‘Suitcase Sam’ Silverman: The man who outfoxed Sugar Ray
Sam Silverman, a Runyonesque character if there ever was one, was once synonymous with boxing in Boston. In 1960, the wily promoter lured Sugar Ray Robinson to Boston, where the aging great lost a decision to Silverman's fighter Paul Pender. Photo / THE RING
This story originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of THE RING magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here.
Sam Silverman had a plan, and it involved putting Sugar Ray Robinson in the window of Raymond’s department store in downtown Boston.
This was during the early weeks of 1960. Robinson was in training for his upcoming Boston Garden bout with Paul Pender, a local middleweight who had only recently quit his job with the Brookline fire department.
At Silverman’s request, Raymond’s storefront had been converted into a makeshift gym, although “makeshift” was a kind word. The only ring available was a sorry piece of antiquary with ropes so loose that Robinson and his sparring partners were forced to stay in the middle of the ring. But even as Robinson stayed off the ropes, his trainers worried that the world’s finest fighter might actually fall through the canvas. Passersby who stopped to gawk were encouraged to make donations to a local charity group, a small price to see the aging maestro at work. As former Boston Globe writer Bud Collins told THE RING, “There were traffic jams, people jams, all to see Ray.”
They were looking at Robinson, but what they were seeing was Silverman’s attempt to save boxing in Boston.
He was known as “Subway Sam,” because he used the city’s rickety subway system to shuttle from one arena to another, “Suitcase Sam,” because he kept a suitcase filled with cash in the trunk of his car, “Sad Sam” because he never stopped complaining, and “Unsinkable Sam” because in a career spanning nearly four decades, 12,000 fights, many court battles, and at least two attempts on his life, Silverman stayed above water.
“Sam was a dreamer,” remembered Tony DeMarco, the former welterweight champion who fought his greatest bouts under the Silverman banner. “It would be the end of the day, and everyone would be exhausted, but he’d still be dreaming up matches, thinking about the future.”
The National Boxing Association had withdrawn recognition of Robinson as middleweight champion, but Robinson’s title claim was still recognized in New York, Massachusetts, and most of the civilized world. To provincial, blue-collar Boston, Robinson must’ve seemed an exotic figure. He was a wealthy black athlete who traveled with his own hairdresser and bantered with his entourage in the French they’d picked up on their tours of Europe. He was near 40 and training in a window where there’d previously been a display of winter raincoats, which may have seemed odd, but Robinson always went where the money was, and this month it happened to be in Boston.
Raymond’s window was also the scene of the weigh-in. Silverman had people ready with towels if any nudity was required. Pender’s manager, Johnny Buckley, told the press, “These things should be done in private. This ain’t Paris.”
Robinson was blas├®. He’d never even heard of Pender until Silverman mentioned him.
“Sam played Sugar Ray like a violin,” said Tim Horgan, a retired Boston Herald reporter. “He made a special trip to New York to meet with Ray, and sold him on fighting Pender. Sam said, ‘Pender isn’t so great, and we’d really like to see you in Boston again.’ He buttered Ray up.”
Pender would say in a 1970 interview, “Sam Silverman, he probably is the smartest promoter in the country. He put me and Robinson together because Robinson thought I was a nothing. He fought me because he thought I was going to be a soft touch, and Silverman convinced him that I was going to be a soft touch.”
Silverman, who’d promoted boxing since the 1930s, was part of an unholy Boston triumvirate that included Buckley and Rip Valenti. All three had criminal records, everything from bookmaking, to the receiving of stolen goods, to assault and battery; together they blurred the illegal line between managing and promoting. Valenti was a hustler who’d secretly owned the contracts of DeMarco and others. Buckley, a 70-year-old who’d once managed Jack Sharkey, was known for punching judges and creating disturbances at ringside. As legend has it, Buckley once saved a fighter from losing by having the lights turned out in the arena.
“Sometimes Sam sided with Valenti, sometimes he sided with Buckley, whatever was necessary,” said Collins.
In DeMarco’s words, “They controlled boxing in Boston for decades, but they couldn’t promote a fight without pissing each other off.”
Silverman and Valenti eventually fell out when Valenti delivered DeMarco to the IBC, the powerful New York group that monopolized boxing. Calling Valenti a glorified PR man with mob connections, Silverman told Sports Illustrated in 1957, “Getting rid of DeMarco was worth it if it got me rid of Valenti too.”
Silverman’s relationship with Buckley was no less heated. In 1951, after Pender lost a decision to Joe Rindone, Buckley accused Silverman of rigging the judges. Silverman responded by knocking Buckley’s spectacles flying through the smoke-filled Garden air. The union was further complicated because Buckley owned the soot-stained building where Silverman had his office. Later on, Buckley began running fights for the IBC’s Boston arm, which irritated Silverman all the more.
“No one loved boxing as much as Sam did,” said Collins. “He thought all other sports were ridiculous. Every dime he made went right back into the business. His wife watched the box office, and carried a little valise with the night’s receipts. Sam lived on the edge; all he needed was a couch, a TV set, his Cadillac, and a couple of suits. Everything else was boxing.”
Silverman’s great love came with a price. In 1948 he was slugged in a restaurant by an unidentified goon wearing brass knuckles; in 1951 a gunman fired a bullet through his living room window, nearly hitting Silverman’s wife, Helen, and in 1954, four bombs went off outside his Chelsea home, shattering the windows and shaking up the entire neighborhood. From then on, Silverman often asked one of his lackeys to start his car for him, fearing there might be a stick of dynamite under the hood. Another of Silverman’s associates, Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel, was hospitalized after being attacked by a pipe-wielding thug outside the Garden. The assaults were believed to be the work of New York hoods trying to muscle in on the TV revenue of Silverman’s Boston fights.
The IBC’s policy of televising bouts with a minimum of local blackouts was a constant knife in Silverman’s back. “Boston Garden is a fight club, not a television studio,” Silverman growled. He eventually sued the IBC, but found it increasingly harder to bring top fighters to Boston. The man who called himself “the last of the independents” found himself presiding over a city that had become a boxing backwater.
Silverman had other beefs, even with the Garden itself. Every kid in Boston knew a dozen ways into the building until, as Collins once wrote, “They were packed in tighter than galley slaves.” Older Bostonians still talk about paying off the local cops working security. Give five bucks to the right cop, and you could see a championship fight. Silverman claimed the paying customers barely outnumbered the sneak-ins.
Another Silverman gripe involved his efforts to promote a heavyweight title fight in Boston. He had promoted 32 of Rocky Marciano’s bouts, but once Marciano became champion, Silverman couldn’t get near him. Most thought Robinson-Pender would prove just as futile.
“No one thought the fight would happen,” said Collins. “Robinson kept asking for ‘walking around’ money, so Sam borrowed from everybody. He even borrowed from Pender’s wife’s uncle. And he kept lying to Robinson, telling him there’d be all kinds of TV money coming in. It was right out of Guys & DollsÔÇöSam with his big cigar, conning Robinson. Putting him in Raymond’s window was evidence that Sam had pulled it off. He wanted everyone to know Robinson was in Boston, and the fight was on.”
And it was a stinker. Pender won a dull split decision, and the majority of ringside writers felt Robinson had been robbed. The controversy spawned a rematch six months later, also in Boston with Silverman promoting. Pender won again by split decision. And just like that, Robinson was gone, and the raincoats were put back in the store window.
Pender never became the attraction Silverman had hoped for. After beating a faded Carmen Basilio, and winning two of three over Terry Downs, Pender retired. By the time of his death in 2003, he was little more than a footnote to Robinson’s career.
Buckley died in 1963. Not one to go gently into that good night, 74-year-old Buckley was arrested not long before his death for attacking his partially paralyzed son-in-law with a club.
Valenti died at 84 in 1986, just nine months after securing the closed circuit theater rights for New England showings of the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns bout. He made a couple of million bucks on that one.
Meanwhile, Silverman soldiered on throughout the 1960s, sometimes promoting three shows in a single night. Silverman had the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston bout all sewn up for Boston, but when circumstances sent the bout to Maine, Silverman was no longer attached, his goal of promoting a heavyweight title fight dashed again.
In 1968, Silverman was arrested by the FBI for allegedly bribing a fighter to lose. The court case lasted nearly two years before ending in a mistrial. Pender acted as a character witness, vouching that Silverman was an “honest” individual.
Silverman, still full of dreams, stayed busy until the July night in 1977 when he was killed in a car accident. He was 64.
“That was the end of boxing in Boston,” said Collins. “No one could fill Sam’s role.”
Everyone had a favorite Silverman story, like the time he brought a seven-foot South African fighter named Ewart Potgieter to the Valley Arena in Holyoke, Massachusetts, only to see him lose, or the time he went to The World Series in 1946 and fell asleep, or the time he told Hagler to forget being a southpaw, because lefties were never successful. There was also the time he referred to Chico Vejar as “undefeated,” when a check of The Ring Record Book revealed otherwise.
“He lied to me all the time. He was the great prevaricator,” said Collins. But the ultimate Silverman story involved Robinson, and according to Horgan, there was more to it.
“Sam was married to this very nice girl, a former showgirl, Helen,” Horgan explained. “They were crazy about each other. She went with him to New York. She kept telling him, ‘Don’t give Ray Robinson too much money.’ Well, what she didn’t know was that Sam had cleaned out their entire savings to give to Robinson as a sort of down payment on the purse. Robinson was like thatÔÇöyou had to give him money just to take a meeting with him. But that didn’t necessarily mean he’d agree to fight. Sam gave Ray every cent he and his wife had saved. And she found out. She was so angry she got on a plane and flew back to Boston without Sam.
“Sam got in his car and drove like a maniac to reach Boston before her plane landed. He was doing it just to get at her, you know. Somehow, he got back to their house before she did. She walks in and he’s sitting on the couch, smoking a cigar. He said, ‘Hi, honey. I got Robinson!'”
It was a Damon Runyon scene, but instead of having a colorful Broadway backdrop, Silverman was part of grey old Boston, where boxing died a slow death. Not even his great love could keep the sport afloat. The Celtics and the Bruins became the new heroes of the Garden. Valenti and DeMarco had streets named after them, while Silverman faded from memory. There was a time, though, in January of 1960, when the clerks at Raymond’s cleared space for a boxing ring, downtown Boston sizzled like Times Square, and Suitcase Sam was the biggest player in the game.
Don Stradley is a freelance writer from Massachusetts and a regular contributor to THE RING magazine.