Lavorante: Rocket to the Moon

By Mike Casey on September 23, 2012
Lavorante: Rocket to the Moon
The spectacular victory sent Alejandro zooming to fourth spot in the heavyweight rankings.

Jack Dempsey had spotted Lavorante’s talent on a sojourn to Venezuela, where Jack saw the Argentinean youngster in several amateur fights in Caracas…

Between the violent rush of Luis Angel Firpo and the beefy menace of Oscar (Ringo) Bonavena, there was another Argentinean heavyweight ace who looked the part in every way and aimed his rocket firmly at the richest prize in sport.

Alejandro Lavorante, handsome, athletic and hard punching, soared into the upper echelon of the world top ten before tragically crashing to earth in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

Everything seemed so bright and wonderful in the spring of 1961 after Lavorante had stunned fight fans by knocking out Arizona’s highly ranked Zora Folley in seven rounds, decking Zora four times. The spectacular victory sent Alejandro zooming to fourth spot in the world heavyweight rankngs and made him big news and a man to be feared by his peers. Was it a victory that flattered to deceive? Was this young and charismatic kid as good as he appeared to be?

Folley was at a low ebb in his career, having campaigned unsuccessfully for a shot at world champion Floyd Patterson. Zora had beaten fellow top contender Eddie Machen and a host of other quality opponents, but Floyd’s challengers were seldom selected on merit by his hugely protective manager, Cus D’Amato. Folley was quietly dangerous. Sonny Liston was loudly dangerous. One wonders how Ingemar Johansson ever got through D’Amato’s quality control system. Then Folley got bombed out in three rounds by Liston and was sent reeling all the way back to square one.

It didn’t matter. Boxing is a perfect microcosm of life in its fickle nature and people only had eyes for the new boy on the block. He was big, he was handsome and he could hit.

Jack Dempsey had spotted Lavorante’s talent on a sojourn to Venezuela, where Jack saw the Argentinean youngster in several amateur fights in Caracas. Alejandro’s countryman, Alex Miteff, a solid world-class operator in a ten-year career running from 1957 to 1967, didn’t want to fight Lavorante in the amateurs because the handsome one was “too tall” at 6’3”.

There had been some decent Argentinean heavyweights since Luis Angel Firpo, but none with Firpo’s charisma and clout. There was Jorge Bresca, Cesar Brion (who fought Joe Louis) and Abel Cestac. Probably the best of the bunch was Vittorio Campolo, who certainly was tall at 6’4” and hit the beam at around 235 lbs. Vittorio knocked out Tom Heeney, defeated Arthur De Kuh and drew and lost against Johnny Risko. A points loss to Tommy Loughran and knockout defeats to Ernie Schaaf and Primo Carnera eventually encouraged Campolo to return to his native land.

Arrival

Lavorante’s arrival on the stage was timely for Argentinean boxing. In The Ring ratings of September, 1961, shortly after Alejandro knocked out Folley, there were only three other Argentineans holding top ten positions in the eight weight divisions: welterweights Jorge Fernandez and Federico Thompson and the dethroned and fading flyweight great, Pascual Perez.

Lavorante generated tremendous excitement in Argentina. Simon Bronenberg, the country’s leading sports writer and editor of the time, said of Alejandro: “He is not as ferocious as was Firpo. He is not as heavy a hitter, nor has he the powerful build of Firpo, but we know he is a good, all round talented fighter. We have high hopes he will get a chance to fight for the heavyweight title.

“He is no playboy. Like Firpo, he takes his work seriously. He is not a spendthrift, and in that respect he resembles Luis. The big difference between him and Firpo is that Luis took it for granted he was a great fighter and didn’t like to train. Lavorante loves working in the gymnasium and in the outdoors.”

Manager Paul (Pinky) George, a colorful character of the era, had gambled $600 on bringing Lavorante to Los Angeles and supervising his progress after hearing Jack Dempsey’s appraisal of the budding star. That progress was far too fast, despite Pinky’s attempts to justify it. Talk about a fast track program.

Everyone was rushing. The urge to hurry Lavorante along was almost manic. That’s what hits you like a hammer when you mull over his brutally short and meteoric career. In only his fifth fight, he was matched with Roy Harris, who had bravely failed in his challenge against Patterson. But Roy knew his stuff and he knew too much for Alejandro in posting a unanimous points victory.

Nevertheless, the express train kept charging along. Lavorante was having only his fourteenth fight and still had much to learn when he knocked out Folley at the Olympic Auditorium. The smell of money blurred everyone’s thinking. George Parnassus, matchmaker at the Olympic, offered Floyd Patterson $500,000 to fight Alejandro. Floyd replied that he would only accept a million for that assignment. It was all happening and Lavorante had only Sonny Liston, Eddie Machen and Henry Cooper ahead of him on the contenders list. Boxing was about to witness its own version of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.

Pinky George, who had managed two other heavyweight contenders in Johnny Paychek and Lee Savold, never needed any encouragement to talk and he couldn’t stop talking about his boy Alejandro. “We’re shooting for the moon,” said Pinky. “This fighter is only a kid. He has just turned twenty-five. I overmatched him against Harris and knew he was not ready, but it was the only way to hurdle the fence. Lavorante threatened to return to his native land unless I matched him with some outstanding heavyweights so that he could prove he was not a dub.”

That might well have been true, but a good and responsible manager doesn’t allow a young prospect to dictate terms. After Folley, Alejandro racked up another five wins in five months before losing a hotly disputed decision to fellow contender George Logan in George’s hometown of Boise, Idaho. Undeterred, Lavorante knocked out Von Clay in two rounds just three weeks later.

Moon

Then Pinky George shot for the moon. He matched Alejandro with Archie Moore. By 1962, Archie was in the autumn phase of his long and fabulous career and was beginning to look like a man on his last legs. He had been pushing leather since 1936. He was old. He was creaking. He was pudgy. A juicy target for a young lion.

But Moore had a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge stored in that wise old head of his, and he utilized it to the maximum in giving Lavorante the most painful and protracted education of his boxing life. Alejandro was stopped in the tenth round at the L.A. Sports Arena, but that bare statistic is akin to saying that the Light Brigade suffered a bit of a loss at the Battle of Balaclava.

Lavorante was carried from the ring on a stretcher. The pictures of him being helped onto his stool, his trunks a bloody mess, are still hard to look at. He looked as if he had been pulled from a mangled car.

Right to the end of his career, the meticulous Moore did his own scouting and kept mental and written notes on what he saw. He was the Sherlock Holmes of boxing in his attention to detail. Publisher Bert Sugar once invited Archie to the The Ring magazine’s office and sat him in a quiet place so that he could check his fight record. Sugar wanted to be sure that The Ring’s version didn’t contain any inaccuracies. He was astonished by Archie’s recollection of who he had fought umpteen years ago, where he had fought them and what exactly had happened.

When Lavorante knocked out Von Clay, Moore was ringside to witness the quick demolition. Most onlookers could only see thunder and lightning around Alejandro. Archie could see the green edges. He said: “It doesn’t take me more than thirty seconds to size up a fighter. In this case I was afforded almost two minutes to contemplate other matters.”

So why was Lavorante thrown back into the fire against Cassius Clay less than three months later? Where were the calm and sensible heads? It seemed that Pinky George and everyone involved with Alejandro had become blind to what was going on. Greed had prevailed. The boy from Argentina had become a side of marketable beef. Best to get the most out of him before he went off.

In the young and lithe Clay, Lavorante met the real king in waiting and was completely outsped and outboxed. His head repeatedly jerked back by accurate jabs, Alejandro was systematically taken apart and knocked out in five rounds. In two punishing fights, the combined punches of a fading legend and a coming legend had pushed the Argentinean to the edge of the abyss.

Months

Just two months after the Clay defeat, on September 21, 1962, Alejandro was matched with John Riggins at the Olympic Auditorium. On paper it was a far more sensible match, a “cooling off” fight against an in-and-outer who had won just three of his last ten bouts. For the best part of five rounds, Lavorante boxed well and was winning handily. Then Riggins caught him with one of “those” punches. These are the punches that are not necessarily spectacular but are the equivalent of adding one brick too many to a towering and unstable structure.

Thirty-two years before, at the Recreation Park in San Francisco, Max Baer threw such a punch at Frankie Campbell and realized instinctively its significance. Said Max: “In the second round I started to get desperate. I swung harder but missed by an even greater distance than I had missed in the first round. I threw one right so hard that when I missed by at least two feet I lost my balance and slipped to the floor. The crowd laughed and I felt like a fool.

“But that slip turned out to be very important. Frankie thought he had knocked me down, so he immediately turned his back and headed for the nearest neutral corner.

“I jumped up without taking a count and lunged toward him. He must have heard me coming because he started to spin around. As he turned, I aimed a right at his head, which caught him high on the jaw. As I recall, he was not completely turned toward me when the punch landed.

“Frankie didn’t go down. In fact he didn’t appear hurt at all. He resumed sticking his long left in my face as he had been doing since the fight began. But to this day, I still think that the punch which caught him on the jaw when he was partly turned around did the damage.”

The damage led to Frankie Campbell’s death.

The right hand with which John Riggins struck Alejandro Lavorante sent the youngster spinning into a disarray from which he never recovered. Alejandro came up for the sixth round, but his resistance and reflexes were gone. He wobbled from the slightest punches before a left hook dropped him for the full count.

All that was left was Lavorante’s exemplary fighting spirit. Within the coma that enveloped him on his arrival at the hospital, he seemed to be fighting a private and quite titanic battle against the Grim Reaper. It was a battle that lasted for nineteen months. Complex brain surgery was performed and Alejandro could actually stand up and speak at one point, although he could never open his eyes.

He finally died in Mendoza, Argentina on April 1, 1964. Time should not forget him.

Mike Casey is the 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. Tex Hassler 05:53pm, 12/05/2014

    The article was worth reading just to see what was said by and about Archie Moore.  If Lavorante was managed better he might have went a lot further, but that could be said about a lot of fighters. Just his KO of Zora Folley say a lot about his potential as a fighter.

  2. Mike Silver 06:03pm, 10/02/2012

    Yes Mike, the article appeared in Boxing Illustrated and was titled “It’s A Damn Shame”. The fight was televised on American TV. Poor Lee, with only 17 fights was knocked out by Williams after taking a horrific beating. Lee had tremendous potential. BTW, I think I may have confused Pinky George with Gig Rooney as the manager of Lee.

  3. Mike Casey 07:31am, 09/30/2012

    Agreed, Mike. I remember reading a big story about Curly being thrown in with the Big Cat - I think it might have been in Boxing Illustrated. Dreadful waste of potential.

  4. Mike Silver 05:20pm, 09/29/2012

    Mike, this article brought back memories. Poor Lavorante didn’t have a chance. This Pinky George character should have left boxing back in the ‘40s. He helped to destroy two fighters: Lavorante and Curley Lee, who with only 16 bouts was put in with Cleveland Williams.

  5. Joewho 03:57pm, 09/29/2012

    Mike Casey you write a great article. Should be more genuine writers like you. Well done!

  6. Mark 07:18am, 09/29/2012

    Great article!  The writing for this magazine is some of the best that I’ve read.  It’s the kind of old school boxing writing that was reasonably abundant years ago, but is in short supply today. I really enjoy the historical material.  Boxing has had a wonderful, and colorful past. I’m inclined to believe, however, that the sport’s best days are in the past, at least for the time being. Your site reminds me why I fell in love with it to begin with. Keep it up.

  7. Mike Casey 12:43am, 09/25/2012

    Thanks, Bob and Ted. Yes, I know you both share my appreciation of Argentinian fighters. They have always known how to nurture their boxers and bring out their different skills - and they don’t rush their prospects into silly fights too soon in their careers!

  8. Bob 06:30pm, 09/24/2012

    I have an affinity for Argentine fighters. They are always so rugged and crowd pleasing. I was aware of Lavorante, but learned a lot more from this great article. Too bad this story had such a sad ending. Thanks for keeping the memories of this fine fighter alive.

  9. the thresher 05:12pm, 09/24/2012

    Brutal ending to a sad tale. A bit like Toro Moreno but at least Toro got away from the sharks before they could finish him off. Very sad and written with a soulful edge—-somehting most young writers need to learn how to do. Reading Mike’s stuff and Bob’s stuff would be a good start.

  10. the thresher 05:07pm, 09/24/2012

    Well at least he stayed out of the Mustang Ranch!

    Good stuff Mike as usual.

  11. Mike Casey 10:59am, 09/24/2012

    Correct, Dan. Such a shame!

  12. jofre 10:28am, 09/24/2012

    Mike, another great article about one of boxing’s forgotten warriors. It’s a shame how his management threw him to the wolves before he really had a chance to develop. He was a handsome young fighter with dynamite in his fists and he was advanced too rapidly, consequently ending in tragedy.

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