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The man certainly had a way with words. He was a natural-born storyteller with great pacing and timing. He'd start talking about one thing, wind up talking about something else and then—just when you thought all was lost—he'd double back to the starting point.
But Johnny wasn't much for schooling. As a kid, he was in and out of several different schools, running with the wrong crowd in the old Italian neighborhood near Erie and Damen.
He got busted so many times, he just about lost count. Robberies, assaults, break ins. He was—as he readily admitted—a very bad boy.
As the legend goes, his big turnaround came sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, when Judge Marvin Aspen basically gave him a choice: Go to prison or take up boxing.
He went on to become one of Chicago's best boxers of the 1970s. In 1978, he won the USBA lightweight title with a fifth-round knockout of Andrew Ganigan.
In 1979, he fought Ernesto Espana for the WBA lightweight title in a fight broadcast by none other than the great Howard Cosell. How about that!
Alas, he lost in the ninth.
By the time I got to know him, it was well into the 1990s and he'd been out of the fight game for almost 15 years, and he was making a living as a . . .
Well, I’m not sure how Johnny made his living.
Whatever he did, it seemed he knew everyone in town: lawyers, judges, pro athletes, mobsters . . .
He was particularly connected with a lot of local politician: Alderman Richard Mell, 47th ward Democratic Ward Committeeman Ed Kelly, political operative Frank Avila, to name a few.
I believe they hired him to be the muscle, so to speak, for their rough-and-tumble campaigns. Not that he beat anyone up—more like, it was good to have him around if things got nasty.
For a while I think he was in construction. Then he did boxing promotions. Then he trained fighters. Then he managed fighters. It seemed like he was always going out of town—usually, to Vegas—and then coming back.
Always one deal away from the big deal.
The thing about Johnny—he was exceedingly charming. I'm sure his charm got him out of more than a few jams in his life.
He was great at imitations. He did all kinds of accents: black, Puerto Rican, Irish. For an Italian, Catholic guy, he had a great Jewish accent.
He’d call me up and announce: "Benny, boychik—it's your old pal—Saul!"
Then he'd start in with the pitch.
"I'm starting a union for fighters . . ."
Or . . .
"I want to bring more fights back to Chicago . . ."
Or . . .
"I got this girl fighter from Cabrini Green—this girl hits harder than a man."
One time he was bugging me to write an article about Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, the notorious mob hit man, who he knew from the old neighborhood. Like I said, he knew everybody.
He felt Lombardo didn't get enough credit for all the good stuff he'd done.
I took a pass on that story.
Anyway, Johnny died on December 8 of liver failure. He was 61.
At his funeral service, his children and his older sister and his childhood friends and a whole bunch of old fighters—noses flattened from many fights—sang his praise.
I, for one, will miss his voice coming in over the phone.
Rest in peace, boychik.