Requiem for a Throwback

Photo: Joshua Wildman

Last week, before he left for good, boxing sage Johnny Bos sat in his studio apartment, cluttered with posters of old bouts and autographs and piles of old phone numbers, for the last time. He took a Newport and lit it. “It’s like this,” he said as he packed up his things. “I love New York, but New York don’t love me.”

The Bos (rhymes with Oz) niche was hard to pinpoint. “There is no definition,” says Bert Sugar, the boxing historian. “He’s got more duties than a Rubik’s Cube has sides. Johnny will be a ‘manager’ this week, an ‘agent’ next week, a ‘matchmaker’ the week after. He’s a throwback, a go-between. He’s one of those wonderful characters that boxing cannot do without; otherwise, boxing would just be a sport. Boxing is not a sport. Boxing is a world.”

But it’s a shrinking world. The prestige is gone (blame all of the scandals). The young talent is missing (why get walloped in the face when you can make more money playing basketball?). Many of the gyms and all of the fight clubs have faded (blame high rents and redevelopment). And with them, the jowly cast of street-styled savants who found a way to be their own bosses by creating a demand for their expertise. That’s Bos. He’s a stubborn misfit and never went anywhere unnoticed, wearing cowboy hats (one had a stuffed rattlesnake head) and loud shirts, impostor bling and faux furs. (“He looks like the Goodwill box threw up all over him,” jokes Sugar.) In his heyday, Bos was making six figures, but he’d been in that studio off Herald Square for a decade. He doesn’t drive, doesn’t fly, doesn’t eat vegetables (“They just don’t agree with me”), and doesn’t seem to want to adapt to the way boxing, and the city, have changed. He drank too much for too long and suffers from congestive heart failure. So he’s leaving. When the Website Boxing Confidential heard the news, it declared: “Like the Pope Leaving the Vatican for Cleveland. Sad But True: New York Boxing Icon Johnny Bos Forced to Relocate to Sunny Florida!”

Bos grew up in the old Norwegian enclave of Sunset Park and discovered that his job sorting mail in the post office was too boring and his boxing career doomed. He doesn’t remember his first and only fight. “I was dead drunk,” he says. So he became a boxing junkie. He studied old fights, hung out with legendary trainers, and discovered his talent: He saw things in the ring most people don’t. Technical things. Footwork. Breathing. Flesh tones. Even the amount of saliva a fighter carries on the tongue. (A dry mouth suggests susceptibility to exhaustion.) His genius became sizing up a boxer’s style (is he a puncher? A counterpuncher?) and weaknesses (does he move to the left when he gets hit, or backward?). A boxer’s education is dependent on the pedigree of the guys he fights, and it was Bos who designed the early curricula for Gerry Cooney, Evander Holyfield, and Mike Tyson.

“He played a great role in developing fighters,” Tyson says. “Most guys don’t know what they’re doing. These guys get in over their heads. They may be potential champions, but they get their confidence crushed when people put them in mismatches and they start losing.”

Fight fixing? No way. Smart matchmaking. “They were stiffs, but they were competitive stiffs,” Bos says of the opponents he selected. “They knew how to fight, they just didn’t know how to win. There’s a difference.” And just like him, they all end up in Florida.

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Requiem for a Throwback