Tonight, the center of attention in the Harrah’s Philadelphia banquet room is neither a wedding band nor a corporate PowerPoint presentation. It’s an octagonal steel cage.
Within this claustrophobic crucible, two combatants in the surging spectator sport of mixed martial arts trade punches, kicks, takedowns and other maneuvers, while fans holler instructions and encouragement. It’s a packed house, and the looming prospect of a sudden end keeps emotions high.
With his gray suit and below-the-radar demeanor, David Feldman maintains his customary low profile and watchful eye. The Broomall-based promoter has brought both MMA and boxing to the Chester waterfront and other venues in this region and elsewhere. But if his style is modest, his ambitions are not. Feldman has been steadily expanding his geographic reach, and he fully expects to share in broadcast revenue as that reach grows. He also manages and trains fighters in both sports. “It’s a building process; we’re still putting money in,” says Feldman, whose Xtreme Fight Events promotes the MMA action. “I’ve been offered buyouts, but I really love what I do.”
He’d better. His 39 shows last year made him, by far, the busiest promoter of such events in Pennsylvania. He works regularly with Harrah’s and the Sands Bethlehem. He’s also staged shows at Santander Arena in Reading, Showboat Atlantic City, and as far away as South Carolina and Arizona. “David is a hustler—that’s his middle name,” says Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, which sanctions boxing and MMA shows.
And Sirb is quick to define Feldman’s brand of hustling as hard work, not the less admirable kind. He has a reputation for honesty and thoroughness in a business often lacking both. Talk to people who have worked with Feldman, and words like “straightforward” and “integrity” surface time and again. “He’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, a man of his word,” says Harrah’s VIP host Hugo Immediato, who, as special events manager, took the first steps to bring boxing and MMA to the casino.
Feldman seems to have a gift for clear, consistent communication that reassures fighters fearful of being cheated and business execs wary of promoters who fail to deliver. “We wanted someone who speaks regionally,” says Harrah’s general manager Ron Baumann.
While his roots have always been local, Feldman’s career didn’t take hold until he ventured out of the area. Even as he was cutting his promotional teeth a decade ago on “Tough Guy” contests—some in conjunction with his more flamboyant brother, Damon—he went west in search of bigger game. He found it in Arizona, where he copromoted several boxing and MMA shows at Fort McDowell Casino in Scottsdale and Paradise Casino in Yuma. Then he branched out to Harrah’s in Reno, Nev. “I was thinking big and figured casinos already have people going in and out,” he says.
Boxing has long been associated with Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos. But it was new to Arizona, where Feldman and Fort McDowell staged the first official bare-knuckle match since the days of John L. Sullivan in the late 19th century.
Yet Feldman still had to make ends meet—such are the financial realities of promoting boxing/MMA without big-name fighters. Back home in Delaware County, he managed bars and restaurants. He “coulda been a contender” (but wasn’t) on TV’s The Contender and continued to copromote smaller-scale fisticuffs. Then, in March 2010, he launched XFE with the inaugural “Cage Wars: The Inception” at what’s now Sun Center Studios in Aston.
Meanwhile, Immediato had joined Harrah’s Philadelphia after his family’s long-standing Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre in Wilmington, Del., ended its run. He was looking to augment the events roster. “Most casinos do some form of fighting, and I noticed we didn’t have any,” says Immediato.
He pitched the idea to his casino bosses, but they weren’t interested. Two new arrivals changed the equation: table games and Baumann. “It meant a new dynamic,” says Baumann, who’d compiled an extensive portfolio of casino boxing in Atlantic City. “We attracted new customers—more male, a little bit younger
—and looked for even more compelling reasons for them to visit the property.”
Taking Baumann’s lead, Immediato called former world-class middleweight and Delaware legend Dave Tiberi, who has promoted boxing shows at Dover Downs and the Chase Center in Wilmington. Tiberi recommended David Feldman.
Joined by Philadelphia-based promoter Joey Intrieri, Feldman debuted at Harrah’s with a boxing card in January 2011. Soon, his XFE brought MMA events to the casino, as well. Since then, he and Intrieri have promoted nearly 30 shows at the site.
Feldman has also secured a foothold at other casinos in the region. “[His shows are] a great fit for the Lehigh Valley,” says Sands Bethlehem events manager Matt Salkowski. “It’s an affordable night out for a blue-collar crowd.”
Two years ago, David Feldman was promoting an MMA event at the Showboat when he saw a billboard for the event on the Atlantic City Expressway. “I had to pinch myself,” he recalls. “I grew up with boxing and my father’s connection to Atlantic City.”
Feldman fought five times as a pro. His dad, Marty, was a stablemate of fearsome heavyweight champ Sonny Liston in the early 1960s. He later became a top trainer and was on hand in 1992 at Trump Taj Mahal for the middleweight championship bout in which his fighter, Dave Tiberi, lost a decision widely derided as appalling.
Feldman’s irrepressible sibling, Damon, had a promising boxing career cut short by an injury sustained outside the ring. He’s since become known for his Celebrity Boxing matches, featuring the likes of Tonya Harding and Rodney King. Not surprisingly, a scheduled fight between controversial killer George Zimmerman and troubled rap star DMX sparked enough outrage this past February to force its cancellation.
It’s hardly a secret that boxing, both as a sport and a business, is prone to heartbreak and will always have a sizable share of detractors. Still, it persists—though it no longer commands center stage. MMA has siphoned potential fighters from traditional boxing and captured the younger generation of fight fans. “It’s a skilled street fight,” says Feldman. “It gives guys—like former high school wrestlers—opportunities they wouldn’t have had.”
To optimize ticket sales for his MMA shows, Feldman plays up local fighters, all of whom must have trainers and file papers with the state athletic commission. Promoters are quite vulnerable to fighters pulling out of MMA bouts, which last a maximum of three rounds—five minutes each for pros, two or three for amateurs.
Late cancellations at last November’s boxing show at Reading’s Santander Arena forced a diminished card that nonetheless produced some lively action. The 7,000-seat facility was more than half full, thanks to Feldman and local promoter Marshall Kauffman. Their strategy to build the gate by selling premium tickets, but distributing a large portion of the inexpensive ones, paid off in exposure, if not the bottom line. “We broke even, essentially,” Feldman says. “But a crowd that size with no big headliners gave us a buzz.”
It’s all part of the building process, with television laying down more than a few bricks. GoFightLive broadcasts Feldman’s shows for live streaming and airing on Comcast SportsNet within two or three weeks. While in its infancy, streaming packs payoff potential. “We can only grow if the promoter grows,” says GFL producer Mark Chmielinski. “We can stream to countries all over the world and revenue-share with the promoter.”
Deskbound in his office at the Marple Sports Arena, Feldman doesn’t have much time to dream. He and his son, David Jr., are busy chasing down an MMA fighter who is late in getting a physical exam. Feldman’s first love is the schooling and preparation of fighters, a discipline for which he is well suited. “We want to build a management team for boxing and MMA,” he says.
David Jr. is in charge of that effort. Feldman-managed fighters have competed at Valley Forge Casino and other sites in the region. “The idea is to move these fighters to the next level,” says Feldman.
For now, though, there are sponsors to satisfy and arenas to fill. Feldman recently upped his ante at the Sands Bethlehem by joining ex-heavyweight champion (and erstwhile thespian) Mike Tyson to promote boxing shows.
“Here’s this guy who I saw knock out all those fighters on TV,” says Feldman, who admits to being somewhat starstruck when they first met.
Now, if he could just get Iron Mike in one of those MMA cages.