Readers of a certain age will know that Monday Night Football was not the first regularly scheduled prime-time television production of a live sporting event. Long before large numbers of Americans watched NFL football played under the lights while simultaneously being annoyed by Howard Cosell, there were the Friday Night Fights.
Officially part of the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, the Friday Night Fights were must-see TV for sports fans in the ’40s and ’50s, or at least for sports fans with access to a television set.
The bouts were held in Madison Square Garden 3.0 (the current MSG is the fourth), and in the early years they tended to feature fighters from three demographic groups: Irish, Italian, and Jewish. As the zeitgeist began to change, more black fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Ezzard Charles began to appear on the show.
Clearing an hour of network airtime was a fairly big deal in those days, and an early-round knockout would leave considerable time to be filled. When live Saturday-night boxing shows began to be broadcast a few years later, producers had a backup sporting event lined up and ready to fill out the hour — one that combined the sheer excitement of a Bill Belichick post-game press conference with the raw athleticism of a Bill Belichick post-game press conference. Make That Spare! came to you live from the Paramus Bowling Center in Paramus, N.J., and featured two professional bowlers . . . making spares. It was not as riveting as it sounds.
The way today’s televised sports events are produced and hyped bears little resemblance to the way it was done in those grittier times. The same can be said for the way boxing matches were pulled together and promoted.
For the better part of four decades, beginning in the 1930s, Sam Silverman was the most ubiquitous figure on the New England boxing scene. As a profession, Sam promoted boxing. As an obsession, he lived boxing, ate boxing, slept boxing. And in 1977, when an all-night return drive from a small-potatoes bout in upstate New York ended in a crash, he died boxing.
Sam used to talk a lot about what was wrong with the fight game, and considering the state of the sport today, his words may still have resonance.
“The outside element has hurt boxing,” said Silverman. “I think it’s all wrong. Outside guys done that all over the country. They done boxing a lot of harm. At least when the promoters made a score, they put the money back in boxing. What did these guys ever put into it before or after? I mean, these strangers enter the game — you read a lot of stories of how managers and promoters and fighters are the thugs, they screw everybody. Now they get into it, they figure they’ll screw you first. In boxing, it isn’t so. You don’t screw people in boxing.” (Which, at the time Sam said this, would have come as news to Leon Spinks.)
Sam was — I’m afraid there’s no other way to put it — Runyonesque. How else would you describe someone who took his wife, Helen, to New York for their honeymoon so that they could catch the fights at Madison Square Garden? Or who on another occasion got word that Helen had been hospitalized and rushed to her bedside to ask, “Whaddaya think of a match between Tommy Collins and [the fighter] Jimmy Carter?”
His appearance suggested a disheveled, slightly confused Alfred Hitchcock. He spoke in mumbles — soft, Runyonesque mumbles explained away by the cigar seemingly grafted to his lips. He operated out of an office on Boston’s Canal Street, a hundred or so yards from Boston Garden. If you weren’t smoking a cigar while you were in it, you felt naked. SAM SILVERMAN BOXING ENTERPRISES was semi-circularly stenciled in six-inch letters, Raymond Chandler–style, on a second-floor window adorned by venetian blinds and years-old grime from the traffic below.
Two metal desks, a hat rack, and a handful of chairs scattered around the also grimy tile floor made up the furnishings. In one corner was a sink — cigar ashes were always in the bowl — and on the walls were dozens of photographs and sports-page cartoons of famous fighters, contract signings, and the ever-popular publicity shots of Silverman separating irate boxers in business suits. One desk was buried under bales of newspaper clippings and 8-by-10 glossies of fighters with fists poised beneath menacing three-quarter profiles. The other desk was for Silverman’s publicity man, who always kept a pocket thesaurus handy, presumably to help him come up with different ways to write “the claret flowed freely.”
Make no mistake. Sam was no bumbler or buffoon. He was a shrewd manipulator and businessman who got things done — his way. It’s just that Silverman’s way, according to Eddie Andelman, then Boston’s leading sports commentator, was never the easy way.
“If,” said Andelman, “I was to say to Sam, ‘Give me fifty tickets at $10 a ticket,’ and hand him $500, that would be too simple. He’d want to meet me at midnight at a friend of his cousin’s half-brother and give me 53 tickets at $8 a ticket. When he bought gloves, I’m sure he got them from some guy in the Philippines or something just to save a buck.”
In the early ’70s, a Boston TV station staged a series of in-studio fights. The station was more than happy to have Andelman handle their dealings with Silverman since, as Andelman put it, “It’s not like dealing with the Red Sox. With Sam, you were dealing with a guy who operated out of his car. Basically, Channel 7 said, ‘We want a fight.’ So Silverman gave them a fight. Then they looked in Ring Magazine to find out if he was telling the truth.”