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A Closer Look at Jack vs Makabu: A Very Modern Crossroads Fight

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Crossroads fights in the 1930s were about ranked contenders vying for a shot at one of only eight championships in all the world. In the 1980s, crossroads combat tended to consist of a past-prime former contender meeting with an up-and-comer in pursuit of one of three belts. Today, in 2023, a crossroads match in the cruiserweight division looks like Ilunga Junior Makabu (29-2) defending his dusty strap against a man that used to hold one of his own at 168 and 175lbs, Badou Jack (27-3-3) this weekend in Saudi Arabia.

Jack’s career has been a mess of confusion. From the moment he stepped into the ring to box for an alphabet title, his ground has been unsure. Jack met with Anthony Dirrell in 2015 at 168lbs for his first bauble, Dirrell sweeping in with single right hands, Jack returning the favour, each trying to counter the other’s jabs. At no time did either man establish dominance and at no time was a decision sure but Jack probably, barely, deserved the majority nod he received. In his first defence Jack met George Groves in a fight I scored a draw where Jack came away with a split. His second defence against Lucian Bute was scored a majority draw, later altered to a disqualification victory for Jack because of Bute’s use of Ostarine. Still with me?

Jack then boxed two more majority draws, this time with James De Gale, who lost a tooth during the fight but apparently managed to bank enough rounds to escape unbeaten (I thought Jack was a little unlucky), in defence of his 168lb strap; then against Adonis Stevenson (the luck here may have run for rather than against him), this time in defence of the 175lb strap he’d picked up against Nathan Cleverly.  Three majority draws, a split decision win, a majority decision win and a disqualification win later, Jack finally dropped his title to Marcus Browne. After returning to form with a desperately close decision loss to Jean Pascal in 2019, Jack left 168 and 175 behind forever, departing for cruiserweight. He also began treading water, short of title-boxing and serious purses.

Confusion, too, has been the watchword of the world’s number four cruiserweight Ilunga Junior Makabu, but there was no uncertainty about his 2016 match with Tony Bellew where Makabu was butchered in three. It took him three years to return to the top-tier, against the Russian Aleksei Papin against whom he achieved a majority decision. In truth Makabu looked a winner in that fight, the drilled straight left Makabu seated Papin with in the twelfth seemingly the cherry on a cake made up predominantly of vicious body-punching. The judges though, saw that knockdown as all that separated the two men from a draw. Nevertheless, Makabu was able to return to the Congo for his shot at a belt, beating Michal Cieslak in a torrid affair that perhaps should not have been scored a split – Makabu took it clear. After one more defence in Congo, Makabu put his feet up. He did not box a single contest in the whole of 2021. In January of 2022 he travelled to America for the first time and under the auspices of Don King put his belt on the line against South African Thabiso Mchunu. The result was a fight so close that any narrow card is reasonable – Makabu got the split decision win.

Indeed, Makabu apparently found the decision so desperate that he rewarded himself with the rest of the year off. His story, for all that it is a tale of narrow margins, is somewhat redemptive, but in boxing just once in twenty-six months, he has rendered himself all-but irrelevant despite the strap he wears. He has clung on to his ranking by virtue of modern boxing’s tolerance for inactivity and a formerly thriving 200lb division bereft of intrigue in the wake of Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev but, in reality, should Makabu lose to Jack this weekend, he is 1-1 since 2020 and the single win is a questionable one. Makabu has been brought to the cusp of gatekeeper status by the most modern of fistic malaise, inactivity. He doesn’t fight so he can’t win – but he also can’t lose which means he has yet to be eliminated.

Explicitly, though, there is nowhere for the thirty-five-year-old Makabu to go should he lose to Jack. Jack, for his part, has been much more active but at a lower level.  Out twice in 2022, he knocked out the hapless Hany Atiyo in a round before facing off against his first legitimate test since his loss to Jean Pascal, meeting the American prospect Richard Rivera on the undercard of the Usyk-Anthony Joshua rematch. Many considered Jack a little lucky to get the decision that night but I was not among them. I thought Jack made it close enough that the cards were reasonable and he landed some of the better punches in the fight, including a fizzing right hand at the beginning of the sixth. Jack was at his best throwing such sudden punches, all whip and torque, speedy and unexpected, but a lot of these gifts have departed him now. Jack is thirty-nine and the 168lb fighter that out-slicked Dirrell is gone. Jack cuts a ponderous figure in the ring, slow, fleshy, more than capable of the occasional flighted power-punch but probably no longer able to sustain such punches in bunches.

Still, ponderous but far from unsure. Jack always had one of the better static defences in boxing, another modern manifestation and one that has come about due to changes in the rules. The removal of the thumb and the increased weight of boxing gloves has made defending against weaved punches, already less effective due to the reduce nimbleness in the glove, easier: stick the mitts to the face and tuck in those elbows. Jack was never difficult to hit, but he was always difficult to hit clean and this is an art he has perfected. The reason I thought Jack did better against Rivera than many is that many of Rivera’s punches slid off those gloves by my eye. Jack relies on clean-eyed judging now, but it is a valid form of defence. It has covered for his diminished mobility.

Only on defence though – Jack isn’t going to be able to cut off the ring on many younger cruiserweights. This is in interesting opposition to Makabu’s stylistic cornerstones though; Makabu isn’t going to be running. Makabu’s problems are as old as the sport in that he has to get closer to taller, rangier foes. This has seen him develop a fascinating offensive strategy built around a fine judge of the distance.  Makabu “dashes” his offence, quick punches from many different angles, he loves bodyshots, but he uses them to buy headshots, he has a stiff jab, but it is short so he uses the full range of attacking planes to buy himself that punch. In short, he is one big cruiserweight feint, a trickster masquerading as a slugger, a veteran before his time and legitimately one now. He will be right in front of Jack, who will not have to look for him.

Ilunga Makabu

Ilunga Makabu

Makabu, though, has become skilled at distance and controlled punching specifically because of his stature relative to his division. He is usually the shorter man with the shorter reach. In his last fight though, he was neither and clearly this threw him stylistically. Thabiso Mchunu has in many ways demonstrated just how a naturally smaller man might handle Makabu. Jack is strategically adept and will be watching that fight. What he will see is that a general defence – his defence – is more efficient here than a punch-picking defence. He will also see that Makabu is there for the type of sudden, unexpected leads that he used to be known for. This is a tantalising combination in any circumstances, but at the crossroads, it will be all the more so.  Jack’s shorter reach will likely be no handicap.

Makabu’s strategy will likely hang upon a body-attack that for Jack, soft at the weight, could prove to be a painful one. Could it be that this most cerebral of confrontations could come down to the oldest cliché of them all: who wants it most?  It is not impossible. Certainly the equivalent fight fought between much younger, more active fighters in a bygone era could easily have fallen into that type of violence, here it is just one of many possibilities. Will Makabu be rusty, and if so for how long? If he is, can Jack shake off that usual slow start, and if he can, how will that sit with his thirty-nine-year-old frame in rounds ten and eleven? Can Makabu’s variety crystalise to the punches that pierce the Jack guard, and if they do, can Jack uncork enough of those lashing, uncovered right hands to compensate?

There is much to be seen here and it will be seen by millions as this strange contest appears on the undercard of one even stranger. In a final and most modern of twists, Jack and Makabu will box on the undercard of the Tommy Fury-Jake Paul event, subservient to two reality tv stars. Hardcore fight fans such as those that make up the Sweet Science readership will have to decide whether to put money in the pockets of these reality tv stars in order to see Jack-Makabu. It is harder to think of a more complete summary of the strange world of boxing in 2023.

I will be sitting this one out but equally I’ll be looking for news of this crossroads contest that will set the winner on the road to a potentially lucrative showdown with Lawrence Okolie who has the promotional clout to bring the belt to Britain, but sets the loser on the road to retirement. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to see a forty-year-old Badou Jack take another tilt at cruiserweight gold in 2024; should Makabu lose, late 2024 would be about when we could expect to see him again.

In the end, I expect the man to lose out will be Jack. It will be sad to see given his long, strange, storied career but I just don’t see him holding up against that body attack and I just don’t think he is mobile enough to escape it. It could be slow and painful and he could have his right-handed moments but I think it will be a question of whether or not Jack can see the bell rather than win the day.

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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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