By Jeff Zimmerman
It was 1983 and Lee Samuels was out of work after the Philadelphia Bulletin, where Samuels was a sportswriter from 1975-1983, went out of business. Later that year, Samuels was introduced to boxing powerhouse Top Rank and its founder Bob Arum at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City by local promoter Frank Gelb and was hired by Arum that night to handle the east coast publicity for a new ESPN Thursday Night Boxing Series.
Along with Samuels, Arum had matchmakers Teddy Brenner and Bruce Trampler, lead publicist Irving Rudd while Al Bernstein called the fights for ESPN and Michael Buffer made his debut as a ring announcer when his catchphrase back in those days was “Man Your Battle Stations.”
Samuels worked the series for a few years and in 1987, Arum told Samuels to venture west to the Palm Canyon Hotel in Palm Springs, CA to run publicity for middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
“Who’s he fighting,” Samuels asked.
“Sugar Ray Leonard,” said Arum.
Leonard versus Hagler was billed as the “SuperFight” and was years in the making. Leonard was coming off a 3-year retirement and had fought only once in five years. It was a hotly contested battle that lived up to all expectations and is ranked as one of the best fights of all-time and is still debated today, 30+ years later. Leonard was awarded the split decision, although Samuels saw the fight differently.
“I thought Hagler won the fight,” said Samuels. “Leonard was the first fighter to steal rounds. I have fond memories from those days and developed a life long friendship with Hagler. Goody and Pat Petronelli were unbelievable people and two tremendous trainers.”
Over the next three decades, Samuels would eventually become the lead publicist for Top Rank where he handled mega fights such as De La Hoya-Chavez I, De La Hoya-Trinidad and of course Pacquiao-Mayweather. And for someone who did his best to stay out of the limelight and tried to help others do their job, he will be front and center at the 30th anniversary of the International Boxing Hall of Fame from June 6-9 in Canastota, New York, as he will be inducted along with Donald Curry, Julian Jackson, Buddy McGirt, Don Elbaum, Teddy Atlas, Tony Demarco, Guy Jutras and Mario Rivera Martino.
Samuels was known for his promptness, providing detailed and accurate information plus was the best at scheduling press conferences and publicity events for Top Rank fighters as well as being an all-around good guy.
Canastota is approximately 300 miles where Samuels grew up in Pennsville, New Jersey, where his father was a farmer and the family ate what they grew, and his brother Curtis built racecars. Before Samuels found his calling telling other people’s stories, Samuels loved sports, especially baseball. He was a pretty good little league player until he tried out for his high school team and came to bat on that one fateful day.
“I remember being at the plate and the ball spun out of the zone, a slider. At that very instance, I was done as a player,” said Samuels.
It didn’t take Samuels long to find his new passion. He always had a love of reading, especially guys like Larry Merchant and Stan Hochman, both writers for the Philadelphia Daily News. Merchant went on to HBO Boxing fame and was a 2009 hall of fame inductee.
“One day in a press box I talked to a local reporter about what he did, traveling on the bus and being around the team,” Samuels recalled. “I knew my sophomore year of high school what I wanted to do.”
So soon Samuels got his first gig with his local paper, the Pennsville Progress, although he had no previous experience. Not only did he have to convince his new boss and editor Wes Denman he could write, he also had to sell his sister.
“I had to borrow my sister Phyllis’ small blue typewriter. She kept telling me you’re not a writer and I kept telling her I was. She finally gave in.”
Samuels enjoyed writing for newspapers and never wanted to leave a job, because he always liked the people. From 1964 to 1983, Samuels wrote for various outlets including the Pennsville Progress, Penns Grove Record, Woodbury Daily Times, Camden Courier Post and the Philadelphia Bulletin Post before it folded in 1983, the same year his storied career at Top Rank began.
Samuels got a taste of big-time boxing at the Philadelphia Bulletin as a backup boxing writer covering Ali-Spinks I in 1978 and Ali-Berbick in 1981 in what turned out to be Ali’s last fight.
“I was assigned by the newspaper and called Irving Rudd who was the chief publicist at Top Rank at the time and said I was coming in,” Samuels said. “He said they (Ali and Dundee) already know you’re coming in.
“It was my first time covering Ali and he was trying to get me relaxed. It’s a good PR thing, I have used it myself. Of course, you’re concerned, wondering if you have access to the fighter. He just calmed me down and said whatever you want. Rudd was a genius. It wasn’t a big deal for Irving to help me, it was part of the job.”
Samuels added, “Ali was something else. He would say he’s not coming to a press conference and then he would show up and do magic tricks for everyone.”
Samuels learned a great deal from Rudd, who in his hall of fame career worked with several world champions including Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Mancini, and Thomas “HitMan” Hearns.
Hearns really liked Rudd and named him an honorary member of the Kronk Boxing Team.
“He was Tommy’s favorite publicist,” stated Samuels.
Rudd became Samuels mentor and taught him how to transition from newspaper reporter to publicist.
“Don’t take credit, it’s part of your job and don’t make a big deal about yourself because you’re not,” said Samuels. “Help the writer, help someone get what they are looking for very easily and not make a big deal about it.”
If Samuels learned the job from Rudd, he no doubt learned the boxing business from the man who hired him, Bob Arum.
“The first thing he told me was to return every call and every email, because you never know the question,” Samuels said. “Bob is a big arena promoter. He could bring a star back after a devastating loss, because he knew people always want to see exciting fighters. He doesn’t like to compare eras in boxing either as the methods of training today versus the 50s and 60s are night and day. He also described Roberto Duran as one of the greatest, toughest fighters Top Rank ever promoted.
“Top Rank has the following Hall of Famers including Bob, Bruce, Irving, Teddy Brenner and now me, more than any other promoter. That’s a testament to Bob.”
At 87, Arum is still as sharp as ever.
“Bob is still the first one in the office and the last one to leave.”
Samuels has also been around long enough to see how the sport has evolved in terms of entertainment value and he credits their president Todd duBoef.
“Todd studied how the UFC and WWE did it with their in-arena experience,” said Samuels. Todd changed how Top Rank fighters are presented from the locker room to the ring with music and our Top Rank Knockouts. He made our social media team relevant with Twitter and interacting with the fans at the fights.
“I have been fortunate from working with my first partner Ricardo Jimenez and of course Fred Sternburg. Evan Korn and Gardy Lopez are our publicists now and they are great ones.
Samuels has come a long way since his days at the Pennsville Progress and today serves as coordinator for Top Rank. Even after all the fights that have taken him around the world, he still relishes fight night.
“There is nothing better than fight night. There is a certain element when the main event enters the ring.”
Samuels was happy to get the call from his longtime Top Rank cohort and good friend HOF Bruce Trampler that he had been nominated for the hall of fame, but never really expected to be inducted. After all, Samuels has spent a career of spreading the news, not being it.
Samuels has earned his place among the immortals of boxing, not for a distinguished career in the ring, but one outside making others look good, first as a sports writer and editor and then as the chief publicist for Top Rank Boxing. Samuels will become only the third publicist inducted to the hall of fame after his mentor Irving Rudd and Murray Goodman. Boxing won that day when Samuels could not hit the slider.
And even now, leading up to one of the biggest weekends of his life, Samuels explained boxing and his role in his self-deprecating way that would make Rudd proud.
“The fighters fight, they go in the ring, we don’t. Training camps are hard, there are no easy ones. I hope they appreciate what we do, I don’t know.”