A matchmaker would have seen this pairing as a natural: Oscar Bonavena and Joe Conforte were likeminded souls with different goals. One hoped to become the world heavyweight champion and the other was a pimp and mafioso wannabe. They teamed up in Northern Nevada and the partnership quickly went south.
Most boxing followers and longtime Reno-area residents know the subjects and how their matchup ended: The 33-year-old boxer was shot dead at Conforte’s Mustang Ranch in 1976. But until now the details of Conforte’s shenanigans and how they tie in with Bonavena’s murder hadn’t been comprehensively described in a book.
Patrick Connor’s “Shot at a Brothel, The spectacular Demise of Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena” is the sixth in a series of seven “Hard-hitting true crime” novels – Hamilcar Noir – about high-profile boxers connected like turnbuckles to deadly events.
A boxing historian, Connor is a fastidious investigative reporter who explains the story in a compelling, concise style. He researched nearly 1,000 articles for his first book, which is a page turner. Hamilcar Publications asked Connor to write the book after seeing his work on the subject on his Boxing History social media.
Bonavena is the second-most famous heavyweight from Argentina, behind Luis Firpo, “The Wild Bull of Pampas,” who in 1923 knocked world champion Jack Dempsey through the ropes onto sportswriters’ typewriters in what scribe Burt Sugar called the greatest fight in the history of the sport.
Bonavena fought like a charging bull, too. He nearly defeated Joe Frazier, made Muhammad Ali appear not so great and he came closer than anybody to knocking down George Chuvalo — a grainy YouTube video indicates he probably did.
A bully and an antagonist with no compunction about using racist taunts, Bonavena is not a likable character, but his story is intriguing. His long hair – back in his day it was called a “Beatlecut” — probably is why he was nicknamed Ringo. Audacious in demands for money, he was hard to deal with. Connor reports Bonavena was the first boxer to negotiate a percentage of the television and gate revenue into his purse.
Being a free spirit who split his time between New York and Argentina made him hard to manage, which perhaps hampered his career path. Yet, he had his opportunities. In his prime he was a muscular 203 pounds, which is small for a heavyweight nowadays. But that was around the same weight as peers such as Zora Folley, Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry and Frazier.
Boxing is about matchups, a prime example being the connection between Ali, Frazier, Bonavena and Jimmy Ellis, whose short-lived reign as WBA champ ended when he was viciously knocked out by Frazier. Later, Ali made Ellis look like his sparring partner that he once was in a lopsided decision win. But Ellis put Bonavena on the canvas twice enroute to a win. Meanwhile, Bonavena gave Ali and Frazier fits. Ringo’s losses to the two legendary champions are his best-known fights.
“Smokin’ Joe” Frazier was bobbing and weaving up the ranks with 11 wins all by knockout when he faced Bonavena, who had 21-2 record. Referees were more reticent to stop a fight in this era, which used a three-knockdown mercy rule to end things. The judges’ scoring system was rudimentary. Winning a close round counted the same as dominating a round.
Bonavena decked Frazier twice early in the second round but couldn’t score a third knockdown and have the fight stopped. In modern times, Bonavena would have won the round 10-7. He ultimately lost a close yet unanimous decision.
Connor gets into the blow-by-blow accounts of Bonavena’s biggest fights and entire career. He’s diligent about reminding the reader of the myriad characters involved, and inside boxing fans will love it. It was a golden age of the sport.
Ali’s boxing style changed after a nearly four-year layoff when his title was stripped and license to fight taken away. Bonavena introduced the world to the post-banishment Ali. The pre-banishment Ali used a long reach and the fastest hands and feet in heavyweight history to rule the division. He would lean back to dodge punches, something no one else has gotten away with.
Bonavena was called clumsy and flat-footed. Yet he cut off the ring and prevented Ali to dance circles around him. The new Ali tried to tire Bonavena by holding the back of his neck. A master of improvisation, Ali in the fourth round shelled himself with his arms and tried to box on the inside. It didn’t work and the Madison Square Garden crowd booed. It was the ugliest fight in Ali’s career.
Midway through, Ali resorted to becoming a common toe-to-toe brawler, and it almost cost him the bout and the biggest purse in the history of the sport in the “Fight of the Century” with Frazier three months later. Bonavena tagged Ali several times.
Bonavena was called a wild puncher, but a better description might by unorthodox or even crafty. One of Major League Baseball’s top pitchers at the time was Luis Tiant. The Cuban right-hander would hesitate his delivery and release the ball from different angles. Batters didn’t know when, or from where, the pitches would come. Bonavena punched the same way, throwing over-the-head lefts and rights and uppercuts that sometimes landed below the belt. He always charged forward, and he was clearly a bit crazy. Boxing is about matchups and Ali hated this one.
Meanwhile, out near Reno, Joe Conforte was working his way up from a “lowlife pimp” to a “mafioso wannabe.” The red-light trailers out in the high desert sagebrush were strategically located on the borders of three counties which could easily be towed across. Eventually, Conforte figured out how to deal with those pesky laws. He had “juice in the legislature.”
Late in the book, a hero arises, a fearless and ethical Washoe County special prosecutor named Mills Lane, later known as the boxing referee who coined the phrase, “Let’s get it on.”
After Bonavena landed in Nevada, chasing down George Foreman for a potential fight, Conforte found an opportunity. Afterall, Connor writes, “boxing is sport’s biggest money-laundering operation.” A fight was scheduled in Reno and it turned out to be Bonavena’s last.
“Shot at a Brothel” is a true crime story with lots of boxing history. Picking up this book is an easy decision.
- “Shot at a Brothel, The Spectacular Demise of Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena”
- Author: Patrick Connor
- Publisher: Hamilcar Publications, www.hamilcarpubs.com
- Release: Aug. 31, 2021
- Purchase: On Amazon or anywhere books are sold
Other books in the Hamilcar Noir true crime series
‘BERSERK: The Shocking Life and Death of Edwin Valero‘
by Don Stradley
THE GHOST OF JOHNNY TAPIA
by Paul Zanon with Teresa Tapia
Foreword by Sammy Hagar
‘SLAUGHTER IN THE STREETS: When Boston Became Boxing’s Murder Capital‘
by Don Stradley
Foreword by T. J. English, author of Paddy Whacked
‘KILLED IN BRAZIL? The Mysterious Death of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti‘
by Jimmy Tobin
‘A FISTFUL OF MURDER The Fights and Crimes of Carlos Monzon‘
by Don Stradley
‘PRESIDENT OF PANDEMONIUM The Mad World of Ike Ibeabuchi‘
by Luke G. William