Monday, February 24, 2020

Books: A Look At Hard-Hitting Crime In Noir Tales Of The Boxing World

Hamilcar Noir is a new paperback series that lives up to its billing of "Hard-Hitting True Crime," as it captures riveting stories in high-quality prose, with cover art inspired by classic pulp novels. We will look at the first three editions of this exciting series that will leave you coming back for more: Berserk: The Shocking Life and Death of Edwin Valero, by Don Stradley, The Ghost Of Johnny Tapia, by Paul Zanon; and Slaughter In The Streets, by Don Stradley.

Berserk: The Shocking Life and Death of Edwin Valero
By Don Stradley
Hamilcar Publications, series: Hamilcar Noir, Vol. 1; paperback, 112 pages; $9.99

Boxer Edwin Valero was an undefeated 27-0, with all his wins coming by knockout, but what lurked beneath was a troubled life, and Don Stradley uncovers the gritty details in Berserk.

Valero's life was like a rocket shot into a wall: with his perfect record, the demonic Venezuelan boxer, known as "El Inca" and "El Dinamita," seemed on a collision course with all-time great Manny Pacquiao, but it was not to be.

Fueled by a mix of cocaine, booze, and paranoia, Valero blazed into a mania that derailed his career in the ring and resulted in the brutal death of of his young wife, Jennifer, and not long after, his own. 

Stradley captures one of the darkest and most sensational boxing stories in recent memory, which has never been fully told. Filled with firsthand accounts from the men who trained Valero and the reporters who covered him, as well as insights from psychologists and forensic experts, Berserk will take you on the ride of this real-life drama.

The Ghost of Johnny Tapia
By Paul Zanon, with Teresa Tapia - foreword by Sammy Hagar
Hamilcar Publications, series: Hamilcar Noir, Vol. 2; paperback, 112 pages; $9.99

Johnny Tapia's nickname was "Mi Vida Loca" (My Crazy Life), and as significantly, it was his reason for being. 

"If I wake up, I know I'm a success," Tapia once said. "The day I didn't wake up, I know I'll be home. I have one foot on this earth, and one foot has crossed over. I didn't just die, I lived."

Haunted by the brutal murder of his mother when he was a child, fighting and drugs gave him the escape he craved. A folk hero in his native New Mexico, Tapia grew up in the rough, gang-ridden city of Albuquerque, and was as savvy in the street as he was in the ring. However, a life lived on the edge has its limits.

In The Ghost of Johnny Tapia, Paul Zanon, with the assistance of Tapia's widow Teresa, tells the harrowing and unforgettable story of a boxing genius who couldn't defeat his demons.

Zanon writes: "If Johnny Tapia had been raised in a different environment, he could have been a doctor or a lawyer. He was highly intelligent. Instead, his mother was murdered when he was a kid and he was surrounded by addicts growing up some of whom put him in cockfights when he was just nine years old against kids as old as fifteen, so they could bet on him. It's no surprise that Johnny grew up to be a fighter.

Yet despite a difficuly upbringing, Johnny's grandparents took him to all his boxing matches, made sure he had all the necessary equipment, and were his biggest fans. Without a doubt they were essential in helping the young Johnny reach his necessary stepping-stones as a successful amateur boxer.

Johnny never strayed far from the underground scene throughout his career as a professional, however. In fact, that is what he loved most. There were no rules, except you couldn't use a loaded gun. He'd been stabbed and hit with brass knuckles in what was a crazy world, but that never deterred him from returning.

Johnny had also been shot at a number of times. It was no secret that he was affiliated with the Wells Par gang. As opposed to many people's motives to become part of such a group, for Johnny it was more to do with being proud to represent and protect his local area. So much so that the community center in Wells Park is now called the Johnny Tapia Community Center.

On one occasion, Johnny was fighting in a park as part of the gang and the cops started to let loose with gunfire. The man Johnny was fighting was shot dead in the head right in front of him. To say Johnny's life on the streets was crazy would be an understatement."

The Ghost of Johnny Tapia is one of the most hard-hitting books you will read, a peek behind the curtain of what a boxer has to endure on their path to the ring.

Slaughter in the Streets: when Boston Became Boxing's Murder Capital
By Don Stradley, foreword by T.J. English
Hamilcar Publications, series: Hamilcar Noir, Vol. 3; paperback, 112 pages; $10.99; available Tuesday, February 25

Don Stradley masterfully unfolds the layers of the story of how Boston became "boxing's murder capital." From the early days of Boston's Mafia, to the era of Whitey Bulger, Stradley tells the fascinating stories of men who were drawn to the dual shady worlds of boxing and the mob.

Boston was once a thriving boxing city, and host to an ever-expanding underworld. This led many of the city's boxers drawn to the criminal life, with most them ending up dead.

One of the Boston underworld leaders that Stradley focuses on is beloved mob boss Phil Buccola - the only thing he loved more than boxing was crime.

"According to local gangster lore, the murder of Frankie Gustin had been ordered by Boston's top Italian crime boss, Filippo 'Phil' Buccola (aka 'Bruccola' or 'Buccalo'), Stradley writes. "Quiet and pleasant, Buccola was one of the Mafia's best-kept secrets. He'd come to America from Palermo, and with the stealth of a small jungle lizard managed to stay invisible, even in plain sight. Rather than do business in some badly lit waterfront shack, he was out among the people. With his thinning hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, he looked more lie a pharmacist than a mobster.

The 1933 killing of Jewish bootlegger and drug trafficker Charles 'King' Solomon was also attributed to Buccola. A compelling version of the story has Buccola hiring the remaining members of the Gustins to kill Solomon, though some believe Solomon's death was just a robbery gone wrong. Then again, the murder of Solomon took place at a nightclub owned by Dan Carroll, an ex-cop who happened to be Buccola's partner in many business ventures.

With the city's top Irish and Jewish gangsters bumped off, Buccola seized the Boston underworld. He wasn't as bloothirsty as his counterparts in New York or Chicago, but his clique was clearly Mafia, with rites and roots going back to feudal Sicily. It was later revealed that Buccola was also quite friendly with Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, the man who introduced America to the concept of the organized crime 'family.'

Though Buccola owned shares in a popular dog-racing track in Revere and a piece of The Bostonian Hotel, his real interest was boxing. He was known as a manager of fighters, sometimes alone, sometimes with Carroll or another well-known manager, Johnny Buckley. It wasn't unusual for top gangsters to own a fighter's contract the way they might a racehorse or a restaurant, but Buccola took the fight game seriously. He had a full stable of New England fighters, most of them from the North End. At one time there were as many as twenty-five fighters under the Buccola banner, including North Ender Sammy Fuller and Ralph 'The Ripper' Zannelli, a granite-faced welterweight from Providence. But despite Buccola's genuine passion for boxing, he was, according to one journalist, 'rated by colleagues as one of the world's worst fight handlers.'

Like most managers in those days, Buccola's dream was to find a good heavyweight. Specifically, he wanted a heavyweight of Italian ancestry. By 1929 there were whispers out of New York that a team of mobsters and Broadway shills had purchased the contract of Primo Carnera, a former circus strongman who would, with some help behind the scenes, eventually become heavyweight champion. Perhaps not coincidentally, when Carnera came to Rhode Island in 1932 for the only time in his career, he fought one of Buccola's fighters, an aging journeyman named Jack Gagnon. Buccola's man lost at 1:35 of the first round. As was often the case with Carnera's bouts, the ending seemed highly suspicious. Gagnon went down from a tap and wouldn't move, even as the spectators hooted. According to the Associated Press, 'Carnera stood with a surprised look on his face until he was announced the victor.' Determined to find his own Carnera, Buccola began importing fighters from Italy."

Slaughter In The Streets is also the violent and tragic story of how misguided young men who thought their toughness in the ring could protect them from the most cold-blooded killers in the country.

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