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Between 1900 and 1955, Italian Americans captured the greatest proportion of world boxing titles. Fifty-one champions and title claimants rose to the top of their respective weight classes, more than any other ethnic group. Yet the outside world was oblivious to this remarkable success with his Italian identity usually hidden under an appropriated Irish moniker. This little known fact, contained in the book The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955, reveal the important contribution these athletes made to American sports.
Against a backdrop of prejudice, tough living conditions and the group’s general precarious position in society, boxing became America’s second most popular sport. With a chance to become rich and famous many threw their hat into the boxing ring. The best boxers like Tony Canzoneri, Willie Pep, Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano emerged from Little Italy enclaves all over the country. California, better known for its baseball stars Joe Di Maggio, Tony Lazzeri and Ernie Lombardi, developed a trio of world boxing champions ; Fidel La Barba, Young Corbett III and Fred Apostoli.
Fidel La Barba was the flyweight champion between 1925-27. Born in New York City to Italian immigrants hailing from the Abruzzi region, his family moved to Los Angeles when La Barba was only three-years-old with a promise of work and a better life. He learnt to box as a newsboy developing into a skillful ring mechanic. He went on to win the national amateur title before clinching the gold medal at the 1924 Olympic Games. He cut short his career to study sports journalism, but was forced back into the ring when the Stock Market Crash wiped out all of his savings. In retirement he made good use of his university degree working in public relations and as a screen writer in Hollywood. La Barba was never stopped and is considered one of the greatest flyweights ever.
Young Corbett III (Raffaele Giordano) won the welterweight title from Jackie Fields on February 22, 1933. Corbett was born in the province of Potenza in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata. His parents immigrated to the United States eventually settling in Fresno. As a child Corbett helped pick grapes in the San Joaquin Valley but looked to boxing as a way out. Thanks to his cousin Ralph Manfredo, also a boxer, Corbett liked the idea of fighting for money. Corbett won a newspaper sponsored tournament and at just fourteen-years-old turned professional. Corbett is an unsung hero among the pantheon of Italian American champions. He won 123 and drew 17 out of 151 contests defeating numerous champions including Young Jack Thompson three times, Jackie Fields twice, Ceferino Garcia twice, Gus Lesnevich, Fred Apostoli and Hall of famers Billy Conn and Mickey Walker.
Fred Apostoli was recognized by both the International Boxing Union and the New York State Athletic Commission as world middleweight champion between 1937-39. The “Belting Bellhop”, as he was known from working in a hotel, was a well-oiled mean machine who had few equals. Born in the North Beach district of San Francisco, Apostoli’s drive and two-fisted onslaughts proved too much for world champions Freddie Steele, Marcel Thil, Solly Krieger twice, Lou Brouillard, “Babe” Risko and Young Corbett III. In 1941 he joined the navy and sailed to the Pacific. He was involved in enemy combat with the Japanese during World War II. Ring Magazine named him the Boxer of the Year in 1943 for meritorious action in combat and for coaching recruits and staging boxing exhibitions.
These heroes emerged from a fighting subculture that had been firmly established in the Golden State where fight clubs on every street corner catered for the demand from a full roster of willing aspirants. In San Francisco alone there were four major boxing venues showcasing talent; The Coliseum Bowl and the Dreamland Arena and the National Hall in Mission and Garibaldi Hall, renamed by the Italian Men’s Club, located in North Beach where a third of all California Italian pugilists emanated.
Among the pioneering group of Californian Italians were San Francisco bantamweight Harry Dell (Albert Papa) who fought between 1906-14 and top lightweight contender Frank Picato (Pichetto) of Los Angeles who campaigned between 1908-1916). The Italian-born Los Angeles-based Charlie Dalton (Dalto) boxed as a lightweight between 1901-20 and, alongside his brother “Iron Man” Steve they were the best known from a family of seven fighting siblings. During this era it was commonplace for Italian fighters to contest Italian colony titles disparagingly referred to as “spaghetti championships”. Rivals from different sections of a city or state would challenge one another and Charlie Dalton won recognition as a “spaghetti champion”.
Other prominent San Francisco Italians included Tommy Cello, (Edward Tomasello). Ring Magazine rated him as the eleventh best lightweight in 1927. Joe Roche (Guido Aschero) was ranked as the fourteenth best middleweight in 1926. Frankie Campbell (Francesco Camilli), brother of Dolph, the famous baseball player of the Brooklyn Dodgers, rose to number thirteen in the 1925 world ratings. Campbell later died from cerebral hemorrhaging following a 1930 fight with Max Baer, a future world heavyweight champion. Big-hitter Ray Actis (Raymond Caporali) fought between 1931-38. He achieved a top ten world ranking among the light-heavyweights. Heavyweight Pat Valentino (Pasquale Guglielmi), a distant cousin of screen idol Rudolph Valentino, got a shot at the world heavyweight title in 1949 losing to Ezzard Charles, but not before cracking two of the champion’s ribs. Los Angeles’s Lou Nova, whose father was of German-Italian heritage, fought Joe Louis for the world heavyweight title in 1941.
With each passing decade, as the socio-economic picture improved and education widened horizons fewer Italians entered boxing preferring less perilous pursuits. Lou Filippo of Los Angeles was the last of a dying breed from this golden age. He was a headlining lightweight in a career that spanned 1947-57. He retired to become a boxing manager, referee and judge and later found some fame by appearing in five of the six Rocky movies as a referee or announcer.
Rolando Vitale is the UK author of the recently released book The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955. He has worked for over twenty years as a writer, researcher and translator. The Real Rockys is available in both paperback and kindle format from www. amazon.com