Lester Bedford has coordinated most every major boxing event in El Paso in the last 25 years. He’s worked on more than 500 sporting events and 100 world championship boxing events nationwide.
Even so, Bedford says there is no doubt that the upcoming middleweight championship fight between Julio César Chavez Jr. and Andy Lee has been the most challenging and somewhat surreal.
Bedford, 56, owns The Bedford Agency in Dallas, which manages and markets sporting events across the country. But for boxing, he says you can’t do better than El Paso, and he’s been selling the city for decades.
He’s punchy and isn’t afraid to speak his mind, telling in detail the story of what happened beginning on April 24, when UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa dealt the city a blow by canceling the fight at the Sun Bowl because of unspecified security concerns.
“You know what? If I took ‘no’ for an answer for everything I’ve tried to do in my life, I would not have accomplished anything – not as an athlete, not as a promoter, not as an event coordinator – so I told them I could not accept ‘no’ as an answer,” Bedford says.
Now the June 16 fight is back on at the Sun Bowl and the ticket sales are good.
Bedford started his career in boxing as a promoter, becoming the youngest ever to promote a world championship fight, he says, when he was just 26.
Three years later, he started The Bedford Agency. Its first clients were members of the U.S. Olympic team who had won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. The agency served as site coordinator for their events.
Bedford has a bachelor’s degree in business psychology from Texas Wesleyan University. While attending college, he also wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, covering sports.
Bedford sat down with El Paso Inc. at the Camino Real Hotel in Downtown and talked about saving the fight, boosting security and the message the city of El Paso will write on the ring mat.
Q: How did you get into boxing?
I saw Mohammed Ali fight Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams at the Astrodome when I was 11 years old. My dad took me and my two brothers and that was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. It is probably why I am in boxing today. I’ve been to Super Bowls, to World Series baseball games and NBA finals, but there is nothing like the excitement of a big world championship boxing event.
My boxing career started when I was 6 years old. My dad was the athletic director at a Boys Club where I boxed until I was 12 years old.
My intention was never to be a boxer long term; I was a baseball player. I played baseball through college and a little bit of minor league baseball.
Q: Why did you give up promoting? You must have been good at it, being the youngest ever to promote a world championship fight.
I discovered that I didn’t want to be a boxing promoter. The whole business of boxing is like the best and worst of free enterprise. I spent my whole life making friends, and I really enjoyed those friendships.
But what I discovered being a boxing promoter is that you make more enemies than you make friends. When you are a boxing promoter, people hate your guts for some reason. You don’t even have to do anything to them and they just dislike you. Everybody’s image of a boxing promoter is something sleazy, which is totally false. The successful boxing promoters in the United States like Bob Arum, who is promoting the upcoming fight in El Paso, are highly educated people. He’s a Harvard Law School graduate.
Q: What does an event coordinator do?
You can’t really define my job because I do a little bit of everything. I manage the event, make all the facility arrangements and handle all the details of the live gate event, everything from ticketing to the structure of the seating charts to arranging for staffing and hotels.
I also do all the advertising and public relations, developing the overall marketing plan of the event. I also develop the promotional materials and make all the media buys.
Q: You’ve been involved in some of the biggest fights El Paso has ever seen. What is your secret to staging such successful events here?
The thing about El Paso is it’s a perfect population mix for boxing. American football is the No. 1 sport and boxing the No. 2 sport among American Hispanics. Obviously, with a strong Hispanic population base, boxing is going to be more popular here.
There is also a lot of tradition with boxing in El Paso; it has just always been a great fight town. They know a good fight from a bad fight. You cannot fool them.
Q: What makes the upcoming boxing event a good fight?
It has several elements to it. One is of course the Chavez name. Chavez’s dad was the greatest fighter in Mexico ever and people still grasp on to that. They are looking to feel the way the father made them feel, which was pride. Now, we don’t know if Chavez Jr. is going to be the same kind of fighter as his father, but nonetheless he is a very talented fighter. He is now the world middleweight champion and he’s fighting against Andy Lee, the No. 2 contender and former Olympic silver medalist from Ireland.
It’s a 50/50 fight. Either guy can win the fight, which is what makes this fight so good. Another part of the equation is that in Chavez Jr.’s corner is Freddie Roach, the top trainer in the world today and Hall of Famer. And in Andy Lee’s corner is another boxing Hall of Famer, Emanuel Steward, one of the great all-time trainers in the history of boxing.
The Sun Bowl elevates the event as well. There is something about having the event in the Sun Bowl that says, “Man, this is big.”
Q: Ever had as many challenges to establish a fight as you had with this one in El Paso?
No, this is the most difficult one. I have never had one that was announced, and we were ready to put tickets on sale, than have somebody come back and tell me we can’t do the event. How can you say that? I was in total shock. I found out an hour before the press conference to promote the sale of the tickets.
Q: Walk me through what happened?
The head of special events at UTEP called me and said he needed me to come to his office. I told him I couldn’t because we were getting ready to have a press conference, but he insisted we talk in person. When I got there, he and the vice president of the university proceeded to tell me that they were going to have to cancel the event. My first thought was: “How are you going to tell the people of El Paso this? Do you know what you are saying?”
Q: Was any reason given then?
Yeah. They gave me a very simple explanation at first and that explanation was simply high security concerns by the chancellor of the UT System. And I said, “Is there any chance we can make this work?” At the time, they told me “no.” You know what? If I took “no” for an answer for everything I’ve tried to do in my life, I would not have accomplished anything – not as an athlete, not as a promoter, not as an event coordinator.
So I told them I could not accept “no” as an answer and we were going to make an effort to get it back. But I’ll tell you, as difficult as it was to get the fight back on, it was the most amazing thing I have ever seen – the way El Paso came together to pull this thing back. I have to give credit to all the people who busted their rear to make it happen. I could have talked until I was blue in the face and gotten nowhere. It was just a major slap to the face to El Paso and the citizens responded.
Q: Were you surprised by the way the city coalesced around that effort?
I was surprised to the extent that they were angry. Once I understood their anger, I understood why they were angry. This is a safe city. I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and I know this city is safer than Dallas. It’s the safest city in the United States.
For the headlines to read all over the country the way they did, that the fight was canceled over drug cartel concerns, I mean, that was a major slap in the face.
Q: Why do you think the chancellor changed his mind?
He changed his mind because he is smart. I thought for a while there that he wasn’t very smart. I thought he made a very foolish decision based on lack of information and knowledge – not just about El Paso but about boxing in general.
If it had been a soccer game or football game or motocross event, I don’t think he would have had the same concerns.
But because it was boxing, he instantly assumed there was something shady going on, or maybe the drug cartels were more interested in that than they might be a soccer game. I can assure you that I have less security problems at boxing events than I have at tennis events.
Q: Wait, tennis? Really?
I’ve had almost more fights at tennis events than I have at boxing events, and that is no joke. I had three fights at a tennis event one weekend in Dallas, women seeing their husbands cheating on them and stuff.
Oh, man, I have seen it all. There are a lot of misconceptions about not only El Paso, but also about boxing in general. If you are going to say boxing fans are rowdy or involved in cartels, that’s baloney. They are the same people who watch football, who watch basketball and watch major league baseball.
Q: What does this episode mean for the future of boxing in El Paso? How bad is the damage?
I can tell you there was some damage done on this event. Although our ticket sales are reasonably good, they would be better if this issue had never come up. There are also concerns about there being alcohol or not. We are still hopeful that is going to happen. This whole thing took the focus off a really good event and a really good fight. It’s not just a political issue; it is a great event.
Q: How many tickets have been sold?
I don’t want to discuss what the numbers are because that is the promoter’s prerogative. I can tell you I think it is good, but not great.
Q: Where do ticket sales need to be for you to consider your efforts a success?
Oh, I think anything 25,000 plus, or even 20,000, will be a success. What I’m really hoping for is 30,000 or 35,000 people, and I think it has a chance. We have a long way to go though – I can tell you that.
Q: Why did you fight so hard to keep the fight here? Wouldn’t it have been easier to move it somewhere else?
By 6 p.m. the day the fight was canceled, I had the fight set for Houston at the Toyota Center. I asked promoter Bob Arum, “Please give them until Thursday to see if anything can be done.”
Thankfully he did that, because also on that Wednesday afternoon, the city had a press conference with all the elected officials as well as the DEA, FBI and Border Patrol. I sent a link of the video to Bob Arum and I said, “Bob, we’ve got to let this play out. They are really fighting hard down there.”
Anyway, he was blown away – we were all moved – and he said to give them all the time they need to make it happen. By Friday, the Sun Bowl deal came back and we left it there.
Q: At this point, no alcohol can be sold at the fight. How are you going to position this to sell tickets and maintain the Tecate sponsorship?
One of our sponsors is the city of El Paso, and from their standpoint, they want everybody to feel like El Paso can handle alcohol. If they can handle it for any other event at the Sun Bowl, they can handle it for this boxing event.
This will be the most secure event in the history of El Paso sports, if not the state of Texas. We are still hopeful we are going to have beer. If not, we are going to have the event anyway. It will be a shame if alcohol is banned because it sends the wrong message that the citizens of El Paso can’t handle their liquor.
We’ve got some people working on it in the background, trying to make it happen. We are hoping that the university president does her part in helping us, because right now we need her support.
Q: The city will have advertising space on the ring mat and the corner pads?
I’m very entertained by what they are going to put on the ring mat: “El Paso” real big, then underneath it, it will say “America’s safest city.” Seriously. You got to love it.
Q: How valuable to the city is the exposure on HBO? Will HBO do profiles on the city?
I believe HBO is actually doing a feature on how this whole thing came down. HBO is very intrigued by the whole story about how the city came together. Anything that HBO does is going to be very positive for El Paso. This event is available to a billion homes worldwide. Twenty million people will watch this fight in Mexico alone. It will probably be the most watched show in Mexico for the entire month of June.
More people in Mexico saw Chavez’s last fight in prime time than saw the championship game of the Mexican Premier League. El Paso is going to be on display in a very positive light.
Q: What is the story behind the ring you are wearing?
One of my hobbies is I catch in the bullpen for a minor league team called the Grand Prairie AirHogs. This is a championship ring from last year, when the AirHogs won the league. My winter hobby is working as high school basketball referee.
Q: What was it like promoting your first world championship fight at 26?
It was Bubba Busceme vs. Alexis Arguello. You know, I co-promoted with Bob Arum, ironically. I did all the work on the live event and Arum did all the TV work. I seriously thought about quitting boxing right there, thinking, “I can’t do any better than this.” Well, that was 100 world title fights ago.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.