Joe Bugner: Never Up, Never In

By Mike Casey on May 19, 2014
Joe Bugner: Never Up, Never In
Bugner’s reputation has been curiously distorted and massaged by the passing of time.

White, blond and athletic, Bugner was a golden boy, with all the good and bad baggage that comes with that dubious classification…

In the gentler environs of the golfing world, there is a somewhat obvious but very apt aphorism for a tentative guy who can never get his putts up to the hole: Never up, never in.

As a splendidly proportioned heavyweight boxer who seemed to possess all the necessary tools to win the greatest prize, Joe Bugner was never up and never in. Psychologically shackled, for that is seemingly the only reason for his failure to be much better than he was, Bugner spent a 21-year stop-start career being a nearly man. Right to the end, he looked like a simmering giant who would finally explode and show his full talent. He never did and that was a great shame.

What was it about Joe? What was it that held him back and made him resemble a man in chains? Turning professional in 1968, the young Bugner was a constant attraction on the BBC TV network here in the UK. With no great amateur experience, he quickly looked the part and learned well under his astute and cautious manager, Andy Smith. A Hungarian refugee, Joe was good copy for newspapermen who like to tell stories of boxers who overcome adversity and a rough start in life.

He was also a good looking fellow with a sense of humor, as well as a member of the new club of bigger heavyweights like George Foreman and Mac Foster. The fading Sonny Liston no longer stood alone as a physical colossus. White, blond and athletic, Bugner was a golden boy, with all the good and bad baggage that comes with that dubious classification.

I watched all of his fights during the first phase of his career, before the blips and the comebacks, before he became older, heavier and sometimes clown-like in his ring displays and his public utterings. Throughout the whole meandering saga from 1968 to 1999, Bugner fell short. Infuriatingly so. He had it in him to win the big fights, but didn’t. More damningly, against Ali in particular, Joe never hustled like Frazier, never took it to the limit like Ken Norton, never even had an old-fashioned, damn-the-torpedoes bash at it like Chuck Wepner.

The jewel in Bugner’s crown would always remain his unfairly tainted victory over living legend Henry Cooper for the British, Commonwealth and European titles in March, 1971. The fight came just a week after the ‘Fight of the Century’ between Frazier and Ali and you could tell the difference. But while Bugner didn’t wrench Cooper’s titles from him with passion and undisputed authority, the hugely unpopular win was deserved. I agreed with referee Harry Gibbs’ reading of the fight and scored it in Bugner’s favor by the narrowest possible margin. This wasn’t a popular admission to make at the time. Our ‘Enry was a national institution and the decision provoked national outrage. ‘Enry was every man’s best pal and every mother’s adopted son. Bugner was a young whippersnapper and not even a ‘proper’ Englishman in the minds of many. The moans and the groans and the bad feeling dragged on for far too long. Cooper, in the only significant PR blunder of his career, held a long term grudge against referee Gibbs, who was one of the best in the business. The belittling of Bugner by many members of the public was thoroughly unjust and childishly narrow-minded. The spirited youngster had fought a cool and intelligent battle and there was nothing cheap or suspect about his victory.

Did Joe let the criticism and the insults get inside his head? Did not being the people’s favorite make him lose heart and dampen his desire? Bugner should have steamed on at that point, but instead he went into a hugely disappointing reverse, losing his titles before the end of the year to perennial contender, Jack Bodell. An awkward southpaw with a fragile chin, Bodell had twice been mastered by Cooper and should never have beaten Bugner.

It was a minor miracle that Bodell had got away with it for so long in compiling a very decent record against domestic opposition. Jack was always an accident waiting to happen. Cooper blitzed him in two rounds in their first meeting and Bodell was only saved from a similar fate by a timely disqualification win over Roosevelt Eddie from New York. Eddie got the first part right when he decked Bodell in the opening round, but blew his big chance after hitting Jack again while he was on the floor.

Two months after dethroning Bugner, Bodell was found out once and for all when he was crushed inside a round by Jerry Quarry. Suddenly everyone cottoned on and knew how to do it. Jose Urtain stopped Jack in two rounds and then Irish slugger Danny McAlinden did likewise and sent Jack into his retirement. Bugner, however, seemed utterly flummoxed by the Bodell conundrum and lost a wide decision. Joe looked like a man in a straitjacket and leg irons and about as fluid in his movement. You just kept wondering how it had happened.

Another future Quarry victim, Baltimore’s Larry Middleton, put a further crinkle in the Bugner career plan by winning a decision over Joe and knocking him down in the final round. Middleton was a decent boxer who had talent for sticking around and making the top contenders look ordinary. Quarry had to work hard to outpoint him in their London fight. But Larry was never more than a fringe contender in the very competitive heavyweight division of the time and his stay was a fleeting one. In his next fight after Quarry, Middleton was crushed in three rounds by Ron Lyle. You always got the feeling that Larry knew his place. Perhaps Bugner did too or imagined he did.

Saga

And so the long saga of Joe Bugner went on, with many more wins against second and third tier opponents, respectable defeats at the top level but very few thrills. Joe’s confidence level never seemed to move beyond the halfway mark and his input was similarly average. He labored and he plodded and you wondered at times if he even wanted to be there.

What was so constantly frustrating was the gut feeling that Bugner could have hit the jackpot if only he had been able to break free of his mental imprisonment and let rip. You looked at the tiger in Jerry Quarry and so wished that you could transplant it into the Herculean physique of Bugner. So rarely did Joe show us the mean streak that simmered within him, for we knew that it was there, just as it always bubbled below the surface in Max Baer. Bugner had an excellent jab and, contrary to popular opinion, a significant wallop on those rare occasions when anger or his own frustration temporarily freed him to open up. His chin was rock solid and his durability was excellent.

So what was the great mystery with Joe? Was it really a case of never showing us the true extent of his talent for reasons that only he knew? Was it simpler than that? Was he just a clever deception who really had no more than he gave?

There was never any doubt in this writer’s mind that Bugner possessed character and courage. The proof of this is in two shattering incidents that occurred very early in his career, which may well have shaped his negative mental attitude.

In his professional debut against Paul Brown at the Anglo American Sporting Club in Mayfair on December 20, 1967, Bugner was knocked out in the third round. It was a devastating start to his career but he responded to it with great heart by winning his next eight fights before stopping Brown of their return match in the fourth round five months later. In a third meeting between the pair, Joe triumphed again in three.

In March 1969, another cruel spanner was thrown into the Bugner machine. He outpointed Trinidad journeyman Ulric Regis in an eight-rounder at the town hall in Shoreditch, east London, only to receive the news that the 29-year-old Regis had died after the fight.

Said Joe: “That was a really devastating experience for me because you must understand that I was only 19. The guy took a real beating and, as I recall, lapsed into a coma about five hours after the fight. I told my handlers to send my purse money to Ulric’s family.”

Thereafter, Bugner was never the lion with a crushing bite who could let the punches go without fear. He became the Max Baer of his generation, a constantly irritating tease who, you felt, didn’t really want to play for real. Bugner also seemed handicapped by a belief that he was honored to be sharing the stage with likes of Foreman, Ali, Frazier and Quarry, rather than being imbued with a burning Dempsey-like belief that he could smash them all and be the king of the hill.

Extent

Respect your opponent but never to the extent that you become too afraid or too embarrassed to beat him. This is a golden rule throughout all fields of competition. Bugner, for all his great physical gifts, seemed happy just to be there, like a star-struck kid who suddenly bumps into his movie idol and doesn’t know what to do or say. He seemed in absolute awe of Ali, grateful for the great one’s attention, rather than viewing him down the barrel of a rifle as the man he had to knock off. Joe tells tales of Ali to this day, clearly flattered that Muhammad even noticed him.

Bugner saw Joe Frazier as a similarly insurmountable titan: “When I fought Smokin’ Joe Frazier I was petrified. Frazier was only 5’11″ and in my opinion was one of the greatest heavyweight fighters since Rocky Marciano. Prior to George Foreman beating him, Frazier was invincible. Frazier hit me with a beautiful right cross in round ten and down I go. He thought I was going to stay down but did not realize I had an iron jaw. After a count of three or four I got up and instinctively threw a hard right hand that caught him flush and thought I could stop him but then the bell rang.”

Yes, the bell rang and Frazier was quite clearly stunned. But did Bugner rush out in the 11th round and try to capitalize on his big moment? No, he went back to being his hesitant and almost apologetic self and lost an emphatic decision. Frrazier was indeed a great fighter at that time in June, 1973, but no longer the great fighter he had been. Foreman had all but killed him in the famous Kingston massacre six months before and Smokin’ Joe was suddenly human again and far more vulnerable. Bugner could have knocked him out —could have — if only the confidence and belief had been there; and that was Joe’s problem again and again.

He could have, and certainly should have, beaten Ron Lyle in Las Vegas in 1977. Lyle was dreadfully disappointing in that bout, slow and ponderous after previous losses to Jimmy Young, Foreman and Ali. Significantly, Lyle never defeated another major league heavyweight after plodding to a decision win over Bugner. Joe, by contrast, was on the crest of a wave, having emerged from a brief retirement to destroy Richard Dunn in one round to win the European, British and Commonwealth titles. Bugner was a revelation that night. At last, it seemed, he had found the confidence to relax and open fire. But Dunn, the Jack Bodell of his generation, was a limited albeit brave boxer with a fragile chin, who had prospered in a British heavyweight pool of rapidly diluting quality. He didn’t intimidate Bugner.

Lyle, on the other hand, even a faded and foundering Lyle, was a far different proposition in Bugner’s eyes. Lyle was a big name. Lyle was an American. Lyle might just get annoyed if Joe hit him too hard. Cruel assumptions on your writer’s part? Well, here’s what Bugner said about it several years ago: “Ron Lyle nearly killed me. I am not kidding, he nearly killed me.

“Ron Lyle was an ex-jailbird and learned boxing in jail. When I met him he said, ‘You got no chance of beating me because I am going to kill you.’ Here I was at 27 years in the hard world of boxing. The fight went the full twelve rounds. After the bout, I called my brother Bill and told him I could not breathe. I had blood coming out of me. He rang the doctor who called an ambulance and rushed me to the Las Vegas emergency Hospital and they discovered I was bleeding internally.

“They put me into an ice tank. It took me six months to recover from that fight. Ron Lyle was a punishing fighter and so fucking big. He was bigger than me. He kept telling me during the fight, ‘I am going kill you motherfucker.’ I sacked my manager (Andy Smith) after the fight after a 10-year relationship. He wanted to go to a party after the fight rather than look after my welfare. I had paid him 25% of my purse.”

Oh well, if in doubt, sack your manager. It’s always been the thing to do. But perhaps Andy Smith finally got fed up with handling a serial under-achiever and needed a drink or two. In a more serious vein, the surely pertinent words therein are an all too familiar reflection of Bugner’s awe and fear of sharing the ring with a man whom he believed to be his superior. One can imagine how flattered Joe would have felt if Lyle had invited him out for a beer and told him a few stories about life behind bars with all those other tough guys who breathe fire and eat razor blades.

Reputation

Now, many years after his time as a top contender, Bugner’s reputation has been curiously distorted and kindly massaged by the passing of time and the misguided beliefs of those who were never there, watch a few clips of him on YouTube and reach the wrong conclusion. You see those questions all the time — those ‘what if’ questions. What if Joe Bugner had fought Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Ike Ibeabuchi, Lennox Lewis or Wlad and Vitali Klitschko? Who would have won? Come to think of it, what would have happened if Joe Bugner had fought George Chuvalo?

Your writer has to doubt that Bugner would have won any of those match-ups. He would have been too respectful, too hesitant, too awestruck by stories of tough guys with tough attitudes who did this and that and might just be partial to eating an Englishman for breakfast.

Jerry Quarry was another major league star who was held in too high esteem by Joe. “We sparred in a gym in London. He was preparing for a fight and said I had a similar style. Jerry was a nice guy but he had demons coming out of his head. We started sparring in front of all the British Press. I was about 19 years of age and Jerry would trap me in the corners and punish me. After three or four rounds I would go back to my corner and say he is trying to kill me. My trainer told me to throw straight punches, which I did and I smashed him and put thirteen stitches in his head. With that, Quarry came to me and said, ‘You motherfucker! Do you realize I can’t take the fight I had scheduled?’ I said to him, ‘I am just trying to defend myself.’”

In a real match, Bugner would likely have spent the whole fight defending himself and Quarry would have taken him. Now imagine Quarry sparring with Chuvalo or a tough nut like Leotis Martin and making the same petulant complaint. “Up yours, you should have been more careful,” would have been the probable response. Certainly not an excuse that was tantamount to an apology.

Bugner has always been touch about being described as a ‘passive’ fighter. “You talk about passive,” he once said, “nearly 70% of my victories came by stoppage and I competed in a far superior class to what’s about today. Of the British heavyweights, only Lennox Lewis can compare.”

Joe is right on both counts, but these facts don’t balance his poor batting average against the top men. He should have done much better than he did and surely he must know that when he reflects on his career. Aside from those big time ‘honorable defeats’ — so annoyingly synonymous of the British heavyweights of his era — Bugner’s medal chest against the elite of his division is all but bare. He squeaked past the slower and older version of Cooper, beat a distinctly jaded Jimmy Ellis and labored to a dull points win over the similarly shopworn Mac Foster, who had clearly popped over to the UK for a payday and possibly a quick look at Buckingham Palace.

George Chuvalo, so frequently maligned by the boxing writers of his day and referred to by many as ‘a catcher,’ lost many times to the top contenders. But George did knock out Doug Jones, Jerry Quarry and the still dangerous Manuel Ramos. Some will tell you that Chuvalo was unlucky not to get the decision over Ernie Terrell for the WBA crown. Note also George’s don’t-give-a-damn approach to Ali in their Toronto fight as he smashed the champion in the body at close range. Bugner, in his two largely uneventful waltzes with Muhammad, seemed primed to believe that hitting the great one was against the law.

Jerry Quarry never stopped hearing about his failures against Ali and Frazier, but the Bellflower Belter blasted Earnie Shavers in one round, decisioned Floyd Patterson, thumped Thad Spencer and Mac Foster and masterfully outclassed Ron Lyle

Certain

Bugner, to this writer, never has seemed certain of who he is, what he is or even where he comes from. Nowadays he’s an Australian. Tomorrow, maybe, he’ll be an Italian or a Brazilian. In fairness, perhaps that’s the way it always is for a man who is forced to flee the country of his birth at such a tender and impressionable age.

A few years ago, Bugner rightly described Lennox Lewis as a “great” heavyweight. Could Joe not see that such greatness was always wholly within his grasp if only he had dared to reach out and grab it? “A man’s got to know his limitations,” Clint Eastwood famously said in his guise of Dirty Harry. Clint might have advised Joe Bugner that a man’s got to know his strengths too.

In 1987, if only he had believed it, a 37-year-old Bugner, flabby at just over 256 lbs., could still have knocked out the eternally overrated and susceptible Frank Bruno in their much hyped match at White Hart Lane in London. Could have.

Didn’t.


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Allan Hayward-Smith 06:56pm, 03/26/2015

    Joe was indeed a great athlete and when he was up for it, a great boxer. His ability far outweighed his actual success in the ring. He had the boxing ability to become the undisputed World Champion after the era of Ali and Frazier. But mentally he didn’t have it or didn’t even want it. He wanted to be an actor and after his comeback with is new manager/ Hollywood agent wife, that’s what he became. He would have been better off in the WWE and probably taken less punishment. What he said about firing my father Andy Smith after the Ron Lyle fight is disgusting and a lie. Especially, how my father treated him like a son and we felt he was family. The Hollywood Lifestyle changed Joe Bugner and he became a Big Head and an Arrogant Ass. His success in the ring (or lack of it) doesn’t warrant his arrogance. He had the ability to be one of the great acts in World Boxing but instead he became a clown.

  2. Steve 10:48pm, 01/12/2015

    The fact that Bugner is still talked and written about, speaks volumes.

    He was never the ‘Never Man’ but an exceptional heavyweight boxer in an Arena of some of the finest Heavyweights of all time.

    He wasn’t perfect, but then who is?

    He has much to be proud of, a true athlete in every sense

  3. max hord 05:59am, 07/12/2014

    Joe always wanted to be taller but settled for less.

  4. James Byrne 04:14am, 07/06/2014

    I followed the career of Joe Bugner from the very beginning to the very end. I remember he flattened a heavyweight from my home town Lincoln, Roy Stray, in the first round as an amateur and I kept my eye on him when he turned pro. Joe was slaughtering Paul Brown, a lorry driver from Birmingham, and got too careless in the third round and walked into a shot for the full count. Joe was 17, and made a remarkable comeback, avenging his debut loss twice and beating some decent trial horses for a 17/18 year old. He flattened the unbeaten Welsh Heavyweight Champion Gene Innocent in 1968 and then in early 1969 he fought the Heavyweight Champion of Trinidad and Tobago, Ulric Regis, who tragically died after the bout. Bugner lost the killer instinct that night - before the Regis fight he had flattened virtually all of his opponents - and he only let loose every now and then for the next 20 twenty years. I met Andy Smith loads of times, I even went to his house “Valandra” in St. Ives a few times and he was full of praise for Bugner. It seemed like a father-son relationship until 1976/1977. Bugner started mouthing off a lot after that and some of the things he said to me were total bullsht. But don’t knock Bugner’s achievements in the ring, he fought and beat more world-class opponents than the Klitchkos put together.

  5. Allan Hayward-Smith 05:44pm, 05/30/2014

    Thanks Mike! I just want to point something out here. I grew up with Joe from the age of 13 and he 16. He became like a brother to me and I would never talk badly about him as a person. However, over the years, I have read some opinions in the press from him regarding my father, Andy Smith. That to be honest were upsetting to me and I don’t feel were appropriate on Joe’s behalf. My father never spoke badly about Joe to the press, in the years after their break-up and believe me he had plenty of reason to do so. But he kept his honour and dignity and refused to be drawn into “Blame, Shame and Regret”. And lets face it, the British Press would have loved to report on a “war of words” between Joe Bugner and his former manager and trainer. My opinion though, is that Joe always tended to be “The Victim” to the Cooper fight, British Fight Fans, British Media and in the end “pointing his finger” at a man who suffered with and finally succumbed to Dementia. I think that Joe Bugner, needs to take a real, long, hard look at what “he” could have done differently in his boxing career. Instead, of blaming everyone else for “his” short comings.

  6. Mike Casey 01:19am, 05/29/2014

    Thank you, Allan. Yes, who could forget Marline, eh?

  7. Allan Hayward-Smith 09:44pm, 05/28/2014

    My father, Andy Smith managed Bugner. I totally agree with this article. Although, I wasn’t there for the Lyle fight, your suggestion that my father got fed up with Joe’s “lack of effort” is an understatement. Joe did not fire my dad after that fight. It was an agreed upon “parting of the ways!” Joe retired after the Lyle fight to pursue acting in Hollywood but when he decided to make a come back, due to his struggling acting career.  Joe wanted my father to train him but leave the managing to his new Australian wife Marline. Marline, was a HOLLYWOOD type and knew nothing about boxing and after the crap my father had gone through with Joe’s first wife and immediate family, decided to reject the offer. He knew that Joe was only coming back for the money and would end up making a fool of himself and he was absolutely right. Very good article though!

  8. Cap 05:04am, 05/24/2014

    No way did Bugner deserve the win over Cooper. At no point did he dominate the champion. I counted three right hands from Bugner during the entire 15 rounds! Three. How did Gibbs score so many rounds for Joe with Bugner just using his left for a few seconds each round? Ridiculous. Gibbs should have retired after that performance because it looked like he was deliberately passing the crown to the younger man from the one who had already announced his retirement. Good thing they finally stopped refs from scoring.

  9. Eric 09:26am, 05/20/2014

    Ali and Frazier fought and beat all of the top 4 “White Hopes” of that era, Bugner, Quarry, Bonavena, and Chuvalo. Would’ve been interesting to get their take on who was the better fighter of the four. I remember calling in to a radio talk show and asking Frazier about fighting Quarry and Bonavena. I got the impression Frazier sort of dismissed Quarry, but he definitely had some respect for Bonavena. He claimed Quarry was a good fighter and he definitely “felt him” but that Bonavena was “an animal.” You would have to save that Bugner and Bonavena did much better than Quarry against Ali and Frazier, and that Chuvalo did much better agaisnt Ali than Jerry. IMO, Bonavena beat Frazier in their first fight, and he certainly gave Ali fits in their fight. These “White Hopes” had a lot of common opponents, unfortunately those like Lyle, Frazier, Ellis, etc., are dead, but would’ve been interesting to know how they ranked each one.

  10. The Fight Film Collector 08:36am, 05/20/2014

    Mike, great read on Bugner, one of my favorites.  You’re right, he never had the burning passion for boxing that one needs to be the best.  Your analogy to Max Baer is right on.  Which makes one wonder why then did keep fighting (and with some success) as long as he did?  His story about sparring with Quarry is similar to the one that Jerry’s brother James told me.  However, there was no mention of a cut or fight cancelation.  James did mention how Jerry had the better of it in sparring, but he also mentioned that the two were also friendly, and that Jerry spent time showing Joe how to fight off the ropes.

  11. Eric 08:06am, 05/20/2014

    Marciano only had a handful of amateur fights, and went on to become an all time great. Mark Breland and Alex Ramos each had over 100 amateur fights and although both were successful pros, that certainly didn’t make the impact in the pro ranks that people predicted for them. You have to wonder if Teofilio Stevenson would have had as big an impact in the heavyweight ranks as people say he would have, if the big Cuban would’ve turned pro. At the time that Bugner was facing Cooper, Ali, and Frazier he was only a kid in his early twenties, when Chuvalo was around that age he was losing to guys named Pete Rademacher.

  12. Mike Casey 12:54am, 05/20/2014

    Irish Frankie:  Pardon me, I meant to say ‘no GREAT amateur experience’ in the article. Joe had a few amateur bouts but certainly didn’t gain enough experience. He was always learning as he went along as a pro and too often looked like a man boxing by numbers.

  13. nicolas 09:40pm, 05/19/2014

    I have always heard that the death of the fighter that Bugner fought had a tremendous impact on him. Also, after having watched the Cooper-Bugner fight on Youtube, I did feel that Cooper should have been given the decision of 8-7. As it was, Bugner won the last round, and I believe Harry Gibbs would have awarded the fight to Cooper had Cooper won that last round. In some ways Bugners greatest triumphs are his two losses to Frazier in England, when he got of the canvas and caused some hurt on Frazier. Also his first fight with Ali, two of the three judges had Ali winning by three points, which raised some eye brows at the time. In Ali’s second fight with Ali, I think there was some feeling that Bugner could pull off the upset, but Ali, perhaps the idea that you don’t get under Bugners skin, was very polite to Bugner, saying “he is handsome and intelligent”. of Course he then said “after I get through with him, he’ll be ugly and illiterate”. Bugner’s excuse about the hot weather in Malaysia why he did not try hard enough was a very poor excuse. What was Ali doing in the ring, also not trying? I wonder if he talk about a riot taking place there if Ali did not win somehow affected Bugner.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:21pm, 05/19/2014

    Mike Casey-Eureka!....“no amateur experience”.....that could be the missing piece to your puzzle here…..maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to believe that he should be doing as well as he did against fighters, most of whom had at least some amateur background. Just imagine if he didn’t give a fuk and went all in, balls and all…bad mouth, bad attitude, bad intentions….elbows, forearms, shoulders, headers….generally abusing his opponents….going for broke….sole object to beat them down….just imagine…...which reminds me…..do you think for a minute Lyle wasn’t talking stupid shit even as Jerry Quarry kicked his ass up onto his shoulders.

  15. Eric 06:06pm, 05/19/2014

    Bugner leveled the steel-chinned Dino Denis. Denis had gotten under Bugner’s skin as he had Foreman & Cooney. So given the right circumstances, Bugner could be motivated to kick arse, but he probably really never cared for boxing.  If he had been born in America, Bugner would’ve probably opted for a football over boxing gloves. Styles make fights and I believe Bugner would’ve had a shot at beating Foreman. You really get a feel of how big Bugner was in his fight with Frazier. Bugner towered over Frazier, and he gave Frazier some problems. Bugner certainly did better against Ali and Frazier than Quarry and he did beat a washed up version of Jimmy Ellis. Then again, Quarry beat Lyle and Shavers and Bugner didn’t. I think a prime motivated Bugner would have a helluva shot at beating Quarry, and Bugner would definitely beat Chuvalo and Bonavena.

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