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British Boxing 2021 Year in Review

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Last year, British boxing was left to sink or swim on its own.

While the British government could not wait to line up lucrative support packages for those sports traditionally beloved by the British upper-classes, including the millionaire’s playground that is horse-racing, boxing, traditionally a working-class pursuit, was left to sink or swim.

It swam, then ran a mile for good measure.  British boxing has proven that it has the heart to match its lungs and even the doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous economic damage that accompanied it could not take its measure.

Here, we will review the year in British boxing that was 2021.

British Fighter of the Year: Josh Taylor

Everybody keeps saying you’re up against an American with Mexican blood…But he’s up against a mad Scotsman. The Romans built a wall to keep us out because we’re mental.

What a year it has been for British fighters. The mighty Tyson Fury cemented his place at the top of boxing’s tree with a thrilling destruction of Deontay Wilder in their third fight, despite being stricken with COVID-19 and personal disaster; flyweight Sunny Edwards dethroned the iconic South African veteran Moruti Mthalane and then defended against the ranked Jason Mama at year’s end; Lawrence Okolie stepped up and thrashed Polish tough Krzysztof Glowacki to establish himself as one of the world’s premier cruiserweights.

Still, I did not have to think for long before selecting Josh Taylor as the British fighter of the year.

This is despite the fact that he only stepped out once in 2021 whereas Edwards and Okolie both managed two fights; if ever there was a clear-cut case of quality over quantity, however, this was it.

Jose Carlos Ramirez was the last hold-out in Taylor’s 140lb backyard, wielding two of the straps handed out by the various ABCs in exchange for cash. It is a sign of a true champion that he will brook no resistance, and so it was for Taylor, who set out for Las Vegas to make his extant number one status definitive.

Josh Taylor won “the fight boxing had been waiting for” but it wasn’t easy. The difference was Taylor’s spite, his innate ability to throw his humanity out of the window and enforce his will on his opponent. He did this by dropping Ramirez twice in middle-rounds, once in the sixth and once in the seventh. Here he married class to spite, stepping back for the first knockdown to bring Ramirez onto a hard southpaw left that dropped him and rattled him but from which he almost immediately recovered. It made the brutal left-uppercut that deposited Ramirez to his backside once more in the seventh more impressive. This time Ramirez was hurt and given Taylor’s finishing credentials, was probably saved by the bell.

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Ramirez fought back hard to make the fight very close, but it was satisfying that these knockdowns were the difference on each of the official scorecards, and to mine, all of which read 114-112 Taylor.  The Scotsman now holds victories over both his number one and number two 140lb contenders, his position as the best fighter in this division unassailable.

British Fight of the Year: Troy Williamson vs Ted Cheeseman

Both fought to extreme levels of exhaustion there. You can only watch in awe and applaud. – Tony Bellew.

For the second consecutive year, Ted Cheeseman finds himself in the British fight of the year.  Last year, Cheeseman won a thrill-a-minute decision against Sam Eggington; this year he dropped a violent loss that doubles as the British knockout of the year.

The two men met in October for the 154lb British title, a belt that continues to inspire a cult following among fighters and to generate more than its fair share of supercharged domestic combat as a result. Cheeseman, a Londoner, was in possession of the title and Troy Williamson, out of Darlington, wanted it.

Cheeseman (17-3-1) is the everyman here. He has seen everything the British fight game has to offer, good and bad. He has been robbed, afforded more chances than he might deserve but has generated the fandom that comes of delivering on those chances. He is consistently in good fights and sometimes in great fights and is grateful for the opportunity.

Williamson is not those things. 17-0-1, he believes himself better than British level and openly stated it to be the case. Cheeseman bristled and set out in the first round to dominate, to push “the better man” back with hard punches, determining to overcome his lack of speed with a power-attack to the body. Williamson met him. His corner begged him to “keep it at range” between the first and second round. Williamson tried and the second was quieter but these two had determined to dominate one-another. When Cheeseman rattled Williamson with power-punches at the end of the second, the equal and opposite reaction awaited only the bell to begin the third.

When does such strategy become attrition? Sometimes it happens almost in secret, you glance down at your scorecard, and you glance up and two men are at war. This one arguably didn’t catch fire in the same way as Cheeseman-Eggington had the year before, but every minute of every round was closely contested, with clean, hard punches landed in turn-and-turnabout, a pattern that soon became both alarming and inspiring.

Every time Williamson’s right-handed shots seemed about to decide matters, Cheeseman would find a risky uppercut or left-hook to the body; either the sixth or seventh could have been the British round of the year. By the tenth, both had been hurt and both were near the bottom of their respective wells.

Cheeseman was absolutely deboned in that fateful tenth, rendered senseless by uppercuts and then a winging left-hook. Williamson delayed his celebration until Cheeseman’s disastrously failing nervous system could be brought under control. He was walked from the ring before the winner was announced and would have been passing out of the auditorium as news of Williamson’s victory reached his ears. His thoughts in that moment remain private.

“I wasn’t backing down from no tear up,” were the thoughts of the winner.

Quite.

British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year: Lerrone Richards

The future’s bright.  I just can’t wait. – Lerrone Richards.

There is very little excitement about Lerrone Richards.

This is odd given that he currently ranks number five to the super-middleweight championship martialled by Canelo Alvarez. Richards had a huge year, and it makes no sense that he continues to fly below so many radars.

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Lerrone

Twenty-nine years old, Richards is out of Surrey, England and is on the short side at 5’11 with a 71” reach. Sporting both a physique and a flattop that recalls the prime of one Chris Eubank Snr., Richards is working on a line in patter to match. Stop-start in the early part of his career, he seemed in danger of stalling, but a chance meeting with trainer Dave Coldwell has led to a hound-like commitment to fighting and seemingly to excel in fighting. Last week, on the undercard of Joseph Parker’s second meeting with Dereck Chisora, Richards landed in earnest, defeating number seven 168lb contender Carlos Gongora.

Gongora, who holds a 2020 victory over the much-touted Kazak Ali Akhmedov, was in possession of a strap but Richards, a former British, Commonwealth and European champion seemed in no way intimidated by the occasion. This is the benefit of what is known in Britain as “doing it properly”, of fighting an apprenticeship at three defined title levels before stepping up to match a boxer from the top ten. Richards is massive across the back and huge across the shoulders, a man of real strength, but he uses footwork and quick-handed forays to score points. It was Gongora who seemed the more bemused of the two by the midway point, while Richards hoovered up points.

No puncher, Dave Coldwell has promised that the stoppages will come as Richards evolves, but now 16-0 with zero stoppages, that seems unlikely. But he is learning his trade and despite the bizarre split decision the judges found, he dominated Gongora with skill.

At the end of 2020, Richards was boxing an eight-rounder against a fighter called Timo Laine. At the end of 2021, he is one big win away from joining the conversation as to Canelo’s next opponent. A breakout year indeed.

I’ll sneak him one more gong before we bid him farewell: Lerrone “Sniper the Boss” Richards also has British boxing’s best nickname.

British Prospect of the Year: Galal Yafai

Being a world champion, it might financially be better in the long run, but being Olympic champion is something I can live with forever. – Galal Yafai.

British boxing, then, is healthy, despite the odds and despite the ravages that have afflicted it not. We sport two men in the pound-for-pound top ten and three of the world’s four premier heavyweights – most of all though, the sport is festooned with prospects of both genders and in many weight-classes. A short list of honourable mentions would have us here for a while but fortunately there is a standout prospect who will emerge as a professional in the coming year having conquered the world as an amateur in 2021.

Galal Yafai, one of three fighting brothers, will turn professional in early 2022, at either 112 or 115lbs.

His path to an outstanding gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics was not an easy one. Yafai drew Cuban legend Yosbany Veitia, a 190-fight veteran, in his opening match. A victory saw him rewarded with a semi-final against Kazakh nationals finalist (Sweet Scientists will know the true meaning of that sentence) Saken Bibossinov. In the final, he dropped Carlo Paalam to his haunches among the ropes in the first round and cantered home to win the gold.

“I’m at the top of the tree now with [my] brothers,” he told a British newspaper this year. “I think so, I won’t tell them that though!”

In truth, Galal has a long way to go to emulate Khalid, who held a belt and measured one of the best superflies in the world before running into all-time great Roman Gonzalez in 2020.

At the cusp of 2022 with a record of 0-0, anything seems possible.

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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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