Some say Argentine heavyweight Oscar Bonavena was as tough as he was crazy. Certainly, the man who fought the likes of Ali, Frazier, Chuvalo, and Lyle, left his mark on both history and his opponents.
Joe Frazier was certain Bonavena was a racist – Joe, in his autobiography, wrote of the manner in which Bonavena, whenever the two were together, would sniff in some air and then act as though he was repulsed.
Joe felt strongly that Bonavena was implying “all n*****s stink.”
Bonavena was perhaps the only man to truly get under the skin of Ali. Ali, the greatest practitioner of both psychological warfare and trash-talking, was unable to put a dent in Oscar.
Instead, Bonavena, taunting “chicken” Ali for his refusal to serve in Vietnam, had Ali angry and possibly confused. “Please, come to your theatres!” Ali implored the TV audience ahead of the Bonavena fight of 1970. “I’ve never wanted to whup a man so bad!”
Ali then asked Bonavena – nicknamed “Ringo” due to the fact that some people felt he looked like Ringo Starr of The Beatles – if he had cut his hair! “I’ll cut your hair,” Ali vowed. It was one weird build-up to a heavyweight fight.
Ali struggled mightily before “The Greatest” turned it on and decked Bonavena heavily in the 15th and final round, returning Ali getting the TKO via the three knockdown rule. This was the one and only time Bonavena was stopped in a fight.
Born in Buenos Aires in September of 1942, Bonavena would travel to New York to embark on a pro career. Incredibly strong physically, Oscar was raw and crude, yet he succeeded in giving even the best fighters real trouble.
Unpredictable, hard to time (especially for a guy like Ali), and relentless, Bonavena fought as though he didn’t care. Maybe he didn’t.
Oscar was certainly more than capable of ignoring the rules and fighting in a reckless manner. Disqualified more than once – both as an amateur and as a pro – Bonavena could hit a guy low, even use his teeth in a fight.
But Bonavena had a great chin, great stamina, good power, and an odd, cocksure sense of self. Bonavena believed he was the star of the show, no matter who he was fighting. And the big fights came for one of Argentina’s best big men.
Bonavena went pro in January of 1964, the 21-year-old fighting at Madison Square Garden. An early loss to Zora Folley (later avenged) failed to discourage him, and then good wins over Gregorio Peralta (Oscar-winning the Argentinian heavyweight title) and George Chuvalo followed.
Bonavena then fought Frazier in September of 1966, and he came within a whisker of derailing Joe. Down twice, Frazier went in round two, perilously close to losing on the same three knockdown rule Oscar himself would fall victim to in the Ali fight four years later.
Who knows how differently heavyweight history would have played out had Bonavena managed to drop Frazier a third time. Instead, Frazier scraped home with a ten-round decision.
Bonavena won his next ten before losing a decision to Jimmy Ellis in a WBA eliminator (Ali at this time having been stripped for refusal to serve). 1968 saw Oscar pick up good wins over Folley and Leotis Martin before he fought Frazier a second time.
On this occasion, Joe’s smoke was too much, Bonavena losing a unanimous decision over 15 rounds. The now 26-year-old Bonavena returned again to Argentina, where he drew with Peralta, was DQ’d in a fight with Miguel Angel Paez, and beat Manuel Ramos.
Then came the Ali fight. Ali, having his second return fight following his exile, had one of the hardest fights of his life at that time.
Again, Bonavena left the ring as a beaten man. Trying again, Oscar racked up some wins while also losing to Floyd Patterson and later Ron Lyle. Bonavena went out a winner in February of 1976 when he defeated Billy Joiner in Reno.
Three months later, Bonavena was dead at age 33. Bonavena was shot, through the heart, in front of a brothel named Mustang Ranch in Nevada. Bonavena’s murderer, a bodyguard for the Ranch owner, had, some reports suggested, been ordered by his boss to kill the fighter, this for having slept with his wife.
Whatever the case, it was a sordid ending for a brave, celebrated, and accomplished boxer. Oscar passed away 45 years ago today.
To some fans, “Ringo” is one of the best heavyweights never to have won a world title. Final ring record: 58-9-1(44).