Luis Firpo is best remembered in boxing as the man who deposited Jack Dempsey on a row of portable typewriters, but in the dark interior of the sport he will always be recalled as one of its few financial geniuses. Firpo came to the United States carrying a cardboard suitcase and wearing a high celluloid collar, and ended up owning five estancias and 14 million pesos. His avarice was boundless and his parsimony was a mania.
"Firpo is on the phone," the late fight promoter, Mike Jacobs, was once told by his secretary.
"Are the charges reversed?" Jacobs asked anxiously.
"No," she said.
September 24, 1967
"Then it ain't Firpo," Jacobs is said to have shouted.
One Firpo in a century is sufficient, a second Firpo is a cruel aggravation. Yet he is among us once again, this time in the person of Oscar Bonavena (the mild bull of the Pampas), who last week in the Radrennbahn stadium in Frankfurt, Germany planted his grotesque, flat feet to the fore in the World Boxing Association elimination tournament. The packagers of the tournament, Sports Action Inc., paid Bonavena $50,000 and $5,000 or thereabouts in expenses. They should not be easily forgiven.
To be certain, it was a week of ridiculous happenings (Jack Dempsey defeated Jim Corbett in a computerized fight, and Novelist Alberto Moravia had to take a test for beginning reporters so he could write for an Italian paper), but all must bow to this third quarterfinal match that blended the frantic clumsiness of Bonavena, the embarrassing ineptitude of Karl Mildenberger and the gross inefficiency of the German promoters and boxing officials into a co-medic horror.
The Germans performed as if they had never conducted a fight before. A bean can was used as a bell. Rapped with a padded mallet, it was inaudible. At first nobody counted knockdowns, and when the gentleman in charge of that function decided it might be a trifle important he simply counted as if he were tapping a pencil. Wolfgang Mueller, Mildenberger's manager, ran around the edges and in and out of the ring during the fight uncensured, and the promoters, exhibiting matchless greed, even sold working press seats that had been allotted to reporters.
"It ranks," said Nat Fleischer, boxing's high priest, "as one of the worst conducted fights I have seen in my entire career."
No international fight, certainly no fight of major significance, should ever be held in Germany again, even though it seems to be fertile territory. There was a crowd of 18,000, and the gate came to $150,000. The top ticket sold for 150 marks ($37.50), and even before the fight the price seemed unreasonable. In retrospect, it was bank robbery. Mildenberger, ranked No. 1 by the WBA and No. 2 by The Ring magazine, is weaponless and defenseless. Bonavena just looks ferocious and, besides being a boor out of the ring, he is an unpardonable bore in the ring.
He was all of this and more in Germany, but the only way this primitive creature could have lost, despite his un-plotted campaign, his disgusting punching and elephantine moves, was on fouls. Three fouls and you lose in Germany, which is why Mueller kept bellowing "foul" at Referee Harry Krause, the man who allowed Floyd Patterson to be mercilessly battered by Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas and then had to recount his scoring. Still, there was nothing anyone could do for Mildenberger.
Bonavena knocked him down with a short left hook in the first round, but he was not hurt badly. Mildenberger was cut on the corner of his right eye in the second, and in the third he slipped and Bonavena raked his head with his heavy hands while he was down. Mildenberger was down again and almost through the ropes in the fourth, this time from another left hook, but no one did any counting. Bonavena lost a point in the fifth for punching low, but even with that Mildenberger could only gain an even round. A right by Bonavena in the seventh over a right hand lead dropped Mildenberger again, this time to one knee.
"God, will somebody please do some counting," Krause screamed.
Mildenberger drove Bonavena up on his heels in the ninth with a sharp left hook (one of the few decent punches he threw in the fight), but the Argentine survived to rip an ungainly right-left combination to Mildenberger's head in the 10th and send him down once more, his head snapping outside of the ropes. Mildenberger was in serious trouble now, and Mueller was on the edge of the ring, seemingly ready to throw his towel in. But Mildenberger got back on his feet, and Bonavena crashed into him with both hands. He then suddenly stopped punching and raised his hands. He thought Mueller was going to stop the fight. It did not matter. The bean can had been rung about 10 seconds earlier.
Two more rounds and this distasteful joke was over. The press gave Mildenberger one or two rounds. Referee Krause scored it 56-48 for Bonavena. His was the only meaningful scoring: no one could take the Argentine or German judge seriously.
Bonavena's victory should not be taken seriously, either. It will provide this Silas Marner of boxing with more money—much more money than he is worth—to hoard, and it will enable him to hang about long enough to make more people miserable. But his victory is a blow to the tournament, which had such an excellent beginning when Jimmy Ellis and Thad Spencer won their quarterfinal matches in Houston. To think of Bonavena in the company of this pair is an obscenity.
The only impressive aspect of Oscar Bonavena is, in a weird sort of way, his physical appearance, especially his feet. Technically, he is an untutored oaf. He seems beyond even meager instruction. Certainly he is reluctant to listen to advice. His punches, badly executed, are an abomination, and his "bottom" or "heart" is quite circumspect when he is in with a professional. But, ah, the physical Oscar. Begin at the feet. His feet are flat and dreadfully gnarled. His ankles seem as big as basketballs. A German shoemaker took one look at his feet and shouted: "Gott in Himmel." Bonavena also does not have any waist, but he does have an ample belly. He looks like a caricature of an Italian tenor. He has a prognathous jaw, kites for ears and tops all this off with Haight-Asbury hair.
It was a rare sight watching him train in Bad Soden, a spa at the foot of the Taunus Mountains. The Germans did not know quite what to make of him here, where Mendelssohn's melancholy flowed out of a window of a once lovely house and where Count Leo Tolstoy, very lean and gray with a long white beard and running from death, his ever-present malaise, came for therapeutic baths. Bonavena, day and night, walked with his gang of squealing Argentines, alarming the old women who hoped he would not present himself at one of their evening concerts in the park.
But that kind of music is not his bag. He is a guitar player, and one evening, while gaping out of a window, he laughed convulsively at the scene before him: the musicians standing rigidly on the stage, the string music wafting dreamily over the night air, the leaves tumbling over the walks, the old men walking with canes, the little kids with long blond hair playing, the poplar and fir trees, and finally the old women tapping forefingers on their knees to the music.
"Crasy, man, crasy," Oscar grunted.
Bonavena is not unaware of that condition, because everyone—mistakenly—has at one time or another defined him as just a charming idiot. The trouble is that he is not one. He is an unscrupulous beggar drowning in megalomania who abuses people, and he has abused enough of them to the point where he now owns a clothing store, a restaurant, a nightclub and a barbershop in Argentina. He is also somewhat of a vaudevillian, and quite often in Bad Soden he could be seen doing a Chaplin walk or an off-to-Buffalo shuffle on the streets—that is, when he was not accosting Harold Conrad, vice-president of Sports Action, with this refrain: "Gimme money."
These are Bonavena's favorite words, and he has never stopped uttering them since he first came to the U.S. Jack Singer, who runs a chain of restaurants in New York and Miami—$1.29 a steak—brought him here. Besides eating an inordinate number of steaks, he was a financial and mental problem to Singer who, after Bonavena refused to work a few hours in the kitchen, unloaded him on Dr. Marvin Goldberg for $7,000. Goldberg is a decent, misdirected individual who is enthralled by the glamour of boxing. He is the worst kind of amateur, and therefore a perfect target for an Oscar Bonavena.
"I didn't want to sell the clown to Doc," says Singer. "I did everything to talk him out of it. I even called his wife, but, no, he was dyin' to be burned."
Bonavena obliged him. The doctor got stuck for airplane tickets, car rentals, gigantic phone and restaurant bills and, at times, equipment that was not needed, such as two light bags or two pairs of boxing shoes, two of everything. Bonavena usually took the extra bag or pair of shoes back to Buenos Aires with him. Compounding the bilking, the doctor, blinded by his dream of boxing prominence, seldom received his one-third of Bonavena's purses. Bonavena always pleaded insolvency. Goldberg, of course, remained his rooter. Who could tell? Bonavena might just be the next heavyweight champion of the world. Eventually, even Goldberg had to share his dream. He sold part of his action—which was nothing—to a syndicate composed of a stripper, a jockey and assorted others.
"Nobody had to do any selling," says one member of the syndicate. "Everybody wanted a piece of Oscar."
The syndicate, like Goldberg, Singer and everyone who has ever come in contact with Bonavena, came up mostly empty, too. It was later disbanded.
Wolfgang Mueller has had much more success with Mildenberger. He has cut up a number of excellent purses with his fighter, but Mildenberger's days in boxing are numbered now. Like Bonavena, he was in the tournament on the strength of his rating, which was an egregious error in judgment. His ability has long been suspect, and he, as well as Bonavena, has succeeded in tarnishing the tournament, which surely will gain momentum as it progresses. Charitably, let it be said that when you are lining up an eight-man tournament the fighters have to come from somewhere. This pair just happened to be the most incompetent.
Mildenberger was not particularly rankled by his defeat, and this is not surprising. He is an emotionless, pleasant man who is not warmly embraced by the Germans. They call him a spiessb√ºrger, which translated means square. He behaved naturally after the fight. He went up to his boardinghouse in K√∂nigstein on top of the Taunus Mountains, where a man who described himself as a panther roaming on a dark night is said to have stopped once and dined. The house and the mountains were enveloped by a Wagnerian mist. Inside, the kitchen was filled with dark, hanging hams and wine bottles and the dining room was quiet and dimly lit. Mildenberger ate and then went to bed. As for Bonavena, he may still have been in his dressing room, sitting there naked, scratching figures on a piece of paper.