'Bonavena’s insult had to be translated, but when Ali heard it he became incensed'

Read this passage from ‘Shot at a Brothel’.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Shot at a Brothel: The Spectacular Demise of Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena, by Patrick Connor.

OSCAR BONAVENA needed a fight against Muhammad Ali more than ever at the end of 1970. Not for his ego or for the sake of defeating the deposed champion, but because he needed the payday.

Another win over Luis Pires allowed Bonavena to focus on the Ali fight, which he promoted as well as he could. On the street in Buenos Aires, an interviewer asked Bonavena what he thought about Ali as a rival, and Bonavena said, “I have a big advantage: I’m white and I’m from Argentina.”

While it’s possible Bonavena failed to understand the social climate in the United States, it’s just as likely, if not more so, that he understood exactly what he was doing and the damage it did. More than once he called himself “the great white hope of Argentina.” The term directly referenced Jack Johnson’s struggle for respect in a white boxing establishment, and Bonavena used it to mock Ali’s predicament.

The FAB, tired of Bonavena’s nonsense, pulled his license citing a refusal to cut his hair and continued uncouth behaviour. They were legitimate gripes, but the FAB was probably also annoyed that Bonavena kept threatening to never fight in Argentina again. Luna Park honchos couldn’t have appreciated such talk either.

Ali’s trainer and manager, Angelo Dundee, brought Jimmy Ellis to Argentina to fight Goyo Peralta in 1969 only for the fight to be cancelled at the last moment. Dundee’s friend, Argentine promoter Héctor Méndez, put the fight card together and Méndez promoted Bonavena’s bout with Peralta in Montevideo. From a business standpoint, these previous dealings likely made Ali–Bonavena easy to finalise. Once again Bonavena was the only thing standing in the way of his own progress.

Several major cities in the United States wanted the money and notoriety that came with hosting an Ali fight, and the Garden reluctantly entered the competition, knowing full well what kind of issues Bonavena typically brought with him.

In the balance hung a potential $10 million fight between Ali and Joe Frazier, who held the title many felt Ali rightly deserved to still possess. A number like $10 million dollars, even in 1970, was nearly unfathomable as fight revenue. Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier brought in the first million-dollar gate (and then some) in 1921, but through 50 years there had still been a cap on how much any fight could conceivably make. Ali risked eight figures fighting Bonavena.

The Argentine flew to New York in early November to renew his boxing license and along the way recruited New York trainer Gil Clancy to work with him for the Ali fight. “Let me put it this way,” Clancy told the New York Daily News, “if I was managing Ali and I was presented with a list of opponents, the first name I’d cross off would be that of Bonavena.”

Why? Because Ali never learned to fight inside, Clancy said. And for all the greatness, for all the rhyming and the stories and good looks, Ali couldn’t fight with his back to the ropes. Not really fight, anyway. He could stall, hold, spin an opponent in the opposite direction or push, but he couldn’t plant his feet and dig body shots. He didn’t want to go to war.

For all of Bonavena’s unflattering qualities both in the ring and out, he had moxie when punches flew his way. In the clinch, it meant foes better brace their body for punishment.

Ali called Bonavena “Beast” and teased him through the press for his lack of skill. A press gathering at the Garden was the perfect opportunity for the Argentine to respond, and he did by calling Ali “black kangaroo.”

Bonavena set up training camp in San Juan, Puerto Rico, telling the press he’d be moving there. When he made the final trip to New York, he returned to his old home at Grossinger’s and brought with him a herd of teammates, supporters, and more—never a great sign for the unworthy.

Ali had an entourage, yes. But he was Ali. Sugar Ray Robinson had an entourage, but that was the Greatest of All Time. This was Ringo Bonavena.

Among Bonavena’s group were co-managers he picked up specifically for when he was in Puerto Rico, José Montano and Hiram Cuevas, both of whom had money to front the fighter; the Rago brothers, his sometimes-trainers; a conditioner, Lopez Aguidar; his personal doctor, Dr. Roberto Paladino; a masseuse named Nick Acosta; his attorney, Roberto Alvino; sparring partner Raul Gorosito; Tito Lectoure; his brother Juan; and his wife Dora and their kids.

For his part, Ali didn’t seem to view fighting Bonavena as anything more than a necessary step toward getting in the ring with Frazier. Dave Anderson, a New York Times writer, suggested Oscar would actually present a stylistic challenge for Ali, who sometimes needed to feel threatened to excel. The “black kangaroo” comment riled Ali, and getting his blood up was standard operating procedure for selling tickets.

muhammad-ali-death Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali trains for his fight against Oscar Bonavena on December 7, 1970. Source: EMPICS Entertainment

The prefight medical inspection about one week before the 7 December bout is what really knocked Ali off balance. As both men sat on a rubbing table after their inspections, the games began.

“Why you no fight?” Bonavena asked pointedly. “Why you no go [to Vietnam]? You chicken. Chicken. Pipipipipi. Chicken!” Ali took the antics in stride, appearing thrown by the language barrier.

He’d actually emphasised a sort of respect for Argentina and its people several times in the lead-up to the fight, and even when Bonavena got personal, Ali made it known that he didn’t think Bonavena was a good representative of his country.

“The Greatest” rattled off a few of his usual lines about how viewers had to watch this fight, how upset Bonavena got him, and so on. Bonavena then leaned in close to Ali and made a pained face before covering his nose with his robe. “Me white, you black,” Oscar said. “You stink!” The pressure in the room dropped.

“I’m gonna talk to ya as I whup ya!” Ali yelled. “You never should’ve started talking! Not with Muhammad Ali!”

“Clye,” Oscar quickly replied. “Clye. You Clye? Clye.”

Ali corrected him, making it clear he’d taken the bait and been annoyed. At one point Bonavena leaned in and caressed Ali’s face. “You need deodorant,” he said. “But you lovely. You maricón.”

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Many reporters in attendance would have recognised that word. It led to a death in the ring once.

Madison Square Garden had its share of fatal bouts, though for as many fights that were held at the venue between the 1920s and ’30s, it’s a miracle so few fighters died. Charles “Bud” Taylor gave the venue its first death in 1924 when Frankie Jerome collapsed after being stopped in the 12th round and never fully regained consciousness.

In 1933, heavyweight Ernie Schaaf died from injuries sustained in his fight with Primo Carnera. And in 1951, Yonkers middleweight Roger Donoghue halted George Flores in eight rounds, with Flores dying a few days later.

But the most-publicised ring death at the Garden happened the last time the homosexual epithet maricón had been used so flagrantly. During the weigh-in for a 1961 rematch between welterweight champion Emile Griffith, a bisexual man, and challenger Benny “Kid” Paret, the latter made obscene gestures and called Griffith gay. Paret won a split decision and the welterweight championship, and then, before the third fight 1962, he insulted Griffith again.

Most forget that Paret took a horrible beating from middleweight champion Gene Fullmer and got knocked out in 10 rounds between the second and third fights with Griffith. Whether he ever recovered fully from that loss can never be known because, against Griffith in his final bout, Paret got savaged. In the 12th round, Griffith hurt Paret, who fell into the corner, helpless. Paret became tangled in the ropes and Griffith punched until the champion fell limp and unresponsive, never regaining consciousness.

As history remembers it, Paret died for insulting Griffith. Bonavena’s insult had to be translated for Ali, but when Ali heard it he became incensed. The former champion stood up and began shadowboxing, throwing jabs that ended just an inch or two from Bonavena’s face.

Bonavena squared up to him, appearing to suggest that they go outside and settle matters in the street. Ali smacked his hand away. Again the mood quickly changed. Bonavena froze and turned bright red before feinting a punch at Ali, who flinched backward.

Bonavena and the Argentine newspaper reporters at the gathering bellowed with laughter, gladly accepting the minor victory as if this was a kind of in-joke.

Bonavena turned to his fellow Argentinians and spoke with a fiercely pulsing neck vein. The scene actually silenced Ali, who looked shaken by Bonavena’s unpredictability. “After I whup him,” a serious Ali said while lying on his bed a few days later, “I’m gonna civilise that animal.”

Finally, the NYSAC got involved, threatening to fine both fighters if they didn’t knock off the mean-spirited trash talk. It worked. Money talks, of course, and both men shut up.

Shot at a Brothel: The Spectacular Demise of Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena, by Patrick Connor is published by Hamilcar Publications. More info here.

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