Competitor, trainer, matchmaker and promoter are words used to describe what Frank Luca has done in his life. Class, determination, fortitude and devoted are words that come to mind as I interviewed the man who has spent fifty years dedicated to the sport of boxing. Learning to box at a young age, his unblemished record of 17(W) 0(L) 15(KO) as a pro came to a screeching halt when he suffered a detached retina. For a man who loved the sport, becoming a trainer was a very natural thing to do. So at the young age of 34, he took his fighter, Earnie Shavers, to Madison Square Garden to fight Muhammad Ali. Luca went on to train over 350 professional fighters and worked with contenders or champions in 14 title bouts. Luca has fought all over the world, from Paris to London to Rome and in venues such as Madison Square Garden and Caesars Palace. In 2010 he won the Celebrity Sports Award here in Las Vegas, and when asked what advice he’d give to the young, he said: “Whatever your mind can conceive, your body can achieve. Faith in yourself, faith in the God above, and never give up!”
SLV: It was quite an honor for you to win the Celebrity Sports Award. That was fantastic and you certainly deserve it!
LUCA: Thank you. It was a nice evening, and I appreciated it.
SLV: You’ve done a lot for Las Vegas by keeping the sports scene alive.
LUCA: We’ve been doing this for about fifty years.
SLV: Vegas has always been one of the best cities for boxing.
LUCA: Yes. It’s the boxing capital of the world – Las Vegas, Nevada.
SLV: You said at the awards show: “Whatever your mind can conceive, your body can achieve.” Is that your philosophy on life?
LUCA: You know, it really is. When I was training fighters, after my boxing career was over, I found that people have a tendency to just go as far as they are comfortably able to go. But, if you push yourself beyond what you think your limits are and concentrate on what your goals are, what your mind can conceive, your body will achieve. Yes, no question about it.
SLV: I think that’s a great philosophy! Who do you consider to be the greatest boxer of all time and why?
LUCA: To tell you the truth, I have many selections. I think that Sugar Ray Robinson was great. I think that Rocky Marciano was great. Certainly Muhammad Ali was great. Alexis Arguello was great. Manny Pacquiao was great in today’s day. I think they all have one common denominator. They have succeeded or surpassed expectations of the sports world. They have been able to accomplish things that only they, as I said before, conceived in their mind and forced their bodies to achieve. We’ve had some great, great athletes in the professional boxing world. It goes back, not just in the current era, if you looked at the fight game from its conception, even to the Olympics in the Greek Ages where it was man against man. Pro boxing has been able to establish one individual, not a team effort, but one individual going into the center of what they call the squared circle and competing against another individual. There’s no other competition in the world that allows a man to go into a ring, half naked, with just a pair of gloves on, where he can’t use his feet, elbows and head, legally that is, to achieve a victory. So I think that if you really studied the sport of boxing, you’ll realize that it does consist of being the sweet science, and that’s why it’s called the “Sweet Science”, because it’s the combination of mind, spirit and body participating in a joint effort to outscore the other man. Of course now, it’s the other woman as well, because females have entered the boxing world. I always have a female fight or two on my cards, and they have come to show that they can participate in a sport that allows them to excel one-on-one as well. In fact, most of the female fighters today are more skilled from a perspective of learning the actual art than many of the men.
SLV: Really? That’s quite a surprising statement from a man.
LUCA: Yeah. Well, it’s a true statement. If you come to any of my fight cards, you’ll see the female bouts, they’re very well-schooled. They know how to jab, they drive the right kind of combinations and, as is typical of a female, she’s going to do it right. She takes the time to learn it right. Where a male may try to use brute strength to overcome his opponent, the female has the tenacity to go about it in a finesse way.
SLV: Did you ever train a woman?
LUCA: No, there were no female fighters when I was training fighters or when I was fighting either. Back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, there were only a few female fighters in the world at that time. I was not privileged to have any that came into our gym to turn pro.
SLV: Tell me about your early years and how you got involved in boxing.
LUCA: I was taken to the Canton Police Boy’s Club when I was about twelve years old to learn how to box. I was born and raised in the ghetto part of our city, in the projects area, and it was pretty tough down in that old neighborhood in the southeast end. Being an only child and a skinny little runt, I was getting whopped every day. One of my neighbors decided to take me to the Boys Club and he taught me how to box. They put me on the list of individuals who were my own size and I excelled, so that was my first introduction into an amateur fight. Here we are today. It’s been a long ride, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
SLV: So at some point you stopped training and decided to become a promoter.
LUCA: That’s correct. I felt I was getting too old to climb in and out of those ropes everyday and chase those fighters around holding mitts and so forth, so I stayed in the sport that I loved so much. Crown Boxing has been in my life since around 1990. We’ve been here in Las Vegas since 2003.
SLV: I’ve read that you trained over 350 professional fighters.
LUCA: Oh yes, some really good fighters.
SLV: What do you think you brought to your training that other trainers lacked?
LUCA: Well, I was an understudy. I studied the sport with some of the greatest cut men and trainers in my years. There was Chickie Ferrara, Lou Viscucci, Teddy Bentham, and I studied under Bobby Gleason in New York. I studied under some of the real pros and learned the trade. I brought a real intensity and devotion to my training schedule. I’m somewhat of a disciplinarian as well. I was born in the early 40’s, so I was raised with a disciplinary background in Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, and Catholic college. Those nuns and brothers taught you, if anything, you learned to respect discipline. So I brought that to my training regimen and that made a difference and also dedication. I demanded that from my fighters.
SLV: Did most of them go along with that, or did some balk?
LUCA: Well the ones that balked, I dismissed. You might say I was somewhat of a Vince Lombardi (the great football coach) mentality. Dedication, devotion, being in great shape, and focus is what I wanted. I believe broken focus distracts one from the goal. I lived and breathed boxing 24/7, and I expected my fighter, when he was in training for a fight, to do the same.
SLV: Did you have any close relationships with your fighters or was it just business?
LUCA: Most of my fighters and I became more attached than just business. In fact, I still get calls from Earnie Shavers. He just called me a few days ago, actually. Many of my fighters and I became more than just friends, as a matter of fact. We became bonded in many ways. Their families, their children, their lives meant something to me and vice versa.
SLV: Tell me about the famous fight where Shavers knocked out Ken Norton in the first round.
LUCA: That was one of my greatest moments in pro boxing! I trained Earnie for about eight weeks out here in Las Vegas. I took a warehouse and converted it into a gym with a real spartanly atmosphere. I trained very hard for that fight and studied hours and hours of films on Norton. I determined that he froze when he took a step back. I trained Earnie very hard to put the pressure on him and take him to the ropes and leave him there. “Leave him there” was my comment day after day. “Leave him there”, which means get him to the ropes and knock him out. I said: “Go to his body and freeze him even more, so he can’t move his legs, and keep him on the ropes, because he won’t punch back. Then come with the left hook and the right upper cut,” and that’s what Earnie did, and then in 42 seconds, it was over.
SLV: Wow! How exciting that must have been!
LUCA: Howard Cosell afterwards is interviewing Earnie and I ringside and says about me: “Frankie Luca, the man of the hour.” It was a devastating fight! Earnie said: “I knew I was going to knock him out!” They played a little trick and made Shavers go into the ring early. They kept Norton in the dressing room hoping that Earnie would cool down. I went to Norton’s corner, stood on the second rope and waved him in. I knew I had him! I knew I had him even before he left the dressing room! Oh yeah!
SLV: Incredible! People say that Shavers was the hardest hitter of all time. There’s a story about Sylvester Stallone who invited Shavers to spar with him while preparing for the film, Rocky III. Shavers initially refused to hit Stallone with anything other than a soft jab. This frustrated Stallone, who asked Shavers, “C’mon Earnie, show me something real.” Earnie responded by punching him once near the liver, forcing an immediate retirement. Stallone later said: “That nearly killed me. I went straight to the men’s room and threw up.” Then Muhammad Ali once said: “Shavers hit me so hard that it shook my kinfolk back to Africa.”
LUCA: Yes. Muhammad also stated something else. He said later on: “Earnie hit me so hard that I was pissing blood for three weeks after the fight.”
SLV: Oh, my God!
LUCA: Yeah, Earnie was definitely the most devastating heavyweight puncher of all time, and he’s been recognized as that. I credit that to several things. Earnie was a natural athlete. He worked very hard summers on farms, throwing bales of hay up on the back of the wagon. Earnie had not started boxing until he was twenty-one years of age, which is very late. It took me a few years, but I was able to get Earnie to realize that his power was in his timing. When he hit you, he hit you from the floor. He grabbed a hold of the floor with the bottoms of his feet and he turned the punch. He hit you with his legs, his hips, his back, his shoulders and his fists. It took a long time to get him to realize the philosophy, but once I had it in him, he delivered. I was taught to be a puncher, and there’s a technique in being a puncher. You can get a man who’s seven foot tall and he can’t break an egg with a hammer, but you get a small guy, he can knock you out with an eight inch punch. It’s all in the timing.
SLV: So there’s a huge difference between hitting with just your arm and your whole body?
LUCA: Oh yeah. Sometimes guys hit with their arms or elbows, and the elbow goes back and it loses its kick. If you look at any of Shavers’ knockout blows, his body is totally extended and all the power is at the end of that glove, at the end of that punch. Nobody could stand up against that, and very few did.
SLV: When Shavers fought Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden, it was a decision judgment that Ali won. Tell me about that fight.
LUCA: The next morning, the New York Times headline read: “Shavers wins Title, Gets Mugged in New York.” Many of the ringside people thought that Shavers really did win the fight.
SLV: Ali had a huge ego, didn’t he?
LUCA: Yes. One thing I’ll say about Muhammad, he had a great constitution. He could take a great punch. He was able to stand under great punishment. He knew how to survive in there, and that made him what he was. He was very tall and he had a great jab. If you look at his fights, the secret to him was that he could jab and lean back at the same time. Very few guys landed big shots on his chin his entire career. That’s what really kept him around so long.
SLV: You worked with Don King on that fight with Ali?
LUCA: No, Madison Square Garden promoted that fight. But I did work with King on other fights.
SLV: He grew up in Ohio, too. Did you know him in Ohio?
LUCA: I knew him when he came out of the Ohio Penitentiary and started promoting. Yes, I did know Don.
SLV: I’ve read some pretty nasty stuff about him. Mike Tyson, former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, said of his former manager, “King is a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker. This is supposed to be my ‘Black Brother’ right? He’s just a bad man, a real bad man. He would kill his own mother for a dollar. He’s ruthless, he’s deplorable, he’s greedy, and he doesn’t know how to love anybody.”
LUCA: The only thing I can say about him is something that my mother taught me many years ago, may her soul rest in peace. She said: “If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything.”
SLV: You pretty much chose to work with Bob Arum at that point, correct?
LUCA: I was working with Arum at that time as well. I had a reputation. I worked with Arum when he first started Top Rank. I worked with Madison Square Garden. I worked with a lot of promoters. They knew I brought my fighters to win and I was going to put on a good show, a good fight. I would do my best to win the fight in every avenue that I had the expertise in. As far as King was concerned, as a business person, I never had any problems with collecting the money that was owed my fighters.
SLV: Those two guys, King and Arum, were controlling the TV stuff at that time?
LUCA: Yes, they were. King, Arum, and the Garden was involved too, but Arum and King were at each other tooth and nail of course.
SLV: Do you have a relationship with Arum still?
LUCA: I have a friendly relationship with Bob. Some of my first TV fights were done with Arum when he first started Top Rank. Many, many years ago, he had a guy that would run around who used to pick up fighters. His name was Butch Lewis and he eventually ended up with the Lightweight Champion of the World, Michael Spinks. Bob Arum was a pleasure to do business with.
SLV: What made you decide to become a promoter rather than a trainer?
LUCA: As I said earlier, the age creeps up on you. Training fighters the way I train fighters is hard work. I’d get up at five o’clock in the morning, I’d run with them in the mornings. My job was not to meet them at the gym, work with them an hour and say: “Okay, go about your business.” No. I lived with them, went to training camp with them, ate with them, picked out the food, hired the cook, went to the gym and stayed with them 24/7. They were never out of my sight.
SLV: That must have been exhausting! When you were training Shavers, how long was the training process?
LUCA: It would go a minimum of, in camp, which means not just in the gym back home, but in the training camp, eight to ten weeks. For the Ali fight, it was twelve weeks. I would always take them into isolated areas, that’s really old school.
SLV: Get them away from everything…
LUCA: Yes, exactly. Like I said earlier, broken focus… well, I didn’t want broken focus. So, I took them where I could control their focus.
SLV: Was that the one attribute that made you want to put your effort into them to make them a star?
LUCA: Yes, absolutely. You’re 100% correct.
SLV: So you had the ability to size someone up?
LUCA: I could go into a gym and look at a fighter and in three rounds, I would know if he and I would make a good fit. Then I would get to know him in about a week, be constantly with him, visiting him here and there, and seeing what kind of character the man had. If it fit, what I thought was necessary for that individual to make it, we had a marriage. Basically, back then, that’s what it was. It was a marriage.
SLV: Right. If you didn’t let them out of your sight for twenty-four hours straight, that’s what it was.
LUCA: Oh yeah. I would always have some pretty good size security guys around, too. I was a real stickler about training camp. You come to training camp, we’re going to get in shape, concentrate and devote yourself to get your body in the best shape and physical condition, and allow me to tone you up, as far as what was necessary to beat the opponent.
SLV: Probably the young boxers of today didn’t grow up the way you and some of the older fighters did. How do you rate them? Do they have it in their hearts?
LUCA: Well it’s obvious, back then in the 70’s, the fight game was so used and the heavyweight division was so great, and all the other divisions were great too, just outstanding fighters. The reason the fight game doesn’t have the publicity it did back then, is because you don’t have the dedicated individuals who are fighting today. A guy has ten fights and they put him in for the championship. It’s a joke. The result is that you don’t have that many stars.
SLV: How do you get back to those Glory Days? Do you see it ever coming back?
LUCA: The only way it’s going to come back is if our Olympic program is able to develop some real outstanding talent. I don’t see what I saw back in the 70’s. I don’t see it there today in the heavyweight division. We used to say if the heavyweight division goes…there goes boxing. What you have today is a few outstanding fighters. Back in my day, you had many outstanding fighters in every division. As a result, stars draw young men and women into the sport and you just don’t have that many American fighters. It’s a shame, but there really is very few, very few American heavyweights, that have the ability of a great puncher like Shavers or a good boxer-puncher like Norton, or a great Ali. They’re just not around. We could name heavyweights from my era, the top ten…everyone knew their names in the world, whether you were a boxing fan or not. Today, if you were asked to name three top heavyweights in the world, most people can’t. Back then, everybody could, because there were great fights against great fighters.
SLV: Do you attribute some of this to the marketing and success of the UFC and what they’ve done?
LUCA: Yeah, there’s no question about it. The UFC spent thirty, forty million dollars creating their imagery. And, they continue to spend those kinds of dollars creating the attraction. There was no UFC in my day. Even mixed martial arts were very far and few between. As a result, now they are exposed, people put money behind those promotions and now you have all those combatants, many of which probably would have ended up in pro boxing, are now in that end of the sport. It’s a different sport altogether. It has a different basis of theology, as far as contact is concerned. I think you’ll notice that they draw big crowds and the competition level is there and they can make some good attractions. I give them credit for what they’ve done.
SLV: If an entity took over or restructured boxing, similar to a UFC, and took a similar tactic to developing their own fighters, could boxing make a comeback that way?
LUCA: You make a good point. That’s a strong possibility, but what I see today is the promoters that are out there, they’re in a different mindset as to what they’re trying to accomplish. If you look at the structure that’s out there now, unfortunately for the fight game of pro boxing, some of these fighters that get 10-12 wins and they put them in for a title fight, and they don’t want to fight each other. Now, great exposure to the public is putting two of the best boxers in that division against each other. These guys look to me like they’re sidestepping each other. Nobody wants to fight each other, or maybe because they fear losing to the other guy. Is it a financial situation with the promoters? Television played a big part in my era, where there wasn’t Pay-Per-View. Remember we used to have closed circuit events. Pay-Per-View allowed people to watch these great fights on ABC’s Wide World of Sports on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Free exposure really, and people didn’t have to pay $50 or $60 dollars to see a great fight. The atmosphere has changed. I think one thing you can say about the television networks, NBC, ABC and CBS back then, they all had their boxing programs. People were exposed to it and not at a prohibitive cost. Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, Pabst Blue Ribbon, all those fights had fantastic exposure. That’s what the UFC is being able to capitalize on… the exposure. That brings people into your fold. Unfortunately, pro boxing lost some of that.
SLV: Tell me what you have in the works now.
LUCA: We have been running fights here in Las Vegas on a bi-monthly basis for many years. We are really excited that 2011 is upon us and that we’re looking forward to start our fights back up in March. We’re giving the local fighters an opportunity to advance their careers, along with putting on some fights. We put on about four championship fights here in Vegas and we appreciate the help of the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the local fans that come out to work our show. We have some really good talent in the Southwestern United States: here in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. We’re pleased that we have nice enough weather that driving isn’t prohibitive and people will come to the fights from the surrounding states. We have a really good relationship with the casinos here in Vegas, along with Thomas and Mack, and we are very appreciative to be able to do our fights from the boxing capital of the world with probably the best commission and boxing officials and referees in the world right here in Vegas. We started out at the Stardust and did many, many years at the Orleans, as well as at the Rio and will continue to bring the best fights in the world to Vegas.SLV
Issue 58 featuring: Jade Bryce, Markesa Yeager & Taylor Vixen