Searching for Bobby Halpern

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:29

    I've been searching for Bobby Halpern for the last two years. Halpern was once a Bronx street legend-a prolific brawler and a true neighborhood character. He was a once up-and-coming heavyweight boxer who later made an impressive comeback at the age of 44, a convict with 21 years state time, a survivor of a close-range shotgun blast, a nightclub bouncer, an arsonist and an original Bronx tough guy.

    In my search I hit all his old haunts that were still there, but no luck. I asked people who had to have known him where he might be, and all I would get was a shrug and a "Who knows?" Halpern's trail had gone cold.

    But then I got lucky. I ran into the boxer who inspired Rocky, and he solved this Bronx mystery.

    Bobby Halpern was born in 1931 and raised by a Jewish father and an Irish mother in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. He grew up fast and tough; by 15 he was boxing as an amateur. Halpern's style was one of straight-ahead attack-all brawl, all the time. He would charge at his opponent, and some claim he didn't really start to box until he had been hit a few times. In a 1977 Sports Illustrated article Halpern estimated he had close to 200 amateur bouts and had "lost about 10."

    But the ring held the least of his fights. Halpern fought on the streets every day. As he got older and tougher he mixed robbery into his arsenal. By the time his pro career was starting in 1954-he won his first three fights-Halpern was busted for a stickup and sentenced to four years in Elmira. He got out of prison in 1958, and with little prospects for a job he picked up his boxing career. He also went back to crime. He won three of his next four matches, and lost his next court case. In 1959 he was sentenced to 20-years-to-life for robbery, grand larceny, assault and kidnapping. His manager, Larry Morris, told Sports Illustrated in 1977, "He was a white hope-a crowd pleaser...he's gone 17 years. 17 long years. My dreams went with him. It's like a person losing a fortune in the stock market."

    Halpern spent from 1959 to 1976 in four jailhouses upstate-Sing Sing, Dannemora, Attica and Green Haven. He boxed in prison, and regularly battled with the guards. He also became a jailhouse lawyer and made 25 motions arguing he'd been framed by Bronx cops. Neighborhood people I knew back then got a kick out of that. It was the crimes he wasn't caught for that made the Halpern legend.

    In 1976 Halpern walked out of prison a free man-albeit one with a parole officer he had to report to weekly. He got a job as a bouncer in a local dive. At 44, he took up boxing once again. When he was questioned about being in shape he would say, "I've spent the last 17 years doing nothing but training."

    He made a go of it. He won his first six fights, and the Bronx started to buzz that maybe he might get a shot at a big heavyweight. No one expected Halpern to become a champ, but it might be nice if he could knock some bigshot on his ass.

    Halpern would do his road work out on Orchard Beach that summer. He was 5-feet-10 and a solid 190, with a face that looked like it had been punched by God. I saw him a few times at the beach doing a slow jog and throwing punches as he ran. Bobby Halpern was a man you would give wide berth to.

    The dream of a Halpern comeback ended on May 15, 1978, when he was knocked out in the third round by a light-hitting heavyweight named Guy Casale. After that Halpern hung up the gloves and took a job in construction.

    I recently talked with Robert Mladinich, a retired NYPD detective and boxing journalist, and Teddy Blackburn, a noted boxing photojournalist. Unbeknownst to me, Mladinich and Blackburn had also been searching for Bobby Halpern. A few years back they spent a day up in the Bronx trying to pick up Halpern's scent. They also had no luck.

    "I was always intrigued by the Bobby Halpern story," Mladinich told me. "I saw him get knocked out in 1978 by Guy Casale. Halpern had a real prison build and a fighter's face. His face had so much scar tissue it looked like he had been hit by something harder than fists. That was his last fight, and then I saw him a few years later holding a shovel on a Bronx construction site. I tried to talk to him, but he was incoherent. He looked at me like he was crazed. I was actually surprised to see him, because I had heard he had been shot with a shotgun at close range. It was a miracle he survived that. It was like seeing a ghost.

    "So a few years back I wanted to do a story on him and Tami Mauriello, who was a boxer from the same neighborhood. Mauriello was Frank Sinatra's favorite boxer. He once knocked down Joe Louis in the first round of a fight he eventually lost. He became an actor and was in On the Waterfront. Anyway, we went around Little Italy asking about Halpern, and everyplace we went they told us they don't know nothing. No one would talk to us."

    Blackburn told me, "Bobby 'The Torch' Halpern was a legend with his own cult following. He was never a contender, but he had a Bronx fan club that followed him to all his fights. He always gave his all. I tried with Mladinich to find him, but he's MIA."

    A few weeks ago, at Mladinich's retirement party, I met Chuck Wepner, a journeyman heavyweight who knocked down Muhammad Ali in 1975. Wepner lost the fight, but came out of it with a national reputation. He was such a nobody-a tomato can with the nickname the Bayonne Bleeder-that his knocking down Ali became a big story. So big that Sylvester Stallone was inspired to write the movie Rocky about a Wepner-like boxer. Before the movie came out, Wepner was offered a few thousand dollars or a percentage of the gross. Wepner took the short-end money and missed out on about $8 million from Rocky's total gross.

    At 62, Wepner is still as big and solid as he was in his youth. I asked him if he knew where Halpern was. He shook his head. "Ah, Bobby. Bobby Halpern...that's sad. He passed on a few years back. I think it was like five years ago he died." A gregarious man by nature, Wepner fell silent. I asked if he knew what killed Halpern. He shook his head. "Like I said, he passed on a few years back."

    I wanted to press him for more details, but I could see he was growing uncomfortable talking about Halpern's death. And a man who knocked down Muhammad Ali should not be pressed. I thanked Wepner and watched him turn to sign an autograph.

    I guess Bobby Halpern, a fighter all his life, came up against two opponents he never had a chance against: age and time. Some things are tougher than tough guys.