DiBella (left) and Salita celibrate a recent win (pics Neil Abramson)
By Thomas Hauser: Lou DiBella was once one of the most powerful people in boxing. As the number-two man at HBO Sports, he had considerable input into how the network's substantial financial resources were spent. He was also the driving force behind HBO's Boxing After Dark and an integral member of the team that elevated World Championship Boxing to an industry-wide standard.
In mid-2000, DiBella left the corporate world and went out on his own. He wanted to reform boxing and establish himself as a fighter representative. The watchword of his faith was, "A fighter should never make less money than the promoter or anyone else involved with a fight."
"I'll work for the fighter," DiBella said at the time, explaining his intended modus operandi. "I'll hire the promoter, who will be responsible for promoting each fight in accordance with the laws of the state in which the fight is held. The promoter will control the legal administration of the show, but I'll negotiate the site fee and close the television deal. In other words, the promoter will work for the fighter. I'm trying to make a point. I'm trying to rattle the cage and do things differently. I can't turn boxing upside down overnight. But it's as important to me now to shake this business up as it is to make money."
DiBella's detractors say that, when he went out on his own, he had trouble operating without the protective umbrella of HBO and ran a small business as though it were a large one. They also say that he gave new meaning to the word "lou-dicrous" and could start a fist-fight in an empty room. DiBella countered with thoughts like "being honorable is a death sentence in boxing" and "boxing is a dying business that's responsible for its own death."
Either way, DiBella had a rocky start. He put a great deal of time, money, and effort into developing Bernard Hopkins as a marquee fighter, only to be left at the alter after Hopkins beat Felix Trinidad to claim the undisputed middleweight championship. He also paid a $1,400,000 signing bonus to Olympic silver-medalist Ricardo Williams, who decided that it was too much work to train, lost two fights, and was recently sentenced to three years in prison for drug-trafficking.
But DiBella persevered and now finds himself in the second tier of promoters behind Top Rank and Don King Productions. That in itself is a switch from his original role as a "business representative." But DiBella proclaims, "The fundamental principles that I started my company on are unchanged. I still believe in fair contracts and open books and working on behalf of my fighters."
And DiBella is the same person he was five years ago. That means (1) he's still a good guy; (2) having a conversation with him on a bad day exposes a person to more profanity than gansta rap; and (3) he's constantly on his cell phone. Recently, DiBella lost forty pounds. "I call it the misery diet," he says. "I like feeling like a fucking victim."
DiBella now has two dozen fighters under contract. The best-known are Jermain Taylor, Ike Quartey, Leavander Johnson, Jose Navarro, and Mark Johnson. In addition, he's working with a cadre of young boxers. Excluding journeyman Emanuel Augustus (who recently came onboard), DiBella's twenty-four fighters have a composite record of 505 wins, 38 losses and 5 draws with 312 knockouts. That's a pretty good base to build on.
DiBella has also entered into a joint venture with Damon Dash, who co-founded Rock-A-Wear clothing and the Rock-A-Fella record label. "For a long time, I've thought that something had to be done with marketing to revitalize the sport," DiBella explains. "The idea is to create a synergy between boxing, rap music, and urban style; particularly with African-American fighters. There have been attempts to sexy-up the sport for the young urban market before. But for the most part, they've been undertaken by white television executives, who are the wrong people for the job."
DiBella and Dash are co-promoting three fighters. "I'm a much better promoter now than I was four years ago," DiBella notes. "I've learned the promotional end of the business in ways that I didn't understand when I was at HBO. I love working with fighters. But after my experiences with Bernard Hopkins and Ricky Williams, I approach fighters with more skepticism than before. I've learned that friendship only goes so far in boxing, so I don't take things that people do to me as personally as I once did. And I've started to make decisions based on realism rather than emotion."
"There's a certain pain that goes along with learning," DiBella continues. "I've been tempered by reality. I still think boxing is a miserable business. Everything is a deal. People lie all the time and don't even consider it lying. Sooner or later, virtually everyone in the business adopts a go-along mentality or they get crushed. I've come to the conclusion that I can't change the way other people do business. So I operate my own company consistent with my conscience and no longer get a stomach ache every time I see an injustice in boxing. I can't say that I enjoy the business, but it's addictive. And I don't want to be pushed out by the bad guys. I won't let the bastards beat me. If I quit, I want it to be when I'm on top. Maybe then I'll decide that I don't want to be a big fish swimming around in a sewage tank."
DiBella was born and raised in New York City and wants to build something in his hometown. Thus, one of his ventures has been a series called Broadway Boxing. One might think that it's easy to promote the sweet science in New York. It's not. To the contrary, the cost of renting a site, hotel rates, and other expenses make it exceedingly difficult to promote at a profit in The Big Apple. But Broadway Boxing is making its mark and has become an important part of New York's fistic renaissance.
DiBella has eleven fighters from New York under contract: Jaidon Codrington (the best young prospect in the metropolitan area), Paulie Malignaggi, Sechew Powell, Curtis Stevens, Yuri Foreman, Jeffrey Resto, Raymond Joval, Dmitriy Salita, Emanual Clottey, Joshua Clottey, and Chris Smith. These fighters have been the centerpiece of 12 Broadway Boxing shows to date, and there are plans for five more before the end of the year. HD-Net pays the television production costs and carries each initial telecast. MSG Network televises the reruns.
"Broadway Boxing was a risk," DiBella acknowledges. "It was an investment in the future when I started. There was no guaranteed revenue, and I lost a few bucks in the beginning. Then I lost a few bucks less. Now I'm making a little money on each show."
"There are very few platforms in boxing to build new talent," DiBella says, explaining the rationale behind the series. "By and large, you're dependent on the TV networks and sites to build and establish the value of your fighters. I'm trying to build a boxing company and this gives me a chance to showcase my young fighters."
And each Broadway Boxing card features an added attraction: the crowd. For better or worse (and sometimes it's both), sports fans today are part of the show. Crowds can influence officials and the performance of athletes. In worst-case scenarios, such as last year's basketball game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers, out-of-control violence results.
Most of DiBella's Broadway Boxing shows have been contested at the 1,400-seat Manhattan Center. Each fighter brings his own constituency. On a typical night, one section is filled with residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant wearing dark-blue doo-rags, cheering for Curtis Stevens. Next to them, Orthodox Jews with yarmulkes wait for Dmitriy Salita to do battle. There are Polish flags, Irish flags, and a contingent from the South Bronx with colors of its own. The fans are loud and passionate, but their energies are focused on the ring. There's no ugliness between them.
But Broadway Boxing is just one component of DiBella's business. He has been the lead promoter for 29 shows since officially becoming a promoter in January 2002. And a number of his fighters are moving from "prospect" to "contender" status.
In that regard, 2005 began on a down note when Jose Navarro challenged Katsushige Kawashima for the WBC 115-pound crown. Navarro cut Kawashima above the right eye and dominated the fight. After round six, the ring doctor visited the champion's corner to determine if he was fit to continue. At fight's end, Kawashima was drenched in his own blood. Judge William Boodhoo of Canada scored the bout 120-109 for Navarro. But Gelasio Perez of Mexico (115-114) and Noparat Sricharoen of Thailand (115-113) gave the nod to Kawashima. Navarro out-landed Kawashima 530 to 252.
"I haven't even written 2005 on a piece of paper yet," DiBella said hours after the fight, "and the filth of this business has already sullied the year. Jose did everything but knock Kawashima out, and he was robbed. The damage done by a decision like this to a kid like Jose is immeasurable, emotionally and financially. Decisions like this, which are condoned and sometimes encouraged by the world sanctioning organizations, are destroying the sport."
Later that month. DiBella suffered another setback when Kofi Jantuah challenged Kassim Ouma for the IBF 154-pound crown and failed to rise to the occasion. In March, Raymond Joval came up short against Fernando Vargas.
But there have been positive developments as well. Ike Quartey returned to the ring in January after a five-year absence and knocked out Clint McNeil. Then he decisioned Verno Phillips. Last month, DiBella got his second world champion (Bernard Hopkins was the first) when Leavander Johnson journeyed to Italy and stopped Stefano Zoff for the vacant IBF crown. And earlier this year, DiBella closed a deal to become president and general partner of the Norwich Navigators; a San Francisco Giants affiliate in the AA Eastern League.
"Buying a baseball team is an effort to balance my existence," he explains. "All of the infighting and ugliness in boxing is wearing me down. In fact, the biggest problem boxing has today is that the people who run the sport think their competition is each other. The Major League Baseball owners don't think that way. The NFL owners don't think that way. They understand that their real competition is other sports. Besides," DiBella adds, "I love baseball."
And then there's the matter of a fight scheduled for July 16th: Bernard Hopkins versus Jermain Taylor (DiBella's flagship fighter) for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world.
Hopkins and DiBella despise one another. After they split, Bernard sought to justify his conduct by claiming that DiBella (while a television executive) took a $50,000 bribe to put the fighter on HBO. When the allegations continued, DiBella sued for libel and won a $610,000 judgment. In addition, the judge who presided over the case ruled that Hopkins's attorneys had engaged in "multiple layers of improper conduct in an effort to mislead the court and jury" and referred the matter to the court's committee on grievances.
The libel judgment is eating away at Hopkins's insides. And Bernard's conduct has done similar damage to DiBella. Last year, they crossed paths at the Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner in New York.
"Suck my cock," Hopkins offered.
"Like they used to do in prison?" DiBella countered.
Then, at the May 3, 2005, kick-off press conference for Hopkins-Taylor, Bernard told the assembled media, "This fight means a lot to me. I got a chance to beat Jermain Taylor and also foreclose on Lou DiBella's company, because his company relies on Jermain Taylor's success. When I beat Jermain Taylor, I shut down Lou DiBella's company, so I get two knockouts in one night."
Thereafter, for emphasis, Hopkins turned to DiBella (who was seated next to the lecturn) and repeatedly tapped him on the back. After the third tap, DiBella told him, "Do me a favor and don't touch me."
"He's gonna sue," Hopkins mockingly told his audience.
DiBella held his temper, barely. "Bernard is a great fighter," he said afterward. "But he's a vile human being. And outside the ring, Bernard doesn't have the courage to do things man-to-man. When he turned on me, when he turned on Bouie Fisher, he smiled and then he stabbed us in the back. That's the mark of a moral coward. But July 16th isn't about Bernard and myself. It's one hundred percent about Jermain Taylor's quest to establish himself as the best middleweight in the world."
On one level, that's true. But it's also true that it would be immensely satisfying to Hopkins to beat DiBella's flagship fighter and exponentially more painful for him to lose to Taylor than to anyone else. And DiBella has a comparable emotional investment.
Meanwhile, Jermain Taylor says simply, "Whatever is between those two is between those two. But I will say one thing. The night Bernard beat Felix Trinidad, I saw Lou crying. That's how happy he was. I hope he's crying tears of joy again after I fight Bernard Hopkins."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 4, 2005