November 16, 2010

Irish Bobby Cassidy became a top contender, but few saw a boxing match he had in his high school's wrestling room

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By Jon Buller
Class of 1961

You probably do not know about boxing matches that took place one evening in late 1960 or early 1961 at Division Avenue High School. The main event of the evening was a two-round bout between Bobby Cassidy and Tommy Koehler held in the downstairs physical education room where the boys would have wrestling during gym classes.

I don’t know who handled the business end of the fight, but someone had worked something out with the night janitors, and they collected $2 from each of the students as they entered the gym at 8 p. m. on a weeknight. I don’t know if the fighters actually shared in the purse, or if the janitors kept it all as payment for the risk they were taking. Bob Bonacci remembers that "Access was gained by use of the custodian's key." There was a payoff, possibly to a man whose son was a Division Avenue student.

The preliminary match that night was between my 1961 classmates Bonacci and John Kinstrey. They were much bigger fellows, football players, but I got the feeling that this was not a serious match. There were two rounds in this fight, and each of the pugilists had a round in which he seemed to dominate, but the performance was accompanied by much smirking on the part of the fighters. I got the impression that it was more of a performance than an actual contest. Bonacci recently recalled that "Kinstrey and I were acting, somewhat akin to TV wrestling."

And then came the main event. As soon as they started throwing punches, it became apparent that the Cassidy-Koehler main event bout was for real. Koehler was very impressively muscled for a high school kid, a couple of years behind his opponent in school. Cassidy, on the other hand, was still just a scrawny kid. Just by looking at them, you would have bet on the other kid, but Bobby had been taking the bus to Hempstead on weekends, where he had been studying boxing, and the results showed in the ring. I say “ring” but actually there were no ropes or anything, just a rectangle of wrestling mats. The spectators sat on the floor around the fighting area.

While his opponent was much stronger, Bobby was able to avoid almost all of his punches, while most of Cassidy’s punches were landing. None of them had knockout potential, but Koehler’s face was quite red by the end of the match. Recently it was learned that Cassidy's friend Doug Duffy was the timekeeper and when he saw that Bobby was doing well, he let the round go longer. Cassidy won the fight, but I have no idea how long it lasted.

Duffy went on to a successful boxing career, but did not reach the heights of his fellow Division Avenue student. Although he had fights around the globe, Cassidy was in the ring at the legendary fight venue Sunnyside Garden in Queens an incredible 25 times. There he had a lot of encouraging, if not rowdy, support from his proud Levittown fans.

I had no idea at the time of his Division Avenue fight that Bobby was Irish. He had been known as Bobby Bernardi. But Bernardi was the name of his adoptive father and he later went back to the name of his birth father. From that humble beginning in the high school wrestling room, Irish Bobby Cassidy went on to a distinguished pro career and is fondly remembered by fight fans. He became the No. 1 light heavyweight contender and was a cast member of Rocky 1 and 2.

1 comment:

Marilyn Monsrud Frese said...

WOW! The things I learn on your blog Frank! I knew Bobby pretty well later on in school , and afterwards since we both stayed in Levittown. But this story is all new to me. I missed so much being a little Freshman when you guys were living it up! This is so interesting. Thanks Jon for sharing this with us all who had no idea what was going on behind the closed gym doors at Division late at night! Still see Bobby around, although not lately. Always a smile and some friendly talk. He loves reliving the "old" days. Great story! Hope he gets to see it,.