The home of an internationally renowed concert pianist and his talented pianist wife is not where one expects to come across a large piece of boxing history. But that’s what one finds in a spacious Riverside Drive apartment several blocks from the City College of New York in a gentrified part of Harlem.
Bela Szilagyi was born on 11 March 1934. As a footnote to his birth, he was the first baby born at New York Hospital to weigh two pounds or less and survive.
Bela’s parents were Hungarian immigrants. His father played first violin in a Gypsy orchestra that, depending on the occasion, consisted of six to nine players. His mother worked at Governor’s Cafeteria across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House.
When Bela was three, his father started teaching him to play the violin. Six years later, piano was added to his repertoire. Bela was gifted. At age twelve, he performed at Carnegie Hall as a soloist pianist. In his late-teens, he was awarded a full scholarship to study music at Juilliard.
During his career, Bela performed throughout the United States and Europe with orchestras and as a solo pianist. He also taught. During the 1964-1965 academic year, he was a visiting artist in residence at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. One of his students was a young women named Elizabeth Brett, who was eight years his junior and had started playing piano at age four.
Bela was married with five children (ages five, four, and three, in addition to having one-year-old twins). After the school year ended, he sent a letter to Elizabeth, confiding, “Something has happened to me. I’ve fallen in love with you.”
One year after graduating from college, Elizabeth moved to New York. In 1968, she and Bela were married.
What does all of this have to do with boxing?
When Bela was a boy, his father listened to Friday night fights on the radio. If Bela had practiced piano conscientiously that week, he was allowed to listen to the fights with his father. Over time, he became a passionate boxing fan.
Fast-forward to 1979. Home VCRs were becoming widely available. Bela began recording fights as a hobby. Then it became an obsession. He recorded every fight that was televised live and added old fights that were shown on ESPN Classic and other networks to his archive. He received tapes of fights from overseas. News of his collection spread. Before long, television networks, promoters, managers, trainers, fighters, and fans were asking him for copies.
Thus, a business - “Captain Video Boxing” - was born.
Captain Video Boxing skirted the boundaries of copyright law. Recording the fights off of television was legal. Selling tapes of the fights was a different matter. But the copyrights holders (TV networks, promoters, and a few others) frequently did business with Bela. They needed tapes from him to evaluate proposed match-ups.
Szilagyi’s concert career ended in 1997, when doctors discovered an inoperable aortic aneurysm. At that point, the boxing archive became even more important to him. The venture was never cost-effective, given the thousands of hours that he poured into it. But it was a labor of love.
Bela died in 2012. Since then, Elizabeth has maintained the collection. It contains more than 50,000 fights collected on 8,000 VHS tapes and 4,000 DVDs.
The VHS tapes are a stunning sight. Entering the Szilagyi home, one sees an immense 80-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that stretches down and around a long hallway. Another room houses dozens of multi-colored plastic containers, each one holding one hundred DVDs.
“Bela was obsessive,” Elizabeth says. “Thank God, he started cataloging the collection early so things are well organized.”
That brings us to the present. Elizabeth would like to sell the collection.
“It’s a living thing,” she explains. “It needs to be maintained. And I don’t want to do that anymore.”
But there are obstacles. Given today’s technology, a buyer would want to digitalize the 8,000 VHS tapes. That would take time and money.
A lot of the material on the tapes and DVDs is available now on YouTube.
“And I want the collection to be in the right hands,” Elizabeth says. “Bela’s sincere objective was to create a video history of boxing. I know how much this archive meant to him, and I want it to have a good home.”
Elizabeth Szilagyi can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Andre Ward live on BoxNation
On 6 August, BoxNation will televise a scheduled 12-round match-up between Andre Ward and Alexander Brand.
Ward, age 32, established his credentials when he emerged triumphant from Showtime’s “Super Six” 168-pound tournament with victories over Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch. Thereafter, he was grouped with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao at the top of most pound-for-pound lists. The problem is, the “Super Six” tournament ended almost five years ago. Since then, Ward has fought only four times. And those fights were against marginal opposition. Andre’s record now stands at 29-0 (15 KOs). But it has been a long time since he went in tough.
Brand (25-1, 19 KOs) has been imported from Colombia as the last piece of a puzzle to be completed before Ward faces off against Sergey Kovalev in Las Vegas on 19 November. Just as Kovalev’s recent outing against Isaac Chilema raised questions regarding how Sergey might deal with Ward’s technical proficiency; fans will be watching Ward-Brand for any signs of slippage on Andre’s part. Including, most notably, whether he has become more hittable.
Some Thoughts on Boxing
Randall “Tex” Cobb: “I hit people, but I ain’t mad at them. If I want to quit, I can. If I get scared, I can sit. I don’t because that’s part of the game. But if this were a real fight, do you think I’d be out there with leather on my fists? I’d be out behind a bar in some alley with a bat. I’d be tearing the guy’s lungs out. This ain’t the real thing. It’s a game.”
Andre Berto: “The boxing media can make you a lot of money. They can make you bigger than what you are. If you’re good enough, they can make you a superstar. But you got to be careful with the boxing media because they’re up and down. If you’re a superstar, they’re your best friend. But if you lose in a way they don’t like, they turn it around really quick.”
George Chuvalo: “When you win, you feel like a lion. When you lose, you feel like a Christian.”