Boxing has mesmerized J. Russell Peltz since he was a Bar Mitzvah boy in Bala Cynwyd, although circumstances never really gave his boxing career a fighting chance.
The long-famous boxing promoter recalled in a 1978 interview with the Jewish Exponent that, as an adolescent, he used to go down to an Arch Street gym for private boxing lessons. The lessons were private because, by the time he would arrive, all the other kids had already gone home.
“I had to go to Hebrew school first,” Peltz said.
It may never have been in the cards for Peltz to be a fighter himself, but it was in the cards for him to become the guy who made the cards. Over the past 50 years, no one has a bigger reputation for putting together prizefights in Philadelphia than Peltz, 72.
On Oct. 4, fans, several of Peltz’s former fighter-clients and boxing luminaries like Bernard Hopkins and Teddy Atlas, filled South Philadelphia’s 2300 Arena to celebrate “Blood, Sweat and 50 Years” of Peltz Boxing Promotions.
Radio and television commentator, longtime friend and former Temple University classmate Ray Didinger sat next to Peltz throughout the eight-bout card, and was among several who were present both that night and 50 years ago, when Peltz promoted his first main event between Bennie Briscoe and Tito Marshall at the famed Blue Horizon.
Briscoe, among the scores of boxers he’s worked with, is particularly special to Peltz, who said his highest moment in the profession came when Briscoe beat Tony Mundine in a 1974 elimination contest for the middleweight title in Paris.
Briscoe always wore a Jewish star on his trunks and his robe because, said Peltz, “… he had always been managed and promoted by Jewish people.” On that particular night, when Briscoe entered the ring, there were a number of Israeli Jews sitting nearby who became quite vociferous in their support after taking stock of his attire.
“They jumped up and waved their Israeli passports and said, ‘Hey, we’re Jewish, too, Bennie!’” Peltz recalled, laughing nostalgically. “Of course, Bennie wasn’t actually Jewish, but, you know.”
Briscoe, a heavy underdog, went on to win the fight, and the Israeli contingent exalted as though their right to be Jewish had just been affirmed.
“It was a big, big upset,” Peltz said. “And (the Israeli guys) ran into the ring … and lifted (Briscoe) off his feet and carried him around on their shoulders. You can see in the video that one of them keeps pointing to his cheek, and they eventually had Bennie lean down and kiss him.”
Brokering these kinds of fan-fighter romances hasn’t been so common in Peltz’s career. But, as well known as Peltz is as a fight promoter, he may be even more respected in the boxing world as the quintessential matchmaker — kind of like Yente in Fiddler.
Yente found the Jewish boy and Jewish girl most compatible to raise a successful family together; Peltz, for 50 years now, has brought together boxers whose styles and personalities make for the most compelling prizefights.
And sometimes he even finds matches for nice Jewish boys, as he did in 1978 when he organized and promoted Mike Rossman’s light heavyweight title defense against Aldo Traversaro at The Spectrum, where Peltz served as the director of boxing from 1972-1980.
Rossman, known alternately as The Jewish Bomber and, less commonly but more amusingly, The Kosher Butcher, was known to sport a Star of David sewn into his trunks and tattooed onto his right calf. Back in ’78, Rossman was a hot commodity, coming off his first light heavyweight title win against Victor Galindez.
Some were speculating that the 5-foot-11-inch Rossman, who never fought weighing more than 179 pounds, would move up a class to fight Muhammad Ali or Ken Norton.
Rossman would have been overmatched in either situation, and Peltz knew it. Ali was 6-foot-3-inches tall and had just fought Leon Spinks at 221 pounds; Norton was also 6-foot-3 and fought at well over 200 pounds.
Asked back then about The Jewish Bomber’s chances against those heavyweights, Peltz said, “I would hope that Rossman would not fight Ali. I can’t rationally picture Rossman as a heavy-weight. Can you see him holding his own against a Ken Norton? No.”
Like matchmaking for love and marriage, it’s all about compatibility and feel. Money’s important, sure, but Peltz believes fair fights are the most exciting fights, and his goal has always been to deliver the most exciting fight possible to the paying audience.
Peltz might be rare among boxing promoters in his reputation for honesty; but this is not to suggest he’s gone soft.
Is boxing too violent? No — at least not compared to football, Peltz said.
“People who tell me boxing’s brutal, and then they tell me they go to the Eagles games and love football … they just don’t know enough, they don’t think,” said Peltz, who insists that boxing has provided better safety oversight than football.
“If you put a gun to my head and told me that my son had to choose between football and boxing, there’s no question that I would choose boxing,” Peltz said. “No question.”
Incidentally, Peltz’s younger son did end up boxing for a time, finishing as the runner-up in Indiana University’s Golden Gloves competition. He did so without his mother knowing — this, in the tradition of all the great Jewish fighters before him, according to Peltz.
“All the great Jewish fighters from the ‘20s, that’s why they changed their names … because they were afraid of their mothers,” said Peltz chuckling in a slightly incredulous manner. “Boxing was a shonda.”
The only thing Peltz thinks a shonda today is how unorganized boxing’s become.
“The neighborhood rivalries — North Philly against South Philly, the Bronx against Staten Island — they don’t exist anymore,” Peltz said. “Because everyone wants to be one of eight gazillion ‘world champions.’”
By Peltz’s own admission, boxing will never be what it once was, due largely to its own self-inflicted wounds. Still, he’s grateful — and a little surprised — to still be standing in the ring after so many rounds.
“I told my first wife before we got married that I had $5,000 in the bank, that it would take me six months to blow it, and I’d have this great scrapbook to show my kids about the time their daddy was a boxing promoter.”