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A Long Time Coming, Nigel Collins’ Second Anthology Was Worth the Wait

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It is human nature, one supposes, to categorize people as members of easily identifiable groups. As far as pet preferences go, there are dog people and there are cat people. It’s usually a bit more complicated than that, but for purposes of my review of Nigel Collins’ too-long-delayed and highly readable second boxing anthology, Hooking Off the Jab, my preferred frame of reference is the difference between mathematicians and, oh, boxing writers.

In mathematics, there is always one correct answer to any equation and math geeks like it when they can say with absolute certainty they’re right and everyone else is wrong. But if you’re a boxing writer at a major world championship bout, there could be hundreds of credentialed media members who see the same things, but produce reports that are slightly to vastly different, sometimes as individually distinguishable as fingerprints. All print or online journalists compete, in their own way, as fiercely as do gloved fighters, and all want their copy to stand out above that of their colleagues on press row. That, too, is human nature.

Nigel Collins and I have co-existed, at least in a manner of speaking, in the same geographical and professional spheres for 35-plus years, and it is our shared good fortune that we arrived in the great fight city of Philadelphia from different points of origin – he from England, I from New Orleans via several other stops along the way – to cover a sport which has become such an integral part of our lives. But while we are on reasonably friendly terms, we do not interact socially and sometimes we have been made aware of the fact that we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on every issue of the day.  And that’s OK, because it does not and could never detract from the fact that I am a huge proponent of his depth of knowledge about boxing, and his undeniable gift for expressing his passion for it through the power and majesty of the written word.

Nigel has authored stories about boxing for many media outlets, including two stints as editor of The Ring during which he assigned me a number of stories for the magazine. I, along with many other fans of his work, have waited 32 years for a follow-up to his first anthology of the sweet science, Boxing Babylon, which was published in 1990. With Hooking Off the Jab, a 322-page collection of his most personal remembrances of fights and fighters, he demonstrates that, in the parlance of baseball, he has not lost any hop off his literary fastball.

All of which raises a question, one that I think I can answer from my own experience. Once upon a time, at a newspaper for which I toiled before arriving at the Philadelphia Daily News in the spring of 1984, I was offered the opportunity to be promoted to sports editor, at a higher salary. To do so I would have to make story assignments and vacation schedules, attend daily editorial board conferences, all the while somehow ensuring that the reporters answering to me were kept as content as possible in a business where someone’s perception of his or her place in the pecking order is always open to personal perspective and attitude adjustment. A lot of potential problems, sure, but the real downside was that being the departmental boss would severely cut down on my available time to write, which was a tradeoff I could never accept. Regardless of occupation, each one of us has to recognize our strengths and cater to them for our own peace of mind and probable career advancement. Nigel took on those administrative duties and their attendant headaches a couple of times, but my suspicion is that, in retrospect, he might have preferred to write more and edit at least a bit less.

Readers of mystery/crime novels all have their favorite authors, but mine has always been James Lee Burke, and not just because he is a native Louisianian. On nearly every page of Burke’s many books, there is a turn of phrase that is stunning, a flash of brilliance that paints a word picture that elevates the genre in which he labors to high art instead of simple narrative.  In reading Hooking Off the Jab, several of Nigel’s descriptions rise to that level, and, no, not all of his entries are celebratory paeans to the sweet science. He sees the warts and blemishes, too, and has no qualms in pointing them out. Loving boxing does not mean one is forever obligated to like every facet of it. In detailing the factors that possibly contributed to the post-fight riot in Madison Square Garden after Riddick Bowe’s disqualification victory over low-blow artist Andrew Golota in the first of their two foulfests, Nigel puts it this way:

“There’s the contagion theory,” said Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Kutztown University. “We know people do things in crowds they would not do alone. They think they’re anonymous. People make poor decisions in crowds. Another factor is tribalism, a strong loyalty to one’s own tribe, party or group, which was essential to the early survival of the human species.

Disqualifications are a comparatively small percentage of overall results. Usually, it’s the audience that goes bonkers. Despite all efforts to suppress those darker parts of our nature, boxing fans are still boxing fans, a cult that worships at the altar of violence.”

A similar repudiation of the mob mentality that can affect a boxing arena, soccer pitch or anywhere else where tensions can run high is expressed in Nigel’s recollections of the ugly scene that occurred in London’s Wembley Arena on Sept. 27, 1980, when many fans of dethroned middleweight champion Alan Minter, more than a few of whom were inebriated, reacted to the third-round TKO victory by American challenger Marvin Hagler by hurling objects at Hagler and his cornermen. It is a benchmark of Hagler’s greatness, he continues, that he took all that negative energy, stored it internally, and used it as motivational fuel for the rest of his legendary career.

Bitterness and anger can eat you alive, but it can also be the generator that drives your ambition. The differences between the two is discipline and balls enough to go for what you want, and Hagler had plenty of both. He brandished the chip on his shoulder like a cudgel, bashing down his opponents and the doors of the boxing establishment.

There are, of course, references to the late, great Muhammad Ali, whose metamorphosis from divisive firebrand during a contentious period of American history to beloved and sympathetic figure later in life is examined by Nigel, who attended Ali’s funeral procession in Louisville, Ky.

How strange that a boxer, a man who rose to fame by hurting other men, has been transformed into a symbol of peace. Had he been a preacher, his silver tongue and pretty face may have made him rich, but a boxer is something different … A boxer is the other side of the coin, the darkness without which there would be no light. Somehow, Ali managed to become both.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that Nigel, as is the case with all boxing aficionados, includes an entry on a fighter particularly near and dear to his heart, former middleweight contender Bennie Briscoe, who in the 1970s was as much of a Philly sports icon as Mike Schmidt, Bobby Clarke and Ron Jaworski. Dig just below the skin of every boxing writer, even those who most closely adhere to the doctrine of professional impartiality, and a vein of hero admiration can be found. That was mined in Nigel’s description of the first fight he covered for The Ring, the Oct. 11, 1972, pairing of Briscoe and Luis Vinales at the Arena, which ended with Bad Bennie winning by seventh-round stoppage.

I can still see him in my mind’s eye, his trademark shaven skull shining in the lights as he jogged down the aisle to the ring, the crowd cheering every step. The anticipation was palatable. You knew that if Bennie Briscoe was on the card, you were going to see a real fight. Somebody was going to be hurt … Bennie was my favorite fighter. Not the best I’ve seen, but my favorite, nonetheless. For me, he was the strongest symbol of the wonderful decade of the 1970s when Philadelphia boxing was basking in the rays of its last golden era.

It should also come as no surprise to those who appreciate artistic accomplishment in all its varied forms that Nigel, before turning his full attention to the sweet science, was temporarily a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in part because of a submission for enrollment that was a relatively crude reproduction of a Boxing Illustrated cover of a fight between Gene Fullmer and Dick Tiger. To the eternal betterment of boxing, the would-be artist proved far more adept with a note-taking pen in his grasp than a paint brush.

Artists living eccentric and often selfish lives are pretty much the norm. The truth is that in the long run, it’s the art that really matters, not the person who created it. Like boxers, artists sacrifice body and soul in pursuit of their aspirations. They couldn’t stop if they wanted to.

And this, Nigel’s very cultured impression of the three-act passion play that was the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward archrivalry: Taken as a whole, the melodrama that was the Gatti-Ward trilogy could very well provide fodder for Euripides, Sophocles and their brethren, the guys who left the toga parties long enough to write Greek tragedies. Surely Shakespeare could do it justice.

For what it is worth, my third boxing anthology, Championship Rounds, Round 3, will be coming out very soon. Some of the stories contained therein are my versions of ones that appear in Hooking Off the Jab. But Nigel and I are not mathematicians, and I suspect he welcomes, as do I, the chance to emerge victorious in any war of the words. But I have read what he wrote in beating me to the book-release punch, and I’m thinking I could live with a draw.

Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the Class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Round 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, is currently out. The anthology can be ordered through Amazon.com and other book-selling websites and outlets.

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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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