“My guy stole defeat from the jaws of victory,” boxing promoter Lou DiBella says to me, sitting comfortably in his office chair, an incongruous San Diego Padres jersey worn baggy over denim jeans. DiBella sounds at peace with Jermain Taylor’s impossible 12th round TKO loss to unbeaten British upstart, Carl Froch. Listening to him, though, I can’t help imagine the cash and opportunity forfeited by a meager 16 seconds. Never mind, Dibella’s expression says, looking confident about his charge’s chance of another shot at the ‘Cobra.’
A Brooklyn native, Harvard law school graduate, veteran promoter, actor, former HBO senior executive and recently turned Hollywood producer, DiBella defies typecasting. For his last card at Foxwoods between Taylor and Froch, DiBella had the words ‘Pardon Jack Johnson’ plastered on the center square. Read: Not your average promoter, this man with an obvious social conscience.
Over coffee at his Chelsea, NYC office, I spoke to him about boxing’s future, the state of the heavyweight division, and the possible emergence of a global icon for boxing in Manny Pacquiao. At times acerbic, at other times coolly rational about the sweet science, DiBella showed why the sport desperately needs executives with a conscience as much as it needs another great heavyweight champion.
JJ: You’ve said “boxing is dirty from top to bottom. The sport is dying. It’s like a cancer patient on chemo.” Is it truly doomed? How does boxing reclaim its place in the pantheon of sport?
LD: Death is finality. This sport is eternal like pornography is eternal. People will always have sex for other people’s entertainment, and people will fight for other people’s entertainment. So I don’t believe boxing will ever disappear. But it’s certainly become marginalized. It will never return to being one of the two big sports in America. It will never return to one of the two biggest sports internationally. In the U.S., it was baseball and boxing for a long period of time – in fact it was baseball, boxing, and horse racing…the three big sports in this country for years and years. Boxing has disappeared into a niche situation. Boxing will never regain its past glory. But it’s also not going to die. It may stay on a respirator for a long period of time, but it’s not going to die.
JJ: Is it a zero sum game in that sense, or does it become a hybrid of something else?
LD: There’s no such thing as a hybrid. It’s not a hybrid of anything. MMA does not hurt boxing. MMA does not destroy boxing. Boxing fans aren’t running to MMA. That’s just all b.s. The reality was that long before MMA and the Fertittas [brothers] spent a gazillion dollars with the UFC, boxing was already fading. Boxing’s biggest problem is that it can’t attract young people. We have virtually no fans under 30, and that’s a problem.
JJ: Is that a marketing problem?
LD: Of course it’s a marketing problem. But it’s more than a marketing problem. You just have to look at the realities and you have your answers. There’s no boxing on broadcast TV. Budgets are going down on HBO and Showtime. The ratings are way, way down. There’s no American heavyweight of note, any place. The heavyweight division is nowhere. No one gives a flying ----. They don’t know what Klitschko is what. They don’t know which Russian is what. No one gives a flying rat’s tail about the heavyweight division. So it’s not that the other division’s are elevated, it’s that there’s no heavyweight division in the US, ergo it has to be the other divisions. Many Pacquiao is a Filipino icon. He’s an icon, but he’s a little Filipino guy who needs to fight a big name to draw. He is not a transcendant star in the US.
JJ: But he has international appeal…
LD: He has virtually no appeal in this country. Yes, he’s a terrific fighter. He’s not going to transcend the boxing audience in the US.
JJ: So you think his appeal is limited to heavy immigrant populations in America?
LD: I don’t think he’s limited to that, but he’s not saving the sport. Right now he beat De la Hoya, but it doesn’t make him De la Hoya. You know, frankly, it doesn’t make him Ricky Hatton. At least Ricky Hatton speaks English. I mean, Manny’s a terrific fighter, but he’s not a savior of the sport.
JJ: Boxing still has no labor union and no health or pension plan for its athletes. You’ve said that unless that changes, boxing is going down for the count. What steps have you taken or do you consider taking on this front?
LD: Boxing is never gonna have a labor union that works. There are simply too many impediments and inherent problems. It’s just reality. Second of all, what defines a fighter? Is it the kid who has a full time job and fights occasional 4-rounders? The guys at the top of the game that make 99.9% of the money, they don’t care about a union. And the rest of the guys that are starving, the economics don’t support a union. And who are they going to collectively bargain with? So, forget about a union. A health or pension plan for its athletes? You know, maybe someday, if there’s a national commission, although I doubt there will ever be a national commission.
JJ: Is there a bill that was moving through that just didn’t gain momentum…
LD: I’ve given up on boxing being effectively regulated. So it’s not happening. It’s a matter of what boxing can become as a niche sport in this environment.
JJ: In other words, don’t be naïve.
LD: Exactly. I’m done with labor unions, I’m done with…you know, pension is a little bit different, but not really, because what defines the length of a fighter’s career? The average fighter doesn’t have a five-year career. So what kind of pension? By the way, are the fighter’s making multi-million dollars a night…are a couple of them going to support a pension for the kid that makes $2,500 for an 8-round fight? It’s not happening.
JJ: How soon do you think we’ll see a National Boxing Commission?
LD: If you don’t see one in the next year or two, you won’t see one.
JJ: Is boxing losing popularity to MMA ?
LD: No, it’s not losing to them. They are gaining popularity on their own and we are not gaining popularity. It is a marketing problem, yes, but there are also a lot of stupid people in the boxing industry. And frankly the investments that are being made by the biggest entities, they have no long term…
JJ: On that point, and not to put you on the spot, but after all of the years you’ve been in this, your voice betrays a hint of having tried to do the right thing. Are you just tired?
LD: I am tired. And I don’t expect to be in it…I said this five years ago – but I was wrong in my prognostication because I said I’d probably be out – I gave it another five years. Now by necessity I’ll be in it another five years, but I have no intention, if things don’t turn around, of spending the rest of my life in this industry. And it’s not so much that I’m tired of fighting windmills, there’s a little bit of that, but I’m jaded for good reason. And realism has to settle in. So I’m much more realistic about where things could go and are going.
JJ: Can you talk a little about the heavyweights? David Haye?
LD: He’s got no chin. Great mouth, compelling character, but incapable I think, ability-wise, of having any kind of long reign at the top and again, not an American. He’s a Brit that lives out in Cyprus. And he’s too ‘chinny’ to be the long-term answer. Does he have the ability to upset the apple cart? Yes. For bringing attention to the heavyweights, he’s better than a bunch of guys from the former Soviet Union in the heavyweight division. So if he were able to upset the apple cart, it would be positive.
JJ: Boxing needs exciting fighters is what you’re saying?
LD: It needs characters. He’s a character. He’s got a big mouth. He’s very arrogant. He’s fun to listen to. His style’s good. A guy that’s ‘chinny,’ frankly, a guy that has no chin but can punch, they’re very interesting to watch because they’re kill or be killed. So this guy’s either gonna knock someone out, or get knocked out.
JJ: A little like Carl Froch?
LD: Yeah, I mean, he’s fun to watch. Froch’s a good TV fighter. Limited, but fun to watch. My guy Jermain Taylor stole defeat from the jaws of victory. I love Froch, but with respect to American boxing, I don’t think he’s a long term factor. The same way the kid from the UK [Amir Khan] is not making a difference in American boxing. Here’s another thing. Why are we so biased against our own? Why is American boxing the only place that embraces foreign fighters as its stars, and ignores its up-and-coming kids? American fighters aren’t getting paid to fight in Germany or to fight on German television, which is a better market than the U.S. right now. We’re not being paid to fight in England. So why the ---- are we laying money, crazy money, on guys like Carl Froch, and why are we willing to embrace Amir Khan as a future star here? Why did Ricky Hatton have to adopt the U.S. to get paid? We continue to diminish our product domestically. We do it to our own industry, and frankly, the powers that be in TV, to a large extent – even though I think they mean well – they don’t get it.
JJ: You were quoted by [famous boxing writer/investigative journalist] Jack Newfield pretty heavily in an article…
LD: Newfield was also one of my dearest friends…I gave the eulogy. It was Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Mario Cuomo and me that gave eulogies at his funeral. He was a dear friend. Also, he was a real boxing fan, a true boxing fan.
JJ: So he said Ali-Frazier was a ‘symphony.’
LD: You know, yes. But I think a lot of fights are like that. A great fight is poetry. Froch and Taylor was poetry. It was a great fight. And just the drama of the last couple of rounds when Jermaine couldn’t even stand up [because] he was so gassed. And the other guy needed to get him out of there. And I mean it hurt me to the tune of millions of bucks probably but from the standpoint of a fan, it’s what it’s supposed to be.
JJ: It had a little of the Cotto-Margarito [fight]…
LD: Cotto-Margarito was filthy. Margarito should never fight again. Margarito’s a cheater who knew he was cheating. I mean, every fighter in the world knows you know what’s in your hand wraps. And if your hand wraps harden, and your gloves come off and your hand wraps are like friggin concrete, you know. Tony Margarito is a cheater.
JJ: Pardon Jack Johnson?
LD: Long overdue to pardon Jack Johnson. And in fact, I had ‘Pardon Jack Johnson’ [written] on the ring mat for my last fight. I have an autographed photo of Jack Johnson in my home. I’m a big Jack Johnson fan. The conviction under the Mann Act is one of the greatest acts of racism in American judicial history. And the fact that he hasn’t been pardoned already is amazing.
JJ: Can anyone rescue the sport?
LD: Yes, an American heavyweight champion that captivates the American public’s imagination. Another Mike Tyson.