Duva refined his knowledge of boxing with the help of his older brother, Carl, who was a Jersey club fighter in the late '20s and early '30s. Carl used to let Lou carry his gym bag and, on a big day, his spit bucket. When Lou was 17 he won the New Jersey Diamond Gloves welterweight amateur championship. "That was a hundred pounds ago," says Duva, trying to see his feet.
He learned to fight at 15, when he dropped out of school, forged a birth certificate that said he was 18 and went off to Boise, Idaho, to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. "That's where I learned how to drive a truck, learned how to fight in smokers and learned how to shoot craps," he says, his point evidently being that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Once he returned to New Jersey, Duva's biggest problem as a fighter, the one that would account for much of the scar tissue that gives his face its distinctive ridges and valleys, was that he rarely had time to train. He worked every afternoon as a shoeshine boy on a Paterson street corner, and at night he set pins by hand at a bowling alley and peddled newspapers. While stationed Stateside during World War II, Duva began his career as a cornerman by managing the boxing team at what was then called Camp Hood, in Texas. After his discharge in 1944, at age 21, Duva bought a truck and eventually built a fleet of 32.
"I used to knock myself out trying to get the first load to the garment district [in Manhattan]," he says. "Then I'd work through the coffee breaks and lunch just so I could finish early and go to Stillman's Gym [on 8th Avenue and 54th St.] and watch the three-ring circus there. I'd watch the managers' moves, watch the trainers work, always studying. When I started, sometimes I'd make a $5,000 profit in the trucking business, and then I'd blow it all on some boxing show."
After he married, in 1949, other jobs may have kept the wolf from the door, but their most important function was to provide him with enough money to put together his boxing shows in places like the Elizabeth ( N.J.) Armory and what is now John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson. Still, Enes always encouraged Lou to stick with boxing, even when it was draining the family treasury.
While selling off his trucks in the early '60s, Duva began working as a bail bondsman. For 10 years he tracked down offenders who skipped town while awaiting trial. "I was a bounty hunter," he says, "which is another way of saying I was stupid." Duva once followed a bail jumper to an apartment in Puerto Rico, where neighbors in the building threw disposable household items at him as he fled with his quarry.
When Duva suffered a major heart attack in 1979, Enes knew him well enough to realize boxing wasn't what was killing him, so she suggested that he give up his day jobs and concentrate full-time on the ring. The job that had probably given him the heart attack was being president of Teamsters Local 286, which represented mostly minimum-wage earners in Clifton, N.J.
In 1972, Duva took over the stewardship of the small local, which had been controlled by Tony Provenzano, whose enemies had a habit of disappearing suddenly and permanently. In 1978, Tony Pro, as he was known, was convicted of having murdered a union rival 17 years earlier. Provenzano died in federal prison in December, while serving time for a previous racketeering conviction. Duva acknowledges that he was friendly with Tony Pro and his brother Sal, who was also a Teamster official, but says they never asked him to do anything improper. "All I care about is what a guy does for my boxers," says Duva. "Outside of that, he could be the devil, I don't care."
Suggestions that Duva was involved in organized crime have always infuriated his family, mainly because they are based on nothing more substantial than his association with some shady characters. The family points out that while Duva was the head of Local 286, it was composed mostly of nursing-home and hospital workers. "Every now and then, Lou would get the nurses together and they would rough people up," says Kathy.
Duva says his real strength as a union boss lay in his ability to recruit new members, and it didn't hurt that he could swell the ranks by hiring members of his family. During a contentious nursing-home strike in 1980, Donna—not Lou—was arrested when she got into a fight on a picket line. Duva also used his position as a union leader to sponsor neighborhood sports teams. In fact, it was his Local 286 football team that was playing in the Paterson Touch Football League when Duva nearly sparked a riot by running onto the field to dispute a call.