DAMON FELDMAN’S DESTINY was written in the August 15, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated. He read it when he was 13 years old. He flipped past the cover story on NFL rookie John Elway and the piece about tennis star Yannick Noah until he reached page 69, and the regular feature “Faces in the Crowd” — and there it was. There he was. With deep-set eyes, a concerned expression, and a feathered haircut. The accompanying caption read: “Damon Feldman, Broomall, Pa. Damon, 13, scored a second-round knockout of Joe Antepuna to win the Philadelphia Junior Olympic boxing title in the 13-and-under 112-pound class. He has been boxing since age five and has an 8-1 record with two KOs.”
The boxing, well, that didn’t really work out. What Damon Feldman has turned out to be a prodigy at — what became his destiny — was getting his name in print.
WE’RE DRIVING TO the airport to pick up Rodney King, America’s best-known beating victim. Feldman is driving his new-smelling Armada SUV. He just turned 40, and isn’t wiry anymore. He’s six feet, 220 pounds. His arms and chest are thick. His neck is thick. His hair is a permanent micro-stubble, his head resting atop his shoulders in the shape of a giant thumb.
Feldman still has the deep-set eyes and concerned expression. His bearing now has an understated, unpredictable menace. He’s been beaten down outside the ring far more than he ever was inside it, and feels with some justification that people have it in for him. His radar is on high alert to whatever is going to crash into his world next. He’s rarely calm, as if focusing on just one thing at a time might leave him vulnerable. On the ramp approaching the airport, he starts checking messages on his BlackBerry. “I can’t help it. I have ADD,” he jokes (maybe). “This is from Joey Buttafuoco,” he says of his latest message.
It’s four days before King will fight in a celebrity boxing match arranged by Feldman against a former Chester police officer, at the airport Ramada Inn. This is what Feldman does now. Remember when Danny Bonaduce fought Jose Canseco at a skating rink in Aston? A Damon Feldman production. When Tonya Harding punched out a stripper/waitress/whatever at the Lagoon bar in Essington? Yup, Feldman. When Lindsay Lohan’s father fought deejay Rocco from Q102, and Gervase Peterson from Survivor took on “adult film star” Travis Knight at the Ramada in Tinicum Township? No, nobody remembers that, but Feldman set it up anyway.
After a million false starts, disappointments, lawsuits and indignities, Feldman believes he’s found his Philadelphia puncher’s chance at the big time. Along the way, he’s made Philly — well, Delaware County, really — the nation’s capital of low-grade celebrity boxing. The boxing isn’t 100 percent regulation boxing. The celebrities aren’t 100 percent regulation celebrities. Feldman’s Celebrity Boxing Federation events — he’s doing one every other month now — aren’t uniformly successful, if you judge by how many people buy tickets.
But they attract extraordinary media attention, the kind any publicist in the city would kill for. A recent database search of the combined Daily News and Inquirer archives pulled up more than 270 articles mentioning Damon Feldman. He’s been on Angelo Cataldi’s morning show on WIP, by Feldman’s own count, “more than 100 times.” Feldman’s events get nationwide — worldwide — attention. The Rodney King tussle has seen advance coverage in London’s Independent newspaper, on Time magazine’s website, on the Howard Stern show, and of course in tabloid papers and on websites everywhere. Surely more than a million people know Rodney King is about to fight a cop. Feldman is hoping to get 800 of them into a function room at the Ramada.
Inside, at baggage claim, after a bit of confusion, we find King and his fiancée, Dawn. At 44, King looks fantastic — thin, lucid, nothing like the blurry victim the LAPD pummeled on a 1991 video, or even like the scared man in the ’80s coif who wondered “Can’t we all just get along?” during the 1992 L.A. riots. For a long time after the riots, King laid low, but lately he’s given in to the inevitable and resorted to making a living Being Rodney King. Over the past year or so, he’s been on the VH1 reality shows Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and Sober House. Feldman is paying King a $5,000 appearance fee, plus airfare and six nights at the Ramada.
In the car, Feldman shares an idea: King should trademark “Can’t we all just get along?” Boxing announcer Michael Buffer has “made millions” from “Let’s get ready to rumble!,” Feldman says.
“I know,” King shrugs. “It may be too late.”
King has been telling everyone that this celebrity fight isn’t about revenge. There was talk a few years ago that King might box Laurence Powell, one of the officers at the beating. That could have been intense. Now King is at peace. He won’t stop smiling. He’s just flown from L.A. to Philadelphia, and he won’t stop smiling.
“Not to take anything away from what happened in 1991, but you have to have a life,” he says in the car. “You have to have fun. It’s a sporting event. This guy just happens to be ex-police. The beating will be going through my mind. But that will probably just help motivate me a little bit more.”
IT’S KNOWN IN Philadelphia boxing circles that Damon Feldman’s father Marty was a successful middleweight and in the 1970s became a hard-ass old-school trainer who turned mediocre fighters into champions. Marty, now 76, and Damon are close today. But it gets weird and scary when you ask about Damon’s childhood.
Marty and Dawn Feldman had two children, Damon and David, but a troubled marriage. Shortly after they split in 1974, Dawn was brutally attacked, it’s believed by a boyfriend, and her neck was broken. The assault left her a quadriplegic. Damon, just four, was too young to comprehend what happened, but his mother never lived at home again, heading to a rehab facility in Oklahoma and then to Inglis House near City Avenue. “We never actually lived together that I remember, ever in my life,” he says.
Over the next few years, Damon and his brother lived with three different families. “I lived with a Jehovah’s Witness family, and in an Italian household,” he says. “Just friends of the family that helped while my dad was busy trying to make a living.”
“I got tutors for them,” Marty Feldman says. “I got whatever I could get to keep them up to par with a normal family.”
Damon recalls the day he and his brother were “hysterically crying” and Marty let them move back home. Damon was 10. Some boxers Marty was training were living in his house, and brothers Frank “The Animal” Fletcher and Anthony “Two Guns” Fletcher helped raise the Feldman boys.
“Uncle Frank and Uncle Anthony. They made sure I had dinner all the time,” Damon recalls. “We’d go to the mall, to a movie. I talked to Anthony about the adversity I was going through. He was there, man. It’s unfortunate now he’s on death row.”
Feldman won the Philadelphia Junior Olympics at 13 and turned pro at 19. As a suburban, Jewish super-middleweight, he got attention from local papers and TV news, and promoter J. Russell Peltz milked it, putting him in fights at the Blue Horizon against beatable opponents to build his record. By 1992, Feldman was 9-0 with four knockouts. Already he was promoting his own projects. He told newspapers about a “Boxercise” aerobics program he developed and planned to take to a fancy hotel in Argentina. Then he slipped, outside a grocery store in Broomall.
“The curb broke as I walked off it, and I just fell. I hit my neck and my head, messed my disk up,” he explains. He never boxed professionally again. For a while he pursued a lawsuit based on lost potential earnings as a Jewish boxer. (He won the suit, but not very much money.)
“I really didn’t know what I was gonna do,” he says. “I took odd jobs. I was down the Shore one weekend and saw these two guys fighting, a bar fight, and I thought: We should do this in the ring.” He staged a tough-guy tournament. “Eight guys, one night, one winner. We drew 500 people.”
IT’S TWO DAYS before the King fight. A table is set up with microphones at Chickie’s & Pete’s in South Philly. After a Michael Jackson impersonator dances, Feldman introduces the fighters to the lunchtime crowd. Ex-cop Simon Aouad, King’s opponent, has been strutting around like a jackass, wearing a scowl, a mohawk, and a lock and chain around his neck.
“I’m really pissed, and I just want to crush every bone in his body,” Aouad says.
King has a badass reputation – he’s associated with violence — but really, he’s no fighter. He can’t even muster fake rage. “I’m eager to get in the ring with this guy,” he says respectfully. “This is going to be a real moment for me, truly is.”
Suddenly a thought occurs: What if Rodney King gets beaten up again?
FELDMAN’S FIRST CELEBRITY boxing event was in 1996, when radio guy Diego Ramos beat weatherman John Bolaris at the Valley Forge Convention Center, in an event titled “Main Line Fight Night.” It was just one of a string of demented Feldman ideas. There was Foxy Boxing — girls in bikinis. There was team boxing. There was the Battle of the Midgets, and a Hottest Girl in Delaware County contest. The events often didn’t come off as planned, but newspapers and radio shows ate it up from the start.
“Damon and his events are ridiculous, and that’s why they’re perfect for the column,” says Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross, a primary source of Damon Feldman news. “I write four columns a week, and if he offers me a chance to break the news of his next pseudo-celebrity fight, I’ll take it.”
Feldman originally wanted to be a respectable promoter, but it didn’t go so well. Boxing as a business is an unsavory exercise in screwing and suing people, even when you know what you’re doing. Feldman never really got on top of it. Fighters or venues would drop out. When he e-mailed a press release saying the winner of one heavyweight bout would get to face Mike Tyson, insiders knew he was dreaming aloud. There were bookkeeping issues. A lot of boxing people felt the money didn’t flow as promised after events. A lot offered no comment for this story.
“Damon has always been more about promoting himself than his events. That’s the most accurate thing I can say about it,” Peltz says. “He’s more about the sizzle than the steak.”
The final bell for Feldman’s legitimate boxing work tolled in 2005, when an argument involving tickets and money at a pre-fight meeting itself escalated into a fight. The other promoter laid a hand on Feldman, who knocked the guy out with a single left hook. Witnesses said Feldman was in a rage, shouting that everybody was out to get him, and had to be restrained.
“I’m a bad muthafucking Jew, man,” Feldman says. “Naw, look, I’m the last guy to start trouble. But I will end it.”
After that, Pennsylvania didn’t renew his promoter’s license anymore. And so Feldman went off the grid, to redefine celebrity. He’s staged fights with Michael Lohan, Lindsay’s dad, and Phil Margera, father of TV stunt-host Bam Margera — guys who aren’t even the most famous people in their immediate families. He’s working to match up Sugar Ray Leonard Jr. and Marvin Hagler Jr., the non-athlete, adult children of the Hall of Fame boxers. He’s started the Celebrity Boxing Federation, with dreams of making it as big as World Wrestling Entertainment or the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He aims high — “Before Philadelphia signed Michael Vick, I tried to get him to fight,” he says — but gets what he gets.
Feldman pays celebs from $1,500 to $10,000 for three one-minute rounds wearing headgear and puffy gloves. There’s no shortage of prospects. On cable, being unembarrassed has become a growth industry. Undergoing rehab for substance abuse is a gig — usually the start of a comeback. And the Internet makes sure no one ever is truly forgotten. These days, so many schnooks and hopefuls are poking tiny dings on the Wall of Fame that it’s impossible to keep track, and if someone tells you Here’s a guy who stars in this show you’ve kinda heard of, well, you grin and accept it.
It would be parochial to suggest celebrity boxing could work only in Philadelphia. For starters, it doesn’t always work. “One event you may make good money, another you might lose five thou,” Feldman says. Surely our lack of actual celebs in town is why Feldman is a boldface name in our biggest newspapers. And it’s surprising how many of his celebs have local roots: Bonaduce is from Broomall, Margera is from West Chester, Gervase Peterson lives in Willingboro. But then, that’s no coincidence. One thing Feldman knows is a good hook.
He believes the momentum is building. And Rodney King has been getting such huge media. Maybe this will be the big one.
IT’S BEEN DRIZZLING all day before the King fight — not good for attendance. There’s a Phillies home game, plus a legit boxing show at the Blue Horizon. Also, it’s September 11th, though that’s just weird iconic convergence; the fight had been scheduled for September 12th, but there was a snafu with the original venue, and Feldman had to scramble to relocate.
Just now, he’s in the hallway outside the Ramada ballroom, pacing between the seated crowd and the entrance, his arms folded tightly. “I thought it would be more,” he says. “A lot of traffic out there?”
King comes down from his room and mingles, posing for pictures with fans and Tinicum Township police. The room is set up to hold about 900 people, but maybe 400 are here. “If I take a minus on this, fuck it, it’s paying my dues,” Feldman says quietly.
In the hotel kitchen, which is being used as a dressing room, King gets ready. He’s in a white Everlast robe and trunks, and sitting backwards on a chair. Marty Feldman leans in and gives him some last advice.
“I told him to keep his hands up and his ass off the floor,” the old trainer says.
Now they’re up in the ring, and there’s the bell. Either ex-cop Aouad is a lot more bark than bite, or he’s not bringing 100 percent. In the third round, King swivels him with a left hook to the head, then nearly knocks him down. And it’s over. King wins by decision. In the ring, he’s awarded the Celebrity Boxing Federation heavyweight title belt.
Two days later, Feldman takes stock. The crowd could have been bigger, he says: “I think what happened was the date change at the last minute. We had a couple hundred calls Saturday because the tickets still said Saturday.” Still, he was happy with the media coverage. “It was all over the place today. Daily News, New York Post, TMZ.”
He’s ready for more. Coming up: Joey Buttafuoco vs. Amy Fisher’s husband. “I’m good at what I do,” he says. “Not good. I’m great. Not to be arrogant. But I know what I’m doing – except I’m not good with the business sense of it. I’m good with getting the people, putting a good show on.”
Over the summer, Feldman made a promising contact, with a representative for Carl Weathers, the actor who played Apollo Creed in Rocky. Well, not quite: It turned out the guy didn’t really rep Weathers. But it got Feldman dreaming. Maybe Feldman will be the guy to bring the Philadelphia celebrity boxing story to a mind-bending full circle. “My goal is to get Sylvester Stallone in the ring,” he says. “Don’t count me out yet.”