The first thing you always noticed about Lou Duva was that face. It was the one thing about him you could never forget. It was a face like none you had ever seen before nor, you knew, were you ever likely to see again. You could hardly look at it and you could hardly look away.
Television loved that face, which is why, I always suspected, NBC bought that boxing package back in the 1980s known as Tomorrow’s Champions that featured the likes of Bobby Czyz, Tony Ayala Jr., Johnny Bumphus and Alex Ramos. Since most of those fighters were promoted by Main Events, the mom-and-pop boxing shop based in Totowa, N.J., it meant that Lou Duva’s face would be seen between every round of every fight.
It was an amazing face, gnarled and pockmarked and heavy, with its fist-flattened nose and hanging jowls that bobbed in a weird sort or rhythm whenever Lou talked, which was non-stop.
But once you got to know that face, there was nothing ugly or scary or forbidding about it. On the contrary, once you got to know Lou Duva that face became kindly and welcoming and in its own way, comforting.
Lou Duva’s death on Wednesday at 94 not only robbed the world of a one-of-a-kind face, it also robbed boxing of perhaps the last of a kind of fight guy who no longer seems to exist.
Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Gil Clancy, Ray Arcel, Emanuel Steward all preceded Duva in death, and now that he has joined them, it truly feels like the end of an era. He spanned so many boxing eras that it takes your breath away to realize that he was a friend to Rocky Marciano and to Evander Holyfield, heavyweight champions whose reigns were nearly a half-century apart. He knew Lou Costello – they grew up together in Paterson, NJ – and Tony Orlando, of “Dawn’’ fame. He was friends with Captain Lou Albano and Tommy Lasorda.
He was in every way larger than life; when he had open-heart surgery in the 1980s, the surgeon, Denton Cooley, was quoted as saying Duva had “the largest breastbone I’ve ever had to cut through.” That meant something since Cooley had once performed the same procedure on Max Baer.
In fact, it would be easier to enumerate the people Lou Duva didn’t know, and the ones who hadn’t run across him, because they were few and far between.
Not that it was hard to get to know Lou Duva; if you met him once and he liked you, he was your friend and you never had to worry about anything again so long as you were in his presence.
The first time I met him, I was a young boxing writer for Newsday doing a story on Mark Breland, one of that stellar crop of 1984 Olympic gold medalists – including Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Tyrell Biggs – that had signed with Main Events upon turning pro.
So quickly did we hit it off that over the appetizers, Lou Duva started telling me about some horrific medical procedure he had just endured that involved the insertion of a tube into a most delicate area of his body.
“I’m telling ya, Walt, they just had to get that urine out of me,’’ he said, grabbing my shoulder as if it were the most natural subject of conversation two old buddies could ever have. We had known each other all of about 30 minutes.
But that’s the kind of man Lou Duva was. Boxing promoter Lou DiBella, who started in the business around the same time I did and was also taken under Duva’s wing – he had a special affinity for Italian-American kids, as we both were – calls him “our Yogi Berra.’’
That he was in the sense that he was an avuncular ambassador for a sport with an instantly recognizable face and a penchant for deceptively wise malaprops.
He was the one who punctured talk of how Mike Tyson had matured during his three years in an Indiana jail after his rape conviction by pointing out, “He went to prison, not Princeton.’’
He liked to say that boxing could be summed up in two words: “You never know.’’
And he delighted in telling of the time he sent a boxer out to do roadwork with the instruction to turn back at the third red light. The kid didn’t return for an hour. Why not? “All the lights he saw were green,’’ Duva reported.
He was a throwback to an era when the boxing business really was like a small family, when rival promoters and managers could fight bitterly over the last dollar and then head to the bar together to get loaded and swap lies.
And while he was often maligned as the inferior of truly great trainers like Futch, Clancy, Steward and Dundee – most of the Main Events fighters were trained by George Benton, a former great middleweight and one of the sport’s true sages – there was no question about Lou Duva’s value in the corner on fight night.
“His was the loudest voice in the arena, and usually the last one the judges and referees would hear,’’ DiBella said. “He knew every trick in the book.’’
One of those tricks got a win for Johnny Bumphus over Marlon Starling in 1986 when an accidental head butt opened a bad cut over one of Bumphus’ eyes. It was one of those afternoon fights in which the network tried the gimmick of open scoring – the judges’ official cards were beamed on the arena scoreboard after each round – and from that Duva knew that his man was slightly ahead on points. He also knew that under the rules, the fighter leading on points could not be declared a TKO loser due to a cut from an accidental butt.
So, taking no chances, he “embellished’’ the cut over Bumphus’ eye with his thumb. Then he called the referee and the ringside doctor over to take a look at the carnage. Mission accomplished. The fight was immediately stopped and Bumphus had himself a win over Starling and a USBA welterweight title.
At other times, Lou’s enthusiasm in the corner could backfire; the night Meldrick Taylor was within seconds of beating Julio Cesar Chavez, it was the sight of Lou Duva barreling up the ring steps that caught referee Richard Steele’s eye and prompted him to unexpectedly stop the bout, handing Chavez a victory that is still argued about today.
And as old-school as he appeared, Lou Duva remained open to new ideas and techniques if he thought they could benefit his fighter. Back in an era when trainers were still sending boxers out to run in heavy work boots, Duva was the first trainer to see the merit of charting his fighters’ outputs via punch counting; he hired Bob Canobbio and Logan Hobson, who had written a computer program that counted punches, to work in the camps of his fighters. Now, CompuBox, the firm they founded, is the industry standard for boxing statistics and is an indispensable part of fight telecasts and many training camps. Duva was also among the first to commission scouting reports on his fighters opponents.
But above it all, Lou Duva was like your old Italian grandfather who happened to train fighters for a living: Intimidating, maybe. Tough and grizzled, yes. But kindly and in his own way, wise.
“I feel bad for his family,’’ DiBella said. “But I also feel bad for all of us, because he was the last of a breed.’’
All of us in boxing will miss that unforgettable face.
But not nearly so much as we will miss the man whose humanity lit it so brightly from within.