Heiress Josephine Abercrombie Becomes a Contender in the High-Stakes World of Boxing

UPDATED 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

Get him, Choo Choo, get him!" urged a voice from the crowd that recently packed the Houston Hyatt Regency's ballroom turned boxing arena. In the audience the shouter feinted shadow jabs and counterpunches while, in the ring, 24-year-old eighth-ranked junior welterweight Choo Choo Dixon methodically picked apart opponent Efren Olivo. After a punch floored Olivo, the shouter jumped out of her seat, threw a congratulatory hug around the sweat-streaked victor and chirped, "I love it. Don't you love it? Wasn't he great?"

Look out, Don King; beware, Bob Arum. Boxing's most unique new promoter is 59-year-old heiress Josephine Abercrombie—founder, financial backer and superbooster of the fledgling Houston Boxing Association. In less than two years Abercrombie has assembled a stable of seven boxers, including Dixon (14-0 record) and Olympic middleweight gold medalist Frank Tate (6-0). In November 1984 Abercrombie also picked up a 51 percent interest in a New York-based fight group, Ring One. This week she will be peering through the ropes in Reno, when one of that group's top boxers, 6'4", 225-lb. Carl "the Truth" Williams (16-0), challenges Larry Holmes (47-0) in a championship heavyweight bout. "Boxing is the ultimate sport," says Abercrombie. "It's one on one. You can't blame the loss on someone else. But then, you can enjoy the victory all yourself."

Abercrombie can be a tough face-to-face operator in her own right. For 10 years she has overseen her $100 million-plus fortune, including Texas ranch land, oil wells, cattle and thoroughbreds. Five times divorced, she is the mother of two sons, aged 28 and 26. She lives in a spacious Mediterranean-style home highlighted with Western paintings and bronzes and watched over by a guard, an attack dog named Bunker and a household staff of three.

These days 80 percent of Abercrombie's time is spent overseeing the operation of her boxing stable. "Some people in this business are suspicious of us," she says. "We want to make champions, but we have our own way of going about it."

After signing a five-year contract, Abercrombie boxers are provided with a furnished apartment. Their diet is overseen by a nutritionist, and daily training takes place in a new 6,000-square-foot carpeted gym. In addition boxers may draw weekly cash advances up to $125, attend frequent financial seminars and are offered various Abercrombie-recommended investments. Physical checkups—including CAT scans to check for brain damage—are a requirement. Members of the stable are each guaranteed at least eight fights per year and fly to out-of-town matches in one of "Mrs. A's" three jets. They turn over a third of their purses to the association. "I don't go into things willy-nilly. This is a business," says Abercrombie, predicting HBA earnings of $40,000 to $50,000 per month within two years. "She's good for the business," says New York boxing manager Shelly Finkel. "Chances are that she can succeed."

Abercrombie was the only child of oilman J.S. "Mr. Jim" Abercrombie, who took his daughter to prizefights as well as social galas. Says family friend Rod Peddie: "Josephine was raised as both a boy and a girl. She and her father were very close." Still, horses beat out boxing as Abercrombie's initial interest. A champion horsewoman, she won 12 blue ribbons at the 1953 National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden before turning her energies to thoroughbred racing.

Then one evening in 1982, Abercrombie attended a closed circuit showing of the Holmes-Cooney fight, which revived her earlier interest. She began talking to an accountant, Bob Spagnola, 29, a former amateur boxer who worked with aspiring fighters at local gyms. Spagnola offered to show her around the boxing scene. From the tour came her idea for the Houston Boxing Association, and Spagnola took over the management.

"When we start to produce some championships, they'll know it," says Spagnola of their boxing rivals. Abercrombie is even more upbeat. "I find it all fascinating," the 5'4" millionairess says of her new investment. "And I don't think any of the magic will ever leave for me."

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