"See how these old-timers will turn back the hands of time," declares the big, bright poster advertising a night of exhibition boxing matches June 5 in East Baltimore. "See these greats defy the laws of geriatrics."
It would be a friendly gathering of aging boxers, a few Block bouncers, guys that could-have-been and should-have-been, palookas fighting to get back from Palookaville, if only for one night. They even invited Baltimore's most famous Boogie. All for charity, too.
It sounds sweet. Downright Runyonesque.
Except it probably won't happen -- not as originally planned, anyway.
The Maryland Athletic Commission has told the fights' organizers that fighting by old-timers -- that is, boxers over the age of 36 -- is not allowed in this state. In addition, the commission won't sanction a fight unless its promoter is licensed, unless doctors are at ringside, unless all fighters undergo a physical examination, an eye test and a neurological evaluation.
After hearing all this at a meeting with the Maryland Athletic Commission on Friday, John DiRossi, the director of the little-known charity that would have benefited from the $50-a-person event, said he would pull out of the benefit and reimburse money to everyone who purchased tickets from him. Others involved in the event, however, were still holding out the chance the show would go on. A final decision will be made tomorrow.
DiRossi, the 60-year-old director of the United Society of the Handicapped, might be willing to excuse himself from the event because promotion of it has brought something he didn't bargain for: Questions about his charity and his background.
DiRossi's other name is Charles W. Tipton. He says he changed his name to DiRossi in 1954, but he has appeared as Tipton on court papers for years, and as recently as last fall. DiRossi is presently awaiting sentencing on federal cocaine-smuggling charges.
In late January in U.S. District Court, he pleaded guilty to two counts of a five-count federal indictment charging him, as Tipton, with conspiring with an East Baltimore businessman to import cocaine into the United States from South America. When he and a co-defendant were arrested, federal agents estimated the street value of the cocaine they seized in the case at $200,000, according to court records.
Tipton, or DiRossi, lives on Albemarle Street in Little Italy. He says he formed the United Society of the Handicapped four years ago, after his release from a prison in Rahway, N.J., with the hopes of bringing some cheer into the lives of lonely elderly residents of nursing homes. With his own money, DiRossi says, he purchased birthday cards and holiday greeting cards and mailed them to nursing home residents "who have outlived their friends and families." He says he also has obtained equipment, such as wheelchairs, for disabled elderly and children.
In three separate interviews with this columnist, DiRossi was adamant that his charity is legitimate, describing it as a personal crusade for which he never wanted a lot of publicity. He said the boxing matches would have represented the first formal attempt to raise money for the United Society of the Handicapped.
DiRossi at first implored this columnist not to report his guilty plea in the cocaine conspiracy, saying it would jeopardize his organization and the boxing matches. He said he did not want to humiliate his old friends, many of whom did not know of his recent troubles with the law when they purchased tickets to the event at Tiffany's East, a catering hall on East Lombard Street.
"I've done some nice things for people," DiRossi said. "But I'd rather not be public. I don't want the notoriety. People say, 'He can BS the press, he can BS a reporter, but he can't BS me.' Now I'll just stay in the background."
DiRossi said that, until now, he has operated the charity "out of my own pocket." He said he would not keep one donated dime for his personal use.
"This isn't a scheme to rip somebody off," he said. "If you really knew me, you'd know I wasn't about ripping somebody off. . . . When I got out of prison, I wanted to do something good, to put something back in society. I wanted to retire away from criminality."
He said any profit from the boxing matches would go to the Easter Seal Society of Maryland. He said he already mailed a check for $500 to that organization.
Susan Bradford, director of development for the Easter Seal Society, acknowledged receipt of the check, but said it arrived with a provision that it not be cashed until after the June fund-raiser.
Bradford said she had a conversation with DiRossi about two months ago, in which he pledged donations from what she remembered to be "some kind of neighborhood dance." She said she "didn't put a lot of credence" in DiRossi's organization because she had never heard of it and because the Easter Seal Society receives many similar offers from groups that have no official standing as charities yet wish to make contributions. Bradford said she perceived DiRossi's to be a "grass-roots, neighborhood-type group" aimed at helping the disabled.
Though DiRossi's business cards describe it as a non-profit organization, the United Society of the Handicapped is not registered with either the Internal Revenue Service or the charities division of the Maryland secretary of state's office.
The organization does not have to register with the IRS unless contributions to it are considered tax deductible or if, in the state's case, its annual fund-raising reaches a certain minimum. Last week, the secretary of state's office sent DiRossi a letter advising him that charitable organizations that solicit and receive more than $25,000 in public support annually must register with the state.
The words "tax deductible" do not appear on the poster promoting the old-timer fights. At the bottom of the poster, however, the word "donation" appears above the $50 price tag.
DiRossi said $3,000 worth of tickets had already been sold for the event. "As far as I'm concerned, it's off," DiRossi said. "The age of the fighters is against the laws of the state of Maryland."
Many of the men scheduled to fight June 5 had professional boxing careers. Others had "unofficial fights." All will be dismayed to hear that the athletic commission would not sanction the exhibition matches for charity. The fight night at Tiffany's East had been touted as a fun time, a reunion of sorts for the old club fighters and street brawlers of Baltimore.
Listed on the poster touting the event are the names of "Other Fighting Celebrities," including that of Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, the wealthy founder of Merry-Go-Round clothing stores and a leader in the effort to bring a National Football League franchise to Baltimore.
Reached at his home in Colorado, Weinglass was surprised and dismayed to hear of DiRossi's background and his connection to the charity listed as a beneficiary of the night-at-the-fights at Tiffany's East.
Weinglass said one of the fight's organizers reached him several months ago and asked him to box.
"I told him that makes me look hokey," Weinglass said. "I told him I didn't want to box. He asked if I would show up and maybe announce a few of the fights, and I said, 'Sure.' He said it was for a charity, to raise money for kids. When someone mentions a charity and children, I'll do almost anything."
Weinglass said he gave permission for his name to be used.
"But believe me," he added, "I won't be there. I'm 100 percent naive to all this you're telling me."
DiRossi has a criminal record,under the name of Charles Tipton, and he acknowledged as much in three interviews. He also acknowledged that people might question whether a man with his record should be running a charity. But in doing so, he echoed the comment of a former professional boxer scheduled to fight in the exhibition matches: "Even bad people do good things."
"Take 365 days in a year and multiply that by, say, 40 years," DiRossi said. "Do you think I did something wrong, and nothing good, every one of those days?"
DiRossi said his problems with the law go back to his youth. A personable and polite man with straight, neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, he spoke candidly, albeit reluctantly, about his background. He's a man of contradictions.
"Many contradictions," DiRossi said.
Over the years, he said, he's been a card hustler, a clothing salesman, a bar-and-restaurant owner, a bookmaker, a dance instructor, a serious chess player, a man who has done a million favors for friends. When he was not in jail.
In 1974, while serving a prison sentence for 1968 charges of assault, carrying a deadly weapon and subornation of perjury, Tipton had his name in the news a lot. He was central to a bribery investigation launched by the Maryland State Police after allegations that a member of then-Gov. Marvin Mandel's administration was taking payoffs to influence the assignments of prisoners and their paroles. Tipton's wife at the time contended she paid $15,000 to a Towson lawyer to get her husband out of prison on parole. She said she had been told the lawyer would give the bribe to a state official. Two lawyers were charged in the investigation. Charges against one were dropped, while the other was acquitted. None of Mandel's staff was charged in the case. The late Baltimore City Councilman, Dominic Leone, was under indictment in connection with the Tipton case at the time of his death in 1976. Tipton was released from prison in 1978 after serving his full 10-year term.
Records in Ocean County, N.J., show that Tipton was sentenced to eight years in prison in January 1983 on a charge of "theft by deception." However, a little more than a year later, Tipton turned up in Baltimore again. In April 1984, a city grand jury charged him with attacking a man with a knife in a Little Italy restaurant. He was given a jail term that ran concurrently with the sentence he was already serving in New Jersey. In October 1985, back in Ocean County, N.J., Tipton was sentenced to five years in jail for receiving stolen property.
DiRossi said he was released from prison in New Jersey in 1988 and made his home there for a while. That, he said, was when he started quietly doing good deeds through the United Society of the Handicapped. After he honored a number of senior citizens, some of them on their 100th birthdays, a New Jersey newspaper described him as "the Willard Scott of South Jersey."
DiRossi said he returned to Baltimore within the last couple of years "to start a new life." He continued to work with nursing homes to provide birthday parties for some of their residents. Plans for the boxing benefit were hatched last September, he said.
"But then I screwed up," he said. "I got greedy. The Green-Eyed Monster bit me. . . . Look, I put myself there. I made a mistake. I don't get mad at other people for my mistake. I'm mad at myself."
In October, DiRossi got involved in a deal that was supposed to bring nearly half a kilogram of cocaine from Peru to Baltimore, according to federal records.
DiRossi was arrested Oct. 24 by federal agents after they stopped his white Lincoln Continental in downtown Baltimore. They confiscated a wooden statue of a lion that, according to court records, had been hollowed out, filled with 476 grams of cocaine, sealed and mailed to Baltimore from Lima, Peru. A U.S. Customs agent said the cocaine had a street price of $200,000 and was "an indication of major distribution and not purely for personal use."
Sentencing on the charge has not been scheduled, the U.S. attorney's office says. But, under federal sentencing guidelines, the presiding judge could sentence him to 41 to 51 months in a federal prison. "I try not to think about that," DiRossi said.