I remember Johnny lifting his shirt to show me the wound marks left by the three nails. The fight had been a brutal one, and to beat Johnny, his opponent had taken a two by four to him. The nails in the board had pierced Johnny’s side, puncturing a lung. John spent six months in the hospital, but he healed eventually and went looking for the man who had caused him injury. When he finally caught up with the man, Johnny covered the forty yards separating them with such speed that the man was unable to mount an effective defense. He took a terrible beating. Johnny had returned the favor. The man was carted off to the hospital. That was Johnny Maspero, street fighter par excellence in his early twenties.
We were young then, and he is gone now, this friend of my younger years, my comrade and first student, my dear friend Johnny Maspero, bad to the bone, all 6’1 and 238 pounds of him. Yes, he is gone, and I have missed him, for I loved him, which feelings I deeply regret never having expressed to him. He was raised, as he expressed it in perfect Spanish, “en la Calle Green” two entire blocks on that street which were once the home place of the large Italian American Maspero clan. Green Street in San Antonio runs west from S. Flores Street into Luther Burbank High School, which sits on acreage donated to the school by Johnny’s grandfather in 1937. John had been a star basketball player while attending Burbank High School, and athleticism ran in the family. In the mid-1950s his uncle Vic Maspero had set an area rodeo bulldogging record of 5.6 seconds.
I was ending my third year with the Austin Police Department when Johnny came on the force in 1970. We were too much of the same mindset for me to treat him like a rookie. Graduating from “La Burr” (Burbank High) in 1962, a year before my graduation from high school, he was an Italian turned Mexican, which is the crowd he ran with in those days, and we hit it off immediately. He took me to San Antonio to introduce me to many of “la palomia” he grew up with, among whom was his cousin Tommy Maspero, a mountain of a man at 6’6 and 350 pounds. Tommy, who is today an attorney, was also immersed in the Mexican culture and would come to work for me four years later when I took over a state investigation unit in San Antonio.
As intimated above, John was ferocious in a fight. One of his first disturbance calls was to a bar on E. 1st Street, where the bartender challenged him to come behind the bar. Never one to hesitate, Johnny vaulted the bar and the fight commenced. By the time other officers arrived, the area behind the bar was a shambles with Johnny in the process of wrapping things up. It was a harbinger of things to come. In what was then the Black area of town up on Webberville Road, Johnny walked into a pool room when someone broke a pool cue over the back of his head. That was a mistake. With blood pouring down past his ears, Johnny turned to face his attacker. If that man feared the worst he was correct. While Johnny was getting stitches at Brackenridge ER, the man, now Johnnie’s prisoner, was himself getting tended to in the next cubicle courtesy of John Maspero.
Johnny and two other officers began working out with me in late 1970 at a time when I was yet months away from examining for my brown belt. The other two were Bobby Ray and Dan Luna. Johnny was one day asked scornfully by another officer, “Well, is Chris Lopez teaching you anything?” Johnny responded: “Let me show you a combination I’ve learned… Left shuto to the side of the neck…” the man dropped his briefcase stunned by the blow…“followed by reverse punch to the rib cage, and I bury it (he buried it)…and as you go down, (he was going down) I finish you off with a lead leg roundhouse kick…there I’ve laid you out… (this in front of the whole shift)…and that’s all he’s taught me, but you’re down and out, don’t you see?” John walked out of the room, leaving that officer laid out cold. It was a great visual of what I taught, removing any doubt any those officers may have entertained as to what we were about.
Johnny’s actions were a boon for me. It is a fact that Johnny could have taken that man out before receiving any instruction from me, but here he was brutally demonstrating something I had taught him. That made more of an impression than if I had done it myself, for if Johnny was the student, what did it say of the instructor? His harsh actions became a second witness of who I was, and while a member of that department I welcomed and fully lived up to any expectations of me. In another instance Johnny took up my cause physically, quieting dissension which had grown up about me, and this at a gathering of some two hundred officers. When I uttered the command, “Take him, Johnny!” he complied without hesitation, and that dissenter paid dearly. This thing about having your back, why Johnny always had my back, even in later days when we had our differences.
We were in those days in our mid-twenties with Dan the youngest at age 22. It occurred to me that since I was instructing them strictly in fight technique, (forget the kata!) I would eventually have to spar them, and I was not looking forward to such, primarily because I had no idea either of how to introduce the sparring, or once into sparring, how to control the situation in the ring. Nor did they, for they had never seen controlled sparring. And at 147 pounds I had to appreciate our weight differences, with Johnny at 238, Bobby at 230 and Dan at 185 pounds.
I put sparring off for as long as I could, for 4 months, but the day came when I could put it off no longer. It was time to spar. Bobby Ray stepped up first, and almost immediately after bowing in, latched on to my gi top, spun me around and drove me into the brick wall, hard! I responded by going over his hands gripping my gi and raked his forehead with my elbow, opening a cut over his right eye. Bleeding freely, he headed to the emergency room for stitches. Johnny was next, and what a fight that was! I moved! Oh my, I moved! In the one instance where he was able to cleanly connect, it was because he was able to grasp my gi and drive a hard right cross into my upper chest. That should have brought me down, it was so forceful a strike, but it was not in me to go down, and I made him pay dearly.
I was not knowledgeable enough about the process to know how to control the fight and call a stop to it. Nor were we sparring. We were going all out, and I knew that if I lost this one I was through, for I would have lost the respect of those three and my credibility on the force would be in shambles, of that I was sure. It was all or nothing. I was the only karate man on the force at the time, and much was made of that at a time when karate was virtually unknown. I had no choice but to emerge the better man. We were wearing no gloves and two weeks later I was still seeing the bluish purple imprint of four knuckles on my chest, and still feeling the pain, something I never divulged to Johnny. But I was better conditioned, and I beat him down unmercifully, dropping him to all fours. He was able to get up and I dropped him again. This time, when he was able to get up, he grabbed his clothes and stalked out.
Danny was left, but by now he knew better than to come on aggressively. We sparred until the phone rang. It was Johnny. “I’m at Hernandez Bar on 6th Street. Come over and let’s finish that fight!” I walked into that bar thirty minutes later and followed Johnny into a back room. It was a small storage room, and I immediately realized that I would have no room to move, and without being able to move Johnny would surely own me. With that in mind, I quietly put my hand around the neck of one of the empty bottles stored there. To my relief, Johnny stuck out his hand. “This was your day!”
I have mentioned Dan Luna who hailed from West Texas. He too was extremely aggressive and stuck with me, the only one of the three to come back. Since I was not yet even a Brown Belt, I took Dan over to Joe Alvarado’s dojo (then at 104 Bastrop Hiway) to test for his first belt. He had a tough Orange Belt to spar Dan, he said. Johnny went with us, and with John Maspero hollering his support, Dan devastated that tough orange belt, did a real number on him. Back on duty one night, about a month later, up on St. John Street, Dan stopped to question two Black men. He got sucker punched and the two worked him over, putting him in the hospital for several months. When Dan got out of the hospital, he raced back up to St. John Street. He encountered two Black men and tore into them, sending both to the emergency room. The chief fired him the next morning. Dan went back out to West Texas and became a deputy sheriff and I lost a fighting student.
My friendship with Johnny continued but in the back of his mind, Johnny wanted another go at it. We were off duty and in civilian clothes months later when we did a repeat with the same result, only with a bit more blood spilled. That lingered beneath the surface, remaining a point of contention between me and Johnny.
We thought alike about how to handle things on the street. There was a bear of a man who lived in Montopolis whom I remember as “Moncho,” a cognomen perhaps, for Moises. When Moncho got to drinking, he turned mean and wanted to fight, and when Moncho wanted to fight people got hurt. One afternoon when Moncho was on the warpath Johnny took the call and quickly made Moncho’s acquaintance. Units arriving for back up were treated to one heck of a brawl in progress between an evenly matched Moncho and Johnny Maspero in the kind of encounter that delighted Johnny. Moncho was hauled off to jail. A couple of weeks later I was driving down Riverside Drive en route to Montopolis when I spotted a hulk of a man walking in that direction. It was Moncho. I pulled over to talk to him. When it came to Frank Miller’s attention that I was out talking to Moncho, he hurried over. When I advised Moncho, in the presence of an incredulous Frank Miller that I would give him a ride the ten miles to his home, Frank almost had a cow. “He just assaulted an officer!” protested Frank. So I called Johnny. “Johnny, are you ok with me giving Moncho a ride home?” “Sure, give him a ride. Le mando saludes!” (“I send him my greetings.”) Frank was beside himself in anger. “I don’t get you guys, not one bit! Johnny just had to fight this guy and now you’re giving him a ride home! You guys disgust me!” (John had spoken to me after their brawl of the respect he had for Moncho. On the way to jail the two had talked, and the respect was mutual. Only a fighter would understand.)
Johnny and I rarely got to work together, and it was just as well given our competitive nature. He was riding with me the night the call came out regarding an armed robbery which had just occurred involving four subjects. We were close and happened on the car involved, on East 12th near the Interstate. As I was running the car off the road, Johnny and I were actually struggling over the unit’s riot shotgun. I was in the driver’s seat, Johnny was the stronger of the two, and with both hands on the weapon took it from me. I can still remember my ire at Johnny over having to hold only a puny .357 caliber handgun on the four rather than the 12 gauge shotgun which Johnny had wrested from me. A riot shotgun commands some respect, and in Johnny’s hands, those perps came to an understanding.
In late 1973, Johnny left the department. Johnny’s wife at the time, (Sandy) worked at the Adjutant General’s office and had insights about a new state investigative division forming up. Captain Howard Smith, the head of Texas DPS Intelligence was hiring law enforcement personnel to man that division, a total of 114 men. Johnny applied and took over a unit in that division in Austin. In October of 1974, I also joined that agency, taking over an investigative unit in San Antonio. Johnny and I were together again, but with the passing of time, we got crossways again.
In 1980 Johnny went to the FBI, eventually becoming the Special Agent in Charge of the Austin office. While there he was active in assisting the Austin Police Department and other agencies in dealing with organized crime and Mexican Cartels, both of which were his specialty. He retired from the FBI in 2000 and ran for and was elected Sheriff of Williamson County, following Sheriff Ed Richards, for whom Johnny and I had both worked while with the state. I took this high point in his life as an opportunity to call him and congratulate him, with an eye to patching things up. We had a pleasant conversation, with even the suggestion being made that I go to work for him. In short order, Johnny revamped the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department’s chain of command giving it greater efficiency, and County Judge John Doerfler rated his job performance for his first year in office as “excellent.” During this time he was also hailed as Top Administrator of a Sheriff’s Office in Texas. Unfortunately, Johnny had a drinking problem, which led to his resignation in 2003 amid allegations of public drunkenness and a series of domestic disturbances involving his ex-wife. At one point after his resignation, it required four Georgetown police officers to take him down. With political enemies taking jabs at him publicly, Johnny had hit the lowest point of his life. My heart went out to this warrior friend and student of mine who had soared so high and was now brought down in so humiliating a manner.
But you cannot keep a champion down, and in the end, Johnny now a guest lecturer at Texas State, pulled it together for the good, spending the last five years of his career working with young people as a special education teacher for Temple ISD. Indeed, Johnny had much to pass on to young people concerning the vicissitudes of life. Further, he taught Sunday School for the youth at his church. Bravo! There is no greater work than that which we do amongst young people. They can remember it as a privilege to have been taught by John Maspero, whose new life was certainly pleasing to the Lord, who said that “there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” Yes, such a blessing is repentance as we turn things around, and Johnny soared at his highest in those last days of his life. Oh, how I wish I had known him in those last years! Such a time we would have had! He passed from this life on March 22, 2014, at the age of 69. Johnny, ever the fighter, ever aggressive, plunging headlong into the fray, had finally slowed down.
Johnny Maspero, utterly fearless and the consummate lawman whose escapades as a lawman border on legend, played an important part in my early years as a martial arts instructor. He was my first student. He was ferocious in a fight and would put many a black belt to shame. After Johnny, I knew the type of fighter I was capable of training. Within six months of opening my dojo in Austin as a new brown belt in 1971, I was able to send over to Joe Alvarado’s school five fighters. Predictably, Louis Arnold the soon to be legendary brown belt and winner of over 200 matches in that division, walked on my orange belt heavyweight, Mike Pair. The rest of the fights favored my boys in their matches against the students of the toughest dojo in Austin.
Curiously, where my nearly five decades as a martial arts instructor are concerned, I began with an Italian American in John Maspero, and I’m ending with another Italian American in Jeff Bonugli. There are so many similarities between the two. I take consolation in the fact that in the nigh 50 years of instructing, from Johnny Maspero to Jeff Bonugli, I have never been accused of teaching a substandard fighting art. I taught the fight game. Jeff Bonugli is taking it from there.
Above all things, Johnny was my friend. Such great times we had together! He has been much on my mind of late. I miss him! As one brother loves another, I loved him. Yes, I miss him, and when I see him again it shall be in a place where there will be none of the contentions we knew when we were young, contentions that we permitted to keep two dear friends apart. Until that blessed day Johnny, my beloved friend, I bid you goodbye. Goodbye, beloved friend!