A law unto himself: Fritzie Zivic
By Mike Casey - You have to understand that Fritzie Zivic was always a polite and decent fellow in the ring who never forgot his manners. A dirty fighter? Not Fritzie. That was just the misguided impression of others. Within the tenuous framework of the tough playing field of his era, Zivic was simply protecting himself against the genuine roughs.
Article posted on 01.04.2009
This he did most ably, with an inventive mix of jolting jabs, vicious uppercuts, superbly manoeuvred head butts, eye thumbing and skilfully executed shots to the testicles. And always, Fritzie would claim, he would say ‘Pardon me’ to his opponents as he systematically chopped them up.
Nor was Zivic shy about giving eloquent dissertations on his preferred methods of self-defence against such nasty brutes. “I’d hit guys low, choke ‘em or give ‘em the head. My best punch was a left hook to you-know-where..”
As our younger readers will have already determined, a quite unique form of anarchy flourished in the prize ring of Fritzie Zivic’s era. “Get the other guy before he gets you first,” was Fritzie’s simple law of life, and it was a philosophy that certainly stood him in good stead throughout his roller coaster eighteen-year career as a professional. Zivic certainly got a whole bunch of guys before he was through and there is still no telling just how many fights he really had. The count has clicked up to over 230 on most boxing databases, but the likelihood is that there were many more of an official and semi-official nature. Fritzie himself claimed 399.
Ring warfare was waged in a wholly different jungle some sixty or seventy years ago, and while Fritzie might have been loose with the truth about his indiscretions, it is certainly true that a great many other savvy ring mechanics fashioned a similarly devilish box of tricks.
When Zivic wrested the welterweight championship from Henry Armstrong in 1940, referee Arthur Donovan reached the point of despair in his vain efforts to keep order.
Fritzie, of course, figured it was all Homicide Hank’s fault. “He beat hell out of me for the first five rounds. He stepped on my toes, gave me the elbow and hit me low so many times I lost count.”
It frustrated Zivic greatly that referee Donovan didn’t do a thing about Hank’s outrageous behaviour. So Fritzie hit Henry low and cut his eye with a head butt, at which point Donovan said to the pair, “If you guys wanna fight that way, it’s OK with me.”
Zivic travelled a long and brutal road before getting his shot at glory against Armstrong. Fritzie was notoriously erratic in his early days as a pro, his winning runs being offset by losing streaks. He dropped eight decisions in a row from August 1935 to April 1936. Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, Fritzie had to weave his boxing and training around the less exciting but more important routine of a day job. Boxing was fun and earned some nice pocket money, but Zivic didn’t take it too seriously until he was five years into his career. He had nearly 70 recorded fights on his log when he gave fellow Pittsburgher Billy Conn all kinds of hell in losing a narrow split decision at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Gardens in December, 1936.
Fritzie earned 2,500 dollars for messing up young Billy’s handsome features, a tidy sum in those days. It was enough to commit Zivic to making boxing his profession and giving it everything he had.
After the Conn fight, Fritzie knew that he needed to be stronger and tougher, even though Conn would offer the opinion in later years that Zivic was plenty strong and tough already. Fritzie went to work in the steel mills to build up his body, working for 75 cents an hour.
Thirty years later in his retirement, after all the wars had been fought and all the blood had been shed, he went back to work as a boilermaker for $5.70 an hour. His biggest purse as a fighter was $25,000. Food for thought!
Fritzie Zivic was born Ferdinand Zivic in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, the heartland of the city’s steel mills. Croatian by descent, he grew up in a neighbourhood of Jews, Italians and blacks.
Two of Fritzie’ five brothers, Pete and Jack, worked in the mills and became Olympic boxers after catching the bug at the local amateur establishment, the Willow Club. Both competed in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium, where Pete went all the way to the final before losing to Fidel La Barba.
Fritzie, however, was destined for greater fame once he applied himself to the sport in earnest. After the close defeat to Conn, the man who would become known as the Croat Comet really began to roll. He defeated some very accomplished fighters as he barrelled his way to the top, proving a furious handful even for those who beat him.
The many amusing tales about Fritzie should not blind us to the fact that he was a highly effective and dangerous operator who could vary his style according to the examination at hand. He could pressure and hustle clever boxers out of their stride and outbox and out-slug his fellow toughs. He could jab the brawlers silly when he chose not to engage with them, or break them up from close range with his winging hooks and brutal uppercuts.
Zivic wasn’t the cleverest of boxers or the hardest of hitters. But he was tough and durable and his punishing style gained him the reputation of a feared warrior. He was the bump in the road that made other contenders think, “Oh my God, not him.”
Fritzie also possessed courage and determination in abundance. In 1937, just as his career was on a high after victories over Johnny Jadick, Bobby Pacheco and Chuck Woods, Zivic contracted a near fatal attack of pneumonia and was only saved by the blood of his brother Jack after a transfusion. Fritzie was fighting again that same year.
In March 1938, Zivic captured a split decision over the young Charley Burley at the Motor Square Garden in Pittsburgh, lost on points to Charley three months later and was again outscored in their rubber match.
Fritzie was now mixing it with some of the greatest fighters of his or any other era. In February 1939, he handed a first professional defeat to the brilliant Texan, Eddie Booker, who would lose just five of his 80 fights and go down in history as one of the great unsung middleweights.
Zivic’s form continued to be somewhat inconsistent, but from May 1940 he suddenly clicked and entered a golden phase. Six successive wins catapulted him into a title shot at the already legendary Henry Armstrong.
Fritzie knocked out Johnny Rinaldi and Leonard Bennett, outpointed Kenny LaSalle and copped a pair of decisions over Ossie Harris.
But the biggest win was a points triumph over the clever and infernally difficult NBA lightweight champion, Sammy ‘The Clutch’ Angott, who would later become the first man to defeat the brilliant young ace, Willie Pep.
Sluggin’ with Hank and Lew Jenkins
Blood followed Zivic around, just as death follows other men. At his raging best, it seemed that Zivic always left a trail of cuts, bruises and welts.
On the night of October 4 1940, Zivic didn’t just beat Henry Armstrong at Madison Square Garden. The Croat Comet gave the fading Homicide Hank the worst beating of his fabled and glittering career. The bell that signalled the end of fifteen rounds of ferocious fighting saved Armstrong from his first knockout defeat as he lay face down on the canvas from punishment and exhaustion.
One newspaper reported: “Bloodied is a mild description of Armstrong’s face when he hit the canvas in the final seconds of the last round. His face looked like oozing hamburger.”
As Zivic piled on the pressure, Hank suffered gashes above both eyes and bled from his mouth and nose and a cut to his left cheek. He would tell reporters after the fight that he couldn’t see out of his left eye after the third round and was virtually blind in both eyes as the steady flow of blood ran into them.
While there was plenty of beef behind Fritzie’s punches, there was also a smart brain at the controls. For all his many fights, the challenger had never gone beyond ten rounds before and he knew the importance of pacing himself. Placing faith in his natural toughness and conditioning, Zivic encouraged Armstrong to come on to him in the early rounds, content to tuck up as Hank pounded away. But Fritzie wasn’t busy doing nothing. He was already employing his damaging uppercut in the form of short and hurtful shots inside.
This weapon became more potent and versatile in its delivery as the rounds wore on, and Armstrong just couldn’t seem to avoid it. Nobody had ever matched the prime Hank for pace or beaten him at infighting, but now he was being passed in the fast lane by a prohibitive underdog. Showing the ring intelligence for which he was never really given full credit, Zivic was positioning himself at angles where Armstrong’ vicious hooks had no more than a glancing impact. The challenger was countering with shuddering uppercuts to the head and body from short and long range. From distance, he was converting the uppercut into a whiplash half-bolo that sent Hank’s head jerking back. One such shot in the tenth round, a terrific blow to the stomach, seemed for a split second to snap the champion in half.
For all the punishment he endured, it was so gloriously typical of Armstrong that he kept firing back to the end. But finally, after a barnstorming reign of nineteen title defences in just two years, Hank couldn’t make it back to home base.
As for Fritzie, he celebrated as only a handful of men would do after going fifteen with Henry Armstrong: by getting into a major ruckus with Al ‘Bummy’ Davis just a month later. Al didn’t care for Fritzie thumbing him in the eyes, so he belted Zivic with a grand total of ten foul blows in the second round and got himself disqualified. Davis then kicked the referee for good measure and tried to re-start the fight with Fritzie. We will revisit the feud between Mr Zivic and Mr Davis in due course.
Still the busy year of 1940 wasn’t over for Fritzie. He needed another fix of good old-fashioned milling and who better to oblige than Lew Jenkins? The wild man from Sweetwater, Texas, with the booming right hand was the reigning lightweight champion of the world and looking to expand his horizons. The battle of champions with Zivic was staged at Madison Square Garden on December 20 and provided the fans with a pre-Christmas treat of hard punching, name-calling and eye gouging. Jenkins was a 5 to 2 underdog, but the crowd of 16,949 saw a courageous performance by the man from the Lone Star State as he battled Zivic to a draw. Fritzie got off to a slow start and needed all his smarts to make up the slack and earn a share of the spoils.
Said one sportswriter: “Zivic used every trick known to ring veterans and some unfamiliar even to the oldest inhabitants in the early going. He found a kindred spirit in Jenkins.”
Lew set a hot pace and won four of the first five rounds, but like most others he couldn’t escape the Zivic threshing machine. Fritzie mounted a big rally in the seventh round, scoring with heavy punches and gashing Jenkins over the right eyebrow. A short right in the eighth opened a cut over Lew’s left eye. It seemed impossible to come out of a fight with Zivic unscathed.
Just a month later, on January 17 1941, Zivic and Henry Armstrong went back to Madison Square Garden for Homicide Hank’s last hurrah as a major championship force.
How the great man tried against two bridges too far in Zivic and Father Time. Things looked bleak for Hank at the end of the tenth round. Piece by piece, he had been busted down and taken apart by Fritzie’s varied attacks. Referee Arthur Donovan went to Armstrong’s corner and ominously held up one finger. Hank had three minutes to turn things around.
Then Armstrong turned back the clock in glorious fashion. Cranking his fighting machine into one last burst of life, he tore at Zivic in a desperate attempt at a Hail Mary knockout. Barely able to see through his cut and swollen eyes, Hank knew he had to stay close to Fritzie and drove the Pittsburgh man to the ropes with a left hook to the head and a right to the jaw.
Keeping Zivic pressed against the ropes, Armstrong let rip with a fusillade of left hooks to the head and rights to the body. People in the crowd were jumping up and down and one woman threw her hat into the air in her excitement. Fritzie was still being pounded at the bell and referee Donovan had to pull Hank off him.
And that was it. Armstrong couldn’t rev up the engine any more. In the twelfth round, Zivic homed in on Hank’s facial cuts with a series of snapping jabs and the old champ was wavering badly when Donovan came to his rescue.
Zivic’s unfinished business with Al ‘Bummy’ Davis was brutally concluded at the Polo Grounds on July 2 1941. Against Lew Jenkins, for whom he had far greater respect, Fritzie had been mischievous and sometimes playful. Against Davis, the Croat Comet was coldly professional and destructive. He gave Al a tremendous thrashing, which was both educated and merciless. Many fans at ringside couldn’t recall seeing a worst beating in a New York ring. Davis was slumped helplessly on the ropes when he signalled his surrender in the tenth round, his body badly bruised and his face a mask of blood.
Al, who had a crushing left hook but really little else, was taken to school by a vastly wilier ring mechanic. Fritzie decked Davis with a right to the jaw in the opening round and punished him with hammer-like jabs, hooks and uppercuts for the remainder of the one-sided mismatch.
To his dying day, Fritzie never believed that he should have lost his welterweight championship to Freddie Cochrane Referee and sole arbiter Joe Mangold saw Cochrane winning the fight by seven rounds to four with four even at the Ruppert Stadium in Newark in July 1941. Fritzie couldn’t understand that at all, convinced he had won the fight. But he soldiered on and continued to wage his trademark brand of warfare against the best men in the business.
Gradually his form became more erratic as a tough career began to take its slow toll, yet he remained a living nightmare for most opponents. He decisioned Cochrane in a non-title match and stopped Lew Jenkins in the tenth round of their return. But Fritzie was comprehensively outpointed by old foe Henry Armstrong in a ten rounder at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and suffered a pair of defeats at the hands of the coming genius, Sugar Ray Robinson. In Fritzie’s book, no praise was too lavish for Robbie, whom he regarded as the greatest fighter he ever encountered.
Win or lose, Zivic, to use a current expression, retained his cutting edge technology. A couple of tough fellows in Beau Jack and Jake LaMotta would attest to that.
Fritzie was trying to level the score with Beau in their Madison Square Garden match in 1943, having lost a ten rounds decision in their first set-to. Jack again proved the better man, this time over twelve rounds, but it was a close and fiercely fought battle from which the twenty-one year old youngster emerged looking like the victim of a back alley mugging. Blood ran from his nose and mouth throughout, and his face and eyes were badly marked and swollen.
The Garden crowd of 18,818 saw Beau get off to a whirlwind start as he soared into a commanding lead over the first five rounds. Fritzie was twenty-nine years old, which was considered to be a somewhat dangerous age in an era when boxers fought far more often and engaged in generally tougher fights.
Jack was the reigning lightweight champion and an immensely talented and exciting fighter, as Zivic was quick to discover. Fritzie rushed Beau in the opening round, trying to knock his man out, and was rolling along just fine for the first two minutes until he ran into a terrific blow that scattered his senses. A flashy but pin-point accurate right to the chin from Jack crashed home with great force. Fritzie took it remarkably well, but it was a good five rounds before his head cleared and he truly found his bearings again.
Beau kept up the pressure, hooking Zivic to the head and body and mixing in some telling uppercuts. It seemed that Fritzie had lost his way and was lurching towards a knockout defeat. Then Zivic sprung back to life with his usual, defiant charge in a thrilling sixth round. He staggered Jack and punched the young champion around the ring with a succession of lefts and rights.
The seventh round was a see-saw affair as Beau rallied well but then got himself into trouble during a furious exchange before the bell. The eighth and nine rounds saw both fighters sacrificing their fine work with fouls. Jack lost the eighth after pounding Zivic throughout, while Fritzie similarly goofed in the ninth after turning the tide.
Fritzie sensed he was the stronger man coming into the stretch and took the tenth convincingly. But Beau, a magnificently spirited competitor, kept finding the heart to stay in the fight and preserve his narrow lead. The two brave men fought on even terns through the eleventh and twelfth rounds, but Jack’s legs were trembling in the final stanza as Zivic punished him to the body.
Fritzie’s grandstand finish had been a joy, but he just came up short. Referee George Walsh and judge Bob Cunningham saw the fight 7-5 for Beau, while judge Bill Healy made the decision unanimous with a scorecard of 6-5-1.
Jousting with Jake
Fritzie had four fights with that other famous tough guy, Jake LaMotta, winning only their second match at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on July 12 1943. But that one triumph was an excellent showcase of Zivic’s versatility, as he cleverly played the role of artful boxer to frustrate and outwit the Bronx Bull. Jake had won a ten rounds split decision Fritzie at the same venue just a month previously and their return go was over fifteen.
Fritzie climbed into the ring as a 7 to 5 underdog and was spotting LaMotta six-and-a-half pounds at 151lbs. Jake made a fast start, confident that he could beat Zivic again, but the younger man quickly found himself tormented by a persistent and stabbing jab. Fritzie had used that weapon so effectively throughout his career and LaMotta just couldn’t navigate a way around it.
Jake was quickly facing a daunting deficit as he lost the first four rounds, and all his earnest bobbing and weaving did little to protect him from Zivic’s monotonously steady output. LaMotta enjoyed better success in the fifth round as he bulled inside and worked to the body, but his successes were few and far between. Fritzie eased himself through the sixth, seventh and eighth stanzas, conserving his strength but still doing damage. Jake’s eyes were now bleeding freely from the constant attention of Zivic’s sharp and hurtful jabs.
LaMotta knew he had to turn things around. The Bronx Bull would prove repeatedly in his coming glory years that his chances could never be discounted, however late the day and however dire the circumstances. From the tenth round, Jake began to roll. Zivic’s jab suddenly lost its potency as LaMotta bulled and chased him and winged shots to the head and body.
If we had learned one thing about Fritzie, however, it was the fact that he was a never-say-die specialist in his own right. Like a sleepy man coming out of a coma, he shrugged off the cobwebs and blazed back at Jake in the fifteenth round, scoring with lefts and rights all the way to the bell to put the seal on a split decision victory.
Fritzie would plough on for another five-and-a-half years, ever bullish and defiant, ever willing to demonstrate his exceptional repertoire of skills and tricks. But his days of greatness were gone and he began to lose fights in clusters as the gods slowly took back the eclectic range of gifts they had loaned him. In one stretch, from June 1945 to February 1946, Zivic won just once in thirteen fights.
But he rallied one last time to end his career with a couple of wins over Al Reid and Eddie Steele before hanging ‘em up and going back to the day job. The Croat Comet had stormed through the sky and finally come to rest. You could imagine mischievous Fritzie cupping a hand to his ear and listening for the collective sigh of relief.
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).
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