Boxing: The real ringmaster: Goossen the deal maker

Gerard Wright in Denver studies a big break for the small-time man
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The Independent Online
IF THEY'RE lucky, the best most sportswriters can hope for in their passing is a raised glass and a moment's silence at a bar somewhere. But not Jim Murray, the star of the Los Angeles Times sports section until the night of his death last August.

Murray's funeral, at a Catholic church on Sunset Boulevard, was notable for several unrelated occurrences. It was SRO (standing room only), as they say in the promotional game, an A-list crowd, with 500 more gathered outside. Not every one remembered their manners. "I goddit," one of Murray's colleagues yelled, scrambling out of his seat when the priest called for a volunteer to assist with communion.

And then there was the bearded black man whom a former boxing writer mistook for a linebacker as he hurried inside. This was Mike Tyson, briefly out of exile, come to pay his respects. As the congregation left the church, a stand-off developed. There was Tyson, sitting by himself outside on a bench. And there were the journalists who, having sung hosannahs in Murray's name, were back at work. Ten television cameras were pointed in Tyson's direction from around 15 metres away. "Everyone was kind of looking at Mike," Dan Goossen recalled. "But no one was going to speak to him."

The boxing community in the United States is a small one. Goossen had run monthly fights at a club in Hollywood through the Eighties, managed several fighters, and had known Tyson since he had tried, unsuccessfully, to make the US Olympic team in 1984. They had not seen each other for almost 10 years.

The 49-year-old small-time promoter walked across the churchyard to the infamous former champion and convicted felon. They struck up a conversation. "It was not appropriate to talk business," Goossen said. "Just 'hello, how are you'." Besides, Tyson was more than two months from re-instatement after his fight against Evander Holyfield.

Three days later Goossen received a call from the latest of Tyson's advisers, Shelly Finkel, a New York businessman. From the call grew the latest comeback: Tyson's non-title fight against Francois Botha, the California- based South African, next weekend, the first of a two-fight deal with Goossen's company, America Presents.

In its own way, Goossen's background is every bit as colourful, if less calamitous, as Tyson's. A former clothing and office supplies salesman, he comes from a family of 10. His father was a homicide detective whose cases tended towards the notorious; the Black Dahlia murder, immortalised by James Ellroy in the novel of the same name, and the Red Light Bandit, Caryl Chessman, who became a cause celebre for opponents of the death penalty after he was executed for kidnapping with what he claimed was a bogus confession.

Goossen's promotions and fighters tended towards the lower end of the sport. His champions, the Ruelas brothers, Gabriel and Rafael, and Michael Nunn, were lightweights and middleweights. His fights, at a 1930s dance hall in North Hollywood, were table and chair events, where cocktails and sandwiches were served at floor level, with cheaper seats in the balcony. The going rate for the fighters was $100 a round.

"One of the reasons I got into the business was my naivete," Goossen said. He looked in the phone book when he became tired of being a salesman and saw "doctors, thousands of names; lawyers, thousands of names. Looked under 'Boxing Promoters' and there were only two, Arum and King, and thought, 'this is the business for me'. It took me quite a few years to realise why you have very few people in the directory under 'Boxing Promoter'. They've been very successful at keeping people out."

He worked for Arum for two years before being lured to the fledgling America Presents company, based in Denver. Goossen is president of the company. His 11th-floor corner office has a clear view west to the Rocky Mountains.

The company was founded by Mat Tinley, a cable network TV executive whose family business was taken over by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox network in 1996. Newspaper reports in both Denver and Los Angeles have it that America Presents brought a $5m advance to the table to sweeten the negotiations and help Tyson through his current financial difficulties. Goossen says any arrangements the company has made with Tyson are confidential, which is less than an outright denial.

In any event, it would appear to be money unapologetically spent. "Mike Tyson dictates the boxing business," Goossen said. "The market will really be strengthened by Mike Tyson fighting. It brings a lot of new eyeballs to the TV sets. The more Mike fights, the better it is for our business."

Like a rare, flawed stamp pulled out of circulation, Tyson's value has gone up, not despite the flaw but almost because of it. In assessing that, Goossen is an unashamed pragmatist. Yes, he said, he could believe what he was seeing when Tyson bit Holyfield's ear. "It's tough, when you're in the business we are in, to have an opinion other than when you're in the heat of battle. It's a crazy business, it's a dangerous sport. That's why you want to maximise a fighter's money.

"Mike Tyson, over the years, whether you're cheering for him or booing him, he always seemed to be the type of fighter who won or lost based on fairness. And when he feels he was being unfairly... ah... victimised by headbutts, or whatever pushed him to do what he did... we're in a bad-assed business. It's like with Arum and King. They would do almost anything to beat you. Sometimes you fight fire with fire."