A 100 year old man with both his wits and legs was interviewed not that long ago in some magazine or other. The journalist, lacking originality, wasted most of his space trying to figure out the old man’s “secret.” Casting aside the answer—luck and genes—the reader instead was subjected to the usual platitudes on diet, physical activity, and the like.
The centenarian, however, had his own bit of advice.
Lou Duva didn’t quite make it to 100, but he lived long enough to witness his fair share of change, arguably none more dramatic than that which struck the labor of his life.
Now by the time Duva had come to prominence in the late 1980s boxing had already fallen from its early-to-mid 20th century heights. Families were no longer gathering around the radio to listen to Don Dunphy describing right crosses, and the public wasn’t filing into cinemas to watch heavyweights swing away at one another in some far off exotic locale. Whomever the Frank Sinatra equivalent of the time was, he certainly wasn’t demeaning himself by taking photos of boxers in a dimly lit arena in midtown Manhattan.
But in the late Reagan-Bush I years, boxing did still occupy a niche—more than a niche, in fact. Guys would put down two or three slices of soggy, delivery pizza after shelling out $50 to $100 for the privilege of watching the biggest of fights on 19 inch non-HD TV sets. The “lucky” fans would watch for free, on one of those ubiquitous “descrambler” boxes that, tragically, tended to fail at key moments.
As for those of us fast asleep by the opening bell, we’d be reduced to running for the porch at 6:00 am, hoping upon hope that the results would have made the local paper’s deadline.
And middle-schoolers would debate the happenings the Monday after. Sure, whether or not Randal Cunningham got over the goal line or if there happened to be a less mobile quarterback in the history of the NFL than Phil Simms were more contentious arguments, but things got nearly as hot debating Hagler, Hearns, and all the rest…
Well, that level of cultural relevance is long gone now too, and it left for good during Lou Duva’s heyday.
This is not the time to debate the why—as ugly as the promotional scene was in this period, it would be foolish to place any significant portion of the blame on the Duvas and their Main Events. Greater guilt falls on Don King, the proliferating sanctioning bodies, Kim Duk Koo, Tyson, and cocaine. But that list too is unsatisfactory.
Regardless, with Duva’s death, it’s time to lament our loss.
Presumably, someone already has written a book about the 1984 Olympic boxing team. Just as likely, it’s the wrong book. Yes, the team was stacked, and stories focusing on the rise of Pernell, Evander, and all the rest are interesting in their own right.
Much more compelling though is the fact that 1984 was the end. One might as well label it the last—to be fair the next to last, as 1988 certainly wasn’t chopped liver—USA Olympic boxing team. During his trip to Cuba, President Obama’s speechwriters were smart enough to have the President utter the name Teofilo Stevenson, the island’s Muhammad Ali. Tellingly, there was no mention of Felix Savon, his 1990s equivalent.
Among those celebrating USA boxing’s triumph in Los Angeles, no-one would have expected that such a fall for the sweet science loomed, least of all Duva. He went all in on that 1984 team, scooped up all of its talent, and dominated HBO and PPV boxing broadcasts for the next decade.
The final decade, that is.
Whether Duva went to his grave bitter about the fate of his sport, I do not know. I always viewed him as a bit of a buffoon, with little self-awareness. No, that’s not fair; Duva came across more as an educated blowhard, slavishly touting his client’s line. Of course, that was his job, but I’ve always had trouble stomaching an otherwise intelligent person obfuscating for a cause—sadly, a growth industry in our times. The best of the spinmeisters, whatever the industry, are those that give the audience a sense that they themselves are in on the game, a subtle acknowledgement of the absurdity of it all.
This in no way describes Duva; he didn’t do irony, sarcasm, or anything other than in-your-face aggression.
After getting everything else wrong on St Patrick’s Day 1990, Jim Lampley got it right at the end; Lou Duva did, in fact, go “absolutely berserk” after Richard Steele counted out his fighter and awarded a TKO to Mexico’s Julio Cesar Chavez with two seconds to go in the final round. Duva did his fighter, 1984 gold medalist Meldrick Taylor, proud in the post fight interview too, barking away and refusing to budge an inch.
The America-Firsters of the era concurred with Duva wholeheartedly—a big day for them the following Monday in school cafeterias across the country, I can assure you of that—crowing with indignation while their Olympian was carted off to the hospital, dangerously short of blood.
For all I know Duva went on to help his guys financially and otherwise. Or perhaps he didn’t; Main Events seemed only slightly less carnivorous than its competitors. And I haven’t kept up; I stopped reading anything related to boxing long ago. I also can’t bring myself to read any of the obits done on the man, assuming any of note have been written.
But I will say this — like all great corner men, Duva took every blow. He was every bit in the ring with his guy and no sycophant when it mattered. Unlike the befuddled voices on HBO, Duva knew the score as the fight with Chavez unfolded. The uninformed criticized him for it, but his imploring advice to Meldrick before the 12th — “you NEED this round!” — thick with urgency, resonated. Six years after the Olympics, Meldrick was three minutes from delivering the greatest of victories, but I have no doubt, none at all, that Duva knew exactly how that fight was going to end.
In the immediate aftermath of that fight, all didn’t appear lost. Meldrick may have been defeated, but he showed greatness, and bigger nights were undoubtedly on the horizon. There was optimism and no reason to put Meldrick anywhere other than right next to his 1984 stablemates. Less than a year later he regained a title with an impressive win over a decent champion. The best was yet to come.
Except it wasn’t.
A year or so after winning that title, it was time for Meldrick to again step up in class. The opponent was “Terrible” Terry Norris, and there was a sense of foreboding that night. Maybe it was the odd trunks, the by this point in time out-of-place outdoor arena in Vegas, or Meldrick’s somewhat lackluster performances leading into the fight. Or maybe it was Norris—though never quite living up to the nickname, he was a dangerous fighter. Despite almost always being on the other side of whomever Duva was representing, I was, for whatever reason, scared.
Duva was too.
The same imploring tone was on display very early that night as he and George Benton pleaded with Meldrick to stay on top of Norris. Mark Kram’s take on the the Yank Durham – Joe Frazier relationship — bring the smoke or you’re a dead man! — exactly captured the feeling in Meldrick’s corner.
“Oh my… he’s NOT world class after all… Lord, we’ve raised him to be slaughtered…”
Benton may have determined that the inside was where Meldrick needed to live that night, but by the middle of the second round it was obvious he was going to die there too.
I’m sure a bit of Lou Duva died that night as well.
Boxing has been gone for more than 20 years, but Duva’s passing resurrects dormant memories… making apparent a void in my life that had been forgotten.
I never loved Lou Duva. I did love the time he occupied in my life. And I, like him, never could have imagined it’d be all over by the end of the millennium.