman fight in which I was involved was a 10-rounder at the Spectrum, September 10, 1974, against fellow Philadelphian Mario “The Spider” Saurennann, who unfortunately looked unnervingly like his nickname.

I was surprised and relieved when Hayman won a split decision. He landed some decent punches, but The Spider jabbed the bejesus out of him. Maybe a hard fight was just what he needed because Hayman’s next bout was the biggest win of his career, a 10th-round TKO of Johnny Gant, a world-rated welterweight from Washington, D.C.

All right. So far, so good.

Hayman wanted to fight again before a mooted rematch with Gant, and Peltz put him on an upcoming Spectrum card. Then everything changed, especially for me. Alfonso suffered a cut eye sparring and the fight was cancelled. I was at the gym when he returned from seeing the doctor. “Sorry about your eye,” I said. “Did the doctor say how long he thought it would take to heal?”

“Get the hell out of my face or I’ll kill you,” Hayman yelled.

Before I could fully comprehend what was going on, Art stepped between us and gently pushed me in the direction of the stairs. “You better get out of here,” he said, and I did, as fast as my sneakered feet would carry me down the sagging wooden stairs and into the street.

★ ★ ★

It was early evening in North Philly and the street was empty except for an old guy sitting on his stoop, smoking a cigarette. I double-checked to make sure my car door was locked and loped across the road and into the lobby of the 26th Street Rec Center.

The Rec Center is housed in an old redbrick structure built in 1912. Boxing is only one of the many activities available, but like Noah’s ark in the deluge, it is boxing that stands out – a shelter from the storm for young men who seek salvation from the streets through the power of their fists. That’s the idea, anyway.

I parked my butt on the wood bench that ran along the wall and watched the kids shadowbox and hit the heavy bag. Then I heard a voice that would soon become all too familiar.

“Hi, I hear we’re going to be working together.” It was Jerome, who had sidled up unnoticed and sat next to me. “You’re a hippie, right? I’m sort of a hippie, too.”

I was not sure what the term meant to him, but I laughed. Despite his barefaced attempt to ingratiate himself, I liked him right away. That’s always the case with people like Jerome. Every successful con artist has to have a likeable personality, and in many ways that’s what Jerome was, a conman, but a conman with a difference.

He was a gifted boxer, good enough to beat Sugar Ray Leonard for the 125-pound championship at the 1972 National Golden Gloves.

Jerome was a good-looking man with a chameleonic personality, nice to some, nasty with others, whichever worked to his advantage. In boxing circles he was generally considered an arrogant big mouth, which was a fair assessment. Boasting and trash talk were nowhere as prevalent as today, and Jerome’s popinjay persona garnered media attention.

He was also supposed to be just a few credits short of a degree from Temple University. It sounded like a load of horseshit to me, but it got his face in all the papers. Artis’ career wasn’t what it could have been, but it’s safe to say he never lost a press conference.

Artis was an unorthodox defensive boxer, nimble on his feet, adroit at the art of ducking, pivoting, and sidestepping with the brio of a pool shark.
He was also one of those boxers who could come off the streets and go eight or 10 rounds with little or no training. Imagine how tempting that would be, especially to someone like Jerome who personified the “million dollar talent with a dime’s worth of dedication” metaphor.

The little prick’s favorite excuse for not running in the morning was that his hemorrhoids were “acting up.”

★ ★ ★

Hayman was a Vietnam combat veteran and probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a genuine desperado subject to angry outburst and reckless behavior. His normally restrained demeanor must have fooled a lot of people, including me.

There were seven months between the first Gant fight and the rematch, which like their first fight took place at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Gant won a decision in a rather uneventful affair.

The real fun began when I went to promoter Eli Hanover’s office to get paid.

Hayman was already there and had taken both his share, as well as Russell’s and mine. When I appealed to Hanover he said, “What do you think I am, a debt collector?” One glance at Hayman and I knew I had to play it cool, so I shrugged and walked out.

★ ★ ★

Arnold Giovanetti lived just off South Broad Street, pretty close to the stadium complex. I paused before ringing the doorbell. I was going to meet a boxer who had threatened to kill me and a guy who allegedly had ties to organized crime. But Giovanetti wanted to buy Hayman’s contract and was willing to reimburse us for the money owed from the second Gant fight.

“Come on in,” said Giovanetti as he opened the door. “We’re in the kitchen.”

Hayman was there, along with a huge guy who sometimes provided security for boxers. I don’t know if they were expecting trouble, but all I wanted was to get the money and split.

Giovanetti had two checks already written, one for Hayman’s contract and the other for the money Alfonso owed us. I signed the contract, endorsed the checks, and then traded them for cash. I shook our host’s hand and was out the door 15 minutes after I entered.

It was the last time I saw Giovanetti. In August 1977 his Cadillac was found at the Philadelphia airport, but he was never seen or heard from again.

★ ★ ★

IN the 1970s Tyrone Everett and Bennie Briscoe were Philadelphia boxing’s biggest attractions. Like Jerome, Everett was a 130-pounder, and it wasn’t unusual for Artis (who beat Tyrone in the amateurs) to fight on the undercard of shows headlined by Everett.

The prospect of an Everett-Artis showdown smelled of money and the weasels began to circle. Enter George Sullivan.

This creep ran a security business, renting out bodies to keep order at events. According to 60 Minutes, which did an exposé segment on Sullivan’s business practices, some employees were issued fake firearms, a terribly dangerous practice because criminals will assume they are armed.

Artis had sold a piece of himself to Sullivan, and it wasn’t long before my new partner tried to break the contract on a technicality. Thanks to some backdated paperwork signed by Jerome a day or so before the hearing, I won the case and the contract remained valid. The fighter was probably playing both ends against the middle, but he knew Russell controlled his immediate future.

What Peltz, Tabbs, and I could not control was Jerome’s lifestyle (at one point he had two women pregnant at the same time) and slipshod approach to training. Who knows why he was the way he was? We just had to deal with it the best we could.

Any chance of an Everett-Artis fight was wrecked when Tyrone’s girlfriend put a bullet through his brain on May 26, 1977, but there was still a nice payday coming. By June ’77 Artis’ record was 16-1-4, (6 KOs), and MSG matchmaker Teddy Brenner figured he would make a suitable tune-up opponent for former WBA featherweight titleholder Alexis Argüello. The purse was $12,500, the equivalent in purchasing power of about $53,300 today.

★ ★ ★

It was early morning and still semi-dark when I pulled into local high school parking lot, down by the athletic field. Jerome got out of the car walked down to the track and began to run. What neither of us noticed was a pup tent set up on the grass. After about three laps, two high school jocks came out of the tent in their underwear and demanded to know what he was doing.

“What the fuck does it look like I’m doing?” Jerome yelled, giving them the finger as he sprinted back to the car.

I’ve always wondered what those guys were doing in that tent.

Jerome stayed at my apartment for a couple of days before the fight. The fiasco at the high school was as close as he came to doing any roadwork. Jerome spent most of his time in the bathroom, after taking laxatives in order to make weight.

In top shape he might have given Argüello a decent fight, but as it was he had no chance. Regardless, Artis had to make weight to get paid. That’s always the bottom line. He made weight, but that’s about all he did.

“I’m sorry, Nigel, but your guy didn’t want to fight,” said referee Lew Eskin who stopped the fight after Argüello knocked down Artis twice in the second round. He didn’t get any argument from me.

★ ★ ★

Hayman’s greatest moment came when he was already on the backside of his career. Thomas Hearns had won all 17 of his pro bouts by knockout and was among the hottest prospects in the country when Peltz brought him to Philadelphia to fight Hayman on April 3, 1979.

Hearns won all 10 rounds on every judge’s scorecard, but Hayman was still on his feet when the final bell sounded.

Hearns was booed as he left the ring. Hayman got a standing ovation. It was a pure Philadelphia moment, a tribute to a faded fighter who showed the hotshot what it meant to be Philly tough.

★ ★ ★

On October 16, 1980, Hayman robbed a jewelry store (where he worked as a porter) of between $3,000 and $4,000. He surrendered and pleaded guilty, but sentencing was postponed and he was released on $5,000 bond until after he returned from Italy following a knockout loss to Carlos Santos.

Hayman was back in court on December 24 and became upset when Judge Richard B. Klein raised his bond from $5,000 to $25,000.

As Deputy Sheriff Jack Wright began to handcuff him, Hayman punched him in the jaw and pulled a pistol from his pocket.

When Chief Police Inspector George Fencl, who was in court to testify in another case, reached for his gun, Hayman pointed the .357 Magnum at him and said, “Don’t try it.” He then bolted from the third-floor courtroom and out into the street.

Fencl broadcast Hayman’s description over police radios. He was spotted running down Market Street by two police officers who chased him, subdued him, and took him back to court to face additional charges. If Fencl had not been there, Hayman might have made it.

Hayman was eventually released from prison, and in 2017 the old outlaw was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame. I zoomed in on the picture of Alfonso getting his plaque. And there it was, a tooth pic in the side of his mouth.

★ ★ ★

Jerome and I remained friends. The last time I saw him was at the Blue Horizon, where he was selling programs for Peltz. Things went well for a few shows, but then he took off with all the program money. It was inevitable.

If Artis did indeed have two sides to his personality, the good eventually gave way to the bad. Alcohol and street drugs hastened his downfall, and there were reports of domestic abuse from a female sportswriter he lived with on and off.

A few years later I heard that Jerome was HIV positive and had moved to some kind of treatment program upstate. He died in July 1999 at the age of 45. Leon Tabbs told me what happened: Jerome was in court for failure to pay child support, and after telling the judge a pack of lies, he dropped dead on the courtroom floor.

★ ★ ★

I still have to get away from boxing occasionally, but not for the same reason I left the Garden that night in 1977. There’s too much other stuff going on and time is running out. But I always come back to boxing. Managing was a crazy idea. I was young and foolish, but isn’t that when we live life to the max? If I could go back and change one thing, I would stay for the Ali-Shavers fight.

The Case Of The Reluctant Dragon

“Guess you don’t want to sign me now,” said a sweaty Fred Jenkins, a few minutes after getting dropped in an amateur bout held at the 26th Street Rec Center.

“No, no,” said Peltz. “We still want to sign you,” and we did. Jenkins turned pro on November 19, 1974 with a first-round TKO of Moses Robinson at the Blue Horizon. It was a promising start, but Jenkins didn’t fight again until February 10, 1976, and it took an awful lot of coaxing.

His opponent was Tyrone Freeman, a local boxer with a modest 3-6-4 (1) record. Jenkins was strangely passive in the first couple of rounds, and during the minute break between the second and third, I scampered over to his corner and started yelling.

“What the f**k is the matter with you, Fred? Get out there and throw some punches!”

He nodded, and I went back to my seat. Not very professional of me, and I may as well have stayed in my seat. Even before the scores were announced, everybody at the Spectrum, including Jenkins, knew Freeman had won.

What made Jenkins’ perplexing performance even stranger was his next fight, two months later, against crowd-pleaser Archie Andrews. They lit it up, pounding the crap out of each other for six superb rounds, with Jenkins pulling out a split decision that could have gone either way.

Not long after the Andrews fight, Fred told me he didn’t want to fight anymore. “I’m going make it another way,” he said. “I’m going to be a trainer.”

He made the right call. Jenkins recently retired from his day job as custodian at the 26th Street Rec, but is still the head boxing coach and is a community leader who has mentored hundreds of inner-city kids. Over the decades, he’s had a hand in developing many outstanding boxers, including David Reid, Charlie Brown, Bryant Jennings, Zahir Raheem, Jesse Hart, Rodney Moore, Hammer Jones, and on and on.

Almost 45 years after the Freeman fight, Fred finally told us why he fought so timidly that night. Freeman and Jenkins grew up together. One summer day at the swimming pool Fred was out of his depth and in imminent danger of drowning. It was Freeman who came to his rescue and saved his life.

EYE TROUBLES AND FALLING OUT OF LOVE WITH BOXING

Super-featherweight Wade Hinnant was a damned good little fighter who signed on with Russell and me in June 1975. He was an aggressive, quick-handed pressure fighter with good defense, but relatively early in his pro career he had eye surgery.

When I phoned the doctor to find out when it would be safe for him to box, he informing me in no uncertain term that Wade should never box again. I relinquished Hinnant’s contract, but he fought on until January 1979, running his record to 14-2 (6).

Hinnant never fought out of state because there was no chance of him being able to obtain a licence elsewhere. Rumour has it that the only reason he was licensed in Pennsylvania was because somebody high up in the commission hierarchy told the doctor who administered the eye test to pass him.

Leroy Jefferson was an unbeaten prelim fighter when we signed him, but after a while he stopped showing up at the gym.

I met him outside his home and we talked. He seemed embarrassed, but finally admitted he didn’t want to fight anymore. I told him I understood, we shook hands and parted on good terms.

Leroy made a comeback four years later. I’m sure he needed the money, but it was a mistake. He lost seven of the 10 fights he had, six by knockout.

Originally published in Ringside Seat, No. 15, Summer 2021 (this is an edited version)

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