When John DiSanto started the web site phillyboxing-history.com about two years ago, he didn't expect he'd be getting into the business of buying gravestones.
But as he was researching the life of Tyrone Everett in 2005, a boxing star from South Philadelphia who lost the world title fight to champion Alfredo Escalera in 1976, he came upon a sad discovery at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, PA.
"I called and got the location of his grave and couldn't find anything," DiSanto said. "The office seemed to be closed, but I found the groundskeeper. He was a pretty famous guy in his day, locally at least, and the guy said, 'I don't think he has a stone.' We checked the location and sure enough, there it was - a plot of grass. He had been dead for 28 or 29 years and he had no headstone, so I was really taken by that. It was a surprise to me, but immediately, it kind of clicked - here is something I could do."
And so DiSanto, 44, who works in the marketing profession and is a resident of Mantua, N.J., started searching for Everett's family. Everett's mom was surprised to find out that a stranger wanted to pay for a headstone for her son, but she liked the idea that he wasn't forgotten.
Even without a headstone, Everett's mom needn't have worried about her son not being remembered. That 1976 bout still lives on in the memories of boxing enthusiasts everywhere, including DiSanto, who says that Everett should have won handily. "He did everything imaginable to win the fight and then got a really bad decision," DiSanto said. "It was just one of the worst decisions in boxing."
Most agree that Everett dominated the one fight he lost and that he should have become champion. But he never had that chance. Six months later after the loss, at the age of 24, he was shot dead by a jealous girlfriend. Everett, who was negotiating a rematch with Escalera at the time of his death, never got the chance to win the title. He finished with a record of 36-1.
Getting a headstone for Everett took months, and it was more complicated than DiSanto expected. In the end, it all worked out, and he even found a headstone that incorporated Everett's picture, which is what his mother wanted. He spent $1,500 of his own money for the stone.
But as DiSanto conducted further research for his web site, he realized that many Philadelphia-area boxers do not have proper headstones. And he began to receive inquiries from members of the public who were interested in helping him honor others.
"So I thought I'd really like to do this again and start a program," he said. "a lot of these boxers had nothing."
DiSanto next found the grave of "Gypsy" Joe Harris - a welterweight fighter who is said to have gotten his nickname because he wore several changes of clothes each day. He was the only non-heavyweight who was not a champion to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated., and he had a record of 24-1. But during a routine physical, a doctor discovered he was blind in his right eye, and his license to fight was revoked.
Harris had suffered problems with his vision in his right eye ever since a street fight he was involved in at age 11. But he hid the problem, which became progressively worse. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories about what led to the physical and his license being revoked, DiSanto said. "The bottom line is here is a guy who was born to fight, he was a future champion, and at 22 years of age, they pulled his license and he could never fight again. It wasn't that it was the wrong decision, but it was a tragedy because from that point on, he had nothing.
For years, Harris petitioned to get back his license. He never did , and he began drinking heavily and using heroin. He ended up suffering four heart attacks and died in a hospital at age 44 on March 6, 1990.
After some searching, DiSanto discovered that Harris was buried in a public grave at Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. "So he was buried with other people, and the cemetery owns the plot, and it's generally a section that doesn't have any headstones," DiSanto said. "I think he was buried for $105 or something like that, but that's where he wound up. His family was very much in support of getting the headstone, and the cemetery was really good about it because instead of just a plate in the ground, which was usually the rule for that kind of grave, they bent the rule."
In October 2006, a dedication ceremony for the new stone that included members of Harris' family was held at the cemetery. The stone cost about $2,000. This time, it was paid for by people who made donations to phillyboxinghistory.com, which touts the gravestone program on the site. DiSanto plans to honor one Philadelphia-area boxer each year by buying and dedicating a headstone, although he hopes he can honor even more. But that depends on the funds, he said.
"even today, professional fighters who are trying to earn their living this way, they don't make a lot of money until they make it to the upper echelon and are fighting on HBO and pay-per-view," DiSanto said. "Some of these guys make virtually no money in their career and then they live a very long life, and so by the end, there is not a lot left. It's one of those things. Boxing is a great sport, but it does have a problem with sort of taking care of its own."
A lot of people have asked DiSanto why boxers - especially good ones - don't have headstones. There is no easy answer, he said. "But I don't do this to right some kind of wrong, correct some kind of situation or judge people that surrounded them," he said. "To me, this is a huge opportunity to do something for people I have a lot of respect for - they are heroes of mine."
It's also important for these boxers to be remembered, DiSanto said. Those who donate money are welcome to attend dedication ceremonies, he added. Phillyboxinghistory.com has so far picked up the cost of any service.
Everett's and Harris' headstones both came from Earl Wenz Inc., which happened to be the company that both cemeteries worked with, DiSanto said.
Honoring Everett and Harris had been a rewarding experience, DiSanto said. "I didn't see it coming that the families would get so involved," he said. "Now I am really close to all of them, I talk to them all the time, and they sort of welcomed me as extended family. I really didn't see that coming. I thought I'd just get their permission and a signature on a piece of paper."
DiSanto said he has a couple of fighters in mind to honor next, but he has to find their graves and family members before making an official decision.