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The wild life and death of Oscar Bonavena

Thomas Gerbasi reviews Patrick Connor’s new book on the demise of Oscar Bonavena

EVEN as one of the most visible heavyweight contenders of the division’s golden age in the 1960s and ‘70s, Oscar Bonavena always had an air of mystery around him. That aura only got more mysterious when he was shot and killed at the Mustang Ranch in Nevada in 1976, dying at the age of 33.

A new book by boxing historian Patrick Connor – Shot at a Brothel (Hamilcar Publications) – does an excellent job of unraveling the wild life and death of “Ringo,” but it does leave one hanging question: How did he manage to make it alive to 33?

“It was like he couldn’t help himself from double crossing somebody,” said Connor. “It was so crazy. And I think the really difficult part though is getting to the psychology of it and why. Was he a bad guy or what was going on there? Was he misunderstood? I don’t know if I have an answer for that, but it seems crazy that he lasted as long as he did.”

It’s a story almost unique to boxing, the rough and tumble kid with physical gifts and little else going for him getting a shot at fame, fortune and a better life through his fists. In that way, Bonavena’s life took the usual twists and turns as he began his career, but once he left Argentina and hit the United States to turn pro, that’s when he began carving out a story far from typical, as Connor found out. And though keeping Bonavena’s tale to the Noir series that has become a trademark and highlight of his publisher’s release schedule was the goal all along, the author soon went down the research rabbit hole, leading to a much bigger book than the expected 123 pages.

“I thought I knew what had happened, and thought I knew more than I obviously knew, and as I started researching Oscar Bonavena’s career, so many new things popped up,” said Connor. “I started learning so many things that I couldn’t help putting down what I had learned on paper. That’s probably my downfall as a writer – I just want to tell everything. (Laughs). It’s so fun and interesting to me that I have the mistaken belief that everybody else is also going to find those little things interesting, and sometimes they’re not to other people. I wound up having to trim down a lot of the biographical stuff, but what it did was give me a greater understanding of what Oscar Bonavena’s potential motivations could be.”

It’s a testament to Connor’s abilities as a writer (and self-editor), that despite the brevity of the book, he is able to not only cover Bonavena’s rise, his 68-bout pro career and his fall, he does so with enough detail to satisfy the hardcore boxing fan as well as a casual fan or someone who picks up the book for the true crime aspect of it.

“The only thing that I wasn’t really able to get was much of the Argentine side, and that was because it is really difficult to get stuff from Argentina,” said Connor. “I think if I were writing a much longer, far more comprehensive biography, I would have done that. It’s a smaller book, and Oscar Bonavena’s career and story is just part of the overall story. That’s where Joe Conforte comes in. That was the key to this particular story, figuring out where Joe Conforte fits in, and how to go down that path. It’s like reverse engineering a story – you already know the ending. So how do you get there? That was really challenging for me, but I feel like I hopefully got it right.”

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He did, and while focusing on the parallel lives of Bonavena and the owner of the Mustang Ranch, Conforte, it’s clear that while Hollywood has delved into this increasingly bizarre story with the 2010 film Love Ranch, that fictionalised version had nothing on the real thing, which has an ending that ultimately feels inevitable.

“He was an expert at fking st up for himself, despite how many opportunities he was given,” said Connor of Bonavena, who was shot by a bodyguard while allegedly attempting to confront Conforte, who in turn believed the boxer was sleeping with his wife Sally and trying to take his business. If it sounds like a mess that no one alive knows the truth about, that’s accurate.

“These tracks were laid,” said Connor. “This was not a strange outcome based on what both of these people were getting into. When you look at their track record of the things that they were doing and the people they were getting involved with, it was a matter of time. And then you put them together, it was like, how did they even last days. It’s the kind of book where it answers questions enough that you will feel satisfied but that also leaves open enough ends that you can debate it in your mind and kind of think about stuff.”

There are so many ‘what ifs’ to the life of Bonavena, not just outside the ring, but in it. Best remembered for his 1970 bout with Muhammad Ali in which he took “The Greatest” into the 15th round before being stopped, as well as his pair of fights with Joe Frazier, the first of which he nearly won after dropping “Smokin’ Joe” twice in the second round, many believe the Argentinean might have been a champion in a different era. And, as Connor points out, fights with Sonny Liston and George Foreman were also seriously discussed, only to have Bonavena find a way to screw the deal up. So while he was past his prime at the time of his death, he was on a seven-fight winning streak and still young enough to get another big fight.

But had boxing taken something from him that he’d never get back? It’s notable that his life began spiraling out of control more than usual after the Ali fight, which ended on a series of three knockdowns after a grueling 14-plus round battle that marked Bonavena’s seventh fight of 1970. Could CTE have led to his erratic behavior and death just six years later?

“The difficulty for a lot of people is that it’s obviously a downer of a discussion,” said Connor. “It creates a lot of cognitive dissonance talking about CTE and head trauma in combat sports, and it’s the kind of thing where the discussion gets shuffled away because it’s so difficult to have. In this particular instance, I think that’s a distinct possibility because of some of the post-fight behavior that Oscar Bonavena exhibited after the Ali fight. It was like taking a guy who was already kind of poorly socialised, a guy who didn’t really have control of his impulses, but then when you potentially enter head trauma into the equation, it kicked up a notch.”

Just like his murder, we will never know the full story when it comes to the life of Bonavena, who oddly wasn’t celebrated in his home country until after his death. “I did find it kind of peculiar,” said Connor. “A really easy analogy to draw from would be Kurt Cobain. Perhaps not the best analogy because he was obviously celebrated in life too, but his popularity just skyrocketed in death. Perhaps the mystery surrounding his (Bonavena’s) death, or at least at the time what was very mysterious or sordid, added to the mystique of the guy.”

It’s quite a tale, and Connor is glad he was able to tell some of it.

“He doesn’t, in going through his story, strike me as, perhaps not a villain, but not a great guy either, and not really a hero,” said Connor. “Even from the start, it was pretty understood that this was a crazy story, a very sordid story, but I didn’t even understand how crazy and sordid until I really started getting into it,” he said. “It made it fun, but it also made it very dark, for sure.”


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