By Geoffrey Gray
The boxing economy runs a lot like the stock market. There are blue chippers -- mainstream names that can yield profits for decades or more for a promoter. There are short sales -- fighters whose names you might not know who can sell tickets but don't move their heads, eating three punches to give one, and get cashed out at their television debut. To secure these kinds of investments, promoters will venture to the poorest pueblos and jungle bordellos on the planet to find The Next Great Thing.
Artie Pelullo, of Philadelphia, is an expert in the fight game's emerging markets. As a promoter, he's made a career of developing talent from remote locations, and not always by design. Many years ago, Pelullo staged an international tournament, inviting fighters from all over the world to compete, hoping to smoke out talent that nobody had ever heard of. One Brazilian fighter would have to be flown in from Rio de Janeiro, another from Salvador. Pelullo chose the fighter from Salvador.
"It was all dumb luck," Pelullo says of the choice. "We were trying to save some bucks. The flight from Salvador was a few hundred dollars cheaper."
The fighter who stepped off the plane from Salvador turned out to be Acelino Freitas. He was a blue chipper, winning the lightweight title and earning a fortune for Pelullo, who used the newfound wealth to fund more overseas talent searches. His latest acquisition comes from Beryozovo, a town so deep and north in the empty lands of Siberia that the thermometer in spring can reach 30 below. That fighter is Ruslan Provodnikov, and he once missed his flight to the States because the gasoline in the tank of his car froze on the way. Provodnikov has cool green eyes; he fights in the style of a Mongol warrior, and he might as well come from outer space as far as Pelullo is concerned.
"He eats raw moose liver, what can I tell you?" Pelullo says.
Provodnikov could be a blue chipper, though it's unlikely. He eats so many punches while trying to smother and break down his opponents that no matter how much moose liver he eats -- and whatever nutritional qualities it may or may not contain -- it will be hard for Provodnikov to sustain a lengthy career, as Freitas did. So it's a race to increase his market share, while there's still time.
Pelullo has been trying to build Provodnikov a fan base among Russian-Americans, and the first real test of that campaign will be on Saturday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Provodnikov will face Chris Algieri, an undefeated 140-pound prospect from Huntington, Long Island. "We want to make him a star in the Russian community, and that's what this is really about," Pelullo says of Provodnikov. "He has to shine, because he's expected to shine."
The fight is also a testament to Pelullo's charm. Boxing has become more corporate over the years, with the main networks and promoters consolidating power. In a sport that's diminshed in prestige and revenues, it's been hard for individual operators like Pelullo to stay in business. His talent lies not his intelligence ("I'm not a sophisticated person") nor his financial ambition ("I don't want to make a hundred million, I want to make ten million"), but in his ability to be likeable in a cutthroat world.
Lou Dibella, a rival promoter and former HBO network executive, has known Pelullo for decades. "There are people in the business that hate Artie, and there are people in the business that love Artie, but there is nobody in the business that would not share a meal with Artie," DiBella says. "He's a guy that knows how to make you feel important, how to feel appreciated, and that's a real gift. There's a real value to that. There are guys in the business who are brilliant, but nobody wants to be near them." Even though DiBella and Pelullo have never promoted a fight together, they meet every Christmas for a traditional lunch.
"I like to have fun," Pelullo says. "I think life should be fun. People say, 'Oh, you have to pay your dues.' I don't want to pay your dues. I don't think anyone should pay their dues. Why should life be hard?"
It's a worldview that crystallized for him one night in 1988, while sitting in the front row at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, watching Frank Sinatra perform. Between songs, Sinatra shared his own wisdom with the crowd. "Live every day like it's your last, and one day you'll be right," he said.
Sinatra knew Pelullo and his family well. Years ago, Pelullo's grandfather ran a restaurant called Nicoletti's, at the corner of New York and Pacific in Atlantic City, and the tables of the family-style place were often filled with acts about to perform at the infamous 500 Club. Sinatra and his Rat Pack would visit and spend time with Pelullo's family, which has been another source of complication in his life. Some in his family have not been able to avoid that old network of wiseguys and mafia men, but he says he's been able to stay away. "I don't have any relationship with that world."
His first business was running hot dog carts. Then he got into limousines. In Philadelphia, he started managing fighters, then promoting them. He's put on some 300 shows, he estimates, in locations as remote as North Dakota and the danger zones of gang-infested Mexico. Behind each deal is that personal touch -- a long trip he made, healthy drinking and feasting to consummate the relationship.
"The Russians murdered me," he says of his courtship of Provodnikov. He landed in Moscow and started drinking vodka with the fighter's handlers in the hotel lobby that morning. Pelullo doesn't particularly like vodka, but all that drinking was essential to establish trust. "The Russians are cold," he explains. "We Italians...we hug, we kiss. So I drank a lot of vodka...now the kid is signed with me."
The trust Pelullo has built up with the Russian businessmen around Provodnikov was also instrumental in changing the venue of Saturday night's fight. Before, the fight was to be held at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, where Algieri's hometown fans likely would pack the crowd. A Brooklyn venue, on the other hand, would be a stronger draw for the Russian community. After some last-minute wrangling, the fight was changed to the Barclays, at the insistence of Brooklyn Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. "He was short and to the point," Pelullo recalls of a phone call with Prokhorov. "He said, 'We're going to let you bring the fight to our place. You're going to take care of our Russian people. People say they like you, you're a fun guy, and this is what we got to do.'"
There's no secret, no magic formula, to his business strategy.
"People know when you're bullsh--ting, and they know when you're sincere," he says. "If people like you and you're straight [with them], you're going to be okay."
Pelullo doesn't want to promote boxers for long. "It takes three months to put on a show that lasts three hours," he says. "You have 16 fighters on a card, three people to deal with for each fighter, now all of the sudden you're dealing with 60 people! And deals, sponsorships. It's a time-consuming business." He wants to start his own restaurant, a little place on a beach somewhere that he and his wife can run. That way, he won't have to travel anywhere. He can tell his old stories about Sinatra and his fighters that eat moose liver, keep his tumblers full of Scotch, plenty of cigars in his jacket pocket, and get on with his larger mission.
"If you're going to do it bad, do it well," Pelullo said of his vices. "I want to make it to 100, drinking and smoking."
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Geoffrey Gray is a best-selling author and reporter based in New York. A contributing editor at New York Magazine, he has covered boxing, bullfighting, tennis, female arm wrestling, camel racing and high-end perfume.