When Canadian heavyweight Bob Bozic squared off against Larry Holmes at Madison Square Garden in September 1973, it didn’t take him long to realize that Holmes had what it took to be a future champion.
Going into the fight, the 23-year-old Bozic had sparred countless rounds with George Chuvalo, his friend from Toronto who had faced the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Jerry Quarry. While Bozic had no shortage of battle scars from Chuvalo, he was surprised early on by Holmes’s abilities.
“His jab broke my nose eight seconds into the fight,” said Bozic, still trim and fit at 57 and a weekend bartender and manager at Fanelli’s Café, a great bistro located at the corner of Prince and Mercer streets in the Soho section of Manhattan.
“When he knocked three of my teeth out, I told myself that this was going to be an interesting evening.”
Bozic went the six-round distance with Holmes, who raised his record to 5-0 and went on to much greater ring glories.
Bozic, who had turned pro in 1970, incurred his second loss. Immediately afterwards, Teddy Brenner, the longtime matchmaker at MSG, told Bozic, “Kid, if you’re half as tough in life as you are in the ring, you’ll be okay.”
Although boxrec.com says he compiled a 14-3 (7 KOS) record between 1970 and 1977, Bozic, and others, say he had more fights than that.
“Bozic was awkward but rough and he always came to fight,” said TSS contributor Peter Wood, a 1971 New York City Golden Gloves finalist who is the author of two books: “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling Through the New York Golden Gloves” and “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion,” both of which were published by Ringside Books and can be ordered online at ringsidebooks.com or amazon.com.
“He looked like the kind of guy who would risk everything. He wasn’t well-schooled and he was rough around the edges, but he was a tough SOB.”
Bozic fought with a recklessness and relentlessness that was honed on the mean streets of Toronto, where he was rendered homeless while barely in his teens. He never met his father, a wealthy Serbian communist who invented an air brake for a locomotive.
His mother was all but absent during his formative years.
Bozic was “discovered” on the streets of Toronto by a Canadian gangster. The mobster took pity on him after observing the disheveled youth, who had a desperate, hungry look in his eyes, eating a bag of potato chips.
He took him to his “office,” which was the back of a local restaurant, and told the hungry youngster to eat anything he wanted. Bozic opted for a roast beef sandwich, a vanilla milkshake and two pieces of blueberry pie.
Although Bozic’s benefactor told him to come to the restaurant anytime, he didn’t say a word to him for six weeks. Finally, when he did speak to the young and impressionable Bozic, who was sleeping in an abandoned house, he said that he was welcome to eat something else on the menu.
“I told him, ‘you weren’t squawking, so I didn’t want to change,’” said Bozic. “I think he said to himself this kid is crazy as hell, which was something he liked.”
Before long Bozic made the acquaintance of one of the man’s business partners, who realized that Bozic “didn’t give up and wasn’t stupid.” In other words, said Bozic, he was wise beyond his years and his living on the streets forced him to adapt to a code of conduct and “ethics” that was viewed as honorable in certain quarters.
Before Bozic was even out of his teens, he became what is called a “slapper” in underworld circles. It is another word for a strongarm, someone who does what is necessary to collect gambling and loansharking debts.
As rough as Bozic would later become in the ring, even as a 19-year-old slapper he got no perverse pleasure out of smacking around deadbeats. He always tried to use brains over brawn.
“I would tell them not to do this to themselves,” said Bozic. “I’d try to reason with them, tell them that we know they liked to gamble, and to just give us a certain amount a month and that would be okay.
“But,” he added, “they had to know to not try and get over by going to someone else.”
On a regular basis, Bozic says that his bosses would give him $15,000 or $20,000 to deliver somewhere. They would purposely throw in a few extra bucks to test his honesty. He never failed an “integrity” test, which only placed him in higher esteem.
“They tested me, and eventually realized they could trust me,” he said. “They gave me more and more responsibilities.”
Because Bozic, who dropped out of high school, showed such an effective offensive boxing arsenal while training in a local gym, most often with Chuvalo who became like a big brother to him, he was sent to New York after a handful of amateur fights to make a run at professional fistic prominence.
He lived at the old Luxor Bathhouse on West 46th Street, and he trained with the wizened Freddie Brown at Gleason’s Gym when it was still located in the South Bronx.
He often traveled to other gyms around the metropolitan area, sparring with the likes of Duane Bobick, Chuck Wepner, Randy Neumann and Brian O’Melia.
At one time there was talk of Bozic fighting Bobick, the 1972 Olympic heavyweight representative, at MSG. Bozic had gotten close with the well-respected and colorful trainer Paddy Flood, who wholeheartedly believed that Bozic would beat the heavily favored and highly-touted Bobick.
“When people found out that Paddy was looking to bet $10,000 on me, the fight was over,” said Bozic.
Bozic remembers sparring with Neumann, whom he described as a good boxer with no real power. “I could push him around and run through his (stuff),” he said.
Wepner, says Bozic, was as tough as they come, but adds that, “he was hot and cold in the gym. One day, he’d be a killer, the next day he’d be disinterested.”
The best sparring Bozic ever got with any consistency was against Chuvalo. They remain friends to this day. Chuvalo used to send Bozic Christmas cards, a practice that ended after Chuvalo suffered much personal tragedy when he lost his wife and several children to drugs and suicide.
One time, Chuvalo apologized to Bozic for no longer sending cards.
“I told him not to worry about it,” said Bozic. “I got George’s signature all over my face.”
He then pointed to several facial battle scars, as well as others on the insides of his gums.
“Twenty-seven stitches here, nine stitches there,” he said jokingly.
In actuality, boxing is probably one of the least interesting things Bozic has done with his life. After retiring from the ring in the late seventies, he lived for a while in the Middle East where he drove flatbed trucks containing auto parts and old sewing machines from Istanbul to Afghanistan.
On his first run he was partnered with a local man who wore a turban. Bozic was thrown a set of keys and took his place in the driver’s seat. His partner reached around behind him without saying a word and ripped the rear view mirror off of the truck. To say that Bozic was perplexed would be an understatement.
“He said, ‘what is behind you is behind you, and left it at that,” said Bozic.
Among other places where he resided was an island in Greece before moving back to New York in the early eighties. He regularly sat in on classes at Columbia University, where he “studied” Chinese.
For the last 15 years or so, Bozic has worked at Fanelli’s. During that time he has also embarked on his toughest role to date, that of a parent of a teenage daughter named Vesna.
She is named after a sister that Bozic never knew. Prior to him being born in 1950, his older sister was killed by the Nazis in the former Yugoslavia.
Although Bozic lives in Brooklyn and his daughter lives on eastern Long Island, they talk regularly. He is as close to her as he can be, given the circumstances. She shares his loves of reading.
He tells her what little he knows of his own family, that his father was “wealthy” by communist standards. To this day Bozic is trying to get his family home in Serbia back in his possession.
Many years ago the home, which is located at 69 Krunska Street, was taken over by the Democratic Party of Serbia. They utilize it to this day.
As Bozic regaled myself, Peter Wood and others with tales of his colorful past, a young bar patron with no appreciation of anything out of the ordinary started cracking wise about Bozic being an ex-fighter. He said he didn’t sound much like a fighter because he seemed “relatively intelligent.”
On the surface that might sound somewhat complimentary, but the man’s words were dripping with sarcasm and condescension. The fact that he had his date laughing heartily only propelled him more.
Finally Bozic took the man to task in the same way he used to get errant gamblers to pay their debts: through the use of brains instead of brawn. He asked the man what he was reading and got no answer.
Bozic then produced a book called “Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography” by Roger Shattuck from his bag. He described books as “weapons of knowledge” and mentioned many of his favorites, including “Billy Budd” and Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” the latter of which he considers the best novel of all time.
When his intellectual nemesis was again rendered silent, Bozic opted to throw him some geographical softballs. He asked him to name some countries located east of Turkey, the capital or prime minister of Australia, or the governmental structure in Uzbekistan. Once again the patron was strangely silent.
Clearly enjoying how he was making the worm squirm, Bozic moved onto Nobel Peace Prize winners. Again, no response from the “smart” guy who never got his head rattled in the ring.
When Bozic began talking about Tolstoy, Wood, who is a high school English teacher, prolific author and avid reader, said, “He really knows what he’s talking about. He’s not just dropping titles and names. I’m impressed.”
Realizing he was beating a dead horse by further embarrassing the bar patron, Bozic got back to more important matters. The toughest thing, as well as the most rewarding thing he’s ever done, he said, is being a father.
“Boxing is just an inconsequential chapter in my life, a small blip,” he explained. “Everything I’ve done is easy compared to being a father. I wouldn’t change anything in my life, because it all led to me having my daughter. Nothing has been harder or more rewarding than that.”