BERNARD FERNANDEZ REMEMBERS LOU DUVA —120 He was short. He was rotund. He was irascible. It would be easy to say that Lou Duva, who died Wednesday morning at 94 after a lengthy illness, was one of a kind, but that would not quite be the truth. There was a time, not all that very long ago when viewed in the broad context of a sport’s colorful history, boxing was fairly teeming with unique and entertaining characters who might have sprung from the fertile imagination of Damon Runyon. But, one by one, the craggy trainers, almost all of whom were enthralling story-spinners, have gone on to that corner of heaven where there are no dubious decisions, or broken hearts, or championships lost or stolen to incompetence or malfeasance.
No, Lou Duva wasn’t really one of a kind. But it can be argued that he probably was the last of his delightful breed, often compared to the cartoon character Fred Flintstone but maybe more accurately to a malaprop-spewing Hall of Fame catcher who loved what he did and expressed that joy in ways that would have stunned the erudite sensibilities of, say, William Shakespeare.
“He was our Yogi Berra,” said Lou DiBella, the former vice president of HBO Sports who worked closely with Duva in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “That’s the best analogy I can make. You don’t replace Yogi Berra, and you don’t replace Lou Duva. They’re once-in-a-lifetime characters.”
With Duva – and other now-gone treasures of the trainer’s art, like Angelo Dundee and Gil Clancy — the laughs and the remembrances flowed like water over Niagara Falls. They were the living embodiments of an era that perhaps is beyond replication. Oh, sure, there were disputes and rivalries in those otherwise halcyon times, some quite cantankerous, but for the most part there was a sense of camaraderie, of competing entities working toward the same shared purpose, that has been replaced by a colder, more corporate and distinctly more hostile environment.
“I’m sad for my friend Dino and all the Duvas for their loss,” said DiBella, who now heads his own promotional company, DiBella Entertainment. “My thoughts are with them. I’m also sad for an industry that’s changed so much. When I think back to the days when Lou was a household name, that was when you’d go to an event and the writers from the big papers would be sitting around with the promoters from both sides. Often, we’d all grab a meal at a giant table, or take over a bar and tell stories and jokes for hours on end. Yeah, negotiating a fight wasn’t always easy, but at least there was a sense that we were all in it together. It was almost like a family element. Now, it’s like the sport is dominated by nastiness, and everyone’s wishing for other people’s failure. That sense of unity is gone.”
Four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was one of a group of five U.S. Olympians from the 1984 Los Angeles Games who signed with Main Events, the company founded by Lou’s son Dan in April 1978. He recalled all the good times with Lou, even though he left after they had a bit of a falling-out following the first of Holyfield’s three fights with Riddick Bowe on Nov. 13, 1992, which Evander lost on a unanimous decision.
“A lot of times you don’t realize you miss somebody ’til they’re gone,” Holyfield said from his home in Georgia. “We parted ways after my first fight with Bowe, but I got to say that when I was with Lou, I was with Lou. And he was with me. He was always for his fighter, through thick or thin. After I left, I really missed that. Everything was just different.”
In many ways, Lou Duva was a quintessential American success story, the rags-to-riches kind which so often begins with a seed planted in the harsh and unforgiving soil of boxing, where coming up the hard way is generally the only way. The sixth of seven children born to Italian immigrants in New York City, young Lou, then only 10, was introduced to the fight game by his 23-year-old brother Carl. He’d accompany Carl to the legendary (and smelly) Stillman’s Gym, where, by and by, he became a sort of urban Forrest Gump, meeting and developing friendships with the celebrities who flocked there to mingle with fighters. The celebs – a who’s who of the rich and famous, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello – took a liking to the affable kid with the magnetic personality and empty pockets. “I remember I would have to stuff newspapers into my shoes to fill the holes because we couldn’t afford to buy new ones,” Duva recalled in 1988.
Lou Duva proved to be not much of a professional boxer – he went 6-10-1 with no knockout victories as a welterweight, which hardly seems possible given his later pasta-enlarged frame – and after moving to Totowa, N.J., he earned a reasonably comfortable middle-class living as a truck driver, bail bondsman and union representative. But his love of boxing never diminished, and with the blessing of his wife Enes, he opened his own gym in Paterson, N.J., in the 1950s and promoted his first fight card in December 1955, at the National Guard Armory in Paterson.
It might have remained a mom-and-pop operation were it not for the fact that a then-fledgling cable operation called ESPN, seeking live sports content, began televising some of the Duva-promoted boxing cards at Ice World in Totowa. But, as fortune would have it, Dan – then a young lawyer and Seton Hall University graduate – met Shelly Finkel, a promoter of rock concerts, and the two became fast friends. In short order, their partnership would create a formidable challenger to long-entrenched promotional giants Don King and Bob Arum. Main Events won the promotional rights to stage the much-anticipated welterweight unification matchup of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981, and the company hit the mother lode in 1984 when it signed those five U.S. Olympians, four of whom (Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Mark Breland) went on to become world champions
“Dan was the glue that kept everything together,” said Finkel, who managed the stable of Main Events stars. “When he went full-time into boxing promotion, he and I clicked on every level. Lou was the in-the-gym fight person and Dan and I took care of the business. It just worked perfectly.”
As cohesive as Dan Duva and Finkel were at the art of the deal, so, too, were Lou and George Benton, the former middleweight contender from Philadelphia who co-trained Main Event fighters. Benton supplied the thoughtful strategy, Duva the emotional fire.
“Lou was the boss,” Holyfield recalled. “George was the mastermind. Lou probably got more credit because he talked louder and was always so excited, it didn’t seem like he could ever calm down. But somehow they made it work real well.”
It certainly did. All four of the movers and shakers behind Main Events have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Non-Participant category, with Lou Duva enshrined in 1998, the now-deceased Benton in 2001, Dan Duva (who was just 45 when he died of a brain tumor on Jan. 30, 1996) posthumously in 2003 and Finkel in 2010. Two of the five Olympians who fought under the company’s banner, Pernell Whitaker (2007) and Holyfield (who’ll be inducted on June 11 of this year) also have been officially immortalized.
Although it is the professorial Benton who is widely credited with maximizing the ring potential in the Main Events standouts, DiBella said Duva was much more than a high-decibel, arm-waving cheerleader.
“Lou was actually underrated as a cornerman,” DiBella said. “He wasn’t a trainer like George Benton was a trainer. He wasn’t a trainer like Freddie Roach or Abel Sanchez are trainers. But he was still a great trainer. He was a tremendous motivator, and maybe the greatest cornerman of all time. Nobody was better at getting his fighter’s ear, or getting the referee to pay attention to him.”
But, as Finkel noted, Dan Duva supplied the stickum that held together the disparate elements of the Main Events that was during its glory years. His will left control of the company to his widow, Kathy, who remains the CEO, but the friction between Kathy and Lou’s children, Dino and Donna Duva Brooks, increased to the point where they broke away. Lou sided with Dina and Donna, and Benton also split, contending that, fairly or not, Lou was getting a disproportionate share of the recognition for the successes they had forged in tandem.
Lou Duva’s tale is told in A Fighting Life: My Seven Decades in Boxing, a 2016 book authored by former New York Times and New York Daily News boxing writer Tim Smith. It is a compelling read, and not just because it brings to light new aspects of a wild ride not widely known to the public, but reminds fight fans of so much familiar stuff that has more or less been shunted aside as Lou Duva’s fame receded along with his health. It had been several years since I had seen him when, wheelchair-bound, he made an appearance at the Daniel Jacobs-Peter Quillin bout at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 5, 2015. I was among the many old-school media members who stopped by to shake his hand and to thank him for all the great copy he had provided us in better days.
“He was in a wheelchair six or seven years ago when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Finkel said. “It’s amazing that he lived this long. He had his first heart attack when he was, I don’t know, 50 (it was in 1979). He hasn’t been the picture of health in some time. He had a bout with cancer. Yet he almost made it to 95. The man was just a survivor.
“I remember someone asking him, `Were you a fighter?’ Lou smiled and said, `Was I a fighter? You think I got this face being a ballet dancer?’ He’d always make a joke and say that he was just short for his weight. He had a funny line for just about every situation.
“Oh, he could get crazy, screaming and yelling, but he was really a sweetheart. And he treated his fighters like they were family. Sometimes he treated them better than his family.”
These are the viewing and funeral arrangements:
Festa Funeral Home
111 Union Blvd.
Totowa, NJ 07512
Sunday, March 12 – 3pm -7pm
St Mary’s R.C. Church
Monday , March 13, 10 am.
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