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These Days, The Duvas Are The Main Event


Sports Business

THESE DAYS, THE DUVAS ARE THE MAIN EVENT

It wasn't so long ago that flamboyant promoter Don King lorded it over the sport of boxing while Danny Duva set up folding chairs in bleak high-school gyms in New Jersey for his dad's "club fights." Danny often made more money hawking beer and hot dogs than his dad took in at the gate.

But with the imprisonment of heavyweight Mike Tyson in 1991, Don King has gone from brash bobber to tired canvasback. Current undisputed heavyweight champ of the fight game is Danny Duva's all-in-the-family firm, Main Events.

Main Events now boasts a stable of 25 pugilists, including nine world champions. On Apr. 9, Duva watched client Pernell "SweetPea" Whitaker retain his welterweight title with a victory over Santos Cardona. Less than two weeks later, on Apr. 22, clients Evander Holyfield, the first fighter to gross more than $100 million, and Michael Moorer were set to duke it out for the world heavyweight title. Then, on May 6, clients Lennox Lewis and Phil Jackson climb into the ring in yet another major heavyweight bout.

For the Duvas, these three fights, which are expected to gross $60 million, are something of a roundhouse punch. Their five fighters will earn $25 million. Main Events will net about $2.5 million. "It's no different than producing a movie or a TV show," says Duva. "You take the financial risk and put all the elements together."

NO SWEAT. Since Duva often represents both fighters in the ring, critics accuse him of conflicts of interest similar to those that plagued Don King. Duva doesn't sweat it. "I find a lot more conflicts in the entertainment business than in boxing," he says. He notes that superagent Michael Ovitz may represent people on every side of a Hollywood movie deal, "yet he's not in conflict. He's a genius."

Some boxing insiders say the same of Duva, 42. He certainly lacks the rip-roaring panache of Don King, whose most famous fighter won't get out of stir until next spring, or the frenetic energy of Bob Arum, who handles George Foreman and others. But Duva brings a businesslike savvy to a brutal, often chaotic sport. "He never sings it," says Seth G. Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports, who has been across the table from Duva. "In a business that is illogical, Duva brings great logic," says Abraham. "And he doesn't roll over for a nickel."

Main Events is an Italian family affair. Danny's father, Lou, 71, is a onetime boxer with a cratered face and a shock of white hair. Dan's wife, Kathy, 40, dubbed "Da Mout"' by Lou because of her garrulity, is the group's marketer. Brother Dino is the accountant, while sister Donna arranges travel. Two other sisters, Deanne and Denise, are the company's bookkeeper and receptionist, respectively. A niece and a cousin also work in the shop.

CROWD CONTROL. Duva got his early schooling in the sweet science around the family dinner table in Totowa, N.J. Lou, former president of a Jersey Teamsters local, fought professionally for years, his scarred mug and crooked nose evidence of a less-than-successful ring career. He later turned trainer, manager, and promoter of local fights and fighters.

More than once, Duva saw his father keep a boxing match from becoming a riot. Just hours before one bout, Lou had to dry out one drunken palooka and bail out another. On another occasion, a fighter ran off in fear after seeing his opponent: Lou replaced him with someone from the crowd. Lou has since helped train and manage 13 world champions.

So Danny knows what it takes for a boxer to make it big. "A heavyweight fighter has to be a cross between Darth Vader and Magic Johnson," he says. "He has to be a killer and a destroyer in the ring but have a charismatic personality outside it."

Duva graduated from Seton Hall University with a law degree in 1977 and joined a small law firm in Newark, N.J. Before he passed the bar exam, his father landed him a key client: Mitt Barnes, manager of fighter Leon Spinks. Within the year, Spinks defeated heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, and Duva enjoyed a six-figure payday. From then on, when he wasn't handling real estate closings or divorce settlements, Duva was promoting fights.

He paid $100,000 for the closed-circuit-television rights to a Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight in 1980. The TV deal made $500,000, and the Duvas got 40% of that. Leonard, whose major fights were promoted by Arum or Don King, took notice. "We became the alternative to Don King and Bob Arum," says Duva.

Anxious to land Leonard, Duva boldly offered him an $8 million guarantee to fight Thomas "Hitman" Hearns in 1981. "We had $50,000 at the time," recalls Kathy Duva. "Our attorney said, `This is the most underfinanced Ponzi scheme I've ever seen."' Duva scrambled to piece it together, coaxing $3 million out of Caesars Palace to stage the fight and an additional $1 million from Home Box Office for the delayed broadcast rights. When it was all over, Leonard collected not only his guarantee but an additional $4 million. Duva pocketed $1.5 million, and Main Events was in the big time.

For four years running, Main Events has been the promoter or co-promoter of the largest-grossing pay-per-view events. Among them: Holyfield's fight with Foreman in 1991, which grossed about $58 million, the most ever for a sports event, and Howard Stern's tacky New Year's Eve show last Dec. 31, which grossed some $14 million--highest ever for a nonsports pay-per-view extravaganza.

"EVERYBODY SUES." Having so many top fighters in their corner still provokes some heckling. Two years ago, Holyfield publicly accused the Duvas of conflict of interest. The spat threatened to break up the partnership between Main Events and its most lucrative fighter, but it was quickly patched up. "It's like a marriage," says Duva. "If you work with someone for 10 years, you have disputes. He misunderstood the terms of a deal we made with Riddick Bowe. If not for that contract...Holyfield wouldn't be champion today."

Still, Rock Newman, Bowe's manager, dubs Duva a "walking, breathing conflict of interest." Newman filed a $25 million lawsuit against Duva and Main Events last year, alleging breach of contract. The suit was settled out of court. Duva shrugs off the episode. "Boxing is the Wild West," he says. "There are always lawsuits going on. Everybody sues everybody."

Whom does he root for when both fighters in the ring are under contract to him? "I root for the gross, and let the best man win."John A. Byrne in Totowa, N.J.


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