As a crusading journalist, David Wolf was above reproach, speaking truth to power. As a ring manager, he was, to some who worked with him, a cockroach who'd sell them out remorselessly in a New York second.
The curious case of David Wolf, a guy whose conscience was seemingly replaced by an assortment of hairpieces.
Another case of my disillusionment when meeting a boyhood hero in the course of my job.
IN MY MEMOIR for Audible, also titled How to Succeed in Sportswriting (without Really Trying), I recount a chance meeting one of my sportswriting heroes, the Globe and Mail’s Dick Beddoes, when I was a stammering, starstruck high-schooler.
Beddoes was my appointment reading in the daily that I’d wind up working for twenty years later.
Beddoes never read a word that I ever wrote—even though I wound up editing a magazine piece by him with disastrous results when he was exiled from the newspaper biz because of blatant plagiarism.
He had shuffled off this mortal coil a few years before I started at the Globe.
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Back in high school I had also a favourite sports book—not a classic like A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science, which I muddled through as nine-year-old with the help of a dictionary and the Encyclopedia Brittanica, not a best-seller like Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay which would be the subject of a book report in Grade 10, not a Red Smith anthology which I’ve held on to.
No, my favourite was a bit out of the box: Foul!, a biography of Connie Hawkins, a college basketball star wrongfully implicated in point-shaving scandal and subsequently long banned from the NBA.
Off the hop, racism hurt Hawkins—a kid from the New York’s Bed-Sty wasn’t welcome on a lot of campuses back then, so he landed in Iowa.
Compounding his grief at ever turn, though, was his naivety, trusting every creep who ever cornered him, and also a functional illiteracy—he had been unable to get a driver’s license because he couldn’t read the forms.
The feds detained for days until he gave a false confession without being read his rights or having a lawyer to advise him. He couldn’t have know what he was being roped into signing.
One of the greatest talents ever to hoop, Hawkins landed on the NBA’s blacklist.
Later he was eventually given a chance to play on the biggest stages, first with the Pittsburgh Pipers on the American Basketball Association and later for the Phoenix Suns—even with this late start past his prime and after a serious knee injury, The Hawk had enough game left to make the Hall of Fame.
The Hawk was Dr J, but with bigger gloves and a more complete game.
The Hawk’s Boswell was a fellah named David Wolf, who according to Foul!’s author bio was the sports editor at Life, the long-long-long-gone large-format general-interest weekly that once blanketed coffee tables across the continent.
That was the sum total of the bio, though. No other professional detail. No other book titles. No head shot. No mention of residence, spouse, kids or other standard stuff.
Not a thing.
Wolf’s prose wasn’t up there with Red Smith’s by any measure, not even Dick Beddoes’s which was a mix of purple and plaid.
No, Wolf’s was straight ahead, Dragnet just-the-facts-ma’am. What he had in Foul! though was twofold: 1) a heartbreaking narrative of injustice; 2) incredibly forensic reporting of a byzantine case.
In the end, David Wolf thoroughly unravelled all charges ever levelled against the Hawk and cleared his name.
Foul! has long been out of print and become a collector’s item—I see copies of the book going for $300 U.S. online. You might be able to pick something up for $50 or $60.
Foul! spun out of “The Unjust Exile of a Superstar,” Wolf’s feature for Life, more than 6,000 words, and, as an affordable substitute to purchasing a good used-copy, you can read the magazine piece in its entirety at this link to from-way-downtown.com.
In large part because of the work that Wolf did for the Life story and the threat of a lawsuit spurred on by his reporting, the NBA removed the Hawk from the blacklist, lifting his lifetime suspension, granting him a cash settlement of over $1-million dollars for screwing him over.
His playing rights landed with the expansion team in Phoenix in ‘69, where he was a First Team NBA All-Star as a 27-year-old rookie coming off knee surgery.
You were just left to wonder what might have been.
After reading Foul!, I became a fan of the Hawk and the Suns. I also became a fan of Dave Wolf and waited for his next book. None came. It seemed like he left the business without a trace.
FAST FORWARD to the late 80s. I was trying to get a toehold in the Canadian magazine biz and had pitched a story on Donny Lalonde, a guy from Winnipeg with only one good arm who somehow had managed to drift into the world light-heavyweight boxing championship.
His title-winning knockout of Eddie Davis is here in its entirety—at two rounds, don’t blink. It happens fast.
Lalonde was a quirky case by most measures, a complete eccentric by boxing’s standards, as reported in Sports Illustrated: “He didn’t] fit into the brawling, macho world of Gleason's gym … he went to acting school, carried books all the time and rode to Gleason's on his bicycle, dressed in a tank top and Bermuda shorts.”
Lalonde had wound up signing to fight Sugar Ray Leonard for a $6-million payday, which was big money in those days.
Saturday Night, a pretty awesome general-interest magazine, told me they’d be interested in reading it on spec—not ideal, but something.
I had another assignment that was sending me to New York around that time, so it was a day’s work, a roll of the dice worth a chance.
I knew that Lalonde’s manager was a guy named Dave Wolf.
I felt safe assuming this was just a coincidence, a guy with the same name as the author of Foul!
According to this 2014 list linked here, there are more than 100,000 folks with the surname of Wolf in the U.S.
According to other sources, David ranks fifth among men’s given names over the course of the 20th century in the U.S. Lots of people named Wolf and lots of them named David, I reckoned.
Journalists don’t become boxing managers or some such, I reckoned.
I mean, once you’re a journalist up there with the bigs in New York and publishing classic books, why would you want to do anything else? (Yeah, I know, who am I to call The Hawk naive?)
Is This David Wolf One and the Same?
The David Wolf working with Donny Lalonde was a seeming newbie to the sordid biz, one who was regarded an industry maverick, a drumbeat, a hypemeister, a carnival barker.
A few years before his run with Lalonde, David Wolf had managed and, more importantly, marketed Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini—a good fighter with a great personal history, namely a loveable father who was a local legend in Youngstown, Ohio, who never got his title shot because of the WW II and injury.
You can get a good idea of the role Wolf played in getting Mancini his shot at the title and star turn in this documentary.
Go to the 24-minute mark.
Mancini gets high praise for his heart, Wolf an equal share for his press kits.
Though dismissed early as all hype, Mancini turned out to be a game, action fighter, a staple of CBS’s weekend boxing line-up—yup, there was a time when CBS and ABC and, much less so, NBC featured ring wars in Saturday afternoons which are now occupied by college football in the fall, college hoops in the winter, golf filling the voids in spring and summer.
As you’d take away from the documentary, Mancini was legit if somewhat limited—not an all-time great, certainly outclassed against Alexis Arguello, maybe the best fighter in any category at that time.
Tragedy cast a shadow of Mancini’s career: If Boom Boom comes up in conversation at all these days, it’s related to his 14th-round knockout of Kim Duk-koo, who never recovered consciousness.
Because of that fatality playing out on live TV on CBS, the morally malleable folks who administer the unseemliest game in their limited wisdom made 12 rounds the championship distance and so it has remained. (Would they have made all fights 60 seconds long if Mancini had knocked out Kim with a shot in the second minute of round one?)
With Mancini a fading asset by the mid-80s, David Wolf had gone looking for a fighter to pump and talent wasn’t the only requisite and maybe not even the chief one.
Lalonde had a blond mullet that back in the day would have been de rigueur on MTV and out of the ring was seemingly as free of malice as Eddie Van Halen.
David Wolf signed him up, tagged him “Golden Boy” just like he came up with the “Boom Boom” brand for Mancini.
Off they went with the wind at their back—the light-heavyweight division was opening up at the time because Michael Spinks, a dominant champion at 175 pounds, was relinquishing his title to move up to the heavyweight division full time and no likely heirs were apparent.
It wasn’t a big-money division—thinking so little of it, Tommy Hearns won a light-heavy title and promptly vacated it, seeing as he had soaked up all the money apparently available in the division.
I (half-)sold Saturday Night on the idea of Lalonde as an example of boxing being not some primal fight but rather an enterprise that was equal parts Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Boom Boom Redux.
Not an original take, I admit, but at that point one with a news peg, boxing being under-covered in the Canadian media.
And, hey, the $6-million awaiting him for the Leonard fight was Gretzky-type money, not bad for a boxer who couldn’t even try to hit a heavy bag, never mind a live fighter, with a left hook at the risk of dislodging the pin in his shoulder.
I reached out to the New York State Athletic Commission for his manager’s contact information, which the folks there readily supplied.
David Wolf’s licence from the New York State Athletic Commission is up all yours for $165 on this boxing collectables site.
When I contacted David Wolf, he heard me out but expressed no great enthusiasm about me coming down to New York to talk to the Golden Boy.
Saturday Night must have sounded like small potatoes.
Nonetheless, David Wolf acquiesced and we set up a date. The way he laid it out, I could meet him at Gleason’s Gym and catch Lalonde working out.
Sounded good by me—gather some atmospherics, talk to his trainers and then meet with him after the fact. I was off to the races.
GOLDEN BOY’S workout was nothing to write home about or, particularly, to write a magazine story about.
He skipped, did sit-ups, shadow-boxed and went through the usual gym calisthenics, but he didn’t hit the heavy bag or spar.
Lalonde said that he had some sort of injury though he and Wolf stayed vague about it. No jeopardizing the big payday.
Was the injury real? Was anything?
Boxing ever demands a grain of salt but it seemed so especially with these two.
Hey, Lalonde would at least admit he used Sun-In to lighten his locks.
The Portly Wolf, though, had a hairpiece that looked like an Elvis wig of Vegas vintage—it sat conspicuously on his dome like a hastily replaced divot.
When I spoke to the manager, I tried to make eye contact but involuntarily my gaze drifted northward.
From what I could glean from a gallery of photos, he had a collection of toupees, each special occasions, sorta like Carl Reiner’s Alan Brady in The Dick Van Dyke Show’s “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth” episode.
I didn’t come away from Gleason’s Gym with an empty notebook.
Lalonde’s trainer, a guy from Central Casting named Tommy Gallagher, was keen to talk, although he hadn’t been working with Lalonde all that long.
“The kid’s nutty, but what can you do?” Gallagher posited.
Yeah, what could he do, other than suck it up and collect your percentage of the kid’s $6-million payout?
Still, I didn’t have much to set a scene with.
I asked Lalonde if we could go for coffee or whatever his training regimen would allow him, but David Wolf interceded—he said I could swing by his place and Lalonde would come over.
Wolf’s place turned out to be a walk-up apartment at 50 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village, pretty much around the corner from the Village Vanguard.
I showed up at the appointed time and knocked on Wolf’s door.
He let me in and told me that the Golden Boy was running late.
From what I recall now and what would have been reflected in my notes then, Wolf’s apartment was pretty gloomy and claustrophobic.
From what I could tell, he lived alone and I assumed he didn’t have many guests over.
He pointed to a couch that was too big for the living room and told me to wait there, then, without excusing himself or offering me a drink or bothering with small talk, ducked into the kitchen.
I panned the living room, which apparently doubled as an office and archive and as such there wasn’t much for entertaining. On a groaning bookshelf I saw a paperback copy of Foul!
Light bulb flashing on! It first occurred to me that this David Wolf, the boxing manager, was RELATED to that David Wolf, the one of Foul! semi-fame.
“Foul! is such an amazing book, my favourite as a kid,” I said.
I stopped just short of asking, “Whatever happened to him?”
“A lot of work, years,” Wolf said, not bothering to duck out of the kitchen where he was busy with whatever he was busy with. “It was years, but it didn’t translate into sales. ”
No mention of a cousin, an uncle or a father—it could have easily crossed generations given that Foul! was a full twenty years in the rearview at that point.
No, the guy with the hairpiece was the author. (Somehow I had missed a Times mini-profile of Wolf back in 1982, when he discussed his transition from journalism to the ring biz.)
I thought his reticence to discuss Foul! was simply a case of Wolf trying to avoid seeming immodest about the book, the much-praised book.
I kept trying to prompt him. I said something about Foul! being the rare book that proves to be the catalyst for change.
He didn’t bite. And he didn’t bite when I asked him about Hawkins—when was the last time he spoke to him.
He wasn’t being sheepish about the book. He wasn’t interested in talking about it at all.
It might as well have been written by someone else. His attitude: That was then and I do all my business in the present.
It was shortly after that the Golden Boy arrived and I flipped my toggle switch to the job at hand.
I couldn’t pinpoint what was off about the discussion with David Wolf about Foul!, but I was moving on to the focus of piece, the meat in the sandwich, Lalonde.
That he too was a vegetarian was a useful gambit to open with—yup, buddy, we’re two Canadians who are out there.
We talked at length about his youth. About growing up the target of an abusive father. About what he wanted to get out of the game. About how against all odds and only because David Wolf had taken him on he was in line for fuck-you money.
That Lalonde didn’t seem in love with boxing did mark him as an exception.
Probably closer to the rule. Probably where they all get to unless they go down like Kim Duk Koo. It seemed like a pretty useful interview, although it didn’t have a natural feel to it at all. Lalonde seemed pre-occupied.
It was probably around 11 p.m. when Lalonde and I left Wolf’s apartment together and walked through Greenwich Village.
I had my head on a swivel and spied some shady looking guys, who were sizing us up—remember this was a bit before Guiliani cleaned up the streets.
Lalonde spied them too and his eyebrows peaked.
They could have had no idea that the guy with a mullet was a world champion boxer. He didn’t fit the part of a boxer.
Wouldn’t get cast as one, wasting his time at that audition. Did he look scared at that moment? The way I’d write it up in my first draft, yup.
I’d love to share with you the story that I wrote about Donny Lalonde, but it never made it to print.
When folks at Saturday Night told me it had been bumped to the next issue and then the issue after that, well, that’s all she wrote. That they’d think about running it if Lalonde wound up beating Sugar Ray Leonard that was tantamount to killing it on the spot.
I’m not sure I ever held on to a print-out of the story, such was my disappointment.
All that I really remember from the lead: Lalonde walking on the streets in Greenwich Village, looking like a bully magnet more than a boxing champ.
At the time it didn’t occurred to me that he might have good reason to be worried. Much later it would, though.
IN 2007 a previously untold story about Donny Lalonde and Dave Wolf spun out of From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man, an autobiography written by Teddy Atlas, a former boxer who did time for armed robbery before becoming a well-respected trainer and later the gold-standard colour guy on ESPN’s boxing broadcasts.
When Dave Wolf had taken on Lalonde as a project, he brought in Atlas to train him and make him into a reasonable facsimile of a contender.
In contrast to Lalonde’s chill attitude, Atlas was, just as the book title billed him, a street guy, one who once had his face slashed by a knife, his wounds requiring 400 stitches.
Atlas once put the barrel of a gun against the ear of Mike Tyson, after he was sexually inappropriate with a young female relative of the trainer. It doesn’t get much more badass than threatening to kill Iron Mike.
It’s one thing to threaten murder, another to do something about.
Atlas actually did the latter, tucking away a gun in his waistband and paying a house call to Donny Lalonde in December 1988.
It was public knowledge that the fighter and the manager had severed ties with Atlas before the Leonard fight was in the works and it was widely put down to philosophical differences, a clash of personalities that were as plain as the scars on the trainer’s face.
It was a fair bit more than that, though: chiefly, as Atlas spelled out in his autobiography, a matter of principle about David Wolf putting another fighter, Donnie Poole, through a legal wringer.
The bottom line was the bottom line.
Lalonde got six million for the November 1988 tilt Vegas which he lost on a ninth round TKO. He spoke about the promotion to NYFIGHTS.
Teddy’s share would’ve been six hundred thousand dollars.
This devastated Atlas even more than what he’d endured from Tyson. “I had sacrificed for him and in return he betrayed me. The idea that he should be rewarded for that? It made me murderous.”
If you screwed Teddy Atlas out of 600K you did so at your significant peril.
Having Donny Lalonde at the time we talked had good reason to be worried.
That night he might have been worried that the heavies lurking around the streets were dispatched by Atlas or that the trainer was out there in the shadows.
If I had known the dynamics at the time I would have been petrified about getting hit in the crossfire or eliminated as a witness.
If I had known the dynamics and actually written them as they were, that story would have run in Saturday Night magazine or somewhere … possibly posthumously.
As if this weren’t enough to bring this home for me, versions of this story vary somewhat. Per one report, Atlas showed up at Lalonde’s apartment with his bad intentions.
As Lalonde remembered it in 2010, Atlas had no idea where the fighter lived seeing as he had never been a guest there and got his wires crossed and wound up at 50 Barrow Street.
Lalonde who refers to Atlas as a “certifiable nutcase” points out that his former trainer even gets the apartment wrong that he painstakingly describes in great detail, talking of walking through the rain to 50 Barrow Street.
“I bought a condo on Bleeker and Broadway in June of '87,” said Lalonde, “I lived there at the time. He thinks he was at Dave's (manager David Wolf) old apartment that I lived in when Teddy trained me.”
Shit, I might have been at ground zero not just for high drama but also for the career-making story.
WHEN Dave Wolf died of leukemia in 2007, he didn’t get an obit in the Times.
Must have been a busy day, because I think he’d have merited a place just for Foul! and one for his role in the boxing game if he had never written a word.
Back in 2018, the boxing writer Thomas Hauser put together this oral-history tribute to Wolf, a longtime friend, on the occasion of what would have been his 75th birthday.
Hauser’s personal money line:
[Dave] was passive-aggressive, anti-social, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He also did as good a job of managing Ray Mancini as any manager ever did for a fighter and performed managerial magic on other occasions for the likes of Donny Lalonde, Duane Bobick, Lonnie Bradley, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and Donnie Poole.
The legendary Jimmy Cannon once wrote, “The fight manager wouldn’t defend his mother. He has been a coward in all the important matters of his life. He has cheated many people but he describes himself as a legitimate guy at every opportunity.”
Dave was the antithesis of that. His first question was always “What’s best for the fighter?” rather than “What’s best for me?”
Well, Thomas, maybe not always. Ask the aforementioned Donnie Poole.
ONLY after I started to write this SubStack essay did I recall that Donny Lalonde wasn’t the first Canadian boxer that David Wolf managed.
I’d have noted it in my first and only draft back in ‘88 but it was a footnote in a story that never got printed.
At about the time Ray Mancini was lifting off, Wolf has taken on a welterweight from Scarborough’s housing projects, Donnie Poole.
I only vaguely remember as a fighter—now we’re talking about 40 years ago.
The early 80s were a half-interesting time in Canadian boxing, though none of it translated to wold championship ranks.
Poole moved really quickly up in the ranks, fighting for the national title barely two years into his career.
This interview from a few years ago makes for interesting reading about the ruthlessness of the game—the blog post’s undated but I suspect it’s pretty recent, given that Poole mentions his post-boxing career as a firefighter and paramedic from which he had recently retired.
David Wolf wrote a classic sports book, but when I read this now I realize he was always meant to be a manager in boxing.
He was exactly the pro that Jimmy Cannon described, a somewhat slicker version of Jackie Gleason’s Maish, the scruples-free manager of Mountain Rivera in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight.
I was disappointed when I met Wolf back in ‘88 but even more so in my hero worship after reading this.
He had been the advocate that Connie Hawkins needed, but in the end he was capable of pure evil as he proved with Donnie Poole.