In This Corner...
Former fighter Dave Tiberi has a strategy to rekindle interest in a waning sport: a kinder, gentler boxing.
Our champ, Dave Tiberi, at the Elsmere Boxing Club
photograph by Tom Nutter
Dancers in the boxing ring at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino wear trunks and high-tops rather than tuxes and patent leather. They’ve exchanged polished hardwood floors for resined canvas, moussed hair for forehead welts, and pearly whites for cloudy mouthpieces.
Boxing has come to Kent County. It has arrived at, of all places, the ballroom.
On the adjacent casino floor, slot machines sputter and jangle. Outside, the stands of Dover International Speedway sit silently under winter skies. The drama on this night will happen in the ring, where Philadelphia fighter Dhafir “No Fear” Smith will duel Pittsburgh’s Rayco “War” Saunders in an eight-round battle of light-heavyweights. ESPN2 is televising the bout nationally, and its camera boom—as big as a construction crane—bobs and arcs like some menacing, mechanized creature.
The TV exposure is a measure of boxing’s future and its past, in Delaware and beyond, as Dave Tiberi’s TNT Boxing maps an ambitious course to revive a declining sport.
February’s Dover Downs show boasted a full house and a competitive card of well-matched fighters. Tiberi, the native son who abruptly ended his ring career after losing an infamous decision in a 1992 middleweight title bout in Atlantic City, returned to the game less than a year ago. He’d like to make the
“We want to shine a spotlight on the sport in a positive way, get rid of the old ways of boxing,” he says. “We’re looking to raise the bar in Delaware.”
Tiberi with pal Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, a former
world champion in several weight divisions, at Delaware
Park in September.
Boxing, whose early history was confined largely to barges and backrooms, has never fared well in the light of scrutiny. Disreputable promoters and managers have been as lethal to the sport as heart-stopping knockouts, and the punch-drunk fighter fleeced of his earnings is a stock character of Hollywood films and street-corner reality.
Tiberi wants a new script. He wants fighters to learn about healthcare, bank accounts, GEDs—in short, life skills. “I go through the details of their contracts with them directly,” he says. A TNT event typically includes a minister to counsel combatants, and there’s zero tolerance for bad behavior. Since launching his First State Boxing Series last July at the Hockessin Police Athletic League Center, Tiberi has already barred one fighter for spouting offensive language. (Tiberi later reinstated him.)
“Fighters need mentors,” says Tiberi, whose use of words like “forgiveness” and “fellowship’ seems as natural as hooking off the jab. “We want fighters who represent themselves well because they’ll attract the kind of crowds we want.”
TNT plans to groom boxers for more than just mayhem. It places a priority on ensuring their fitness for battle. Tiberi emphasizes enlightened matchmaking as essential to fights that are more than merely entertaining.
“Safety is first and foremost, but it’s not just a matter of the gloves and the doctors, etcetera,” he says. “If the match is fair, you’re more than halfway there.”
Professional boxers’ underlying health, however, sometimes eludes even the smartest matchmaker. State athletic commissions set guidelines aimed at keeping unfit fighters out of the ring, but given the concussive nature of the sport, more extensive monitoring is certainly welcome. Tiberi has been speaking with the medical community about the latest CAT scan technology and its ability to spot damage before it’s too late. Routinely scheduling boxers to undergo such procedures would be a strong statement about the sport’s concern for their well-being.
To finance his commitment to improving the health of both fighters and their sport, Tiberi would draw on a small percentage of revenues from his boxing events, maybe 3 percent. To make that feasible, TV deals are necessary. Rookie promoter Tiberi landed ESPN for the Dover Downs show after Dino Duva, son of Hall of Fame trainer-manager Lou Duva, added the U.S. Boxing Association cruiserweight titleholder to the card. Duva shared matchmaking duties with Tiberi’s brother Nick, who runs Elsmere Boxing Club and has long managed and promoted fighters. The event was organized by Tiberi’s media production company, TNT Productions in
Other organizations share Tiberi’s vision. California-based Retired Boxers Foundation, founded in 1998 by former middleweight champ Alex Ramos, who rallied from substance abuse problems after his career in the ring ended, provides financial assistance, housing and job training for retired pro fighters who’ve fallen on bad times. Blue Horizon in Philadelphia educates young fighters about the world outside the gym. Vernoca Michael, owner of the venerable boxing venue, oversees an on-site learning center that schools her fighters in the basics: work habits, finances—even sex and table manners. “I work with them in a humanistic way,” Michael says. “We’re advocating young men, not someone standing on the street.”
During a Tiberi-produced fight at Dover Downs in February.
The event was covered by ESPN.
That declaration resonates with Tiberi, who is part of the fundraising effort to build a first-rate boxing facility at the New Castle PAL in Garfield Park. The blueprint calls for 6,000 square feet to house two regulation rings, a dozen heavy bags, a half-dozen speed bags and countless youthful dreams. Executive director Jimmy Riggs reports that he’s approached state legislators to help finance the $500,000 project. The new boxing program would dovetail with the center’s mandate on education. “For kids interested in boxing, we’ll make sure their homework’s done [first],” says Riggs, a retired policeman who has directed Delaware PAL for two years.
Elsmere Boxing Club would move to the new digs and be renamed the John Van Sant PAL Boxing Club, after the former state representative who helped found the club. Tiberi sees the New Castle site as a destination for national PAL tournaments and a training base for top professional fighters. He cites a potential benefit to tourism and economic development across the state.
In addition, the increase in Delaware boxing has triggered talk of the state reestablishing its own athletic commission. “We’ve been exploring to see if there’s any interest,” says Van Sant, who now teaches criminal justice at Delaware Technical and Community College.
Van Sant’s name has surfaced as a strong candidate for commissioner. For more than a decade, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission has supervised professional boxing in Delaware. “It used to be just a couple of fights a year, but now we’ll probably average six or seven going forward,” says Greg Sirb, longtime executive director of the Pennsylvania commission.
Delaware disbanded its commission after the federal Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 expanded the role of state boxing commissions, establishing numerous regulations designed to strengthen safety precautions and put boxing on the straight and narrow. With activity dwindling in Delaware at the time, it made sense to piggyback on Pennsylvania. The ’96 act, as amended four years later by the Muhammad Ali Safety Act, had the express purpose “to reform unfair and anticompetitive practices in the professional boxing industry.”
And it was Dave Tiberi, following his stunning loss in that ’92 title fight, who had set the wheels of reform in motion.
Cruiserweight champion Darnell Wilson at weigh-in
Delaware has quite a history in boxing.
Way back when, the “Ambling Alp” was in Shellpot Park. With his strongman physique and Rushmore-sized head, Primo Carnera looked like a comic-book bruiser, but in truth had difficulty fighting his way out of the proverbial paper bag. Yet his 278 pounds overwhelmed the much smaller Armando DeCarlos inside of two rounds at Shellpot in August 1931. Two years later, Carnera became the heavyweight champion of the world, assisted, many said, by forces far more convincing than his oversized fists. Boxing, you may have inferred, wasn’t always on the up-and-up.
In the late 19th century, athletic clubs sprouted up indoors and out around Wilmington, drawing fisticuffs in from the backwoods and the railroad piers. In 1898 a local lightweight, whose Dickensian proper name of Cornelius J. Moriarty, was transformed in the ring to Jack Daly. Victimized by a corrupt referee, he was denied a world title.
Though the activity was not legal in Delaware, Wilmington during World War I and the 1940s was a hotbed of prizefighting. Fans flocked to cards at Shellpot’s open-air arena, the Elsmere Fairgrounds, Pythian Castle, the Academy of Music, the National Guard Armory and Elam Athletic Club. (All have vanished except the Academy of Music building on Delaware Avenue, which now houses the Delaware Children’s Theatre.)
When Delaware legalized the sport a few months after Carnera’s appearance at Shellpot in 1931, the first state-sanctioned bouts took place at the Auditorium on 11th Street in Wilmington. The ’40s had produced popular local fighters such as Al Tribuani, who lost a decision to the great Henry Armstrong and faced Sugar Ray Robinson in an exhibition in Wilmington Park. Rocky Graziano drew an overflow crowd for a fight in 1949, seven years before Paul Newman portrayed him as an indomitable pug in the movies. But live action in Delaware waned soon after television and Gillette took over Friday nights.
Some local pockets of boxing activity, however, continued to look sharp. Fournier Memorial Hall in Wilmington held the occasional boxing show and, for the better part of two decades starting in the late 1950s, Delaware Park trotted out boxers in addition to thoroughbreds. A young Dave Tiberi fought in amateur cards on Tuesday nights at the Stanton racetrack. “They didn’t charge the public,” he recalls. “We’d all pile into the station wagon and go to the fights.”
It was a hefty pile. Tiberi was the youngest of 12 boys and had two sisters. He grew up in a bungalow off of U.S. 40 in New Castle “when it was still country.” Half of the brothers took up the sweet science. Dave made it to the top. Almost.
He was twice a Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion in the mid-1980s and turned pro at age 18. After several years with veteran trainer Carmen Graziano (no relation to Rocky) in New Jersey, he shifted to Champs Gym in North Philadelphia, at that time perhaps the toughest crucible extant for young fighters. Under the tutelage of Marty Feldman, once a stablemate of fearsome heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Tiberi sparred with the likes of future light-heavweight champion “Prince” Charles Williams and current Delaware resident Bernard Hopkins, who’s among the elite middleweights in the history of the sport.
After compiling a 22-2-3 professional record, Tiberi became the International Boxing Federation’s 10th-ranked middleweight, yet he was still the underdog when he challenged champion James Toney on February 8, 1992, at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Atlantic City. Tiberi outfought Toney in the nationally televised bout for the full 12 rounds, then raised his arms as handlers hoisted him toward the ring lights overhead in a celebration of victory.
But Tiberi wuz robbed. Judges awarded a split decision to Toney, an action labeled by a highly regarded TV commentator as “disgusting.” Taj Mahal mahaf Donald Trump himself called the verdict “an embarrassment” and suggested that it be reversed.
The fight—and the furor of its aftermath—captured the attention of the late Bill Roth, U.S. senator from Delaware, who served on the Subcommittee on Investigations. Roth quickly initiated an investigation of suspected corruption in boxing. The senator enlisted Tiberi to assist the effort and, in August of that year, Tiberi testified before the committee in Washington. Roth’s investigators had uncovered irregularities in the judging and officiating of the Toney-Tiberi fight, but Tiberi spoke mostly of the bigger picture, of fair shakes and dashed dreams and a manipulation that was common in professional boxing. He, like Roth, called for federal oversight. “I felt that, by taking that stand, I was telling the sport to straighten up,” Tiberi says today.
Roth’s subsequent push for legislation—boosted by none other than U.S. Senator John McCain—culminated in the 1996 act that, while failing to institute federal regulation, did bolster state commissions. Meanwhile, Tiberi received lucrative offers for a rematch against Toney. He not only declined, he withdrew from the ring all together.
Now Tiberi is back, this time on the other side of the ropes. With a chance to practice what he preached during his most frustrating days, “We still need a national commission,” he insists.
It is another February 8, exactly 16 years after that surreal night in Atlantic City. In the ring at Dover Downs, the referee observes as commission officials inspect the fighters for the main event. B.J. Flores, a rangy 6-foot-3, is set to challenge USBA cruiserweight champ Darnell Wilson, who looks like a tank with arms. The “round card” girls are dressed in respectable shorts and T-shirts instead of the thong bikinis favored by Las Vegas. The old lion, Lou Duva, has risen from his ringside seat to acknowledge a throaty greeting by the crowd.
Tiberi and his staff have spent quality time with the fighters in the locker rooms and are ever watchful that the promotion proceeds as planned. “We storyboard our fight cards,” says Tiberi, whose TNT Video knows about such things. “We’re running a business.”
That business is growing. Following its maiden show last summer in Hockessin, TNT Boxing promoted a successful night of fights in September at Delaware Park, the site of those long-ago Tiberi family outings. The third installment of the series returned to Hockessin PAL in December. Prior to the TNT-Duva show in February, Dover Downs had hosted several boxing cards since 2001, including some televised by ESPN2. The ballroom makes for a comfortable fight arena, and Tiberi would like to return to it.
“I’ve been courted by casinos in other states, but I want to stay in Delaware,” says Tiberi. He’s eyeing downstate sites such as Harrington Raceway & Casino and Cape Henlopen High School for future shows.
Like Tiberi the fighter, Tiberi the promoter may have the stamina to go the distance. Heavyweight sponsors (e.g., Bank of America and Valero) have lent some financial muscle. There’s been investment interest from outside Delaware, Tiberi says, and “a few major fighters” would like to sign with TNT. Maybe a future promotion will find Tiberi working with former sparring chum Hopkins, a partner in Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions.
Meanwhile, a new generation of Tiberis is at work inside the ring. Nephews of Dave Tiberi, Michael and Dominic, have begun their pro careers. Michael Tiberi (4-0) fought on the TNT card in Hockessin in December. Like their uncle, each young man is a former Golden Gloves champion.
But their dreams, and the aspirations of TNT Boxing, may be taking shape in an inhospitable environment. Boxing has lost ground to such modern enterprises as ultimate fighting, which promise more action and more knockouts. Young fans, stoked by the online violence of computer games, generally see boxing as stodgy.
Now, more than ever, the sport of boxing needs authentic personalities and compelling matchups to catch the public’s distractible eye. A bid for more humanity and honest dealings doesn’t hurt, either.
That’s Dave Tiberi’s pitch. The decision awaits.