Willie Savannah, a stalwart of the Houston boxing scene as a gym owner, trainer and manager, who discovered Juan Diaz and led him to the unified lightweight world title, died on Sunday. He was 85.
Clara Savannah, his wife, confirmed his passing on her Facebook page, writing, “It is with great sadness that I inform you all that my husband Willie Savannah has passed away peacefully at home. At this time, we ask for no phone calls, please just keep us in your prayers. Funeral arrangements will be posted.
Thank you, Clara.”
For the past few years Savannah had kidney and lung problems and had been on dialysis three times per week, Diaz told BoxingScene.com. Two weeks ago, Diaz said Savannah elected to stop his dialysis treatments.
“It’s sad day. It was coming,” Diaz said. “We could see it coming, all the people around him and those close to him. He was in dialysis three times a week and sometimes people don’t want to fight no more and you get to the point where enough is enough. There were good days and great days but there were also the bad ones. A few weeks ago his health really started to diminish and he wasn’t getting back to his usual self. He was starting to go down very fast.”
Savannah, who taught his boxers as much about life and about respecting others as he did about the fundamentals of the sport, began working with amateurs and professional boxers in the late 1970s before he and Clara opened the Savannah Boxing Gym in southwest Houston in the 1980s. It became a hotbed for the amateur and pro scene in the city. That is where he began training and managing Ronnie Shields, who went on to become one of the sport’s top trainers, including training Diaz for most of his championship run.
Diaz first met Savannah, who he always referred to as “Mr. Savannah,” as a child when he began boxing as an amateur.
“I was 8 years old, a little fat boy and Mr. Savannah was about to give up on boxing,” Diaz said. “He used to tell me the story all the time. They were ready to give up and close the gym. He had had about 15 professional fighters back then. This is in the late 90s. He told Clara, ‘I’m done.’ But then I came into the gym and he said, ‘We’ll start you off.’ And then he’d say we’ll close it down once this fat kid leaves and I never did. I kept training and listening to him and we stuck with it. I had success at an early age in the amateurs. He was re-motivated. I made the (2000) Mexican Olympic team but I was denied a spot because I was too young, so we turned pro and I became world champion under his guidance. It was a hell of a run.
“If it hadn’t have been for him I would not have become a world champion. I also would not have become the man I am today. He took a chance on this little kid. He taught me so much about boxing and life.”
Savannah, who brought in Hall of Fame manager Shelly Finkel to serve as Diaz’s co-manager, turned Diaz professional at age 16 in Mexico in 2000. Four years later “The Baby Bull” won a lightweight world title from Lakva Sim in Houston and went on to make seven successful defenses, including unifying three major world titles, before losing the belts by split decision to Nate Campbell in a big upset in 2008.
After Diaz lost a lightweight championship rematch to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2010 and retired, Savannah’s days in boxing were largely over. When Diaz decided to come out of retirement in 2013 for what turned out to be seven more fights – all wins – Savannah did not want to be part of it.
“He was very adamant about me not boxing anymore. He said, ‘You had a great run, focus on your (trucking) business and your family,'” Diaz said. “But being the stubborn person that I am, I kept fighting. But he was always there to support me because I wanted to keep going until the (shoulder) injury (forced retirement for good in 2016).”
Diaz said the last time he had a chance to see Savannah was right before the coronavirus pandemic forced much of the country into a lockdown.
“A few months ago, before the lockdown, we went out to get our favorite meal together -- king crab,” Diaz said. “We sat down and talked about the old days over some great crab. We had a great time and a great talk. He was like father to me, and I was like a son to him."
Besides Diaz and his brother Jose Diaz, Savannah worked with fighters such as Shields, Derwin Richards and Hylon Williams Jr. and his Savannah Boxing Club is where many other well-known fighters trained at one time or another, including Evander Holyfield, twins Jermell and Jermall Charlo and Regis Prograis.
Savannah is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.
Dan Rafael was ESPN.com's senior boxing writer for fifteen years, and covered the sport for five years at USA Today. He was the 2013 BWAA Nat Fleischer Award winner for excellence in boxing journalism.