In the late 1970s, when welterweight contender “Irish” Johnny Turner of Brooklyn, New York, was a local boxing hero who fought regularly at Madison Square Garden, film stars Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro, as well as director Martin Scorsese, were in his dressing room for three consecutive fights.
They were invited there by Turner’s manager, Vern DePaul, who said they were researching a film. DePaul instructed Turner to not ask questions, and just go about his business as he ordinarily would.
“Harvey Keitel was pretty friendly, but Bobby (DeNiro) and Scorsese never said a word,” explained Turner. “They just stood there and observed. They watched everything—very closely. Scorsese was a very intense guy who never got very friendly with you.”
Finally Turner was dispatched to the now defunct Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street in Manhattan to spar with DeNiro. By this time he had been offered a role in a movie to be called “Raging Bull,” which would chronicle the life of troubled middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. Turner would play the part of French boxer Laurent Dauthuille.
However, after instinctively throwing a left hook to the body that dropped DeNiro in a heap, Turner thought his movie career was over before it even began. “Pete Savage (the author of the book on which the movie was based) ran over to me and said, ‘What are you, a wise guy?’ He was really mad. I was sorry, but didn’t do it on purpose. I threw the punch on instinct, and tried to hold back but hit him harder than I thought. But Bobby got right up and wanted to continue. He never held it against me.”
Turner spent nine weeks in Los Angeles, either practicing or filming his fight sequences with DeNiro. They wound up developing a sort of father-son bond. “Bobby was a regular guy, a really classy, sincere guy,” said Turner who is now an incredibly fit 51 years old. “He gave me lots of advice, on dating and other things. Being around him, I never thought I was around a movie star.”
When the film was released amid much fanfare in 1980, it garnered instant acclaim and holds up to this day. Turner, who was Hollywood handsome, says he was courted by several agents who urged him to stay in Tinseltown, but he opted to return to New York to resume his professional boxing career, which began in 1975 and ended in 1984. He retired with a record of 42-6-2 (32 KOs).
“Being in Los Angeles was exciting, but there’s a lot of sitting around in acting,” said Turner. “Sometimes that drove me crazy. Besides, I was a boxer and at that point still had my eye on the title.”
Years later, when DeNiro was filming “A Bronx Tale” in, of all places, Brooklyn, Turner visited him on the set. He was unsure how he would be received, or if he would even be remembered at all by the screen icon.
“He was so gracious and even told me he often thought about me, and wondered how I was doing,” said Turner. “I asked if I could bring my wife back the next night, and he said sure. I can’t say enough good things about the guy.”
Although Turner was once rated in the welterweight top-10, alongside Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Pipino Cuevas, he says, for all intents and purposes, his career ended in August 1979 when he was shockingly upset by unheralded Santiago Valdez in the second round at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum.
“That fight knocked me out of the ratings, and I didn’t realize it then but I never got the spark back,” explained Turner. “I had some good nights and some good fights. As an amateur I was presented with a trophy by Jack Dempsey. Meeting him was like meeting Babe Ruth. I had read a lot about him, and was in awe of him.”
Early in Turner’s pro career he often fought on the same club shows as Gerry Cooney and Tony Danza, and later became a marquee attraction in his own right. The highlight of his career, he says, was stopping Frankie Benitez, the brother of Wilfred, in eight rounds at MSG in 1978. Less than two years later he was stopped in nine rounds by Wilfred in Miami.
Not surprisingly, the biggest what-if of his career relates to Leonard, who was the premier welterweight during a glorious era for that division. “The Valdez fight spoiled everything,” said Turner. “Prior to that, my career was going great. I was in the Hamptons partying when I got the call to take the fight. I wasn’t ready to fight, and should have known better than to take it.”
When Turner finally did retire, after a fifth round TKO victory over Johnny Davis in April 1984, he was at a personal abyss. Fighting was no longer in his blood, but he and his wife Rosann had two small children, Danielle and Christina, who are now 21 and 19 respectively. Turner is the first to admit he was more frightened as an out-of-work father than he ever was as a fighter.
“I kept looking at my two-month-old daughter, and wondered what I was going to do,” said Turner. “My wife, who I love more than ever, kept saying, ‘What are you nervous about? We’ll be okay.’”
As things turned out, Rosann was right. Turner soon got a maintenance job in a large Manhattan office building, and eventually supervised a crew of workmen. In 1986 he became a New York City sanitation worker, a job he holds to this day. He lives comfortably on Staten Island, and Danielle is a graduate of St. John’s University, where she earned a degree in speech pathology. Christina, who narrowly missed an opportunity to appear on “American Idol,” is about to begin college.
“Life is so good today, it’s hard to remember how down in the dumps I once was,” said Turner. “I credit my wife with so much. She stood by me during the toughest of times. All in all, I’ve had a great life and a great career. I didn’t get to fight Sugar Ray Leonard, which maybe was for the better. If I had, even if I lost, my head might have gotten so big I might not have met my wife. If I hadn’t met her, who knows how things would have turned out?"