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Through hair-raising, 12-round negotiations with promoters like Don King, HBO's Seth Abraham has become the heaviest hitter in the world of professional boxing

Of all the unlikely career conceits—I want to be a door-to-door salesman, a hairdresser, a soccer goalie—this is the least likely: I want to study journalism and then do business on a regular basis with boxing promoters like Don King, Butch Lewis and Dennis Rappaport. Somebody actually did this. A man of respectable upbringing (his father is a lawyer), education (a master's degree from Boston University) and seeming sensitivity (his mother-in-law calls him to help draft her thank-you notes) set out to make deals with men for whom piracy would be an absurdly lofty goal, a relative priesthood. Would you like to meet this fellow's vocational counselor? Would you like to meet this fellow? When he gets up in the morning, whistling at his prospects, it might be to do business with Bob Arum, who once dismissed a contradiction with the following reassurance: "Yesterday I was lying, but today I'm telling the truth."

This fellow is Seth Abraham, senior vice-president for sports programming at Home Box Office, a man whose corporate title and bearing are entirely misleading. First, they obscure the fact that he controls, to a large degree, the colorful business of boxing, an enterprise that one rival in cable-TV sports describes as "Guys and Dolls without the music." Second, they give the impression there is something soft or conventional about Abraham. His presence in boxing is so unlikely that it amuses even King, who says, "He's got these big rimmed glasses! He wears suspenders and he enunciates!" Others are not amused. Lewis has called Abraham "very vindictive." King admits Abraham is a "voracious tiger," but that is King's idea of high praise. As for being conventional, Abraham is a man who staked the name and resources of HBO (which is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S publisher) on a problematic series of boxing bouts, each new contract an adventure fraught with risk. Some men like to swim with sharks, but only Abraham enjoys flossing their teeth.

Abraham is not the sort to climb into the ring during the prefight celebrity introductions. Yet it was he who, however anonymously, produced a single heavyweight champion out of three titleholders and many more self-interests. You can give credit to Mike Tyson if you want, but compared with the battles Abraham fought, the boxer's path was greased. Abraham quietly guides boxing's most important division, and he negotiates the Tyson fights you will see on cable TV for some time to come. He helps decide who will be the next Sugar Ray Leonard and, for that matter, when and whom the old one will fight. It is Abraham who, backed by a production and programming budget of $50 million a year, has elevated Saturday afternoon fights, once the transition between cliff-diving and rhythmic gymnastics, into prime-time events.

We'll leave it to the promoters to argue whether he is the smartest man in boxing or just the luckiest. We'll leave it to the social historians to decide whether he has wrought cultural changes on the scale of, say. Monday Night Football. But please! Let nobody dispute that Abraham, whom one friend describes as "prissy" (he is certainly dapper), is the least likely man ever to sit across a table from Don King.

Here's King at that table, finally taking notice of this impossibly well-mannered interloper: "What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing in this business?" This was followed by chilling advice (you would have found it chilling if King had been three inches from your face): "Leave it for me!"

What is Abraham doing in this business? Why not be a goalie? At least, why not remain in the baseball commissioner's office doing gentlemanly deals on behalf of the national pastime, as Abraham did from 1974 to '78? That was a nice living for a kid who grew up down the street from Ebbets Field and saved Borden's ice-cream wrappers to trade in for a bleacher-seat ticket every Friday. But Abraham says he needed more—the adrenaline generated by the ultimate deal, a deal that is almost certainly calamitous, only possibly rewarding. A boxing deal.

Ten years ago, newly hired to a sports-programming job that HBO was thinking of eliminating, Abraham steered the network and himself into boxing as a programming staple. Moving quickly to generate confidence in HBO's little sports division, he negotiated a championship bout between WBC welterweight champ Wilfred Benitez and Harold Weston. It was surprisingly easy. No wonder boxing attracts such scoundrels, he thought: They are drawn to the ease with which high-dollar business can be accomplished. But days went by without attention being paid to his masterstroke. Publicity was scant. Matter of fact, he did not see anything in the newspapers about his fight, and he reads eight papers every day. He called up Madison Square Garden to inquire into the lack of promotion. Well, he was told, as there is no such fight....

"I had bought a fight that didn't exist!" he says. Ten years has been time enough to turn a career-killer into cocktail-party chatter, but at the beginning, time was in short supply. As legend has it, the week before Abraham went to HBO, senior executives of HBO and Time Inc. had voted informally, 6-1, to discontinue sports programming; Michael Fuchs, then HBO's head of original programming and now its chairman, cast the one, persuasive vote that saved Abraham's job. And among Abraham's first acts was to schedule that phantom fight. "You see, I didn't know," he says, uttering the words of every first-time business partner in boxing.

Do you think the Kings and the Arums were somewhat roused by the arrival of this moneyed innocent, this babe with the goods? A man who will sign up invisible fights! Imagine the promoters slavering over the prospect of doing business with Abraham, a fellow who stays up nights reading long history books and dreaming up just the right gifts for his friends and whose real joy is pickup basketball. "He was kinda green," says King. Of course, the point of this story is not that Abraham was fooled—who isn't in this business?—but rather that he's still around 10 years later. Back when Abraham first called him up, all King could manage on the phone was, "Who are you, anyway?"

Telephoning King from his corner office—good view, nice furniture and a lot of sporting knickknacks (signed baseballs, an antique mitt, pictures of celebrities)—Abraham says, "Don, Don, Don." Muffled barking comes out of the receiver. "Don, Don, Don." Abraham appears stricken by what he is hearing. "Don! It's my birthday. For my birthday, you can't give me the fifty? Don, Don, Don." There is more muffled barking and, apparently, the slamming of a phone. Abraham looks up, amused by the little drama. "Jousting," he says.

The two are negotiating the licensing fee for the March 17 Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor fight, which Abraham has essentially created for HBO. He has been trying to turn Chavez, the WBC junior welterweight champion, into an HBO star. He has already paid the fighter $5 million for six fights, and Abraham needs a matchup with another undefeated champion—Taylor, the IBF junior welterweight titleholder—to secure the payoff. Abraham has been working on this for nine months, trying to overcome the reluctance of each fighter's promoter to risk his championship franchise. Promoters agree that a division should be represented by a single champion, but only if he is their fighter. This cannot be guaranteed.

Nevertheless, Abraham has brought King. Chavez's promoter, together with King's hated rival, Dan Duva, Taylor's promoter. And the fight has been made. All that remains to be resolved is the difference between King's asking price of $2.9 million and Abraham's offer of $2.85 million. They had begun with a $1.3 million spread and narrowed it to these...pennies. Fifty thousand is loose change to these men, but it is clear that each enjoys the opportunity to dive for it. The phone rings in Abraham's office. Muffled barking comes out of the receiver. King, it turns out, is reminding Abraham of a favor to be returned, a time when King delivered Tyson, gratis, for one of Abraham's corporate functions. Abraham, as if he had been waiting for King to remember this all along, says, "You got the fifty," and they quickly move on to other pleasantries, such as possible sites for a planned Tyson-Razor Ruddock fight. (The bout was later postponed when Tyson became ill and has not yet been rescheduled.) Off the phone Abraham says, "Don knew I was going to buy the Chavez fight, and he knew that I knew he knew." The back and forth was just for fun? Not entirely. "I'm not going to roll over for even one dollar."

Abraham is one of life's strange discoveries, a man of apparent contradictions who is, nevertheless, entirely at peace with himself. He battles King for that dollar and then, minutes later, remembers how he always manages to come up with the perfect gift for King. "I was with him at a hotel once, and I noticed he left a wake-up call," says Abraham. "So I went over to Tiffany's, and I bought him a beautiful traveling alarm clock." Odd.

Abraham is comically meticulous, given his tolerance for workaday chaos. Describing the way to his weekend farm north of New York City, he indicates perhaps a dozen turns, each with a mileage reading. "At 9G," he will say, "turn north. Set your odometer. At point-five miles, you'll see an antique store. Set your odometer." Once done, he says, "Let's go over it again." He loves to recount past deals, always starting with the date. "August of '87," he'll say, leaning back into the story. He's the kind of guy who, when he leaves his office, picks up an index card from his secretary with all the calls he must return.

Yet he makes million-dollar deals on napkins at oyster bars. At last year's U.S. Open tennis tournament, he invited King to the quarterfinal match between Ivan Lendl and Tim Mayotte, and between points they worked on details of a proposed lifetime contract for Tyson. It wasn't the first time Abraham had sketched a contract on a tennis program. For all his fastidiousness, he is not a man of corporate caution.

Reconcile this: Abraham wanders around his new farm in a dream state—a Brooklyn kid gone goofy—pointing out butterflies and hawks to his four-year-old daughter. Sari, while the phone rings off the hook inside the big red barn of a house. The next day he leaves for his regular pickup basketball game at the 23rd Street YMCA in New York City—"do-or-die basketball," says another participant, advertising legend George Lois, the man who gave us Mr. Whipple. Plays defense with his teeth, says Lois, and shocks the street kids—"these aren't yuppies"—with his shooting. Sulks mightily when he loses. Abraham has been going to city gyms for a decade or so, same gyms, same players, and doesn't even know the players' names. He is 42, 10 years past retirement age for most guys at the Y, and just 5'10" in his hightops. "I don't play basketball for fun," he says. And then, his fires banked, he returns to his family.

Or this: He can bluster with the best of them. In an early deal King tried intimidation and sprang at Abraham, stopping just short of physical contact. Abraham sat there impassively and then lit into King. He says he recently had to insult a promoter for 15 minutes, which is about three days short of the time required to hurt a promoter's feelings.

And all the while he might have been plotting his wife's 40th-birthday party, an elaborate surprise no other husband should allow his wife to read about. Champagne and chocolate cake aboard the Orient Express from Paris to Venice, then a flight back to Paris and a front-row seat at an Yves St. Laurent fashion show, where she could turn to Catherine Deneuve or Paloma Picasso and say, "Lynn Abraham, New Jersey." The party took more than a year to plan.

What is he doing in this business? Abraham never even saw a live fight until he was 27, when Lynn surprised him by getting tickets to a bout at Madison Square Garden.

Well, how does someone prepare for the boxing business, anyway? Take the Chavez-Taylor deal. For nine months Abraham worked to reconcile the two parties, making just the right promises, extracting just the right concessions. A fight involving the principals' stable-mates had to be guaranteed, even if it wasn't Abraham's idea of an HBO-caliber fight. Yet as boxing deals go, this was straightforward. Many deals for bouts are far more exciting than the fights themselves.

The Tyson-Trevor Berbick deal, for example. This was a key fight in the heavyweight unification series that Abraham dreamed up. Everybody was committed, and all that remained was for Berbick to sign a contract. He had agreed to do so. In the meantime, Dennis Rappaport, Gerry Cooney's promoter, was announcing that Berbick had agreed to fight Cooney outside the series. Something needed to be worked out here. Berbick agreed to meet Abraham and King at the Las Vegas Hilton to sign for the Tyson fight.

But where was Berbick? The day of the meeting one of his agents showed up at the hotel to express Berbick's regrets but refused to disclose the fighter's whereabouts. This agent, not familiar with surveillance techniques, then hopped into the first available cab. One of King's lieutenants. Duke Durden, got into the next available cab and was able to say—as they do only in movies and boxing—"Follow that car." Durden tailed the agent to Caesars Palace and discovered that Berbick was staying there under the alias Tommy Brown. Durden called King to the scene, and together they went to the fighter's room and knocked on the door. Berbick asked who it was. King said, "Room service." Berbick swung the door open and, wide-eyed, looked at the two men filling his doorway. He said, "Hey, you're not room service."

Papers were quickly signed, and the series remained intact. "This is not a business for choirboys," says Abraham. He adds, "But how can you not have fun with this?"

Some stories: One night in Las Vegas back in 1985, Abraham was hosting a dinner party for 12 friends and relatives. It was strictly a social gathering. But at the time, Abraham had been idly inquiring into the possibility of a Larry Holmes-Michael Spinks fight on HBO. "So who shows up at dinner," says Abraham, "but Don and Butch." This would be King and Lewis, who represented Holmes and Spinks, respectively. "It was about 11 o'clock. Everything stopped. I moved my father-in-law down a spot and moved Uncle Irv. And the three of us, me, Don and Butch, sat there until after two, talking about how to make Holmes-Spinks for HBO. It was like a Passover seder. Everybody else just sat there and watched us."

After Gerrie Coetzee beat Michael Dokes in Richfield, Ohio, in 1983, King and Abraham began wondering if it wouldn't be possible to make Holmes-Coetzee. Let's talk, they said. King phoned ahead to Winston's, a rib joint in Cleveland, and King's and Abraham's staffs repaired there. "They hadn't seen any white faces at Winston's since before the war," says Abraham, "and I mean the Civil War." Two of Abraham's aides, both white, arrived early, looked around the neighborhood and hunkered down in their car until King's limo arrived. They all ate smoked whitefish and ribs until 5 a.m. and pounded out a fight on paper. That fight never took place, but Abraham betrays no disappointment in the telling. The point is, they made a deal.

Another time Abraham found himself dealing with Arum on a series of fights for Marvelous Marvin Hagler, HBO's original meal ticket. This was at the U.S. Open in 1983, and the only available paper on which to scratch out a contract was the tennis program. Abraham took pains not to write near the figures denoting the tennis players' career earnings. "I didn't want Bob coming back and pointing to this $1.3 million figure," he says.

For boxing, such informality represents business as usual. Boxing has resisted the normal principles and practices of commerce and instead moves along by accidents of inspiration and perseverance, its ethics developed on the fly. The working moral code, Abraham says, is "who screws who first." But everyone seems to enjoy the opportunity to do high-stakes business outside a boardroom, in an arena where the only rule is that there are no rules.

So what was HBO thinking of when it got into this business? Like Abraham, did it just not know?

The story: "The idea of boxing? It just came to me. I wouldn't call it a revelation, but it was a very odd experience," Abraham says. He and Fuchs found themselves at a Rangers-Flyers game at the Garden—"This was March of '79"—for what turned out to be one of the great brawls in NHL history. Just as the fights on the ice wore down, the Flyers found a second wind and charged into the stands after hecklers. The mayhem went on for another 30 minutes. Fuchs and Abraham, hardly hockey fans, turned to their reading. Fuchs dived into some Hollywood trade papers, Abraham into the New York Post.

There he came across a story about Hagler, who was proclaiming himself the uncrowned middleweight champion. The idea appealed to Abraham, and he turned to Fuchs and said. "This guy's got moxie." Fuchs was equally intrigued, and Abraham got his go-ahead into the fight business.

The next day Abraham called Arum, Hagler's promoter. "We had breakfast at the Dorset Hotel," Abraham says. "We stayed in the dining room four hours. The reason I remember is, the maitre d', Vito. asked if we wanted lunch. We didn't."

Arum recalls, "They were paying more than the networks, but barely." King remembers that HBO was paying quite a bit less. That same year. 1979, he was trying to peddle a Holmes fight with Mike Weaver, a guy with an 18-8 record. King's price was $1 million, ABC's was $750,000. "I gave HBO that fight," says King. "Seth came in hollering they didn't have no money, they had to scuffle along, and he could maybe get me $125,000. I started laughing. But I was dogged determined not to give the fight to ABC. which could afford my price. And I kind of liked the way that Seth talked." King took the paltry $125,000. This seems patently unbelievable, but both King and Abraham insist that the story is true.

The fight, which Holmes won by a TKO in the 12th round, turned out to be a thriller. In The New York Times, Red Smith wrote a glowing account of the bout the networks had passed over, and suddenly HBO had working arrangements with the two most important suppliers in boxing.

All this encouraged HBO to think increasingly in terms of original programming and, specifically, sports programming. The cable companies all seemed to show the same movies, so how could you tell them apart? HBO's sports programming as it existed then was a hodgepodge of 150 different events—volleyball. Wild West Roundup, man versus shark. "It filled up airtime," Abraham says.

Back then boxing might not have seemed an upgrade from man versus shark, but now there are plenty of people who can explain the logic of broadcasting fights. Jay Larkin, the director of original programs at Showtime, has followed Abraham's lead into boxing, though with a smaller budget. Showtime does only four to eight fights a year, while HBO does an average of 12. Larkin thinks boxing is a natural. "A fight brings out celebrities and generates press attention," he says. Larkin believes HBO made boxing acceptable for prime-time viewing, although he feels that HBO overproduces its fights ("Oh, look, this must be a 12-camera shot!"). "You've got to give HBO a lot of credit for recognizing the compatibility of cable and the sport," he says. "They put the tuxedo on boxing."

They also recognized the numbers. HBO soon discovered that while its movies were averaging a 19 share—the percentage of viewers watching a show—in HBO homes, Hagler was averaging a 26 share. Hagler has come and gone, but HBO still averages a 27 share for its fights.

Abraham believes HBO has done more than stumble upon a viewing phenomenon. He believes the company has fine-tuned a particular kind of programming, made an art of it. "We don't just do boxing, we do boxing that tells a story," he says. He has been trying to make a story out of Chavez, nursing him along from division to division until, someday, he fights as a welterweight. Abraham is also waiting to make a story out of IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn. HBO is presenting Nunn as "the princeling in waiting."

"We bought a whole bunch of fights to tell the story, to take us right to Leonard-Nunn if that would develop." Abraham says.

Occasionally the drama drifts into burlesque, as it did in a recent program involving Chavez. Just keeping his hand in, Chavez was an 18-1 favorite over Sammy Fuentes. HBO and Caesars Palace hoped to dress up the card by adding Julian Jackson in a defense of his WBA junior middleweight title against Troy Wortham. But Jackson dropped out with an eye injury eight days before the fight, and the promoters were left with a rather lackluster event. Chavez won by a TKO in the 10th round.

Duva says Abraham is a tough sell because fighters have to meet, after everything else, a test of theatricality. "Do they think he's special? Can his fights become events? Are there a number of quality opponents to be featured, and is there a superfight that can be pointed to?" Duva asks. "In the case of Nunn, there was Leonard. That was Nunn's edge over Taylor."

Life is not easy for promoters who can't attract Abraham's interest. Duva has excuses not only for Taylor but also for another of his fighters, Pernell Whitaker. "They have the ability at HBO to be a starmaker, but they do only a dozen fights a year, and three or four of those are Tyson," he says. "Now, if they decide to make Nunn or Chavez their next star, that eliminates Pernell. I'm not questioning their motive, but I obviously disagree with their judgment. The difference is. Nunn makes $1 million a fight and Meldrick not even $200,000. Just because he's not on HBO."

Some other cable companies believe HBO's lavish approach to boxing productions is only so much corporate preening. Face it, what mostly works these days is not HBO's storytelling presentation, but the bludgeoning power of Mike Tyson. Tyson has put the HB—heavyweight boxing—back into HBO. Tyson is the man Abraham calls HBO's most important employee. He is certainly the best paid. Having starred in HBO's $22 million title-unification series, Tyson is now the featured attraction in an eight-bout series for which HBO has been glad to pay him $26.5 million.

Can he be worth that? Well, Tyson is the one piece of continuing programming that demonstrably generates new subscribers. "Here's a snapshot," says Abraham. "On the day of the Holmes-Tyson fight, Cablevision, which serves Long Island, reports a record number of sign-ups. Snapshot: In '87, when we started with Tyson in earnest in the heavyweight series, 40 percent of the men who subscribed to HBO for the first time said they did it because of boxing." Tyson, even including his three nontitle bouts, has averaged a 35 share of HBO viewers, and in a fight with Frank Bruno he hauled in a 55 share. These bouts. Abraham points out, might last no more than 93 seconds. That minute and a half refers to Tyson's demolition of Carl Williams, which drew, incidentally, a 51 share. "Earthquake numbers," says Abraham.

Obviously Tyson's dominance does not hurt his—or HBO's—drawing power. The viewers are not put off by the noncompetitive nature of a fight between Tyson and, say, a contender like Ruddock. While the date for that fight was up in the air, the rest of the broadcast industry was on hold. When HBO announced a date that interfered with other fights, says Larkin, "shows began falling like dominoes." Larkin says Showtime had planned to hold its Evander Holyfield-Alex Stewart fight on the same date. "For about half a second we thought about it," he recalls. "You know the saying. Where does a 400-pound gorilla sit?"

But Tyson, like everything else in boxing, was an accident of inspiration and perseverance. Abraham didn't invent him, but at the time of Tyson's miraculous appearance Abraham was pushing forward his heavyweight tournament, a bit of genius that everybody agreed would go down as a noble failure. In the end it turned out to be the ideal vehicle for Tyson. Without the tournament Tyson might be as dominant a boxer, but he would not hold the unified championship.

In unifying the title, Abraham was asking promoters and fighters to enter an era of uncertainty, one in which only the best man would win. Such a notion is contrary to the business of boxing. At the time—"this was late spring of 1985"—Abraham was being besieged by King, who controlled WBC heavyweight champion Pinklon Thomas, among others. King was trying to sell Abraham on a Thomas-Berbick fight.

"I said this fight means nothing." Abraham recalls. "Even if it's an evenly matched fight, it means nothing. All through the summer. King keeps badgering me—phone calls, phone calls. The man has got tremendous energy. I said, 'Don, it's not gonna happen.' I'm home in October '85, and I'm watching the Kansas City-St. Louis World Series. Don comes to see my new daughter. Sari; she was 13 days old. We had lobster. During dinner Don says, 'Lynn, please tell Seth to buy the fight. It's a good fight.' Finally I said, 'Don, you really want to make history?'—and this idea had been percolating while I watched the World Series. That's where I got the idea, seven games, seven fights. Don stayed until 2 a.m."

After all their negotiations, it is almost impossible for these two men to surprise each other. King submits wearily to the rituals of their deal-making. "Many times Seth tries to shift me to his subordinates, find out what my modus operandi is, get the lay of the land, and then he comes in and tries to circumvent it," King says. "He always wants two. three bites of the apple." But Abraham knew he would have to come up with something special to force King. who already controlled two heavyweight champions, into a partnership with Butch Lewis, promoter of champion No. 3, Michael Spinks.

So Abraham read up on Tex Rickard and all the other great promoters, men whose places in boxing history were secure. "I kept going back at King, 'You call yourself the greatest promoter? Prove it, prove it.' I'd say, 'Don, where's your epitaph? That you promoted Ali? Arum promoted Ali.' The appeal was history."

The idea of unifying the heavyweight title was soon revealed as not so much a piece of history as a colossal act of naivetè. Abraham quickly found that each bout would be a nightmare to negotiate. In fact, immediately before the first fight of the series, the whole affair was plunged into uncertainty when Tim Witherspoon tested positive for marijuana after his bout with Tony Tubbs, and the WBA said Wither-spoon's title would be declared vacant. "I thought there would be a honeymoon," Abraham says. "But it was like the Russians had invaded on Inauguration Day."

Always there was Gerry Cooney lurking outside the tournament, a bigger problem retired than when he was active. For leaving Cooney out of the draw, Abraham was accused by Cooney's manager. Rappaport. of being a one-man cartel. Rappaport threatened legal action, said he was buying Time Inc. stock—who knew how much?—and promised to raise a ruckus at the next shareholders' meeting. "Did Dennis forget his fighter was retired?" Abraham wonders.

Then there was the tournament itself. "As noble as it was, it was just not happening," says Larkin. "There was nobody to watch, just a lot of fat, out-of-shape guys banging bellies together. The original idea was interesting, but through no fault of HBO, it was turning into a disaster." The parade of cholesteric contenders had turned boxing's most glamorous division into a running joke.

And then Tyson happened. His Cats-kill Concussions were beginning to draw a lot of attention, and Fuchs, who had never seen this kid, kept hearing about him. "If there's one guy outside this tournament who has more credibility than our guys," Fuchs told Abraham, "this whole tournament goes down the drain." Fuchs told Abraham to bring Tyson in.

You will not be surprised to learn that Abraham remembers exactly how he brought Tyson in. "The deal closed on my birthday. That night my wife and I were going out to a restaurant. Well, I was late. Every half hour I called my wife, who was sitting at the table, and I said, 'Lynn, just order me a Scotch, because we're gonna have this deal.' When I got to the restaurant there were six Scotches lined up."

That deal was both HBO's doing and its undoing. The prospect of fighting Tyson for an HBO-sized fee, then ridiculously low, drove Spinks and Lewis through a loophole. (When Spinks was stripped of his IBF crown for failing to fight the IBF's No. 1 challenger, Tony Tucker, he argued that because he was no longer champion he was not obligated to fight in the HBO series. The courts agreed.) Spinks and Lewis opted instead for a big-money pay-per-view bout with Cooney. When Tyson finally met Spinks in June 1988, long after the HBO tournament was over. HBO had to show the fight on tape delay.

All parties are aggrieved to this day. Abraham says he won't do business with Lewis or Rappaport. Lewis says he still can't believe Abraham asked him to sell out his own fighter to accept the $1.25 million and $2 million purses the HBO tournament was offering when Spinks could earn upward of $20 million outside the series. "He told me if I went along with this, my future at HBO would be secure," Lewis says. "I said, 'I like all that, but....' "

For all the contractual problems Tyson precipitated, he did save the tournament. More important, Tyson, through his relationship with King, continues to fight under the HBO banner. This is a comfortable arrangement for King and Abraham but not so wonderful for other promoters. Still, nobody except Lewis sees anything improper in this. "If Seth deals with King," says Larkin, employing his best boxing logic, "it's an unholy alliance. If he doesn't, then it's racism."

The problem may be not so much that HBO monopolizes Tyson, but that Tyson monopolizes the division. There are few attractive matches for Tyson out there, but thanks to HBO, Tyson is assured of being showcased in even the worst of them. "Tyson has the unrestricted ability to fight anybody he wants and get paid enormous amounts of money." says Duva. "If this were a competitive marketplace, we wouldn't be talking about Tyson-Ruddock. But Tyson doesn't have to respond to public demand. He almost has a hunting license from HBO." Nobody expects the Tyson-Ruddock show to be historic, but the numbers will certainly be there.

Meanwhile, Abraham continues to explore corners of the big picture. The day after he met with King at the U.S. Open—this would be September '89—he returned to the tournament with Fuchs. They were burdened with about 50 pounds of reading material, for between the points," says Fuchs. and they had plenty of ideas. These days are a little different from the time they attended that hockey fight. Now Tyson looms above the scene, HBO's walking billboard, promising high ratings for years to come. The network has set itself apart with its boxing and tennis programming. HBO now bids for NFL packages. These are exciting times for HBO and Abraham, both so powerful in this business that even their enemies strike conciliatory notes.

Rappaport. for example. "I can't say that I'm blackballed," he says. "I'd like to think that if I have a product that makes sense, the door at HBO would be open. I know it was fairly nasty and a long, extensive procedure, but I'd like to think I could deal with Seth." Rappaport, who is now promoting Wither-spoon, pauses. "I'd like to know what Seth would say to that." Pause. "Will you be talking to him soon?"