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Roy McHugh Remembers: When Pittsburgh was a fight town

Championship boxing returns to Pittsburgh next month when Paul Spadafora defends his IBF lightweight title. It will be the first championship fight in 18 years in a city with a rich boxing tradition.

Sunday, November 28, 1999

By Roy McHugh

First of three parts

Billy Conn's Hand is raised after his eighth-round KO of Buddy Knox af Forbes Field on May 26, 1941. 

The magazine Inside Sport, now defunct, had a columnist called the Good Doctor. "Settle a bet, Doc -- who's theheavyweight champion?" a client wrote in to ask. The GoodDoctor replied, "No one knows."

Unless there are heavyweight champions who haven't come out of the woodwork, the question no longer begs for an answer. By somethng very nearly like common consent, a reluctant warrior named Lennox Lewis is the heavyweight champion. In boxing's nether world, a jumble of countless lighter divisions ruled over high-handedly by too many competing associations, councils, federations and whatnot, each with its own set of champions, nobody knows and hardly anybody cares who the champions are.

The prizefighting business was always to some degree a mess. But long, long ago, when there were vestiges of organization, when there were fewer weight classes (usually just eight), fewer sanctioning bodies and fewer disagreements among them, when Pittsburgh was a fight town, when places like Binghamton and Fargo and Youngstown and Holyoke were fight towns, to be a champion actually meant something. All the more remarkable, then, that Western Pennsylvania was such a breeding ground for the species.

Frank Klaus and George Chip, middleweight champions before World War I, were the forerunners. Then along came Harry Greb, the Pittsburgh Windmill -- make that theLegendary Pittsburgh Windmill -- and after Greb there was Teddy Yarosz. Here were four world middleweight champions in a little over two decades, all from within a 50-mile radius of Duquesne Gardens, and while the last of the four, Yarosz, was still active, Billy Soose joined the line of succession.

The late 1930s and early 1940s were the Augustan Age of boxing in Pittsburgh. Between July 13, 1939, and November 18, 1941, Billy Conn, Sammy Angott, Fritzie Zivic, Soose, and Jackie Wilson, in that order, won titles. Excluding the flyweight division, Western Pennsylvania has had a champion in each of the traditional weight classes, heavyweight Michael Moorer and lightweight Paul Spadafora the most recent. Only Nat Fleischer, it is true, recognized Tony Marino, a steelworker from Duquesne,as bantamweight champion in 1936, but Nat Fleischer was the editor of the Ring Record Book, and his edicts were not open to question.

    First of three parts

"Roy McHugh Remembers" is a periodic feature of the Post-Gazette spoirts pages. McHugh was sports editor and later columnist-at-large at The Pittsburgh Press from 1963 until his retirement in 1983. "When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town" retells the stories of some of the great fighters in the city's history.

Part Two: Conn's loss to Louis still a knockout tale

Part Three: Zivic had a nose for the sweet science


Was there something in the environment to account for all this, the way that champions came to be looked on as a renewable crop around here? Almost certainly, the reason was cultural. Why did Western Pennsylvania turn out legions of good football players during roughly the same time span? Because of qualities in the native stock, both inborn and acquired.

From the mid-19th century until World War I put a stop to the flow, immigrants by the tens of thousands came here to work in the steel mills and coal mines. They were Poles, Hungarians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Italians. The Germans and the Irish -- the potato-famine Irish -- had preceded them; American blacks from the Deep South were to follow. Life was a test of fortitude. Only the strong could survive. To their descendants they handed down a legacy of toughness and grit. Even prizefighting,with its promise of brain damage, was a rational enough alternative to long hours, low pay, exhausting labor under harsh conditions, and the likelihood of not making it to an impoverished old age.

All through the 1930s there were fight shows in Pittsburgh as often as six nights a week. There were big fights the year round -- title fights involving Yarosz or Conn; their three fights with each other; their fights with leading contenders; Zivic's three fights with Charley Burley, the best Pittsburgh boxer who never held a championship; fights between neighborhood rivals like Buck McTiernan and Jimmy Belmont. On mornings after, fight fans lined up at the news stands Downtown to buy the first edition of the Pittsburgh Press and see what Regis Welsh, the paper's boxing critic, had to say.

The night that Conn came close to beating Joe Louis in New York, a crowd of 24,738 was in the stands at ForbesField for a game between the Pirates and the Giants. Minutes before the start of the fight, the umpires called time. Both teams retired to their dugouts, and for almost an hour, while Conn won and lost the heavyweight championship, everyone sat and listened to the amplified radio broadcast.

World War II broke the continuum. World War II brought an economic boom that rolled on into the 1950s, constricting a source of supply. Who needed to box when the pay was so good, and conditions so much improved, in the mills? The death blow came from television. Free fights on the tube put promoters out of business and, with no place for talent to develop, eventually none did.

Elsewhere, boxing survived these calamities. Ethnic waves, the lifeblood of the fight game, succeed one another, but the latest wave, from Latin America, left Pittsburgh high and dry. The fighters you see on cable TV, which has given back what network TV took away, are Hispanic, mostly. Network 'TV used up its fighters and then turned to other programming. Cable TV, desperate for any kind of programming at all, has managed to steer a different course,by whatever means.

It's a course that bypasses Pittsburgh, where an industry that flourished when the open-hearth furnaces were blazing night and day is just as surely a thing of the past.

Frank Klaus

Henry Greb, left, who ruled the middlewithgt division in the 1920s 

On the morning of October 15, 1910, the world lost its middleweight champion when Stanley Ketchel, 24 years old, died before his time -- "fatally shot in the back," wrote John Lardner, "by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast." It happened in the kitchen of a Missouri health farm, where Ketchel had gone for rest and relaxation. Too much of his relaxing had been done with Goldie, the farm's hired girl.

Almost as soon as rigor mortis set in, every halfway reputable middleweight with an enterprising manager was claiming the vacant title. More than two and a half years later, on March 5, 1913, Frank Klaus and Billy Papke, survivors of an extended elimination process, faced each other in Paris. Klaus won on a foul when Papke, about to go down in the 15th round, deliberately butted him.

The new champion was from East Pittsburgh. Klaus had no affectations as a person, and he fought with the same lack of subtlety. Old-time manager Bunny Buntag described him as "a stocky guy who could walk right into you and keep going to the body all the time."

Klaus always entered the ring with a cap on his head. If he was fighting outdoors he dressed for warmth, wearing, besides the cap, a long, loose topcoat. In keeping with his no-frills approach, he was shocked to discover that Georges Carpentier, the dandified Frenchman who would one day fight for the heavyweight championship, used scent. The fact became evident to Klaus when he shook hands with Carpentier before their 1912 fight, scheduled for 20 rounds, in the French seaport town of Dieppe.

Returning to his corner, Klaus informed his manager, George Engle, that Carpentier was "all perfumed up. "Am I supposed to fight this guy or kiss him?" Klaus asked. "There was never much doubt as to which it would be. Carpentier, only 18 years old but already the best boxer in France, took a thorough drubbing for the 18-plus rounds he was able to last.

On October 11, 1913, seven months after winning the title, Klaus boxed George Chip, a coal miner from New Castle, at the old City Hall in Market Square, which had a second-floor auditorium. So superior did Klaus look through the first five rounds that midway during the sixth -- the last round of the fight -- the crowd began to leave. Then, as Jim Jab reported in the Pittsburgh Press, Chip knocked him out with an "up-from-the-floor" right to the jaw.

Their return match took place on Christmas Eve 1913 at Duquesne Gardens, and the only difference was that Chip won by a knockout in five rounds instead of six.

Chip lost his title the next time he defended it. To accommodate a promoter in Brooklyn, he substituted for his brother Joe against a southpaw named Al McCoy. McCoy's father, a poultry farmer from New Jersey, considered Chip a sure thing and bet 100 of his chickens to a five-cent cigar that young Al would lose. But in the opening round McCoy lashed out with a left hook that caught Chip as he moved in. Ten seconds later, the title had once more changed hands.

Charley Burley

Champions and leading contenders wanted nothing to do with Charley Burley. A middleweight who could make the welterweight limit, he was forced to take matches with heavyweights in order to get work.

Archie Moore called him "the greatest all-around fighter I ever saw." Their paths crossed in Hollywood long before Moore was light heavyweight champion. Burley floored Moore three times and won an easy decision. "Charley Burley could do things in a ring that nobody else could do," Moore told an interviewer. "I caught him leaning way back, off-balance. He didn't have any leverage in that position, but he nearly took my head off with a monster left hook."

So why was there no demand for Burley's services? Race entered into it -- most title bouts were still white-only affairs -- but, paradoxically the man who could do things that nobody else could do was not a crowd pleaser. Burley gave his opponents nothing to hit. Promoters and fans complained that he boxed defensively, minimizing risk. Instead of leading, he counter-punched. He wasn't flashy.

Fritzie Zivic and Billy Soose lost to Burley when they were on the way up, doing no harm to their own careers but damaging Burley's severely. More than ever, he was someone to avoid. After winning only the first of his three fights with Burley, by an unpopular decision, Zivic made sure there would not be a fourth fight. He paid the asking price, whatever it may have been, for Burley's contract, the way one corporation takes over. Two years later, when he was welterweight champion, he unloaded Burley for $500, fair market value under the circumstances.

Tomorrow: Billy Conn and Billy Soose.

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