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Only the Ring Was Square: The Legend of Teddy Brenner

(Photo © K9 Photos)
(Photo © K9 Photos)


Last summer, I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse by friends who were moving into a new home and packing up their belongings, not all of which they felt like taking along. They had a collection of old boxing books (and it turned out some old programs like the one for Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson) that were mine on one condition - I had to pick them up. Being a relatively short jaunt from my home in Koreatown (are you surprised I lived here?), this was a no-brainer. And I’ve already gone through some of this collection including the works of Phil Berger and Thomas Hauser.
 
A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to decide which tome to read next and I came across this relatively small book entitled, Only the Ring Was Square, penned by Teddy Brenner (as told to Barney Nagler).
 
Folks, this 164-page book is an absolute gem. I could’ve finished it in a day or two but like a fine, seven-course meal, I wanted to savor it over the long haul. You get a peek inside the mind of Brenner - considered among the most brilliant minds in boxing history, perhaps the greatest matchmaker who ever lived - who peels back the curtains on the inner workings of the business, dealing with mobbed-up managers, flaky fighters and the art of making a fight.

It’s not only educational; it’s highly entertaining.
 
Anyone in the boxing business in any capacity should read this. As a boxing fan, you should consume it because you’ll learn a few things and laugh a lot.
 
“No question about it,” said veteran matchmaker Ron Katz, who worked with Brenner as he began his 15-year run with Top Rank in 1986, back at their offices on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, as the rest of the company packed up and headed to Las Vegas. “It’s like if you’re in high school and you’re in a history class and you need to read like the history of our country, a book that will give you an in-depth look at the behind-the-scenes or whatever of the history of our country. It’s the same way. It’s an unbelievable book; it really is.”
 
For Katz, who never attended college, being around Brenner was an important component of learning in the School of Hard Knocks. “I got my B.A. from Johnny Bos. I got my masters degree from Teddy Brenner.”
 
Hall-of-Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler, for years, the architect of Top Rank, was a Brenner protégé. While many others who followed boxing in that era aspired to be Sugar Ray Robinson or Carmen Basilio, he states, “I wanted to be Teddy Brenner.”
 
Growing up in New Jersey, Trampler would make the trek up to the Big Apple to meet with Brenner and then, as he went to Ohio University, he would cut out newspaper clippings that had anything to do with the boxing scene up there (focusing on the likes of Doyle Barrett and Sugar Ray Anderson) and mail them to Brenner.
 
By 1971, Trampler got his first paid gig in boxing working for the Dundees.
 
“It was still with the idea of being Teddy Brenner,” Trampler pointed out. He couldn’t have had two better teachers. “Angelo [Dundee] took me under his wing to be a cornerman and a trainer and such. For putting fights together and understanding what sells and what styles mean, it was absolutely Teddy. Anything I am today or any goals I’ve attained, how could you know without teachers like Teddy and Angelo and now Bob Arum.”
 
The business has changed from the time Brenner had a 20-year run as the lead matchmaker for Madison Square Garden, which, at the time, was legitimately the “Mecca of Boxing.” In that era, promoters didn’t have long-term, exclusive deals with individual boxers. As a result of past shenanigans, the Garden was barred from signing fighters and also prohibited from doing immediate rematches or having more than two title fights a year.
 
Brenner was in the business of making fights, not protecting fighters. Today’s matchmakers would get summarily dismissed if too many upsets happened on their watch.
 
Trampler says, “Teddy viewed being a matchmaker at Madison Square Garden as a trust and when I met him, he was in the last year at the old Garden at 49th Street and 8th Avenue and then they moved in ‘68 to the new Garden and Teddy wasn’t shy about sharing his philosophy. He viewed the New York sports fans as the most intelligent, brightest fans in the world and he wasn’t looking to fool them or pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He felt that - and remember, there was no TV - he had to subsist and survive on the live gate. Towards the end, he got a little TV [money] from the Garden itself, the Garden’s network. For the most part before I went to work with him, you had to sit down and make out a budget and present it to your bosses who were upstairs because Madison Square Garden is a big corporation and boxing was very important to them but not as important as the Knicks or Rangers or the circus or things like that.
 
“So Teddy had to get every show cleared by non-boxing bosses. He had to make a case and I attended several of those meetings with him. But he felt that the New York fan was the smartest in the world and he wanted to give them the best fights and he grew up in New York; he was from Brooklyn. He went to all the fights, the club fights, Madison Square Garden fights. He went to those as a young man and that’s what he wanted to be also.
 
“He wanted to be Teddy Brenner before there was a Teddy Brenner.”
 
One thing that comes through in this book is Brenner’s caustic wit that was as sharp as a machete and he wasn’t afraid to cut you with it. You couldn’t make up a guy like this.
 
Jimmy Glenn, who, for years, managed and trained boxers and is now best known for owning a local watering hole near the Garden, Jimmy’s Corner, recounted a story for this scribe back in late January at his bar. “I’ll never forget it; I was at Teddy’s office and I tried to push a fight past him that I knew wasn’t very good. Teddy’s across from me reading the newspaper at his desk and he looks up and says, ‘Jimmy, if you were a fan, would you buy a ticket to that fight? And if you were me, would you accept it?’”
 
Breaking into a grin, Glenn recounts that he admitted to Brenner that he would not. With that, Brenner put his head back down to look at the paper, telling Glenn, “Well, Jimmy, there’s your answer.”
 
As he recalls this episode, Glenn smiles. To know Teddy was to love Teddy.
 
Larry Merchant recalls one fight card during his days as a scribe in New York where Brenner was going from his seat to the corner of a fighter during the bout, “He was sorta going across there in a hunch like Groucho Marx, like, ‘I don’t want to be seen.’”
 
It turns out a boxer that Brenner was forced to use because of mounting pressure from the public wasn’t exactly putting forth the type of fight that was satisfying to the paying customers or the matchmaker.
 
“He was beating this guy in what used to be considered the Olympian-style or the amateur-style. He was a tall guy that had a certain resemblance to [Sugar Ray] Robinson and he was a very skilled mechanic,” remembered Merchant. “He was winning every minute of the fight. After the fifth round, Brenner went to the corner and told him and/or his people that if you don’t start fighting, you’ll never be invited back to Madison Square Garden.”
 
According to Merchant, this particular pugilist was never seen again on the premises.
 
Brenner was not a beloved figure to managers, who he had to cajole into taking certain match-ups. His interest was with the venue, not any fighter. Unlike today, when boxers are protected and coddled under promotional agreements, his main goal was in making the toughest, most well-matched fight, period. In this book, he makes it clear he never had a stake in a fighter or ever wagered on boxing - so he never had a real interest one way or the other. Some managers held grudges for years and Brenner wasn’t afraid to verbally spar with them.
 
“Just to give you a sense of what type of guy Teddy was, in the early ‘80s we had Kevin Rooney box at Bally’s in Atlantic City against Alexis Arguello, who was moving up to 140 and Teddy called Cus D’Amato and said, ‘You want to put Rooney in with Arguello?’ and Cus loved the fight. ‘Yeah, we’ll destroy Arguello.’” recalled Trampler. “So now we’re down in Atlantic City and for some reason, Cus went off on Teddy, ‘Y’ know, what you did to Floyd Patterson wasn’t right. You destroyed him. You got him beat at Eastern Parkway with Joey Maxim,’ and Teddy goes, ‘Excuse me, Cus’ - and because he knew Cus was a character anyway and an aging gentlemen at that point, he said - ‘Didn’t Patterson’s manager have to approve all the fights that I put him in with?’
 
“And Cus says, ‘Goddamn right he did!’ And [Brenner] says, ‘Who was Patterson’s manager?’ [D’Amato] said, ‘I was.’”
 
To this, Brenner counterpunched, “So you really accepted the Maxim fight.” It turned out D’Amato, best known for guiding a young Mike Tyson, had held a grievance for years with Brenner regarding his other clients like Joe Shaw and Buster Mathis. According to Trampler, “Teddy just said, ‘Cus, you’re the manager; you had the final say on it. You took those opponents. You turned down other opponents.’ And Cus was ready to explode. I said he was going to have a stroke. Teddy goes, ‘I rest my case.’
 
“He always had a short quip like that, a short saying to summarize things.”
 
Speaking of Patterson, there was a time when Trampler took umbrage to a story in the New York Post about his loss of mental faculties while he was the head of the state athletic department. In response, Brenner replied, “Floyd used to be worse.”
 
This book is a short and easy read with quick anecdotes about the likes of Muhammad Ali, Robinson (who Brenner considered the greatest all-around fighter he ever saw and a guy who would drive a hard bargain, never forgetting those who had helped him in the past), Gene Fullmer, Joe Frazier and many others who added to the rich tapestry of the boxing business.
 
The only complaint is that it’s actually too short. You might wish there were another 200 pages to read. According to Trampler, about a hundred pages of notes for the book were misplaced by Nagler.
 
“He thought he lost it at Abe’s Steakhouse, a restaurant in midtown Manhattan and it’s hard to believe but back then, Barney wrote the thing on a typewriter and there were no copies and it wasn’t on a hard drive anywhere and I eventually found it,” said Trampler, who says the publishing company, Prentice Hall, did a relatively small print run on the book and never produced it in paperback.
 
I never met Brenner (who died at the age of 82 in 2000: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/09/sports/teddy-brenner-dies-at-82-matched-boxers-at-garden.html) but reading this book was like having a conversation with him and personally learning a few things from the man in process. According to those who knew him best, Only the Ring Was Square accurately depicts his personality.
 
“Remember,” pointed out Trampler, “Teddy wrote the book but it was transcribed and edited by Barney Nagler. So basically, what you’re reading there is Teddy’s words, his kinda acerbic wit. He was an interesting guy and very intelligent. But yeah, that was his style; that was his voice you hear in there as you’re reading. That’s how he saw things, very short sentences, very perceptive, witty and bright.”
 
Trampler added with a chuckle, “I lived through a lot of it and what I didn’t live through, Teddy explained to me.”
 
SI
 
Brenner was such a big figure in boxing during his day, he was profiled by Sports Illustrated (back when they actually covered the sport on a regular basis) back in 1969:
 
 
And Brenner begins the book with: “For Punch and Judy and Pam and Barry.” According to Trampler, “Punch” was Teddy and “Judy,” his longtime wife. Pam and Barry were the Ostragers, a married couple who represented him during his lawsuit versus the WBC and Jose Sulaiman:
 
 
BRENNER-ISM
 
I don’t want to give away too much of the book but the opening paragraph of Chapter Seven (“House of Upsets”) really hit home with me:
 
“It isn’t easy to be a matchmaker. If a fight you put in is good, the fighters get the credit. If it is bad, the matchmaker gets the blame. The way I work is to try to get managers to put their fighters in with worthy opposition. It is not enough to put No. 1 in with No. 2. Anybody can do that. What you want is to blend styles, like putting in a boxer with a puncher. Then I have to decide whether it’s a fight the fans want.”
 
So it’s not just about looking at a particular set of rankings and taking the top two guys and calling it an “important” or “big” fight? And public demand is also an important factor in all this?
 
Imagine that.
 
WEEKEND FLURRIES
 
 
Karim Mayfield has signed a promotional pact with Top Rank (honestly, not sure Brenner would approve of this. He can be agony to watch)...Diego Magdaleno has signed a managerial deal with Frank Espinoza...I’m told the July 19th bout between IBF 154-pound titlist Ishe Smith and Carlos Molina will be aired by Showtime...Another solid read is Heavyweight Boxing in the 1970s: The Great Fighters and Rivalries by Joe Ryan, chronicling the best era the heavyweight division has ever had...Frankie Gomez will face DeMarcus “Chop Chop” Corley July 20th at the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, CA...Great to see “Master Chef” back on...Prayers to Mookie Blaylock...I can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com and I tweet at www.twitter.com/stevemaxboxing. We also have a Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/MaxBoxing, where you can discuss our content with Maxboxing readers as well as chime in via our fully interactive article comments sections.


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