Conrad Tooker: Out of the Graveyard

By Robert Mladinich on September 14, 2017
Conrad Tooker: Out of the Graveyard
Tooker is a fixture at Dave’s Tavern, an old-school saloon in Hell’s Kitchen.(Mladinich)

“I used Conrad for speed,” said Wepner, who challenged Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title in 1975. “He was tough, durable and quick…”

Although he rarely weighed more than 185 pounds, Conrad Tooker often fought much bigger men during a pro career that lasted from 1974 to 1979.

In compiling a record of 8-7-2 (3 KOs), Tooker, who hailed from Newark and Bayonne, was a New Jersey mainstay, fighting often at the Ice World in Totowa, the Jersey City Armory, and Teamster’s Hall in Paterson.

He regularly sparred with Chuck Wepner, who was six inches taller and as much as 45 pounds heavier than the 5’10” Tooker.

“I used Conrad for speed,” said Wepner, who challenged Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title in 1975 and became the prototype for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” character.

“He was tough, durable and quick. We had good work.”

A biographical movie called “Chuck” starring Liev Schreiber as Wepner was released earlier this year. Tooker attended the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

He said that seeing the film “pulled me out of the graveyard,” meaning it reacquainted him with old friends and rekindled lots of memories that had been long forgotten. 

“I did at least a thousand rounds with Chuck,” said Tooker, who is now 65 and a fixture at Dave’s Tavern, an old-school, workingman saloon on Ninth Avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan.

“Me, Bobby Rooney and Wild Bill (Carson) went to the Catskill Mountains with him (as sparring partners). He appreciated the fact that I could last with him. I talked a lot of bleep and ran circles around him. A lot of what happened there wasn’t in the movie—which is a good thing.” 

Tooker said he pleaded with promoter Lou Duva for several years to arrange a bout between him and Wepner to take place in the month of September. Asked why he wanted to battle Wepner in a specific month, Tooker said “because Chuck was drinking a bottle of Vodka a day all summer on the Jersey Shore.”

On the day Wepner fought Ali, Tooker, who was out on bail, was supposed to surrender to federal authorities to begin a three-year prison sentence for a drug conspiracy. He showed up a few days late and eventually served his time in the Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution in Virginia.

“I was 12-0 in prison fights,” said Tooker. “I won all of them by knockout.” 

Tooker also sparred many rounds with New Jersey heavyweight Scott Frank in preparation for Frank’s 1978 victory over Wepner, in what would be Wepner’s ring finale, as well as Frank’s 1983 title challenge of Larry Holmes.

Tooker described Frank as “heavy-handed” and said he was disappointed he “didn’t live up to his potential.”

In Tooker’s only overseas bout, he traveled to England in February 1979 to take on the late Paul Sykes, 5-1-1, a career criminal who was billed as “Britain’s Hardest Prisoner.”

Sykes has been the subject of numerous documentaries and extensive media coverage in his native country.

Tooker lost a decision that he steadfastly believes he won despite long odds. He arrived in England alone and says he was picked up at the airport by an inquisitive cab driver who pestered him about his strategy for the fight.

He said he later learned the cab driver was British boxing notable Mickey Duff, who was heavily involved in the promotion.

Tooker, who was in England for a few days, says he was not provided with a training facility and two prostitutes were sent to his room on the eve of the bout to tire him out. Moreover, Tooker’s corner man, Chickie Ferrara, did not arrive in England until the day of the fight. He also said the sole arbiter of the bout was the referee, who had a clear bias toward Sykes.

“I had no idea about his (Sykes) reputation, but he was supposed to be the toughest man in prison,” said Tooker. “I went toe to toe with him, and there is no way I lost the fight. When he was announced as the winner, the crowd booed and gave me a standing ovation. The headline the next day said, ‘Sykes Booed in Glory.’”

Tooker also had memorable but otherwise losing matches against New Jersey rival Guy “The Rock” Casale and Mike “The Mad Russian” Tarasewich, who hailed from Brooklyn.

“They wanted to make him into the next Rocky Marciano,” Tooker said of Casale.

Tooker also insisted that the crowd booed when Casale was declared the winner of their December 1978 bout at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum.

“Conrad was really a middleweight campaigning as a heavyweight,” said journalist Peter Wood, a 1971 New York City Golden Gloves middleweight finalist who often trained with Tooker at Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City.

“He was thrown in with a lot of bigger East Coast heavyweight prospects and he held his own against them. That shows he was a lot better fighter than his record indicates.”

Tooker retired after the defeat by Tarasewich in April 1979, and says he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years later. Medication has made the disease manageable, and Tooker, who has a physical education degree from Essex County College, said he managed a fleet of taxi cabs for many years.

“I made more money with that than I ever did in boxing,” said Tooker. 

The now retired Tooker, whose mother was Polish and French and whose father was Irish and Italian, is immensely proud of his son Michael, 33, who has served three tours of duty in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army.

His friendship with filmmaker Nick Stagliano resulted in him getting an uncredited role in the 1999 film “The Florentine,” starring the late Chris Penn, James Belushi and Virginia Madsen, among others. It was filmed in Larry Holmes’s hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania.

Tooker has spent most of the last 30 years in the Hell’s Kitchen area, which has undergone a major transformation. In many ways, a gritty, venerable and anachronistic old pug like Tooker is a symbol of the rapidly vanishing New York.

“I liked it (New York) much better the way it was,” said Tooker, who resides in Kearny, New Jersey, but spends most days in the city. 

“I’ve been on this strip for 30 years and you can’t smoke anywhere or drink a beer on the street,” he continued. “So many of my friends are dead. Everything has changed.” 

When offered a copy of his boxing record, Tooker had no interest in seeing it or taking possession of it. Asked why, he said of his career, “It didn’t go long enough.”

There is a large boxing poster with photos of Tooker and Casale in the main event on the wall at Dave’s Tavern. Also on the poster, are photographs of Gerry Cooney and Eugene Green, who were scheduled to fight in the co-feature.   

Because Tooker is obviously well known to customers and staff, he was asked if he is ever called upon to intercede in a scuffle.

“I am 15-0 since last October,” said Tooker.

The follow-up question was obvious, but his response was not.

How is that possible at your age, when you are dealing with drunken construction workers, ironworkers or slumming yuppies revved up on Red Bull and feeling their oats? 

“I hit them behind the head,” joked Tooker. “Why wait for them to turn around? It works every time.”

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  1. Kareem N Ali 01:35pm, 11/11/2017

    Had a verbal confrontation with this disrespectful devil disrespecting a femaleNubian Bus Operator friend of mine.What he didn’t know in my challenge to him is that I was a bodyguard & friend to the Greatest Muhammad Ali well trained in the Martial Arts and South Paw Boxer Artist FOI Member of the Original Nation of Islam and with Solomon/Royall God in Person! He will apologize living or dead eventually. Ive met his type many times over in my 63 yrs on this planet earth and they never were successful in their devilish nature. They back down and respect their Father once they realize many of aboriginal so called Afro Americans are wide a wake standing on the Square!

  2. BETTY BOOP 08:21am, 10/31/2017

    I SAID SOME HARSH THINGS ABOUT CONRAD AND WOULD LIKE TO ADD THAT ALTHOUGH HE HAS CHOSEN HIS LIFESTYLE I WAS ALSO LIVING A LIFE STYLE OF SIN AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US NOW IS I RECEIVED THE FORGIVENESS AND LOVE OF JESUS CHRIST AS MY LORD AND SAVIOR AND TURNED AWAY FROM THAT LIFE, SO FAR CONRAD HAS NOT, THE FREE GIFT OF JESUS IS AVAILABLE TO ALL. I PRAY THAT CONRAD WILL TOO.

  3. Betty boop 07:33pm, 10/10/2017

    Conrad Tooker is a whore ,drug addict ,criminal and con artist and his out of the ring street fights are that of a coward who sneaks up on his prey and how you could even understand him to interview him is beyond me. He is no good through and through.

  4. Timothy Agoglia Carey 12:39pm, 09/16/2017

    @peter-I will have some more serious questions for you when you put up part four in your great series running here on Boxing.com.

  5. jim allcorn 10:11am, 09/15/2017

    Another excellent piece by Mr. Mlandinich. BOXING.COM is certainly the place to come for the most interesting articles & profiles in the sport today.
    As a 55-year-old lifelong, rabid boxing fan & former pro fighter myself, I love coming here to read about so many of the lesser known fighters who I enjoyed following so much in the back pages of THE RING magazine & in “Flash” Gordon’s newsletters & programs.

  6. peter 08:06am, 09/15/2017

    Conrad Tooker was sent to England to fight heavyweight Paul Sykes—“The Toughest Man in Prison”. Here is a link to a fascinating documentary about Paul Sykes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-J1qZPD4RD4

  7. peter 07:56am, 09/15/2017

    Wow! Look at Conrad Tooker’s hand in that photo! It looks like the claw of a pterodactyl! This article, giving us a quick peek at a former boxer, is one of Mr. Mladinich’s finest. He paints with his pen. I find it curious that Tooker wasn’t interested in looking at a copy of his boxing record. But I bet he would be interested in reading this excellent piece…I’m tempted to seek out the newspaper Tooker said reported his bout with Paul Sykes in England. I want to see that headline, ‘Sykes Booed in Glory.’ Maybe one of Boxing.com’s many readers in England can dig it up!?...Would Tooker be interested in seeing that headline again? If so, he can frame it and hang it up on the wall in Dave’s Tavern.

  8. Timothy Agoglia Carey 12:23pm, 09/14/2017

    @Robert M-You just raised the bar higher with this one!  I take it Dave’s Tavern is not gentrified at this point in time! They did everything but put liquid laxative in his water bottle over there in the UK…dirty bastards!

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