“I am flattered that you asked me about boxing because I am not an outsider when it comes to the sport. Sarah and I are really a couple of boxing nuts.”– Shelley Berman
Yesterday, in Part I of RSR’s interview with Shelley Berman, we discussed his amazing career as an actor and comedian and his many contributions to the world of entertainment. Now, for all of you die hard boxing fans, we will turn back the clock, and talk about the sport covering 75 years of the game.
This brief look at some of the history of boxing will not only be informative but the great stories concerning the fighters that the world loved, but the way that Shelley opens up his heart, sharing stories of the game that have never been published before is something that is a must read.
What can be noticed in this interview is how world history and boxing relate and how they can often collide as they did when Joe Louis faced off against Germany’s Max Schmeling and the entire world tuned it. I have no doubt that this look at the boxing world will satisfy the casual boxing fan and the boxing historian.
So once again RSR Readers, I welcome back, Mr. Shelley Berman…
BB: You grew up in an era when boxing was only broadcasted on the radio. Describe to our readers what that experience was like.
I can tell you this. We used to sit and look at the radio…not just listen to it. The announcers were very gifted and they were fast. You were able to through these announcers to get full value of the action in the ring. By the time the final bell rang or if the fight ended by TKO or KO, you were gratified. You really did feel as if you had just witnessed that fight. Sarah who is sitting across from me as we talk, can recall so many of Joe Louis’ fights on the radio as well.
BB: On June 22, 1938, a fight that defined a country was held at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, which pitted then Heavyweight Champion of the World Joe Louis against Max Schmeling of Germany. Louis was trying to avenge his previous loss to Schmeling by 12th round knockout. Describe from what you can recall the atmosphere in the US and then, the actual fight.
Oh boy do I remember it. I lived in a Jewish neighborhood and when you walked down the street the day of the fight, you heard the beginnings of this fight, from every window you would pass by which was being piped out into the streets. Everyone was rushing around to get home to listen to our man Joe Louis fight. When you got home and went upstairs, if someone was sitting in front of the radio, he was in your way. You had to see the radio! We expected a good fight and knew Joe was going to win. We thought it was going to be a longer fight, but nobody was disappointed when it went just one round. (Laughs)
We were practically dancing in the street when Max Schmeling got beat.
BB: Years later, it really came to the forefront that Adolph Hitler took advantage of Max Schemeling who was not a Nazi. Did people realize at the time, that though the media was hyping this as the US Vs Germany, it was in fact, nothing more than just a German challenger Vs an American Champion and that Schmeling was not a bad man?
The American public might not have known, but I did at the time, however, years later, they realized it and Schmeling was very kind to Louis during his down and out times. He was, unfortunately, used by Hitler during his evil reign of terror.
BB: With Joe Louis’ win, what did it do for the country in respect to race relations?
A very interesting thing that you would hear now and then from white folks that they wanted the white guy to win against Joe, but not in my Jewish neighborhood somehow. It was racist and we did not grow up with it. We didn’t see Joe as black, but as “Our Champion.” He was the “Brown Bomber” and was a winner and a gentleman! In fact, I feel Joe Louis did quite a bit to change racist attitudes in the US back in his time. I can’t say it enough, he was such a great gentlemen.
BB: You were privileged to be around to watch a man that the boxing pundits have named the greatest fighter of all time. That man is the late Sugar Ray Robinson. Talk about your recollections of the fighter and the man.
Another one, who was all class! When you saw Robinson after a fight when he dressed up and looked sharp, and my God, like he wasn’t even in a fight.
Robinson was another guy where you never saw the race, you only saw the fighter.
I must say that the black athletes I watched growing up, cut away all of the racist crap that people were fed and just wasn’t true.
(Interviewers Note: Shelley was so moved by this question because of his deep rooted beliefs in the fact that all men are created equal, and that skin tone means nothing about the quality of a man. This led to a story about his late son Joshua Berman, who passed away before his 13th birthday, and as Shelley’s voice quivered telling the heartfelt story. On playback, I was moved even more than the first time I heard it told to me. It was so personal that I asked Shelley if I could share it with the world and without hesitation, he said yes.)
My boy who didn’t get the chance to live, and died before his 13th birthday, was a huge fan of Basketball Great, the late Wilt Chamberlain. I asked Joshua one day who is the greatest person you know? And he said, Wilt Chamberlain. Joshua never saw color as I mentioned we didn’t many years before and I was proud of that. He loved the man!
When my boy was in very serious trouble, the brain tumor had got him and he was going to die, he received a phone call. He picked up the phone and on the other line, it was Wilt Chamberlain. They had a little conversation with Wilt saying that he was hoping he would get better and to “keep his chin up.” It was a very meaningful moment in my son’s life. In fact, probably more meaningful then we could ever have hoped for. That stays with me forever that Wilt would take the time to do that and I don’t know how he did it, because I didn’t tell him to do it.
This goes back to my point that as a people who love sports, you should always love the person, not the color or religion.
BB: Another fighter you watched was the only Heavyweight Champion to ever go undefeated, Rocky Marciano. What are you recollections of his fights?
(Laughs) Rocky was something else in there. In his fight where his nose was split against Jersey Joe Walcott, he came back to knock him out in the 13th round of a fight he was losing. Incidentally, I was rooting for Walcott in that fight. He was one heck of a fighter and what’s amazing is, he weighed under 200 pounds compared to heavyweights today, that way up around 250 pounds.
BB: With your huge success in the 1960’s entertainment industry, you had a young fighter doing the same in the boxing world by first winning Gold in the 1960 Olympics, then going on to become the youngest Heavyweight Champion up until his time. That man was known at the time as Cassius Clay who later as we know went on to be called “The Greatest – Muhammad Ali.” Did you know early on how great he would be?
Well, before I answer your question, I have to tell you a story. Years ago, I was in Boston with a fellow named Dave Garroway (first host of the NBC’s Today Show) who had a guest on and me as well. I went on and did my thing with Dave and we had fun. Then he brought on his second guest who was Muhammad Ali. It was a time when he had gotten himself in trouble as a separatist.
He went into a religion that a lot of folks didn’t understand and he started talking about his separate feelings. At that time, I was one who all but worshiped him was sitting there listening to this. I turned to Ali and said, “Are you really saying that someone like me, who really wants to be your brother, you could not accept in anyway?” Ali responded by saying, “You’re just joking around, I am not even going to talk about that.” I replied, “Please, I am serious about this.”
“You are saying, that you would deny me the right to call you brother?” Again Ali said, “No you’re just joking around…I don’t want to talk to you.” That was it. He went on and spoke for a little while longer. When I got off that stage, I was fighting and fighting myself all that time, that I ran into the bathroom, hid in a stall and burst into tears. I was truly hurt. A producer or someone came in and caught me crying and asked what was wrong? I told him and he said, “Ali didn’t mean it.”
All I know is that I was still weeping and there was a knock on that stall door by a man who said, “Hey don’t take on man, open the door.” I opened the door and this big guy reached out and shook my hand. He said, “I thought wrong, I made a mistake and I thought you were joking.” While we were shaking hands, he said “I want you to feel better now and I don’t want you to cry. I want you to try and understand, I made a mistake with you.” I loved that man because he was a lovable human being who was bitter at some, for the way his career had taken a turn.
Now I would see him at a charitable affair a few years back, and he was limping a bit and unable to speak or move to well because of the Parkinson’s Syndrome. I was in a line where we were receiving him and as he came to me, I said: “Do you remember me?” He said, “Sure I remember you Shelley. How are you doing now you crybaby?” You have to know, I am proud of that story. I feel for the man and it was the greatest experience I have ever had with a great athlete. (Interviewers Note: This story has never been in print before Shelley’s interview on RSR.)
I saw him in Las Vegas as I recall, in ’65 when I was appearing at the Sahara Hotel. I’d been invited to see Floyd Patterson fight Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali who was making the second defense of his Championship. We were all excited over him; a great fighter with a gift of gab.
As Patterson entered to go to the ring, he came down the aisle right next to where I was sitting and I could see what appeared to be fear in his eyes. This I do remember quite clearly. People around me seemed to see the same look and commented on it. Anyway, Ali beat Patterson quite handily. That’s how I remember it.
BB: If you had to rate Ali amongst all the heavyweights you have been alive to watch, where would you rate him?
I would have to rate him as number one even though I have an emotional attachment to him. But at 1B, I would have to go with Joe Louis.
BB: Where do you feel Mike Tyson will place in the history of the heavyweight division?
There is no brevity when speaking of Tyson. Sarah and I tried to talk about him, but he so dominated the ring for his window of time in boxing, it is hard to give a short answer when speaking of him.
His professional as well as personal life seemed filled with perplexities: apparent errors of judgment, personal didos, big mistakes in the ring and out. He was positively scary. Today, with that odd tattoo on one side of his face, he looks a bit like he might have come from outer space. It wouldn’t surprise us to learn it’s true.
And, my God, look at his record! In 1985, his early period, nobody got past the 4th round with him. All of his first 15 fights ended by TKO or KO, most in the first round.
Sarah and I watched him, almost in disbelief. His eyes, the simple carriage of his face…we were convinced his opponents were terrified of him.
BB: Were you a fan of his?
We could not say we were “fans.” He needed no one to root for him. He’d just come out of his corner and end the fight. I may be stretching this metaphor but in a strange sense, his opponents were the Christians and he was the lion.
Yet when he spoke, he was so articulate, so reasonable, he became the man you’d want to know, to sit with and talk. We still feel that way. His speech is one of a learned and sensitive man. And this is the guy who lost control and bit off another man’s ear. This is the guy you wouldn’t want to be sitting next to in a bar and say something that might offend him.
When Tyson was the Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion, it was as if it would last forever. Why not? Well, Mike was bothered by a self most of us would only read about. It began to seem natural to say he was an “animal.” The fighting genius Cus D’Amato created was being sued for assault, rape…a guy out of control. Yet, his strength, his ring savvy, his ferocity as a heavyweight, could not but continue to be admired.
We still watched him retain his championship in fight upon fight. We stuck with him, admiring him, watching his victims keep falling, KO after KO. And though we’d come to know Tyson in all this time, reading about his apparently uncontrolled behaviors, we were nevertheless surprised in 1997 when he lost to Evander Holyfield by disqualification, in his attempt to win back his WBA Heavyweight Title he had lost to Holyfield some seven months before in an upset. Tyson bit a part of Holyfield’s ear off. Bit his ear off! No, though staunch admirers, we were not “fans.” In a peculiar way, we worried for him…we cared.
Later Lennox Lewis would, while retaining his ears, beat Tyson. Tyson still holds a fascination for us. We would drop everything to watch him today. The lupine wariness in his eyes, the faintly ironic smile, the lisp, that damned tattoo…we confess we’d honest-to-God pull for him again.
BB: In the last 75 years, who would you choose as your personal favorite fighter, trainer and boxing match?
My favorite boxer would be Muhammad Ali. A pick for a favorite trainer is much harder since you had so many great ones over the years that I am not honestly prepared to give you a decent answer. There are so many that are just so great!
I have to tell you that I thought I always had a personal favorite boxing match till I saw the late Diego Corrales vs. Jose Luis Castillo I. They all vanished because this fight was like a Rocky ending seeing Corrales get up from those devastating knockdowns twice, and win that fight so strongly.
I probably could have found other fights that were great, but I just can’t get this one out of my head. If you had to push for another fight from me, we could go back to the Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward Trilogy.
BB: In our conversation, you mentioned Mrs. Berman is also a huge boxing fan. May I speak with her?
You sure can. Stand by….
BB: Mrs. Berman, talk about your love for the sport of boxing.
Well, I grew up as a little girl as Shelley was saying, watching the radio listening to these fights. As far as I was concerned back then, Joe Louis was the only man in the world. Everything was Joe Louis and the night when he lost to Max Schmeling back in 1936, we thought it was just a bad night for him. We did not believe our hero had lost, but when he won in the rematch, we celebrated in the streets.
BB: Who is your favorite fighter of all-time and why?
I want to put Joe Louis out of the picture because he is my all-time favorite of course, but there other fighters who did not have a long career, yet, they were beautiful fighters. I have always loved boxers and the one I am going to say is the late Eddie Machen who fought in the heavyweight division and actually challenged for the WBA Heavyweight Title against then Champion, Ernie Terell losing by a unanimous decision. We watched him at the Olympic Auditorium out here many times. At that time, there was a woman promoter who may have been the only one on the scene named Aileen Eaton who always greeted both Shelley and I, very nicely.
I can remember the night he lost to Joe Frazier in November of ‘66 by TKO. He tried his very best to win and was stopped in the 10th round of the fight. The only thing Eddie could think about was he let Aileen down. He kept saying, “I am so sorry.” As I said before, he was a beautiful boxer. I really don’t like the fighters who hit and clutch. That is why I like Oscar De La Hoya’s style of boxing.
As far as I am concerned, if it’s going to go to a decision, he is never going to get a fair one because they resent the fact that he is so successful in boxing. I really felt back in 1999, that he beat Felix Trinidad, but was not giving the decision. I also think he beat Floyd Mayweather, JR., and that he did not put up as good as of fight as they thought he did when he was given the decision.
BB: What is your personal favorite fight of all-time and why?
Of course the one Shelley just told you with Corrales vs. Castillo, but I am going to pick the last fight in the trilogy of Gatti vs. Ward where Ward could hardly hold up his arms at the end. I swear that I have never seen two fighters fight so hard and you wanted both of them to win. It was a fabulous fight that had me on the edge of my seat.
BB: Are there any other comments you want to make on the sport before I go back to Shelley?
Well, sometimes I wonder if I’m watching the same fight that the judges are watching. You will notice this sometimes in the disparity of their scorecards. One will have a big margin for a particular fighter and the other will have a totally opposite score, but they were both sitting there at ringside. I wish that they would have better and fairer judges in boxing.
BB: Talking about judges… Do you and Shelley ever score a fight and have it completely different from each other?
No, we don’t score the fights, but we are pretty much in agreement of the outcome if it goes to the cards. That is why I am so surprised that the judges have such wide margins from each other. Also, the commentators will talk and make a viewer think a particular fighter is winning, but in reality, you can see what they are doing is pushing their favorite fighter.
BB: (Back to Shelley) In the last 75 years, what single fighter do you feel moved the sport of boxing forward the most and why?
I will say Barney Ross born Beryl David Rosofsky (World Junior Welterweight and World Welterweight Champion) who was a Jewish fighter from the late 20’s and 30’s. You see fighters today jumping weight classes and winning belts and he did that as well years before.
BB: Do you have any funny stories about any boxers you either worked with or met over the years?
When I was in Chicago working as a comedian at Mr. Kelley’s around the late 1950’s, Joe Louis would from time to time come to this particular club. It turned out that he showed up one night when I was playing there with singer Della Reese. I was amazed that he would come to see me, but I have a feeling he had come to see Della Reese. (We both busted out laughing)
I knew that I was going to meet him after the show. During the entire night, I did not want to blow it when I met him by gushing or being silly. So I kept rehearsing before I went on stage saying, “Hi Joe, pleased to meet you.” I rehearsed even when I got off stage to go and change clothes. “Hi Joe, pleased to meet you.”
I finally got to him and he was introduced to me, and I said, “Hi Joe meased to pleet you.” I kept trying to correct it, and I kept screwing it up. Joe understood and he said, “It’s great to meet you to Shelley.” He kept talking to cover up my flub. Oh God I was devastated and could not get the words out of my mouth. I was trying to be so cool, but just forget it.
BB: What is your favorite boxing movie and why?
The first Rocky film (1976) with Sylvester Stallone was fantastic. It showed the preparation of a fighter and I liked that.
BB: Why do you think all the major networks took boxing off regular television for the most part during the late 80’s?
I suspect that they didn’t trust it. It really is a very cynical attitude not to trust fighters. I am assuming they lost trust.
BB: When you say they lost trust, what do you mean?
You have to think of the minds involved here. Those minds know what wrestling is and what it really is. I think they began to distrust fighters, but I hope I am wrong on this. I am just shocked that our networks just dropped boxing all together because the big fights were money makers.
BB: If you had the power to change one thing in boxing right now, what would that be?
I would get rid of punch counting! To me, it’s just ridiculous. How dare they? Boxing is clear to see and I don’t have to be told the number of punches, to what affect or anything else for that matter because I can clearly see it.
BB: Do you feel that the network only brought it as another bell and whistle for their boxing telecast?
Yes, that’s correct. For a while, they even tried to give you the winner of each round and I hated that too. That went away where it should be, and so should this CompuBox punching thing. I really do think it’s a way the networks think they can keep our interest in watching the fight.
BB: Do you favor a mandatory retirement fund for all boxers and if so, how would you like to see it accomplished?
Well, people in professional boxing should be ready to pay a little bit of their earnings to put into a fund for themselves. It’s really in their best interest. This is what we do in SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) we have a little bit taken off and we may resent it at first, but when you get to my age or where a boxer really can’t push it anymore, he doesn’t have to worry about how he is going to live. I also feel the boxing promoters should also put into a fund. Anybody who is making living off the sport of boxing, should be contributing to it. I don’t ask producers to put up for me, but I do ask my fellow actors to put up as I do for them.
The guys making the most money of course get the most taken out and it’s no different in my line of work than it should be for the boxers. Actors have a Union that protects the money. Boxers should have a Union as well, at least for the retirement fund to be protected, which will have a group in charge, who will also get paid to take care of this fund. They have to see who should get it, who has paid in, and things like this. I am not financier, but a fund should exist in boxing.
BB: Any other closing thoughts on boxing?
The sport of boxing, thank God, is still a legitimate sport. It is a real honest to God thing. Men go in there and hurt themselves and hurt others, but that’s not the point. The point is the manly art. When I say to people, I am a fight fan, they don’t understand it. I am not there to see someone hit them until they are dizzy. There is a whole lot that goes on in a fight that is just amazing if you really watch it.
I am flattered that you asked me about boxing because I am not an outsider when it comes to the sport. Sarah and I are really a couple of boxing nuts.
BB: Finally, what is the saying you live your life by?
I don’t have a saying I live my life by, but I do say “I love you” quite frequently to my wife Sarah.
(Interviews closing thoughts): I have been doing interviews for over ten years now and of course like any writer, we all have our personal favorites for various reasons. Well, I will not be shy about why this ranks up there with some of my all-time favorites. Shelley Berman’s love of his fellow man, but to even go further, his love for boxers and the sport of boxing, something that we both share, is touching. He is not ashamed to say it and if you did not read that loud and clear in this interview, then I suggest you read it again.
I am really proud of this interview and that RSR was able to obtain it. We have a documented record now of what was and it’s truly amazing. Years after Shelley and I are sitting together at ringside up by that big boxing ring in the sky, people will read this interview.
I am going to say, that when they do, they to, will realize we did something very special here over the last two days. Finally, I want to thank Shelley and Sarah Berman or as I like to call them, Shelley and Sarah “Boom Boom” Berman for doing this interview.