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MAKING A COMEBACK FROM NOWHERE
Paul Zimmerman
December 05, 1977
A street fighter out of the East Bronx, Bobby Halpern had five arrests and three pro fights before doing 17 years in the slammer. Now 44 and out on parole, he's scuffling to start all over, and has a 6-0 record with five KOs
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December 05, 1977

Making A Comeback From Nowhere

A street fighter out of the East Bronx, Bobby Halpern had five arrests and three pro fights before doing 17 years in the slammer. Now 44 and out on parole, he's scuffling to start all over, and has a 6-0 record with five KOs

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"See this place? Used to be a bar called Lorbes in the basement of the gym where Bobby trained, where I trained, too. It was a hangout for everybody. The cops would be on one side of the bar, the bad guys on the other. Now it's a joint for burglars, junkies and winos."

The car passes a bar in the middle of the next block. One of the detectives identifies it as another rackets hangout, another place where Halpern had been seen.

"Why don't I think Bobby will make it?" he says. "Because I've seen too many come out of jail with what they think are street smarts, but when they come into the real world they've lost all that. They're two-bit nobodies. So they become tough guys. Pretty soon someone takes them by the hand. 'Hey, want to do a couple of two-bit jobs?' Then there's bigger money. Move a few kilos of junk, be a strongarm. Pretty soon they take a fall and they're back inside.

"Some of the guys I grew up with in the neighborhood, well, I knew they were into things. Gambling, numbers, nothing heavy. Then I'm called to do a wiretap on them. So I sit on the wire and find out what they're really into...dope, juvenile prostitution, the works."

It is a hard and one-sided view, but it is not shared by all. Solidly behind Halpern is his probation officer, Jerry Wells. Wells is a unique person, a Bronx guy who used the tall, gangly frame of a basketball player to keep out of trouble. Bachelor's degree from NYU, Master's in Criminal Justice, probation officer for 18 years, he is an example of the idealistic and dedicated type of person you occasionally find laboring in the vast web of the New York correctional system.

"Police always take a pessimistic view; it's natural with them," Wells says. "But they don't know Bobby like I know him. When you read about his background and the kind of life he grew into, you realize that this kid was a loser from the day he was born. But he's different from the other guys. He's got ambition. His whole ambition is to be something, to be a professional fighter. That's good. It makes him unique. It's what keeps him going at age 44.

"Look, I'll tell you something. Four months after he was paroled to me he got in trouble. That was a year ago May. He was speeding on Route 9W in Rockland County, and he sideswiped a car, and then he took off and finally got out of the car and ran. The cops found him hiding behind a storm drain. Reckless endangerment, it's a parole violation. Do you know they could have sent him back to jail for life for that?

I got him remanded to me to continue parole. He paid a $500 fine. I interviewed him in prison that night. He hadn't been drinking. He got scared and he panicked. He was docile, and the cops said he gave them no trouble when they brought him in. I have 60 parolees in my care. I think I can judge a few of them. I think Bobby's gonna be O.K.; I think he's gonna make it."

Halpern has got a chance as long as he keeps fighting, and so far he's 6-0 with five knockouts since he came out of prison, 8-1 lifetime as a pro. But how much fighting is left for a 44-year-old heavyweight, even a uniquely talented one? Three nights a week he works as a bouncer in a club, which in itself could be risky.

"Cops are always cynical," says Joseph Zinzi, the brother of Halpern's Green Haven buddy, Anthony Zinzi, and a neighborhood youth worker. "They think he's going to be tempted. I think they're wrong. You make an equation—the amount of time he's spent in the can to the offer he might get—and, well, I think he's got more common sense.

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