March 10, 2016
It seems like only yesterday but it was actually 45 years ago and I was involved.
Franklin Freed, a music promoter from Chicago while having lunch with his friend, Chicago Water Commissioner Eugene Dibble, he learned something that would bring about the Greatest Fight of the 20th Century. Dibble was a principal in Astro Investments, a Brokerage firm geared to helping African/American Clients. One of his clients was Muhammad Ali.
Ali, who had been suspended for three years was just starting to Box again. With the suspension lifted, Ali fought two contenders who were ranked in the top ten, of the Heavyweight Division … Oscar Buenavena and Jerry Quarry. Slowed only slightly by a little Ring Rust, Ali beat both men handily.
As he was discussing his Portfolio and investments with Dibble, he confided that he wanted no more warmup fights, he was ready and wanted to fight Joe Frazier who had become the Champion in Ali’s absence. Yet he and Frazier had never fought each other. Ali wanted back the title which he considered his.
Thus, this was the conversation between these two Chicago friends. Frank, ever the promoter, asked Dibble how much money did he feel it would take to get the two men in the ring.
Given the figure, Frank knew he did not have that kind of liquidity, but he immediately thought of Jerry Perenchio. Jerry, who later would go on to become one of America’s greatest Entrepreneurs, at the time was one of Hollywood’s top booking agents.
Among his client list was a galaxy of the era’s musical giants. In order to raise the necessary guarantee he solicited many of them to participate.
Henry Mancini, Sergio Mendes, Ed Ames, Bobby Gentry, and Andy Williams were among the clients that stepped up to the plate. They took a large position and Jerry filled out the commitment with others from the financial community.
Jerry divided the country into sections and sold this group their own parcel.
With the money guaranteed , ($5,000,000…large for that time, dwarfed by today’s standards), “The Fight” (that’s what it was labeled), was scheduled for Madison Square Garden… the date, March 8, 1971… exactly 45 years ago.
I often ask people that I meet about different outstanding events. The question, “Where were you?” On March 8, 1971, I was at Madison Square Garden and it truly was a night to remember.
It was an historic night. Not only were there two undefeated World Champions who each claimed the right to the title , but it was the first massive Closed Circuit TV event.
Jerry put together what he considered the “A” team. Jerry’s late partner Freddie Dale, my very dear friend, a genius at booking arenas was slotted to seek the Closed Circuit Venues to showcase the fight. He almost singlehandedly sold rights to over 100 countries and set up enough locations which were to be filled by 1.5 million viewers.
Jerry brought in the Video Techniques team of Barry Burnstein and Hank Schwartz. Two giants who respectively had no peers. Barry would answer the calls of all the venue promoters and fill their equipment needs.
As for Hank, a graduate of MIT, he was the man who made sure that all the equipment supplied was not only running right and the picture received was at its purest. If the halls, the theaters, the bars, the private residences like the Playboy Mansion, or any venue that had purchased rights, had a problem, he was mister fix-it.
Hank, a brilliant Director figured camera angles and other never-before tried ideas to make the viewing most pleasurable.
For example, knowing that the TV camera lenses of the day would show the equivalent of Sun Bursts when shooting anything White such as the Ring Canvases, he came up with an answer.. His solution was simple… paint the Canvas Blue.
Budweiser jumped at the chance and we sold them the Ring Canvas for their logo. This was the first time this form of advertising which was to become a staple, was ever used.
In every other fight thereafter the canvas was painted blue. Finally, when new equipment was developed, the problem canvases no longer had to be painted blue. That was only one of many contributions that were to bear his signature in years to come.
As for me, I was in every major city over a 45 day period. My job was to aid the local promoters in setting up ways to organize and implement a campaign and market it. I did not get home at all during that period. I resided for almost two months straight in a two-bedroom suite at New York’s St. Regis Hotel which I shared with Freddy Dale.
On more than one occasion, I witnessed men with briefcases filled with $100 dollar bills (century notes), sometimes holding as much as a million dollars, or more, each trying to outbid the other for the rights to a certain geographical area, state, or venue. Freddy, of necessity, turned down more than he accepted.
It was a roller coaster ride and it was to be the biggest money purse since 1927 when Dempsey fought Tunney. Dempsey/Tunney was the first million dollar fight. It was pegged to be a $990,000 purse per fighter for Tunney’s rematch with Dempsey.
Supposedly, the story goes that Gene wanted it to be the recipient of the first $1million dollar purse in Boxing history, he sent Promoter Tex Rickard his personal check for $10,000 so that he could say he was paid a Million Dollars.
My challenge was to let everyone worldwide know the historic importance of March 8, 1971. I used every promotional trick I had learned in my first forty years on this planet.
The promotion included actor Burt Lancaster. Burt, a former amateur Boxer. had been hired to be the color commentator alongside Boxing’s greatest voice Don Dunphy for the Closed Circuit TV of the fight.
Burt and I had a Lear Jet and in the space of two weeks went to 30 cities where at each airport we held a Press Conference… we never left the Airport. It was a huge success… the idea of one of the world’s most renowned actors calling a fight was interesting and the draw.
As for Don Dunphy, he came out of retirement for this fight. The last TV fight he had called was Marciano v. Louis and that was in 1951… 20 years earlier.
That night at Madison Garden was electric. Frank Sinatra had been assigned by Life Magazine as their Ringside photographer. A young UCLA coed named Christie Brinkley was the fight’s official photographer.
It was a night of celebrity. Anyone who was anybody was among the spectators. Madison Garden was completely sold out and tickets were at a premium.
As tired as I was, I sat at Ringside with the great Joe Louis and golfer Doug Sanders. The crowd was cacophonous … in all the future events I would do, I would never again experience such a raucous crowd and the goose pimples that permeated my body that night.
And it’s interesting, how perceptions can change. Before I met Ali, I was prepared to dislike him. After all, I like so many other American Kids had gone in the military.
However, to know him, I came to realize that his belief in his religion was genuine and not just to avoid military service. The more we worked together, I came to admire him as a man. He was thoughtful, kind, considerate, and gentle while in the ring he was the exact opposite.
To be trite, the phrase “you should never judge a book by its cover” is an adage I live by. After all, Ali once said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want”.