By Ezra Salkin on April 4, 2012
“People who think they’d have nothing in common with someone like me,” says Bozic, “and then all of a sudden, I’m reciting Emily Dickenson…”
“The road is all, the end is nothing.”—Bob Bozic quoting Willa Cather over the phone
Entering his 1973 bout with fast rising heavyweight Larry Holmes, Bob Bozic, 23 years old and 12-1 going in, was pretty hardboiled. He’d endured countless rounds sparring with his friend, rugged Canadian contender George Chuvalo. Known for his fights with Muhammad Ali, Joe Frasier, and George Foreman, Chuvalo had smashed Bozic’s nose at least five of the nine times it was broken. Nevertheless, when Holmes, 4-0 at the time, broke Bozic’s nose eight seconds into their bout with the first of his vaunted jabs, Bozic realized Holmes was a black cat unlike any Bozic had ever been thrown in with. Bozic went on to lose a six-round decision.
This anecdote would probably be of more interest to boxing fans than the fact that the now 61-year-old Bozic is a weekend bartender at Fanelli’s Café—the famous boxing pub located at the corner of Prince and Mercer streets in Soho, New York. The same could likely be said about Bozic spending most of his time outside of the bar in his Brooklyn apartment—reading or maybe sitting in on classes in Mandarin at Columbia University. Given his background, that is, as he puts it, somewhat “unexpected.”
Although the Holmes bout could be seen as the pinnacle of Bozic’s boxing career, it’s undeserving of more space than the other weighty aspects of his character, as evidenced—and at least partially chronicled—in a January 20th profile in The New Yorker. It’s not exactly The Ring; though Bozic’s time in the sport may shed enough light to help explain everything else. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, friend to the iconic 1920s prizefighter, Gene Tunney, once said, “There is no sport which brings out the difference in character more dramatically than boxing.”
Not only is former boxer Bozic an enigmatic conversationalist, he’s an intimidating interviewee, and not for the reasons you’d expect from an ex-heavyweight who’s had his imposing-sized hands muddied in underworld activity. I could never anticipate, through his throaty voice and an accent that somehow sounds both Canadian and Brooklyn, what the ex-pug might wallop me with next. I imagine his customers at Fanelli’s must have a similar experience.
“What do you know about India?” he asked me early in our dialogue. “Most people don’t know anything about it, other than it’s a place. Do you know they have nuclear weapons? Do you know that Pakistan also has nuclear weapons? Do you know that they’re enemies?”
To soak up some of the piquant details of Bozic’s teenage circumstances requires slapping the reader with an extra-soggy piece of pub-grade bread. Prior to ever entering a prize ring, Bozic was living in Toronto, a vagrant by choice. The estranged-son-of-a-wealthy-illustrious-Serbian-engineer-who-fled-from-Yugoslavia-to-Canada-with-his-family-on-a-skiff-to-escape-Nazi-arms-conscription-during-the-Second-World-War, a hungry-looking Bozic was one day picked up on the side of the road. His sympathetic picker-upper was a gangster bookie. Bozic was eating a bag of chips at the time. (Today, Bozic’s father’s former mansion is the Serbian Democratic Headquarters.)
The man took Bozic to a Greek eatery he owned, called Ciro’s; out of the back, he operated a bookmaking operation. It was this encounter that eventually led Bozic into a boxing gym owned by the same man and, in one of Bozic’s many lives, into The Easton Assassin’s crosshairs: that would be the Lansdowne Athletic club in Toronto’s dilapidated West End. It also led him into the world of underhand dealings. Here, he met Chuvalo.
Despite Bozic’s former pugilistic tour, and his current indirectly pugilistic-related-job (Fanelli’s, originally founded in 1840, was owned by a small-time fighter of that name from 1920-1982), all of this boxing stuff seems to Bozic of little consequence. “I have no real interest in boxing anymore,” he says, though a poster-sized photograph of a nasty Holmes punching a wincing Bozic in the mouth still hangs in his Brooklyn apartment. He also still hits the heavy bag.
The only true thing worth pursing in life, Bozic says, is not a title, but one’s own curiosity. Apparently, Bozic is no longer curious about boxing. It’s nothing personal; he doesn’t really watch sports in general anymore, he admits. The whole thing as he puts it is ruined by too many commercials. Bozic doesn’t own a TV, so any watching he does, happens at the bar without sound.
Bozic’s boxing career spanned 1970-1977; he compiled a record that, according to BoxRec, was 14-3 (7 KOs), though Bozic says that’s not accurate. His actual record, he says, is something like 22-3. “Truthfully, I didn’t follow it too closely.”
When the same sport so popular in the 1950s is carried by two stars (Pacquaio and Mayweather), it’s just not the same anymore, he says. “In the ‘60s, everyone knew who the middleweight champ was. Today, I couldn’t tell you, let alone one of the girls at the bar.” Boxing, he says, is not as much about fighting anymore as it is about the stars.
“It’s become just an event, just like everything else”; in other words a reflection of our celebrity-and-media-obsessed culture.
Bozic has never seen Pacquaio or Mayweather fight. “I’ve seen De La Hoya fight twice, maybe.” How about the heavyweights, the division where Bozic campaigned? What about the Klitschkos? “I’ve seen them both fight maybe once on tape.”
Of all the people Bozic has known and encountered in the fight game, he speaks most often and fondly of Chuvalo. “George always came to fight and always made you fight. He was the portal. If you were a serious fighter in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you had to beat George.”
On August 4, 1970, Chuvalo fought and lost to George Foreman by TKO at Madison Square Garden. On the same card, a 19-year-old Bozic made his MSG debut, defeating Brian O’Melia.
Bozic recounts, afterwards, while walking down Broadway on that sultry and starry night, people exiting storefronts and restaurants and congratulating him on his fight. Little did Bozic know that he was about to lose his virginity to two girls in a ménage à trois. “I was terrified,” he admits.
While earlier that night, Chuvalo was stopped on his feet, refusing to go down under the weight of the historically-heavy, raining shots of Foreman, Bozic found himself faced with the opposite problem. “I couldn’t get it up,” he says unabashedly. For Bozic, that was the most nervous moment of the entire bruising and tumultuous night. Fortunately, things eventually looked up for the inexperienced slugger.
Bozic remembers his elation when, at 16 or 17 years old, one snowy day in Toronto, Chuvalo said, “Hi Bob,” as he left the gym as Bozic entered.
“He knew my name?” Bozic says, still amazed. “He was like an icon.”
Within a few weeks, the two were sparring. While at first this prospect seemed to Bozic a dream come true, he soon learned the downside of constantly being on the fringe of dreamland. It wasn’t long before Bozic was saying to his handlers, “Oh my God. I don’t feel like fighting George today.”
According to Bozic, sparring Chuvalo, whom he idolized for his brutal style, was a “pulverizing experience.”
“We had a lot of wars. We would just punch each other.” The punches, he says, would “punctuate and permeate the air.” Sometimes the fighters’ handlers would leap up from their craps game, feeling it necessary to separate the two—who were now friends.
“And we’d never talk about it after,” Bozic says proudly.
What was it, other than the influence of Chuvalo, that attracted the intellectually malleable youth to such a crude fighting style in the sport we call the sweet science?
For Bozic, a self-described exile—who was sent from home to home before deciding on his own he’d rather live on the cold Toronto streets—by fighting like that, his fists forged for him something that he desperately sought: an identity.
When Chuvalo knocked out contender Jerry Quarry, one of the sport’s brightest stars in the greatest era of American heavyweights, in December 1969, Bozic was Chuvalo’s main sparring partner. “I was very proud that I helped get him ready for that fight.”
Bozic and Chuvalo are still in touch, but only talk occasionally. Chuvalo, never knocked off his feet in a professional fight, lost three sons and a wife in what can be summed up as a nearly insurmountable barrage of heroin addiction and suicide. Today, he tours high schools warning about the devastation drugs wreak on teens and their families.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting people in my life, but I am proud to have known this type of man,” Bozic says of his old friend. “Life is a race. George has direction now, but at what cost?”
Other historic heavies that Bozic remembers getting whacked around by and sometimes whacking back in sparring include Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Oscar Bonavena.
While sparring Chuvalo was a “pulverizing experience,” sparring Frazier was a “terrifying one,” though their time in the ring together was brief—“maybe two times, two rounds each time.” Frazier, says Bozic, was a hard mound of blue-collar intensity, almost machine-like. According to Bozic, Frazier wouldn’t talk and would barely acknowledge that you were even there. “When the round would end, he’d just turn around right away and walk back to his corner.”
As for Norton, “He didn’t like me,” Bozic says. “I don’t know why…Maybe it was because I didn’t show him much respect in there. He’d get the better of me, but I’d still push him around and put him in the corner. But he was very good. Very awkward to fight.”
Of Bonavena, Bozic says that he, Bozic, must have been good enough that the Buenos Aires fighter felt it necessary to dig deeper into his skill set than he wanted in sparring. “He would feel he needed to do things to let me know not to get too cute with him in there.”
Another heraldic heavyweight with whom Bozic had the fortune of crossing paths was Jack Dempsey; albeit in Dempsey’s restaurant, of course, not the ring. Bozic’s managers would sometimes meet with others in the fight game at Jack Dempsey’s, located on Broadway between 49th and 50th Street, before it closed in 1974. Dempsey would sit quietly with the men while they ate.
“I was like 20 and I’d be there hanging out with guys who were in their 60s,” Bozic says, “just listening to their stories.” Ironically, of all those at the table, Dempsey, an old man by then, was the least interesting. “He was very polite but he’d hardly say a word. I think it was because for years he’d have to sit in that restaurant and talk about boxing to people he didn’t know. I think he was tired of talking about Gene Tunney. And his voice was very high, almost feminine; most people don’t know that.”
Bozic may have lost his interest in boxing, but perhaps the ex-fighter who, judging by his impressive bookshelf, beholden of revolutionary thinkers and movements—“Have you read Voltaire?” he asks me—has developed a taste for MMA?
“MMA,” he repeats back, and for the first time Bozic, so voluble on so many other topics, struggles for words. “I’ve seen it a couple of times, I find it—weird. It looks like a combination of wrestling and boxing—actually, I don’t know what it looks like.
“I just don’t think those guys know how to throw a punch. If George Foreman punched you without a glove, he’d break your jaw. If I hit you without a glove, even now, I’d break your jaw,” he says, after asking how much I weigh. Bozic concludes his summation by saying, “George Chuvalo may have lost to Joe Frazier in a boxing match, but you couldn’t beat him in a fist fight. No one could…”
I ask Bozic what are some lessons one can learn only in the ring versus lessons one learns operating a bar like Fanelli’s.
In the ring, he says, the most valuable lesson is “you can always turn it around. It’s never over until it’s over.” To illustrate that point, he referenced his bout with Holmes: “He beat the hell out of me, right? But in the third round, I think it was, the same round I had my teeth knocked out, I hit him with a left hook and then I hit him with another.” Teddy Brenner, the owner of Madison Square Garden, told Bozic later that, at that moment, Bozic was one more left hook from putting Holmes down. “But then, you know what, Holmes turned it around again. He hit me with some very good punches and retook control of the fight.”
Brenner told Bozic, “If you have as much courage in life as you do in the ring, you’ll do alright.”
When it comes to lessons he’s learned working at a place like Fanelli’s, Bozic is less hopeful.
“People are fucking miserable,” he says.
Even back in his fighting days, it seems, Bozic’s head was in the clouds. While training in New York, Bozic spent as much time reading and hanging out at the Museum of Modern Art as he did fighting. His handlers, he says, turned a blind eye to these strange proclivities that seemed at odds with who they thought he was. Stranger still, Bozic’s love for opera was even more perplexing.
In 1980, Bozic was caught robbing a bank. As it turned out, Bozic was armed with nothing more than vague bluffs and also a conciliatory pair of tickets to Oklahoma. Those were meant to assuage any duress caused to the tellers. “It was my way of saying, I’m not robbing you, I’m robbing the bank…I don’t like banks.” Because of the minimal threat Bozic actually posed, at least on that occasion, he was lucky to get off with only probation—though he says when he saw the guys with the “hockey masks” rushing him he was prepared to spend the next few years finally catching up on his Dickens—“along with eating a lot of bad fruit.” According to The New Yorker article, when asked why he did it, a friend said he was depressed because he had no one to go to the opera with.
After his fights, while everyone else was partying, Bozic would take off for Europe “to keep life real.” All told, Bozic lived in Spain, France, Germany, and England. In Ibiza, Spain, he stayed with a woman, who at 50 was almost twice his age. He spent his time hanging out in cafes, talking literature and philosophy with writers and artists. Sometimes he’d disappear for months at a time. Needless to say, his handlers, back in the States, were not happy.
“I realized I was never going to be that good,” he says. It wasn’t, however, strictly a talent issue; it was also a management one. Holmes, who had originally been Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner, not only had the talent, he was the beneficiary of top management and top sparring, getting ring work with guys like the murderous punching Earnie Shavers.
“They knew there was money to be made with him. My guys were more of the old-school Italian bookmaker types of the 1950s,” he says, meaning their time had passed. Bozic wasn’t learning anymore. “I lost my desire to win.”
One fight in particular also sank the message into his gut that it was time to leave. In this fight, Bozic was cut up, had his jaw cracked, and ribs busted. “And I won that fight!” he exclaims. “I won that fight!”
At his victory party Bozic drank through a straw. He spent the rest of the night lying in a friend’s bathtub, vomiting and fearing that if he fell asleep he might not wake up.
Bozic took himself to the hospital the next day. “It wasn’t like the ring doctor cared.”
The downside to Teddy Brenner’s remark regarding Bozic’s in-the-ring courage is illuminated by this truism, courtesy of the late Angelo Dundee. “He said to me: ‘Sometimes you want to be a little afraid.’ If I had three or four more fights like that we wouldn’t be here talking.”
Chuvalo told Bozic that if he stayed dedicated, he had the potential to someday crack the top-ten and maybe make some money. “But who knows how much damage I’d have.”
So…Bozic threw his final fight, to get out of the business and away from his handlers, who undoubtedly would’ve wanted him to continue. “I didn’t go down, but I stood there and let the guy hit me so the ref would stop the fight. It was the second round, I think.”
This move, Bozic says—and for the first time in our long conversation, he sounds slightly ashamed—makes it into his top three most regretted life decisions. “I’m not embarrassed, because I’m embarrassed,” Bozic says. “I’m embarrassed because I embarrassed my first manager. He didn’t deserve that.” (However, of his managers of his final fight, Bozic says, “They’re dead to me.”)
After retiring from the ring in the late ‘70s, Bozic lived for awhile in the Middle East where he drove flatbed trucks containing auto parts and old sewing machines from Istanbul to Afghanistan. For more anecdotes from that period of his life, Bozic says, “Wait for the book.”
Bozic doesn’t seem to think of his life as a series of contradictions, while even today at the bar, people are surprised to learn he’s more than just a lug.
“People who are bright don’t put others in a box when they meet them,” he says. “Teachers and writers come into the bar, people who think they’d have nothing in common with someone like me, and then all of a sudden, I’m reciting Emily Dickenson.”
Contemplating the matter further, however, Bozic confesses tat he does have a habit of purposely setting people up to underestimate him. “It’s a strategy—a survival mechanism. But it’s a game, too. I like pulling the rug out from under people.”
This particular trait appears to have been inculcated from his time hanging with the bookies. “When people underestimate you, they become careless around you. When people are careless around you, you can circumvent them. Unfortunately, I’ve been in the position where I’ve had to do that.”
Asked if he prefers the company of the cultured over those who run in the rougher crowd, he has to ponder a minute.
“Generally, I think, I have more to talk about with people who are lucid enough to explore their curiosity,” he says abstractly. “But someone who’s had their head stuck in books all their life hasn’t really lived. It’s rare that you find that special person who’s a mix. My daughter Vesna once asked me, ‘How do you become an interesting person?’ I told her, you don’t become an interesting person, you become an interested person.” Taking a breath, he adds, “I like people who have experienced things but use books or other vehicles to analyze and interpret what they’ve gone through. That’s what I do.”
“Every man is a different world,” Bozic says, quoting, Jean-Paul Sartre, before correcting me on the pronunciation of the French existentialist’s name—though I wasn’t able to verify the quote.
Nevertheless, Bozic’s willing to admit that the people he hung around with from the fight game were, in many ways, wiser with more practical sense than many of the philosophical types he spends time talking with today—although, those guys, he says, probably make better conversationalists. But the bookies, or “wiseguys,” were more accepting of fate and—practically speaking—chance. Ironically, it was they who taught him about morality; still the topic that continues to interest Bozic above all others. “Morality, ethics, and justice,” that is.
“Do I bore you,” he asks, not a minute later.
At Fanelli’s, Bozic gets a “sprinkling” of both crowds and today, in a lot of ways, he keeps himself culturally isolated from both. “I like to say, there’s me behind the bar: everything and everyone in front of me is just a fog.”
Looking for a meaningful bow with which to wrap up his story, Bozic tells me. “I’ve lived a pretty pointless life. If you’re interested in getting something out of karma, then your integrity is corrupt.”