Where’s Ringo? Unraveling The Oscar Bonavena Mustang Ranch Mystery
By Robert Brizel, Head Real Combat Media Boxing Correspondent
The iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing over Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden after knocking him down three times in the 15th round remains a classic. Back then, it remained hard to believe any fighter good enough to battle Muhammad Ali into the 15th round could not make it out of the bout. Some years later, Chuck Wepner would suffer the same fate against Ali in the 15th. In 1970, when Ali was on the comeback trail after getting his boxing license back in the United States Supreme Court, Bonavena was a ‘great white hope’ who followed Jerry Quarry, in hopes of getting Ali out of there. Unlike Quarry with Ali, Bonavena gave a great accounting of himself, tried, but couldn’t get the job done.
Except for two disqualification losses, and losses to Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis, Zora Folley, and Floyd Patterson, world ranked heavyweight contender Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena was a vicious hitter, compiling a career record of 58 wins, nine losses, and one draw (with fellow Argentine Gregorio Peralta in a rematch), with 44 knockouts.
Argentine heavyweight Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena was more than a courageous fighter. His insane end was part fact, part a mystery, with three unofficial versions, and one assembled truth from the pieces of who wanted Bonavena dead and why at The Mustang Ranch.
In the first scenario, in May 1976, Oscar Bonavena, 33, had signed a contract to fight former Spanish and European heavyweight champion Jose Manuel Urtain, the last required on his way to secure a rematch with Ali, this time for the world title. With odds in his favor of 10 to 1, Ringo was told by the mob to take a dive in the fifth round against Urtain, or else he would be feeding worms. When he refused, they took away his passport to make sure he wouldn’t flee the United States and return home to Argentina. He called his wife in Argentina and told her not to worry. “I should be there in a few days. In the meantime, pray for me darling.” A few hours later, an unarmed Bonavena was murdered in what was either a setup or a misjudged confrontation at The Mustang Ranch brothel.
The Oscar Bonavena Mustang Ranch Murder Mystery had a second scenario. In the second motive for murder, The Mustang Ranch was run by Joe and Sally Conforte, a Sicilian couple with alleged ties to the mob. Sally was also Bonavena’s manager. Bonavena showed up at the ranch, drunk, loud mouthed and a womanizing, making advances at a lovely hooker who happened to be one of Joe’s bang ‘em favorites. So, in a Soprano style jealous fit of rage by one womanizing marvel on another, Joe had Bonavena whacked.
In the third scenario, Oscar Bonavena, originally a friend of Joe Conforte, soured the relationship one day. Everything changed when word got back to Conforte that Bonavena was bragging he had a plan to take over the brothel. To Joe Conforte, it was preposterous and bad news. Bonavena told everybody from now on, he was taking over as the big boss of the Mustang Ranch, a statement, attitude and clear intention which simply went too far.
The only way to move Joe Conforte out would be for Bonavena to have him killed. Mr. Conforte, anticipating a volatile confrontation with Ringo, had a bodyguard pull Bonavena aside. Conforte gave Bonavena money for a plane ticket home, to Argentina and told him to hit the road. “‘Oscar,” Conforte stated he stated to Bonavena at the time, said, “The game is over. You are going back to Argentina. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you.'”
Conforte later stated Bonavena agreed to leave, but instead took the money, gambled it away in nearby Reno, Nevada, then returned to The Mustang Ranch drunk, belligerent and hostile. Conforte was asleep. His security team repeatedly warned Bonavena to leave the ranch-or else. Joe Conforte’s friend, security guard Ross Brymer, said he saw Oscar Bonavena reach for a gun. Brymer shot him through the heart, instantly killing the boxer.
There has always been speculation the ‘gun’ found on Bonavena was planted on Bonavena after he died. Conforte believed the pistol Bonavena had belonged to his wife, though he did not know if Bonavena had the gun before the shooting, and had it planted on him after he was dead. When Conforte was woken up and saw Bonavena’s dead body, he remarked “What are you guys looking at? Bonavena is dead. Haven’t you ever seen a dead man?'”
Ross Brymer was charged with manslaughter, but the charge was later reduced, and he served only 15 months in jail for icing Bonavena. Conforte not only knew the judge and district attorney in Brymer’s case, but Conforte was also landlord for more than half of the jurors selected for the trial. As always, who you know took precedent over what took place.
The most plausible explanation for what happened to Bonavena is Oscar wanted to go home to his wife in Argentina. The Sicilian Mafia, which included Sally and Joe Conforte, would not let leave the country. Out of money, and out of options, Bonavena, tied to Mustang Ranch by his management, and having had an affair with his manager Sally Conforte, had only one way out. Kill Joe Conforte and his henchmen, get his Argentine passport back, take complete control of the ranch, and get his boxing career and his life back on track. Things had spiraled out of control. In his wild lifestyle, Bonavena, a hard partier and womanizer when he was not training, Bonavena had to make decisions fast. It was a night when everything simply went wrong. In the end, fighting for his career and his life with the Nevada brother Sicilian mafia, Bonavena was ten counted out in the worst way. In a body bag. The actual facts only became crystal clear much later. What really happened to Ringo, and why? Here are the true facts after the puzzle is are reassembled.
Detailed Facts and Final Conclusion About What Happened to Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena
Oscar Bonavena, 33, was flirting and spending private time with his boxing manager, Mustang Ranch co-owner and operator Sally Conforte, 60, and in poor health. Oscar lived in a trailer at the ranch. Joe Conforte stated years later Bonavena pleased him by taking his old wife as a lover, so Joe would have more time for his young brothel girlfriends. Bonavena sleeping with his wife Sally meant Joe, 49, would not have to climb into the sack with his old wife anymore, a woman eleven years older. Sally was funneling Mustang Ranch funds to fuel Bonavena’s heavy gambling habit and wild drunken lifestyle, but out of Joe’s way at the ranch when she and Oscar had their good times. It was a strange arrangement. The Nevada brothel kinky love triangle would have serious consequences.
Three months before Bonavena died, the Mustang Ranch had burned down. Local officials, many of whom Joe Conforte regularly bribed, declared it was arson so Joe Conforte could collect the insurance on The Mustang Ranch. Conforte rebuilt The Mustang Ranch as a new larger facility, and secured it with two 24 foot gun towers, an electric listening system, and banks of lights which automatically lit up the ranch at nightfall. There was an expensive grand reopening ranch party on May 20, 1976. Joe Conforte did not attend. Bonavena did, and acted like he owned the new place. Sally played hostess. Bonavena smoked cigars and smiled at guests, asking them if they liked ‘his’ new establishment.
Two days later, on May 22, 1976, Joe Conforte ordered Bonavena and his wife Sally to leave the new Mustang Ranch, and several armed guards forced them off the premises. One of them, Ross Brymer, ransacked the boxer’s trailer, removed his belongings, including his passport, and burned them. This was the ultimate insult.
Conforte and his bodyguards confronted Bonavena, handed him money for a return flight to Argentina, and ordered him to leave the country. However, Oscar had no passport, because it had been burned. Instead, the boxer drank and gambled the money away, and on May 22, 1976 at 6 A.M., Bonavena drove up to the locked gate at Mustang Ranch, and demanded to speak to Joe Conforte. The likely reason was to get back his personal belongings, in particular his passport, so he could go back to Argentina. The reason Bonavena did this is because he did not know his belongings, including the passport, had been destroyed. If Bonavena was drunk when he drove back to the ranch, it certainly would not have helped his cause. Inside the ranch after being let in, Bonavena was shot dead by Brymer’s rifle blast to the heart. A gun was found in Bonavena’s boot.
Ringo Bonavena now belongs to the ages, in a bizarre exit from the world worthy of the craziest heavyweight champion (which Bonavena never was), not likely to be equaled. 150 thousand people attended the funeral of Oscar Natalio ‘Ringo’ Bonavena in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bonavena is buried in a magnificent above ground glass tomb in the Cemeterio de la Chacarita in Buenos Aires. Along with the late middleweight champion Carlos Monzon of Buenos Aires, who killed his wife, tried to kill himself, and later died in a car crash driving on a jail furlough, Bonavena and Monzon remain Argentina’s most colorful boxing characters, with tragic violent ends punctuating their mysterious life stories.
Sally Conforte was with Oscar when they were let back onto the Mustang Ranch property, and survived to run the ranch with her husband Joe until 1990, when the ranch was seized by the Internal Revenue Service for back taxes, after the IRS won a tax fraud case against the Confortes. Sally died two years later from diabetes. Joe Conforte fled to Brazil in 1991, not long after the ranch as lost. Brazil refused to extradite Joe Conforte back to the United States. Joe died in Brazil in 2000.
Originally known as the Bridge Ranch, The rights to the name and trademark of ‘The Mustang Ranch’ whorehouse bordello were subsequently declared in Federal Court to belong to David Burgess, Conforte’s nephew, who managed The Mustang Ranch from 1979 to 1989. The ranch brothel, still a thriving business in Sparks, Nevada, is now legally owned and operated by Lance Gilman, the Republican Storey County Commissioner.