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Q & A With Tony Holden: "This Job is Never Dull"

Feb 23, 2004 
For more than a decade now, Tony Holden has been making his bones as a promoter. He is known in the boxing community as one of the few honest promoters in the sport today. Having promoted Tommy Morrison and Naseem Hamed, among others, Holden had already established himself as a premiere promoter. Now, however, with the ascendance of his new star “Baby” Joe Mesi, Holden is poised to break through, big time, should Mesi capture the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It would be a well deserved break for a man who has been making sure his fighters get the breaks they deserve for so long now. Tony took a few moments to talk to Doghouse Boxing about what is going on right now with Holden Productions, Mesi, and a variety of other topics. Here is what he had to say.

DB: How did you get involved in promoting boxing?

I was a television producer, and I was producing a series like American Sportsman, it was an outdoors show. We’d take celebrities all over the world, Amazon jungle, Arctic circle. Lot of sports athletes and movie stars. I was based in Kansas City and Tommy Morrison was an up and coming fighter there. I had a guest fall out, so I said I’ll grab this kid, shoot a show with him and sit on it and see if he develops into something and air it. During that production, we became fairly close and he and his manager had a lot of issues on promoting and he wanted me to help him with his career. It all came together.

DB: What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of promoting is developing a fighter to the top level, for example in Vegas, for a lot of money and prestige, titles. When you develop a fighter to that level, it’s so exciting, it’s almost like owning an NFL team. It’s an excitement that you can’t describe and that money can’t buy, and when you don’t have a top athlete all you do is spend your time trying to get back to that level. This job is never dull, it has its down time and can be extremely frustrating, but the rewards are priceless.

DB: And what is your least favorite part?

There are a lot of dishonest people in the business and it seems like this is a sport where people are out for themselves. You always have to be on your toes, with a good attorney and good contracts. It gets frustrating trying to get fights made sometimes.

DB: What does it take to become a successful promoter?

A promoter is only is good as his fighters, or the deals he can make. What has really helped me is I went around and signed several casinos, so many shows per casino, that way I know I’m busy, and my fighters are never on the shelf. You have to have the ability to get a prospect that is potentially a world champion and you have to be able to market him. You have to be able to get the television dates, the fights, the sites. You can’t be a successful promoter without delivering television, or else you’re just a club promoter.

DB: How does a promoter in your shoes compete with the Arum and King dynasty?

I work with blinders on, I just worry about what’s best for my company, my fighters and my casinos. I try not to get up in any dynasties, I just try to do what’s best for us. There are a lot of promoters out there who are losing money hand over fist especially after the ESPN problems. We’ve always made money, we’ve always been very successful, we’ve always delivered our fighters and had major site deals. So I don’t get caught up in who’s the best, I just worry about what’s right for us. I am very happy with where we are going.

DB: Who are some of your favorite people in boxing to deal with?

I enjoy being around the fighters. I have a lot of fun with my top fighter now Joe Mesi. He’s a good kid. I enjoy doing business with some people at the networks, Kery Davis and Xavier James of HBO. The fighters can tell stories, and I like to kick back with them.

DB: Who is your favorite fighter?

Johnny Tapia, just because he had the mindset in the prime of his career, that you have to kill me to beat me. He made every fight a war. I never was a big fan of the art of boxing and movement so much as the brawlers.

DB: How did you get involved in the career of Joe Mesi?

I actually had Joe in Tulsa about six or seven years ago right when he left the amateurs when he wanted to turn pro. I brought him in, nice young kid, lots of potential. I received a phone call from a jealous promoter in Buffalo saying horrible things about this kid and his out of the ring activities, which were totally untrue. After the grief I had had with Morrison, I just didn’t want to go down that road again. So I sent him back home. His dad and Bob Spagnola called me about a year ago, and one thing led to another, they got rid of Sugar Ray Leonard and here we are. I got him an HBO deal, and so far my relationship with the Mesis and Bob Spagnola has been a successful one.

DB: How do you think Mesi’s upcoming fight with Vassily Jirov will play out?

A lot of people are saying we’re crazy for taking that fight. It’s a good fight, but once you get to this level and enter HBO offices, you can’t go back. You have to keep fighting the tougher competition. After the Toney fight, we knew Jirov was a true warrior but I think Joe’s going to knock him out. I think that this will be Joe’s signature fight. It will be an exciting fight and Joe will finish him off and open the doors to a world title fight.

DB: What are some of the best fights you’ve promoted in your opinion?

I did Hamed-Barrera at the MGM, which was crazy working with Hamed. Joe Mesi in Buffalo, the way the crowd reacts is electrifying and can’t be duplicated. The fight that sticks out to me and meant more to me than any fight in my career had to be Morrison-Ruddock in 1995. Simply for the fact that it was ten years ago, pay per view was hard to do and I did that show all by myself. I didn’t have HBO or any other distributor helping me produce or push it. We did it all ourselves and came up with the money. It was a hard task, and we fought tooth and nail with other promoters who didn’t want you to be successful. A lot of it was behind the scenes, but the fight itself was spectacular and Tommy put the icing on the cake when he landed that left hook on Razor. That fight meant more to me than any fight I’ve ever promoted.

DB: Talk about what you went through with Morrison’s HIV positive test.

I did a deal with Don King because we were working on him fighting Tyson. I sent Tommy to Vegas because I had a show the night before the fight. I told him don’t sign anything or do anything. I flew into Vegas about six hours before the show, got to my room and the phone was ringing when I was unlocking the door. I ran in and answered and it was Marc Ratner and he said, "I want you by the ring right now, by yourself, without Tommy.” And I knew something was wrong, so I went down and Marc looked apparently shook up. He told me Tommy had tested positive for HIV. He said “legally, I can’t say anything nor will I, but he’s off the show. It’s all in your hands.” I tried to track Tommy down and couldn’t find him for an hour and a half. All of a sudden there was a knock on my door and there he was. I sat him down and told him. He was a little in disbelief at first, and he said let’s just get through this fight and see what happens. I said “Tommy there is no fight, I gotta get you home now.” Because at this point it was announced that he was off the card, the media was going crazy. There was a lot of speculation that it was HIV, and Showtime had me go on in the ring live, and I did an interview. I didn’t deny anything but I didn’t admit it. It got so big, and I went back to my room and my wife called and there are people going through my garbage at my house. When I got off the plane in Tulsa, there had to be twenty cameras there. When I got home, my whole yard was lined with reporters and satellite trucks, so I had to hire policemen to keep them away. Back then, HIV was a death sentence, it was a whole different deal than it is today. It was a devastating situation where you didn’t have time to plan for it. It just caught us off guard.

DB: You and Mills Lane formed a joint promotional outfit at one point. How did that come about and how is Mills doing today?

Mills and I were friends already, and he would do appearances for me in the smaller casino shows after the Holyfield-Tyson fight. He told me he’d love to be a promoter. Fighters liked him, and he was a good recruiting tool. So we hooked up and merged, and we called it Let’s Get it On. It was going pretty well, we signed Zahir Raheem, and then he had the stroke. I haven’t spoken to him since, because I don’t think he communicates too well on the phone, and I don’t think he’s seeing people. I’ve talked to his wife and kids, I talk to his law partners on a regular basis and apparently he’s improving every day, and I would love to see the guy. I’m looking forward to that opportunity. I hear he’s doing better all the time.

DB: What do you feel needs to be done to bring boxing back to the mainstream?

We have to have television. I think right now boxing is more on defense mode, just trying to hang on. I don’t think anyone ever realized what kind of a cornerstone ESPN was for the industry. With them looking at slowing down and dropping the licensing fees, and the fear of even pulling the plug could be devastating to the sport, and it’s hurting it now. A lot of promoters sign fighters guaranteeing them TV dates for x amount of dollars, and when they yank the licensing fee that’s not happening. What would help is if another network would pick up, such as ABC, NBC or CBS picking up a series would always help because that’s what built it in the 1970’s. It’s hard to build boxing with all the good fights being on pay per view. Even with HBO your going to need some free TV to develop the sport.

DB: What are your plans for the immediate future?

I just focus on my company and my fighters. I’m in the process of starting back up a television show that Mills and I had that was reaching a lot of cities across the midwest. Right now, my main focus is trying to get Joe Mesi’s career to the peak. You asked me what would be good for boxing, two words: Joe Mesi. Mesi sells twenty thousand tickets, he packs arenas and that’s what boxing needs and there are very few people who can do that. This kid can single handedly help straighten out the sport and bring more excitement to it, and I’m just as excited as I can be to be involved in his career.

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