Al Flora, 86, fighter, boxing promoter and owner of bar

March 24, 2003|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Al Flora spent the best part of his life involved in professional boxing as a fighter, trainer, manager, promoter and, finally, member of the Maryland State Athletic Commission. But Mr. Flora, who died Saturday in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., at age 86, may be best remembered in his adopted hometown of Baltimore for championing fallen politicians.

In 1973, as federal prosecutors investigated Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, Mr. Flora spent hundreds of dollars to rent a West Lombard Street billboard with the message: "Keep punchin', Ted!"

Mr. Agnew, former Maryland governor, wrote his thanks, saying, "With friends like you, how can I help but keep punchin.'" But he soon resigned, and pleaded guilty to tax evasion - news delivered in a White House staffer's call to Mr. Flora's Arbutus bar.

"I was like the kid boxer who was the neighborhood hero who was cheered by the crowd and then got knocked out," Mr. Flora said a few years later. "You're alone in the dressing room, just you, your manager and bucket boy. It's an awful feeling."

But Mr. Flora was undaunted in his support of the politicians he backed - including President Richard M. Nixon amid the Watergate investigation, and the release from prison of Gov. Marvin Mandel, whose federal conviction on a political corruption charge ultimately was overturned.

Explaining his consistent support for disgraced public figures, Mr. Flora said, "I like to inject into people that nothing can lick them, that they're in control."

Born to a couple from Abruzzi, Italy, Albert J. Flora displayed a fighting spirit at an early age in the coal mining region of Wilkes-Barre. He began his ring career in 1936 as a 12-year-old, 96-pound boxer under the tutelage of former fighter Sid "Spider" Burton, who combined philosophy and boxing in his training regimen.

Working his way up to the lightweight division, Mr. Flora fought more than 100 amateur bouts, losing only 10 before turning professional in 1938.

"My mother, Clorinda, was from the old country and didn't believe in fighting," Mr. Flora said in a 1960s interview. "I came home one night and dropped 25 one-dollar bills on the kitchen table. My mother yelled, `Where'd you steal it?' She started getting out the strap when my brother told her I earned it by fighting. After that, she never complained again."

Preparing for a fight against rugged Artie Durrelle at Madison Square Garden in 1940, he suffered a fractured jaw in a sparring session.

"I couldn't pull out of the fight," he said. "It was an honor to be fighting at the Garden, plus it was good money."

Using all his skill in the ring, Mr. Flora salvaged a draw on the scorecards. But he suffered a broken sternum and bone chips in his elbow and was forced to give up boxing for a year.

In 1941, he resumed his career in Wilkes-Barre and won five straight bouts. It led to a match with Billy Ferrone in Syracuse, N.Y., on Nov. 3, 1941. Mr. Ferrone knocked Mr. Flora out of the ring and fractured his jaw in two places. That convinced Mr. Flora he would have a brighter future in boxing as either a promoter or manager.

First, however, he moved to Baltimore in 1942 to seek a job in the Bethlehem Steel shipyard. He soon became the boxing manager at the old Coliseum on Monroe Street and staged several shows there.

He returned to Wilkes-Barre in 1945 and promoted amateur and professional ring cards. He also staged amateur shows in Anne Arundel County.

One of his top prospects in the 1940s was teen-age Wilkes-Barre middleweight Joe Baldoni, who upset several established fighters. But Mr. Baldoni was filled with patriotic fervor watching John Wayne in the movie Sands of Iwo Jima and the next day enlisted in the Marines.

Mr. Flora's biggest dreams tended to become his biggest disasters. He signed Sugar Ray Robinson and then-welterweight champion Don Jordan for a pair of stadium fights in April 1960.

Mr. Jordan threatened to pull out of his match, but relented. After a rainstorm caused a night's postponement, Mr. Robinson failed to appear, claiming his manager had informed him his fight had been canceled.

Only 2,000 fans attended the event and Mr. Flora, who sustained a major financial loss, called for Mr. Robinson's statewide suspension. When the Maryland Athletic Commission convened, Mr. Robinson called Mr. Flora a liar, and the promoter, sticking out his prominent chin, shouted back, "I don't care if you're champion of the world, I don't take that from anyone."

Mr. Flora regrouped to later promote the first professional boxing matches at what is now 1st Mariner Arena. His inaugural show, Nov. 12, 1962, featuring former middleweight champion Joey Giardello and Johnny Morris, attracted more than 6,000 fans.

He supported his boxing promotions by operating the Club Florentine on Gwynn Oak Avenue for 30 years before selling the popular bar to former Baltimore Colts great Lenny Moore. From 1966 until selling it in 1987, he operated Al Flora's Sports Bar in Arbutus.

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