By Theodore N. Beitchman
A. J. Liebling was hands-down America’s most celebrated boxing writer, and his observation on why the Sweet Science will never be banned is among his greatest hits, pardon the expression:
“If a boxer ever went as batty as Nijinsky all the wowzers in the world would be screaming ‘punch-drunk.’ Well, who hit Nijinsky? And why isn’t there a campaign against ballet? It gives girls thick legs.”
Liebling was a to-the-manor-born writer for the New Yorker, raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side who died in 1963. So it’s unlikely he wrote much about Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, who turned pro in 1961 and became heavyweight champ in 1964.
And too bad he never met George Bochetto.
They would have become fast friends.
Bochetto grew up in an orphanage by the Brooklyn Bridge — on the Brooklyn side, not Manhattan — and he had a few scrapes as a kid, but does most of his fighting now for clients as one of Philly’s top attorneys.
But more about that later.
And name me another successful lawyer in town who has a boxing glove mounted on the edifice of the Locust Street townhouse that is the home to his 10-attorney firm!
As atypical as that might seem to a passer-by, Bochetto is the perfect poster child for how and why Philly has transformed itself from a self-loathing, insecure little backwater into a vibrant and thriving urban area whose potential is higher than where the Eagles are flying today.
That image has been gradually changed because so many kids move to Philly to attend our many colleges and universities and, also, by adults who have been transferred here for work.
After getting his undergrad degree at SUNY Albany, he came to Philly to attend Temple Law, graduating in 1978 — all the while living the life of a self-described “boxing junkie.”
“When I was in college I listened to the Ali-Foreman fight on radio,” he says, referring to the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle,” when the aging Ali took a fusillade of punishment from champ Foreman, all the while laying back with his arms up, covering his body and head:
Which, taken to its logical and linear definition, is a great strategy in the courtroom too: lay back, let the opposition fulminate and run out of steam; then, start making your case, landing zingers with facts and factoids until the other guy and the judge are dazed and confused.
“I was a boxing nut all the way through high school and college,” he says one day in late-September, sitting in his office whose walls are festooned with boxing photos, posters, paintings, awards, autographs, even an Ali-autographed pen and ink drawing and a pair of boxing trunks.
He opened his firm in 1992, and today he shares the name Bochetto & Lentz with former assistant district attorney and Common Pleas Court Judge Gavin Lentz.
Bochetto is also a devotee of the Sweet Science of Public Policy — he thought about running for mayor against Sam Katz in the 1999 Republican primary and raised a reported $500,000 but pulled out after GOP leaders persuaded him that Katz was their horse.
He also thought about it in 2003, when Katz was mounting another race against John Street, who beat Katz by only 9,400 votes in 1999. Bochetto didn’t run, but he made a very cogent and controversial proposal to totally eliminate the city’s wage tax by 2008.
Bochetto was able to neatly parlay his love of boxing and his love of politics as chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, appointed by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1995.
“I had gotten to know Tom when he was gearing up to run for governor in 1994,” Bochetto says, “and I raised some money for him. I also got to know Billy Meehan [who ran the Republican City Committee for 33 years], and served on the state committee.”
After Ridge’s election in 1994, “I actively lobbied for the job,” he says, which entails regulating all boxing and MMA matches in the state, approving contracts, disapproving mismatches, inspecting training camps, hand wraps and referees.
Bochetto served seven years, until 2002, and during that period he was extra busy in his day job:
In 1999 he represented boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb who sued Sports Illustrated over a 1993 article that said he fixed a fight and shared cocaine with the loser. A federal jury awarded Cobb, a Philly folk hero, $10.7 million.
“Tex has been a prisoner of this article for six years and there’s no better feeling in the world than to have a jury come in and set the record straight,” Bochetto said after the verdict was announced. He said the verdict tells magazine officials “that they did wrong and you better not do it again.”
The decision was reversed on appeal.
Fast forward to 2013:
“When I was sitting at my kitchen table scouring the paper,” he says proudly, “and there was a little article buried inside the sports page that said: ALI’S HOME IS FOR SALE.”
Bochetto’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.
“I couldn’t believe that his childhood home in Louisville was up for sale.”
Bochetto had met The Greatest 15 or 20 years ago at the Academy of Music on south Broad Street but had no relationship with him, other than what many of us have: reverence bordering on love for his talent and courage — fighting and beating the U. S. government over his draft conviction, which the Supreme Court overruled unanimously in 1971.
“I negotiated with the owner, who was renting it out,” Bochetto says. “I called the realtor at 5 after 7 a.m. and said, ‘I understand you have the listing. I’ll fly to Louisville.’ The realtor gave me the bad news: ‘I think someone from Vegas was already here.’ He’s looking for a partner.’ “
Before you know it Bochetto was on the horn with Jared Weiss in Vegas.
“Jared paid $70,000 and he flew to Louisville to hand over the check,” Bochetto says.
“After Jared and I partnered, we spent more than $500,000 to completely rehabilitate the 1,200-square foot home. We re-did every stick of it. Including commissioning an artist. New wallpaper, bedding, and we bought the home next door to run as a gift shop.”
As you might expect, the Clay home was in Louisville’s West End — the wrong side of town — and while there had been steady business for the Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum and its next-door gift shop, support from the municipal government was largely vocal and not financial.
“The city of Louisville loves it,” Bochetto says, “and the mayor, Greg Fischer, has publicly apologized for not doing anything to help us.”
Bochetto told Ch. 11 in Louisville that he met with Fischer back in the spring but not much changed afterward, telling us, “What he has not done is really put the pressure on his budgeting staff and his administration to make sure the city steps up and helps support and promote the museum.”
So Bochetto and Weiss bit the business bullet and closed the museum, with the intention of moving it to a friendlier environment.
In late October, Bochetto said that he “is in discussions with the MGM in Las Vegas,” the town that has become the mecca for MMA and conventional boxing, but which rarely hosted an Ali fight, the exception being Larry Holmes’ beatdown of an aging Ali in October 1980.
He’s also had contact with the folks who are organizing the Philadelphia Museum of Sports in South Philly’s sports complex.
“We have discussed the possibility of housing the Ali childhood home at the Museum,” the museum’s CEO, Lou Scheinfeld, told Philly mag. “We are very much interested in preserving and presenting the legacy of Muhammad Ali, especially his historic bouts with Philadelphia’s Joe Frazier. Ali also lived in Overbrook and Cherry Hill and trained in Deer Lake in the Poconos.”
The Ali Childhood Home Museum may seem like a long shot attraction at the sports complex, but truth be told unless you are going to a game there’s no real reason now to go there.
And don’t bet against George Bochetto.
He knows how to fight for what he believes in and he doesn’t give up.
Just like the kid from Louisville who shook up the world.