Wild Life of Oscar Bonavena

By George Thomas Clark on June 7, 2013
Wild Life of Oscar Bonavena
“What are you guys looking at?" said Joe Conforte. "Haven't you ever seen a dead man?”

Fans were excited by this handsome and charming brawler, who carried more than two hundred pounds on a sculpted six-foot frame…

Many years ago, in the 1970s, my Uncle Bob, who owned part of a casino in downtown Reno and heard many unpleasant stories, told me that Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena, renowned for brawn and feared for instability, sometimes got drunk in local bars and slapped men to the floor where he held and tormented them, spewing crude English in their faces. I recall being disgusted that anyone, particularly a heavyweight contender, would behave that way, and thinking people like that don’t last long.

Life as an adult had begun with much promise for Oscar Bonavena. In early 1964, as a precocious fighter of twenty-one, he debuted professionally in the palace of professional boxing, Madison Square Garden, a stage closed to most even after years of combat. Bonavena quickly stopped his first opponent, and seven of the first eight. Fans were excited by this handsome and charming brawler, who carried more than two hundred pounds on a sculpted six-foot frame, and offered him many opportunities for recreation between fights in New York City. Listen to stories about Bonavena and the most common characterization is “partier.” The big puncher from Argentina was also a heavy hitter with booze, and while opponents and sparring partners pounded his head—albeit less than he pounded them—alcohol battered his brain. 

In his first fight of 1965, Bonavena stepped in against a larger and more experienced opponent, Zora Folley, and lost every round but one. He thereupon retreated to Argentina and poleaxed nine undistinguished foes as well as decisioned the talented Gregorio Peralta to take the heavyweight title of Argentina. Fighters don’t sacrifice for titles like that. They dream of winning world championships. Bonavena returned to Madison Square Garden in June 1966 and decisioned George Chuvalo, the iron-jawed Canadian. Three months later, also in the Garden, he took on young Joe Frazier, who had but eleven professional fights and was recognized primarily as the 1964 Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medalist. In the second round Bonavena knocked Frazier down with a quick overhand right and, after Frazier scrambled up and bored in, quickly floored him again. A third knockdown in that round would have ended the fight but Frazier kept moving in and survived without further damage. In subsequent rounds he pressured Bonavena who responded aggressively, and the men pounded each other for ten rounds after which Frazier was awarded a majority decision. This fight was noteworthy because only thunderous George Foreman would ever knock Joe Frazier down again, and pleasant to view since both boxers were young and healthy, unlike the battered warriors they became, and Frazier spoke clearly and good-naturedly in the post-fight interview. On the radio in 2010, Smokin’ Joe rambled and was difficult to understand.

In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused to join the army and kill Vietnamese whom he emphasized had never called him a “nigger.” His title was then seized by a self-righteous and warlike establishment, and the World Boxing Association set up a tournament to determine the ersatz champion. As a high-ranking heavyweight, Oscar Bonavena went to Germany in September and confronted Karl Mildenberger, the decided favorite based on his impressive losing performance against Ali, and knocked the German down four times en route to a unanimous decision. That December, Bonavena was one fight removed from his coveted title opportunity, but Jimmy Ellis, Ali’s childhood friend and training partner from Louisville, twice decked the Argentine while winning the decision and advancing in the tournament.

Oscar Bonavena was still a contender in 1968 and won solid decisions over Zora Folley, his first conqueror, and Leotis Martin before getting a rematch in December against Joe Frazier. The fight was scheduled for a title-length fifteen rounds since it was for something called the New York State Athletic Commission championship. This time a more experienced Smokin’ Joe, undefeated through twenty-one fights, attacked relentlessly and smothered Bonavena’s power, hammering him with left hooks to the body and head. Bonavena responded with skill and determination—no more than two or three boxers at the time could have gone the distance with this Joe Frazier—but lost a lopsided unanimous decision.

There would be one more chance for glory. In December 1970 Muhammad Ali fought for the second time since his return from exile, and Oscar Bonavena was his opponent. I watched the fight at my father’s house in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and worried that the strong and unorthodox Bonavena was beating the world’s most charismatic man. He never hurt Ali but hit him enough to make the fight close, and there was no indication Ali could stop Bonavena until a flash left hook in the fifteenth round knocked him down and Ali quickly floored him twice more to win by technical knockout. Ali proceeded to fight many of the most epic, and self-destructive, battles in ring history. 

And Oscar Bonavena, who had fought from four to eleven times a year during his career, faced only one opponent in each of the next two years. At age twenty-nine, in early 1972, he appeared for the last time in Madison Square and decked former two-time champion Floyd Patterson in the fourth round but lost a unanimous decision. In 1973 the man accustomed to fighting the best opponents faced only those with mediocre records. He began 1974 with a final attempt to regain his stature, against Ron Lyle, who entered with but one loss and decisioned the aging Argentine. 

Bonavena decisioned a good fighter, Larry Middleton, in his next fight but thereafter took on boxers who previously would’ve qualified only as his sparring partners. This kind of career slide is typical in boxing; and, indeed, a performance decline is inevitable in all sports. However, Oscar Bonavena’s once-stimulating career ended with an avalanche of bad choices made by a deteriorating mind. After fighting only one time in 1975 and beating an unknown, Bonavena met Joe and Sally Conforte, owners of the infamous Mustang Ranch house of prostitution outside Reno. Joe hired Oscar to promote fights and train on his ranch that housed the family business.

Right away Bonavena, age thirty-three, began flirting and spending private time with Sally, who was sixty years old and in poor health. Joe Conforte contended then and years later that Bonavena pleased him by taking his suddenly-happy and less-infirmed wife to town so he’d have more time for his young girlfriends, and sleeping with Sally so he, Joe, wouldn’t have to climb into bed with a woman eleven years his senior. Sally was also busy funneling Mustang Ranch funds to fuel Bonavena’s heavy gambling. She additionally served as his manager despite scant knowledge of boxing. Bonavena really didn’t want to fight much anymore. He shaved less, ignored his formerly-stylish locks that had prompted the nickname Ringo, gained weight, bore a marred and bloated face, and moved sluggishly during his final fight, a victory over another unknown in February 1976. 

Three months earlier the Mustang Ranch had burned down and local officials, many of whom Joe Conforte regularly bribed, declared it was arson. That didn’t derail Conforte, a prison veteran and unscrupulous entrepreneur. He built a much larger and nicer facility and secured it with two twenty-four foot gun towers, an electric listening system inside and out, and banks of lights that automatically erupted at nightfall. There was a large and expensive grand opening party in early May 1976. Joe Conforte didn’t attend. Sally played hostess. And Oscar Bonavena smoked cigars and grinned at guests, asking, “How do you like my joint?”

Two days later Joe Conforte ordered Bonavena and Sally to leave Mustang Ranch, and several armed guards ensured compliance. One of them, Ross Brymer, also ransacked the boxer’s trailer, removed his belongings, including his passport, and burned them. Conforte, and a henchman or two, later confronted Bonavena, handed him money for a return flight to Argentina, and ordered him to leave the country. Instead, the boxer drank and gambled the money away, and at 6:00 a.m. on May twenty-second drove up to the locked gate at Mustang Ranch and demanded to speak to Joe Conforte. He wanted Joe to stop the harassment. He may have also still deluded himself that he could somehow acquire the life’s work of the Sicilian immigrant. Conforte was supposedly asleep in the Blue Room, a special place at Mustang Ranch. His guards swore Bonavena was drunk and belligerent, and they repeatedly ordered him to leave. Only when Bonavena reached for a gun, they said, did Ross Brymer aim his powerful rifle, pull the trigger, and explode the heart of a man who had never taken the ten-count. In a little while, as Conforte’s employees stared at the body, he rebuked them, “What are you guys looking at? Haven’t you ever seen a dead man?”

A pistol was found in Oscar Bonavena’s boot. Was it planted? If not, was his addled mind and .07 percent blood alcohol level high enough to convince him he could take on a fortified guard corps framed by two gun towers. The only witnesses were the thugs working for Conforte. A jury, infested by six members who were tenants at various Conforte properties, convicted Ross Brymer not of murder but manslaughter. He was sentenced by a judge friendly to Conforte, served fifteen months in prison, and died in 2000. Sally continued to manage Mustang Ranch behind the scenes until the IRS seized the property for back taxes in 1990. She died two years later from diabetes. Joe Conforte escaped to Brazil in 1991 before a grand jury could indict him for numerous financial crimes. In 1999 the Brazilian Supreme Court declined to expel Conforte, and he still lives there. Upon its return to Buenos Aires, the body of Oscar Bonavena lay in state at a sports arena. One hundred fifty thousand people walked by to say farewell to the toughest man in the history of Argentina.

This is an excerpt from Uppercuts: Tales from the Ring, by George Thomas Clark. Uppercuts is available as an eBook at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Google Books, and Apple iTunes. The price is only $0.99. Additional information is available on the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Oscar Bonavena vs Zora Folley

Oscar Bonavena vs Gregorio Peralta I

Oscar Ringo Bonavena vs George Chuvalo - Parte 1

Oscar Ringo Bonavena vs George Chuvalo - Parte 2

Joe Frazier vs Oscar Bonavena I

Oscar Bonavena vs Karl Mildenberger

Jimmy Ellis vs. Oscar Bonavena

№22 "Smokin" Joe Frazier (Джо Фрейзер) vs Oscar Bonavena II

Oscar Bonavena vs Leotis Martin (07-09-1968)

Muhammad Ali vs Oscar Bonavena - Des. 7, 1970 - Entire fight - Rounds 1 - 15 & Interviews

Joe Conforte--Pimp King of the Mustang Ranch--Reported by Mike Watkiss

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  1. mark latino 01:15pm, 07/05/2017

    Terrible article.The writer has a lot of biases,and everything in and about his writing is totally worthless.What a waste of time reading his garbage

  2. Pablo Cacciola 05:49am, 12/14/2016

    Great article,
    thank you very much,
    as an Argentinian I’m proud of Ringo, he fought against the best heavyweights of all times,  and he resisted on both opportunities till the last round… it’s almost unbelievable nowadays ...
    he was really special, so arrogant as funny as we can see in the different interviews he make, but I think he was -above all- a good guy.. it’s a pity that he finished like that.. he will always be in all Argentinians hearts.. even for those like me who didn’t live the 60’s or the 70’s..
    I love boxing, I’m not a specialist but.. if something is certain is that he is living legend..

  3. Hal Pritzker 08:20pm, 11/06/2014

    One of the biggest mysteries is how, at age 37, Floyd Patterson beat Bonavena? Unlike Clay, I was in the military at the time of the fight, and never saw it. Or, in retrospect,  a film of it. I know the result…Patterson winning a unanimous decision. But how Floyd avoided getting knocked out by such a powerful, relentless, and effectively awkward fighter such as Bonavena boggles the mind.

  4. Michael Hegan 02:29pm, 06/13/2013

    I can only comment that a lot of athletes who go on to successful Pro careers are financially illiterate…maybe even just illiterate and have no idea how to handle money.

    when i see an athlete from Boxing..Football…or Basketball..or Hockey..Baseball….....wearing that bling that costs more than any five families make in a year…..

    I know that this is just a waste of money.  especially when these guys are doing the equivalent of selling pencils ..when it’s over

    There has to be a way to assist these guys….and let’s not forget…there are a lot of thirty thousand dollar a year contracts of athletes that led to the superstars’ success ...who have to find work after they take the hits ...to make these guys the SUPERSTARS that they become…
    PLUS….each competition event could end their careers….knees..concussions…hands…shoulders…..back .........it can all end in a heartbeat…..no malice…just the properties of the Sport they chose

  5. Eric 05:53pm, 06/09/2013

    The Bonavena-Chuvalo fight looked like it would’ve been an all-time classic on paper but it turned out to actually be a pretty dull fight. I don’t see all the controversy at all about Chuvalo maybe being knocked down. George was clearly off-balance and it was nothing more than a slip. Bonavena always appeared shorter to me than his listed height of 6-foot. It looks like the 6’1” Chuvalo has a minimum of 2” on Ringo. I’m guessing Oscar to be more like 5’10”-5’10 1/2”.

  6. Michael Hegan 03:36pm, 06/09/2013

    ‘How do you like my joint??’........Oscar ....claiming ownership on the new and improved establishment !!
    He invested nothing..as he had nothing…..he was claiming ownership by banging Sally….
    Not a good business plan

  7. Michael Hegan 03:32pm, 06/09/2013

    another reason why big purses should be ‘shaved’ by a credible investor…who would make sure ....
    the candles that burn at both ends….get to live in some dignity…when the figth career is over.

    ..Oscar was a kid who never grew up….loveable guy….much like Max Baer…but you didn’t catch Baer slapping out folks in a bar…

    Ringo left his mark…..left us too soon   He was desparate to continue his lifestyle….

    Desperate ......is how things came to an end…

    Oscar wasn’t in a love tryst with some railroad employee…..

    Oscar was playing with ....not fire…..but greedy assasins….

    ‘nuff said

  8. Michael Hegan 03:07pm, 06/09/2013

    Peter…..I’m in no way saying that Oscar wasn’t a true Heavyweight Contender…who could well have been a HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD…..

    He did the toe to toe with George Chuvalo…and ...even ‘The Champ//George…(cus he ripped the eyeballs out and skull fkd Earnie Terrelll..and got reeeeeemed…cuz he was a Canuck with no syndicate….just talent and heart!!)

    you could get a class fight ...and they did ......when you tried to get into the big leagues….by getting past Chuvalo ,,,,,,,George Chuvalo was a very ruff tuff customer

    ..anybody know why they don’t show Quarry /Chuvalo on Boxrec….almost like trying to find a video of leonard Camacho…or some of leonard’s other .....less than stellar performances….

    Luckily….I taped Duran ...ripping leonard’s eyeballs out and skull fkng him….when Duran came up two weight divisions to face the GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ…..meaning leonard…

    Duran wanted to go another ten rounds…..to eat some of the hunks of flesh he was ripping off .....leonard….

    Hard to find Chuvalo vs Quarry…..don’t know why….doesn’t come up on boxrec….
    I’ll try youtube…..but according to both boxrec’s compilation Quarry..Chuvalo….it didn’t happen

  9. peter 04:24pm, 06/08/2013

    As a youngster growing up, Oscar was my favorite fighter. He wasn’t a skilled, disciplined fighter. He was something more—he was pure uncontaminated id.  I liked that…What happened to the planned musical based upon his life?

  10. Michael Hegan 03:14pm, 06/08/2013

    Oscar drank long and deep from the cup of life…and the booze was getting too much of a hold on him.

    Oscar..thought by bangin Sally….he’d get ownership in Sally’s husband’s businesss !!

    not quite suicide…but close

    Another very colorful fighter…who would have done better with some self discipline

    He put meat in seats…..that’s for sure

  11. Davor 02:41pm, 06/08/2013

    In Argentina, Ringo es, with Locomotora Castro, Nicolino Locche and Carlos Monzón, one of the 4 most popular boxers ever. He is a legend here in buenos aires, thrash talking Ali, rooting for Huracan de Parque Patricios… being just him. We just love him.

  12. Don from Prov 06:29am, 06/08/2013

    Tough guy in the ring—

    Bit of a disaster out in the world.  Nothing new, I guess, but I liked Oscar.
    Good article.

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