Photo by Stephanie Buonopane
In October 1972, Muhammad Ali came to Greater Boston, and the Greatest was tossed by a Somerville bartender in a long-forgotten exhibition scuffle.
At the time, Ali was in the midst what some called a boxing resurrection—he had finally overcome his battles with the government for famously refusing to fight for the US Army, and was on a quest to regain the heavyweight championship of the world.
Meanwhile, in Somerville, Paul Raymond was beating his way toward a deserved reputation as the undisputed toughest guy in town. The New England heavyweight champ had notorious brass balls that clanked when he hobbled, and bolstered that rep by pulverizing his share of troublemakers at Pal Joey’s, the bar at 318 Broadway where he served cocktails and knuckle sandwiches to everyone from mouthy sailors to Winter Hill Gang founder Buddy McLean.
Raymond wasn’t really seen as a serious obstacle to Ali’s quest—just one of four area pugilists who were selected to box Ali in a night of two-round exhibition matches at the Boston Garden. By the time of the event, though, Ali had already gotten embarrassingly pushed around in another exhibition earlier in that month, leaving room for a respected local goon like Raymond to make an impression. He planned to do just that.
At a press conference before the spectacle, Raymond appeared to show respect, and asked the Greatest for his autograph. In doing so, however, he also called Ali by his birth name, “Cassius.” Ali corrected Raymond, “That’s not my name anymore, fella,” then took a playful swipe at the Somervillian’s face. In a split second, Raymond landed a quick counter-slap and, suddenly, the exhibition started to feel like a real fight.
FIGHT NIGHT COMETH
These days, the Somerville Boxing Club is located in the basement of an old school building on Otis Street, smack in the middle of a section of East Somerville that leads the city in poverty, violent crime, and home overcrowding.
The meager setting seems appropriate for the hardscrabble background leading up to this. On a typical day, one of the training outfit’s resident professors, Bobby Covino, can be found sitting at a desk in the center of the gym before it opens, reading from any number of his boxing history texts. Since 1978, Covino and the leathery Norman Stone (better known as Stoney) have trained young people who are in danger of embarking down the wrong path. Boxing options had dwindled at the time Covino opened, and so he rented space in an industrial nook and set out to expose new generations of kids to the sport.
Before long, Stoney and Covino’s old boxing buddies were working with them, creating an each-one-teach-one environment that continues today. Somerville District Court officers often refer youth to the gym for community service. When I ask how many boxing hopefuls have come through the courts, Stoney’s eyes open wide as he searches for an approximate number: “Fucking tons.”
If outsiders know anything about the world of boxing, either from the movies or from real life, it’s that the ring has rehabilitative power. Noting the number of world champions whose paths to fame and stardom started from behind bars, Covino explains, “It’s not just boxing. It’s discipline, working hard toward a goal.” He pauses, raises his voice, leans in, and jabs, “And don’t be an asshole!”
The transition isn’t always easy. Over the past three months, conversations around the East Somerville club have frequently turned to Jelarme Garcia. A 20-year-old middleweight prospect with a devastating right hand, Garcia had three knockouts in his first three pro fights, but is now doing a bid for deploying his increasingly feared hook outside of the ring.
While stories like Garcia’s ring familiar in a sport wracked with as turbulent a past as boxing, there’s hope on the horizon as well. In this culture where macho men are prized above all, their hulking pictures hung on barbershop and barroom walls long past the sport’s mass market heyday, there is a welcome new twist in the saga of the Somerville Boxing Club—as the local fight world anticipates the fourth annual Somerville Fight Night this Friday at Dilboy Stadium, all eyes are on Rashida Ellis, a 2016 Olympic hopeful in women’s boxing who will fight at the upcoming 2016 Olympic trials in Colorado.
While Ellis is the most accomplished fighter swinging out of Somerville these days, most of the amateurs in this gym won’t battle for world supremacy or ever fight professionally. All their hope, all their passion has been channeled toward Friday’s bouts under the blinding outdoor lights. Over the last three months, the trainers and boxers of the Somerville Boxing Club have welcomed me into their world and shared their stories, from tales of old school barroom brawls to memories from Raymond vs Ali and lessons from their work teaching tomorrow’s champs how to earn respect on both sides of the ropes.
The 1972 exhibition matches were a blip in a historic time for Ali—that year he fought six times all over the world and started his way back to reclaiming the championship title taken from him in 1967—but a milestone in Raymond’s own comeback. As an amateur, Raymond had been the New England light heavyweight champion; after that, as an 18-year-old, he went undefeated in his first five pro fights. While stationed in North Africa with the Marines Corps, though, Raymond broke his ankle, and would not return to the ring for eight years. During that time, he trained fighters like Covino, then a bouncer at Pal Joey’s, while a young Norman Stone tagged along.
When he did climb through the ropes again, Raymond had a noticeable limp, but that didn’t slow his rise to the top of the local heavyweight rankings. Within four months, he was the New England champ in his class. “He was a tough, tough fucking guy,” Stone says all these years later. “I’ve been all over the world, and Paul Raymond was the toughest guy I ever met. You’d see him with his bad ankle limping up and down the street doing road work every morning.”
Though memories have faded over time and no tape of the fight exists, photos from the legendary Boston Garden bout show the bartender landing at least one left and pushing Ali to the ropes. Sports writers noted that while Ali clowned around all night, he had no choice but to take Raymond seriously. Ali “pounded his foe a little harder[,] acting out a vendetta,” one columnist opined. “Raymond had slapped Ali a week earlier at a luncheon.”
The single show of strength should not undermine other Somerville boxing feats of the time, but should rather serve to magnify all great ring wins. Raymond came of age along with a deep crop of bruisers, the lot of which area fight promoter Sam Silverman began calling the Mod Squad, named for their stylish young fans. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, in almost every division, Somerville fighters led the class of New England—from lightweight Gabe LaMarca, a slick showman of a boxer who won his first 11 fights and also fought a world champion, to middleweight Johnny Coiley, who used his lethal jab to go undefeated in his first 24 fights, and to their formidable sparring partner, Georgie Holden, who rocked 9 out of his first 15 opponents and pulled three draws.
At light heavyweight, Bobby Covino was the crowd favorite. Labeled “Somerville’s Boxer-Bartender” by sports writers for his performances at the legendarily rough and tumble Pal Joey’s, Covino honed his unrelenting aggression through years of unsanctioned melees.
“Three fights a week I used to have,” Covino once told Boston Globe reporter Bud Collins. “Regular. I had to straighten guys out who came in looking for trouble. I guess you could say it was good training. It was the only training I had.”
It was at Pal Joey’s that Covino met Raymond, the bartender, and from there the latter started coaching the young Covino at the fabled New Garden Gym in North Station. In 1970, the new jack Covino won all of his 11 fights, six by knockout. His punching power, in particular a devastating left, electrified New England boxing. After Covino’s 15th straight win, another brutal knockout, the former middleweight world champion Johnny Wilson turned to a reporter and said, “I don’t go to fights anymore, but I heard he could punch. He could punch.”
In short time, an entourage of Somerville fighters started to attract a new, invigorated crowd to the fights, which had become stale since the bright lights of the 1950s. “The Covino clique was startlingly different, a young crowd,” wrote Collins in the Globe. “It was strange to see such a young gathering at a prizefight, some longhairs and sandals too.”
With so much momentum, it’s said the high point for this era of Somerville boxing came on Dec 15, 1970, at the Boston Garden’s annual Christmas show. Before a crowd of thousands, Somerville fighters conquered three divisions, and established their dominance. The Globe sang:
Joy to the world of Somerville was the theme of last night’s many-splattered boxing program at the Garden … Those from Somerville loved it as three of their local boys—middleweight Johnny Coiley, light heavy Bobby Covino, and heavyweight Paul Raymond—made good in bloody 10-round decisions.
On that holy evening, Pal Joey’s rocked in celebration, as the city’s three star fighters won props on the regional stage. It wasn’t long, however, until trouble found some of the city’s greatest. After being suspended for getting in the ring to fight while drunk, Georgie Holden got involved with low-level organized crime. On Aug 23, 1973, the durable sparring partner’s weathered corpse was found washed up along the shoreline of the Mystic River, a single gunshot doing what no number of uppercuts ever could.
A little more than a year later, in December 1974, the best fighter in Somerville, Paul Raymond, was killed in a shootout in the North End.
STONEY AND COVINO
By 1975, it seemed the heyday of New England fighters had passed. That year, in an article headlined “Where Have You Gone, Tony DeMarco?” in reference to the 1950s middleweight world champ from the North End, the Globe asked, “What happened to all the fighters who thrilled and entertained Greater Boston fight fans?” The Globe chalked up the decline, in part, to the many violent deaths of fighters, including Raymond.
Thanks to Stoney and Covino, as well as to their tight cadre of students and trainers, a significant piece of this legacy endures. Walking into the Somerville Boxing Club, the first person you’re likely to encounter is Covino, who at 71 still throws a thunderous left. A perpetual student of boxing history himself, the former bouncer sums up his philosophy:
“It is better to give than to receive—and in the fight game, that goes tenfold. What is the fastest way to avoid a straight right hand?”
I shrug. He tucks his chin in toward his chest, and shoots a quick straight left upward at the imaginary opponent.
As I’ve come to learn, there is a Somerville method of fighting. In following some fighters to a “smoker” in Allston—these are off-the-books exhibitions that give fighters experience beyond sparring—it seems their way is direct, one might say street-savvy, but not without nuance. Although fighters on both sides were evenly matched in size and experience, the Somerville kids dizzied their opponents with combinations of punching and technique. After the bouts, Covino tells me that he works to emphasize particular skill sets.
“That’s why people can’t believe what I did with this kid Peter Maher,” he says, nodding toward one of his promising young fighters who packs an especially stiff jab and practices precise footwork, as opposed to Covino’s style of slugging. These guys walk the walk; at the smoker, Maher knocked down a tough opponent by parking a right into his skull.
If Covino’s a professor, head in the books, Stoney is the Somerville Boxing Club’s vice principal, often busy welcoming the newest pupils and holding court in his office. Stoney earned his stripes in the fight world by guiding Chelsea’s John Ruiz to two world heavyweight titles, including a 2000 win over the iron-chinned former champ Evander Holyfield. Stoney is a cult figure of sorts in the boxing world, a profane and mustachioed former bus driver who once made history by brawling outside of the ring during a 2005 heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden. After a controversial loss to Nikolai Valuev, Stoney snatched the championship belt, hoisted it triumphantly, and told 8,000 screaming German fans, “You suck!”
Though now the kind of stories that you tell your grandchildren, Stoney’s outbursts probably obscured the job he did in returning Ruiz to the ring after a humiliating, nationally televised 19-second knockout loss in his first big fight back in 1996. And his antics have also overshadowed his decades of community involvement in Somerville. Today, throwback boxing fans might be surprised to see Stoney in family mode at the club—coaching local kids, his own grandkid perched on his lap.
Alex Rivera is Stoney’s son-in-law, and the father of the next generation of Stoneys. Rivera’s father brought him to the gym in 1992, and in the time since, he’s advanced to become a trainer and to work alongside world class fighters. “I started helping out John Ruiz’s team as the gofer kid—go for this, go for that,” Rivera says. When Stoney was ejected from a title defense between Ruiz and Andrew Golota in 2005, he shouted to Rivera, who went on to mount a comeback victory, “Alex, you’re in charge!” Rivera continues: “I was so happy to be part of what I love to do it didn’t matter what I was doing. Spitbucket, towel boy—I did it to the fullest because I was doing what I love.”
AND IN THIS CORNER …
Rivera’s next chance for a world championship might be Rashida Ellis—the five-foot-three-inch phenom bound for the Olympics. Rashida, who fights on Friday’s card, lost a narrow decision in 2012 to miss those Summer Games, and plans to set things straight during the trials in Colorado. It’s a legacy thing, as she was introduced to boxing by her brother Rashidi Ellis, another local fighter on the cusp of boxing stardom who has won each of his 14 pro fights and holds a minor title as the Latin American Welterweight champion.
With so much talent having climbed through his ropes over the years, I ask Covino who he deems to be the best Somerville fighter of all time. “Jake Kilrain!” he exclaims, propping the the city’s first boxing star who, under the Mississippi sun in 1899, fought John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strongboy, in the final bare-knuckle title bout ever before fighters started wearing gloves. Kilrain drew first blood, but after an excruciating 75 rounds and two hours and 16 minutes of fighting, he could barely lift his arms, and his trainer ended the fight.
Looking forward, Somerville fighters are now male and female, technicians and back alley brawlers, bartenders and college grads. In common, they all seem to share a willingness to take a shot, so long as that is what it takes to advance. On one of my last days at the gym, a fighter who’d been AWOL for a few months returned, apparently relieved, at the prospect of resuming boxing to stay out of trouble.
“I used to fuck up every day,” he says. “Now I fuck up twice a week. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better. I had a problem, and everybody here stood by me. I can’t wait to put on a good show at the fights next week. I know I’m not one of the good fighters here, but I’ll bring the action.”
Somerville Fight Night is Fri 8.21 at Dilboy Stadium on Alewife Brook Pkwy. To get there by T, take the Red Line to Davis Square, then transfer to the 87 bus.