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TONY AYALA JR.: THE GLORY OF WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, THE HORROR OF WHAT WAS

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The news that former junior middleweight contender Tony Ayala Jr., 52, was found dead early Tuesday morning in San Antonio, Texas, shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the turbulent and troubled life of the onetime boy wonder who was known as “El Torito,” the Little Bull, when he was blasting his way to a 22-0 record with 19 knockouts and a No. 1 ranking from the WBA before his 19th birthday.

Perhaps the only stunner is that Ayala passed away so apparently peacefully, slumped over in the otherwise empty Zarzamora Street Gym where he had again been trying to dig out from the wreckage of a lifetime of abhorrent behavior and disastrous decisions, this time as a boxing trainer.

There are those who would have wagered heavily that Ayala’s end would have come violently or under suspicious circumstances, befitting someone who squandered his once-prodigious talent, and huge chunks of his time on earth, behind prison walls for crimes that even now that are chilling to polite society.

Thus are there two schools of thought that are invariably intertwined when recalling Ayala: one is the potential all-time great who might have been held in the same lofty esteem as contemporaries Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns; the other is an emotionally disturbed, heroin-addicted volcano always threatening to erupt. That Ayala went on drug binges and brutalized women whenever his inner demons could no longer be suppressed.

Of Ayala the fighter, his former manager, Lou Duva, once observed: “Forget Leonard, forget Hagler and, yeah, forget Mike Tyson. Rocky Marciano and Tony Ayala were the guys. Not even Muhammad Ali, great as he was, had it quite like those two.”

Dispute Duva’s take on Ayala the fighter if you must, but the prevailing viewpoint of the man outside of the ring is not in such glowing terms.

“I hope they prosecute him to the max in San Antonio,” Passaic County (N.J.) assistant district attorney Marilyn Zbodinski, who prosecuted Ayala for the 1983 rape convicted that landed him in prison for 16 years, said upon learning he had been arrested for a strikingly similar transgression in 2000. “He is a habitual, vicious criminal, and he’s not going to change.”

In many ways, the Tony Ayala Jr. story is reminiscent of another extremely gifted but tortured fighter, Johnny “Mi Vida Loca” Tapia, who was just 45 when his finally heart gave out on May 27, 2012. If there is a difference between them, it is that Tapia stayed out of trouble long enough to capture world championships at super flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight, and whose lengthiest period of inactivity was 3½ years. Ayala on the other hand, did not box for nearly 17 years, his first conviction forever erasing his already-agreed-upon title challenge of WBA 154-pound champ Davey Moore.

Were Ayala and Tapia victims of unfortunate circumstances that predisposed them to tragedy and heartbreak, directed at themselves as well as others? Were they deficient in some way that prevented them from rising above those circumstances? Or, especially in the case of Ayala, was he simply an inherently bad seed who pondered at length the forces that shaped his destiny?

For Tapia, the compelling reality of his life was the rape and murder of his mother, Virginia Tapia Gallegos, when Johnny was eight years old. The pain of her absence in his life drove him to dull the most jagged edges of his psyche with narcotics, and to take his anger out on opponents inside the ropes.

During his first incarceration, Ayala admitted to having been sexually abused as a boy by a male acquaintance of his family, something he was unable to speak about to his parents, Tony Sr. and Pauline, and then-wife Lisa for many years.

B. “I kept this from everybody, especially the people I care about,” Ayala told me during a two-hour interview session at Bayside State Prison in Cumberland County, N.J., in January 1998. “I kept it from my mother, my father, my wife. The first person who ever heard about it was my prison psychologist (Brian Raditz, who became Ayala’s manager upon his release).

“My drug use was more of an open secret. Other people knew about it. My dad didn’t. My dad is very ignorant about things like drugs and drug use. My dad never did anything like that in his life and he couldn’t imagine anyone he loved doing that either. He couldn’t detect the signs and the behavior that are associated with drugs.”

Not that Ayala’s personal failings or his heroin habit prevented him from battering his way toward the top of his profession.

“It became a situation where I had to prove myself constantly,” he said during the same interview. “Everything I did, including boxing, became about my machismo, my manhood, my ability to dominate and control my world and the people in it. It was about imposing my will on another person.

“It affected my sexuality as well. I felt a constant need to prove myself to be straight and strong and virile. There was this cycle that kept repeating itself. I’d fight and receive a great deal of praise. I was everybody’s favorite child. Then, within a short period of time, I would get arrested for being drunk, getting into a brawl, breaking into somebody’s house or whatever. Then I would fight again and the bad things would be more or less forgotten. Until I did them again, and I always did.”

The insanity came to a boil in the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 1983, when a booze-fueled Ayala committed an act so heinous it could no longer be swept aside with by his boxing fame. No longer would he be everybody’s favorite child.

According to testimony presented at Ayala’s trial, a 30-year-old woman living in his apartment complex in West Paterson, N.J., was awakened by the sound of her bedroom doorknob turning. The door opened to reveal a man, a man she saw only by the light of a clock radio. The intruder produced a knife, tied her to the bed with her socks, blindfolded her, then had his way with her. In the next room, the woman’s 29-year-old roommate was awakened when a man entered her bedroom. He warned her that her roommate was tied up, and would be killed if she attempted to call the police. Minutes later, the roommate jumped out of her first-floor window and ran to a neighbor’s house, where she called the police. When the cops arrived at the apartment complex at 5:30 a.m., they found Ayala, clad only in blue jeans, wandering the grounds and smelling of alcohol. He claimed he was going to his car for cigarettes, but he fit the description of the assailant and was arrested.

At his trial, Ayala contended that the victim had invited him into her apartment and that they had engaged in consensual sex. The jury wasn’t buying it, and after deliberating for only 3½ hours, Ayala was found guilty on six charges: burglary, aggravated sexual assault, two counts of possession of a knife for an unlawful purpose, threatening to kill, and terroristic threats.

In noting Ayala’s history of violent behavior – at 15 he was placed on 10 years probation after pleading guilty to aggravated assault in the beating of an 18-year-old woman in the restroom of a San Antonio drive-in theater – the presiding judge sentenced him to a 15- to 35-year prison term, ordering that he serve at least 15 years without the possibility of parole. An appellate court later adjusted the sentence to 15 to 30 years.

B b“I can’t express how much regret that I allowed myself to get to a point where I had to commit this terrible crime to recognize what I was doing to myself,” said Ayala in admitting that his claim of consensual sex was a blatant falsehood. “I deserved to be punished for what I did. I am remorseful beyond words that I caused pain that person will have to carry for the rest of her life.

“But you know what? I don’t blame anyone or anything else for my circumstances. It was me. It’s not society’s fault. It isn’t mommy and daddy’s fault. It’s not because I’m Hispanic (of Mexican descent) and not white. It’s not because I’m misunderstood. That’s a crock of crap.”

Well-spoken and seemingly sincere, Ayala talked a good game, but he was denied early release on several occasions despite being what he termed a “model prisoner,” and one who even served as a counselor to fellow inmates. He served the full 15 years mandated by the presiding judge because, according to Andy Consovoy, then a member of the New Jersey Parole Board, the nature of his crimes indicated an especially high recidivism rate.

“John Douglas (an FBI profiler who was a consultant in the making of the Academy Award-winning “The Silence of the Lambs”) talks about something called `precipitating stress,’ Consovoy said. “Once Ayala (lost a fight), he was going to go off. There was no doubt.”

Having regained his freedom, Ayala vowed he would never again put himself in a situation that might again entrap him in a cage with iron bars.

V “I want to live a good, positive life, not just in boxing,” he said. “My life isn’t boxing. Boxing is only a small part of my life. After I fight two, three, four years, I fold that tent and go on with the rest of my life. I won’t lay down and die. I didn’t spend all those years in prison to get out and make a comeback. I prepared myself for life in its entirety, with all its problems and its choices. I want to make good choices from now on.”

For a time, Ayala’s impossible dream of rediscovered contention seemed, well, maybe not quite so impossible. He won five fights as a super middleweight, lost to Yori Boy Campas, then won four times more before Consovoy’s dire prediction came true, not long after the erstwhile “El Torito” was stopped in 11 rounds by Anthony Bosante on April 25, 2003. In 2014 he completed a 10-year prison sentence in Texas for burglary of a habitation.

But there was still a bit deeper toward rock-bottom that Ayala had to sink. His father, a trainer to world champions John Michael Johnson, Jesse Benavides, Gabby Canizales and Maribel Zurita and who pulled all four of his sons out of high school to concentrate on boxing, was 78 when he died of complications of diabetes on April 10, 2014. Even in Tony Jr.’s darkest hours, his dad had been the closest thing he had to an emotional anchor, and now that anchor line had been cut, leaving the son to drift away.

One wonders what might have happened had Ayala, during his first incarceration, cooperated with Sylvester Stallone on a movie project that would have taken an unstinting look at Ayala’s ruined life and career.

“He offered good money to do my story,” Ayala said in 1998. “But I didn’t want my story being told then because the movie would have had to end one way and one way only, with me in prison. It would have been a sad ending. I’d rather be forgotten than to have my story end that way.”

Now the story has its ending, and it’s still sad. All that remains is the speculation and conjecture as to what a focused and trouble-free Ayala might have accomplished in the ring. Ayala thought about that, and often, given all the years he had to contemplate the might-have-beens.

“Hagler, to me, was a great fighter, a great warrior,” he said of one of the dream matchups that never became reality. “I think me and him would have been one of the greatest fights in history. One of us would have gone down.

“Duran, I would have blown out. At any time in my career I would have knocked him out. Duran punked out and I still hold it against him. He punked out before `No Mas’ (his surrender in his second fight with Leonard), as far as I’m concerned. Duran’s place in history is undisputed, but if he had come into my territory, he would have been mine. I owned the junior middleweight division.

“To beat Leonard, I would have had to knock him out. I wouldn’t have won a decision because he was America’s poster boy. He was everything America tells blacks they can be. And he played the role good. He was a great fighter. Bu he was so popular, he won some fights he shouldn’t have won, against Hagler and the second one against Hearns.

“Tommy Hearns and I would never have fought. That was an agreement made between Emanuel Steward (Hearns’ manager-trainer) and my dad. Emanuel and my dad were real good friends from the amateur days. Anyway, Emanuel knows I would have taken Tommy apart.”

This is where any story about the death of a notable boxing figure is supposed to end with the expressed wish that he rests in peace. Here’s hoping that peace also extends to the victims of the uncontrollable rages that took Ayala down a road no one should ever have to travel.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 274: Yeritsyan vs Randall at Chumash Casino, Japan and More

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Violence of an organized nature begins in the rustic and peaceful surroundings of Santa Inez, California as welterweights Gor Yeritsyan and Quinton Randall headline a 360 Boxing Promotions card at Chumash Casino on Friday.

Hours later, three world championship fights erupt in Japan. And hours after that, super middleweights tangle in Florida.

All will be streamed.

Undefeated Yeritsyan (17-0, 14 KOs) meets Randall (13-1-1, 3 KOs) for the WBC Continental Americas title on Friday, Feb. 23, at Chumash Casino. UFC Fight Pass will stream the 360 Boxing Promotions card.

Others on the card include undefeated super lightweight Cain Sandoval (11-0, 11 KOs) meeting Javier Molina (22-5, 9 KOs) in a battle set for 10 rounds. It’s a stronger test for Sandoval who has blasted out every opponent. Molina is one of the fighting twin brothers who both were Olympians.

Javier was an Olympian in 2008 for the USA and Oscar Molina an Olympian for Mexico in 2012.

“I’ve been hearing about Cain for a while, but I know my skills and experience will give me the victory,” said Molina who fights out of Los Angeles.

Sandoval, 21, last November won by knockout in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“Javier is a very good veteran who has had many more fights than me, but he’s never felt my power before,” said Sandoval who fights out of Sacramento.

Chumash Casino is located near one of the old California missions and built by the Spaniards in 1804. You can see open land for miles with the next nearest town of Solvang a short driving distance away.

Over the decades I’ve seen some memorable fights including Timothy “Desert Storm” Bradley’s wild victory over Manuel Garnica in 2007 and Seniesa “Super Bad’ Estrada’s pro debut win in 2011 against Maria Ruiz.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Tokyo Hosts Three World Title Fights

It’s a triple-header in Tokyo for real fight lovers.

Early Saturday morning at 1 a.m. (Pacific Time) three world title matches headed by WBC bantamweight titlist Alexandro Santiago (28-3-5, 14 KOs) of Mexico defending against Japan’s Junto Nakatani (26-0, 19 KOs) take place.

Santiago defeated legendary champion Nonito Donaire last July in Las Vegas in an upset. He also fought to a draw against Filipino slugger Jerwin Ancajas who is also on this card.

Nakatani is a big hitter and two-division world champion. He is very familiar with Mexican fighters and often trains in Southern California. I saw him in Maywood, California a year ago. He’s quite a fighter.

In the other co-main event WBA bantamweight titlist Takuma Inoue (18-1, 4 KOs) defends against former super flyweight champion Jerwin Ancajas (34-3-2, 23 KOs) of the Philippines. Its speed against power.

A third co-main features WBO super flyweight titlist Kosei Tanaka (19-1, 11 KOs) defending against Mexico’s Christian Bacasegua (22-4-2, 9 KOs).

ESPN+ will stream the card live on Saturday.

Matchroom in Orlando

It’s a showcase for contenders.

Brooklyn native Edgar Berlanga (21-0, 16 KOs) “the Chosen One” meets United Kingdom’s Padraig “the Hammer” McCrory (18-0, 9 KOs) in the super middleweight main event on Saturday, Feb. 24. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card from Orlando, Florida.

Berlanga, of Puerto Rican descent, burst on the pro boxing scene by knocking out 16 consecutive foes. But ever since 2021 he has been unable to win by knockout. Five consecutive opponents went the distance.

Can Berlanga still punch?

Facing the Boricua slugger will be McCrory a 35-year-old from Northern Ireland who remains undefeated. To put it into perspective, the United Kingdom is filled with very good super middleweights and none have beaten McCrory so far.

Also on the card is Cuban Olympic gold medalist Andy Cruz (2-0) defending a regional lightweight title against Mexican southpaw Brayan Zamarripa (14-2, 9 KOs). Cruz has blistering speed and an aggressive style as a pro.

Other interesting fights feature bantamweight prospects Antonio Vargas (17-1) and Jonathan Rodriguez (17-1-1). Both can punch but each lost via knockout. Whose chin will prove sturdier in this clash?

Fights to Watch (all times Pacific Time)

Fri. UFC Fight Pass 7 p.m. Gor Yeritsyan (17-0) vs Quinton Randall (13-1-1)

Sat. ESPN+ 1 a.m. Alexandro Santiago (28-3-5) vs Junto Nakatani (26-0).

Sat. DAZN 4 p.m. Edgar Berlanga (21-0) vs Padraig McCrory (18-0).

Photo: Tom Loeffler is flanked by Javier Molina and Cain Sandoval. Photo credit: Lina Baker

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Fighters from Tijuana are on a Roll; Can Alexandro Santiago Keep Up the Momentum?

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Fighters from Tijuana are on a Roll; Can Alexandro Santiago Keep Up the Momentum?

Last Thursday, a Golden Boy Promotions card in California produced an early entrant for Upset of the Year. In the main event, unsung Jesus “Ricky” Perez out-pointed former U.S. Olympian and former two-division title-holder Joseph “Jojo” Diaz.

Perez hails from Tijuana. Heading in, he had lost five of his last nine and had never won a match slated for more than eight rounds. He started fast and held on to win a split nod (ancient ringside judge Lou Moret awarded Perez nine of the 10 rounds).

The fast-growing, hardscrabble city of Tijuana, which sits at the northwest tip of the Baja peninsula, has produced a steady stream of good boxers over the years (Erik Morales, a Hall of Famer, and Antonio Margarito, a two-time world welterweight champion, come quickly to mind), but is currently enjoying arguably the best run in the city’s boxing history. And the distaff side is sharing in the prosperity. Flyweight Kenia Enriquez (28-1, 11 KOs) and her younger sister Tania Rodriguez (21-1, 10 KOs), a light flyweight, are knocking on the door of world title fights (Kenia holds an interim belt).

Last December, when pundits at the leading U.S. boxing websites brainstormed to come up with the 2023 Fight of the Year, two bouts stood out above all others: the Feb. 18 match between super bantamweights Luis Nery and Azat Hovhannisyan and the June 10 super middleweight contest between Jaime Munguia and Sergiy Derevyanchenko.

The Nery-Hovhannisyan match was a riveting, see-saw rumble that ended with Nery winning by TKO in the 11th round. Munguia scored a knockdown in the 12th to overcome Derevyanchenko, eking out a razor-thin but unanimous decision. Both victors have since added another “W” to their respective ledgers. Nery (35-1, 27 KOs) KOed Filipino veteran Froilan Saludar. Munguia (43-0, 34 KOs) dominated and stopped England’s John Ryder.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Luis Nery and Jaime Munguia were both born and raised in Tijuana. And we will be hearing a lot more about them. Although unofficial, Nery has an agreement in place to fight superstar Naoya Inoue in Tokyo in May and, according to various reports, Munguia is now the frontrunner to be Canelo Alvarez’s next opponent.

The month after Munguia-Derevyanchenko, Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (pictured) scored his signature win and won the vacant WBC world bantamweight title with an upset of the great Filipino fighter Nonito Donaire. Santiago won a clear-cut decision on the card topped by the mega-fight between Terence Crawford and Errol Spence.

Santiago (28-3-5, 14 KOs) has a formidable challenge for his first title defense which comes on Saturday in Tokyo. In the opposite corner will be undefeated Junto Nakatani (26-0, 19 KOs) who is moving up in weight after winning world titles at 112 and 115. Nakatani can really crack as he showed with his brutal, one-punch knockout of Andrew Moloney.

There are two other title fights on the card which will air in the U.S. on ESPN+. Needless to say, one will have to get out of bed early to catch all the action. The first bell is slated for 4 am ET, 1 pm PT.

Santiago will be a heavy underdog against his Japanese opponent who will have a 5-inch height advantage. However, if recent history is any guide, one should not be too quick to dismiss his chances.

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Who Murdered Peter Bufala? A ‘Whodunit’ with a Boxing Backdrop

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On Friday, Oct. 8, 1976, Peter Bufala returned home from work just as a new day was dawning. The Las Vegas baccarat dealer pulled his Cadillac into his circular driveway, exited his car, walked toward his front door, and was felled by two bullets from a 9 mm handgun, one entering his chest and the other his brain. A neighbor fetching his morning newspaper found him lying in a pool of blood on his front lawn. He was dead when the police arrived. He was 33 years old and left behind a wife and two young daughters.

A 12-year resident of the fast-growing southern Nevada gambling mecca, Bufala grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, a blue collar suburb of Philadelphia. He had come here to rekindle his boxing career.

A Middle Atlantic amateur featherweight champion, he had begun his pro career on a high note, winning a 4-round decision over a fellow novice on a show at New York’s St. Nicholas Arena that included Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who would go on to fight for the world middleweight title but would be best remembered for the many years he spent behind prison walls for his alleged involvement in a triple homicide.

Following his New York engagement, Bufala fought in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia. As a pro, he never fought in his home state and there was a reason for it. In 1961, while undergoing a routine medical examination at an amateur show, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. The Pennsylvania Boxing Commission rescinded his license. He subsequently underwent a series of tests at Temple University Medical Hospital and was given a clean bill of health, but the Pennsylvania authorities were unyielding and, bit by bit, in a day when news traveled slowly, other jurisdictions fell into line.

Nevada was the Wild West. The regulators there had looser standards and Bufala resumed his career on Sept. 2, 1964 at the Castaways, out-pointing his opponent in a 5-round match to improve his ledger to 7-3. The publicity man misspelled his name, adding an extra “f”, and he would remain Pete Buffala whenever his name appeared in the sports section of the local papers.

Fifty years ago, in 1964, approximately 165,000 people resided in all of sprawling Clark County, home to Las Vegas. The thought that Vegas would someday host a Formula 1 Grand Prix or a Super Bowl, two of the grandest sports spectacles in the world, was preposterous. The only local sport that ever made the national news wire was boxing.

The fulcrum was Bill Miller, a hot-headed boxing junkie from Elmira, New York, who owned a saloon on the Las Vegas Strip that he out-fitted with a boxing gym in the basement. Miller’s “Strip Fight of the Week,” which bounced from one little casino to another during a run that lasted well over a decade, bucked the national trend. Small fight clubs, with very few exceptions, had fallen by the wayside, a development triggered by the mass production of televisions.

Miller was hardly immune to all the little hassles that plague a grass-roots boxing promoter. Matches were constantly falling out. But he had several things working in his favor. As opportunities dried up elsewhere, journeymen boxers were drawn here by the promise of steady work. And although Miller couldn’t afford to pay enough to make boxing a full-time profession, good-paying jobs were plentiful in the construction and hospitality industries.

To be certain, there were also push factors. Chester, Pennsylvania, a shipbuilding hub during World War II, had fallen on hard times, plagued by unemployment and racial strife. Lowell, Massachusetts, a city known for its vibrant amateur boxing culture, was likewise hurting with row after row of textile factories sitting vacant. Lowell produced Eddie Andrews, a hard-hitting middleweight who would be the first fighter to make promoter Miller any significant money without having to take him on the road to a larger precinct or overseas.

Andrews supplemented his ring earnings dealing blackjack at Caesars Palace. For a time, Ralph Dupas was a co-worker. A former world title-holder at 154 pounds, Dupas settled in Las Vegas in the mid-1960s as his career was winding down and remained here until his encroaching dementia passed the tipping point and family members brought him home to his native New Orleans to live out his final days.

Returning to Peter Bufala, he worked his way up the ladder on Miller’s promotions, eventually topping the marquee for a fight with Johnny Brooks. They fought at the Hacienda, a grind joint at the south end of the Strip (where Mandalay Bay now sits) on April 13, 1965. Brooks was nothing special, but he was better than his 17-6-3 record. He would go on to last the distance in 10-round fights with future Hall of Famers Emile Griffith and Carlos Monzon.

Bufala was bloodied in the third round and knocked down in the fourth, but mounted a furious rally and at the end of the 10 rounds the judges could not pick a winner and the match went into the books as a draw. Working on the “5-point-must” system, the scores were 46-44 Bufala, 46-45 Brooks, and 46-46. (Trivia time: The 46-46 tally was turned in by ringside judge Harry Reid who would go on to become the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate. Nowadays, visitors flying in to Las Vegas arrive at Harry Reid International Airport.)

Had Bufala won the bout, his next fight would have been a 12-rounder against Reno’s Dave Patterson, the Nevada Lightweight Champion. But when he returned to the ring the following month, it was in a 6-rounder against an unsung fighter from Los Angeles named Davey White and, in a shocker, White blasted him out in the second round.

Bufala announced his retirement after this fight. It warranted scarcely a mention in the Las Vegas papers, but the folks back in Chester hadn’t forgotten him. “Pete Bufala Quits Boxing for Health,” read the bold headline on the sports page of the June 9, 1965 issue of the Delaware County Daily Times. The accompanying story said that Buffala, “Chester’s most promising professional fighter,” had emerged from his most recent bout with a blot clot in his neck and was troubled by chronic back problems. (Buffala would have one more fight before quitting the sport for good. He won his final fight, a 6-rounder, bringing his final record, per boxrec, to 16-5-2.)

Bufala never returned to Chester. He married a local girl and, in short order, was a father of three, two girls and a boy who tragically died at 16 months when he crawled into a plastic laundry bag and suffocated as his mother was distracted writing checks.

In December of 1973, the MGM Grand opened on the southeast corner of the busiest intersection on the Las Vegas Strip. This was the city’s original MGM Grand that would take the name Bally’s and was recently re-branded the Horseshoe. With 2,100 rooms, a 1,200-seat showroom and a jai alai fronton, the MGM Grand made its competitors look puny by comparison. Peter Bufala was there on opening night, dealing baccarat.

In terms of the money put at risk, baccarat is the crème-de-crème of card games. It attracts the whales, the high-rollers that leave the biggest tips. On a good night at a high-end establishment like the MGM Grand, it wasn’t uncommon for a dealer to rake in $500 in gratuities. Bufala worked the graveyard shift (likely 9 pm to 5 am; it varied by hotel), the most coveted shift for a dealer in a day when visitors to Las Vegas were more nocturnal than they are today.

One didn’t get to be a baccarat dealer in a ritzy joint by working his way up from the bottom. One had to know the right people. In the vernacular, one got juiced into the job. And the juicer might expect a kick-back.

One of the most influential people in Las Vegas was an outsider who tried to keep a low profile, Gaspare “Jasper” Speciale. A transplanted New York bookmaker, Speciale co-owned and managed the Tower of Pizza restaurant which sat a stone’s throw from the MGM Grand on the opposite side of the street. Speciale opened doors for dozens of people seeking employment in the hospitality industry. If one was new in town and needed work in a hurry, Jasper was the man to see.

Until the arrival in Las Vegas of the notorious Tony Spilotro, Speciale was the city’s premier private money lender. He would eventually serve four years in a federal prison for loan-sharking.

Whenever there was a murder in Las Vegas that had the earmarks of a mob hit, speculation always centered on Gaspare Speciale. It mattered not that he was active in his church and donated lavishly to local charities. Moreover, he had a warm spot in his heart for prizefighters. In the spacious backyard of his home, chockablock with mementos of his boyhood in New York City, there was a replica of Stillman’s Gym complete with a punching bag and rubbing tables.

Another theory, although one that acquired less currency, pointed the finger at Bufala’s father-in-law who was the beneficiary of Peter’s life insurance policy. The two were partners in a small sporting goods store where it was rumored that one could purchase an unregistered firearm.

On the day that Peter Bufala was assassinated, the story about it in the Las Vegas Sun, an afternoon paper, said that the former boxer had no bad habits – he didn’t drink, smoke, gamble or chase women — and that he was well-liked by everyone that knew him. But, said a police detective, “Someone wanted him dead and eventually we’re going to find out who that someone is and why.”

Forty-seven years after the fact, the who and the why remain as baffling as ever. If Peter Bufala were alive today, he would be 80 years old. This is a mystery that will likely never be solved.

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