Boxing promoter Cedric Kushner, one of the power players in the sport in the 1990s and early 2000s, suffered a heart attack and died Thursday in New York. He was 66.
"I got a call and I had to go to the hospital because he had a massive heart attack," said promoter Lou DiBella, one of Kushner's closest friends for more than 25 years. "His brain had been affected. I knew he wouldn't have wanted to live like that. I got in the car, and by the time I got to the hospital, he had passed. Ced and I went back to my first week in boxing over 25 years ago. We have a lot of history. He was a dear friend and one of the great characters in boxing."
Kushner, a native of South Africa with an unmistakable walrus mustache and a heavy frame until gastric bypass surgery, was once worth millions. He had fallen on hard times in recent years as his promotion business crumbled and his health began to fail. He had Parkinson's disease, which forced him into an assisted living facility.
"For a long time, Ced was one of the most powerful promoters in the world. You can't even count the number of world champions and top contenders he promoted," said DiBella, who got to know Kushner when he bought fights from him as a senior vice president at HBO during the late 1980s and 1990s. "Ced had like 10 houses and 35 cars at one time, but he made some bad business decisions and he fell off the mountaintop. But he had a lot of friends in this business, and he was a beloved figure in this sport."
Kushner, a self-made man who spent time as a merchant seaman and a Ferris wheel operator, moved to the United States in his mid-20s in about 1974 and got his start as a music promoter, pushing acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Queen, the Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf and others.
In the mid-1980s, he turned his attention to boxing, and by the late 1990s, he was one of the most significant promoters in the business, putting on fights around the world. He was not shy about showing off his success. Based in New York, he lived the high life, which famously included a bright red limousine that chauffeured him and his friends around town.
"He had this [South African] accent that sounded refined and educated, but he barely got out of grade school," DiBella said. "He was shining shoes and cleaning the pool at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami and scalping concert tickets. And he became one of the biggest promoters in the music business. From there he got involved in boxing and was one of the biggest promoters in the world."
Kushner promoted fighters such as Shane Mosley, Virgil Hill, Angel Manfredy, Vuyani Bungu and Welcome Ncita, but he made his name in the heavyweight division and became one of the regular promoters who worked with HBO.
Kushner's syndicated television series, "Heavyweight Explosion," became a breeding ground for numerous contenders and titleholders in the 1990s and 2000s. Often they would fight on "Heavyweight Explosion" before moving on to major fights, and when they would eventually lose, Kushner would return them to the series, build them back up and get them another big fight.
The heavyweights he promoted included a who's who of the era, including Hasim Rahman, Shannon Briggs, Oleg Maskaev, Chris Byrd, the late Corrie Sanders, Ike Ibeabuchi, David Izon, Derrick Jefferson, Kirk Johnson, Jameel McCline and many others.
In 2001, Kushner was on the top of the boxing world when he counted then-heavyweight champion Rahman and welterweight champion Mosley, the pound-for-pound king at the time, as his cornerstone fighters. Mosley had upset Oscar De La Hoya in June 2000 to win the welterweight title, and in April 2001, Rahman pulled off a massive upset to win the heavyweight championship by knocking out Lennox Lewis in the fourth round. Making the crowning moment of Kushner's career even more special was that Rahman's championship win came in South Africa.
But by the time Lewis knocked out Rahman in the rematch seven months later, he had bolted to promoter Don King, and Kushner's relationship with Mosley had soured and would be over by 2002.
Kushner's slow decline in the business followed with the eventual bankruptcy of Cedric Kushner Promotions. His short-lived comeback with a new company, Gotham Boxing, which hitched its wagon to heavyweight retread David Tua, also failed.
One of the low points of his career came in 2000, when he was fined after admitting in federal court during the racketeering and bribery trial of Robert Lee, former president and founder of the International Boxing Federation, that he was among those promoters who paid bribes to the IBF beginning in 1987 in exchange for it ranking his South African fighters at a time when the organization previously would not rank South Africans because of the country's racist apartheid system. Kushner also admitted during the trial that he paid a bribe of $100,000 to have the organization order a rematch of a 1995 heavyweight title fight between George Foreman and Axel Schulz, Kushner's fighter.
Through his highest highs and lowest lows, Kushner had friends around the world in boxing.
"His family was his boxing family," DiBella said.
"Ced was a character but a good man," said Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler, a friend of Kushner's for more than 30 years. "He had a great sense of humor and sly insightful way about him. His perception of the fight game was unique. He had many triumphs and a few low blows thrown at him. Recent years had been very difficult for Ced. My pleasure to have known him."
Those who knew Kushner could tell story upon story of long lunches at the Palm in New York, where boxing business lifers would swap stories. Kushner, often the life of the party, had a million stories and a deadpan way of delivering them.
"He'd hold court, and everyone would listen to his racy, raunchy stories. We had a lot of laughs. I miss those days," DiBella said. "This is another one of those days that's a sad day, when the sport of boxing got a little less colorful. Ced had a penchant for the dark side. He liked his women of the evening, and he would tell stories that would have everyone rolling around. Nobody was funnier to sit down with. Everyone would listen to the stories Cedric told.
"I saw him a week or two ago, and he looked terrible. But he said, 'I'm gonna have one more big triumph in this business.' He had nothing going on but he thought until the very end he could get to the top again and have one more big fighter. I hope wherever he is right now, he gets that one big shot."
DiBella, who is handing the arrangements for a memorial service, said Kushner would be cremated.
"We'll have a service soon, but we want to give Cedric's many friends from around the world time to make plans to come," DiBella said. "He was an international promoter and had friends all over the place. We want them to come in. It will be the kind of great party Cedric would love."