Boxing guru Duva is no lollipop

He might be a little old school, but few boxing gurus know how to turn a boxer into a contender like Lou Duva does.

Originally Published: February 8, 2006
By Joe Tessitore | Special to ESPN.com

Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" has nothing on us. While his mid-South anthem boasts of catfish on the table and gospel in the air, last week the "Friday Night Fights" crew had our own Memphis jamboree. The catfish was replaced by smothered pork ribs, and the gospel was the comedic preaching of Teddy Atlas.

After putting down enough pork fat to make Emeril envious, we made our way to the famed lobby bar of the Peabody Hotel, a Memphis must. The Peabody's oak trim and distinctive character unearths warm feelings of yesteryear. For this crew, that could mean anything. On this night, "anything" meant reminiscing about old-school comedy.

Lou Duva/Evander Holyfield
AP Photo/Douglas C. PizacDuva (center left) has been there to lean on for many a big-name boxer.

Somehow, some way, the conversation gravitated from ring to Rickles. Teddy lit up. He said, "Remember how great it was when you knew Don Rickles was coming on with Johnny Carson?" What red-blooded man could possibly disagree?

Everyone had their favorite entertainer. One by one we all glowed over our old-school guy. Director Rick Beczynski brought up Dean Martin's celebrity roasts. Our producer, Rob Beiner, couldn't get enough of Jackie Gleason. And I went on and on about Pat Cooper.

They were all-time greats. They were the best of a much different time. It was a time when life was a lot simpler. It was a time when good men were good souls with big hearts. They were just looking for the next laugh. They were genuine lovers of life. Plus, they were real pros. They sharpened their skills on the road in club shows. They were pure entertainers.

Boxing can relate. Lou Duva is boxing's Don Rickles. The Hall of Fame manager-trainer is cut from that classic mold of old-school humor with the boys. Just like Rickles and company, Duva is a good soul with a big heart. Although Rickles always looks for the next laugh, Duva is endlessly looking for the next great champ, the next great prospect. Heck, sometimes it's even as simple as Lou looking for the next great fight. And, by the way, Lou can get the laughs too.

There have been hysterical SportsCenter promotional spots through the years, but has there ever been one funnier than Lou Duva smacking a tired Rich Eisen during a commercial break and saying "Don't be a lollipop, kid!"?

I didn't think so. That was pure Lou, unscripted and the real deal. Exactly the way Rickles or Cooper, or any of the greats, would have nailed it.

Lou has been nailing it for 61 years. He came up the way the old timers demanded you did. He put his time in at the gritty New York gyms. He fought in the armed forces. He trained. He managed. He promoted. And then when all the stars were aligned, he hit it big. The gold medal-studded 1984 Olympic team was Duva's ticket to ride. With sons Dan and Dino, he formed Main Events. They became perhaps the biggest promotional force in the game. Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker. You name it, Lou had it.

Recent years have seen the downside. The passing of a beloved son. The messy public split of Main Events. The missed opportunities by Duva-backed fighters. But still, in the end, there stands Lou. Eighty-three years old and as enthusiastic as ever.

One of the real pleasures of my job is the time I spend with Lou. It may be a brief conversation at a weigh-in, or a long story-telling session during production meetings, but I always feel blessed to be around him. It's simple to me. As much as I am a fan of boxing, I am a bigger fan of pure passion and the truth. I have never known anyone who is truly more zealous about their work than Lou Duva is about boxing.

Years ago he pulled me aside in San Antonio to introduce me to another one of his "young kids," as he likes to call them. "Hey, Joe, he's the son of an ice cream truck driver," Lou told me. Oscar Diaz had that spark in his eye. I expect that from an accomplished amateur turning pro. But what I was really impressed with was the spark in Duva's eye. It was just as bright as the "young kid's," maybe brighter.

Lou loves his prospects. He loves the thought of planting the seed and watching it grow. This week Diaz (23-1, 11 KOs) tries to impress us again as he takes on Russell Jordan (12-2, 6 KOs) on "Friday Night Fights" (9, ESPN2).

The Duvas tested Diaz a few years ago and it didn't work out. Lightweight contender Ebo Elder took the win in an action-packed fight. It was Diaz's only career loss. Now Diaz is trying his hand 12 pounds up the ladder, at welterweight. Lou is already raving.

"I got him here to see where the buildings were," Duva blasted through his cell phone while taking the 23-year-old Texan to Manhattan's ground zero on Sunday. "They are my adopted sons. You know I still get calls from all over the world asking me to take young fighters. They know my concern for the fighter. I don't know that I'm a better trainer than others, but I know I love them and look out for them."

Diaz
Diaz

Lou's love for Diaz has been obvious. Diaz is easy to like. He is a TV-friendly fighter. We know that going in. It's Duva's great unknown that has all of us really excited for this week's show.

He's got others. Of all the prospects Duva has hyped, of all the world champs he has produced, I don't believe he has talked up any fighter with more affection as he has with "his heavyweight."

That's what Mike Marrone has become, Lou's heavyweight. So much so that I can't recall a conversation with Dino Duva in which Marrone's name was even spoken. It was just understood who "Dad's heavyweight" was.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Marrone, 20, is a perfect 12-0 with 10 KOs as a pro. He will open up this week's "Friday Night Fights" against Zack Page. Lou has loved Marrone since the kid was 9. This week we'll see if our viewers, Teddy and I love him.

"The kid is destined to be something," Lou said. "I used to take Pernell and Holyfield to Vero Beach. And there was this 9-year-old in the gym. He would ask if he could help. I let him hold the gloves. Next training camp, I would let him grab equipment. Next year, I would let him chart jabs in sparring. Every year, he was there."

Eventually, Lou's attention started to drift from the stars to Marrone. "He would put on his trunks and work in the mirror. He listens so well he would pick things up. The next thing you know, I get a call from House of Champions trainer Gus Curren saying the kid won the Golden Gloves."

Now the young man in the mirror is winning as a pro. Curren is still by Marrone's side, as is Lou.

Sixty-three years. That is the difference between boxer and manager. That's 16 years more of a generational gap than Don Rickles and Dave Chappelle. I don't see Rickles going on the road to do Chappelle's Comedy Central skits anytime soon. But there is Lou, making the rounds with the young crowd.

Diaz and Marrone aren't Sweat Pea and Holyfield, but you would never know it from Lou Duva. That's the beauty of the man. He is still in love with the game. He loves the kids. He loves their upside. And he loves to never give up. Lou Duva isn't a lollipop.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

Joe Tessitore has been the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and "Wednesday Night Fights" since 2002 and contributes a weekly boxing column to ESPN.com.

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