Describing Bob Bozic as a former boxer is like referring to Jesus as a former apprentice carpenter. There’s a bit more to the story.
Bozic, 73, who lives in Beacon, was at one time Canada’s amateur heavyweight boxing champion, with a combined 37-4 amateur and professional record, the latter including a loss to Larry Holmes at Madison Square Garden in 1973.
His nose was broken by Holmes’ first punch. He lost teeth in Round 3. The unanimous decision was not in his favor.
Bozic’s story reads like a Hollywood movie script: living on the street, working for a bookie, attempting to rob a bank, marrying a U.S. president’s first girlfriend, escaping Afghanistan in a donkey cart, delivering medical supplies to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and reclaiming a family home lost to a post-World War II communist regime.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 240-pound Bozic reveled in telling those stories at Fanelli’s Café in New York City’s SoHo, where he tended bar for 25 years beginning in 1990. Customers loved listening, even to reruns. He worked less and talked more than his colleagues, avoided making complicated cocktails and gave free drinks to customers who correctly answered his trivia questions such as naming the swans in Swan Lake.
Bozic’s father, Dobrivoje Bozic, was an engineer who designed air brakes for the Serbian train system, which made him wealthy enough to build a 22-room mansion in Belgrade. In 1946, the communist government seized the house; the Bozics fled, emigrating to Windsor, Ontario. Dobrivoje Bozic abandoned his family three months after Bob was born in 1950.
“I saw him only once more, seven years later,” Bozic said. “A man at a party taught me to count to 10 in Serbian,” he remembers. It was his father, though he didn’t learn that until later.
Bozic said he was a “very messed-up kid.” At 12 he assaulted a teacher who he said wrongly accused him of disrupting class. At 14 he robbed a Boy Scout donation box and treated his friends to the movie My Fair Lady and French fries at Woolworth’s. At 15, he was beaten by four boys who were angry he had made the football team at the expense of one of their friends. He bided his time before he evened the score with the ringleader.
By 16, he was homeless on the streets of Toronto, sleeping in unlocked cars, apartment building laundry rooms and on park benches. It was the saddest time of his life, he said, until he met Bernie Mignacco, who bought him lunch and invited him to come to his gym, where he learned to box. “He wanted to keep me out of trouble,” Bozic said, although Mignacco was also a bookie and had Bozic collect and pay out the hockey bets.
Bozic fought his first pro bout in 1970 in Toronto and was undefeated in 12 heavyweight fights over three years before losing to Tommy Kost in January 1973 at Madison Square Garden, followed by Holmes in September. Bozic retired after a loss in December 1977 in Toronto that gave him a 14-3 career record, including seven wins by knock-out.
Soon after, Bozic was staying on a Greek island when he met a German woman who gave him an unusual job tip. He headed to Istanbul, where he joined a convoy that smuggled auto parts and sewing machines into Afghanistan. The run complete, he was warned that the convoy leader and other drivers had been arrested. “I was out the door before he even finished telling me,” Bozic recalled. “I escaped hidden in a donkey cart.”
In 1980, nearly broke, Bozic entered a Madison Avenue bank in New York City and announced a robbery. He was soon arrested. The judge noted Bozic had been unarmed, and he may have been amused that this would-be robber had given Broadway tickets to the bank employees. Bozic pleaded guilty to third-degree attempted robbery and received probation.
Before his trial date, the detectives who arrested him invited him to a barbecue. They also sometimes took him to lunch. “What a city!” Bozic said. “That couldn’t happen today.”
In 1985, Bozic found himself in Nicaragua, working as a driver for a Reuters reporter covering the Sandinista government. In his spare time, he delivered medical supplies. “I wanted to get involved with the government,” Bozic said. “I thought that’d be a good gesture.”
In 1986, he married Alex McNear, who, a few years before, had been the first serious girlfriend of future President Barack Obama at Occidental College in Los Angeles before Obama transferred to Columbia.
Bozic and McNear divorced in 1993 but remain friends. “I speak to her almost daily,” he said. “She’s helping edit my Substack” at bobbozic.substack.com, where Bozic is documenting his story, perhaps as notes for a book.
Bozic visited Belgrade in 2003 after the Serbian government began offering restitution for property taken by the communists. It took until 2018, but he regained ownership of the family villa and sold it.
While sleeping in the mansion the night before the closing, Bozic awoke to discover scalding water gushing from the heating system. He fixed the leak, but severely burned both legs. He spent four months recovering in a German hospital. “The pain was so bad, I wanted to die,” he said.
Bozic declined to say what the house sold for. He isn’t even sure where the money he received came from; the buyers disappeared. “It’s very different there, a bit like Russia,” Bozic said, “I had to bribe people.”
He used the proceeds to repay debts, including more than $100,000 loaned to him on a handshake. He paid his daughter’s college expenses and for a Serbian friend’s daughter to attend high school in Portugal.
He said the scariest moment of his life was when he robbed a mobster. “He knew I did it. But I’m not going to talk about that.”
The happiest moment, “without a doubt,” was the birth of his daughter, Vesna, in 1991. “Alex and I didn’t even take pictures,” he said. “We wanted that memory to die with us.”
As a father, he “became much calmer. Things that used to make me fly off the handle no longer did; I realized if something isn’t going to be a problem in five years, it doesn’t matter.”
Bozic moved to Beacon in 2019, wanting to live somewhere smaller and less expensive than New York City. “All I want to do is read, go for walks and work on my Substack,” he said.
He estimates he’s read more than 800 books, listing Albert Camus’ The Plague and George Eliot’s Middlemarch as favorite novels. He also relishes books on the suffragette movement and legal matters; he’s currently tackling Actual Malice: Civil Rights and Freedom of the Press in New York Times v. Sullivan, by Samantha Barbas.
And he delights in sharing his stories with anyone who’ll listen. He laughed while he recalled asking Alex if she agreed with a profile in The New Yorker in 2012 that said Bozic “feared he might be a little self-absorbed.”
“You’re not self-absorbed,” she said. “You’re self-fascinated, but you’re fascinated with everyone!”
Bozic wants to continue that fascination in Beacon, including coffee-shop chats.
“I’d like to engage more people in conversation,” he said.” I’d love to have a dinner for six or eight people and talk about a specific subject. Maybe the U.S. Constitution — it’s not bad to know how your country operates.”
He said he has no regrets. “It’s like Pangloss says in Candide: ‘Since everything was made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose.’”