Lou DiBella has a small list. He keeps it close because he’s never quite sure when a name will pop into his head. It could be when he’s lying down to sleep or when he wakes up in the morning. Or perhaps when something reminds him of an old friend or business partner from whom the passage of time has separated him.
When the name comes up, he writes it down and finds time in his day to make a call. DiBella is a phone person, craving the connection the extrovert has recently lost in his day-to-day interactions as a storyteller in the bar, a boxing promoter and minor league baseball owner, always glad-handing and engaging with everyone.
“I make a little bit more of an effort because I do have a lot of people that were really kind to me when I was coming up in the business,” DiBella says. “I’ve had mentors and people in my life that were very helpful to me, and a lot of them now, even if I lost touch with them, they are in their late 70s and 80s.
“You think about people, but … I think maybe as a country now that this whole thing has made people — has frightened people — into making [them] think more about how fleeting this whole thing is and our mortality and our own vulnerabilities.”
It’s one of the ways DiBella has worked through his own anxiety during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
He’ll pick up the phone and call someone he hasn’t spoken to in years. In decades. Maybe a friend from Regis High in New York or a reporter or renowned boxing commentator Jim Lampley on his birthday. Reaching out to people who made a difference to him started with a call he received from someone influential in his life: 89-year-old legendary boxing commentator Larry Merchant.
“We had a very, very long conversation,” DiBella says. “Philosophical stuff and remembrances and looking back, and he said to me, when he started to call, he said, ‘I’m calling people that have been important in my life that I realize I don’t speak to enough, and this whole thing that’s going on right now made me much more conscious of reaching out to these people.'”
The talk sparked the idea for DiBella to do something similar. He has also done this with his fighters, even before his conversation with Merchant, checking in when he can. This gave the 60-year-old DiBella people to commiserate with in an otherwise difficult time for him and so many other Americans trying to figure out their own futures without any predictable knowledge of what’s to come.
“When somebody calls you and tells you, ‘I want you to know I’m only a phone call away,’ he wouldn’t say it unless he meant it, right?” says Heather Hardy, one of DiBella’s fighters. “And that’s just — it’s not like everybody I know called me and said that.
“Lou did, though.”
“My professional life has come to a screeching halt,” DiBella says. “I’ve had to spend a lot of time working [on the logistics surrounding my businesses], but none of it has been productive or pleasant.”
That is not, DiBella makes clear, a complaint. He would much rather be putting together boxing cards or promoting Wine Up Wednesdays for the Richmond Flying Squirrels or Triple Play Tuesdays for the Montgomery Biscuits. None of that is possible.
DiBella’s role is in sports entertainment, and the two sports his company handles are in flux. After trying to avoid it in the first weeks of the pandemic, DiBella had to furlough half of his employees to make sure his business stayed afloat.
Boxing promotion, other than Top Rank, Matchroom Boxing, Golden Boy Promotions and Premier Boxing Champions, often relies on live gates to help fund operations. No one is sure when fans will be able to return. Many of DiBella’s 62 fighters have second jobs, and only a few of those, including Mikkel LesPierre, who works full-time in data collection at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, still have steady income from their non-boxing gigs.
Minor league baseball has its own issues separate from the COVID-19 pandemic. Minor league baseball is potentially contracting and, perhaps more than boxing, relies on fans in the stands to pay bills. DiBella knows getting people to care about the possible future of minor league baseball in a time when American unemployment rates are at the highest levels since the Great Depression is probably unrealistic.
But these are still jobs — and teams — that will be lost. In boxing, DiBella had to cancel two cards due to the pandemic, and 13 of his fighters who were on cards not promoted by him also had their bouts scratched. He had to furlough 50% of his minor league baseball staff along with part of his boxing staff, although he’s hopeful to bring some of his furloughed boxing employees back soon.
He also doesn’t know the future of his minor league baseball clubs. He believes they won’t be part of a contraction, but he hasn’t been told that with certainty.
“I worked in boxing the last 30 years. The minor league baseball business, for me, in the last 16 years, 17 years I’ve been involved in it, has been like my happy place, like a respite,” DiBella says. “And now, facing, looking at no season, facing that in two different cities because I run two different teams, and then at the same time having these issues unsettled between Major League Baseball and minor league baseball, it’s just, it’s like an overdose of uncertainty, an overdose of anxiety, and that’s not healthy.
“It’s not healthy when you’re not in a pandemic. But it’s certainly not healthy when you are.”
To try to alleviate the stress of the unknown, DiBella gets in his car and drives the half-mile from his Long Island home to the Long Island Sound. He opens up his newspaper or listens to Howard Stern on the radio or a copy of a Grateful Dead concert he received on CD in the mail — part of being an “old school guy.”
It’s his escape, an environment change in a time when he can’t see friends or socialize. It gives him a break from the business stress and from binge watching “The Wire,” “Ozark” and “Marvel’s Luke Cage.”
He has rediscovered a love of cooking, using garlic, onions and tomatoes to make “some mean pasta sauces.” On Easter, he made racks of lamb and delivered them to his mother and sister’s homes, leaving them on porches and saying hello from a distance.
He does it to pass the time because there’s not much he can do in his business. To help his fighters, he has offered interest-free loans against future purses if they need help in the pandemic. He started those calls almost as soon as New York started to shut down.
“He called me and said, ‘I know it’s just you and Annie, you know, I know you’re a single mom,” Hardy says. “If you need anything, call me and I’ll wire you money, no questions asked.”
The call came unprompted, and Hardy said while she didn’t take DiBella up on his offer, the two have been in contact every week, often with her texting him, “Checking in. Are you alive?”
DiBella said while he’s willing to help, he knows he is somewhat limited because he has no revenue coming in, either. DiBella says his fighters understand the situation. He knows they all want to fight as soon as possible, but they aren’t haranguing him on particulars. Hardy said she hasn’t asked him about potentially fighting because she understands the situation he and other promoters are in.
Since Top Rank announced boxing would return in June on ESPN, DiBella has gotten a handful of his fighters on potential upcoming cards. He tells his fighters now if they are offered a fight on another promoter’s card, and it makes sense, to take it, because he doesn’t know how long it’ll be before another contract comes along. So far, DiBella said five of his six fighters who have been offered fights have accepted.
“They get it,” DiBella says. “… Now they understand the marketplace. They understand the situation, and they are able to make a reasoned decision. Believe me, if a guy turns down a fight now, I’m saying to them, ‘OK, just understand you have to take care of yourself and you may not be able to fight for a considerable period of time if you don’t take this particular fight.’
“I think people, what I’ve been gathering so far, is people are doing their best to understand the reality.”
A lot of fighters, across promotions and promoters, do want to fight. So it’s part of the reason DiBella is offering this advice. Plus, many of the fights his fighters are being offered are challenging ones, where if they win it could advance their careers.
He hasn’t been able to plan his own cards yet, but he said once things settle down he is going to continue to be creative to try to find ways to put on a card of his own.
“I’m planning, when things settle down a little bit, I’m going to contact the people at MSG and MSG Network, Sportsnet New York where I’ve done my series in the past,” DiBella says. “Contact some of the local New York television affiliates and see if we can get, maybe, a local grassroots New York show involving all New York fighters here.
“But in all likelihood I don’t think that would happen until August, September at the earliest. At least in the New York area right now, they are a little bit premature.”
When another promoter calls to check in or DiBella has a conversation with someone on his list in boxing, it has been largely conceptual discussions except for a handful of talks during which he has been able to land fighters on cards. In New York, at least, it’s still too soon to really plan. About when they think — when they hope — it’ll get back to some semblance of normal. How it might work. Concrete plans aren’t helpful. Everything is fluid.
Thinking about it too much — about the futures of his fighters, baseball employees and even himself — is added anxiety he doesn’t want because he can’t change any of it. DiBella just turned 60. He has lost friends to the pandemic, and he has had a lot of time on his hands to reflect. It has made him realize what he appreciates. There’s his family. His health. And his profession, which he’s hoping to get back to.
“You realize at a time like then when you work in sports how much of our lives, personally, professionally, in every way circles around our love for sports,” DiBella says. “Take away sports, take away your ability to go to a restaurant or a bar and hang out with your friends and hang out and tell stories, and what do you have left?”