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The Beast of Stillman's Gym, Part 4…TOLEDO

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Robinson nervously laughs, LaMotta looks over his shoulder. Is Bert Lytell in the house?

 

PART 4: SHADOWS AND SUGAR RAY

Promoter “Rip” Valenti, a product of Boston’s North End, finagled an agreement with uncrowned welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson to fight Bert Lytell in 1945. In May, that agreement had become “very definite plans” and Valenti assured reporters that Robinson and Lytell would meet during the outdoor season at Fenway Park.

Robinson had bigger things on his mind. The National Boxing Association would soon announce that the world titles were being unfrozen as World War II winded down and the champions came out of the armed services. Welterweight king Freddie Cochrane promised his navy pals that he would be an active champion and was making overtures to Robinson. Robinson pondered his options. With Cochrane making moves in his direction and that golden crown getting a little closer, why risk blowing it by taking on a high-risk challenge like Lytell? He wasn’t crazy like Jake LaMotta, so that summer saw him face a white fighter with a record of 7-11 instead of Bert.

At the end of 1948, Boston tried again. Promoter Sam Silverman offered Robinson a $15,000 guarantee to face Bert in early 1949 for the “Negro Middleweight Championship.” They told him that he could name the date. By this time Robinson was campaigning hard to face middleweight king Marcel Cerdan. Defeating the number-one contender who was touted as “the most-feared fighter in the country” would have made that campaign as politically persuasive as a gun to the head. But he passed again.

Meanwhile, Bert went right on facing hazardous fighters for fun.

For journalists who expected their boxers to be fearless, Robinson’s business acumen looked bad. One of his critics counted over 30 times that Robinson reneged or “ran out” on agreements to fight. Host cities left hanging dotted the national landscape between Boston, where Valenti shook his fist, and Houston, where an agreement to fight Cocoa Kid was left bleaching in the sun.

Robinson shrugged it off until he overheard Manhattan restaurateur Toots Shor grumbling within earshot. “There goes Robinson,” said Shor, “–-they ought to ban him from boxing.” That did it. Robinson penned a retort in the November 1950 issue of Ebony: “My critics would have the public believe that I’m a bad boy who hates all promoters and breaks contract with impunity. They seek to prove that I have caused bitterness, bad feeling, and confusion in boxing… this time I’ll have my say.” The media was biased, he charged; why else did typewriters rattle every time a promoter wailed about an alleged run-out but went strangely quiet when it came to his side of the story? Those “run-outs” weren’t run-outs at all, he said, they were misunderstandings motivated by wishful thinking. Fly-by-night promoters had a habit of mistaking his willingness to consider a fight with a signed contract, and if they chose to kick off expensive publicity campaigns based on that, it wasn’t his problem.

In his righteous indignation, Robinson’s pen did to him what most of our mouths do to us –-it spun off without him: “I fight all comers,” he wrote, “provided they can put up a good scrap and draw a decent gate.”

This, of course, wasn’t true. Bert Lytell was already drawing decent gates and after fighting on even terms with the best middleweight in the world in LaMotta, everyone knew he could put up a good scrap with anybody. Robinson knew it better than most -–Artie Towne was one of his stablemates as was Van McNutt, whom Bert cut to pieces in January 1945. “I want it known,” Robinson wrote, “that Ray Robinson never runs out on a bona-fide match contract.” He should have made an exception. What Rip Valenti called “very definite plans” in May 1945 to stage a Robinson-Lytell fight became “a signed contract” and still never came off. On August 1st Sammy Aaronson was complaining to the Baltimore Sun that “Lytell had a contract to fight Ray Robinson July 23rd at the Boston ball park but Robinson ran out.”

LaMotta himself may have had a hand in Robinson’s reluctance to fight the beast of Stillman’s Gym. His split decision win at the Boston Garden may be just a bland statistic now, but for a number of years afterward it was remembered as a scandal.

The Aaronson office never stopped trying to get a rematch with LaMotta and let the whole world know it. Boxing weeklies as far away as San Francisco ran front-page challenges: “BERT LYTELL challenges the World’s Leading Middleweights –-wants Marcel Cerdan or Jake La Motta” declared the May 3rd 1947 issue of Referee and Redhead; “Recently Lytell boxed a whale of a close one with Jake LaMotta, in Boston. And since that memorable encounter, promoters throughout the Nation have tried in vain to make the rematch. But it seems that LaMotta (that guy who claims no one wants to fight him) wants no part of Lytell.” Over in New York City, insiders like Willie Schulkin were also calling out LaMotta. “Jake LaMotta has been licking light heavies and claims that middleweights don’t want any part of him. Does he forget Bert Lytell?” Schulkin wrote, “Lytell stands ready to go with LaMotta at a moment’s notice. Are ya listenin’ Jake?”

Jake wasn’t listenin’. Neither was Sugar Ray. One week after the summer of Bert’s discontent, they fought each other for the fifth time instead of him.

By the end of 1945, Bert hadn’t fought for three months and fell out the rankings. He was back in January, fighting as a substitute in a preliminary bout in Holyoke, MA and then crossed the border into Connecticut to score his second clean knockout inside of two weeks.

Two weeks after that he was in Rhode Island for a rematch against Walter “Popeye” Woods.

Woods was a balding thirty-two-year-old who owned a close decision win over Bert. He was known as a clown, even if it was usually the other guy acting silly after his right hand landed. He was ranked eighth among light heavyweights by the time he faced Bert again.

The fight was “an out-and-out stinker” according to the Providence Journal. Bert seemed to miss on purpose and Woods’s punches were no more serious than a squirting flower. The fans jeered and the referee repeatedly warned both fighters of disqualification. The Journal stated in no uncertain terms that “the pair of them” should have been tossed out of the building “as early as the fourth round and possibly sooner.” Woods took the decision, probably because Bert lost two rounds on low blows, though the whole thing looked like a collusion where one fighter agreed to lose a decision and the other agreed not to hurt him along the way.

If it was, it meant an agreement was made between managers, which likely involved gambling interests –-which likely meant that somewhere down the line stood Mr. Gray, alias Paolo Giovanni Carbo, alias Frankie Carbo.

Frankie Carbo made his bones not with La Cosa Nostra as would be expected, but with Jewish gangsters. He was a product of the lower East Side, an area of New York City overrun with Russian Jewish immigrants and their rebellious, American-born children. It was a breeding ground for crime and violence and produced enough Jewish fighters and gangsters to challenge the Irish and the Italians. One of Carbo’s neighbors was Meyer Lansky, a major force in the underworld for much of the twentieth century. Although the Jews and the Italians ran separate organizations and collaborated often, it was the Italians who emerged as the controlling partner, and they used Lansky’s guys as fronts. “They know better than to try to f*ck us,” said one with all due respect.

Carbo was managing fighters by the mid-thirties and was arrested on suspicion of murder five times. After an acquittal for one of them in 1942, he let his gats cool and stepped up operations in boxing. He was given the go-ahead to make millions by treating the boxing ring as if it were a prostitution ring with him as pimp. If Carbo didn’t manage a fighter through a front man, he owned a piece of him. If he didn’t own a piece of him, he probably owned his manager outright. If he owned neither, there were plenty of strings he could pull –-not to mention his well-documented persuasive skills of the “or/else” variety. In return for fealty, fighters got opportunities at Madison Square Garden and a $2500 payday which their managers usually fleeced.

His power was an open secret from the 1940s until the early 1960s. Few in or around the ring were not secretly owned or tapped now and then by boxing’s corrupt king. And he was particularly interested in middleweights.

Did he tap Lytell and Woods? Hints are found when you look for subsequent rewards. Bert got what he’d been after, a third match against Holman Williams who had ascended to the number two spot in the rankings despite the fact that he himself was no longer rated. Woods went to Los Angeles for the first time in his career; and faced Watson Jones at Olympic Stadium for the last win of his career.

Jones was managed on-the-sneak by a matchmaker shaped like a witch’s brew called Babe McCoy. McCoy would have the dubious honor of getting himself banned for life from boxing in 1956 for fixing fights, managing fighters while functioning as matchmaker at the Olympic, and associating with known criminals. Among the witnesses against him was none other than Watson Jones. McCoy, said Jones, instructed him to take a dive on three occasions and routinely short-changed him. “He’d say let the crowd see me get hit on the chin so that it would look good,” Jones testified. “I never cheated Mr. McCoy. I brought him all the money. I brought him every nickel,” he went on, “I was McCoy’s little colored boy.” At the end of his testimony he broke down and cried.

How could McCoy, who operated on the west coast, have any connection to New York’s Frankie Carbo? First of all, McCoy wasn’t the real McCoy. He wasn’t even Irish. He was a New York Jew born Harry Rudolph who admitted under oath that he knew Carbo. He also admitted that the gangster had been to his hotel suite for private meetings and then came down with a sudden case of amnesia when asked about the purpose of those meetings. As far back as 1941, he was the manager of record for a fighter controlled by Carbo. The two were in bed together and everyone knew who was on top.

That isn’t all.

Carbo, it was whispered, owned a piece of Popeye Woods. And by the time Woods met McCoy’s fighter in 1946, Carbo was already making trips to Los Angeles and pulling strings behind the considerable girth of his old pal.

It was during one of those trips that he took time away from boxing to see another old friend, or so the story goes. Turncoat Jimmy “The Weasel” Frattiano” said that Carbo was given the contract to kill fellow East-sider and Vegas mogul Bugsy Siegel, and did so with an army carbine outside the window of the house Siegel was staying at in Beverly Hills.

“The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings,” spat Jimmy Cannon, “has been the red light district of sports.”

Those roses you smell are coming from Sugar Ray Robinson. Considering what he was up against in the 1940s and 50s, his obsessive self-interest and hardnosed negotiations take on a different light. They almost look noble. “I’m not really as bad as some make me out to be,” he tells us really, his modern critics, “I don’t intend to be exploited by any individual or syndicate in this business, where shrewdness counts and sentiment is just about worthless. I am an individualist, both in terms of my style in the ring and my business methods. I shall continue to be independent of boxing combines…”

Bert Lytell couldn’t afford to be an individualist.

While Robinson honored contracts with less dangerous fighters, most of whom sported a more marketable skin tone, Bert would never again face a nationally-known white fighter after LaMotta.

He would descend into the madhouse that was Murderers’ Row, swapping blows with other condemned fighters who were just as rough as he was. Years would be spent crisscrossing the United States by bus and train, flopping in fleabag motels, taking meals at YMCAs, and enduring separate entrances and segregated dressing rooms in the South. His dignity would be trampled when hick promoters handed him smaller purses than white fighters though the pain was the same. Inexplicable losses against hometown darlings would see him whip his robe across the ring and punch walls on the way to the dressing room, but soon that bell would ring again and he’d be back at it, fighting in a frenzy; fighting as if something was spurring him on, something like joy or desperate hope.

It wouldn’t matter to him who or when or for how much he fought; it wouldn’t matter whether big lights put a sheen on his shoulders or plaster fell from the ceiling –-because for that precious half-hour, his fate was in his hands.

And that felt good.

____________________________

The madhouse that was Murderers’ Row was nothing nice. Bert Lytell is gonna bleed in PART 5 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”

Boston tries to sign Robinson-Lytell in Boston Evening American 1/13, 2/5, and 3/2/45. Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram 5/31/45, Baltimore Sun 8/2/45. McNutt fight in Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram 5/25/45. “Why I’m The Bad Boy Of Boxing,” by Ray Robinson in Ebony, November 1950; Williams-Lytell in The Times-Picayune 8/15, 16, 17, 18/45. LaMotta on how to beat a southpaw in “The Great Middleweights Talk About The Fight” by Peter Heller, Boxing Scene Collector’s Edition “Duran Vs. Hagler: The Fight of the Century.” Williams II in The Times-Picayune 8/31/45. Wade in The Sun 10/2, 3 /45; see also Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram 1/8/46, Hartford Courant 1/22/46. Woods-Lytell II in Providence Journal 2/3, 5/46; Watson Jones’ testimony in International 3/30/1956, Honolulu Record 11/15/56, and Sports Illustrated, 11/19/56. Babe McCoy’s problems in Los Angeles Times, and New York Times 3/30/1956 and Chicago Daily Tribune, 3/31/1956. Carbo’s career recounted in Life 5/26/1952, The Last Mafioso: Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno by Ovid DeMaris, pp. 54-56, Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab, pp. 104-5.

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.

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A Pearl from the Boxing Vault: Fritzie Zivic Will See You Now 

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“He was a great teacher,” said Billy Conn. “[Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…”

Fritzie Zivic never asked why. He never asked if his opponent hit hard, if his opponent deserved the shot, if the opponent would be tough. He just said “yes” and signed the contract. While [Jake] LaMotta, who somehow gained the reputation for fearlessness of which Zivic was more deserving, was asked about Charley Burley, he is supposed to have muttered “Why do I need Burley when I have Zivic?” Zivic, of course, stepped out of his weight class to lose an under-celebrated series with LaMotta, and was one of the few top white contenders to ever meet the avoided Burley.

Perhaps this fearlessness is the reason why Zivic may have fought a better array of boxers than any fighter in history. In addition to the multiple contests with LaMotta and Burley, he met Kid Azteca, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Izzy Jannazzo, Phil Furr, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lou Ambers and Jimmy Leto, something very close to a “who’s who” of boxing’s golden age, and he met most of them more than once. He didn’t always win, but he always gave his all and for this the people and the promoters of his hometown of Pittsburgh and beyond loved him. Other fighters? Not so much.

“He’s the dirtiest fighter I ever met,” claimed Charley Burley after his disputed points loss in their first fight. “He thumbed me over and over again.”

“When you fight for a living,” Zivic would explain years later, “if you’re smart you fight with every trick you know. If I hadn’t known nine zillion of them I never could have won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong.”

In the modern era, fighters can come to a title without even matching a top contender. Forty fights is a career. But in the 1940s, it was unusual to see a champion with so few fights, even a young one. Like other trades, to reach the top of the heap a fighter had to become a master craftsman, the tools at his disposal needed to be of the highest quality. To this end, fighters needed to be matched often or tough or both. But there were and are some fighters who can provide a special lesson to that prospect or contender, a boxing lesson that, win or lose, crystallizes the nature of the sport for the man in the opposite corner.

Fritzie Zivic was such a fighter. Unquestionably world class in his own right, Zivic was a quick learner who took his “zillion tricks” and applied them to roughhouse boxing that tested every corner of his opponent, technical, physical and mental. Anybody that beat him looked destined for the top, anyone that lost could still pick up more than a thing or two. Unquestionably teak-tough, a stinging if not prohibitive puncher, he could box inside or out and a tight defense and iron chin kept him to two legitimate stoppage losses in a 232-fight career. But unquestionably, Zivic’s greatest strength were his smarts, the tricks, traps and roughhouse tactics he absorbed like a sponge during his eighteen years in the ring.

In December of 1936, Zivic would teach some of these tricks to a wonder-kid tearing his way up the middleweight division, one Billy Conn. Zivic was not yet in his own absolute prime but he was twenty-three and listed as a veteran of some sixty-eight fights. Still a teenager, Conn would at least have had bulk to fall back on as a substitute for experience, weighing some seven pounds heavier on fight night at just under 157lbs.

Zivic started fast, attacking with both hands and Conn allowed him his way, trying to outbox and outpunch the smaller man in the pocket. This had become Billy’s habit, fighting, as he did, in a fan-friendly manner that had made him Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect. He had been in a desperately close series with resident local tough and brutal infighter “Honey Boy” Jones. According to some, Conn had been lucky to emerge from their third fight with a decision, his inability to adapt costing him dear in points and punches. Now Zivic fought in a style intent on taking advantage of the same flaws Jones had partially exposed, and Billy was paying for it in blood.

“Through two torrid rounds,” wrote Regis Welsh for The Pittsburgh Press, “Fritzie belted Conn to a fare-thee-well, but never quite touched the vital spot. At the end of the second…[Conn] was smeared with blood from a cut on his left cheek and a badly battered mouth.”

The press hadn’t yet been enlightened to Conn’s iron chin and it’s quite possible that Fritzie had found the “vital spot” over and again throughout the fight. As time would tell, even history’s mightiest puncher would struggle to get over on the near invulnerable Conn. However, at the beginning of the third Billy looked “tired, weary and worn out” and “in the fourth and fifth, Zivic, in a rushing charge, bore Conn to neutral ropes and belted him about the head and body until it seemed that the anticipated kayo was inevitable.”

It needs to be said though, that in spite of his fighting the wrong fight, Conn was doing his own good work, mainly to the body. Some reports credit Conn with turning the fight with a body punch as early as the third, but whilst the supposed fight of two halves (Zivic winning the first five, Conn coming back in the second half of the fight) did not occur, it’s unlikely that Conn’s hooks had the supposed affect this early. Only two judges scored the third for Conn, and all three gave Zivic the fourth. Conn wouldn’t win a round on all three judges’ scorecards until the sixth.

It was in the sixth round that Conn cracked, and went outside. In the seventh and eighth Conn “boxed beautifully…he danced, feinted, pranced and punched.”  Zivic, now out of his element as a bullying counterpuncher and destructive infighter struggled to get past Billy’s “piston-like” jab. Conn had been trained for this by defensive specialist Johnny Ray from the very beginning, but he had been unable to make the transition in the ring until Fritzie had forced it. As one would expect, Zivic now changed tactics too, gunning almost exclusively for the body, only hunting Conn with power punches, bringing him the eighth round on one card. In the tenth, they went at it toe-to-toe again. “The boys used everything but knives,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A wild-eyed crowd looked on.” The final round was shared on the three official cards resulting in a split decision win for Conn (6-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-5-1).

“From a mile in the rear to a nose in front takes heart in a man or a horse,” wrote Welsh in The Press. “Particularly in a novice of Conn’s immature ring experience against a seasoned veteran of Zivic’s type.”

Zivic’s type indeed! Fritzie was hell on wheels for a young fighter, one that hadn’t seen a top class cutie, never mind a back-alley wizard. But Conn knew what that fight had been worth, and he knew he was the better for it.

“He was a great teacher. [Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…I learned a lot in that fight. He’s a tough fighter, but I believe I’m just as tough.”

It’s a double lesson for a relative novice like Conn. First, he remembers every foul, every slither out of sight of the referee, every feint that cost him a round, every dig inside on the break. But it also teaches him that he can take it, that he can get in there with world-class fighters who know more than him and beat them. The first lesson is priceless, but the second can be the key to a career. Over the next twelve months the young Conn, who had struggled so desperately with Honey Boy Jones only three months earlier, would defeat great champions and ring legends such as Teddy Yarosz, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee before adding Fred Apostoli and Solly Krieger and annexing the world’s light heavyweight title in 1939.

In 1941 he would be matched with the great Joe Louis. It would be unfair to Conn’s great trainer Ray, and to Conn himself, to lay too much credit for Conn’s legendary performance at Zivic’s door, but Conn’s tactics against Louis—mixing careful, punch-picking infighting with beautiful movement and judge of distance on the outside—were basically a more perfect version of the tactics he used in rounds six, seven, eight and nine against Zivic.

As for the teacher, he was naturally disappointed and was keen on a rematch, but fate was to intervene. Zivic would contract pneumonia the following summer whilst training for a match with Vince Dundee.

Chet Smith, then editor of The Pittsburgh Press: “There didn’t seem to be a chance for him…so we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room…There were two weeks when it was touch and go with Fritzie, and the hospital folk refused to give out a single cheerful bulletin. We knew of course when he finally came out of the hospital that his boxing days were ended.”

I guess Zivic would have snorted at that. However they build them out in Zivic’s ancestral Croatia, they build them tough because Zivic was not only far from ended as a boxer, he would get better. There were more lessons to give out. The greatest fighter that would ever draw breath, he needed a lesson.

“I learned more in these two fights with Zivic than in all my other fights put together!”

So said Ray Robinson after pulling off the extraordinary feat of stopping Zivic in January of 1942. But this was the second time Zivic, a rarity in that he never discriminated against opposition on the grounds of colour or quality, had met Robinson. The first had occurred when Zivic had already slipped past his absolute prime, in October of 1941.

“It might have been a draw. It was close,” wrote the correspondent for The Telegraph Herald, but Zivic, the heavier man for a change, looked unsurprised at the unanimous decision against him. In the middle rounds he had, to a degree, had his way with Robinson but Sugar’s explosive domination of the ninth had left him struggling and at no time had he solved the Robinson jab. He knew he was beaten. “[Robinson] took a unanimous decision with such a convincing demonstration of speed and power,” wrote United Press ringside reporter Jack Cuddy, “that he will be favored to win the title.”

Robinson was learning from Zivic the same thing Conn had, that he could master a man at the next level, a veteran, a bigger one at that. But he learned more specific and unpleasant lessons in this fight, too.

“He was about the smartest I ever fought,” Robinson would later say in conversation with writer WC Heinz.  “…he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye…he’d slip my lead, then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”

He also taught Ray that he could coast a little in those middle rounds, that at the highest level he didn’t need to put forth every ounce in every moment, that he could let the occasional round go as long as he was paying attention. The same pattern that Sugar used in his first fight with Zivic he would use in his sixth fight with LaMotta, for the middleweight title, contesting the early rounds, easing off in the middle, and finishing so strongly as to stop the unstoppable, lifting the title on a late TKO. He sharpened that tool for the first time against Zivic.

By now Zivic was almost past the stage of teaching fighters of Robinson’s calibre lessons, but he had one more to give in their second fight just three months later.

Firstly, Robinson showed the importance of a lesson learned, nullifying Zivic’s darker arts, like Conn he was a better fighter for his 10 rounds in the ring with Fritzie. He worked hard to the body in clinches he couldn’t contest with craft or strength (something else he would repeat against LaMotta in their title meeting) and he was careful to break clinches at any cost when Zivic looked to utilize those lethal butts. When his opponent tried holding and hitting on the referee’s blindside, instead of trading he would dance away. Robinson had learned that the man who owned the real estate would win the negotiation and Zivic was being outclassed as a result. Of the first six rounds he won perhaps the first. In the seventh though, Robinson momentarily forgot himself and Fritzie delivered his last lesson. As Robinson came in Zivic stepped back and cracked Robinson with a left hook. “It really hurt. I was coming in and it met me on the chin!” Robinson would say afterwards that it was the hardest punch he had ever been hit with, according to The Afro American.

In the middle of the ninth, Robinson dropped Zivic with a perfect mirror image of the punch he had been shown in the seventh, using the right hand to ditch the heavier man as he was on the way in. Up at nine, Zivic never recovered, and although he was likely stopped prematurely in the tenth, he had nothing left to teach, at least not to Sugar. At 28-0, Ray, like Billy before him, saw his 20 rounds with Zivic as nothing less than finishing school for one of the most storied careers in boxing. They are only two of the dozens of fighters that Fritzie took to school, but perhaps they are the gifts he helped in giving that we can be most grateful for.

For the purposes of this article we’ve taken a look at three Zivic losses. I hoped, by looking at his fights with Billy Conn and Sugar Ray, we might see the benefit of letting a top prospect meet a dangerous genius-thug like Fritzie, the self-proclaimed “second dirtiest fighter in history” (he reserved top spot for Harry Greb). But Zivic did lose those fights. Let it not be forgotten then that between losing to Conn and Robinson, Zivic lifted the world’s welterweight title, destroying with a mixture of aggression, uppercuts and that dirty bag of tricks for which he remains famous, one Henry Armstrong. Zivic finished Armstrong as title material, beating him for the championship of the world not once but twice.

A 4-1 underdog, Zivic had been magnanimous about his own chances going in to their opener.

“If I lose it won’t be the first fight I lost, and if I win it, it won’t be the first fight I won.”

But Zivic had learned his own brutal lessons across the years and would be merciless in bringing them to bear. Also, across the years, between his title win and these more enlightened times, Zivic’s achievement in beating Armstrong has been undermined. Armstrong was old. He was past his best. Zivic had to get dirty to do it. All of that may be true, but it needs to be remembered that Armstrong had gone undefeated in thirteen bouts prior to meeting Zivic and that all of these fights were in defence of his welterweight crown, outside of one, his celebrated tilt at a world middleweight title. It needs to be remembered that in the previous three months, Armstrong had knocked out world-class contenders Phil Furr and Lew Jenkins. It needs to be remembered that Armstrong had his own bag of tricks, and that referee Arthur Donovan’s famous refrain, “if you guys wanna fight like that it‘s okay with me” was prompted by an Armstrong foul and not a Zivic one.

Most of all it needs to be remembered that Zivic never asked why, he just signed the contract. Whichever way you want to look at it, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

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Abraham Nova and his Mascot are Back in Action on Friday Night

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With his black beard dyed gold, junior lightweight Abraham Nova is one of boxing’s most recognizable practitioners. Sometimes there’s two of him which makes him stand out even more. His twin is an inflatable mascot painted to look just like him. On fight nights they are inseparable. The mascot shadows Nova on his ringwalk, bouncing up and down and dancing to animate the crowd.

Some gimmicks are just plain hokey. Some are annoying. But there’s something whimsical about Nova’s invention that brings a smile to boxing fans of all ages. “Abraham Nova having his own mascot is one of the coolest things in boxing,” says fight writer Ryan Songalia.

“I played all sports in high school, football, baseball, track, and got the idea of it from other sports,” says Nova of his twin who he unveiled in January of 2020 at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, New York, where he upped his record to 18-0 with a fourth-round stoppage of Mexican journeyman Pedro Navarrete.

He’s 5-2 since then, the smudges coming against future world featherweight champion Robeisy Ramirez (KO by 5) and defending super featherweight world champion O’Shaquie Foster where he came out on the short end of a split decision. This coming Friday, in his first assignment since failing to de-throne Foster, he opposes 21-0 Andres Cortes at the Fontainebleu in Las Vegas on a Top Rank card airing on ESPN+.

“I was the one who asked for this fight,” says Nova. “Top Rank offered me a match on their June 8th Puerto Rican Parade Weekend show at Madison Square Garden against an opponent who was 17-2, but I turned it down and asked for a better opponent and they accommodated me.” Las Vegas native Andres Cortes, who has been profiled in these pages, is ranked #2 at 130 pounds by the WBO.

In common with boxing’s historical pattern, Abraham Nova had a hardscrabble upbringing.

Born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic, the second-youngest of 10 children, he came to the U.S. at the age of 1 where the entire family was initially shoe-horned into a two-bedroom apartment in Albany, New York.

His father, Aquiles, had a friend here who was the pastor of a church and in need of an assistant pastor to help with his growing congregation. Aquiles eventually founded his own church in Albany, The Pentecostal Church of Unity & Prayer where services are held in both Spanish and English.

As a toddler, Nova lived briefly in Guatemala and Mexico where his parents were called to “spread the word” and to assist in redevelopment projects. The family traveled 5,500 miles in a rickety old school bus from Albany to Guatemala during the end days of the Guatemalan Civil War.

Each of Nova’s four brothers boxed, but he was the only one to turn pro. As an amateur, he won the 2015 Olympic Trials Qualifying Tournament in Memphis, defeating Frank Martin and Richardson Hitchins in back-to-back fights, but failed to make the U.S. team for the Rio Games when he lost a split decision to Gary Antuanne Russell at the Olympic Trials in Reno. Those bouts were contested at 141 pounds.

A 30-year-old bachelor, Nova had his final amateur fights in Lowell, Massachusetts, a pillar of amateur boxing in New England, and has remained in the Boston area without losing his Albany identity. He is trained by ex-U.S. Marine Mark DeLuca, a boxer of some renown who sports a 30-4 record and may not be done with fighting quite yet at age 36.

Nova’s opponent, Andres Cortes, has won five of his last seven inside the distance beginning with a smashing first-round knockout of 34-2 Genesis Servania. On paper, it’s a 50-50 match-up. (The pricemakers are flummoxed; as of this writing, they have yet to establish a betting line.)

Abraham Nova’s mascot may never become as well-known as some of the costumed human mascots in college sports (e.g., West Virginia’s Mountaineer or Michigan State’s Sparty), let alone as beloved as the University of Georgia’s flesh-and-blood bulldog mascot Uga, but give the boxer credit for originality and for bringing a little levity to a sport too often besotted with incivility.

Note: Abraham Nova vs. Andres Cortes is the co-feature. In the main go, new Top Rank signee Rafael Espinoza makes the first defense of his WBO world featherweight title against Mexican countryman Sergio Chirino. Espinoza forged the 2023 TSS Upset of the Year when he got off the deck to defeat Robeisy Ramirez on Dec. 9 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, winning legions of fans with his unrelenting buzzsaw attack. Action from the Fontaineblue begins at 4:00 pm PST on ESPN+.

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A True Tale from the Boxing Vault: When the Champion Refused to Fight

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A True Tale from the Boxing Vault: When the Champion Refused to Fight

BY TSS Special Correspondent David Harazduk — A hundred years ago, ducking a worthy challenger wouldn’t simply stoke the ire of the fans, it came with the prospect of jail time.

On Thursday, November 3, 1927, 16,000 fans packed Wrigley Field in Los Angeles hoping to witness their local favorite challenge for the welterweight world championship. Nicknamed the “Nebraska Wildcat,” Ace Hudkins had relocated to the Pacific Coast where his devil-may-care style in the ring made him instantly popular among Angelino fight fans. He was set to battle Joe Dundee, the champion, an Italian immigrant who had settled in Baltimore at a young age. But there was one problem.

The champion refused to fight.

Members of the California boxing commission, along with promoter Dick Donald, raced to the Biltmore Hotel to plead with Dundee (pictured) and his manager Max Waxman to come to Wrigley Field and fight. Waxman steadfastly refused. Donald, a quick-witted cigar-chomping Irishman known as the “Boy Promoter,” had promised Max’s man the ungodly sum of $60,000, and Dundee wouldn’t enter the ring for a penny less.

Under the rules of the California commission, a fighter could only receive a guarantee of $500. The rest of the purse came from a percentage of the gate: 37.5% for the champion and 12.5% for the challenger. Waxman insisted that Donald had offered $60,000, but the commission couldn’t enforce this side deal.

Tickets in the bleachers were sold at $2.20 a pop while those closer to the ring went for $11. The most the gate could possibly produce would be $90,000. Add in Wrigley Field’s 15% usage fee and payments to the preliminary fighters, officials, and even to rent the chairs situated around the ring, and Dundee’s dreams of $60,000- $75,000 if he lost the title- never had a prayer of being realized. After all, 37.5% of $90,000, plus $500, is only $34,250.

Meanwhile, Eddie Mahoney, a preliminary fighter, entered the ring at 8:30pm. Mahoney was scheduled to fight Joe Dundee’s brother Vince, a future middleweight world champion. When Vince didn’t follow Mahoney into the ring, Mahoney soon left, much to the bewilderment of the crowd.

Donald scrambled to find a plan B. He searched for welterweight contender Sergeant Sammy Baker to replace Dundee and fight Hudkins. When Baker couldn’t be located, Donald asked a preliminary fighter, Olympic gold medalist Jackie Fields, to take on Hudkins instead. Hudkins and Fields had been sparring partners when the featherweight champion of the 1924 Games in Paris was a nascent pro back in 1925. Fields’s manager, Gig Rooney, felt Hudkins was too big for the Olympic champ at this stage of his career and preferred to remain on the undercard against San Francisco’s Joey Silver.

With no plan B, Donald and the commissioners went back to Waxman in a last desperate plea to coax Dundee to defend his title. One commissioner, Charles Traung, offered Waxman an additional $10,000 check for Dundee to fight. Waxman stubbornly held out for more.

At 9:20pm, back at Wrigley, Donald signaled Jackie Fields and Joey Silver to enter the ring. Though Fields was wobbled twice, he opened up a cut over Silver’s left eye and split the San Franciscan’s lip on route to a convincing points victory in a ten-rounder. A few minutes after 10pm, Mahoney and Vince Dundee finally entered the ring for their clash. Dundee starched Mahoney inside of two rounds. When Waxman, who also managed Vince, heard of the second-round stoppage, he said “Vince knocked that guy out, eh? I told him to carry him along.” Waxman had hoped to stall for time.

Soon after the end of the Dundee-Mahoney fight, Ace Hudkins waltzed to the ring. He spent fifteen minutes seated in his corner, covered in a bathrobe and towels to keep him warm. Dundee never showed.

At 11:25pm, ring announcer Frank Kerwin slid into the ring and bellowed, “Owing to the fact that Joe Dundee did not receive his guarantee, he refused to go on with his match against Ace Hudkins.” The crowd was advised to “hold their seat checks and watch the newspapers for other announcements.”

The fans didn’t take too kindly to the announcement and hurled those rented chairs in disgust. Fights broke out all over the stadium, spilling into the ring. All available police officers in the area rushed to Wrigley Field, wielding their nightsticks in a bid to subdue the violent mob. Dozens of fans were injured in the fracas. To add insult to injury, those who had paid $2.20 for their seats in the bleachers were out of luck; they had never received a ticket in the first place.

The next day, Waxman and Joe Dundee checked out of the Biltmore Hotel at noon and made their way to the train station. Later that night, they were pulled off an eastbound train at Pasadena and arrested for false advertising.  Waxman posted a $1,000 bond for each of them.

A warrant was issued for Donald on the same false advertising grounds. He phoned into the police station promising to turn himself in once his feelings of humiliation subsided. The police agreed to wait.

Ultimately, all accused would be acquitted. Waxman would return the $22,249.43 that had been placed in his account and an $11,000 check.

Fans didn’t receive refunds as it was deemed unfair to give them only to those who had bought $11 tickets since the gallery patrons had no ticket stub and thus, couldn’t get a refund anyhow. After the preliminary fighters, Wrigley Field, officials, ushers, and the chair rental company were compensated, the rest of the money was placed into a community fund.

Because he had entered the ring for his title challenge, Ace Hudkins declared himself the new champion, but no commission accepted his claim. Dick Donald’s promotional career, once so promising, abruptly ended. In 1935, he took one last gasp in boxing, serving as matchmaker at the famed Olympic Auditorium for a brief spell.

Joe Dundee would never fight in California again. His championship reign ended dishonorably a year and half later when several commissions agreed to strip him of the title for refusing to fight any top contenders. When Jackie Fields won the vacant title, he and Dundee were matched for the undisputed crown on July 25, 1929. With Dundee a two-to-one underdog, Waxman and Dundee bet $50,000 on Joe to win, with fouls canceling the bet. Fields shellacked Dundee, knocking him down twice. In the second round, after the second knockdown, Dundee knew he was licked. He got up and hit Fields low as hard as he could. Dundee was instantly disqualified, losing any claim to the title as disgracefully as his hold-out against Hudkins.

If only some of the alphabet champions of today had to post bail under the threat of jail for ducking contenders, maybe boxing would be in a better state.

EDITOR’S: Author David Harazduk has run The Jewish Boxing Blog since 2010. You can find him at  Twitter/X @JewishBoxing and Instagram @JewishBoxing

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