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Within two hours of his fatal collapse last night, the phone tree connecting the many worlds of Murray Wilson, classic New Yorker, was ringing. The calls went out from boxers, promoters, and cutmen: The manager of the fine young Israeli middleweight, Yuri Foreman — the only would-be Orthodox rabbi in the ring — was dead. Calls went out from his Upper East Side restaurant, Campagnola’s, a place where police commissioners, movie stars, sports heroes, wiseguys, and everyday New Yorkers all felt equally at home: Fast-talking, wise-cracking Murray Wilson, 72, was gone; heart attack suspected.
The calls went out from Gang Land denizens, from made men, associates, and hangers-on: Wilson, whom the government once tried to peg as the Meyer Lansky of his day, and who served a short stretch in the federal pen for conning the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas out of $1 million, had breathed his last.
The calls went out from the lawyers and reporters who wanted to be around him for his easy, friendly banter, a guy with a thousand tales who knew something about everything, and understood better than most how things work in this city.
Murray Wilson, born in the Bronx, graduate of William Howard Taft High School, died while dining with a friend. He was just back from Las Vegas, where he kept a home, and ready to open the fall season in his First Avenue restaurant and his satellite joint, Ecco, down on Chambers Street. He left his wife and two daughters.
He was last seen in New York in June on the field at the new Yankee Stadium where he and Bob Arum staged the ballpark’s first prize fight. His fighter, Foreman, came into the ring undefeated in 28 bouts, wearing his WBA junior middleweight champion’s belt. An hour later he had to give it up to opponent Miguel Cotto after Foreman’s knee painfully gave out in the 7th round. Before the fight, a beaming Wilson was passing out Israeli flags to his fighter’s fans on the field. In the stands surrounding them were several thousand Cotto fans waving Puerto Rican flags, roaring into the Bronx night. Wilson grinned and predicted victory. He’s Israeli-tough, he reminded those around him.
It wasn’t to be. Midway in the eighth round, a white towel came sailing out of the dark into the ring. Foreman tried to keep fighting, but Cotto knocked him down in the 9th and that was that. “We’ll get him next time,” Wilson said. He was more worried about his fighter than the fat winner’s purse they’d missed out on.
There are lots of stories about Murray Wilson, some of them even true. He may well have helped welcome certain Russian expatriates who were not Nobel Prize winners once they landed in the U.S.A., as the late Voice writer Robert I. Friedman described in his book, Red Mafiya. He did, briefly in the mid-1980s, help control a certain African nation with the help of Russian-Israeli men with guns who coveted local diamond mines. He did, as William Bastone once wrote in this paper, help fund the early Jewish Defense League, before discovering the group was filled with fanatics and led by a police informant.
He was also generous and gregarious, a man who understood and honored the pillars of friendship and loyalty no matter what side of the law you operated on. And New York is not as much fun tonight without him.