By: Sean Crose
“The state here wouldn’t license her,” legendary Michigan promoter Joseph Donofrio says of former figure skater Tonya Harding. For those too young to remember, Harding was involved in quite the uproar when it was learned her husband and others were behind an assault on amateur skating rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympic games. After the incident, Harding fizzled at the Olympics, then – oddly enough – eventually turned to boxing for a short time. Donofrio ultimately got to promote a card featuring Harding as a “celebrity guest.” It was a success. “I put 15,000 people in the house,” he says. “It was the same amount of people that came to a Tommy Hearns fight.”
If anyone can successfully pull of such an unlikely event, it’s Donofrio, a man who has been in the fight game long enough to have worked, or associated with, some of the biggest names in boxing and MMA. Aside from Hearns and Harding, there’s names like Evander Holyfield, Andrew Golota, Mike Tyson, Zab Judah, Mary Jo Sanders and Holly Holm that are apt to pop up in his reminiscences. “Holly was really, really cool,” Donofrio says of the championship boxer turned UFC star. “Her and her boyfriend, that’s all they do is fight professionally, and they live off that.” It’s clear talking to Donofrio, however, that he isn’t one to simply live in the past. At the moment, he’s working with Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer “to lift the ban” on audience attendance at fight cards. “I consider myself an advocate for the advancement of combat sports in Michigan beyond being a promoter,” states Mr. Donofrio.
“It wouldn’t be cost effective for me to do a show,” he says of business in the Covid 19 era, “unless there’s a TV sponsor.” Needless to say, the promoter isn’t a fan of fighters plying their trades in empty arenas. “It’s not a good look,” he says simply. “It’s not the same effect.” When it’s time for things to get back to normal, though, few will be able to resume business with the experience behind them that Donofrio has. The man’s literally spent decades in the industry, having promoted roughly a hundred boxing and mixed martial arts cards. As things stand, Donofrio is focusing more on mixed martial arts these days. “Less boxing, more martial arts,” he says. Not that his rich history with the sweet science is long forgotten. “We did the last Tommy Hearn’s fight,” he says. “His last fight, which was Super Bowl weekend…he had to be 45-50 years old.”
Proving age isn’t much more than a number, the bout, which took place at the classic – and recently demolished – Palace at Auburn Hills, filled the arena up with celebrities ranging from The Rolling Stones, to Joe Jackson, to Mariah Carey, who sang the National Anthem as well as Evander Holyfield providing the commentary for the ESPN televised event. “During my tenure at the Palace,” Donofrio says, “we did all the boxing and MMA events.” Donofrio now presents his shows for Harley Davidson and is currently in negotiations for the newly constructed Little Caesars Arena.
“Nothing can compare to doing the shows in larger arenas such as The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Quicken Loans Arena, The Dow Event Center, The Joe Louis Arena,” he says.
JLA and The Palace, now demolished venues, were the entertainment staples of Michigan.
“When The Joe Louis Arena was dismantled,” says Mr Donofrio, “that was a hard pill to swallow giving the history of that building and the years I spent there. Then in a rather abrupt move, the announcement came that The Palace of Auburn Hills would be blown in to the next galaxy as well. Losing those two arenas was difficult. Collectively spending almost 25 years at those venues, yes you do create an emotional attachment not only to the buildings, but the staff who worked in harmony to achieve the success that Donofrio Sports & Entertainment seeks to provide.”
Every year Donofrio Sports & Entertainment promotes two events that are his passion. Donofrio’s two Golden Glove Amateur events held each year (for the past 18 years) at Villa Penna for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Michigan “Thrilla At The Villa” and an event “Knock Out Blindness” for Leader Dogs for The Blind at The Palazzo Grande. Both shows have sold out every year.
It takes months to prepare for a show of that magnitude. The smaller more intimate shows Donofrio does promote are an easier task to manage, so both have their own unique benefits.
Donofrio has a Boxing event scheduled at The Tropicana in Atlantic City (after the clearance for the Cornovirus) with Team Kronk vs the East Coast’s best boxing athletes.
What is the future in Donofrio’s crystal ball? Possibly a position with the State of Michigan or The World Boxing Association? He declined comment.