At 80, the things that keep Joe Hand Sr. going
By Tim McManus
Joe Hand Sr. could be anywhere in the world Saturday. He could be at his home in Ocean City. He could be at his place in Florida. If he’d like, he could even be off on an island somewhere, enjoying the fruits of a 52-year career.
Saturday is Hand’s 80th birthday. It is also a fight night. There is no question where he will be.
Like most days, he will wake up, have some breakfast, and once his beard is immaculately trimmed and his appearance suitably dapper, he will report to his office in Feasterville for a day that begins at noon and will end about 12 hours later.
“I never found anything else I liked besides here,” Hand said.
He tried, once.
“I thought that maybe I’d like to go hunting. So I went out and bought a rifle, I bought a scope, I bought all this stuff,” Hand said. “It’s still in my garage.”
Fishing? “Tried that and was a lousy fisherman.”
Golf? “I didn’t have the perseverance to become a good golfer.”
Friends? He’s outlasted Joe Frazier and Frank Rizzo. Steve Carlton retired to Colorado a long time ago. A few years ago, his wife, Margie, set up a lunch date with a friendly couple down the shore.
“My wife, she said, you have to go meet people because we don’t have any friends,” Hand said. “At that time of my life, I was thinking about retirement. So everybody I met, I said, ‘Oh, you’re retired, what do you do?’ This guy got up in the morning and walked his cat. I’ve never seen a guy that walked a cat. He walked this cat.”
There was never a second lunch.
None of those things ever matched the thrill of an idea. They were never enough to satisfy the grandiose plans that still dance through his head. And so he will be behind his desk Saturday at Joe Hand Promotions, the company he founded in 1971 and still shepherds. His staff will distribute the Pay-Per-View signal for UFC 203 to a network of more than 5,000 bars and commercial establishments. Joe Hand Promotions has been the exclusive commercial Pay-Per-View provider for the UFC since 2001. The game has changed from boxing to UFC, but the man at the center remains the same. This year, so far, has been the biggest in the company’s history.
In the old days, at the end of a successful fight, Hand would be so overcome by emotion he would find a corner somewhere in the Spectrum and sob. These days, if the tears come, they are more likely to happen when he pulls into the parking lot. That moment, the one when he turns down Pennsylvania Blvd., is the reason, as much as any, why he still comes.
“This is going to sound silly, but I enjoy just going through the parking lot. Because when we started, and most of these people have been with me for so long, they all had 10-year old cars. Some of them would say, ‘God, I have to fix my tire at lunchtime. Can I borrow money for gas?’ Now, I pull in here and it looks like a high-class parking lot.
“And I think, it’s all because of what I did. I came up with the idea -- they did the work, they deserve what they got, but if I didn’t come up with the idea, I don’t know where they’d be. Maybe they’d be president of IBM or something like that, but I doubt it very much. So when people come in and they say, ‘Well, I got a new car.’ Oh, I’d love to look at their new cars. Or they say, ‘Oh, I’m getting a mortgage for a house.’ I know it’s selfish to think that I provided it for them.”
When Hand was 12, his father died in his arms. His uncles told him that he was the man of the house now, that he would have to care for his mother and two sisters. Those are not the things you tell a 12-year old. But the message stuck. Sixty-eight years later, he is still providing for everyone else.
He may not have amounted to much of a golfer, but he has other talents.
“I was telling someone the other day in a meeting we had, that I had the ability to make money,” Hand said. “Don’t ask me how, but you could give me $20 and send me up the corner, and I would come back with a new suit, a hat, and clothes, and you’d say, ‘How did you do it?’ I don’t know how I do it.”
His son, Joe Hand, Jr., knows that it was not that simple. He remembers when the business lived in the basement of his row home in Northeast Philadelphia, a space about the size of his current office, stacked to the brim with boxes of fight posters.
“In those early years, I didn’t know what was happening, but now I know what it took,” Hand, Jr. said. “Him and my mom, on some fights that were happening, they put up every penny they owned. They took out mortgages against their house. I wouldn't do that now. My wife wouldn’t let me. But do you know how much guts that must have taken?
“We’ve got jobs here because he did those things years and years ago. Forty-five years ago he laid it all on the line.”
It started with one of the biggest risks of all, a letter Hand wrote in 1964 after reading a newspaper story seeking investors in Joe Frazier’s career. The partnership became Cloverlay and Hand ended up managing the heavyweight championship of the world.
“If I had never written that letter, I’d probably be the only 80-year old cop in Philly,” Hand said.
A few years later, he formed Joe Hand Promotions and became the nation’s leading TV distributor of closed-circuit and pay-per-view sporting events.
“There’s nothing like standing in the middle of the Spectrum, 18,000 people there, and you know they’re there because you brought them there,” Hand said.
In his later years, however, he has found a feeling to rival it.
His legacy now is the Joe Hand Boxing Gym & Computer Lab on North Third Street in Northern Liberties. The gym is one of the most famous in the country. Bernard Hopkins, the former great middleweight champion, trains there. UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, who went to North Catholic, just like Hand, is a friend and frequent visitor.
But the heart of the operation is not the champions it produces but what it does for kids. Free boxing programs are available for those under 18, there are kickboxing classes for young girls, and a computer lab that is open to any child who comes through the door.
“Look at the room with over 15 computers,” Hopkins said. “He didn’t have to do that. He could have just put a boxing gym, everybody else still going to come. But now you’ve got a feel that this is not just for creating the next champ, this is creating the next businessman. The next CEO. That’s what those computers are for. The computer not going to tell you how to throw a jab.”
At a back-to-school event this summer at the gym more than 200 backpacks filled with supplies were given out to needy kids. A woman approached Hand at the event. She was there with her three kids and her husband. She told Hand he had gotten her husband a good-paying union job, and that their three kids were in nice schools. She said her husband would have probably spent his life in jail without his intervention.
“Now she’s crying, now I’m crying, and she says to me, ‘Thanks a lot, you changed our whole life around,’ ” Hand said.
Hand is not afraid to cry. He’s something of a sentimentalist, actually. He throws away nothing.
In a drawer below his desk, he keeps a bag of cards and thank you notes. Finishing his coffee one day this week, he read from a couple of birthday cards on his desk and then reached down to add to them to the pile.
“So, I guess this is what keeps me going,” he said. “I filled this bag already.”
Tim McManus is the public relations director for Joe Hand Promotions.