Fighting Irish: John Clohessy et al.

By Robert Mladinich on April 18, 2016
Fighting Irish: John Clohessy et al.
With all that he’s experienced, John Clohessy is a man at peace with himself and his past.

John fought pro, Michael is a decorated NYPD detective, Pat is an engineer, and Jimmy is a retired corrections officer…

Onetime journeyman heavyweight John Clohessy from the Bronx, New York, remembers his bout with future heavyweight title challenger Chuck Wepner more vividly than any of his other 21 fights, nearly all of which occurred in the New York metropolitan area between 1970 and 1980. 

Their 10-round bout took place in December 1972 at a high school in Wepner’s hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey. Going into the fight, Clohessy was well aware of Wepner’s hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for being one of the sport’s most rugged practitioners.

The 6’5” Wepner, whose nickname was “The Bayonne Bleeder” for his propensity to bleed as if stabbed with a shank, is the subject of an upcoming film called “The Bleeder,” where he will be portrayed by Liev Schreiber.

“I wasn’t intimidated by him at all,” said Clohessy, who is 6’2” and fought at around 215 pounds. “He was a big guy who jabbed at you, then got you in a headlock and rabbit punched you. He thumbed me in the eye and hit me in the throat and in the nuts.”

During one clinch, Clohessy pulled Wepner close and asked him why he was purposely hitting him low. He remembers Wepner saying he was sorry, just as Clohessy retaliated with a punch that was thrown with all of the strength that he could muster. 

Wepner recalls their fight a little differently. “He knew what to expect from me,” said The Bleeder laughingly. “Everyone who fought me did. I’ll admit to fighting a little dirty, but I never apologized to an opponent.”

Regardless of what the truth is, Clohessy, who is now 68, harbors no ill will toward Wepner. He says that long after their fight he would often encounter him during summers at the Jersey Shore. They got along great.

And Wepner has nothing but respect for Clohessy. “I always loved John,” said Wepner. “He was no fancy-Dan, but he was a tough guy. He was always there, ready to fight. He was a lot like me.”

Unlike Wepner, who made it to the world stage in his 1975 title bout against Muhammad Ali and subsequently became the muse for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” character, Clohessy was more of a local icon.

Along with four brothers and two sisters, he grew up in the Castle Hill housing projects in the Bronx. His father was a police officer in the South Bronx’s 41st Precinct, which was then known as Fort Apache because of its runaway crime epidemic. 

Nearly all of the Clohessy brothers fought in the NYC Golden Gloves, but John was the only one to win the tournament when he garnered the heavyweight sub-novice crown in 1970. Several months later, he turned pro while his brothers embarked on their own unique careers.

Robert, is a reliable, successful and recognizable character actor who has appeared on such television series as “Hill Street Blues,” “Oz,” and “Blue Bloods.”

He has also been in many films, including “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and he appeared on Broadway as one of the “Twelve Angry Men.”

Michael is a decorated NYPD detective, Pat is an engineer, and Jimmy is a retired corrections officer. 

The same year that John turned pro, he also joined the New York City Sanitation Department where he hoisted trash in the South Bronx, not far from where his father had kept the peace a few years earlier.

Besides beating a popular local rival named Brian O’Melia three times, Clohessy squared off against an NYPD cop named Tony Gagliardo at the fabled Sunnyside Gardens in Queens in June 1971. At the stake was what the promoters were calling the Civil Service Heavyweight Championship.

“That was a wild night,” said Clohessy, who won a 10-round decision. “They had to turn people away. My friend, Tommy Caputo, brought two metal garbage can covers which he was using as cymbals by banging them together. It was my first 10-rounder, and a night to remember.”

Clohessy, who also lost a six-round decision to Rodney Bobick at Madison Square Garden in February 1973, is proud of ring accomplishments, which resulted in a respectable career record of 14-8 (6 KOs). 

“There was a lot of honor fighting at the club level back then,” said Clohessy. “I sparred quite a bit with Floyd Patterson, which was an honor for me. He was such a gentleman.”

Clohessy was recently interviewed by filmmakers Chris Cassidy and his brother, Bobby Cassidy Jr., for a documentary they are producing about Sunnyside Gardens. Their father, Irish Bobby Cassidy, was a perennial contender in several divisions who fought there on many occasions in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Besides having a manager who he does not believe had his best interests at heart, Clohessy remembers another incident that left an indelible negative impression on him.

One day he was training at Gleason’s Gym, when it was still located in the South Bronx. In walked Oscar Bonavena, who Clohessy describes as “a really nasty kind of guy, a real beast” and “not a nice person.”

Bonavena hailed from Argentina, but was of Italian lineage. He asked Clohessy to spar with him. Gym owner Bobby Gleason interjected and volunteered another fighter who was used to working as a paid sparring partner for better fighters. Clohessy still sounds peeved when he describes what happened next.

“Bonavena really wanted to hurt this guy, who was nowhere near his level,” he said. “He almost killed the guy. I couldn’t believe it.”

One of the reasons that Clohessy might have been so sensitive to senseless violence was the fact that prior to him turning pro he had seen no shortage of battlefield carnage. After dropping out of a Colorado college that he attended on a football scholarship, he was drafted into the armed services and shipped off to Southeast Asia as a combat medic during the height of the Vietnam conflict from 1968 to 1969. 

Clohessy treated an abundance of casualties, many of whom did not survive. Besides garnering the Army Commendation Medal, Combat Medical Badge and the Bronze Star, he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder which affects him at different times in different ways.

“My platoon had heavy casualties,” said Clohessy. “The guy that replaced me was named Thomas Bennett, who was from West Virginia. Two weeks after he took over my spot, he was killed in action. He received the Medal of Honor. There are a lot of Medal of Honor winners from West Virginia. That says a lot about those people.”

Clohessy initially retired from boxing in October 1974, and then left the sanitation department two years later. He aspired to be a full-time actor, but wound up moving to upstate New York and becoming a postal worker in the early 1980s.

However, he always kept his hand in acting and editing and has appeared in “Oz” with brother Robert, as well as in the films “The Bad Lieutenant,” “Billy Bathgate,” “When Nature Calls,” “Amityville II: The Possession” and “Winter of Forever Dreams.”

He also played a character named Jawbone boxing with Jack Dempsey, who is portrayed by ex-heavyweight Randy Neumann, in an Old Milwaukee beer commercial. It was that commercial that earned him a coveted Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card.

With all that he’s experienced, Clohessy is a man at peace with himself and his past. He still lives in upstate New York with his wife Margaret, a teacher.

One daughter graduated from the State University of New York at Potsdam with a degree in biology, while the other studied art history and studio art at the University of Vermont.

Now retired from the post office, Clohessy appreciates all that is good in life rather than dwelling on the bad. Having such a positive attitude he attributes more than anything else to boxing.

“Boxing is honest,” he said. “The business of boxing is not, but the sport itself is. There is no time for prejudice or hatred. There’s no time for hard feelings. You need too much energy to survive to dwell on any of the negative stuff.”

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  1. neil buonocore 05:53am, 09/27/2016

    John and I grew up together in the projects. I have lost contact with him . Can you contact him and provide my email address to him or if you have his contact info i would appreciate it
    Neil buonocoreI

  2. peter 08:16pm, 04/22/2016

    There was a tough middleweight in the early ‘70s who fought out of Castle Hill AC. His name was Alexis Griffiths. I wonder what he’s doing now.

  3. Robbie McClelland 09:34am, 04/21/2016

    I grew up in the Castle Hill projects Along with “Johnny Clo” and his family. I was a little younger than John and mostly hung out with his brother Davey who wasn’t mentioned in the article. John and I did spend time together some when I was older and he definitely “good people”. I’m glad to hear he’s enjoying life.
    At that time Castle Hill was one of the main places to buy drugs in the Bronx.
    “The Hill” as we called the neighborhood back then claimed alot of young lives and anyone who made it out deserves praise.
    About Vietnam, about 56,000 American soldiers died in that war and too many were from the projects.

  4. Gordon Analla 12:58pm, 04/18/2016

    What a great story.  Hero, Professional boxer, and a card carrying SAG member.  And in his life he always delivered. 

  5. Eric 09:17am, 04/18/2016

    Irish…Thanks for correcting me. I remember he was somewhere far, far, away from Vietnam.

  6. Pete 09:16am, 04/18/2016

    Two stalwarts: John Clohessy and Bob Mladinich.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:12am, 04/18/2016

    Eric-“Rocky” was actually in boarding school in Switzerland paid for by his Mom’s sugar daddy at the time…better yet he is probably the first faux ass wannabe to actually have rhinoplasty done to make his beak look like a real pug’s nose.

  8. Eric 06:52am, 04/18/2016

    Oops. That’s hundreds of thousands and not “millions” of our troops died in useless 20th century wars. Sorry.

  9. Eric 06:38am, 04/18/2016

    Wepner was boxing’s version of Conrad Dobler, dirty fighter with just about zero skills, never seen a world ranked fighter that sloppy. HUGE guy with a HUGE heart but not much else, but it did carry him to a title shot. Vietnam was just another war that America had no business fighting. Millions of our troops died in 20th century wars that meant nothing to America, and it continues to this day with these bullsheet, “Wars Against Terror.” Too bad people like Dick Cheney, Dubya, Clinton,  or even Rambo aka Sly Stallone weren’t drafted. Oh that’s right, Mr. Rambo was over in Sweden at the time, Dubya was in the National Guard, Clinton was in collage, and Cheney never spent one day in the military.

  10. marvin moskowitz 06:14am, 04/18/2016

    saw him fight Tommy Clark on the under card of Patterson - Agosto… this era had many Journey men heavyweights from the Tri-State area that made for great bouts..

  11. peter 05:16am, 04/18/2016

    I remember John Clohessy fighting in The Garden. I enjoyed watching him fight, and I enjoyed reading about him in this excellent article five decades later. Clohessy was a no-nonsense rough-tough guy who gave it his all for every second he was in the ring. He certainly exemplified the veracity of the last paragraph of this article: “Boxing is honest…The business of boxing is not, but the sport itself is. There is no time for prejudice or hatred. There’s no time for hard feelings…”  You’re the man, Clohessy!

  12. NYIrish 04:59am, 04/18/2016

    Enjoyed Clohessy as a boxer in Sunnyside Gardens. Remember the Sanitmen banging the can covers together. The Clohessys came to fight.
    Also a good actor. Glad to hear you’re doing well, John.

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