Three months before he took a bullet in the heart, Oscar Bonavena said, "I love Reno. The sweet people are here."
He had come to this country from Argentina, a heavyweight with power everything -- jabs, hooks, uppercuts -- and took on Muhammad Ali when Ali was still "the greatest," back in December 1970. Nineteen-thousand at New York's Madison Square Garden saw him go head-to-head with the champion, only to be knocked to the canvas in the final seconds of the 15th and final round.
You might remember seeing his eyes dark and dull under the bank of glaring ring lights, and his gloves lying flat at his side, an enduring record of his inability to go the distance. That picture remains, as does the one the newspaper people took: of Bonavena stretched out under a white sheet in the parking lot of the Mustang Ranch, a brothel his manager, Sally Conforte, ran on the outskirts of town.
That picture shows Bonavena, who was 33, only a few yards from the big iron gates. There were dogs eating scraps at the side of the long stucco building, which looked like any pink roadside motel except for the guard tower and the family-size bottles of Pine Sol in every second window.
The bullet, from a .30-06 rifle fired by Willard Ross Brymer, the security guard who was later convicted of manslaughter and released after serving 15 months in the state prison, fragmented on impact and tore up the fighter's insides. When it happened, the sun had just made the Sierra foothills on the morning of May 22, 1976, washing the trailer parks and junk yards and all-night diners with a good, clean light.
"A fighter's strength is not in these," Bonavena had said a few days before he died, holding his fists squarely before his face, then tapping his chest with wide-open palms. "But here, in the middle, in his heart. That is how you are strong."
The last time Reno saw the fighter they called Ringo, he was shooting craps in the casino at the Sundowner Hotel. He had a roll of cash -- $6,161 in mostly $100 and $20 bills -- in his back pocket. Then he was on a treadmill moving into the cargo hold of a jumbo jet, in a coffin fitted inside a big scrapboard box with three rusty hinges securing the lid.
His brother, Vincente, who made the arrangements to send Bonavena home, said he couldn't understand it. He wanted to know why. Vincente was asking those same questions when Bonavena's body arrived in Buenos Aires. They took the coffin to the soccer stadium and placed it in the middle of the field, and a nation mourned the death of its favorite fighting son.
Just last week, Lou Duva, the manager of World Boxing Association lightweight champion Livingstone Bramble, and comanager of 1984 Olympic gold medalists Pernell Whitaker, Tyrell Biggs and Meldrick Taylor, took a small cadre of fight people to the Mustang Ranch for what he called "a night off." Promoter Dan Duva, Lou's son, said they planned to stay "only about an hour, but one of the Italian boys got a little rambunctious and they stayed four."
You wonder if any of the young fighters knew the history of "The Ranch," or knew the Bonavena story, of how he fought the last fight of his life in Reno, winning a decision over Billy Joiner in 10 rounds. That was his lone bout in the city that had come to love him as one of its own and treat him as such.
Bonavena was pretty handsome for a fighter. He had a good nose after some 70 professional fights and most of his real teeth left in his mouth and a funny way with the English language. Some days he'd walk into a restaurant and head straight for the refrigerator, grab a chocolate cream pie and eat what his stomach could hold. He was like that, abusive of the freedom celebrity affords, and determined to live by his own set of rules.
Bonavena was ranked seventh in the world and hoping for a rematch and title fight with Ali when he died. He and Sally Conforte, who had stand-up white hair and a moon pie face, showed up in the papers as "The Beauty and the Beast," and local news reports hinted at a love affair.
Sally's husband Joe owned "The Ranch" and rode around town in a shiny black limousine with tinted windows. Sally once told a reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal that she knew her husband was seen all around town with different girls at his side. But that didn't bother her, she said. Their home life was "pretty ordinary" and "pretty boring," even when it was widely rumored that Joe Conforte was jealous of the Argentine fighter who spent more than a little time "dead-heading at the 'Stang."
Bonavena had a wife and children in Argentina, but he married one of the girls who worked at "The Ranch," a prostitute from nearby Sparks. She was a big-boned woman with bleached blond hair and nice clear skin and eyes that made her look as if she wanted to cry. The marriage was annulled when it came out that Bonavena was married, but he was gone by then. "The Great White Hope," as Sally had come to call him, finally made the front page of the newspaper. The headline took up a quarter page: Bonavena Dead.
He wasn't the first "Great White Hope" to fight in Reno, a town with a boxing history as big and bountiful as the alfalfa fields that once skirted South Virginia Street and ran flush along the Truckee River. On July 4, 1910, "The Fight of the Century" took place between Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and Jim Jeffries, a former champion seeking to regain the title he lost in 1904.
Jeffries, who had worked part-time as a fight referee, ended a six-year retirement to try to reclaim the title for the white race. His comeback proved futile, but not for lack of effort. Over 22,000 packed the arena at the corner of Toano and Fourth Streets and saw the original "Great White Hope" nearly beaten senseless.
Today, husks of wrecked cars and trucks rise from the scrap metal yard that occupies the site of the old fight theater. Across the way, a marquee at the Hi Ho Motor Lodge blinks, "Some water beds left, some queens." There's a historical marker on the street corner, with weeds crawling up a pole anchored in cement. It reads, in part, "Jeffries' trainers stopped the fight in the 15th round to save their man from the disgrace of a knockout."
Too bad somebody didn't stop Bonavena, whose own disgrace was an unwillingness to surrender his hard vision of himself as a man. When you stand on the spot where the fighter died, with all that money in his back pocket, and hopes of being the world heavyweight champ, a rifle report breaking the new dawn, the urge is to clench your fists and strike out at something or someone. But how do you fight what isn't there? And how do you comprehend the wrongs that men do, and the evil, when so very much is given and given and given, and so very much is taken away?