Lou Duva passed this morning. His mighty heart stopped beating two months shy of his 95th birthday. And in this case, an era has truly passed, an era where a handshake was the most important contract and a "boxing guy" was someone who worked full-time in the business and did so for love first (yes, the money was important as well).
Lou learned boxing by hanging out in Stillman's Gym in the 1930s, where his older brother trained. He earned his living as a truck driver, but spent every evening after work at the gym, absorbing the lessons of the established trainers and managers. It wasn't just the boxers who fascinated Lou, but the business itself. He would hitch-hike to training camps and help out in corners at local fights (Duva had a brief pro career in the 1940s, but realized his calling was outside the ropes). Lou and two of his brothers saved enough money to open a boxing gym in the 1950s in Paterson, NJ. In December 1955, they promoted their first pro show at the Paterson Armory. Sugar Ray Robinson boxed an exhibition on that show.
Lou helped Joey Giardello secure his middleweight title shot against Dick Tiger. He became close to Rocky Marciano. His work changed from trucking to bail bonds, but boxing was his constant. His five children helped in the boxing endeavors.
Hard work created good luck. The Duvas found a terrific venue in Totowa to promote club shows. ESPN, in its infancy, televised some of the events. At this time, Lou met Shelly Finkel, a 34-year-old concert promoter. Finkel was promoting a USA-Poland amateur event and Lou was asked by the head the USA amateur boxing team to help Finkel. They formed a dream team, with Lou's son Danny as the head of the promotional outfit (Main Events), Shelly as manager of its top boxers, Lou as co-manager and cornerman with Georgie Benton and Ace Marotta rounding out the corner.
Main Events landed the epic Leonard-Hearns fight in 1981 and for the next 15 years dominated the business. Lou's craggy mug became the face of boxing. But he was more than just a personality - I know that from personal experience.
The first time I saw Lou Duva was June 10, 1991 at the Meadowlands Convention Center in Seacacus. I was covering a Joe Gatti fight (Arturo made his pro debut on the undercard) on a Main Events show. A fight broke out in the crowd between two pretty large fellows. Lou left the corner of one of the undercard boxers and broke up the fight in the crowd. Forcefully (not excessively). He was 69 years old then.
He was as quick mentally as he was physically. When Hasim Rahman was whipping David Tua during their first fight, Lou was in Tua's corner (I was working with Rahman's promoter). Tua, way behind on the cards, hit Rahman well after the bell ending the 9th round. The referee, pretty inexperienced at that time, was contemplating what to do when Lou leapt into the ring and starting jabbering at the ref, waving his arms, pointing his finger. He was literally talking gibberish. The ref spent most of the 60 seconds hustling Lou back to the corner and trying to calm him down and whatever thought the referee had of disqualifying Tua, or giving Rahman five minutes to recover, was lost in Lou's outburst. Inside, Lou was completely calm - he was the only one who actually kept his head. And he won Tua that fight.
Like any other boxing person, I knew Lou, first as a writer, then a matchmaker. As a writer, he once asked me why I didn't do a story on how drugs were destroying modern fighters (he knew this firsthand, losing Rocky Lockridge and Johnny Bumphus to dope). I blew him off, not wanting to do a puff piece on the dangers of drugs. How wrong I was (and how right Lou turned out to be).
As a matchmaker, one of my proudest moments was just a brief incident. I was walking ringside at a Cedric Kushner show when I heard a voice: "Hey Eric. When are you going to leave that fat bastard and start working for me?" I literally looked behind me to make sure Lou wasn't talking to someone else. Lou Duva thought I was good enough to work for him. I'll never forget how good that made me feel.
Lou had his first heart attack in 1979. His doctor told him the stress of boxing and his diet were contributing factors. Lou loved boxing. And pasta. Bread. Wine. He didn't cut back on any of it. "Everybody has to die sometime," he said in an interview shortly after his heart attack. "When I go, I want it to be doing something I love. But, believe me, it's not going to be easy for me to die. It's not going to be easy at all."
Lou lived 38 more years after that heart attack. He did die hard. But more importantly, he lived well. He was one of the heads of this family that is boxing, the last of the fathers of boxing's greatest generation.