On the (root) beer for Dunne's world title bout


AMERICA AT LARGE:Bernie LaFratta was what might be described as a boxing bottom-feeder, and he had his fingers stuck into a lot of pies

I FIRST met Bernie LaFratta, who died at 74 in Florida this past Saturday, in September of 1980, at the Stanhope Arms in Gloucester Square. Those of us who were in London to cover Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s challenge to middleweight champion Alan Minter that autumn had adopted the East Kensington saloon as our local, and for the better part of a week it functioned as Fight Central.

As he was whenever he was immersed in a boxing milieu, Bernie was in his element. He was what I suppose might be described as a boxing bottom-feeder, and he had his fingers stuck into a lot of pies that week.

He had helped Bob Arum put together the deals for European television, and of course he was the US representative for the Italian promoter Rodolfo Sabbatini, who was Arum’s partner in middleweight title fights back then. He had even wangled himself a position working alongside former champion Vito Antuofermo on the Italian-language telecast.

Not only were all of these things Bernie enjoyed doing, but in this particular instance he was well-acquainted with the people he’d be working with and for, so there was a reasonable chance that for once he was going to get paid without having to chase anybody down.

So for several days and several nights we hung out at the Stanhope, with an occasional foray across the river to the Thomas a Becket pub, where Minter was training, and in the immediate aftermath of the fight it had been Bernie, who had memorised the route, who guided me, Antuofermo and a couple of stateside boxing writers to safety in the dressingroom as beer bottles exploded all around us, the residue of the ugly skinhead riot that attended that evening’s denouement.

It’s a good thing Bernie loved boxing as much as he did, because he was never going to get rich at it. He lived in Orlando, the only major city in Florida with no boxing tradition whatsoever. Periodically he scraped together enough dough to promote a show of his own there, and invariably lost his shirt when he did.

In 1981, in concert with Sabbatini and New York boxing agent Johnny Bos, he staged another of his brainstorms, “a night of Italian-American boxing” at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. Sabbatini brought in Nino LaRocca from Rome and Patrizio Olivio from Naples, and Bos got Staten Island lightweight John (The Heat) Verderosa to headline the card, but despite their best efforts LaFratta once again lost his shirt.

I ran into him from time to time over the years, but the last time I got a chance to spend much quality time with Bernie was in Dublin a half dozen years ago. Brian Peters had wanted for some time to put Bernard Dunne in a world title fight in Dublin, but since there were no actual world titles available, he had reached out to a dummy organisation called the “International Boxing Council”. The IBC was based in Florida, and in the entire spectrum of fraudulent sanctioning bodies its credibility ran dead last.

It had been founded a few years earlier by Miami nonagenarian Marty Cohen, who deliberately came up with a name whose initials would conjure up images of Frankie Carbo’s old International Boxing Club.

Marty held no particular affection for the mob, but in his mind the sport had never functioned as efficiently since the Kefauver Commission put the original IBC out of business, and moreover, the hint of danger inherent in the name might even prove beneficial should one of his clients try to double-cross him by reneging on an agreement to pay an IBC sanctioning fee.

That was the theory, anyway. The truth of the matter is that anther company named IBC manufactured a particularly tasty brand of root beer, so American boxing folk, when they referred to them at all, often described Marty’s belt-holders as “Root Beer Champions”.

Marty Cohen had died, at 99, five years earlier, leaving the IBC in the hands of his 78-year-old son Sam and Bernie LaFratta. Thus it was that in October of 2005, in his role as the IBC “supervisor”, Bernie stepped off a plane at Dublin airport bearing a pair of handsome cases containing the root beer versions of the superbantamweight and middleweight championship belts, Bernie having presumably made Peters an offer he couldn’t refuse by coming up with an extra trinket.

The posters for the fight card at the National Stadium duly advertised the historical implications of two Irishmen fighting for world titles. Irish boxing audiences could at the time be quite gullible, but it is doubtful anyone there that night, with the possible exception of Marty Morrissey, actually believed Dunne’s fight against Sean Hughes and Jim Rock’s v Alan Jones were for bona fide world titles.

The atmosphere at the stadium was nonetheless quite electric.

Dunne was undefeated, Hughes a malnourished little fellow from Pontefract who had tuned up for the “title” fight by battling to a draw with the notorious Peter Buckley (career record: 32-256-12) a few months earlier.

Hughes appeared absolutely terrified, and Bernard Dunne dispatched him inside two rounds.

Alan Jones displayed slightly more resolve, but was outpointed over 12 rounds by the Pink Panther.

For all of its artistic shortcomings, I wouldn’t have missed that card for the world. It gave me one last chance to catch up with my old friend LaFratta, and for a few nights, anyway, we were able to turn the clock back 25 years and turn the local pub into a Tallaght version of the Stanhope Arms.

Requiescat in Pace, Bernie.