Years later, rectifying boxers' grave injustices
PHILADELPHIA - Hidden in a hilly corner of Merion Memorial Park, just outside the city limits of Philadelphia, are the gravestones of Beatrice Tate (born 3/14/20, died 5/6/99) and Nellie J. Garrett (1929-2001). The cemetery is filled with mothers, fathers, sons and daughters - everyday people with names nobody knows except the family they left behind. Between Beatrice Tate and Nellie Garrett, though, is a name whose mention will give pause to any boxing fan and bring a smile to any Philly fight fan. "Gypsy Joe Harris - 1945-1990." Gypsy Joe was a welterweight contender who fought in Philadelphia in the 1960s with a unique style and a flamboyant talent for showing off. He wore red shoes and a red satin, double-breasted robe with a black bow on the back. His style landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1967. Gypsy Joe fought with his hands down at his side and leaned back at different angles, making him difficult to hit - but also helping him see his opponent. Gypsy Joe fought his entire career with one good eye. And he drank gin and milk. For 16 years, visitors who came to Merion Memorial Park and walked by the graves of Tate and Garrett had no idea that one of Philadelphia's legendary fighters also was buried there. Gypsy Joe lay in an unmarked grave. That wouldn't do for John DiSanto. So the South Jersey marketing and financial consultant - and devoted Philly fight fan - contacted Gypsy Joe's family and began to raise money for a headstone to mark the final resting place of Gypsy Joe. "I grew up a fan of boxing and would read old magazines and see old photographs," said DiSanto, 47. "As I got older, I got more nostalgic about Philly boxing. I've always been fascinated with the personalities and histories of fighters. The more I read and learned about fighters, the more I became emotionally attached and invested in them." DiSanto had started a Web site, phillyboxinghistory.com. Out of research for the site came the desire to mark the place in history of legendary Philly fighters like Gypsy Joe - who died of a heart attack after a history of drug and alcohol abuse - and others who for one reason or another were buried in unmarked graves. "I found a member of Gypsy Joe's family, a brother who lived in Atlanta," DiSanto said. "Then I found a few sisters in South Jersey and got the process going. "These fighters could have been champions and used to walk around as celebrities, but no one really remembers them now," DiSanto said. "The families like the idea, and I think the fighters would have liked to be remembered." Gypsy Joe's headstone was the first placed by DiSanto under his fundraising program, but it was not the first he put up for a Philly fighter. The year before, he placed a headstone for Tyrone Everett, the great junior lightweight contender from the 1970s who was shot and killed at 24 by a jealous girlfriend. The year before, in a title bout, Everett had lost a 15-round controversial decision to Alfredo Escalera for the World Boxing Council super featherweight belt. "The story goes he won about 11 or 12 rounds.. but somehow lost the decision," DiSanto said. "Six months later he was dead. I found out how big his funeral was. He was very popular, and the lines went around the block for people who wanted to pay their respects. .. We found where he was buried, and it was just a grass plot. I figured since he was so popular, there would be a big headstone. "His death was an emotional story, and I was struck by his story. I had been doing the Web site for about a year, and I figured this would just be an extension of what I was doing - honoring these guys with something worth caring about." DiSanto spoke to Everett's mother, who had four other boys, two of them fighters. DiSanto said the inspiration for the headstone project took root after that meeting. "It started to take on a new feeling," he said. "It became much more than I thought. I felt connected to the fighter - like I knew him." DiSanto paid for a gravestone for Everett out of his own pocket. He then committed to placing one headstone a year based on how much money he could raise from fans and those in the game and on finding the fighters in unmarked graves. He next took care of one of the greatest amateurs to come out of Philadelphia - Garnet "Sugar" Hart, a slick boxer from the 1950s who fought Gil Turner at Connie Mack Stadium and Charley Scott at Convention Hall in what was considered one of the greatest wars in Philadelphia boxing history. Hart died in 2003 at 67 and was cremated. One month later, Hart's mother, Iretta, passed away and was placed in the same cemetery as Gypsy Joe - also in an unmarked grave. DiSanto raised the money for a headstone for both Garnet Hart, whose ashes were then buried at Merion Memorial Park, and his mother. A photo of Iretta reading the Bible to a young Garnet Hart rests on the headstone. "The thing about “I didn't see coming was the connection I have made with the families THE mawith the families," DiSanto said. "It's been very rewarding. These people have become extended family to me." Now DiSanto is trying to raise money for a headstone for the unmarked grave of Eddie Cool, known as the "Tacony Flash," an Irish-Catholic kid from the streets of northeast Philadelphia who became a lightweight contender in the 1930s. Eddie Cool passed away at 35. A name like Eddie Cool deserves a headstone. We walked through Merion Memorial Park, past the gravestones of Gypsy Joe and Sugar Hart, less than 12 hours after a record-setting crowd filled Wachovia Center for UFC 101, the mixed martial arts promotion that is now the sport of choice for young men. Will any of them be as touched by the personality and legends of their fighters as John DiSanto? Not likely. The soul that has made the boxing ring the stage for so many great books and films isn't present in the mixed martial arts octagon. "I grit my teeth when I hear about UFC," DiSanto said. "I'm a one-ring-sport man. "I have a long list to get to," DiSanto said of the unmarked graves of boxers still out there, hoping his list won't one day require a headstone for the sport itself.
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