Les Bonano to be inducted into Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
NEW ORLEANS – Les Bonano, a fixture on the New Orleans boxing scene as a promoter, manager and trainer for more than 50 years, has been selected for induction into the Allstate Sugar Bowl’s Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2021.
Bonano is one of five standout local sports figures who will be added to the Hall of Fame this year. Each year’s Hall of Fame class is selected by the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee, a group of current and former media members who annually recognize a variety of award-winners, including the Hall of Fame, the Corbett Awards and the Eddie Robinson Award. The group also selects the Greater New Orleans Amateur Athlete of the Month each month.
Overall, 23 individuals and two teams will be honored this year for their achievements at the committee’s annual awards banquet on Saturday, July 24. Honorees are being announced over a period of 23 days, wrapping up with the Corbett Awards for the top male and female amateur athletes in the state on July 20 and 21.
Jimmy Collins Special Awards: Dr. Greg Stewart, Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine
Outstanding Boys’ Prep Coach of the Year, New Orleans: Gerald Lewis, St. Augustine Basketball
Outstanding Girls’ Prep Coach of the Year, New Orleans: Julie Ibieta, Metairie Park Country Day Volleyball
Outstanding Female Amateur Athlete, New Orleans: Kristen Nuss, LSU Beach Volleyball
Outstanding Male Amateur Athlete, New Orleans: Jared Butler, Baylor Basketball
Eddie Robinson Award: Sidney Parfait, American Legion Baseball
Outstanding Boys’ Prep Team, New Orleans: McMain High School Basketball
Outstanding Girls’ Prep Team, New Orleans: Dominican Volleyball
Outstanding Collegiate Coach, Louisiana: Dennis Shaver, LSU Track & Field
Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2020 Inductee: Les Bonano, Boxing
Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2021 Inductee: July 12 (Monday)
Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2021 Inductee: July 13 (Tuesday)
Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2021 Inductee: July 14 (Wednesday)
Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2021 Inductee: July 15 (Thursday)
Corbett Award – Female: July 20 (Tuesday)
Corbett Award – Male: July 21 (Wednesday)
Les Bonano – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame, Class of 2021
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.”
The Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee began in 1957 when James Collins spearheaded a group of sports journalists to form a sports awards committee to immortalize local sports history. For 13 years, the committee honored local athletes each month. In 1970, the Sugar Bowl stepped in to sponsor and revitalize the committee, leading to the creation of the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1971, honoring 10 legends from the Crescent City in its first induction class. While adding the responsibility of selecting Hall of Famers, the committee has continued to recognize the top amateur athlete in the Greater New Orleans area each month – the honors enter their 65th year in 2021. To be eligible, an athlete must be a native of the greater New Orleans area or must compete for a team in the metropolitan region.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier college football bowl games, having hosted 28 national champions, 99 Hall of Fame players, 51 Hall of Fame coaches and 19 Heisman Trophy winners in its 87-year history. The 88th Allstate Sugar Bowl Football Classic, which will feature top teams from the Big 12 and the SEC, is scheduled to be played on January 1, 2022. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee annually invests over $1 million into the community through the hosting and sponsorship of sporting events, awards, scholarships and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors thousands of student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2.7 billion into the local economy in the last decade.
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