It's not easy to get noticed in a boxing crowd. The flash of gold chains, the flash of gold teeth, the greased up flesh of the fighter before introductions are made, the gullies of ringside cleavage, all can turn the flamboyant into the mundane.
So Sampson Lewkowicz didn't catch too many stares-well, maybe a couple-when he arrived at a ballroom in a blue-chip hotel on Wall Street. It was the fall of 2002, and he was wearing a tuxedo the color of burgundy, a ruffled shirt that was pink, and had a ponytail that dangled down his back like a jungle vine. He looked like an extra on The Love Boat, the Bollywood rendition.
Before the fight, he was making introductions to reporters, though it was hard to understand what he was saying. He was from Uruguay, and in broken-up English he was predicting an upset. His fighter, Epifanio Mendoza, was a last-minute replacement. Lewkowicz had recruited him from some of the poorest barrios of Columbia. He was matched against Tokunbo Olajide, a marketable, and then unbeaten New York prospect.
Unlike Lewkowicz, Olajide had pedigree. He was the younger brother of middleweight contender Michael Olajide, who ran a gym with his father in midtown Manhattan. Tokunbo was also a musician, playing his trumpet before fights. He could punch some too, collecting 15 knockouts in his first 17 bouts.
Mendoza was cast as another stepping stone. Nobody had seen him fight.
"I hid him for three days in a gym in the Bronx," Lewkowicz told me at the time.
During the ring walk, it was clear why. Mendoza had all the features trainers fear: broad shoulders, long arms, a big and lean and muscular frame. Goddamn. What kind of last-replacement was this? Didn't anyone in Olajide's camp vet him? And did this dude Lewkowicz in the burgundy tux know what he was talking about?
Mendoza not only knocked Olajide out in the first round. Tokunbo broke his leg and his ankle on the way down. His career fizzled from there.
"That was the first biggest moment of my career," Lewkowicz says now of the Mendoza fight.
He's on the phone from Las Vegas, eight years later, about to go to the airport to fly to Mexico on a publicity tour with another fighter, middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, who recently upset Paul Williams by landing the left hook of the year.
"That was my second biggest moment," Lewkowicz says of the second-round punch.
That a janitor from Uruguay can become an establishment in the modern boxing business is something of an achievement, considering how amorphous the sport can be and how so much power is controlled by so few. But the tireless Lewkowicz has figured out a formula that works, and he's now a self-sustained industry standard. He now represents more than three dozen boxers from every part of the world, including 126-pound champ Chris John from Indonesia, lightweight Michael Katsidis from Australia and 122-pound Celestino Caballero from Panama.
Among other legends, Lewkowicz is credited with discovering Manny Pacquaio as the then matchmaker for promoter Murad Muhammad. Soon after, Pacquaio had a falling out with Muhammad. So did Lewkowicz, who went out on his own and began travelling the world to shore up relationships with promoters and sanctioning bodies.
Ron Scott Stevens, former boxing commissioner of New York, remembers Lewkowicz making appearances at national meetings for boxing administrators. In his outlandish attire, Lewkowicz would make speeches and drop business cards.
"At first a lot of us were like, 'Who the hell is this guy?'" Steven says. "Now he's come to his own. He's become a household name in boxing."
What Lewkowicz does is hard to define. He is not a matchmaker, although he does make fights, and he is not a manager, although he does seem to manage. He's kind of an advisor, but that definition doesn't cut it because he is not paid by the boxer for his advice.
"I never take from the boy," he says, which must sound appealing to a fighter who doesn't have to cut up his purse for another expense. Instead, Lewkowicz gets his fee from the fighters' promoter, who also takes a fee from the fighter. That makes Lewkowicz like a booking agent that shuttles between fighters and promoters.
Sergio Martinez was a tough sell. At 35, he is old for a first-time world champion. When Lewkowicz first started working with him, he arranged a meeting with Golden Boy to promote him.
"It wasn't the right fit," recalls Richard Schaeffer, the company's C.E.O. "Just because you are good doesn't mean you can sell."
After Golden Boy turned Martinez down, Sampson set up a meeting with Lou Dibella, who signed Martinez. Together, Lewkowicz and DiBella were able to get Martinez a championship fight with Kelly Pavlik (who Martinez beat) and the rematch with Paul Williams.
"You look at him and you see the gold chains and The Look and he's one of those characters in boxing, but you have to give him credit, "Schaeffer says. "To get Martinez into two big fights in a row is not an easy task."
Lewkowicz has had so much recent success that he's now trying his hand at promoting. On January 8, he put on a in his native Uruguay. He's also applied for a promoter's license in Nevada. Despite the fact that they will become competitors, Lewkowicz asked Schaeffer to write him a letter of recommendation for the Nevada Athletic Commission. Schaeffer isn't sure that after making so many good moves for his fighters, becoming a promoter is the next logical step.
"It sounds glorious you know to be a promoter but it's not easy as it looks," Schaeffer says. "He has a good thing going. He should think twice about it."
After almost a decade in the business, Lewkowicz has learned the upside in promotion is simply too lucrative to turn away. He's waiting for the Nevada commission to approve his application. "Everyone has to grow up," he says. "I'm 60 years old. It's time for me to grow up."
That a janitor from Uruguay can become an establishment in the modern boxing business is something of an achievement, considering how amorphous the sport can be and how so much power is controlled by so few.
Posted 12:00 AM | Mar 9, 2011
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