Tuesday 29 March 2011

Frankie DePaula: In Memoriam

Within the lexicography of Italian-American fighting legends are illustrious figures like Willie Pep, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Marciano, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Graziano, and Joey Giardello; all at one time or another champions of their respective weight divisions during the Twentieth Century.

One name, which sadly will forever be missing from this exalted club, is that of Frankie DePaula, a New Jersey born brawling sensation of the 1960’s. That DePaula has become known as a ‘nearly man’ and ‘also ran’ if not outright forgotten in the bowels of boxing historiography is not surprising but nevertheless is lamentably nothing short of a tragedy.

Blessed with a sturdy physique, ox-like strength and paralysing power in both of his fists, DePaula was never able to maximize his God given talents and failed to impress his footprints meaningfully and deeply into the sands of boxing history for reasons that struck to the core of his character. Cruelly compounding the veneer of waste and gross underachievement is the manner of his demise. He died young and violently in circumstances that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.

He was born in 1938 on American Independence Day, to parents with Sicilian origins, in a solidly working class Italian neighbourhood in Jersey City. As a child, Frankie displayed the gamut of lifetime characteristics of precocity, stubbornness, and wilfulness. He was also cheerful, generous to a fault and possessed of a keen sense of adventure.

One day young Frankie swiped $20 from his mother’s purse, went down to a local stable and rented a horse. He proceeded to ride all over the city streets, causing a commotion which had traffic backed up for a couple of miles. When he was older, he and a friend stole a local Fire engine they found parked near his home on Duncan and Bergen Avenue and succeeded in driving it as far as Lincoln Park where they were apprehended.

While these episodes display Frankie’s propensity to frolic, they also pointed to a pattern of law breaking which would be the source of much trouble and serve to disrupt the progression of his boxing career.

As a youngster, he also demonstrated a facility for fighting. The way he told it to a New York Times correspondent before facing Dick Tiger in 1968, he discovered this talent when he knocked over a fellow classmate who failed to heed Frankie’s polite instruction to shut a window, which was letting in a draft. The schools Roman Catholic nun’s Frankie noted were most displeased and debarred him from the school until the incident was discussed with his parents.

He gravitated to New Jersey’s streets where he developed a reputation as a street fighter par excellence. One story still doing the rounds in Jersey City is about the confrontation Frankie had with three men, one of whom was a police officer who had been giving Frankie’s brother grief. DePaula quickly knocked out the first two before taking out the cop, who happened to possess a black belt in Karate.

Driving one day down a local boulevard, Frankie noticed a few thugs giving a man a thorough going over. For all his faults, Frankie had a keen sense of justice and always stood up for those whom he considered as underdogs. He put his foot down hard on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching halt and then waded in. At the end of the fracas, DePaula alone among the combatants remained standing while his erstwhile foes lay inert on the ground, gazing glassy-eyed up towards the heavens.

Gary Garafola, the man to whose aid he had come was a nightclub owner and would become Frankie’s boxing manager. Indeed, his club the Rag Doll in Union City became Frankie’s work place, that is, as bouncer and professional fighter. In April 1962, he made his debut in Totowa stopping one William McKeever by way of knockout. Frankie had possessed no grand design to be a boxer. There had being no traditions of prize fighting in his family save for his cousin Joe Curcio who in 1946 was knocked out within two rounds by the great Sugar Ray Robinson in a contest held in New York City.

He built up a steady stream of victims as well as a devoted fan base fighting at venues in Union City, Patterson and Teaneck. It spoke volumes that Frankie was able to attract such a fanatical following. The traditionally intense inter-ethnic rivalry between the White (and non-Anglo-Saxon) tribes of Italians, Irish, Jews and Poles had markedly diminished leaving not the Blacks who’s fighter’s were long entrenched as major players in the game but the Puerto Ricans as arguably the most ethnically conscious of fight fans. DePaula’s fan base where like him: blue collar and Italian.

He also cultivated a retinue of hangers-on prominent of which was one Mario the Midget whom one Madison Square Garden man recalled was so small that he had to be lifted up to be able to “piss into the urinals.” Another known as Wimpy ‘The Shadow’ Vincente was hired to trail the frequently errant Frankie. It was said that ‘The Shadow’ went about his business with special issue crepe shoes.

As a fighter, DePaula was formidable. His stocky build contributed to his great balance. He fought from an upright stance, busily twisting and feinting his way towards opponents before stepping in with chopping jab and following up with a crunching right hand. Frankie did not just stun his sparring partners and opponents he knocked them out cold.

As one boxing wag put it, he “hit harder than a winter on welfare.” There were however several factors which detracted from DePaula ever reaching his full potential. Most critical was his lack of discipline and focus. Frankie never cultivated a consistent work ethic and instead constantly dogged training, chased women and drank. While he never lacked for courage, Frankie often became disinterested whenever he failed to dispatch an opponent via the knockout route.

Then there were brushes with the law. One was serious enough to have him gaoled in 1964. In Rahway prison, he developed a friendship with Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter at who’s training camp he sparred and to whom he would bestow a lavish birthday gift of a set of antique guns. When he was released, he struggled to have his boxing licence restored and was unable to resume his career until the latter part of 1966.

He continued boxing, extending his geographical range to venues in Reading, Walpole, and Hartford until he was able to fight in New York City. Here he got a break, fighting at Madison Square Garden against one Charlie ‘The Devil’ Green. This contest pitted Frankie with a man who like him “punched like a mule” and none were surprised when it developed into a brutal punch up at the OK Corral. Frankie was stopped in round five.

Ironically, the loss proved not to be a setback. Harry Markson, the Garden’s director of Boxing did not fail to notice the swollen ranks of DePaula’s band of merry followers. Ever conscious of the need to boost attendances in an era now shorn of the annual subsidy previously granted by the Gillette Corporation and lacking in paying customers grown accustomed to seeing fights on the box, Markson informed his publicity department that he wanted to “see more of that DePaula.”

He fought several more times in New York including a knock out victory over the strong Argentine Middleweight, Juan ‘Rocky’ Rivero in July of 1968. After polishing his fists against Jimmy McDermott in September, the Garden matched him with Dick Tiger.

Already a legendary figure, Tiger ‘s last fight had being against Bob Foster to whom he had lost his world light heavyweight championship the previous May. On that night, Frankie had stood in the stands attired in his bathrobe watching Foster dispatch Tiger with a devastating combination of right uppercuts and left hooks. When they made the fight with Tiger, he prophesized that he would do the same. If Foster could do that he reasoned, “So can I.”

It so nearly came to pass. Both men used the first round to surveil the other and in the second, DePaula stepped in with a jab and a short, chopping right, which caught Tiger on his face. The severity of the blow lifted Tiger on to his heels and backwards before he landed heavily on the seat of his trunks. Legs trembling, bewildered and seemingly aged, Tiger unexpectedly gathered himself from the canvas and successfully held off Frankie’s trademark windmill flurries.

Fighting against a seasoned foe and against his own fatigue, Frankie twice had to pick himself up from the canvas in the following round. He took a vicious beating during this round and at one point looked to be on the verge of being stopped. Although he knocked Tiger over for a second time in the fourth, the point’s deficit in Tiger’s favour became larger as the former champion hurt him to the body.

Many on lookers suspected Frankie of losing interest once his opponent began to demonstrate durability. In fact, Frankie hurt his right hand when it bounced off Tiger’s head. He told his corner that he could not continue but they sent him out anyway. By the tenth, both men were so exhausted that they each failed to throw a single punch in the last half-minute. The fight, which was not covered by television, was voted as Ring magazines Fight of the Year.

Despite the loss, Frankie was given a window of opportunity. Although the Garden had built it as an elimination bout for Foster’s title, Harry Markson and his matchmaker, Teddy Brenner were both convinced that a Tiger-Foster rematch would be difficult to sell. And given DePaula’s box office pulling power a Foster-DePaula match was scheduled for January 1969.

This was Frankie’s chance to reach the summit of his profession. Yet according to his trainer Al Braverman, as belligerent and cantankerous as any figure boxing has seen, Frankie blew it before the fight had even begun. At the weigh in, Braverman claimed Frankie, at his prompting was supposed to look Foster in the eye and tell him that he would knock him out. Instead, Braverman recalled, Frankie ‘bottled it’ and muttered a few inaudible words.

When proceedings commenced, Frankie looked anything but scared, wading into Foster with a two fisted combination and flooring him within the first minute. Foster rose looking a little stunned but otherwise unhurt. They proceeded to exchange blows and Frankie tumbled over. Like Foster he took the mandatory eight count before again engaging Foster. But Frankie was caught high on the head and fell to the canvas.

He took a count and again squared up to Foster. Frankie exchange blows and then appeared to slip, more from bouncing off of Foster than from the force of any blow. Frankie got up still looking fresh but the referee approached him waving the fight over; the three knockdown rule was in effect. Frankie protested but quickly resigned himself to the loss shaking his head and punching his gloves in disgust. Teddy Brenner later referred to the fight as one of his biggest mistakes in matchmaking.

Challenging for Foster’s title was the furthest he would go. From now, Frankie’s career went into steady descent. A fight with Don Fullmer on the Dick Tiger-Nino Benvenuti under card four months later in May 1969 became a non-starter when Frankie’s boxing licence was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission.

The reason? A few days earlier, Frankie along with Gary Garafola and one Richard Phelan had being arrested by FBI agents investigating the theft of $80,000 dollars worth of electrolyte copper in New Jersey. He was also subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury looking into “betting irregularities” in the fight industry which inspite of the efforts of the Kefauver hearings was rumoured still to be in the grip of the Mafia. Some suspected Frankie of taking a ‘dive’ against Foster. Nothing however came of both matters. Charges against both he and Garafola were dropped and the Grand Jury investigation turned up nothing.

But Frankie was anything but getting lucky. After the Foster bout he fought only once, a bout in Philadelphia against one Art “Curley” Miller, which he won by a sixth round knockout. He was always a ladies man. He chased girls and they chased him. If he had a leitmotif, it perhaps would have being Dion DiMucci’s the ‘Wanderer.’ And while Frankie had taken up the trappings of a settled existence, marriage to Mary Lou and the attendant responsibility for four young children she bore him between 1962 and 1967 did not change him.

He once told Mary Lou to give him a couple of years to sort out his excesses but, knowing Frankie, that was always going to be near impossible. He got involved with a girl who turned out to be none other than the mistress of a local Mafiosi. Warnings to lay off of her went unheeded. Frankie was always a stubborn fellow.

The beginning of the end came one evening when he visited the woman’s apartment. As he approached the entrance, he noticed a message pinned to the door informing him that the bell was broken and instructing him to enter through the back. He had to pass through an alley to do this, it was while he was walking here that a figure appeared behind him and shot him at close range.

He spun round and grappled with the assailant, fracturing the gun mans jaw before collapsing on to the ground. He was taken to the hospital where doctors struggled to remove two bullets, fired from a .45 gun that had lodged in his spine. Frankie never walked again. His one hundred and eighty pound physique gradually whittled down to about a hundred and twenty. He even developed bedsores because of the neglectful care he received. This eventually proved to be his undoing; he died on September 14 1970 because of complications brought upon by pneumonia. A forgetful nurse had failed to shut a window during the night.

Gary Garafola was charged with his murder but was subsequently acquitted. No charges were ever brought against anyone else and the case is still officially unsolved. But rumours continue to abound. DePaula, the story goes, was indeed set up by somebody close to him. This person it is claimed stuck the note on the front door. The alleged assailant, a small time local hood who Frankie also knew, would meet his end in a bar shooting, while the moll at the centre of all this was also said to have being murdered some years later. As for the gangster who ordered Frankie’s murder nobody appears to know who he is or more plausibly, they are afraid of identifying him.

The ending was brutal, sad and unmercifully prolonged. While it may be true that Frankie was much too careless, much too undisciplined, much too stubborn he surely did not warrant what fate wrought. He was fun loving, had a great zest for living and went through life with a certain jouie de vivre. He was a capable fighter who pulled in the crowds because of his fighting charisma. In this way, he brought joy and excitement to a great many people who went to his contests expecting to see him knock out his opponent in his inimitably robust manner.

For those encamped within the anti-boxing brigade, this may appear to be a grotesque appropriation of the word ‘joy’ but what is boxing if not show business with blood? Frankie ought to have being a great man, acclaimed and honoured as world champions are. Alas, he fell far short of that mark and is consigned as a footnote in the records of other fighters. An unsolved murder case and an unresolved spirit, his death, just as his life, is a mangled mass of confusion.

But Frankie is still remembered: by die-hard New Jersey fans and not least by his family. On the headstone of his grave at a cemetery in North Arlington read the following words:

“To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die.”

Rest in peace, Frankie.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2001)

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