Frankie DePaula’s match up with Bob Foster, the light heavyweight champion of the world was perhaps the most improbable match up between a club fighter and dominant world champion until, well, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. (I will conveniently ignore ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’s’ bout with ‘The Louisville Lip’.) Just two years earlier, at the beginning of 1967, Frankie had been classified as a ‘Class D’ Band fighter by boxing’s ‘Bible’, The Ring, and appeared content and comfortable with his neighbourhood celebrity status. Fighting –in the ring that is- was something he did when he needed a few extra bucks.
Then Frankie’s manager Patty Amato dies and Gary Garafola, who ran the Rag Doll Club where Frankie worked on occasion as a bouncer, becomes his manager. The deal was this: If Frankie could ‘straighten’ himself out by training harder and cutting out, or shall we say, cutting down on the booze and chasing the ladies, Gary would get him fights at the Garden and Frankie could say bye-bye to the off the beaten track venues in New Jersey and New England that he’d seemingly settled for.
So while Frankie almost grudgingly sets about developing a new found work ethic; albeit that he splashes water from Lincoln Park’s fountain -after hiding in the bushes- in an attempt to affect a vigorous work out, Garafola and the curmudgeonly Al Braverman get him the bouts at the Garden. Although he is taken down by Charlie ‘The Devil’ Green in a brief but memorable shoot-out, there are impressive wins over Rocky Rivero and ‘Irish’ Jimmy McDermott. His handlers take a chance and pit him against an aging legend: Dick Tiger. Both are up and down like yo-yos (two knockdowns apiece) before Tiger wins the decision.
BUT here’s the funny thing: the bout with Tiger had been announced as an elimination for the light heavyweight title. What they didn’t tell the people was that the winner would be eliminated. The Garden decided to match Frankie with the champion, Bob Foster. This actually made a lot of sense. Tiger had been brutally mowed down by Foster’s rapier-like combinations the previous May and a rematch would do scant business.
Frankie on the other hand would be big business for the Garden. “I’d like to see more of that Frankie DePaula”, the venerable but shrewd director of boxing at the Garden, Harry Markson said to his publicity men the day after the fight with Charlie Green. The merry band of Frankie’s supporters were not limited to the Hudson County area but had spread to places like Scranton and Philadelphia from where the Garden would arrange for specially chartered bus loads of support.
The disparity in experience between Frankie and Foster was palpable. Foster had fine-tuned his skills during a lengthy period as an amateur and although he didn’t prove to be adept at handling heavyweights on the occasions he stepped up from his division, he was already shaping up to be, in the eyes of the scribes, one of the all-time greats.
Certainly, he was good enough to be avoided by champions like Willie Pastrano and Jose Torres. Contrast this with Frankie, by the time of the match no higher than a Band B fighter. In other words, well outside of the top ten class of contenders. While Frankie had been the light heavyweight Novice Division Golden Gloves champion for New York in 1962, he hadn’t had the sort of ‘learning-the-trade’ type amateur background involving successive national and international competitions. And his professional career had been disrupted by a spell at the Hudson County jail and was not helped by his many extra-curricular distractions.
Still, one thing Frankie had was his knockout power. He could knock anyone dead in the ring. Frankie of course, had already had possibly a thousand knock outs in and around his neighbourhood. The plan of attack was to crowd Foster and turn it into a street brawl and his handlers worked a lot on his psychology by frequently referring to his prowess as a street fighter.
Of course, this would not be enough to bridge the gap with a man of Foster’s pedigree and he appeared to train earnestly at his camp in Grossingers up in the Catskill Mountains. He was upbeat in his pronouncements in the build-up and confidently predicted an upset victory in his favour; sort of like the victory his friend Joe Namath had predicted for the New York Jets in their Inter-Conference Championship confrontation just days before he would fight Foster.
But it was a different Frankie who appeared at the weigh-in on the day of the bout. Trainer Braverman in later years would reveal that Frankie was virtually shitting himself. The plan according to Braverman was that at his prompt, a squeeze behind Frankie’s neck, Frankie was to tell Foster: “I’m gonna knock you out you mutt”. The first squeeze brought about a barely audible mumble from Frankie and the second one nothing.
The bout itself brought not just the Jersey rooting section but a host of celebrities many of who had come to root for Frankie. His friends Frankie Valli and Joe Namath were ringside as was Frank Sinatra; Hoboken-born but claimed by Jersey City, Jimmy Rosselli and Lou Monte.
After scoring a flash –and hotly disputed- knockdown of Foster, Frankie proceeded to hit the canvas on three occasions. The ‘fight’ was ended after the last one on account of the Three Knockdown Rule operating in New York State.
While some had found the making of the bout ‘funny’ in the first place, many more found it even ‘funnier’ after it had taken place; as Red Smith would write “as in funny peculiar and funny ha-ha”.
The hints that ‘funny business’, or more to the point dirty work was at play, began right after the bout. If boxing in the public’s perception was a murky and tawdry world inhabited by gangsters and shysters, a cursory look at the handlers of the participants gave credence at least of the potential for foul play.
Gary Garafola was a front man for the Mob. The man who ‘shadow managed’ him during his career as a pro-boxer in the 1950s, James Napoli (AKA ‘Jimmy Nap’), a caporegime in the Genovese family, actually owned The Rag Doll and by extension Frankie. Also, in there were the leaders of the Genovese mob based in Hoboken. Foster’s backers were no choirboys either. Morris ‘Mushkey’ Salow, his manager, was a loan shark from Washington D.C. and he’d sold a part-interest on Foster to Joe Nesline, the Mob-czar of the capital city.
No evidence of collusion between both parties exists. Indeed, a typically fixed bout would have had the underdog (Frankie) upset the betting favourite (Foster). But what if the deal was a one-way transaction solely involving Team Frankie? What if the plan was for Frankie, club fighter no doubt but a resilient type capable of taking shots, to unexpectedly go down in the first round and some people in the know bet heavily on this scenario?
This is precisely what Joe Coffey, part of a joint FBI-NYPD task force that had been monitoring Napoli, claims to have happened. The bugs he’d planted at a Manhattan restaurant later on that night picked up Frankie telling Garafola who had asked him for change to give the hat check girl “I scored today man. All I got is hundreds”. He hadn’t been to the races that day. His purse money had not yet been released to him and he’d blown all the money earned from the Dick Tiger fight at the gambling tables of the Sands Hotel three months earlier.
Not that this will convince many boxing people. Frankie didn’t have to do a ‘tank job’ because he had simply been overmatched. Sure he might have had a chance with his phenomenal punching power, but he got the jitters when he knew what he was up against in Foster and blew his chance.
Stories abound. But one thing is clear: Frankie would be dead before the end of the following year. Between the Foster fight and his death would be the indictments for stealing copper and for perjury in relation to the fight-fixing allegations. There would be a trial for the alleged hijacking and a suspension imposed by the New York State Boxing Commission. Finally, there was the gruesome demise at the Jersey City Medical Center.
Why was Frankie shot? For his dalliance with the step-daughter of a mafia kingpin? For giving up information related to the copper heist? For becoming embroiled in a narcotics deal gone wrong? A combination of the above?
The New York District Attorney badly wanted Frankie’s testimony and the devise of indicting him alongside a man like James Napoli while serving as a ploy to get such testimony, may also have sealed his fate. In the annals of organised crime, the receipt of an invitation to an interview following a Grand Jury indictment led to the deaths of many.
Somewhere deep down inside the dark labyrinth of reasons for Frankie’s shooting lies the spectre of his match with Bob Foster.