It is always a surprise when someone is shot dead in a restaurant parking lot while apparently minding their own business, but it is somewhat less of a surprise that it happened to Eddie Melo on Friday night.
Had breakfast with him not so many years ago. The invitation came after paths crossed at the fights one night in Montreal.
Melo was then in the company of Harold Arviv, a chap most famous, at least in Toronto, as the proprietor of a trendy, eponymous Yorkville disco that one night in 1980 he arranged to have blown up for the insurance money.
Arviv and Melo suggested a meeting the next morning at their hotel, which was a very nice place indeed. "Any time you want to stay here," Melo said, "I can look after it for you." Over eggs and toast, they explained that they had just had a run-in with law enforcement officials in the United States. They claimed that they had been unfairly persecuted for past indiscretions when, in fact, they were now legitimate businessmen.
And Melo was also being leaned on by the Canadian government, which wanted to ship him back to Portugal, where he'd last lived as a six-year-old, in order to wash this country's hands of someone considered an incorrigible criminal. Those legal problems eventually sank Arviv's plan to have Melo make a boxing comeback, at age 34.
As he spun out his tale, Melo was, as always, unfailingly polite, gentlemanly even, and flashed a lovely, disarming, boyish smile.
That said, he was a hood, to a degree beyond what a quick glance at his extensive criminal record would indicate, which is why people had been interested in killing him long before they finally succeeded.
Once upon a time, he was also a very good boxer, and of course those two callings occasionally coincide. It's not because boxers are bad people (most who know the game prefer them by far to other professional athletes), but that they can't much help but associate with bad people, and eventually have to make a living when fighting is no longer an option.
Alternatives tend to be somewhat limited, especially since fighters are normally disadvantaged to begin with, and are not given college scholarships in return for enhancing the revenue streams of American universities. Careers end all at once, sometimes in the course of a 10 count, and the cash flow stops dead. Boxers often need looking after, even the ones who make millions for their managers and promoters.
Always willing to lend a hand are those patrons of the game who operate in the shadows. Usually the jobs on offer are simple, strong-arm stuff. One well-known boxing tough guy who collected for loan sharks was famous for apologizing after breaking arms, explaining that it was just a job, regretful that the pigeon didn't pay up and save him the grief.
Another fighter, one of the most famous names in Canadian boxing, didn't even have to perform the laying on of hands. He'd simply sit in the same bar where the lender met the borrower: A quick nod in his direction suggested what would happen if the loan fell further into arrears.
Occasionally, the bigger fish turn out for the fights as well: Frankie Carbo, Blinky Palermo and company, who controlled the sport in the 1950s; Mom Boucher, the now incarcerated Hells Angels kingpin, who had a particular soft spot for contemporary Québécois fighter Stephane Ouellet; and Frank Cotroni, the Montreal mob boss who was a patron of the fighting Hilton family, and who gave Eddie Melo his start in organized crime.
Melo was some kind of fighter as a teenager, all action, all aggression, the kind the crowds adore. In Montreal, his light burned brightly, but briefly. He was all but finished long before others reach their prime, pushed too hard, too fast, peaking with the Canadian middleweight championship, a local hero who was never anything more than that. There wasn't much left for him in the ring when he opted to seek a new career path.
At his peak, he was a mid-level thug. If he sat in the crowd during a local club show in Toronto, there would be much genuflecting in his presence by those lower down the food chain, but that was big-fish-in-a-small-pond stuff.
You'd run into him in funny places, at the big fights in Las Vegas, in Atlantic City: He was always well dressed, always looked great, and always there was that touch of gentility.
And even if one understood that he had done bad things, that he knew people very well who had done very bad things, that he might have occasionally ordered others to do bad things, there was something endearing about him, just as long as you didn't think about it too much.
Which is why, in the wake of his murder, he was mourned as a family man, as one heck of a nice guy, and written off as a punk who got what he deserved. Perhaps it's not really possible to be both, but sometimes it can seem that way.