Local Boxing Icon: “Irish” Johnny Turner

By Robert Mladinich on November 28, 2016
Local Boxing Icon: “Irish” Johnny Turner
“I didn’t get to fight Sugar Ray Leonard,” said Turner, “which maybe was for the better.”

After instinctively throwing a left hook to the body that dropped De Niro in a heap, Turner thought his movie career was over before it even began…

In the late 1970s, when welterweight contender “Irish” Johnny Turner of Brooklyn, New York, was a local boxing icon who fought regularly at Madison Square Garden, film stars Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, as well as director Martin Scorsese, were in his dressing room for three consecutive fights.

They were invited there by Turner’s manager, Vern DePaul, who said they were researching a film that was still in its embryonic stages of development. The feisty DePaul, who yelled more than he spoke, instructed Turner not to ask any questions and just go about his business as he ordinarily would.

“Harvey Keitel was pretty friendly, but Bobby (De Niro) and Scorsese never said a word,” explained Turner. “They just stood there and observed. They watched everything—very closely. Scorsese was a very intense guy who never got very friendly with you.”

Finally Turner was dispatched to the now defunct Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street in Manhattan to spar with De Niro. By this time he had been offered a role in a movie to be called “Raging Bull,” which would chronicle the life of the troubled former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta.

The film was based on the book “Raging Bull: My Story,” that was written by LaMotta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage. Turner would play the part of French boxer Laurent Dauthuille.

However, after instinctively throwing a left hook to the body that dropped De Niro in a heap, Turner thought his movie career was over before it even began.

“Pete (Savage) ran over to me and said, ‘What are you, a wise guy?’ He was really mad. I was sorry, but didn’t do it on purpose. I threw the punch on instinct, and tried to hold back but hit him harder than I thought. But Bobby got right up and wanted to continue. He never held it against me.”

Turner spent nine weeks in Los Angeles, either practicing or filming his fight sequences with De Niro. They developed a good friendship.

“Bobby was a regular guy, a really classy, sincere guy,” said Turner, still tremendously fit at the age of 62.

“He gave me lots of advice, on dating and other things. Being around him, I never thought I was around a movie star.”

Turner also developed a terrific relationship with Keitel who, like Turner, is Brooklyn to his core. 

“We were on the set and I was standing in front of a gym and my manager (Vern DePaul) was yelling at me about something,” recalled Turner with a laugh at a Ring 8, Veteran Boxers Association of New York dinner in November.

“Harvey comes over and says, ‘Who the hell is this guy? I don’t like the way he’s talking to you. I’ll knock him on his bleeping ass.’”

Turner explained that DePaul was his manager, who was also like a father to him, but Keitel was fired up nonetheless.

“He (Keitel) was like a street guy, a genuine tough guy,” said Turner. “He was tougher than Bobby in that way.” 

When “Raging Bull” was released amid much fanfare in 1980, it garnered instant acclaim and won several Academy Awards, including a Best Actor Oscar for De Niro.

Turner, who had the looks of a Hollywood heartthrob, was courted by several agents who urged him to stay in Tinseltown, but he opted to return to New York to resume his professional boxing career which began in 1975 and ended in 1984. He retired with a record of 42-6-2 (32 KOs).

“Being in Los Angeles was exciting, but there’s a lot of sitting around in acting,” he explained. “Sometimes that drove me crazy. Besides, I was a boxer and at that point still had my eye on the title.”

Years later, when De Niro was filming “A Bronx Tale” in, of all places, Brooklyn and Queens, Turner visited him on the set. He was unsure how he would be received, or if he would even be remembered at all by the celluloid heavyweight.

“He was so gracious and even told me he often thought about me, and wondered how I was doing,” said Turner. “I asked if I could bring my wife back the next night, and he said sure. I can’t say enough good things about the guy.”

As an amateur, Turner was a NYC Golden Gloves staple and had a fierce rivalry with Italian-born Domenico Monaco, who, like Turner, later became a popular pro.

One night Turner and Gerry Cooney were presented with trophies by none other than former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.

“Meeting him was like meeting Babe Ruth,” said Turner. “I had read a lot about him, and was in awe of him.” 

As a pro, Turner became a marquee attraction. The highlight of his career, he says, was stopping Frankie Benitez, the brother of Wilfred, in eight rounds at MSG in 1978. Less than two years later he was stopped in nine rounds by Wilfred in Miami.

Although Turner was once rated in the welterweight top-10, alongside Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Pipino Cuevas, he says, for all intents and purposes, his career ended in August 1979 when he was shockingly upset by unheralded Santiago Valdez in the second round at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum.

“That fight knocked me out of the ratings, and I didn’t realize it then but I never got the spark back,” explained Turner. “But I had some good nights and some good fights.” 

Not surprisingly, the biggest what-if of Turner’s career relates to Leonard, who was the premier welterweight during a glorious era for that division.

“The Valdez fight spoiled everything,” said Turner. “Prior to that, my career was going great. I was in the Hamptons partying when I got the call to take the fight. I wasn’t ready to fight, and should have known better than to take it.”

When Turner finally did retire, after a fifth round TKO victory over Johnny Davis in April 1984, he was at a low point in his life. Fighting was no longer in his blood, but he and his wife Rosann had two small children, Danielle and Christina, both of whom are now in their thirties. 

Turner is the first to admit he was more nervous as an out-of-work father than he ever was staring across the ring at an opponent, being directed by Martin Scorsese, or acting alongside De Niro. 

“I kept looking at my two-month-old daughter, and wondered what I was going to do,” said Turner. “My wife, who I love more than ever, kept saying, ‘What are you nervous about? We’ll be okay.’”

As things turned out, Rosann was right. Turner soon got a maintenance job in a large Manhattan office building, and eventually supervised a crew of workmen. In 1986 he joined the New York City Sanitation Department, from which he is now retired.

He lives comfortably on Staten Island and is still married to his lovely wife. Their daughter Danielle is a graduate of St. John’s University, where she earned a degree in speech pathology.

Danielle is the married mother of three children, Sienna, Capri and Aiden, who range in age from seven to four. Her husband is a lieutenant on the New York City Fire Department.

Danielle also appeared twice on the television show “The Amazing Race,” where she traveled throughout the world performing incredible feats of derring-do.

On her first go-round on the show, she lasted five weeks. In her second, producer Jerry Bruckheimer teamed her with Eric Sanchez on what was called an “all-star” show. She and Sanchez won the whole enchilada.

Along that arduous trek, Danielle had to swim in claustrophobic caves and despite her fear of heights, jump into the water from a 60-foot cliff and descend from a tall building on a rope.

“She’s tough,” said Turner proudly. “She’s a lot like me. She sees a challenge — and mentally just gets over it. Even Eric (Sanchez) could not believe how tough mentally she is.”

Christina, who narrowly missed an opportunity to appear on “American Idol,” owns a Staten Island hair salon called Melrose Place (www.yelp.com/biz/melrose-place-hair-salon-staten-island).

In one online review, a client writes, “Christina is incredibly talented and intuitive when it comes to anything hair.”

Turner could not be more proud of both of his daughters. Although not present for Danielle’s adventures in countries such as Russia, Italy, India and Spain, he beams when recounting accompanying Christina to the second round of the “American Idol” tryouts, where they waited overnight on a line of contestants until Christina’s turn to sing came late the next morning. 

Not only can Christina sing, said Turner, “she has great stage presence.”

“Life is so good today, it’s hard to remember how down in the dumps I once was,” said Turner. “I credit my wife with so much. She stood by me during the toughest of times. All in all, I’ve had a great life and a great career.

“I didn’t get to fight Sugar Ray Leonard, which maybe was for the better,” he continued. “If I had, even if I lost, my head might have gotten so big I might not have met my wife. If I hadn’t met her, who knows how things would have turned out?”

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  1. peter 11:31am, 12/04/2016

    Johnny Turner! He was an exciting NYC fight fixture in the 70s. It’s great to read about him once again. Reading about these guys is always of interest—as are reading the follow-up comments written by, and about, John McKaie, Vern DePaul, Kevin, Paddy Flood, Chu Chu Malave, and Al Gavin. Another Mladinich musing… BTW— Be sure to pick up a copy of Bob Mladinich’s new book entitled, “Undisclosed Files of the Police”. It’s an absolute tour de force that chronicles the sordid and lurid cases from the archives of the NYPD.

  2. NYIrish 05:08am, 12/03/2016

    Robert M, thanks for this piece. Glad to hear Vern DePaul is still on the scene. He used to take care of me at the Gramercy Gym. There was a wealth of characters and boxing knowledge up those wooden stairs on 14th St. Al Gavin, Bobby Jackson, Paddy Flood, Tony Canzi, and many good fighters up and down the weight scale. Haven’t seen Vern since we hunted raccoons with hounds in the woods north of Houston in the early 80s. We also went to Gilley’s. He also managed Chu Chu Malave, a flashy and talented lightweight and Golden Glove champion. Glad Johnny Turner is doing well. Johnny McKaie, if you ever judge a fight in Houston I’ll take you out for a steak. Moment of silence for Vic Zimet who taught us to box at Lost Battalion Hall back in the day. Regards to all.( If any of the old bunch above wants to get in touch the editor can give you my email.) Kevin

  3. Moon-Man 07:59pm, 11/29/2016

    Irish…How about Leroy “Irish” Haley, the former 140lb champ. Then you have Canelo pretending to be Mexican. haha. Off to eat some Lucky Charms. Good night, lads.

  4. Moon-Man 06:45pm, 11/29/2016

    Thresher…My critics say I sound like Bobby Darin.

  5. Moon-Man 06:42pm, 11/29/2016

    Irish…Remember a scene in the movie, “Fat City,” where the character portrayed by Jeff Bridges is announced as “Irish” so & so for his pro debut. Bridges then turns to his manager and says he isn’t Irish. My gawd, Stockton, California was a dump even back then.

  6. The Thresher 06:16pm, 11/29/2016

    Moon-Man, you sound like Eric to me

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:11pm, 11/29/2016

    @Moon-Man-My recollection is that there was such a dearth of good white fighters in the Sixties and possibly a little earlier with a few notable exceptions (kinda’ like now), that the huckster/promoters started using the “Irish”  term to give a heads up to fight fans that the fighter so designated was white. Whether he was Irish through and through or had just rubbed elbows with an Irishman in a tavern on St. Paddy’s Day had little to do with it. Back in earlier days the Italians and Jews just changed their fighting names to Murphy and O’Brien and even put shamrocks on their trunks….never could figure that one out. In the present day we have “Irish” Mike Perez…go figure.

  8. John McKaie 05:24pm, 11/29/2016

    Bob, greetings.  Great story on John Turner.  He was in my division in my last year in the NY Golden Gloves.  I lost in the quarters and went to the semis.  Seems like yesterday.  I’m glad he’s doing well.  Please send my regards to Johnny (hope he remembers me).  See you at the Ring 8 Holiday Party.

    Take care,
    John McKaie

  9. Moon-Man 03:56pm, 11/29/2016

    Wonder how many sons of Erin have used the tag, “Irish,” throughout the years. Wonder how many non-Irish guys have used the tag, “Irish?” Remember when some Sports Illustrated hack had the temerity to suggest that “Irish” Jerry Quarry was more Okie than Irish. Come to think of it, the guy could have been right given Jerry’s upbringing. Same could have been said about Bubblegum Sean O’Grady as well.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:56pm, 11/29/2016

    He gave it everything he had against Benitez….throwing wicked shots to the bitter end. Well deserved recognition in this great article.

  11. Pete 07:42am, 11/29/2016

    Terrific, Bob.

  12. Moon-Man 07:04am, 11/29/2016

    Nice article. I was really keepin’ up with boxing back in the late 70’s/early 80’s, but this guy’s name totally escapes me. I guess he was more of a local figure in the NYC area and not as well known outside of it. Maybe, Johnny can help out his old friend, DeNiro. Last I seen of that guy, he looked totally unhinged as he was still trying to pretend to be some sort of mobster again, while talking about “mutts” and punching people in the mouth. Maybe Bobby would be happier in Canada or Australia. Poor Bobby can’t seperate pretend from reality or reel from real.

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