America at Large: Lou Duva - a name synonymous with boxing’s golden era

New Yorker was corner man, trainer, manager and promoter with 19 world champions

 Trainer Lou Duva talks to to Pernell Whitaker during a fight against Oscar De La Hoya  in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: Al Bello/Allsport

Trainer Lou Duva talks to to Pernell Whitaker during a fight against Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: Al Bello/Allsport

 

Before Lou Duva became one of the most powerful personalities in boxing, he managed Christy Elliott who fought for Ireland at the 1972 Olympics.

After winning his first five pro fights, the middleweight from Dublin had the air of a minor prospect about him but wasn’t really impacting at the box office in New Jersey. For his sixth outing, Elliott faced a journeyman from down the road in Camden and Duva decided this low-key match-up at the Teamsters’ Hall in West Paterson needed to be artificially enhanced.

With everybody still basking in the afterglow of the Rumble in the Jungle a few weeks earlier, he sold Nikita Tar Hocker to the public as a haughty prince from Zaire, even daubing cold cream on his face to look like war-paint. With a day job as a garbage man, Tar Hocker (real name Burnell Scott) was on board with the idea of being conferred with instant nobility and carried off the role with aplomb. For 50 bucks apiece, his brother and his sister also got in on the charade, accompanying him to the ring in full African tribal dress while playing the bongos and dancing.

His own journey from the locker-room having been sound-tracked by the screech of a sextet of bagpipers and the spectacle of leprechauns throwing shapes, Elliott knocked Tar Hocker out early in the first.

Nobody complained about the premature dismissal because they’d already seen a show they wouldn’t forget even before the prince was dethroned. Duva used to tell the tale of that long ago night very far off-Broadway with peculiar relish, the irascible rogue savouring the stroke and the sleight of hand as much as any of his bigger, more lucrative coups.

Immigrant couple

His death earlier this month at the age of 94 marked the end of a life that, even by boxing’s often outrageous standards, was something of an epic.

From helping Floyd Paterson out of the ring after his defeat by Muhammad Ali in one era to masterminding the improbable rise of Evander Holyfield in another, Duva was involved as corner man, trainer, manager and promoter with 19 world champions, many of them fighters whose names are redolent of that time when boxing seemed to matter so much more.

Born in Manhattan to an immigrant couple from Foggia in Italy, he would have particularly enjoyed this week in New York. A promising Irishman like Michael Conlan making plenty of noise around his debut on St Patrick’s Day, Gennady Golovkin trying to further burnish his legend the following night, and boxing commanding serious headlines again. Just like it did when he first manned the spit bucket for his older brother, a club fighter during the Depression, and became so smitten that he started fighting for money himself, earning $5 a bout, at just 15.

After an undistinguished pro career as a diminutive welterweight, Duva made his fortune away from the ring, getting into the trucking business in New Jersey, an evocative resume entry that always carried the whiff of organised crime, a tawdry association he constantly denied.

Even in that phase of his life, he monopolised delivery runs to Manhattan’s garment district so he could spent at least part of his day knocking around Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue, inhaling the atmosphere, soaking up fistic knowledge.

Through stints as a bail bondsman and an organiser for the Teamsters, he began dabbling in the fight game on the side, or as he once put it, losing the money he made elsewhere on his boxing fancies, and went full-time in his mid-fifties in partnership with his late son, Dan.

Then the fun really started. In 1981, he teamed up with rock promoter Shelly Finkel to somehow wangle the rights to Sugar Ray Leonard versus Tommy Hearns from under the noses of Don King and Bob Arum, then the sport’s big two. He shelled out $13 million but the fight in Las Vegas grossed nearly three times that.

It was a long way, financially and metaphorically, from his usual shows at Ice World, a down-at-heel Jersey rink where the profits and losses were often measured in hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

Family business

From then on, his company, Main Events, very much a family business (“My kids spoke Italian, American and boxing”), took a seat at the top table and Duva’s hang-dog face, cantilevered chins, and shock of white hair were ubiquitous around the biggest fights.

Despite a reputation for looking after the boxers on his roster, his gruff manner didn’t always endear him to those not in his camp. When television companies took microphones out of corners he worked because his language was so profane he promised to curse only in Italian. Then there was his unfortunate tendency to climb through the ropes to address what he perceived as injustices perpetrated against his fighters.

Following the final bell of Vinny Pazienza’s lightweight clash with Roger Mayweather, he famously started flailing at Floyd’s uncle and left the ring with a gash on his head.

Well into his 70s, he tried a similar gambit during Andrew Golota’s ugly brawl with Riddick Bowe, and ended up being carted off to hospital after being shocked by his own heart pacemaker.

“I’ve been fighting all my life so I know what it’s like to catch a punch,” said Duva. “You don’t think I got this face being a ballet dancer, do you?”

Nobody ever made that mistake.

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