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Manager Harry Kabakoff, Mostly Loveable, Often Blundered

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Manager Harry Kabakoff, Mostly Loveable, Often Blundered

Baseball was the first love for Melville Himmelfarb, who grew up up the only Jewish kid in what was then known as the “Dago Hill” section of St. Louis, playing ball with Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola.  But stories of his uncle, Harry Kabakoff – who fought as the “Ghetto Ghost” and once went 10 rounds with featherweight champion Pete Herman – inspired Himmelfarb to box, taking his uncle’s name for himself.

The elder Kabakoff would make a small fortune in California real estate, which was not shared with the younger Kabakoff. “And the name didn’t help none, either,” Kabakoff said.

Sixteen when he got an Arkansas girl pregnant, the two eloped to Mexico only for Kabakoff, upon their return, to be convinced by his new father-in-law that it would be in Kabakoff’s best interests to have the marriage annulled and “then run for his life.”

He also admitted to having a son living in Mexico. “He’s a double for me,” Kabakoff told Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam in 1977. “So if you ever run into a 5’ 7” 275-pound blue-eyed Mexican who’s balding and looks Jewish…”

Kabakoff might not have had much of a relationship with either child, for when he died in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported he had no immediate survivors. What Kabakoff had in the way of family was the Mexican bantamweight Jesus Pimentel, whose entire career was guided – for better and for worse – by Kabakoff, who became a manager and trainer because taking the punches himself “hurt too much.” 

For several years, Pimentel was among the world’s best bantamweights, and for some of that time might have been the very best, although he never became a world champion. Born in Sayula, Jalisco, he entered the U. S. with his family in 1950, residing in East Los Angeles, attending school and performing agricultural work with his family in Northern California during the summers until the family was deported in 1958.

Working at a Mexicali gas station owned by local boxing promoter Nick Rodriguez, Pimentel dreamed of a better life. He gave up on boxing, though, when knocked out in the second round of his first amateur fight, his white trunks stained with blood. 

Urged by his co-workers, mostly boxers themselves, to continue, Pimentel would joke that he had 21 amateur fights before turning professional, losing 23. But he did become a Mexicali city champion.

Pimentel and Kabakoff met when the manager stopped at the station to meet Rodriguez. Kabakoff did not then speak Spanish, not did Rodriguez speak English, so Pimentel, fluent in English because of his years in America, picked up some pocket change serving as an interpreter.

Not liking Kabakoff at first, assuming he was a Mexican-American trying to pass as someone he was not, Pimentel did use the Border Crossing Card Kabakoff obtained for him so he could train everyday  in Calexico with Kabakoff’s boxers.

Winning his first nine professional fights in Mexico, Pimentel and Kabakoff settled in Sacramento, California, with another Mexican bantamweight, Arturo Vingochea. His first American victory was over Willie Kee in Stockton, in 1961.

He then lost a decision to West Sacramento prospect Trino Savala. Some folks, primarily Kabakoff, were already touting Pimentel as a future world champion, and this would be the highlight of Savala’s career, another sad story, as Savala would lose ten of the twelve fights he had after beating Pimentel.

These were lean years, forging a life-long bond between Pimentel and Kabakoff, the two renting a self-described one-bed shack in West Sacramento, with Kabakoff sleeping on the floor, allowing Pimentel the bed. Shopping in a heavy overcoat, even on the hottest 100 degree days, Kabakoff would pocket hot dogs for himself and steaks for his fighter.

Professional jealously between Pimentel and Vingochea led to Kabakoff selling Vingochea’s contract to Sacramento manager Sid Tenner. Kabakoff became well-known for not always making the best choices in managing Pimentel’s career, but electing to remain loyal to Pimentel was almost certainly the wisest decision he ever made. As Tenner said, Pimentel turned out to be a nice meal ticket for Kabakoff.

The meal ticket and the manager, right before Pimentel traded with Olivares.

By the end of 1964, Pimentel was the world’s top ranked contender, a position he would hold, or be near to holding, for the remainder of the decade, with a record of 41-1, 37 of those victories by KO. The loss to Savala had been avenged with a second round KO in 1963. To this day, Pimentel has the record for most KO victories by a bantamweight, even more than world champions Ruben Olivares and Carlos Zarate, and Ring Magazine rated Pimentel as one of the hundred hardest punchers in boxing history.

Devotedly loyal to the man who saved him from a life in the fields – Pimentel named his younger son Melville in Kabakoff’s honor. The honoree is the reason, however, more than any other reason, why history will remember Pimentel as a top contender, and not a champion.

Pimentel would say about his not fighting for the title until his 83rd and final fight, when he was 31 years old and no longer the 118 pound terror he had been, that, “Political intrigue has kept me from the title.” Much of that intrigue, however, was the creation of his manager.

For all that Kabakoff sacrificed on Pimentel’s behalf in the early years, and as forcefully as he promoted Pimentel’s rise, Kabakoff’s birth name hints at tragic overtones that swallowed Pimentel and his quest for the championship just as surely as Moby Dick sank the Pequod, leaving Ishmael shipwrecked at sea.

Once asked if he had been named after the great author, Kabakoff demurred, asking who this Melville character had ever fought. But the boxing manager was at war with the machinery of the boxing establishment, in general, and Los Angeles promoter George Parnassus – who effectively controlled the bantamweight division – in particular, not much differently than Captain Ahab had set sights on his own enemy.

It's called the Hall of Fame, not Hall of Virtuous Souls

No one denies that the world of boxing world is corrupt, manipulative, and exploitative – it is life without the pretense of civilization – and that is before the fights begin. But Kabakoff was not some knight in shining armor. He was not interested in eliminating the strong-arm tactics of backroom negotiations, only wanting to be one of the strong arms himself, rather than be at the mercy of the strength of others. Pimentel became the rope used in this tug-of-war.

Kabakoff had not been a choir boy for a long time, if ever. During California’s 1956 investigation of corruption in boxing, in which the Olympic’s matchmaker Babe McCoy was banned from boxing for life for fixing fights and “associating with criminals,” Kabakoff admitted to being a “legman” for McCoy, the manager of record of mob-controlled future welterweight champion Don Jordan, and accepted a $200 fine.

Pimentel’s troubles began at the peak of his power, in 1964. As the top contender, he was offered a fight against Japan’s former flyweight champion, Fighting Harada, moving into the 118-pound division. This fight was to serve as an elimination bout leading toward a title fight with Brazilian champion Eder Jofre.

The purse was small, as it often is for those virtually begging for an opportunity, but when promoter Fuji Television’s representative Ritchie Inoue added “confidential” conditions to the offer – regarding the locations and purse and even opponents of future fights should Pimentel win, Kabakoff balked and Pimentel mysteriously came down with a stomach ailment. The fight was rescheduled from May 4th to June 24th, but Pimentel still claimed illness.

In the meantime, Kabakoff agreed for Pimentel to fight Jofre in San Antonio, Texas. The Harada camp had filed suit and the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) suspended both Kabakoff  and Pimentel for failing to abide by the contract they had signed with Harada, the suspension being the reason why the fight was set in Texas.

Jofre’s promoter was Parnassus. The promoter of record for this Texas fight was a local, Tony Padilla, with Parnassus providing “advice.”

Advance ticket sales for the fight were slow enough for all parties to become concerned. Kabakoff wanted Pimentel’s $15,000 guarantee to be placed in escrow, and when the promoters did not comply, Pimentel and Kabakoff left town, only a few days before the fight.

“…[Jofre’s] manager, Abe Katzenelson, comes to me and says, there’s no money in the bank, no advance sale, and he’s worried,” Kabakoff said. “I go nuts and start screaming. The fight is called off and I get blamed.”

The complete story is difficult to determine, for Kabakoff, who was, according to the San Antonio Express’s Johnny Janes, “a man of a few thousand well-chosen paragraphs,” varied his story depending on when and where and to whom he was telling it. Compounding the fight’s financial fragility, rumors were rampant that the CSAC was considering a lifetime suspension of Pimentel if he followed through with the Jofre fight. 

Ordering Pimentel to honor his contract to fight Harada, the fight was rescheduled for September 9th, but Harada, tired of waiting, had by this  time returned to Japan and the two never met, professionally speaking.

The poster got made, the fight didn't.

The reason Pimentel and Kabakoff were resistant to the conditions Inoue demanded in exchange for the chance to fight Harada – conditions not unknown in the politics of boxing – is that Kabakoff wanted to control subsequent fights, holding them in San Antonio, as Texas had a lesser regulatory structure than California, and would allow Kabakoff’s involvement in both Pimentel’s management and promotion.

This lust for control is how Kabakoff betrayed Pimentel. Maybe not consciously, and certainly not maliciously, for Kabakoff was well-known for generosity with his fighters. He usually did not take his manager’s  cut of their purses until they were earning $2,000 a fight. He regularly assisted his guys in their retirement or between fights. He wasn’t trying to gouge Pimentel, and clearly would have shared the bounty with him, but Kabakoff’s desires were not wholly innocent, either.

Kabakoff was not troubled by the amorality of boxing. He was not interested in upsetting the hierarchical structure, only in reserving a higher place for himself within that structure.

“This is a dirty, nasty business with a lot of political intrigue,” Kabakoff said. “I think I’m sharp, but there are a lot of people sharper.” He was playing high-stakes chess, and Pimentel was his pawn.

Kabakoff was a jokester, and sometimes inadvertently screwed over his fighters, but you can see in photos, when they look at him, there's love in their eyes.

On suspension in both Texas and California as 1964 ended, Pimentel was relegated to mainly club fights, for comparably small purses. “Now we are suspended by everybody everywhere except in Mexico,” Kabakoff said. “Beautiful.”

Time and apologies would lead to both suspensions being lifted, but this was an expensive time for both Pimentel and Kabakoff. Pimentel’s prime years were being forfeited to boxing politics, and Kabakoff was funding a crusade. The Sacramento Bee’s Bill Conlin wrote of Kabakoff that he “made a million and spent two.”

“I have a financial need to be in business with wealthy men,” Kabakoff said, which explains, in part, why he entered into managerial partnerships with Hollywood luminaries such as Doc Severinsen, Mike  Connors, and Burt Reynolds. He appreciated the infusions of cash provided by these guys as well as by other, more serious boxing people. Waging war costs money.

But the partnerships also allowed one partner to legally operate as Pimentel’s manager while Kabakoff could be involved in promotional and matchmaking duties not allowed by managers. 

Mike Morton, long-time west coast boxing manager and trainer – who worked with contenders Ray Lampkin, Andy Kendall, and Mike Colbert, and was nicknamed “Motormouth” by Don King – was one such partner. Kabakoff’s pulling Pimentel out of the fight with Jofre just days before the bout proved to be Kabakoff’s albatross. Even his friends, including Morton, spoke of it: “I should have had [a world champion] when I co- managed Jesus Pimentel with Kabakoff. But I let Harry pull Pimentel out of two fights in which the substitute won the world title. Kabakoff is my friend, but he’s also the world’s worst manager, a klutz.”

Parnassus, who definitely was not a friend, agreed. “It’s the first time in my 50 years of boxing that I ever came across a No. 1 contender who wasn’t anxious to meet the champion,” he said.

Kabakoff was well-respected for his boxing acumen in many areas, and had paid his dues. Upon discharge from the Navy following WWII, he moved to Los Angeles, sleeping in the Main Street Gym at night, studying and assisting the great trainers during the day. Ralph Gambina said, “I practically raised Kabakoff in this business. I fed him, taught him the tricks of the trade.” Kabakoff was highly regarded for the training and conditioning he provided his fighters.

Gambina, left, with actor Robert Conrad. Guys like Harry and Ralphie had good luck attracting money, getting Hollywood jock sniffers to pony up to be part of the parade.

Not embarrassed to add to his laurels, Kabakoff described himself as “an artist at wrapping hands,” claiming that top heavyweights, including Floyd Patterson, paid him to wrap their hands before big fights. Of his abilities as a cut man, Kabakoff said, “I can close any cut that ain’t a total beheading in just 50 seconds.”

Publicist Bill Caplan said Kabakoff was a good trainer and manager, but “ran from title fights” if he thought his guy did not have the edge.

Pimentel was close to fighting champions or near champions numerous times only for the negotiations to fall apart. The consequences for Pimentel were telling. After the San Antonio fiasco, Jofre lost his title to Harada. Negotiations with Harada failed, with Harada then losing the championship to Lionel Rose. Efforts to make a fight with Rose were unsuccessful, but Ruben Olivares – another George Parnassus fighter – beat Rose to become champion. 

It is difficult to tell, over 50 years after the fact, with so many of the players no longer here, and with the incomplete and at times biased reports provided by newspapers the only trail to follow, to what degree Kabakoff’s sabotaging of negotiations was due to an unyielding refusal to be excluded from the power and money for which he lusted, and how much is a matter of Kabakoff wanting to protect the man whom he loved like a son from being damaged.

It has happened. Oakland’s George Cooper was saved from the streets by his manager Allen Moore – who came to love Cooper as his son. Cooper was a good fighter, probably the best middleweight on the west coast for many years and the champion of California for nearly a decade. But Moore stonewalled any discussions which involved the world-ranked Cooper being tested at a world-class level. 

Cooper was good, but not good enough to beat the Carlos Monzons of the world. He was good enough to hang with Monzon long enough to get hurt. Could it be that Moore knew this and protected someone he loved much more than as a fighter? Could this have been the case with Kabakoff, as well?

Pimentel did occasionally meet top contenders in his 83 fights, 76 of which he won, 68 by KO. But he lost to both future champion Chucho Castillo and highly-ranked Kazuyushi Karazana.

Finally getting his chance to become champion against the all-time great Olivares in December, 1971, Kabakoff and Parnassus buried the hatchet, if only temporarily. Kabakoff knew that Pimentel, at age 31 and with so many fights behind him, would not have another opportunity, not leaving much room for personal politics. And Parnassus certainly knew that the time was right, with the worn and aging Pimentel not being too much of a risk for Olivares. 

Pimentel cut and hurt Olivares early in the fight before Olivares wore Pimentel down, stopping him after the 11th round. Pimentel would not fight again.

Olivares had the world-championship career that so many had hoped could have been Pimentel’s. Following the fight, Olivares said of Pimentel that he “hurt me twice and hits hard. He was better  than I expected.”

Olivares and Pimentel, although both legends as powerful punching bantamweights, were an odd couple  in many ways. Olivares lived large, his life outside of a boxing ring as colorful and entertaining as his performances with gloves on. 

Pimentel, on the other hand, was quiet and disciplined, training tirelessly, never putting on weight. He told the story of when he was a young professional and his then girlfriend (soon to be wife and mother of their four children) said, “‘Jesus, you take care of yourself like a senorita – you know, like a virgin.’ I told her I had to,” Pimentel said, “That was the only way I was going to be successful.”

After boxing, Pimentel sold cars for a while and then began a gardening service where he lived in northern Los Angeles before retiring in Mexico, living on investments and real estate holdings. His nice house in Los Angeles was bought at a good price because the owner was a boxing fan.

It took time, but Pimentel eventually found contentment in his accomplishments, even without becoming a champion. “I feel pride in what I did in boxing,” Pimentel said.

“Title or not, my son was  the best bantamweight ever,” Kabakoff said.

“Little Poison” loved Harry a lot and vice versa.

Kabakoff became a grandfather-figure for Pimentel’s children, Kabakoff’s only family. Often lonely as Pimentel found a life outside of boxing, he kept Siamese cats, which he called his daughters. Undergoing treatment for cancer, Kabakoff died of a heart attack at age 82.

To Bill Caplan, Kabakoff was “…maybe the most colorful character in boxing that I’ve ever met, and everyone is boxing is colorful. He was a rogue and a rascal and he was funny and loveable.” An example is the story Kabakoff would tell about how he used the Himmelfarb name for legal purposes, and would register in hotels under both names so as not to miss any messages that might come his way. He was surprised when one hotel charged him for double occupancy. 

Kabakoff never let a reporter down, in terms of providing material, although much of what Kabakoff said had to be taken with a grain of salt. Dan Cook, in the column he wrote for the San Antonio Express, said that Kabakoff was “a small man with a big mouth,” that he “has done a lot for the Pimentels. But he goofed…years ago and it cancels out any debt Jesus may owe him.”

Having been around boxing long enough to not always have the highest regard for the characters he covered, including Kabakoff, Cook wrote, “Harry figured his boy wasn’t going to get enough money, or was going to get cheated, or something, his stories vary from time to time, and pulled out.”

Cook’s feelings about Pimentel were very different. “Pimentel may or may not ever attain the one great goal he pursues, a world boxing title,” Cook wrote, before Pimentel’s retirement, “but with or without it he’s rich in many ways. For one thing, the little guy has more class than any other champion I’ve met.”

Once retired,  Pimentel wrote Cook a letter, recounting his memories of training and fighting in San Antonio, thanking Cook for having been so nice to him over the years.

Cook was certain Pimentel could have beaten Jofre if their fight had come to pass: “Jesus was at his best then and Jofre was over the hill. Pimentel should have beaten him easily and he would have been smart to do it for nothing. He could have paid for the privilege of taking on Jofre and come out hundreds of thousands of dollars to the good in future fights.”

From 1968. What might Pimentel have done if Harry hadn't been such a Kabakoff?

Adding to the penny-wise, pound-foolish theme of the column, Cook continued, “Jesus pulled out of a couple other prospective title fights, but this one was signed, sealed, and  ready to be delivered. Harry, being very human, makes mistakes from time to time, but this had to be the most monumental goof he ever recorded.” 

“Ah, well,” Cook ended. ”That’s all in the past. And so is Jesus’ greatness.”

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