Meet Manager David McWater, whose roots began in abject poverty and ended in the penthouse
- This is one in a series of backstories on boxing managers who are making an impact on the sport today.
In war, it’s called the thousand-yard stare, that vacant, disassociated gaze of a soldier who is detached from the world. In poverty, it’s very similar. It’s an unfocused, hardened, cold-blue look through sunken eyes under a bronzed, furrowed brow.
David McWater knows the stare all too well.
He grew up with it in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother, Thelma, was literally born in a log cabin and lived there until she was 16. She didn’t have indoor plumbing until she arrived at the University of Oklahoma. As a child, she picked cotton in the fields of Wapanucka, Oklahoma.
McWater’s father, James, had his eye poked out when he was 12. Neither grandfather received a formal education.
It’s why education was a huge factor in McWater’s life. It explains why he thinks the way he does, and why his uncanny prescience led to one thriving business at 18, followed by another in his 20s, followed by yet another in his 50s.
Four years ago, he wasn’t a part of the “old boys” scene. Not many boxing insiders recognized David McWater’s face at ringside.
They do now.
In 2014, he started Split-T Management, which currently has around 70 fighters, including some of the world’s most exciting, like IBF lightweight beltholder Teofimo Lopez, Charles Conwell and Antonio Vargas.
Many businessmen enter boxing and don’t have the wherewithal to finish. The old codgers are wary of that. It’s hard to convince people willing to lose millions to get involved in this game.
“I had to prove it to people that I was going to be here next week,” McWater said.
He may make it.
Last year, McWater, 54, saw Split-T have its best year. To some degree, he feels, he’s still paying his dues.
Though Split-T fighters compiled a record of 85-9-3 in 2019, which included world title victories by Lopez, and Raquel Miller, who won a WBA junior middleweight interim title.
Over the last four years, Split-T fighters have a cumulative 290-24-1 record, with 26 regional belts and three world titles.
The foundation of McWater’s drive comes from a pair of grandparents who weren’t afforded a chance at education.
“Poverty is a part of me, I’ll never deny that, but I grew up very middleclass because of it,” McWater said. “I was never angry about the poverty my family grew up in. I think, for me, it was a tale of hard work and education to get us to the next level.
“I never grew up needing a meal, growing up on Mockingbird Lane (that’s true). My maternal grandparents lived on the farm. We listened to those stories and still saw the abject poverty. My grandparents made sure their children wouldn’t live that way, and my parents made sure that my sister and I would never have to live like that.”
Lopez knows poverty, too. His family experienced many of the same hardships as McWater’s grandparents.
Though a few generations removed from log cabins and picking cotton, McWater has always been able to empathize.
He remembers the stories. He remembers the poverty glare his grandparents shared.
He knows Lopez has been waiting for a unification title shot against Vasiliy Lomachenko. It’s why he calls his star with daily updates—though his ultimate priority is Lopez’s health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s important to Lopez.
“He’s considered family and we trust David,” Lopez said. “David is already wealthy. He didn’t have to get into this business, and this is a business where there isn’t a lot of trust.
“With my father and me, he earned our trust. You get spooked in boxing. We all know the stories of how guys got ripped off. He’s in boxing for the right reasons. There were times, early on, when my family was in debt and David took care of us. He’s a good man.”
The launching pad
McWater sprouted early. He was 6-foot tall and maybe weighed 140 pounds in seventh grade. The height hasn’t changed. Before boxing, his first love was hoops. He played on various AAU summer teams, making connections that would later pay dividends.
“I was by far the worst player on the team, but I met some foreign coaches there,” McWater recalled. “That gave me an idea.”
The father of McWater’s high school best friend was a restaurant owner who had sponsored one of the AAU teams McWater played on. He had placed a couple of Oklahoma players overseas through the connection of a legendary California JUCO coach, Jim White.
“That told me it could be done,” McWater said. “I reached out to Jim and that started me.”
At 18 and a freshman at New York University, McWater began cold calling guys he played AAU with that weren’t playing anymore. They were working construction or taking orders at McDonald’s. McWater was offering a basketball life line.
He would pitch them that they had nothing to lose by signing with him. One player, Kenny Orange, a 6-foot-10 center selected by the Chicago Bulls in the ninth round in the 1983 NBA Draft out of Oklahoma Christian, was still looking to play.
In 1985, a new minor basketball summer league began called the United States Basketball League. McWater was all over it. He got Orange placed with a team called the Long Island Knights. As it turns out, Orange still had some game left. He wound up starting in the USBL all-star game against 7-foot-6 Manute Bol and had the game of his life, scoring 32 points, on satellite TV.
European basketball coaches and scouts saw it.
Overnight, every international team in the world was calling the Long Island Knights, a small operation with a one-man office. Poor Randy Feldman was juggling the calls.
He would give everyone the same answer—“Call David McWater, he’s Kenny Orange’s agent” …. click …. “Call David McWater, he’s Kenny Orange’s agent” …. click …. “Call David McWater, he’s Kenny Orange’s agent” …. click.
Calls flooded in to McWater, who brokered a deal for Orange, but other teams kept calling. McWater let them know he represented hundreds of other players, who would they like?
One team mentioned Keith Edmonson, who was selected 10th overall in the 1982 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks via Purdue and out of the NBA by 1984.
Edmonson was someone McWater didn’t have.
So, he took a chance.
He called Purdue’s sports information department, told them he was a sports agent from New York and that he had a job for Edmonson. They gave him Edmonson’s number, and when he reached Edmonson, the deal was simple: He had a job playing basketball in Paris, if McWater would be his agent.
“You’re my agent,” Edmonson said.
McWater sent Anthony Mason overseas, John Starks overseas and former NBA starter Darryl Dawkins to Italy.
In a who-you-know business, McWater had all of the numbers of European connections. The Dawkins’ deal gave him income for three years. Because of his basketball dealings, McWater was forced to graduate a year late, at 23 in 1989, with an NYU degree in politics and history.
“The Kenny Orange deal is what really made me,” McWater said. “The fax machine arrived and who-you-know wasn’t as important as how much you can offer guys.”
In the late 1980s, McWater was offered a set up in a New York City office in a buyout package from then-super-agent Steve Zucker, a major power broker who had Jim McMahon, Deion Sanders and Eric Dickerson.
McWater, arrested by the hubris of youth and flushed with confidence, rejected the offer.
Within a year, he didn’t have any clients.
Bye, bye Coyote Ugly, hello boxing
After a little stint playing high-stakes poker and with his agent dealings winding down, McWater began attending foreclosure auctions on Tuesdays in New York.
He was skillful in the art of misdirects. For example, a printing company would go out of business, so instead of buying the property, he began buying furniture, office supplies and computers inside the property for a $1 each and selling them to wholesalers for $80.
That venture branched out to buying various bars from absentee landlords and flipping them the same week.
After he bought a piece of a bar while he and was living with a bartender, that practice came to a screeching halt. The then-girlfriend urged him not to flip it. She told him that she would run it. McWater also brought in an old college roommate. After a dispute, the two wound up buying out McWater—and the bar wound up being the Coyote Ugly Saloon, the self-proclaimed “Most famous bar on the planet,” in which a movie was made about.
“I saw during that time it was way better than flipping bars,” McWater admits. “I opened Doc Holliday’s exactly a year after I bought Coyote Ugly. We started hopscotching and buying bars all over neighborhoods.”
He was 27.
He’s had Doc Holliday’s for almost 30 years, which is often a great gathering place for boxing people after major fights in New York.
Boxing was a part of McWater’s life. His grandfather was enamored with Muhammad Ali. McWater grew up a huge Sean O’Grady fan. He became more directly involved with boxing through Kip Elbaum, the son of Hall of Fame promoter, manager and matchmaker Don Elbaum, worked for him at Doc Halliday’s.
Behind his office desk, McWater had a huge fight poster someone had given him of Sugar Ray Robinson and Bobo Olson. Kip saw that and asked if McWater liked boxing.
He wound up being Don’s guest at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon in the mid-1990s.
That was his segue. Through Don Elbaum, McWater got involved with Chris Mills, a Scranton, Pa., cruiserweight, in a small way. That gave him a taste of the sport—the good and the bad.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to get into politics was because I wanted to defend people who otherwise couldn’t protect themselves,” said McWater, who retired in 2011 at 45 becoming financially independent after selling 13 of the 16 bars he owned. “I came from poverty. My family was dirt poor—and I mean literally dirt poor.
“They came from nothing. It’s why in New York I helped with building affordable housing.”
McWater, who’s a multi-millionaire, didn’t enjoy retirement. He gained weight. He was married and was looking for a new challenge. Plus, he was growing bored after spending a year watching every episode of Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
Attending the Golden Gloves nationals rekindled an old love—boxing. He began crunching numbers, and found boxing a penetrable sport. Before he recruited anyone, he immersed himself with who the best upcoming fighters were. While other managers were star gazing, McWater was looking in a different direction—at fighters that might be unpolished gems, second-tier guys who boxing’s power brokers may not be looking to sign.
It came with some mistakes. He threw money around and overpaid for fights and fighters. Then, he hired a few boxing veterans, Joe Quiambao followed by Tim VanNewhouse.
They set McWater straight.
“I had been away from boxing for less than a year in 2015 and I was working in an office,” recalled Quiambao, 40, who’s been involved with boxing for 20 years and has worked for Al Haymon and Hall of Famer Lou DiBella. “A friend of mine, Chuck Bayley, called me about this guy in New York, David McWater, who’s looking to get into boxing and needs someone to help him.
“In boxing, if someone is new, they try and take advantage of you. We only spoke for a few minutes when we first met. But there was something about David that I liked.
“I really didn’t want anything to do with boxing. But I could see David really took care of his fighters. That’s what impressed me the most.”
Quiambao and VanNewhouse were met with trepidation when they would mention McWater’s name. They found McWater was very generous with his fighters, sometimes a little “too generous” in the beginning. But no promoters really wanted to hear anything about McWater, other than Star Boxing president Joe DeGuardia.
They received a lot of “who, what?”
“I remember people were laughing their asses off, because the boxing community is a lot like high school,” Quiambao said. “They didn’t know David. He has a great business mind and a vision—and he wasn’t jaded by the bad things in boxing.”
McWater took a page from New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, who when he came into football was amazed by the talent and skill sets that executives had.
“Kraft hired all of these people with unbelievable skill sets—and nothing worked,” McWater said. “Then, he just started hiring good people and everything worked. That’s what I did.
“I sort of came to that same conclusion in the bar business. Forget about the skill sets. Hire quality people. I had to come to that understanding, but I couldn’t intellectualize it yet. Getting Joe and Tim was huge for me. They’ve done great for us.”
McWater added Brian Cohen, a former light heavyweight out of Philadelphia who is very versed in women’s boxing, and Split-T Management also added Ron Rizzo and Otha Jones II as a scouting director.
“One of the things that makes Top Rank so productive is that they have great people,” McWater said. “You have someone there like Pete Susens, who doesn’t get enough credit. He’s been in boxing for 40 years. They have 10 guys like Pete.
“It’s like a damned all-star team over there. (Carl) Moretti, (Bruce) Trampler, (Brad) Goodman, all of those guys were somebody before they got there. My guys get more fights than their contracts call for, and that’s because we have our s— turned in. I’m psyched about our team.”
What threw McWater over the top was signing the monster 2016 Olympic class of Conwell, Vargas and Lopez.
Boxing people began treating McWater differently after he secured them.
“Boxing managers today are way different than they used to be,” McWater said. “Besides, I usually think of myself more as an agent than I do a manager. We still say manager, because that’s the boxing term. Managers today care about their kids. We try to represent these kids and build a market for them.
“Thirty years ago, managers felt like they owned their guys, like it was a stable, as they liked to say. I hate the word ‘stable.’ These guys aren’t horses. I tell my guys that I work for them. One of the biggest revelations for me is that boxing is less corrupt than people on the outside think. There’s still corruption, but it’s certainly less than New York City politics.
“The bad revelation in boxing is how easy it is to ignore a guy. We have two older southpaws in Ray Robinson and Willie Monroe, and it’s work getting anyone to fight those guys.”
McWater’s maternal grandparents put six girls through college, including his mother, who passed away in 2004. His sister, Mary Cochran, an Oklahoma grad, is a partner at Ernst & Young, one of the world’s largest accounting firms. McWater has established himself as one of the shrewdest businessmen in boxing today.
It’s a long way from a weary girl wearing the glare of poverty, picking cotton in the hot fields of Wapanucka, Oklahoma.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.
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