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Fritzie Zivic: Maligned and Revered

Greg Smith - 1/28/2006

"I have fond memories of my dad's stories about Ray. Like the smartest fighter he ever fought, which was not as most people think, LaMotta. My dad said it was Fritzie Zivic."
---Harry Wiley Jr. Son of Harry Wiley, the trainer of Sugar Ray Robinson

"Fritzie was the only guy I ever knew who could start a fight in an empty room."
---Lew Jenkins

Over the last several years, boxing fans have been mistreated to several aesthetically displeasing title fights from former WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz. If you appreciate the nuances and craft of subtle sweet scientists like Georgie Benton, Nicolino Locche, Archie Moore, or Ezzard Charles, Ruiz isn't your kind of fighter. Ruiz has been a tough fighter, but often tougher to watch. A friend of mine once referred to Ruiz as a cockroach; something without redeeming value that seems impossible to exterminate.

From a more fair and balanced perspective, Ruiz should be more respected for facing off against the best available opposition during his era regardless of his technical deficiencies. As stated in a column written for this site in April 2005, it's rare to see a fighter persevere and succeed after his frightening knockout loss to David Tua in 1996. John Ruiz paid his dues. He did it in his own unique way, and he can tell his grandchildren what it was like to compete against the best of his era. Most writers---including myself---can't say that.

Having said that, The Quiet Man's recent disputed loss to Nikolai Valuev opened a floodgate of new and fresh scenarios in the heavyweight division. Boxing fans are happy that Ruiz lost regardless of the fact that he'll continue plying his trade. Valuev is gifted with freakish size. That simple genetic component will probably make him more marketable for promoters than Ruiz. This is the age of marketing instead of apprenticeship, and Valuev will provide a quick buck for promoters while the circus lasts.

Despite the fact that Ruiz faced stellar competition throughout his career, one of the reasons for Ruiz's bad reputation is that he's been a blatant, conspicuous, and dirty fighter. Astute fans assert that he brings a bad name not only to the sport of boxing, but to dirty fighters as well. He's not a tricky, clandestine dirty fighter. Unlike Bernard Hopkins or Roberto Duran, Ruiz never seemed to attempt, or was unable, to disguise his dirty tactics.

John Ruiz has been a maligned fighter no matter how you cut it. He's the Rodney Dangerfield of boxing.

On January 17, 1941, Fritzie Zivic, arguably the dirtiest fighter in the history of gloved ring combat, dominated, sliced, and diced the great Henry Armstrong to ribbons in their rematch before a SRO crowd at the old Madison Square Garden. 5,000 fans were reportedly denied access to witness the drubbing that night, and the official attendance of 23,190 remains a Madison Square Garden record.

Like Ruiz, Zivic fought the very best of his era with mixed success, and used brutal, dirty tactics in most of his fights. Unlike Ruiz, Zivic was a remarkably popular fighter. He was also never disqualified during his long career. Testimony to Zivic's popularity is that at one time in the 1940s, he actually drew larger average ten-bout attendance numbers at Madison Square Garden than Sugar Ray Robinson. More importantly, Zivic was highly respected by his peers in a unique age of great fighters, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 along with Beau Jack, Maxie Rosenbloom, Fidel LaBarba, and Billy Papke. Beau Jack defeated Zivic in their two bouts in 1943, but Fritzie received more votes than Beau when they were inducted.

2 (5K) Zivic, who died in 1984 at the age of 71, once said that the big problem with contemporary fighters was that there weren't enough good, dirty fighters around. Ruiz definitely fits the bill in that regard, but the hardened ghost of Zivic probably wouldn't have objected strenuously to some of the decisions Ruiz was awarded over the last few years. After all, Zivic was a veteran of 233 documented bouts and 61 decision losses (a record for world champions), and engaged in more controversial decisions than Ruiz allotted in his entire professional career. One can more easily envision a scenario with the ghost of Zivic sitting next to fellow Pittsburgher Harry Greb, both shaking their heads in hopeless dismay at Ruiz's inability to foul with old school stealth and precision. Zivic was the patron saint of dirty fighters, whereas Ruiz represents the philistine class of that group.

Fritzie Zivic was maligned throughout much of his career, but unlike Ruiz, he was also revered.

Fritzie Zivic, The Croat Comet, was a Pittsburgh fighter born Ferdinand Henry John Zivchich on May 8, 1913. The five Zivic brothers grew up in the 9th Ward, "Irishtown" part of Lawrenceville at a time when the steel mills attracted various immigrant ethnic groups to the area. Zivic's upbringing wasn't a study in political correctness or peaceful ethnic diversity. As Zivic aptly stated later in life, in his neighborhood, "You either had to fight or stay in the house. We went out."

All five Zivic brothers later became fighters, and all fought often in the streets of Lawrenceville. Pete and Jack were members of the 1920 Olympic team, with Jack bringing home a gold medal in the featherweight class.

It was this pedigree and environment that bred Zivic's pugnacious nature and resilient constitution. It also prepared him for the life of a Depression era prizefighter. Although Zivic understood the perils and pitfalls of boxing because of some of his brothers' relative lack of success in the pro ranks, Fritzie began his career in 1931 at the age of eighteen.

During that era, many fighters fought because they couldn't find employment. Fritzie, accustomed to combat, fought often and forged a prodigious breadth and depth of experience. From 1931 until just prior to receiving his title shot against Henry Armstrong in October 1940, Zivic fought an amazing 129 times. He had compiled a record of 100-24-4-1 (50 KOs).

Most of Zivic's early bouts were held in Pittsburgh, but in late 1933, Zivic, who eventually seemed to revel in taking fights at distant locales on short notice throughout his career, headed out west to California and fought thirteen times in seven months. Fritzie was a rough customer inside the ropes, but he was known as an extroverted practical joker and "personality kid" with friends, business associates, and fans outside of the ring. As Zivic's biographer, Timpav (pseudonym for Joseph Pavlak), commented about Zivic, he was as much of a clown outside of the ring as Max Baer was inside.

Regarding his trip to California with brother Eddie and manager Luke Carney, Timpav writes about Fritzie's chicanery after dropping a ham in the mud as they made a rest stop at a gas station in the Midwest:

"What happened in the gas station has been told in varied forms by different sportswriters. But what actually happened was that Fritz found the men's room with an old-fashioned lavatory. He pushed on the seat, and as the water filled the bowl he rinsed the mud off the ham. Then he went back and made the sandwiches."

'Luke and Eddie said the sandwiches were swell,' Fritz said. 'They sort of wondered why I didn't want any, but I told them I wasn't hungry.'"

When Zivic returned to Pittsburgh during the summer of 1934, he tallied a few wins, and then met Laddie Tonelli on October 25 in Chicago. Tonelli handed Zivic his first knockout loss in three rounds, and was one of only four men to turn that rare feat in Zivic's long career. Zivic claimed this was the only time he truly took a full ten count and was legitimately knocked out. Zivic avenged his defeat to Tonelli by knocking him out twice in return bouts.

After fighting fifteen times in 1935, Fritzie continued rolling along and fought another eighteen times in 1936. To close out the year, Zivic squared off against a young Billy Conn at the Duquesne Gardens in Pittsburgh on December 28. Although Fritzie and Billy became close friends after this fight, the bout was a big crosstown rivalry, and police intervention was required to keep unruly fans from breaking down the entrance door after the venue was sold out.

By all accounts, Zivic-Conn was a great fight. Conn outweighed Zivic 160 to 149 , but at the time of the bout, Zivic had sixty-seven pro bouts under his belt compared to Conn's thirty-six. Allen Rosenfeld's great book, Charley Burley: The Life and Hard Times of an Uncrowned Champion, best describes the action.

3 (4K) "The fight wound up in the bloody tenth with the boys standing head to head and with both swinging from down town, as Zivic, with Conn back against the ropes, whipped in left and rights to the body and head, and with Conn coming out of temporary cover, would slash (sic) out with head rocking hook (sic) and whipping rights to the body. The tenth was a dramatic climax to the battle as the boys went into that round almost even up....."

"Even brain jarring right uppercuts of Zivic's failed to fell Conn and when the final bell clanged, there was Conn, blood smeared but still eager and Fritzie, somewhat slowed down, but still willing. The wait for the verdict of the officials cast an ominous silence. Then came the verdict...."

"The referee Al Graybar voted for Zivic. The two judges, Jap Williams and George McBeth voted for Conn. He had pulled off a big upset. But the decision was controversial. There would be calls for a rematch."

A rematch would never occur, as Zivic met the toughest opponent of his life in mid-1937: pneumonia. Zivic barely survived the ordeal, and most thought he wouldn't return to the ring. From Timpav's book, Champ: Fritzie Zivic, The Life and Times of The Croat Comet, Zivic's battle with pneumonia is described by Chet Smith, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Press.

"There didn't seem to be a chance for him to get the decision. So we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room marked 'set and hold for release.' 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."

Zivic's brother, Jack, provided the blood for the transfusion, and Fritzie gradually recovered.

In 1937, because of his near death experience, Zivic fought only seven times. In that year, his record was 6-1 with three knockouts, but he was gradually regaining form.

In 1938, Zivic was back to his normal schedule and fought eighteen times. In that year, Zivic met one of the greatest fighters of his era twice, Charley Burley. Burley, born just outside of Youngstown, Ohio in Bessemer, Pennsylvania in 1917, fought out of Pittsburgh's Hill District as he was a developing fighter in the late 1930s. He was gaining fans in Pittsburgh, and many were intrigued by the outcome of a Zivic - Burley match-up.

The first bout was held on March 21, 1938 in Pittsburgh. Burley had only twenty pro fights up to that point, but allotted eighty-seven amateur bouts as well. Zivic weighed 148 , and Burley came in at 147 . Zivic was considered the favorite, and he won a debatable ten round split decision over the talented Burley. According to Rosenfeld, the decision was disputed among newspaper reporters as well.

A rematch occurred on June 13 in Pittsburgh, and the more seasoned and confident Burley shellacked Zivic over ten rounds. Zivic, who was working his way toward a title shot with Armstrong, reportedly used all of his ring and street experience to avoid a knockout.

After being whipped by Burley, Fritzie was a veteran of seventy-seven pro bouts, and had just turned twenty-five years old. Nevertheless, due to his bout with pneumonia and his poor showing against Burley, some considered Zivic to be over-the-hill. Rosenfeld quotes Harry Keck of the Sun Telegraph:

"On the showing last night, Fritzie's hopes for a match with Henry Armstrong or any other topnotcher here this summer were blasted. He didn't do enough fighting to provide a single round of satisfactory action, and gave the impression that he is 'washed up' as a main bout boxer."

Eschewing criticism, Zivic fought on, and rattled off a twenty bout win streak with one no contest from the summer of 1938 until the spring of 1939. After dropping a ten round decision to Kenny LaSalle in Houston in April, Zivic won three consecutive bouts and squared off against Burley in their rubber match on July 17, 1939 in Pittsburgh.

Burley mastered Zivic again, winning a fifteen round unanimous decision. Not long after this fight, in one of the most unusual and canny moves in boxing history, Zivic's manager, Luke Carney, purchased Burley's contract, thus paving the way for Zivic to avoid a fighter he simply couldn't beat. Along with other issues, this turned out to be a bad business move for Burley, who never got the title shot he deserved.

For the remainder of 1939, Zivic won six consecutive bouts after the Burley loss, and then suffered the second knockout loss of his career, to Milt Aron, in Chicago on December 27. Zivic vehemently denied that Aron truly won that bout on a knockout. According to Zivic, Aron was down six times in the bout, but Fritzie was caught with a right hand in the eighth round and hit the deck himself. Zivic claimed that he beat the count and was perfectly coherent, but the referee ruled differently despite Fritzie's protests. Zivic avenged his defeat to Aron in 1941 on a brutal fifth round knockout.

For the first eight months of 1940, Zivic continued his astonishing work rate and fought thirteen times. Assisted by Carney's adroit management skills, Zivic was promised a title shot against Henry Armstrong later that year if he defeated future lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Zivic prevailed in a ten round decision over Angott on August 28, and signed to meet the great Henry Armstrong on October 4 at Madison Square Garden.

At the time of the Armstrong fight, Zivic was a 4-1 underdog (some report the odds were as high as 6-1). Zivic later claimed that even his friends and associates doubted his chances, and when talking to fans and friends before the fight, most quietly implored Zivic just not to get hurt.

To be sure, Armstrong, the only man to hold three belts in three different weight classes simultaneously, peaked as a fighter between 1937-1938. Armstrong unified the featherweight title in 1937 by stopping Petey Sarron in six rounds. In 1938, he defeated Barney Ross for the welterweight title, and unseated Lou Ambers for the lightweight title in his next bout. In the same year, Armstrong stopped Zivic's brother, Eddie, in four rounds.

Armstrong lost his lightweight title to Lou Ambers in 1939 (Zivic broke Ambers' jaw in a 1935 decision loss), and was starting to exhibit signs of wear and tear. Nevertheless, after losing to Ambers, Armstrong defended his welterweight title thirteen times (12 KOs) in roughly twelve months while mixing in a draw with middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia. It was only natural that Armstrong's championship experience and freakish stamina were expected to be too much for a journeyman-status fighter like Zivic.

4 (5K) Zivic - Armstrong 1 turned out to be one of the most ruthless fights in welterweight title fight history. Armstrong took command immediately in the early rounds by landing relentless volleys from all angles. At times, it appeared that Zivic might end up as another stoppage victim. As Timpav described, Zivic himself later admitted that at one point before the seventh round, he thought the odds might've been more appropriately placed at 40-1 instead of 4-1.

Armstrong was definitely dominant, but also dirty. He hit Zivic below the belt, butted him, slammed him with his elbows, and never let up. Fritzie, regarded as the dirtier fighter, began to retaliate. As both men traded fouls in the seventh round, referee Arthur Donovan reportedly told both fighters that if they wanted to fight dirty, it was fine with him. Donovan's surprisingly lack of intervention signaled a major turning point in the fight, as well as a major turning point in the annals of welterweight championship history.

Around the time of Fritzie's retirement during the latter part of the 1940s, Red Smith authored a famous piece about Zivic entitled, "The Nose" (Smith's classic piece can be found in W.C. Heinz's The Fireside Book of Boxing). Zivic had the prototypical pug's nose, and could push it completely in after years of abuse. Zivic told Smith about the first Armstrong fight, and related one of his motivations for the bout.

Zivic tells the story that on the day of the fight he visited a Cadillac dealership, and searched for the perfect car in anticipation of winning the fight despite what friends and critics predicted. Zivic conveyed that in the early rounds of the Armstrong fight, he could see that Cadillac rolling farther and farther away. When Donovan gave Fritzie the go ahead in the seventh round, everything changed.

"That night Henry's givin' it to me pretty good and I can see that Cadillac rollin' farther and farther away from me. Henry's givin' me the elbows and the shoulders and the top of the head, and I can give that stuff back pretty good, but I don't dare to or maybe they'll throw me out of the ring."

Zivic continues his story of the bout.

"Well, in the seventh round I give him the head a couple of times and choke him a couple of times and use the elbow some, and the referee says: 'If you guys want to fight that way, it's okay with me.' 'Hot damn!' I told Luke Carney in my corner. 'Watch me go now.' And from then out I saw that Cadillac turn around and come rollin' back."

The 5'10" Zivic went to work on the 5'5 1/2" Armstrong like a surgeon for the remainder of the bout. With almost 130 fights on his resume, Zivic was cold and calculating as he picked Armstrong apart. Zivic was masterful in landing his potent right hand, short and powerful uppercuts, and a scalpel-like jab.

Compounded by illegal tactics, Zivic cut both of Armstrong's eyes badly, and cut his mouth open in the thirteenth round. Zivic, who proclaimed himself to be a "gentlemanly" dirty fighter, said "pardon me" several times as he fouled Armstrong mercilessly. At one point in the foul-infested fourteenth round, Zivic said Armstrong, now in a near helpless state, summoned the strength to grab Zivic, and strongly urged, "Fritzie, will you please cut out that pardon me and quit butting me?"

Because of Armstrong's mastery early in the fight, the scorecards were close going into the fifteenth round. Zivic was in charge, but tired as well, and wanted to close the show. Timpav quotes Zivic's description of the action in the final round.

"As the 15th round started, the Cadillac was backing up in my driveway. And for the first time, in the 15th round I happened to glance up at the clock in the Garden, which tells you how old a round is. Looking at it, it seems there was only about 15 seconds to go to finish the fight."

"Where I got my extra stamina from I'll never know. But maybe thinking about that Cadillac in my garage, and wanting to keep it there, I tore loose with both hands and hit him with a left hook and a right cross on the side of the head. As he went down, the bell rang ending the fight."

The scorecards were close, but Zivic won a unanimous decision. Zivic, just a few years removed from a near fatal bout with pneumonia and a prohibitive underdog, beat the odds and halted one of the greatest reigns in welterweight history. The normally affable and unaffected Zivic broke down in tears after the fight. In Timpav's book, Zivic intimated that he thought of his dead father, and credited much of his win to his brother Jack, who provided Fritzie with the life saving blood transfusion when he contracted pneumonia.

Fritzie was also shook up after visiting Armstrong in the dressing room. Armstrong's eyes were swollen shut and badly cut. The toll of the vicious battle was painfully evident, and Fritzie paid homage to the great warrior while knowing they would meet again.

Winning a world title is a major pivotal point for any fighter. For Zivic, it was especially poignant because of his family history, his ethnic pride, his inordinately long apprenticeship, and his ability to prove the experts wrong. Strangely enough, the twenty-seven-year-old veteran may not have realized at that point that he was yet to fight his best fight, and meet the strongest and most skilled opposition of his career.

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