BY THE time J Russell Peltz, all of twenty-two years on a beanpole frame, strode into the office of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission in September 1969 to pick up his newly minted promoter’s license, boxing in Philadelphia was on the downturn, if not in a full-blown decline.
Gone were beloved draws such as Joey Giardello and light-heavyweight Harold Johnson, both of whom won titles. As the ’60s drew to a close, even the decade’s most noteworthy and popular fighters in Bennie Brisco and Stanley “Kitten” Hayward were starting to fade from relevance. (The lone bright spot was the emergence of heavyweight Joe Frazier.) This malaise extended beyond the fighters and their handlers and seeped into the consumer base, casting a cynical pall over its eyes. Even Briscoe, the crowd-friendly brawler, was beginning to sense that he had outstayed his welcome—in his own hometown, no less.
“It’s hard for me to understand, but I get a better reception in New York than I do here,” Briscoe told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1969. “I’m even more popular in Puerto Rico. Jimmy Iselin (his manager) wanted me to fight out of New York, but I just can’t make myself do
that. All my friends are here. This is my home. I don’t want to be a New York City fighter, or a Rhinebeck, N.Y. fighter. I’m from Philadelphia.”
Incredibly, the Philadelphia fans went so far as to shower Briscoe with jeers.
“I don’t know why they boo,” continued Briscoe. “Maybe the people here like boxers, and that’s one thing I definitely am not. I hit anything I can see … If they’d rather see a guy dance around and then hold, that’s their choice. Let ’em boo.”
Briscoe, of course, was not the first to get the cold shoulder from the “City of Brotherly Love.” After he had blown out Floyd Patterson in one round at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1962 to become the new world heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, who had at that time made Philadelphia his adopted hometown, expected, or at least hoped for, a homecoming reception that befitted his accomplishment: a key to the city, a photo op with Mayor James H. Tate, the gaggle of fans and press, the whole megillah, short of a ticker-tape parade. But the moment he descended onto the runway at Philadelphia International Airport, Liston was greeted only with the image of an airline crew going about their workaday duties. This humiliating episode would prompt Liston to move to Denver, but not before dropping one of his more infamous lines: “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than mayor of Philadelphia.”
It was tanking season in Philadelphia. In 1969, veteran sports journalist Tom Cushman, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, decided to pen a three-part series examining the crumbling state of prizefighting in the city. Cushman solicited the opinion of Herman Taylor, the grand-père of Philadelphia boxing who had been promoting shows since 1912. Taylor, suffice it to say, was not optimistic.
“We used to have a half-dozen clubs in Philadelphia, and we don’t have anymore,” groused Taylor. “So the young boxer has to try and learn his trade fighting prelims on what cards we can put together. The opportunities aren’t very many. Oh, there are a lot of boxers around, if you want to call them that. But most of them are of a very, very, very poor grade. And I, for one, refuse to run a show just for the sake of having a show. I do not believe in staging lopsided matches. I don’t want the customers walking away disappointed.”
The infrastructure of small club boxing was falling apart; the talent, uncared for, was withering away. And all Taylor, eighty-two years old and ensconced on the second floor of a prim office that sat right above the marquee of the Shubert Theatre (now the Merriam), surrounded by his secretary, matchmaker, and a gallery of vintage photographs of the championship fights that he once promoted—all Taylor could think of doing was to offer up a few Hail Marys. “You see, it has come to this point,” he said. “With everything that has happened to boxing, we’re desperate for talent… even enough to keep us going along like we are. And then along, that he falls into the right hands. We can’t afford to lose even one anymore.”
“It is a sad thing,” Taylor added. “I can’t think of a half-dozen young fighters who have excited me in the last two or three years. I don’t really think that boxing will ever die completely. But we have to face it. We’ll never again have the activity we had in the years gone by.”
The prognosis Taylor had charted out was mostly on the dot. The annus mirabilis of 1952 was never coming back to Philadelphia. Underscoring his pessimism was the fact that there was not a single club show between May 19 and September 30 in 1969. Jaded managers and myopic promoters still ruled the land. But Taylor would be proven wrong, to an extent. Less than two months after Taylor caviled to the Daily News, Philadelphia boxing would be put on the path to its next boom in a way the octogenarian never believed was possible. And Taylor, along with the other hard-crusted curmudgeons of the reigning gerontocracy, would have a self-described nice little Jewish boy from the Main Line to thank for that.
“There were no real promoters there at the time,” recalled Frank Gelb, a boxing manager and close collaborator with Peltz. “The few good promoters that they had—they were falling off a bit. It’s very interesting because of what boxing was. If you took away Madison Square Garden, there was not much boxing on the East Coast, except for small clubs that small promoters would run.
“Russell was the savior. He really was. He made the growth what it was. But the city was ready for it then. They had a big history when boxing was really on its top shelf of having the best boxers of all time. They had many gyms. Russell came to it at the right time, at the right place, and he’d rather see a boxing match than anything in his lifetime. So he fit in perfectly. If it wasn’t for him they never would have reached where Philadelphia wound up in boxing with the greatest fighters of all because if you take a look at the history of it, when Russell got into it, he was the only one that was willing to take the risk and he shared the rewards for it.”
“Russell was an enthusiastic and great promoter and at the same time he had this great talent that was just laying there,” said Don Majeski, a longtime fight agent and close
friend of Peltz. “You had Everett, Briscoe, Monroe, and Hart, Ritchie Kates, all these guys came up at the same period of time. The irony was that Frazier was the Philly boxer, but he rarely boxed there. So you had these middleweights that just clicked. Also, Perry Abner, Sammy Goss, Augie Pantellas. that people wanted to see … The money was coming from the live gate, so you had to go where the money was. Then television came around and you could basically fight guys that were inferior so long as the television networks were willing to buy it. That was the last great era of the live gate. Synonymous with that, you had New York and Los Angeles, with George Parnassus. All of this was just a renaissance for boxing.”
If Peltz had all the qualities that made up a good promoter—enterprising, industrious, and enthusiastic—he was not always beloved by his fighters. He had a reputation as a penny pincher and was notoriously stingy with comp tickets. At the same time, no one else in Philadelphia was putting up his own money to stage fights and giving fighters an opportunity to ply their trade. And the fighters, despite how many times they cursed Peltz under their breath, understood this.
“There were no fights happening then,” said Mike Rossman, the light heavyweight champion who often fought for Peltz. “Russell kept boxing alive in Philadelphia. He don’t like to pay. But he still kept boxing alive. It’s the truth. He was the only guy doing it, and that’s who you go with.”
Scranton, Pennsylvania. October 30, 1971
It was a Tuesday night and Frank Gelb and his wife Elaine were ringside at the Catholic Youth Center, where they joined more than 3,200 paying customers to watch Bob Foster, the top light heavyweight of his generation, defend his world title against Tommy Hicks. Gelb, a resident of nearby Norristown and owner of a furniture store, had a major hand in organizing the card. The till whizzed all night, producing a gate of more than $25,000, no chump change in those days. The main event itself did not turn out to be much of a contest—Hicks was stopped in the eighth round—but it was a big night, nonetheless, as big as it got sporting-wise in the hardscrabble town of Scranton. It would take several years before Gelb would be prepared to give up his day job as a furniture dealer, but, in the meantime, here he was, in Scranton, of all places, moonlighting, like his newly revived pal Hurricane Roberts, a fighter-turned-police officer, in the boxing business.
Before it became known as the setting for the pop culture phenomenon of [i]The Office[i] or the birthplace of Joe Biden, Scranton was associated primarily with four things: coal, iron, steel, and locomotives. By the 1970s, much like what happened to Philadelphia, Scranton’s industrial base—its anthracite economic identity—was slowly, but surely, coming apart, mirroring the nation-wide, post-World War II process of deindustrialization that afflicted Detroit, Cleveland, and scores of other once-proud blue-collar cities across the emerging Rust Belt. Nevertheless, it was in Scranton that Gelb formed one of the bases of his nascent boxing operations.
Despite Gelb’s serendipitous start, there was nothing slipshod or dilettantish about his new endeavor; he had real designs, hopes that went beyond being just the handler of a Norristown patrolman. “An avocation quickly became a vocation,” Gelb later said. One of the first things he did was build relationships with local powerbrokers. From the management duo of William “Pinny” Schafer and Pat Duffy, longtime fixtures on the Philadelphia boxing scene best known for handling the careers of Leotis Martin, Bennie Briscoe, and “Boogaloo” Watts among others, Gelb acquired a half-dozen fighters to form the core of his early stable. (A few years later, Gelb would purchase Matthew Saad Muhammad’s contract from the same tandem.) In Scranton, Gelb paired up with local promoter Paul Ruddy to put on monthly fight cards at the Catholic Youth Center, a 4,000-seat arena that served as one of the primary athletic venues in the city.
For several years, Gelb and Ruddy were practically the only game in town, promoting most of the boxing shows in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was, by most measures, a successful partnership, aided no less by the enthusiasm of the residents of Lackawanna County. As far as professional sports went, boxing was the most prominent attraction to hit Scranton, with the exception of college football.
“When we did a fight there, it was a huge operation,” Gelb recalled. “It was like a New Year’s Eve party most of the time. Because people would go out to all the restaurants and eat before and go to the bars afterward and drink. They looked forward to boxing, and it was the biggest thing that happened for the city of Scranton at the time. Boxing was probably the most professional sport they had on a regular basis. We did that for many years. I was promoting, I was managing, I was handling a lot of boxers from that area that I tried to take to bigger heights.”
One of those boxers was Ray Hall, a highly regarded featherweight prospect from nearby Wilkes-Barre. Gelb had slotted Hall into a four-rounder on the Foster-Hicks undercard. An accomplished amateur, Hall had already built up a name for himself in local circles. The thinking was that, in addition to becoming a top contender, he could also become a credible draw down the line. With a 5-0 record, he was on the right track.
But Hall was matched tough in his sixth fight that Tuesday night in October 1971, whether anyone on his side realized it or not. In the other corner was a wiry 18-year-old Black kid wearing pigtails from South Philadelphia with a 1-0 record. Unlike Hall, Tyrone Everett flew mostly under the radar as an amateur. Nothing was more indicative of his marginal status than the fact that local newspaper reports leading up to and after the fight referred to him as “Tyrone Edwards.” Hall, for his part, was not under the same misconception, for it was Everett who had handed him his last loss as an amateur. By choosing to face him again, Hall and his brain trust clearly did not view Everett as much of a threat. Perhaps they were convinced that Hall’s aggressive style would produce better results in the pro ranks. Stylistically, Everett was the complete antithesis to Hall and his headlong approach. But there was a simpler explanation for Hall’s optimism in a second go-around.
One month before, on September 25, Everett made his professional debut against fellow debutant Neil Hagel at the CYC on a card that had also featured Hall. In a four-round bout, Everett won a decision against Hagel—albeit controversially. While it was a close fight, most ringside observers believed Hagel had done enough to deserve the win, with one local newspaper describing how “heavy body blows had Everett reeling around the padded circle.” The paper added, bluntly, that “Neil Hagel appeared to have been robbed of the decision in his debut as a prize-fighter.”
So Hall was feeling bullish for all the right reasons. But Everett, bad debut notwithstanding, had good reason to feel confident in himself as well. Everett knew that two weeks earlier, in Philadelphia, Hall had picked up a relatively easy decision, but not without leaving with a large cut over his left eye, the result of a headbutt. Two weeks later, that gash was still tender, a fact that did not escape the guileful Everett. With the focus of an osprey scanning for trout, Everett made it a point to target the wound from the opening bell. As he would later say, “You look at a man’s face to see if he’s been cut. You check if there’s a lot of scar tissue. I always look at the eyebrows.” Before long, blood began drizzling down Hall’s face from the same sore spot. The fight was resembling a beatdown.
Meanwhile, Gelb was looking on despondently, his heart in his throat, like one of those poor Las Vegas souls witnessing their life savings dry up on the slot machine. At one point, Gelb’s wife Elaine turned to her blanched husband and cracked, “I think you’re backing the wrong fighter.” It was a shutout; Everett won every round on the scorecards. Gelb may have been a boxing neophyte, but he could sniff out a business opportunity as adroitly as a bloodhound sniffs for contraband. Heeding his wife’s advice, Gelb moseyed up to the victor after the bout and floated the idea of working together. They struck a deal shortly thereafter. “Ray Hall was good, I mean real good,” Gelb once told the Philadelphia Tribune. “I had visions of a championship fight(er). Everett … destroyed my fighter. I couldn’t believe it.”
When Gelb later spoke to Peltz, he gushed about his new signee and prodded the fledgling promoter to come to Everett’s next fight to see for himself. The next fight would be on March 7, 1972, again in Scranton.
“So I went to the show and that was the night that Ray Hart—not to get confused with Ray Hall, and no relation to Cyclone Hart or any of the other Harts—was fighting Everett,” Peltz recalled. “Ray Hart was a Joe Frazier with speed, and he came right after Everett. I mean Ray Hart really jumped on his ass. And he was a decent prospect at the time, Ray Hart, and he made Everett look like Sugar Ray Robinson. I saw that that night… and when the fight was over I ran over to Gelb, and I said, ‘Let’s make a deal right here.’ And then [Tyrone] fought for me exclusively. That night? Whew, he was good.”
Of all the fighters to emerge from the Philadelphia renaissance of the 1970s, a hot crucible of competition that only waned with the emergence of Atlantic City as a destination for marquee boxing, none was as talented as Tyrone Everett. There were others, for sure, who were more thrilling inside the ring, others who were more accessible, and because they were more accessible, more beloved: Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and, of course, the doyen, “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, the hard-nosed slugger often regarded as the quintessence of the Philadelphia boxing spirit.
As light-heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, who dropped a decision to Briscoe early on in his career, once told The Ring, “When you say Philadelphia, you right away think of Bennie Briscoe. No nonsense, blue-collar worker. Bennie was the greatest fighter to never win a world title.” The Briscoe Awards, the annual ceremony celebrating Philadelphia fighters past and present, are named after him for this reason. Unlike Everett, their names have continued to circulate today in the imagination of the boxing public. None of them ever won a title and a few of them, like Monroe, never received a title shot, but they nevertheless helped reinvent Philadelphia as the premier fight capital on the East Coast for a brief but bountiful spell.
And they all, crucially, fought as middleweights––a significant fact since almost all of them, at one point or another, faced the dominant middleweight of that era, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who, from 1976 to 1978, made the long trek down from his home in Brockton, Massachusetts, to Philadelphia five times to face the city’s top brass, going 3-2, dropping decisions to Monroe and Watts, both of whom he would later stop in rematches. Part of the reason why these Philadelphia middleweights have been assured a meaningful afterlife can be attributed to Hagler’s enduring legacy.
That Everett was a diminutive fighter—he was a natural featherweight who found himself competing at junior lightweight for most of his career because of a dearth of opportunities at the lighter weight—was but one feature that distinguished him from the local orthodoxy. Where he stood out even more was in temperament and sensibility. With his smoldering good looks, his wind-flapping pigtails, and a swagger bordering on insolence, Everett assumed a style that was stridently opposed to the more rugged, workmanlike approach of his peers and predecessors. “Wily” and “cunning,” after all, were not words often ascribed to the local fighters by the other,” Everett was all silken polish and surface perfection. Stick and move, counter. Hit and not be hit. Critics called it hotdogging, boring, a time suck. For Everett, it was simply smart boxing. It was boxing, moreover, that preserved his face, which he always treated like a Romanov Fabergé egg.
His brilliance was also a source of repeated frustration. For all his technical astuteness, sangfroid, and whippet quickness, for all his ability to hit all the right notes inside the cordoned-off boundaries of a boxing ring, Everett rarely rose to that pitch of passion that exemplifies the prime appeal of a blood sport, that unhinged fervor which constituted nothing less than a natural state of being for fighters such as Roberto Duran and Aaron Pryor. His heavy reliance on finesse was often confused by his detractors as a sign of weakness. In fact, there was nothing in his background to suggest that he was any less resilient than the likes of Bennie Briscoe or Matthew Saad Muhammad. It is a truism that only the poorest and most marginalised in society end up choosing boxing as a pursuit, and, in this, Everett was no exception. His origins were as hardscrabble and harrowing as any of his more beloved peers.