THERE is too much comedy and violence in the life, times and crimes of light-heavyweight contender Frankie DePaula.
The fighter bashed and crashed and slammed his way through a boxing career, his life inside and outside the New Jersey mob for years until he was gunned down in an alley.
In DePaula’s circle, men called Mad Dog shot people for fun to please the bosses of the Genovese crime family. It was a time when boxing and the mob lived together.
Men like DePaula, fearless and handy with their fists, were part of the bloody fabric of clubs like the Rag Doll, dangerous retreats for the wise guys to talk big. The places and the men all seemed to be under FBI surveillance, but it seldom stopped the mayhem from men like Frankie.
The glorious part of the DePaula and the mob story is that so much of it is embellished, not lies, just whopping exaggerations, all part of a rich oral history of craziness. It is not dissimilar to the boxing world, a place where the oral tradition is sacred.
It is claimed that DePaula knocked out over 1,000 people when he worked on the door at the Rag Doll, a go-go club run by his manager, Joseph Gary Garafola, but owned by the ancient Genovese crime family. Garafola took over as DePaula’s manager when the previous manager was electrocuted draining his swimming pool – there had been a request that he step aside before the accident. Al Braverman was the other manager, a man steeped in wondrous myth – he never denied a single story.
“Frankie was totally controlled by organised crime – totally controlled by the Mafia,” said Joe Coffey, a New York City detective. Coffey hated organised crime. Coffey loved his boxing and was personal security to Joe Frazier before the Fight of the Century in 1971. A year or so earlier, he gave DePaula a tug, accusing him of taking part in a fixed fight when he was dropped three times and stopped by Bob Foster in 1969. More on that in a moment.
DePaula was in and out of reform schools and prison in the late Fifties. He hit people, he was in stolen cars and he stole a fire engine. He met Rubin Carter in Trenton prison during this spell of incarceration and later, before Carter was convicted of a triple murder, the pair went shooting together; Carter was a great shot, DePaula hopeless, according to the testimony from Ron Lipton, a policeman and boxing referee, when talking to Adeyinka Makinde for the book, Jersey Boy. They shot at cans, according to Lipton.
I met Lipton in Millstreet before the Chris Eubank and Steve Collins first world title fight in 1995, he was the referee for the night. Lipton was in a room stretching, humourless and very serious on that occasion. “Correct, I knew Rubin,” he told me when I asked. That was about the extent of the conversation.
Frankie could obviously bang and was popular, selling 500 and 600 tickets for nothing fights when he was working at the Rag Doll. However, he was forever in bed with women and fighting with men on the street – often the two were connected, often the two were total strangers. Braverman hired a man called The Shadow to try and keep DePaula out of trouble and in the gym. It never worked.
In 1964, after 13 pro fights, DePaula was back in prison for a couple of years. It looked like his boxing days were over, but he was released and he carried on fighting.
In 1968, DePaula met Dick Tiger at Madison Square Garden in front of 13,201; DePaula had lost five of his 27 fights, Tiger was 39. Both were dropped twice, Tiger got the nod and Ring magazine voted it the fight of the year. Tiger outpointed Nino Benvenuti in his next fight, but that fight was later investigated because of “suspicious betting”. DePaula could fight, make no mistake.
Three months after the Tiger loss, DePaula was back in the Garden ring fighting Bob Foster for the world light-heavyweight title. It was strictly business and it did great business; it attracted 16,129 paying customers with a gate worth $189,920.
However, it looked a mismatch. It also attracted the attention of Detective Coffey when rumours of a fix spread through the New York and New Jersey gyms. The fight was a hot topic, there was talk of big money changing hands and Coffey heard the rumours.
In just 137 seconds of the opening round, Foster was dropped once and DePaula three times before it was stopped. On first viewing – and certainly from most of the seats in the Garden – none of the knockdowns look devastating. However, in poor Frankie’s defence he takes a lot of full-bloodied shots from Foster’s lethal fists, which are barely wrapped in 8oz gloves. DePaula also gets up and starts swinging each time, really swinging. It is hard to see how it is fixed, but hard to ignore the reasonable doubts. DePaula should have not been in the ring, it’s that simple – that’s not a crime, that’s just the boxing way.
Coffey had heard that DePaula was meant to win, then lose a rematch and then have a third. It was fanciful, that’s for sure, but it meant Coffey was watching and he was not convinced by the ending. Coffey believed it was a straight betting coup: Foster in the first round, a simple theory with very little fact. DePaula was hauled in front of a Grand jury. Nobody really believed it. Frankie was arrested on another charge and then in May of 1970 he was shot in the back after midnight.
It was meant to be a contract killing, retribution for dating a daughter of a powerful mob figure, or because of something Frankie said or something his old associates thought Frankie might do. It was the Filipino or Hispanic drug gangs, an angry husband, a disgusted father. One of his closest friends. There was a long list of men and women willing to pull the trigger. It was just messy in the end and Frankie survived the two bullets, one had to be left in his spine by the surgeons.
Frankie DePaula would never walk again, would never fight again, would never mess about with somebody’s wife again. He died four months later, still in hospital, still talking tough and it was meant to be an assisted suicide. The death was just 18 months after the world title fight with Foster at the Garden. There was always a bit of drama with Frankie DePaula.