Elbaum hustling up a winner with Pettway-Van Kirk


At the back table in the restaurant on Eutaw Street, a fortune-teller with a mound of white hair is massaging a pair of black boxing gloves.

"These belong to someone who is very angry," she says.

Then she is rubbing a jump rope.

"No," she says. "The person who uses these would rather be running."

Then she is rubbing a pair of red boxing gloves. She frowns.

"I don't get a good feeling from these," she says. "No feeling at all."

The television cameras are rolling. The newspapers are there. Don Elbaum is happy. Smiling and happy.

"Never done this before," he says with a smile. "This is a first. Crazy thing. Worked out pretty well."

Elbaum is the promoter for the Vincent Pettway-Eddie Van Kirk fight set for Monday at the Arena, the first local fight in a while to make the front pages.

It is what he has been doing almost all his life. Promoting. Hustling. Matchmaking. Dreaming up stunts to get people talking. Getting a fortune-teller to predict the winner.

"I've worked every tank town and every real town," he is saying. "Vegas, Toronto, Montreal. Jamestown, New York. Zanesville, Ohio. New Castle, Pennsylvania. Monte Carlo. Paris. Bari, Italy."

He is close to 50, compact, with a square face, a reddish cauliflower nose and shiny blue eyes. He was a successful amateur boxer, but he couldn't punch and took a couple of hard beatings, as his nose attests, and knew to get out.

When he was 16, he promoted wild west shows in his hometown of Erie, Pa. He promoted his first fight when he was 18. He has lived in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Atlantic City. They used to call him the Kid Promoter. It is a life of ringing phones, scraps of paper, cash and possibilities.

He had originally matched Van Kirk with Victor Davis, putting Pettway on the under card, but at the news conference Van Kirk said Pettway would get clobbered and Pettway stood up and started screaming and Van Kirk screamed back. It didn't take any genius to know what to do when Davis backed out with an eye injury.

"Pettway and Van Kirk are a genuine grudge match," Elbaum says with a bit of awe. "They both think they're the best in town, that kind of stuff. It's a beautiful thing for a promoter. You spend a lot of time trying to make matches into grudges, which is what the people want. This time I walked right into it."

It hasn't stopped him from putting on the sell. There is always the sell.

"There was this time in Buffalo when I had a Polish-Jewish heavyweight named Dick Whipperman," he says, "and I had him fighting around Christmas. Well, the guy was a sky diver, so I got him dressed up as Santa Claus and got him into a plane and had him parachute out by this shopping center.

"It was great, but the police arrested him when he landed for jumping without a license. They arrested Santa Claus. The papers went wild with it."

One time he got a fighter so much good ink that the opponent fainted from fright before the first punch was thrown. "Had to practically pull the guy into the ring, and then he goes down, boom, right after the bell," Elbaum says. "It was very embarrassing. The other fighter's name was Manny 'The Monster' Quinney. He got shot later."

Elbaum once promoted a fight between boxers who had never won. "One was 0-13, the other was 0-15," he says. "We were in Warren, Ohio. I got them both to sign this paper saying the loser had to retire from boxing. It wasn't real, but they thought it was. Then I got a 4-foot trophy made up and engraved it, 'For the World's Worst Fighter.'

"Everyone was talking about it. You should have seen the fight. One of the best fights you'll ever see. They both thought they'd have to retire. They thought they'd have to take home that trophy. They fought like hell. At the end of four rounds it was, believe it or not, a draw. And they refused to fight again."

It is not as though Elbaum has spent his life working only the fringes, however. Far from it. He had Earnie Shavers, Aaron Pryor, a piece of nine world champions. He says he was the one who got Don King into boxing.

"Don wanted to raise money for a black hospital, so we co-promoted a fight," he says. "The hospital got $1,500, I got $1,500, and Don walked out with $50,000. We worked together for a year. I was the one who got Don to get out of the numbers racket in New York. I was mesmerized, like everyone else. But then I got out. Some of the deals weren't too good."

These days Elbaum has some people after him, too. He has been hauled into court in New Jersey for evading taxes. "They came up with it after they went over my partner's books, not mine," he says. "I'm not going to say what I did or didn't do, but it's all ridiculous. I don't think I'll have to do time."

Of course, you don't qualify as a boxing lifer unless you've had the law after you a couple of times. ("I've been called every name in the book, good and bad," he says.) Elbaum just presses on. He is promoting a top cruiserweight named Richard "Hard Face" Mason. He has monthly cards down in Rockville, where he lives now. He has Monday night.

"We need 2,500 fans to break even," he says, "and we've already sold 1,500. It's one of those fights that people want to see."

You always need more, though, so the fortune-teller is sitting at the back table in the restaurant on Eutaw, trying to pick the winner. The cameras are rolling. The other people in the restaurant are talking. The newspapers liked it. Elbaum is standing in back, watching, pacing just a little. "This lady," he says, "she is amazing, huh?"

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