Whitey Esneault – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
When Ernest “Whitey” Esneault died of a lung infection in 1968 at age 76, the Golden Age of Boxing in New Orleans was laid to rest with his body in St. Roch No. 2 Cemetery.
For nearly a half-century, Esneault oversaw the French Quarter fight factory that was St. Mary’s Italian Gym in New Orleans, in which he helped develop future world champions Ralph Dupas and Willie Pastrano before turning them over to legendary trainer Angelo Dundee. But more importantly to his legacy were the many young boys Esneault trained and taught who never became champions, but found self-worth in the lessons they learned.
States-Item and Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney once noted, “Guys would come in off the street and Whitey would train them. They all weren’t going to become champions, but Whitey just loved boxing and working with kids and Whitey never sought fame for himself. But when he did get good prospects, they all blossomed under his tutelage. Angelo Dundee always said he was about as good at teaching boxing fundamentals as anyone.”
Brothers Maxie and Bernard Docusen were two boys who were introduced to the boxing game by Esneault. Both became highly-ranked title contenders and had a run of success in California under managers Bonnie Geigerman and Otis Guichet.
“If Whitey had been at Stillman’s Gym or Gleason’s Gym in New York, turning out fighters like the Docusens, Dupas and Pastrano, he’d already be in (the Hall of Fame). There’s no doubt in my mind about that,” Dundee said.
Dundee said he was one of Esneault’s most ardent admirers. “I wholeheartedly believe that Whitey Esneault deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” Dundee once said. “Whitey trained a lot of kids, and some of those kids he eventually sent to me. They typically were, like, 16 or 17, but they all were very well-grounded in boxing.
A World War I Navy veteran, Esneault lost his left leg to diabetes, in what was a lifelong struggle, in 1954. He preferred to stick close to St. Mary’s Italian rather than to go to camp with his better pro prospects, which is part of the reason why he sent Dupas and Pastrano to a friend like Dundee. His determination to remain in New Orleans, and the Jim Crow laws then in place in Louisiana, made him almost the proprietor of a way-stop for homegrown fighters on their way to wider recognition.
New Orleans was once hailed as the cradle of boxing. James J. Corbett wrested the heavyweight championship from John L. Sullivan there at the old Olympic Club on Royal Street on Sept. 7, 1892, and it was the city where such capable fighters as Harry Wills, Pete Herman, Tony Canzoneri, and Jimmy Perrin either were born or developed their skills.
When Esneault died there was no one around to replace him as a developer of young amateur and professional ring talent.
Several other young standouts surfaced in years following Esneault’s death, such as Jerry Celestine, Tony Licata, Percy Pugh, Jerry Pelligrini, Chuck Mintz and Philip Brown and reached a level of notoriety, but only Dupas and Pastrano became world champions.
Dupas had a record of 106-23-6 with 18 knockouts. He won the World Junior Middleweight title by outpointing champion Denny Moyer in 15 rounds on April 30, 1963. He began his career in 1950 as a lightweight.
Pastrano, whose record was 63-13-8 (14 knockouts), won the World Light Heavyweight title in a decision win over Harold Johnson, who won the title from Archie Moore. Pastrano, who died in 1997 at the age of 61, successfully defended the title twice and kept it for nearly two years.
“Mr. Whitey’s a wonderful man,” Pastrano said some 50-plus years ago. “He’ll do anything in the world for you. He gives as much time and consideration to the little kids as he does to his professionals. After his amateurs fight he always takes them out and feeds them – out of his own pocket. Everybody likes him except the guys who are jealous of him.”
Esneault, who was born September 13, 1891, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2016.