Cassius Clay and his trainer Joe E. Martin
By Pete Kennedy
From a young age, George Bochetto was interested in the law and in boxing. He saw a legal career as a way to understand how the world works, and to work for himself while helping others. His motivations for boxing were different:
“I got punched in the mouth. That gets you into boxing,” he said.
The 68-year-old Philadelphia lawyer has argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, and he’s known for taking on messy cases that can put him at odds – long odds – against established systems.
It’s that pugilistic spirit that led him to run for mayor in 1999, and to lead the legal fight in 2020 against the removal of Christopher Columbus statues. He upset some big players in the boxing world when, as state boxing commissioner from 1992 to 2002, he instituted reforms to save the sport he loves.
“First we went to our judges and said, ‘This practice of allowing a guy to fight until he’s practically dead has to stop,’ ” he said.
He also halted lopsided match-ups, when young fighters pummel sacrificial opponents as a way to build up “undefeated” records. But his reforms only extended as far as Pennsylvania’s borders, and fight promoters had 49 other options.
“That’s one of the reasons boxing has so drastically declined in recent decades,” he said. “We need a national boxing commission with real teeth and someone with the guts to implement it all.”
For Bochetto, knowing how to handle yourself in a fight and championing the underdog are traits that trace back to his childhood.
Born in 1962, he spent four years at the Angel Guardian Home orphanage in Brooklyn, cycling through foster placements. He was adopted into a family, but it was not a harmonious arrangement. After high school, he found a job painting houses and moved into his own apartment.
He graduated from SUNY Albany then Temple University School of Law, and opened his own firm in a shared office space. At first, clients were few and far between. In lieu of rent, he’d do legal research for his officemate.
But one day a young woman walked into his office without an appointment. She had recently given birth to a child with brain damage after a harrowing stay in a local hospital. Doctors had failed to notice warning signs like a dangerously low fetal heart rate.
“Nobody was paying attention to her,” he said. “After 24 hours, someone finally looked at the fetal monitoring strips and said, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to get this baby out.’ By that time, it was way too late.”
Other firms had declined to take her case.
“It was a difficult case to find an expert on, particularly back then when the doctors’ conspiracy of silence was truly manifest,” Bochetto said.
The hospital’s attorneys offered a paltry settlement, which the young mother rejected. They ultimately agreed to a structured settlement worth about $28 million. Suddenly, Bochetto was flush with cash and, perhaps more importantly, notoriety.
“My practice started spiraling upward. I was getting more and more cases, tougher cases, more lucrative cases,” he said. “I started hiring other lawyers and got new offices.”
In 1992, he partnered with former assistant district attorney Gavin Lentz to open Bochetto and Lentz, P.C. The firm has about a dozen attorneys with offices in Center City Philadelphia and Mount Holly, New Jersey.
This summer, Bochetto put his legal heft behind the effort to halt the removal of Christopher Columbus statues in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
“We essentially have the city tied up in knots,” he said. “Cities have been making a mad rush to rip them down. But there are processes and procedures, and Constitutional protections they’re violating.”
If the cities want to remove the statues, they have to do it properly, Bochetto said. That might include returning a statue to its sponsoring Italian heritage organization, and even paying damages.
Bochetto is also a founder of the Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum. In 2012, he and a partner purchased the dilapidated home in Louisville, Kentucky. They’re raising money now to secure its future as a museum, build an adjoining education center, and rehabilitate other homes in the neighborhood.
He enlisted his son Evan, 32, a filmmaker, to create a documentary on what life was like for a young Ali growing up in the segregated West End of Louisville, when racist policies were rampant. His other son, David, 34, is a “financial genius” who left Wall Street to join a tech startup in California.
Bochetto and his wife, Christy, who is also a lawyer, live in the Rittenhouse section of Philadelphia within a few blocks of their respective offices.
He starts most days with coffee and an array of five newspapers, and he’s in the habit of arriving to work early and staying late. But he’s been trying to delegate more, to free up time for other pursuits.
“I play golf. I go boating and fishing. I enjoy swimming and do laps for exercise,” he said. “If it’s outdoors, I’m in.”