J Russell Peltz celebrates half century in boxing
By Emily Pandelakis
For 50 years, J Russell Peltz has lived and breathed boxing. On October 4, he will celebrate his Golden Anniversary as a Philadelphia promoter with an eight-bout card titled “Blood, Sweat & 50 Years,” at the 2300 Arena. Since Sept. 30, 1969, he’s been an institution in the city, providing a platform for hundreds, if not thousands of Philadelphia fighters to showcase their talent. He’s promoted over a thousand boxing events and over 40 world title bouts. For half a century, Peltz has ridden the roller coaster of small- and big-time boxing, with stops all over the world.
Peltz’ love for boxing has outlived mentors, parents, a sister, a son and a marriage. It’s been the constant throughout the entirety of his adult life, and a refuge from guilt, sadness and loss. It was the cane he used when he couldn’t stand, and the mountain from which he screamed his successes. It has been an enduring passion and a safe, faceless pool where he could pour out an immense amount of love, out loud, and without guilt or fear of judgement.
He has an savant-like ability to recall dates of fights, who was on every card, and what happened in every round. He remembers detailed 40-year-old stories, fights, conversations and events like they happened yesterday.
For his 14th birthday, his dad took him to his first fight and it was love at first bell. He knew he was going to be a part of the beautiful brutality of boxing. His mom refused to allow him to go to more fights; she didn’t want him to be part of “that element.” He would lie and say he was out with friends or at parties, then go to the fights. Eventually she relented, and his father took him to more fights. He would abandon a burgeoning sports journalism career and promote his first event on Sept. 30, 1969.
J Russell Peltz grew up in an upper middle-class family, moving from Philadelphia to the wealthy community of Bala Cynwyd on Philadelphia’s Main Line when he entered third grade. His father, Bernard Peltz, a plumber like his own dad, had expanded Peltz Plumbing to include heating and air-conditioning. By all measurements, his business was successful, catering to both residential repairs and large company and government installations. His father was beloved by his employees.
Peltz had a taste of the plumbing life over two summers in 1963 and ’64 and was decidedly bad at it. It was a disastrous endeavor for teenage Peltz, who was not mechanically inclined. One error resulted in the destruction of several oil paintings belonging to a wealthy client, and a large bill for his father to foot.
His father wasn’t much of a sports fan outside of boxing. His father, Peltz’ grandfather, was an avid fan and worked for Western Union. On fight nights, including during the Jack Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney fight in 1926 in Philadelphia, he would be ringside, gathering updates and copy and communicating them to the wire services.
As Peltz tells it, his father, like many parents of kids who came of age in the 50s and 60s, was not expressive with his emotions. “He was just not the kind of person,” Peltz began, then paused. “Any more than I am, that could show it. My mom was the emotional, loving one.”
What shines through when conversing with Peltz, is how much his parents loved each other. In a time where men were not supposed to cry, Peltz’s father, who he described as a “man’s man,” took care of his wife while she was sick for years with emphysema. “They were passionately in love,” said Peltz. “Things became rocky later, especially when my mother became sick, but he always loved her.
“She was so weak he would have to cut her meat and pre-chew it, so she would be strong enough to chew the rest of it,” remembers Peltz. “He would do those things and you could see that he loved her.”
After his mother passed away in 1975, Peltz found a box among her belongings: “When my mom died, I found a box of newspaper clippings of stories about me, some of which I’d never seen before. I knew she loved me.”
His father gave him an office to work from, and twice lent him money when Peltz needed a boost to get through a show or a bad year. If Peltz hadn’t been weighed down with remorse, he might have seen these gestures and support of his son’s boxing promoter career, of which he outwardly didn’t approve, as his father’s way of saying I love you.
A rift developed in the family when Peltz married his first wife, a non-Jewish girl, in 1969, against the wishes of his parents. This disagreement would color the remainder of their years together.
At 72 years old, Peltz looks back over those years and sees a selfish, immature version of himself, who didn’t treat his parents all that well. “I never had a mature relationship with my parents,” Peltz would say more than once. “I have terrible regrets about that.” His uncle had told him that his decision to marry his first wife was killing his mother, and Peltz believed him. The guilt is palpable as he describes his mother’s final days.
The bitterness he had felt at his parents’ reaction to his marriage and their nagging “get a real job” attitude toward his chosen profession put space in between them. After both had passed, pride and resentment quickly gave way to guilt and regret.
In the end, it was his sister’s home and then his parents’ home he’d go to when his first marriage fell apart. Every day he’d stop in and say hello to his father, who had built him an office over his plumbing company. His family’s foundation, which had been built on silent love and commitment, proved unyielding throughout the years.
It wasn’t long after his mother’s death that he met the woman who would become his current wife--a former classmate at Lower Merion High School. Peltz knew from their first date that he would marry Linda Sablosky. All the nagging feelings of doubt he had going into his first marriage were nowhere to be found. For someone who sees himself as unemotional and unexpressive, the enormity of his love and devotion to Linda from that first date until this day is evident. In four hours of interviews, it was when he spoke about Linda that he sounded the most fulfilled and uplifted.
“Family is everything to Linda,” said Peltz. "She brought together estranged cousins and other family members and she became very close to my father, calling him every day.
“If my mom had met Linda,” he continued, weeping softly, “she would have had a reason to live.”
Linda fit effortlessly into his boxing world. She would often attend events, traveling with Peltz. “Linda is the kind of person who can exist in any world, in any atmosphere, and everybody loves her." Peltz said. "It helped me in boxing. People say, ‘How bad can he be? She married him!’
“Linda is never idle. She can fill up 24 hours a day. She’s the Queen of the Dollar Store. She can’t stand sitting around doing nothing. If Linda has 400 things to do and I only want to do 200 of them, she says I’m boring.”
The two would have two sons, Matthew and Daniel. Matthew, the oldest, was interested in music and girls. He was a ‘Deadhead,’ the moniker bestowed upon Grateful Dead fans, and traveled with them for a summer. He eventually moved to Israel and became a Rabbi. He married and had four children.
Daniel was the athlete, participating in various sports, including a short amateur boxing career that Peltz hid from Daniel’s mother for a short period of time.
Peltz did his best to never miss a game. “He was always there for me,” said Daniel. “He traveled a lot, but he always made time for my sporting events. He didn’t miss a milestone.”
Peltz and his wife lost Matthew to a drug overdose in 2017. He was only 38. The pain in Peltz’ voice when he talks about the years they tried to save their son is heart-wrenching. Countless trips to rehab, broken promises and relapses litter the last years of their time together. He loved Matthew as hard and as completely as any parent could have, but the thief that is drug addiction took Matthew away from his parents, his brother and his children.
At his son’s funeral Peltz told the story of a bidding scandal that rocked the plumbing industry in Philadelphia when he was a kid. The story had hit the newspapers, and when he was able to get his hands on the article, he read every word, looking for his dad’s name among those involved, hoping and praying it wasn’t there. His voice cracks again as he retells it. “When I got to the bottom of the story, it listed all those companies involved in the fix… and his name wasn’t in there. I felt so proud.of him.
“So it’s just that I knew that Bernie Peltz provided a hard day’s work for a fair day’s wage. Thirty years later, I came home from work one day and Linda hands me the phone. Your son wants to talk to you. I said ‘What’s up Matt.’ He said ‘Dad, how come when the sports writers write about boxing promoters, they always write bad things like they cheat the fighters, they steal their money, they pay off the judges and the referees, they fix the rankings… but whenever they write about you,” he paused and sniffed heavily as tears fell, "they always write nice things. He finished by saying ’that’s so cool.’ I didn’t realize it at the time but as the years went by I realized that my son felt the same way about me that I felt about my dad.”
Peltz carries the weight of his Linda’s pain in addition to his own at the loss of their son. “All Linda ever wanted was to be a mother. To be there when the kids came home from school,” Peltz recalled. “That’s what made losing Matthew so devastating for her. She questioned her ability as a mother.
“If Matthew had had any other mother,” Peltz said, his voice cracking with emotion, “he wouldn’t have made it to even 20.”
Peltz finds comfort in his grandchildren. “Pop Pop is very affectionate with the kids,” said Daniel, who has two daughters. “He has six grandchildren -- he loves them and they adore him.”
Over the years, Peltz has brought many boxers into his inner circle, many of them becoming family. Osnel Charles, who fights on October 4, asked Peltz to be the co-best man in his wedding. He spoke at many hall-of-fame inductions, weddings and funerals over the past half century.
He talks about one of his more recent charges, Jason Sosa, with affection. One of the highest points in his long career was witnessing underdog Sosa stop Javier Fortuna to win a world title in 2016 in Beijing, China.
“When that fight was over we walked back to the hotel,” he remembered. “Linda went up to the room because she was tired. I went into a bar in the hotel. One of these really modern neon lit bars. I sat at that empty bar and I felt so on top of the world. People back in the states are just getting the news and here I am in Beijing having a beer by myself and I felt so good. You know why? Mostly because at the time of my career that it happened. To win a world title like that, in a foreign land, coming from behind off the canvas, with no shot to win except by knockout...with Linda screaming and crying and she jumped up because she loves Jason. It was just like so great. Such a wonderful feeling. One of the highlights of my career. It’s not number one but it’s like 1A.”
Number one, he added, was when his first charge, Bennie Briscoe, knocked out Tony Mundine in Paris in 1974: “That will always be number one. It was an eliminator. We were underdogs. It was my first trip to Europe and it was the biggest fight you could have without it being for the title. It was just such a wonderful night.”
His protege, Raging Babe Michelle Rosado, who is promoting “Love, Sweat & 50 Years,” is one of many who see Peltz as a father figure. His seven-year mentorship of Rosado will culminate in his passing the torch to his hardworking mentee. “Leaders build leaders. Because he doesn’t have an ego, and wasn’t inclined to protect his secrets at all costs like so many of his peers, he was able to mentor BAM [Brittany Rogers] and I and teach us the ropes. I’m honored that he trusts me to continue his legacy.” Peltz is known to brag about Rosado to his colleagues in the business. When he talks about her, his tone alternates between that of a proud father and professional respect and admiration. They may fight and scream but will always eventually reconcile like family so often does.
Peltz is ready to slow down after his 50th anniversary celebration. The changes to the sport have worn thin his desire to keep going. “It’s not the sport I fell in love with,” he says. “It’s not like it used to be. Guys just wanted to fight. If guys were within 10 pounds we had a fight.”
On October 4, he will wind down his matchmaking career with the kind of card that he’s become known for in Philadelphia over the last 50 years. Tough, Philly versus Philly toss-up matches. The kind of card that drew him to boxing and kept him there for half a century.
These relationships, the ones that Peltz has with Linda, Daniel and his grandchildren, with Michelle, with Osnel Charles, Bennie Briscoe, Jason Sosa and countless other boxers--these relationships don’t happen by accident. They’re built on respect and on love. Love that isn’t screamed out loud, but is felt by actions. Love that is disguised as feeling proud, or as the weight of guilt and regret. A love that’s equal to or perhaps even more than that of his love for boxing. Boxing will always be the place where Peltz can love out loud, but his legacy will forever be the quiet way he loved those he touched over the past 50 years.