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At the Fights with Harold Lederman

I've known Harold Lederman for twenty-five years. We've spent hundreds of hours together at media events, social occasions and fights. But I'd never spent a night at the fights from beginning to end with Harold. On September 1st at Oceana Hall in Brooklyn, I added that experience to my journey through life.

Commentator Harold Lederman

Harold began judging professional fights in 1967. He has been HBO's "unofficial ringside judge" since 1986. One can make a compelling case that he should be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame as a ring judge, television commentator and boxing's quintessential fan.

Harold loves it when he walks through a hotel lobby and total strangers stop to talk boxing with him.

He loves boxing people. "There's something special about them," he says. "Even the bad ones are fun to be around."

He's a pharmacist by trade and works for Duane Reade. His assignments for HBO take him out of town for up to five days at a time, so when Harold is in the store, it's often for a thirteen-hour shift. He'll leave home at six o'clock in the morning and be out until ten at night.

"I work hard," he says. "Wherever I lived, I was always one of the hardest-working guys in the neighborhood."

Harold wears an HBO Boxing watch that employees were given to commemorate an anniversary. He doesn't remember which anniversary, but says it was "a long time ago." By his own description, he's "not a jewelry kind of guy." He has a wedding ring "somewhere at home; I forget where."

He's unfailingly cheerful. Asked to recall the last time he got angry, Harold says, "Who knows? There's not enough time in life to get angry."

His voice is unmistakably his own, as is his distinctive high-pitched laugh.

I told Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Emanuel Steward that I was going to the fights at Oceana Hall with Harold. Over the years, they've watched a few fights with Harold at their side.

"Harold is the mayor at ringside at every fight he goes to," Lampley told me. "Whether it's in the United States or on foreign soil, Harold knows everybody, and everybody knows Harold. He's a global ambassador for boxing, and his enthusiasm for life is wonderful. Harold is ebullient about everything. He's ebullient about going to a used bookstore. He's ebullient about what he ate for breakfast. He's ebullient about bumping into Livingston Bramble on the elevator. That's the glory of Harold."

"It's unusual for someone who has been part of boxing for as long as Harold to maintain a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the sport," Merchant offered. "Harold has a wide-eyed enthusiasm for boxing that's beyond compare. When we do a show at an arena away from the hotel we're staying in, HBO arranges for a car to take us to the arena. Harold never goes with us. That's because, without fail, he's at the arena hours ahead of us, watching every preliminary fight, saying hello to every judge, and shaking hands with virtually every fan in the arena."

"Harold is the greatest boxing fan on the face of the earth," Steward added. "The joy that he has for even the most ordinary fights is like nothing I've ever known. There has never been anyone like Harold before, and there will never be anyone like Harold again. If you opened him up, boxing would pour out of his veins."

Oceana Hall is in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. Even at club shows, Harold arrives before the first fight, scheduled for 7:15 pm, and stays until the last one is over. He drove by my apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan and picked me up at six o'clock. In the hour it took to reach the venue, Harold talked boxing the entire way.

"Eileen and I have been married for forty-seven years," he reminisced. "The night before we got married, we went to the fights at Madison Square Garden. Gaspar Ortega beat an Italian kid from the Bronx named Billy Bello in the main event. Our honeymoon was in Miami, and we went to the fights there too. Tony Mammarelli was in the main event at that one."

"When I started at HBO, I worked with Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant and Ray Leonard. Ray was one of my heroes. I kept pinching myself, saying, 'I can't believe it. I'm on television with Ray Leonard.' I knew how to score a fight, but TV was a whole new ballgame for me. Those guys took me under their wing. They were wonderful to me."

"I used to go to 100 fight shows a year. Don Elbaum was promoting in Atlantic City; Russell Peltz was promoting in Philadelphia. How could I not go to their shows? It was a three-hour drive each way. I'd go to the fights, get home at two o'clock in the morning, sleep for four hours, get back up, and go to work. Every one of those shows was worth it. But I'm older now; I just turned seventy. I don't run to Philadelphia and Atlantic City the way I used to. Now, including the HBO shows, I go to maybe 50 shows a year."

We reached Brighton Beach Avenue at seven o'clock and parked on the street two blocks from Oceana Hall. Dmitriy Salita was headlining the card.

Salita is a rarity in boxing; an Orthodox Jew with a 30-1-1 record. His sole loss was a first-round stoppage at the hands of Amir Khan in England last December. This show would be his comeback fight and also the debut of boxing on The Jewish Channel.

Oceana Hall is an unusual club-fight venue, with gilded columns and a decorative hardwood floor. It can hold eleven hundred people for wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs. For boxing, the number is 800.

Harold is a celebrity at club fights. Like Madonna, he's identifiable on a first-name basis. When we walked in, everyone wanted to say hello to Harold, and Harold wanted to say hello to everyone. Making his way to his seat, he shmoozed with promoter Brian O'Shea, ring announcer David Diamante, a half dozen people from the New York State Athletic Commission and at least as many fans.

Then the fights started. These were club fights. Six four-round bouts and one six-rounder with the main event scheduled for eight. Adding their records together, the first 12 fighters to enter the ring had a total of 9 wins, 19 losses, and 3 draws. But for Harold, each bout was a unique work of performance art.

The participants in the first fight were introduced. Junior-welterweights. A fighter from Connecticut, who was 2-and-0 with two knockouts, against a fighter from Baltimore, who was 0-and-1.

"I hate to say this," Harold said seconds before the opening bell. "But the guy from Baltimore looks like he doesn't want to fight."

Once the bell rang, it was also clear that the guy from Baltimore didn't know how to fight. He had no idea where to hold his hands or how to position his feet and was knocked out with the first solid punch of the night.

Fight number two was a different story. Thomas Baldwin (1-0) against Felix Rangel (0-4-1). Harold offered expert commentary as the action unfolded.

"You can't miss Rangel with a right hand. I guess that's why he's 0-4-and-1. But he's hanging in there. Look at that! Rangel is fighting back. He's here to win. This is a very good fight."

In the final round, the contest became a non-stop slugfest. Baldwin was in big trouble but survived till the bell. Harold stood with the rest of the crowd and applauded when it was over. He doesn't formally score bouts when he's not officially working. "But I keep a scorecard in my mind," he told me. "And I've got this one dead even."

The bout was declared a draw.

"I love it when a guy wins a fight that he's not supposed to win," Harold said. "A draw isn't as good as a win; but for Rangel, it's pretty good."

Now the crowd had been drawn into the action. Salita, who was born in Ukraine, has a sizeable following within the Orthodox Jewish community. Brighton Beach has a heavy Russian population. This was a blue-collar multi-ethnic crowd, loud and appreciative.

"These are boxing fans," Harold noted. "And they know boxing. I love crowds like this."

Fight number three matched Benjamin Morales (1-0) against Rafael Vasquez (pro debut). It was another good action fight. Early on, Vasquez was teeing off and landing right hands at will. A lot of them. But Morales hung tough. He had never lost as a pro and didn't want to lose now. He showed enormous heart.

Heart wasn't enough. All three judges (plus Oceana Hall's "unofficial ringside judge") scored the fight 39-37 for Vasquez. As Morales left the ring, he was crying.

"I feel bad for him," Harold said. "He tried as hard as he could. He was just outgunned."

As evening progressed, former fighters like Dana Rosenblatt and Junior Jones came by to say hello. So did trainer Tommy Gallagher and ring judge Glenn Feldman. Harold had a word (strike that; Harold had several paragraphs) for each of them.

"I got a funny story to tell you ... Do you remember when you fought ... I was just thinking about that fight we went to together in ...."

Paulie Malignaggi gave Harold a hug and told me, "This guy knows boxing. A lot of TV commentators aren't really into it. It's just a job to them. Harold is the best fan there is in boxing and he knows the sport. When a fighter gets on network television, a lot of people ask, 'Where did he come from?' I guarantee you, Harold has been following that fighter since he turned pro."

"And by the way," Paulie added; "Harold talks more than I do."

Harold talked non-stop throughout the fights. A unanimous four-round shut-out decision for Jonathan Cuba (2-2) over Hector Rivera (2-5-1). A twenty-second knockout for Frank Galarza (pro debut) over Nicholas Morris (0-1). The twenty seconds included the ten-count.

Harold watched every minute of every fight and noticed everything. Cuts, swelling, loose tape on a fighter's glove, an untied shoelace.

"Do you ever get bored at the fights?" I asked.

"Never."

The sixth fight of the evening saw DeCarlo Perez (0-0-1) take on Filiberto Nieto (1-6). Nieto was a human punching bag. Perez didn't punch very hard, but the punches added up. Early in round four, Nieto turned away from the action and walked to the ropes. Referee Sparkle Lee started counting.

"For God's sake," Harold muttered. "When a guy turns away, stop the fight. What's she counting for?"

The ring doctor stepped in and stopped the action.

"I don't like to see guys get hurt when there's no reason for it," Harold told me.

Moments later, Sparkle Lee walked by.

"Hey, Sparkle," Harold shouted. "When a guy turns away, stop the fight. He turned away because he was getting beaten up and didn't want to fight anymore."

There was a break in the action before the seventh fight. Harold went to a concession stand near the front doors and bought a Dmitriy Salita T-shirt for his wife.

"Eileen likes T-shirts," he told me. "I don't know what she does with them. But whenever I come home from the fights with a T-shirt for her, it makes her happy."

Mike Ruiz (9-4) won a unanimous decision over Josh Beeman (4-7-2). Then it was time for the main event: Dmitriy Salita vs. Franklin Gonzalez.

Gonzalez had a 13-and-5 record. But he'd lost three of his last four fights, with the lone victory coming against an adversary who was 1-and-5. In truth, he was as safe as a main-event opponent could be and still pass muster with the New York State Athletic Commission.

There was a standing ovation as Salita entered the ring. Each man had weighed in at 149 pounds. Gonzalez looked soft around the middle.

The fight started. Gonzalez, a southpaw of modest ability, plodded forward. Dmitriy moved laterally and backward, popping his jab. He looked tentative and rusty.

"If Dmitriy doesn't stop backing up," Harold noted, "this fight is going to be a stinker."

In round two, Gonzalez got brave and started winging punches. The punches landed. Round three was more of the same. An ugly welt appeared beneath Dmitriy's left eye.

"Dmitriy is fighting the wrong fight," Harold observed. "When he punches, the other guy doesn't. He should be backing this guy up with his jab."

Then, in round four, Gonzales stopped punching. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he was showing the effects of not having spent much time in the gym. From that point on, Dmitriy continued to fight a safety-first fight and Gonzalez hardly fought at all.

"Gonzalez isn't punching," Harold offered. "He's just standing there, not throwing anything, waiting to get hit and letting Dmitriy steal rounds."

It was an easy fight to score. Each judge and virtually everyone else in the arena had it 78-74 for Salita.

"I'm happy Dmitriy won," Harold said. "I like him; he's a good kid. But the other guy just stopped fighting. He could have made it a much better fight than it was."

At the end of the evening, Harold didn't just leave the arena. He stopped to shake hands with everyone who approached him. Then we got in the car to go home.

"I love club shows from the bottom of my heart," Harold told me as we drove through the Battery Tunnel into Manhattan. "You see good fights; you see bad fights. You see good shows; you see bad shows. But I'm always happy when I'm at the fights. I had a great time tonight."


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (a novel entitled Waiting for Carver Boyd) was published earlier this year by JR Books. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is "the best pure boxing writing I've ever done."

"These are boxing fans," Harold noted. "And they know boxing. I love crowds like this."

Posted 12:00 AM | Sep 24, 2010

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