Q&A: Kathy Duva
Kathy Duva first became involved in boxing in 1977 through her husband, Dan. Initially she worked as the PR guru for Main Events.
After Dan’s passing in 1996 she inherited the CEO position within the company, but she says it wasn’t until 2002 that she really took over and even then it took until 2008 for her to stabilize the company.
During the past five decades, Duva has worked with some of the top athletes in boxing, including Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Pernell Whitaker. The list reads like a Who’s Who of the sport.
Today, the biggest star under her banner is WBO/IBF/WBA light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev. They started working together in 2012, and since then the Russian boxer-puncher’s rise in the sport has been meteoric. By all accounts Kovalev is a promoter’s dream.
“He keeps saying he wants to fight the best, because that way he’ll find out if he’s better,” Duva told RingTV.com last week. “That’s totally what he wants to do. He’s driven, he’s a perfectionist. He wants to not only be the best guy in the ring tonight, he wants to be the best fighter ever. He’s not saying he is, he just wants to find out if he is and we’re gonna find out with him.”
Last year Kovalev unified three major world titles by shutting out living legend Bernard Hopkins over 12 rounds. With another unification versus RING and WBC champion Adonis Stevenson unlikely now that Stevenson is aligned with Al Haymon, the deep-pocketed “adviser” behind Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), Duva says she’s exploring other avenues. One of those big-fight options is an attractive showdown with the top super middleweight, Andre Ward.
“I’ve had conversations with the people from Roc Nation. The (Andre) Ward fight is something I think is makeable, we’re having steady talks about it,” she said. “It won’t happen immediately, it looks like next year. Once he fights Andre Ward he won’t have the WBC (light heavyweight) title but he will be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world when the fight is over. It seems to be a good alternative since our first plan didn’t work.”
This Saturday, Kovalev faces mandatory challenger Nadjib Mohammedi in Las Vegas, which will be televised on HBO at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.
RingTV.com – Last year at the WBC convention you made overtures to force Adonis Stevenson’s hand to face Kovalev. Ultimately things didn’t work out for you. Can you talk us through that situation?
Kathy Duva – I am very disappointed it turned out the way it did. ÔÇª Kovalev wanted the biggest fights he could get, as fast as he could get them and he wanted to unify the titles. That was his main goal and my orders were go out and unify. This was an opportunity that presented itself, we would either be able to force a unification or force Stevenson to vacate. The feeling was ‘Lets shake it up,’ that was in December. That was before the announcement that the PBC existed, it was before anyone knew Haymon had hundreds of millions of dollars behind him and it was before anyone understood he was actually trying to monopolize the sport, not just do a series on NBC, which was all we really knew at the time.
Sometimes the right decision on one day turns out to be the wrong decision on another day. Within a few weeks when things became clear, I still felt we’re going to get past the mandatory fight this summer. ÔÇª (Stevenson’s promoter Yvon Michel) then forced a purse bid which shouldn’t have even been discussed until after the July fight, when a lot more time would have elapsed and a lot more things could have been planned and changed. They forced it to happen immediately.
[Note: The Stevenson-Kovalev fight at one time looked like it was about to happen on HBO but Stevenson then signed with Al Haymon and made a deal with Showtime. With Haymon’s financial backing and network ties a purse bid between Duva and Yvon Michel, Stevenson’s promoter, would most likely have gone in Stevenson’s favor and thus put Kovalev in violation of his contract to fight exclusively on HBO.]
What happened as a result of (forcing the purse bid), they put us in a position where HBO said, ‘We’re not putting up a fortune in a purse bid for a guy when we don’t even have rights to the other guy, so you’re on your own.’ And I don’t blame them for that, that’s the position they were in. So we sat there and we’re like, do we make a new deal with HBO? Do we stick with the people who got us here, do we trust they are the machine that has built every major fighter for the last 35 years and they’re going to build you too? Or do we break from HBO, do the (Mohammedi) fight in Russia ÔÇª even then HBO could have gone to court and made the argument – because the purse bid was taking place before the Mohammedi fight was made – that they would have had the rights to the Stevenson fight. If Al Haymon didn’t want a purse bid, which he surely would have, we wouldn’t have been able to participate in the fight. It seemed to me the thing to do was end this now. You know what? Well played, they made a good move.
RTV – Al Haymon made a very smart business move by forcing your hand?
KD – We made what we thought was a good move and they made a good counter move and again I’ll give them credit. Well played. That doesn’t mean the game’s over, it means they made a good move. What we have now is that Sergey has the full backing of HBO, he is one of their stars. That was the right decision. Frankly, had they not pushed this purse bid so early I still think we would have ended up with HBO. It was never our intention to leave them but when they forced that purse bid so early they knew what they were doing – they were ensuring the fight would not happen and then they were able to mask it with, ‘See, we wanted to do the fight.’
Imagine if we had walked away from HBO, incurred the possibility of litigation against (us), really had our relationship break down and what if, at that point, Stevenson had pulled out? Because there’s no guarantee. It would have been a really dumb thing for us to do. They forced our hand and we played the only card we had. It’s a good card to have.
RTV – What are your thoughts on Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions court cases against Haymon?
KD – What (Haymon is) doing is hurting the sport. I know it’s good for some guys who are getting a lot of money – more power to them – but it’s not sustainable and makes no business sense. As much as people would love the networks to start spending hundreds of millions for boxing – because if they did I could sell them fights, that would be great – it would be wonderful if that could happen but there’s just a lot of reasons why it’s not likely …
The bigger problem is the execution, because what they’re doing now is salting the earth before they go because the concept is not sticky, the fights are not mind-blowing. The problem is the market is being distorted. A few guys are making money in the short run, of course, but it’s not every fighter who puts on a pair of gloves. It’s certain fighters and that’s great for them. One person isn’t going to look out for the welfare of the thousand or so people who make their living as professional boxers in the United States and it’s a fool who thinks that could happen. Monopolies are not good. We’re just gonna keep doing our job, building what we have and working with a network that has made every champion of the last 30-odd years … and trust they’re doing the same great job with Sergey as everyone else.
Over the years since I’ve been involved in the sport there has been at least a dozen of these people that come along with lots and lots of money who think, ‘Oh, well, these people that run boxing are idiots. We know how to do this, we’ll just take it over.’ And as Bob Arum keeps saying, talking about all the bleached bones of all the people that have just tried to do it ÔÇª this is just gonna be another pile of bones.
RTV – Let’s go back and talk a little about Kovalev. How did you first become aware of him?
KD – You know, I look at how many peoples’ shows he fought on and I’m shocked. Jolene (Mizzone, the Main Events matchmaker) and I met Egis Klimas (Kovalev’s manager) a week before our first NBC show and we’d just learned that our main event, Sergey Liakhovich and Eddie Chambers, had fallen out. We’re a week away from our premiere and we’re like, ‘They’re going to cancel the series.’ This is before we made the fight between (Bryant) Jennings and Maurice Byarm (the fight that eventually replaced Liakhovich-Chambers, in January 2012). Egis met with us that morning. He had been asking us for a meeting; part of it was for us to look at Sergey Kovalev. As we started this meeting with a man we’d never met before, we started pouring our hearts out on what we were going through to find a replacement at one week’s notice. This guy started making phone calls trying to find an opponent. We just thought, ‘What a nice man. At the very least we should put his fighter on. What the heck?’
RTV – So you gave Kovalev a chance?
KD – We decided we liked Egis and he had such belief in Sergey. They way he put it, ‘I have put my own money, probably a quarter of a million dollars, in the guy because I believe in him so much and I can’t get anyone else to believe in him so much. Just take a look, put him in with the toughest guy you want to give him.’ When someone comes to you like that you’re a fool if you don’t pay attention. We said OK. In looking for an opponent, Jolene came up with the idea that they would put him in with Darnell Boone because he had struggled in his fight with him (Kovalev had won a split decision over Boone in 2010). This way we find out if this guy is the real thing of not. If he’s still going to struggle with Darnell Boone, you’re not going anywhere ÔÇª or is it as Egis said, (that) he’s improved tremendously since then. So Jolene called him up and said this is how it’s going to be ÔÇª Egis tells the story his first reaction was, ‘Oh no, that guy made him look bad,’ and Sergey’s first inclination was, ‘What a great idea, I’ll find out if I’ve improved.’
We made the fight and I remember Russell Peltz was complaining about putting a Russian on the card because he’s not going to sell any tickets. I said, ‘We’re doing a favor for this guy, he asked us to look at him,’ and Russell I remember being really upset about it and the guy got in the ring and I just saw this look in his eyes. It reminded me of Ray Leonard when he got in the ring with Thomas Hearns, which was the first big fight I worked on, in 1981. I was like, ‘I’ve seen that look before,’ and then he proceeded to demolish Darnell Boone and when the fight ended very quickly I saw Russell Peltz running at me going, ‘Who the hell would you not put this guy in with?’ And I just thought, ‘I can’t think of anybody.’ It wasn’t just that he beat Darnell Boone, it was the ferocity, the combination punching, the timing, the footwork, it was all there. It was like this is the guy and we had this wonderful platform to build him.
RTV – What happened next?
KD – We made the fight with Gabriel Campillo to get him in the rankings. Campillo pulled out so he fought Lionell Thompson, another demolition. We finally got the Campillo fight the following January; that fight we saw another demolition. We put him in with Cornelius White the following June, which got him to the No. 1 contender spot. At that point HBO offered him a fight with Nathan Cleverly and he was the No. 1 contender to (Bernard) Hopkins. The question was, ‘Do we wait for Hopkins, which might not materialize, or go to Wales to win the title in August?’ Sergey’s attitude was whatever fight is first. I said, ‘You can fight Hopkins in the United States, we might be able to sell it to Showtime, and you’re going to fight this guy in Wales. Do you understand the risks?’ and he was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, just get me the fight.’ He is a throwback fighter.
RTV – When you saw this guy had something special, could you have seen it playing out like it has done?
KD – You know what, when I saw the first round of that fight (versus Darnell Boone), I did. Maybe it’s happened a little faster than I thought it would. I’ve been lucky in my life to work closely with some of the greatest fighters of all time – Ray Leonard and Hearns was my introduction to big-time boxing. The fighters we have handled over the years – Whitaker, Holyfield, Lewis – there’s a level of commitment, there’s a fire that guys need to have. You need all of it and it was very, very obvious from that first moment this guy had it.
We didn’t know anything about his character at that time or how hard he worked but in my view this guy who came from nothing, the ghetto on the other side of the Ural mountains, for him to get where he got fighting for nothing ÔÇª All those fights prior to that, Egis set those fights up and paid Sergey’s living expenses – he never got paid. The feeling was if this guy did all that, he clearly has the drive. He’s the guy saying, ‘Give me the opportunity.’
When we signed him we looked at him on the Darnell Boone fight, we signed him a month later, leading into what we thought was the Campillo fight. When he signed the contract, they sent it to me and I sent him an e-mail. He sent it back saying, ‘Thank you. When can I fight for a title?’ When he fought in Wales, there was a time we were waiting for the TV network. I said, ‘Sergey this is it, this is your dream, you’ve reached it,’ and he said, ‘Thank you. When can I fight for another title?’ (laughs) When you have a guy telling you ‘This is what I want, go out and get it,’ it makes my job easier.
RTV – In closing, what are your long-term goals for Main Events?
KD – You know, in this sport, it’s not possible to have anything long-term. From the time we opened up business, and that was in ’78, we talked about, ‘Can we last another year?‘ is kind of how we go into every year. The only time we haven’t was when we had three years of an NBC contract.
My daughter, Nicole, has come in, taken a big interest in it. She has taken over the marketing, she has become my right arm here in a lot of ways. She is the person who will inherit this. The long-term goal is hers not mine. My goal is just as it has always been, just get through the next year. We’re a boutique, we’re not Wal-Mart. We’re not trying to go out there and control boxing, own boxing, be the biggest promoter in it – that was never our goal. Our goal was to work with a small number of fighters and do a great job for their careers. I think that we’re doing that for the guys we have ÔÇª everybody can’t be the biggest star in boxing, but when we get ahold of that guy we know what to do with him. We have in the past.
If you look at our history, starting with the guys who were the first champions we signed — Rocky Lockridge, Johnny Bumphus, Mike McCallum and Livingstone Bramble – who all won a world titles in 1984; that was the first time we had a world champion and we had four of them in one year – then going through that, signing Holyfield, Whitaker, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, on to the days of Lennox Lewis, Fernando Vargas, (Arturo) Gatti, on to (Tomasz) Adamek and now Sergey ÔÇª there’s a line that goes back to the first guys who won the title in ’84. We do the best job we can for the guys we sign and we have consistently had at least someone who has stood out and we will try to maintain that.
Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him at www.twitter.com/AnsonWainwright