Fortier High School
The sport of boxing has a long history in New Orleans. The Crescent City supplied many greats to the sport – 10 boxers are members of the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame, as well as one legendary trainer and one boxing official.
While success in the sweet science is often defined by victories in the ring itself – world championships and title belts and Olympic medals – none of that success would be possible without the support of a team of professionals: managers, promoters, trainers, cut men and more. And in New Orleans over the last 50 years, no single individual has had more of an impact on the sport and the individual participants than Les Bonano, a man who has held all of those roles for prizefighters of all levels.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great people in boxing,” Bonano said. “And I was a sponge. I wanted to know everything. I learned from everyone that I could – Vincent Arnona was a great New Orleans trainer and a legendary cut man – he taught me everything he knew. I think I had success because I incorporated methods from all the different people that I met and worked with.”
Bonano has managed, trained and promoted outstanding professional fighters throughout his career. Dominick Carter won the IBA light heavyweight world championship with a first-round knockout in 1996; Paul Whittaker was a two-time NABF super middleweight champion (1989, 1990); John Duplessis rose to No. 1 in the world as a lightweight in the late 1980s under Bonano’s promotion; Anthony Stephens, who was a Golden Gloves champion, fought three different times for world titles. The list goes on, but the key point remains – any top-notch fighters from the Louisiana region have Bonano connections.
Born and raised in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans, Bonano joined the New Orleans Police Department in 1965. He earned degrees from Loyola University and St. Mary’s Dominican College while studying part-time and working as a police officer.
In 1974, while working as an investigator in the Orleans Parish sheriff’s department, he was assigned to the Orleans Parish Prison, which was in significant disarray at the time. Bonano started an athletic program, primarily focused on basketball tournaments, in hopes of relieving tension within the prison. The program worked and inmates approached him about additional options, including boxing.
Growing up, Bonano participated in a wide-range of sports, including playing football at Fortier High School. While he was not officially a boxer, his cousin Angelo Brocato was a prominent amateur boxer and he regularly brought Bonano to the boxing gyms in town. Not to mention that his hard-scrabble neighborhood necessitated him developing skills with his fists.
“I probably had more fights under my belt than any of the boxers, but they were all street fights,” Bonano said. “But yeah, I knew boxing when I started the program at the prison.”
His inmate boxing program proved immensely successful. One of those impacted by the program was heavyweight Philip Brown, who developed so quickly that Bonano received special permission to bring him off prison grounds for amateur fights. Brown later advanced to the national Golden Gloves finals (losing to George Frazier’s son Marvis Frazier) and the national AAU finals. Brown’s impressive performances earned him a spot on the USA National Team that fought a Russian squad in the Superdome – and he won his bout.
“After that, we took Brown to Cuba in 1979 for a fight against the legendary Teófilo Stevenson [a three-time Olympic Gold Medalist],” Bonano remembered. “Nobody wanted to fight this guy. He was an animal! But Philip went down and put up a great fight but lost on a decision.”
Another “graduate” of the inmate program, Jerry Celestine, would find professional boxing success with Bonano in his corner. He shocked Vonzell Johnson, the No. 3 light heavyweight contender in the world, in a 1977 fight at Municipal Auditorium and went on to a very successful pro career. He also fought for the WBA world light heavyweight title against Michael Spinks in 1982.
The success of the inmate program led to Bonano opening a gym on Broad Street. In addition to training fighters, the gym had a successful youth program, giving young people opportunities in basketball, baseball and boxing.
One of Bonano’s early fighters, Melvin Paul, had a nationally-televised fight against Héctor “Macho” Camacho in 1982. Two years later, Paul fought for the IBF World Lightweight Championship in Atlantic City where he floored Charlie “Choo Choo” Brown with a big punch in the 15th round.
“Melvin thought he had the fight won,” Bonano remembered. “He ran to the other side of the ring and was calling out to his wife and celebrating on the ropes. The crowd was going crazy, but Brown was somehow standing up. I was screaming at Melvin to knock him out, but he couldn’t hear me. Brown wobbled on his feet for about 30 seconds and was saved by the bell. Melvin was robbed on a split decision.”
Bonano was ubiquitous in area boxing, managing and training fighters at all levels and promoting boxing events throughout the region. He worked with legendary promoters Bob Arum and Lou DiBella to bring some of the best boxers in the world, including Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Jr., Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran, to the Gulf Coast region for fights at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis.
“De La Hoya and Jones fought on the same card in a 5,000-seat tent at Casino Magic in 1993,” Bonano said. “Arum pulls me aside and gives me De La Hoya’s check for the fight. He tells me I need to give it straight to Oscar and not his manager. His manager tried everything to get the check from me, but I gave it to Oscar. I found out later that De La Hoya was firing his manager and Arum knew it – he also knew that nobody would bully me into giving them the check.”
Now 78 years old, Bonano has stepped back from promoting, but remains involved in the fight game. After more than 50 years of working behind the scenes and bringing recognition to others, Bonano is now receiving well-earned recognition for himself as an inductee into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame.
“This is such a tremendous honor,” he said. “I’ve won some awards, but this will be the greatest in my life. I’m very excited. It means so much to me; it’s hard for me to explain. I can’t put it in words.”