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Harry Kabakoff dies at 82; colorful boxing trainer and manager

The eccentric handler swapped his real name, Melville Himmelfarb, for Kabakoff in honor of his uncle. Among his best fighters were Jesus Pimentel, Don Jordan and Tury Pineda.

November 22, 2009|By Valerie J. Nelson
  • Harry Kabakoff was intensely loyal to his boxers, serving as "manager, trainer, father-confessor and cook." Among the best-known was Jesus Pimentel.
Harry Kabakoff was intensely loyal to his boxers, serving as "manager,… (Los Angeles Times )

After boxing's Melville Himmelfarb started going by Harry Kabakoff, sportswriters invariably marveled over the unorthodox trading of one unwieldy name for another.

Why not "Tyrone Youngblood" or something with "Lancelot" in it?, The Times' Jim Murray wrote in 1979.

The re-christened Kabakoff, once known as the premier handler of Mexican fighters in the U.S., always said he took the name of his uncle to honor his relative, a successful boxer.

Kabakoff, who had cancer, died Tuesday of cardiac arrest at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, said Jesse Pimentel, who considered Kabakoff his grandfather. He was 82.

Six weeks before his death, he had returned to Los Angeles from Mexicali, where he retired at least a decade ago.

"He was maybe the most colorful character in boxing that I've ever met, and everyone in boxing is colorful," said Bill Caplan, a boxing publicist. "He was a rogue and a rascal and he was funny and lovable."

One of Kabakoff's best fighters was Jesus Pimentel, father of Jesse, and "perhaps the greatest bantamweight fighter who never won a world championship," Mike Hiserman wrote in The Times in 1995.

Known for scouring the barrios of Mexico in search of young talent, Kabakoff met Pimentel in Mexicali.

"They were together for 12 years, from beginning to end," the younger Pimentel told The Times on Friday. "Harry would say, 'Your father held my hand in 1958 and hasn't let go since.' "

As he sought a world-championship belt, Pimentel's career was marked by near-misses that often were blamed on Kabakoff.

He "was a good trainer and good manager" but "ran from title fights" if he thought his boxer was at risk, Caplan said.

For publicity, Kabakoff would do outrageous things, Caplan said, including dressing as the dynamic duo during the Batman craze in the late 1960s. The portly Kabakoff and Pimentel called themselves Fatman and Bobbin.

By 1972, Kabakoff was "the General Motors of fight managers," with a roster of 67 names but only 10 who could "really fight," Murray wrote in The Times.

Kabakoff's loyalty to his men was "unmatched," John Hall noted in a 1971 Times column that made light of the fact that Kabakoff had nicknamed himself "the Mad Russian."

"At least, he's got insight," Hall quipped.

Born July 13, 1927, in St. Louis, Kabakoff was the son of Sam Himmelfarb, a bread-truck driver from London and his wife, the former Stella Kabakoff, who was from Poland.

Growing up, Kabakoff went to eight schools between St. Louis and Los Angeles and claimed he was thrown out of them all.

At 16, he eloped in Mexico with his girlfriend, who was pregnant, but the marriage was annulled after five days.

In 1944, Kabakoff joined the Navy and became a cook on a minelayer. After World War II, he moved to Los Angeles and started boxing.

"I was an average fighter as an amateur and a poor one as a pro," Kabakoff later recalled.

As a manager and trainer, he worked with a number of good fighters, including former welterweight champion Don Jordan and lightweight Tury Pineda.

In the 1950s, Kabakoff ran into trouble as assistant matchmaker at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles when he was accused of secretly handling fighters for Babe McCoy, who as the Olympic's matchmaker could not own fighters.

Kabakoff always denied the charges but the fallout caused him to "lose everything," he told The Times in 1968.

He managed to buy a beer parlor in Santa Ana in 1958 and then made the fortuitous trip to Mexicali, where he met Pimentel. The fighter, who lives in North Hills, named one of his sons Melville.

Kabakoff "was manager, trainer, father-confessor and cook" for his fighters, Caplan recalled.

He was just too soft-hearted for the business, Aileen Eaton, then the Olympic promoter, told Sports Illustrated in 1977.

"Even after they retire . . . he keeps giving them money," Eaton said. "He's 1,000 percent loyal. . . . Because of the movies, people think managers are some kind of monsters. They should know Harry."

He has no immediate survivors.

A memorial service was being planned.

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