As you know if you've been paying attention, it always gives me great pleasure to herald the return of a supposedly extinct or even endangered species. I wish the Great Plains bison would return. I deplore the disappearance of the dinosaur, the whooping crane, the woolly mammoth. I am saddened by the increasing extinction of the tiger, the elephant. I am sorry to see shark meat become a table delicacy because I know it means the great whites will soon cease to prowl the ocean's floor.
So, it's always a great joy for me to stumble over a variety of animal life I thought had long since been confined to oblivion--the great woolly chested, full-throated American fight manager.
As I have reminded you, you know the type if you ever went to fight movies. He came in two stereotypes: The hard-bitten, side-of-the-mouth-talking mobster played by Sheldon Leonard who grabbed the fighter by the lapels and hissed in his ear, "Listen, kid, you throw this fight or you, me and that fancy broad of yours are all going to wind up in two tons of concrete under the Brooklyn Bridge." Or he's the kindly old patriarch (Burgess Meredith?) who doesn't want the kid to take that last fight against a guy they call Killer.
I grew up in this business around these guys. They used to hang around my father's drugstore and my uncle's diner in Connecticut when it was the capital of the featherweight division (Kid Kaplan, Bat Battalino and Willie Pep were all champions). There were guys like Pete (the Silver Fox) Reilly, Easy Ed Hurley and smiling Lou Viscusi.
Doc Kearns used to drive up to my house when he lived in San Diego. Doc was running a grift till the day he died, still looking to move fighters. He had Dempsey and Walker and Joey Maxim and it was always 1925 in Doc's book, the speak-easies were jumping, the whiskey was off the boat, there were six-day bike races at the Garden and you paid for the champagne with cash, not plastic.
Doc never gave the fighter equal billing--unless he lost. "The night I beat Firpo," was as close as Doc could come to splitting the credit. If he lost, the fighter was on his own.
There was Al Weill, and you could tell what the menu was at the Stage Deli just by looking at his vest. Al had Marciano as his last fighter and he double-crossed him, but what else was new?
There were the good guys. Pop Foster saved Jimmy McLarnin's money for him and left him his own when he died. Cus D'Amato fretted over every man-eater his fighters ever fought, even when he had his own, Mike Tyson. He tried to match Floyd Patterson against every hemophiliac and bleeder he could find.
But I thought the breed had finally died out--until I ran into Lou Duva.
Lou is the genuine article, the throwback--the old-fashioned, old-time fight manager, the creature we thought had gone to join the aurochs, pterodactyl and saber-toothed tiger.
Boxing today has become pretty much just another yuppie stock market enterprise complete with briefcases, cash flows, fax machines, whereases, parties of the first part, lines of credit and pay-per-view. Except for the occasional promoter such as Don King, it's a three-piece suit, phone-in-the-car-or-limo business.
That's what makes Lou Duva so refreshing. Lou looks--and acts--more like a high-priced cut man. He doesn't wear a tie. His pants look slept in. His face--well, his face looks like something hanging off a French cathedral. It not only looks lived in, it looks punched in. "I didn't get this face at no ballet," Lou is fond of telling you. A friend reminds you: "Lou's got the face of a guy who looks as if he fought the Bomber four times and went the route."
Actually, Lou fought as an indifferent welterweight in his native Jersey in his youth. About 20 fights. He even won some of them.
Duva is from the old school. He sleeps next to his fighters, drives the team station wagon. In a pinch, Lou has been known to don the gloves for a defecting sparring partner.
He can negotiate contracts, stop cuts, slice swellings and swab eyes with the best of them. His fighters' opponents don't scare him. Neither do his own. He has won many an out-of-the-ring and even in-the-courtroom encounter with promoter King. Duva was a fighter-who-could-take-it and he's a manager the same way. "Some guys are born to be fighters, I was born to be a manager," he tells you.
He handles Evander Holyfield--along with his co-manager Shelly Finkel, and his trainer, the longtime boxing stylist, Georgie Benton. That Holyfield, a boxer of limited skills and even more limited appeal, is heavyweight champion of the world is testament to Duva's canniness around boxing's corridors.