"He always made really good matches," said Al Bernstein, longtime boxing commentator and analyst.

Frank Luca gave his soul to boxing his entire life until his heart finally gave out.

A scrawny kid who grew up poor in southeast Canton, Luca was 75 years old when he died Dec. 6 in Florida. A fighter in his younger days, Luca went on to train and manage boxers, then promoted fights in a career that spanned five decades.

"I loved Frank; he was a great guy," said Al Bernstein, longtime boxing commentator and analyst for Showtime who's often referred to as the voice of boxing. "He had a lot of great stories about the old days. ... He'll be missed out here (in Las Vegas)."

Bernstein, then a writer for Boxing Illustrated, met Luca in the late 1970s when Luca trained heavyweight superstar Earnie Shavers. Bernstein said he reconnected with Luca when Luca was promoting fights in Las Vegas about 10 years ago.

"He always made really good matches," Bernstein said.

***

Luca's most successful fighter was Shavers, who some boxing experts say was the hardest-punching heavyweight ever. Shavers, who grew up in the Warren area, scored 68 knockouts in a career of 74 wins, 14 losses, 1 draw and two title-fight defeats.

Shavers, contacted for this story, said he wasn't aware that Luca had passed away.

"My old friend Frank, so sorry to hear that," Shavers said. "He was a good guy. I'd tried to locate him out here (Las Vegas) but couldn't. ... I was trying to find him."

After living in Arizona and Las Vegas, Luca had returned to the Canton area about six years ago and lived with companion Beverly Troiano. A simple service for Luca's closest friends and family was held at the Calvary Cemetery chapel in Perry Township.

Luca's children, Frank Luca and Christine Marcelli, said their dad had suffered from heart problems.

***

Frank Luca and Shavers worked together in the 1970s, often cited as the last golden era of heavyweights because there were so many standouts — Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton, to name a few.

Twice, Shavers nearly won a championship.

In 1977, he lost a decision to the champ, Ali, at Madison Square Garden. But Shavers and Luca went to work to earn another title shot. Along the way, Shavers destroyed Norton with a first-round knockout on March 23, 1979, at the Las Vegas Hilton.

After the televised fight, ABC Sports' Howard Cosell interviewed Shavers inside the ring, then turned the microphone to the dark-haired mustachioed Luca. "And Frank Luca, quite apparently you're one of the men of the hour," Cosell said.

Six months later, Shavers lost by technical knockout to Holmes in a title bout at Caesar's Palace.

***

Luca started boxing when he was 12, in the 1950s, at the Canton Police Boys' Club. His ring career ended after he suffered an eye injury, but Luca remained tightly connected to the Boys' Club, which became a hotbed for great young fighters in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Frank trained me," said Doug Waikem, a former amateur and pro boxer and now one of the owners of the Waikem Auto Family dealerships. "The Police Boys' Club was full of great fighters. ... Michael Dokes, (Ronnie) Harris, Noggle, Arnold Dick."

Luca's children said their dad was part of the boxing scene for as long as they can remember. As children, they didn't realize the magnitude and star power of those inside their dad's inner circle.

It was common for famed promoter Don King to call their house in northwest Canton. The iconic sportscaster, Cosell, regularly phoned. Promoter Bob Arum often came to the house. Former Major League baseball pitcher Dean Chance, who managed Shavers then headed the International Boxing Association, was a fixture, as well.

"It was just the norm," recalled Marcelli. "Our house was like a boxing gym. There would be boxers coming by all the time. Sometimes, they'd be sleeping on our couch."

***

Among those at Calvary for the service were Gerald Evans, a former Ohio Golden Gloves champ who'd sparred with Shavers, and Rick Noggle, a local middleweight managed by Luca for seven years.

"Frank was like a father to me; I learned a lot from him," Evans said. "In my mind, I can still see Frank out there jumping around the ring yelling, 'Get your (butt) up.'"

Noggle's pro career began in 1978 and concluded in 1984. His two biggest fights — both losses — were in 1981 against future champ Bobby Czyz, then Bennie Briscoe, who'd already fought the likes of Emile Griffith, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler.

"Frank got me some great opportunities," Noggle said. "I met Ali through Frank. A lot of good memories. I'd still call him about every three months and we'd talk, blah blah, blah, ya know."

***

In the mid-1980s, Luca was hired by then-Canton Mayor Sam Purses to run the Canton Memorial Civic Center. During a sometimes controversial 21-month stint, Luca helped bring the Canton Invaders indoor soccer team to the Civic Center.

After that, Luca formed Crown Boxing, a company that promoted fights. The Orleans Casino in Las Vegas was a regular site. One of the biggest bouts was probably a 2010 event where former champ Evander Holyfield topped Francois Botha.

In his later years, after moving back to the Canton area, Luca promoted fight cards in Pennsylvania. His son said the reaction from fans at night's end was amazing.

"My dad would get bigger ovations than anyone; they appreciated the shows he was bringing them," the younger Luca said.

***

The younger Luca has plenty of childhood memories, visiting Shavers' training camp in East Liverpool. 

But his favorite and most told story occurred when he was a teenager. At the time, actor Sylvester Stallone was making "Rocky III." Stallone had flown Shavers and Luca to Hollywood several times to explore the idea of Shavers playing the part of Clubber Lang.

"I had the script for the movie a year before it even came out," the younger Luca recalled.

One evening Stallone phoned the Luca house in Canton. The younger Luca answered and decided it would be a good idea if he pretended to be his dad for a bit.

"Yeah, this is Frank Luca," he told Stallone.

Stallone began discussing one of the fight scenes.

"So, Earnie should nail me in the ribs, then the jaw ... how do you think that would look Frank?"

The conversation continued for a minute or so — until Stallone began talking about money and travel arrangements. Then, it was time for the younger Luca to fess up.

He gave the phone to his annoyed dad.

"Your son got me pretty good Frankie; he sounds just like you," Stallone told the older Luca.

Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 or tim.botos@cantonrep.com.
On Twitter: @tbotosREP