Italian-Americans in Prize Fighting

 in The USA


James C. Mancuso

September, 2000

Updated: July 2002

     The internet offers the unique advantage of allowing an immediate reaction to something that one reads on one of the sites.

     Readers frequently respond to the ideas and the knowledge that they find on the pages of this site, which is dedicated to exploring and commenting on The Great Italy-to-The-USA Immigration.

     Some of the communications have led to adding material to our site.

     At the end of this piece on Italian-American boxers, a reader will find a response that was sent to the author of the original essay on boxers.

     Alfonso Georeno gives us an opportunity to share an eye-witness account of a match that has been a source of controversy. His lively description of how he came to witness the match and his reactions to the match add a very special dimension to the original essay, which contains only a brief account of the Maxim-Robinson match.

     Additionally, Mr. Georeno's own history suggests that his lively account illustrates his own lively approach to living. A bit of that history is included below, with Mr. Georeno’s permission.

     Another visiter to this page, Ralph Iannotti, shared his memories of growing up in the family of an Italian-American prize fighter, Joey Iannotti, who contended for the flyweight championship. Ralph Iannotti's account highlight's a different aspect of the career of a prize fighter -- the ways in which near-champions fit into family and community life. A sports fan would have little reason to think of a prize fighter who is respected in his community and admired by his children. Reading about this part of the life of these dedicated men offers a special look at the ways in which they subjected themselves to the grueling life of a prize fighter in order to advance their standing in the society. Ralph's brief account of his father's career is included at the end of this essay.

The earliest humans could easily discover that fighting with fists - boxing - could serve to remove or to divert a person who had interfered with the attacker's efforts to reach a goal. Swinging one's arm with the fingers forming a fist can quickly bring an argument to an effective end. Apparently people, thousands of years ago, made arrangements to watch such combat. The evidence suggests that boxing became a form of public spectacle about 6000 years ago. The sport no doubt developed in Ethiopia and then spread into ancient Egypt. Scholars have found Egyptian paintings that show two persons in poses that suggest that they are engaging in a boxing match.

Historians know that the ancient Greeks added boxing to the Olympics games programs in 688 B. C. E. The level of honor accorded to great boxers can be deduced from the frequent mention of famous statues of the most famous boxers of the Greek world. There's no question that a boxing champion in ancient Greece was considered to be a highly honored person.

The Romans added elements to boxing to turn it into a deadly sport. Boxing in the Roman Empire was clearly intended to be a bloody spectacle. The Greek fighters had wrapped their fists in leather thongs, mainly to protect their hands and wrists. Gradually, the fighters took up the practice of covering their fists with hardened thongs; and thus, the fighter's fists became deadly weapons. Adding brass studs and other metal projections to the hard leather guaranteed that the fighter's fists could maul and kill an opponent.

Arranging contests that would not end until one of the contestants had been killed, limited the population from which boxers could be drawn. As we would expect, only slaves and persons at the bottom of the economic heap would train to become boxers.

Boxing died out after 500 A.D. The sport did not revive until the 1700s. From England, boxing quickly moved to the United States. As we would expect, the first well-known boxers in the USA came from the families of Irish immigrants - the poor people of the country. Names like Ryan, Sullivan, and so on lead in the lists of The USA's first famed boxers. Mixed in with the descendants of the Irish immigrants, one also found African-Americans who made their way into the top of the winners lists. In the 1930's Italian names began to appear on professional boxing programs.

From June, 1933, to June, 1934, an Italian name came to the top of the lists of champions in the boxing world. Primo Carnera had won the world heavyweight championship by defeating Jack Sharkey. In many ways, Carnera was an embarrassment to the boxing world. He was a huge man who had been a circus strong man. He measured 6 ft. 6 in., and weighed a 270 pounds. Before fighting Sharkey, he had won 19 bouts. Rumors circulated to spread the suspicion that his wins had been arranged by unscrupulous promoters, who knew that this unusual physical specimen would create a stir in the boxing world. Carnera's lack of ability to understand what was happening around him set the stage for him to gain absolutely nothing from his fighting career. His promoters even arranged to take away every cent that he had earned in his final defense of his title, against Max Baer. He returned to Italy with absolutely nothing to show for his achievements.

An Italian name again appeared in 1939, when Joe Louis knocked out Tony Galento in four rounds. In that same year, the start of World War II interrupted the rise of Italian-Americans in boxing.

Fans could not readily identify the Italian-American origins of one of the most accomplished boxers of the post WWII era, Giuseppe Antonio Berardinelli. Fighting under the name of Joey Maxim, Berardinelli won the American light heavyweight title in 1949. He lost the championship to Archie Moore in 1952. He built a record of 82 wins, 29 losses, and 4 ties.

If one reviews the career of Joey Maxim, he/she finds an interesting pattern. Sportswriters often describe Maxim as a very accomplished, "classy" boxer. Yet, writers seem reluctant to give him credit for his two most famous wins. In 1954 he beat Floyd Patterson, a future world heavyweight champion, in a closely contested fight. For some reason, writers persist in reporting that the decision had been questionable. In 1952 he fought the darling of the sports writers, Sugar Ray Robinson. One often finds Robinson described as the best boxer of modern prize fighting. The Maxim-Robinson fight took place on a very hot New York night, in Yankee Stadium. Robinson had the edge in most of the bout. When the bell rang to start the 14th round, Robinson did not come out, and the victory was awarded to Maxim. Many of the writers who have composed the hundreds of pieces that have been written to celebrate Robinson's career comment as if Joey Maxim did not earn his victory.

Joey Maxim, in composing his responses to sports writers, showed the same class in his use of words that he had shown in his use of his fists. Responding to the frequent claim that "The heat, not Joey Maxim, defeated Robinson on that hot night," Maxim said, "And what? I had air conditioning??"

Another Italian-American, Guglielmo Papaleo, also made his career using a non-Italian name. Throughout his career, however, Italian-Americans knew that Willie Pep held close ties to his Italian-American heritage and to the Italian-American communities in Connecticut.

Accounts of Pep's career frequently contain the claim that Pep was one of the most accomplished boxers in history - "The cleverest boxer of all time." He had mastered the fine points of boxing to the point where he could actually win a round without landing one punch. He won the world featherweight championship in 1942. Between that time and 1948, Pep fought about 150 fights, and had lost only one bout. In 1948 he lost his second fight, and the championship, to Sandy Saddler. A year later he regained the title. He held the title for another year, and was again defeated by Saddler. His last fight with Saddler proved to be a blot on his career. He was too old and too worn out to fight as he had during his best years. Additionally, he should have been satisfied with the record he had accumulated up to that point in his career. He continued to fight full time up until 1959. He had fought 241 times - losing 11 and tying once. It is very unlikely that any prize fighter will ever surpass Pep's record of 230 wins.

But, Pep had needed to continue to fight in order to earn money. It must be noted that Willie Pep began his fighting career defending his shoe-shine spot. He began his fighting career in order to guarantee his share of the nickels that clients paid to have their shoes shined. When a shoe-shine boy had found a spot at which he could earn a reasonable return for his time and effort, he tried to hold that spot as his own. Getting to the spot before others arrived would generally work to assure that someone else would not claim the spot. When some of the bigger boys discovered the advantages of a good spot, they would turn out a smaller boy. Pep learned to defend his spot, despite his being small and light. He quickly found that if opponents were not able to hit him, he could beat them. After five years of street fighting, Pep decided to get formal boxing training. Fighting gave him a guarantee of an income that would support his style of life.

Depending on how one looks at it, fortunately or unfortunately, Pep did not cut himself off from the style of life he had developed on the street. Though he had earned as much as 90,000 dollars for a single fight, he could not resist the lure of a dice game or a promising horse. Even after he left the ring and tried to make a career as a referee, his gambling background resurfaced, and he was barred from refereeing.

Pep describes many of his life's problems rather poetically - (1) "Fast women and slow horses." (2) "First your legs go. Then you lose your reflexes. Then you lose your friends."

But, Willie Pep has not lost all of his friends, by no means. His friends today make sure that he, now almost 90 years old, is comfortable in a nursing home. And his friends from The American Association for the Improvement of Boxing have placed a beautiful bronze plaque at the entrance of the First & Last Restaurant at 220 Main Street in Middletown, the city in which Pep was born.

Stories of fighters who go from rags to riches make good plots for drama. The atmosphere of boxing often put rising young fighters into the hands of unscrupulous characters. Gambling and the possibility of making a fast fortune places temptations in the way of the poor, less than well educated, young men who show promise of providing a good show for those who pay to watch young men draw blood from each other. Celebrities seem to enjoy sharing their celebrity with men who have become famous as prize fighters. Admitting boxers into the celebrity circle often puts them into situations they cannot easily master.

It is not surprising, then, that several young Italian-American boxers who made their way as young boxers, during the post WWII period, became the subjects of best selling biographies and movies. Though I could discuss many other outstanding Italian-American boxers, I will discuss four more Italian-American fighters, three of whom have been portrayed in movies.

Joey Giardello . The first of the three movie subjects, Joey Giardello, was portrayed briefly in the movie The Hurricane. The movie starred the outstanding African-American actor, Denzel Washington. The character played by Washington, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, made his way as a prize fighter until he was convicted of taking part in three murders in 1966. The movie makes the plausible point that Carter had been improperly convicted. Owing to the efforts of supporters, his conviction was overturned, and he was released from prison. He then went on to become a very articulate preacher and inspirational speaker.

In the movie, the writers and directors took advantage of the widely circulated and accepted Italian-American criminal imagery that Hollywood has assiduously cultivated. . The law enforcement officers in the movie were portrayed as Italian-Americans who harbored racist ideologies.

Those who engineered the production of The Hurricane aimed to discredit the notable Italian-American boxier, Joey Giardello, by studied allusion to "Italian Mob Mythology." Giardello, though he had changed his name, continued to use a name that clearly exposes his Italian-American roots. Giardello was born Carmine Orlando Tilelli to parents who had immigrated from Italy when they were children. Tilelli had joined the 82nd Airborne Division at age 16, using the birth certificate of his friend, and then used the name Giardello throughout his career. Like many of his peers, he had learned to fight in the streets. By age 21, Giardello had earned Number 5 ranking in the Middleweight class. He had fought for 12 years before getting a title fight He fought the champion, Gene Fullmer, to a draw; but then was forced to wait for another three years before he fought the next champion, Dick Tiger. He easily beat Tiger. He fought and defeated Hurricane Carter while he held the middleweight championship. Giardello held the title for two years. He built a career record of 100 wins, 25 defeats, and 7 ties.

In the movie, The Hurricane, which is passed off as a "true" story, the actors enact a sequence representing the Carter-Giardello bout Carter is shown pummeling Giardello. Those who see the movie are literally invited to believe that Carter's loss was attributable to some sort of evil Italian-American machinery, and that Carter had deserved to win. In actuality, anyone who has watched the televised fight must conclude that Giradello had controlled the fight throughout.

Italian-American organizations protested the way that the movie represented the fight. Giardello has started a suit against the people involved in making the movie.

A statement that Giardello had made to accusations that he had been a fighter who had benefitted from the machinations of evil Italian-Americans neatly summarizes Giardello's position: "Why did it take me so long to get a title shot, then?"

Two movies which represented the lives of two outstanding Italian-American boxers have been widely circulated. One must agree that as movies, those movies stand as major artistic achievements. At the same time, one also must agree that these movies have soundly established the view that Italian-American fighters deserved their reputation as unsavory characters.

Rocky Graziano. A straightforward account of the early life of Rocky Graziano would easily convince most people that during his youth he could not have stood as a candidate for nice guy of the year. In the first place, one should note that his parents did not name him Rocco Graziano. They had named him Thomas Rocco Garbella. After quitting school during sixth grade and then participating in a round of service in reformatory schools, Thomas Rocco joined the U. S. Army. As it turned out, the young soldier could not refrain from returning to his street ways. He slugged an officer and went absent without leave. He began to use the name Graziano, and continued to use that name after the military police had tracked him down. He served a sentence of nine months in Leavenworth military prison, and then left the army with a dishonorable discharge.

In 1942, Graziano turned his propensity to engage in aggression toward prize fighting. He showed little of the kind of boxing skills that Willie Pep had developed. Graziano brawled, rather than boxed. His career is best remembered for three battles with Tony Zale, from whom he had won the middleweight championship in 1946. He held the title for about two years. He continued to try to regain the title for the next four years after he had lost it in another fight with Zale. During those four years, he fought 21 bouts before his 1952 decisive loss to Sugar Ray Robinson. After losing his next fight, he retired. He had accumulated a career record of 67 wins (52 knockouts), 10 losses, and 6 draws.

Graziano had certainly seemed to have been predicting his future when he gave the title Somebody up there likes me to his autobiography - written with the help of Rowland Barber. Somebody, somewhere must really have liked him to have arranged to have Paul Newman act the role of Graziano in the 1956 film. Graziano's story of sin and redemption, Newman's inspired acting, and astute directing by Robert Wise resulted in a prize-winning classic boxing movie. Graziano's general fame now depends more on the immense artistic success of that movie than on his boxing career. Indeed, one can credit the circulation of his autobiography and the movie with having allowed Graziano to have become something of a lovable folk hero. He ended up circulating in the world of celebrity, frequently doing comic roles and advertisements for products. Though he had difficulty reading the cue cards, the audiences warmed to his crooked face and his "dese-and-dose" charms.

Jake La Motta. Jake LaMotta, and other Italian-Americans, on the other hand, suffered a different fate as a result of the successful 1980 movie that set the publicly shared image of him and other Italian-Americans. Taking the opportunity to make a film on the basis of LaMotta's autobiography, Raging Bull, the famous team of Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro turned their immense talents to give the world yet one more version of their dark view of Italian-American life. Their success is concisely reflected in comments, by movie critics, such as the following: "The boxing champion/bum blindly, obtusely, and stupidly inflicts wounds upon himself - mostly outside the ring in his personal life. True to the life in the Italian ghetto, the film is naturalistically filled with colloquial, blasphemous language and peppered with four letter words, cursing, and non-sequitur unformed thoughts [Emphasis JCM's]." The efforts of De Niro and Scorcese, as can be seen from this reviewer's comments, not only succeeded in convincing audiences that La Motta was a scurrilous bum, but that his character was a logical consequence of his having had an Italian-American background.

One would need to agree that La Motta, by his own admission, would never earn a title as a model of virtue. Throughout his personal and his professional life he engaged in behaviors that easily deserved the condemnation of personal and professional associates.

Among other disreputable acts, in 1947, La Motta deliberately allowed Billy Fox to win a bout, on the promise that by his doing so the promoters would arrange for him to fight the middleweight champion. After a seven month suspension, he fought Marcel Cedran in 1949, and won the world middleweight crown. He held that title for two years.

A good analyst, however, would want to carefully assess how his personality development related to life in the Italian-American community of the lower east side of New York City and the Bronx slums. He was born on the east side on July 10, 1922, and given the name of Giacobe La Motta. In later life he was associated with the Bronx, and earned the nickname The Bronx Bull.

Jake La Motta's orientation to life related to his performances in the boxing ring, where his ways of ordering his life served him well. He was not a large man for a middleweight boxer. He measured only 5 feet, 8 inches. He did not deliver killer punches, but - using both hands equally effectively - he could deliver a rapid series of blows in a very short time. La Motta, like Graziano, could claim a win over the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. Unlike Graziano, however, La Motta outpunched Robinson. Many of his wins followed from using a technique later perfected by Mohamed Ali. He could allow himself to undergo outrageous punishment. Writers could suggest that he had an anvil for a head. In the process of surviving such punishment, La Motta wore down his opponent, and he would then turn on his "raging bull" persona. He retired from the ring at age 32, having won 83 bouts, lost 19, and tied 4.

One would need to judge that La Motta's personal life after he left the ring provided him with few satisfactions. He tried to capitalize on his celebrity status by owning a night club in Florida and by trying his hand as a comedian. It can be said that the public could not believe that he had shown any redeeming qualities.

Judge John Sirica. It is of note that while the movie makers and story tellers quickly associated many Italian-American prize fighters with a scurrilous round of associates and readily related their character and behavior to their Italian-American origins, the publicists do not emphasize the ways in which an Italian-American upbringing influenced the character of one of the most outstanding contenders in ring history.

Anyone even casually familiar with the recent history of the presidency of the presidency of The USA knows of the role that Judge John Sirica, Chief Justice of the District Court for The District of Columbia, played in bringing down the presidency of Richard Nixon. In 1973, Judge Sirica had assigned himself to the Watergate case, believing that as a long-time Republican he would be less likely to face the accusation of bias as he judged the case. When the jury found several persons guilty of the burglary, Sirica meted out stiff sentences, with promises of leniency if the convicted persons cooperated with the hearings being conducted by The US Senate. Eventually, following leads given by informants, Sirica's judgments forced the Nixon office to surrender the tapes that had secretly recorded the doings in the president's office. The contents of the tapes implicated Nixon in the cover-up of the burglary, and Nixon, facing impeachment, resigned the office of the president.

Certainly, there is a movie story in the telling of how John Sirica attained the position that allowed him to make judgments that brought about Nixon's resignation. And, the story easily could include some fine prize-fighting scenes.

John Sirica (March 19, 1904 - August 4, 1992) was born to Ferdinand Sirica, a barber, and Rose Zinno Sirica, a grocery story manager. Without a college background, Sirica enrolled in Georgetown University Law School. Finding the studies difficult, Sirica dropped out two times before graduating in 1926. He supported himself through law school by teaching boxing, and when he graduated from law school, he went to Miami to resume his boxing career, fearing that he would not pass the bar examinations. When he won his first 10 found prize fight, taking a purse of 100.00 dollars, his mother was furious. Sirica wrote of the consequences of the news reaching his mother. His mother we are told, "hit the ceiling," telling her son that she and his father had "struggled and slaved" to help him finish law school. "And now all you want to do is be a prize fighter. Are you crazy?" . Sirica wrote, "I felt I had really let my parents down. I was ashamed of myself... I agreed to return to Washington and the law."

He did pass the bar examinations after he had returned to Washington, where, having been unable to find a position with the city's larger law firms, he joined a small firm specializing in criminal law. Though his loyalty to the Republican party and through expression of his talents, Sirica earned the esteemed judgeships to which he had been appointed. After his marriage, at age 48 years, to Lucile M. Camalier he became the father of two daughters and a son.

Judge Sirica's son, Jack, became a reporter for the newspaper, Newsday. In that role he became involved in protecting the reputation of his father against the charges leveled by an audacious writer, Renata Adler. Adler, not missing the opportunity to impugn the reputation of an Italian-American who had been a boxer and had become a media hero, recently wrote "Sirica was in fact a corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime." Adler's efforts to support her claim have been amply discredited On close analysis there can be no credibility granted to her claim that organized crime had any connections to Sirica's boxing career. (See Trevor Butterworth's article ).  Her despicable work, however, verifies the ease with which a writer may attempt attach negative imagery to an Italian-American boxer.

Lou Ambers . Without doubt a fine movie might be made to create an inspiring chronicle of the life of a man born into the family of a couple who had emigrated from Caserta, Italy, to Herkimer, New York. Luigi D'Ambrosio was born on November 8, 1913 -- one of ten children. It should be noted that he was the cousin of another talented Italian-American prize fighter from the Mohawk Valley, Mario Severino, who fought under the name of Marty Servo.

Like many of the Italian immigrant families who settled in New York State's Mohawk Valley, mmmm D'Ambosio's family was extremely resouceful as they met the exigencies of supporting a large family during The Great Depression. Lou's brother, Angelo, at age 84, recalls, "People cannot believe how happy we were back then." Everyone contributed to providing the ingredients for their mother's superb culinary efforts. "The family acquired a piece a land at Fort Herkimer. It was my job to pull the coaster wagon when Mom and I would go out to tend the garden, the animals, and harvest the produce. We collected all kinds of thing -- mushrooms (funghi) and dandelions (cicorie). It was my job to strain and stir the tomato sauce that Mom put into jars," reported Angelo. Angelo indicated that brothers Luigi (Lou) and Biagio were dedicated hunters, and would gleefully show off their kills to each other.

Lou taught himself to play the mandolin, and would accompany Brother Tom, who became a very competent singer.

An unhappy incident did darken the family life. Lou became involved in a situation that resulted in his being incarcerated in a reformatory school for three years. He, like many boxers, had his first "training" in street fights. One of the street fights in which he participated was observed by Lou's future boxing trainer, Joe Sanganetti. Eventually he fought under the name of Otis Paradise, and won a series of small time prize fights. Then, fighting under the name of Lou Ambers, he worked his way through the field of lightweight contenders. In 1935, Ambers landed a match with the lightweight champion, Tony Canzoneri. Ambers lost. In a return match, on September 3, 1936, Ambers beat Canzoneri and became lightweight champion of the world. In August, 1938, Ambers lost the title to Henry Armstrong. In the next year, Ambers regained the title by ending Armstrong's forty-six match winning streak. In that same year, he married Margaret Celio. Ambers lost the title in 1940, and fought his last fight in 1941. In 102 fights, Ambers won 88 -- 29 on knockouts; lost 8, 2 by knockouts; and had 6 draws.

After the end of his fighting career, Ambers returned to Herkimer, where he worked in his father's tavern. He enjoyed the life of a very esteemed citizen. In 1971, the city of Herkimer celebrated Lou Ambers -- Herkimer Hurricane Week. He and Margaret had three children, all of whom pursued higher education. Their daughter Regina became a pediatrician and located in Arizona. Lou moved to Arizona, and became something of the center of the family. When his mother developed breathing difficulties, Lou went to Herkimer to move her to Arizona. Eventually his three sisters also moved to Arizona, where they now live together.

When asked if there ever was an intimation that underworld figures had been involved in Lou's career, his brother, Angelo, laughed. "We did't even know anything about something called 'The Mafia.' We were small town boys."

Rocky Marciano . It is of note that while the movie makers and story tellers quickly associated many Italian-American prize fighters with a scurrilous round of associates and readily related their character and behavior to their Italian-American origins, the publicists do not emphasize the ways in which an Italian-American upbringing influenced the character of one of the most outstanding contenders in ring history. No movie tells us of how the life of Rocco Marchegiano, alias Rocky Marciano, had been influenced by his Italian-American family and associates. Perhaps that story, the story of a very dedicated son, very committed husband and father, and extremely loyal friend . just wouldn. t make the kind of movie that De Niro, Scorcese, Coppola, et. al. would judge to be a story they could create to satisfy the public of The USA. Marciano. s reflections on his life. s orientation suggest a very different orientation from that which De Niro and Scorcese have frequently used their art to portray. When asked what gave him the determination to succeed as a boxer, even after a fight was going very much against him, Marciano replied as follows: "The thing I thought about most was the hardship my father and mother faced throughout their lives . . . I knew that if I didn. t overcome the challenge at hand, I and they would surely never get another chance to escape poverty and oblivion."

Rocky Marciano's parents, Perrino and Pasqualina Marchegiano, had immigrated, from Italy, to Brockton, Massachusetts. Perrino worked in the shoe factories. Rocco was born in September, 1923. The boy did not find gratification from scholastic pursuits, but he found no difficulty in building a reputation in athletics. The family lived across the street from a playground. On that playground Rocco developed the habits that eventually guaranteed his athletic success. He became almost fanatical about training. He developed into a skilled baseball player, and aspired to becoming a major leaguer. During his first year in Brockton High School he gained fame as a baseball and football player. By leaving high school before entering his second year, he terminated his career as a high school athlete.

After spending three years moving from one low-skilled job to another, the US Army called Rocco into service. After a stint in England, Rocco was transferred to Fort Lewis, Washington to await shipment to the Pacific Theater. In an attempt to introduce some variety into the tediousness of barracks life, Rocco began to train as a boxer. The level of success that he achieved diverted his attention from baseball to boxing. Following his discharge from the service, in 1946, Rocco. s decision to become a professional boxer became fixed after he had been sent home from a Chicago Cubs tryout. He needed to lay out his plans very carefully, for his mother loathed boxing. Over the next months, carefully hiding his intentions from his mother, he undertook the kind of training that he followed throughout his career. In several months he attained top physical condition.

After 37 fights, in one of which he knocked out Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano fought Jersey Joe Walcott. In the 13th round of a match largely dominated by Walcott, Marciano delivered one of the right hand punches for which he would become famous, and knocked out Walcott. He defended his title six times, and then, in 1956, at age 32 . he announced that he would fight no more. He retired with a record of 49 professional fights, all of which he had won. Forty-three of his wins had been knockouts.

After his retirement, he turned down all kinds of inducements to reappear as a boxer and to otherwise capitalize on his celebrity. He stated simply that he had enough money on which to live, and that his fortune was growing without his taking on tasks where others would control his activity.

Marciano died in a plane crash in 1969, at age 46. Up until the time of his death, no one had ever suggested that he had behaved in ways that would have blemished his celebrity. After his death in 1969 and the death of his wife in 1974, it was discovered that the Marciano estate consisted of only 150, 000 dollars. Marciano had made over 4 million dollars in his approximately 8 years of fighting. There was no explanation of what had happened to his fortune. Strange explanations began to circulate, and no satisfactory story emerged.

In 1993, well into the modern age of defaming once-heros and 24 years after Marciano. s death, Sports Illustrated published an "expose" that might have given Scorcese and De Niro the basis for one of their dark portrayals of the life of Italian-Americans. The magazine reported, of course; that, after Marciano. s retirement from the ring, he had consorted with underworld figures, had tried to finance a loan shark, had carried on extracurricular sexual exploits, had insisted on collecting his fees in cash, had evaded income tax, and had freeloaded on friends. Perhaps Scorcese and De Niro didn. t pick up the story because they would not have been able to relate Sports Illustrated. s version of Marciano. s post-retirement persona to the gory scenes of aggression and mayhem that they had woven into Raging Bull. Also, it might have been difficult to explain why a person like Marciano, with the proceeds from millions of dollars of earnings, would turn to such nefarious activity. How would one explain why Marciano had failed to make the kinds of associations that would have allowed him to nurture his fortunes as any solid upper class American could easily nurture their fortunes?

One aspect of Marciano. s life might, however, made an excellant movie. if treated by someone who knew the mentality of immigrant children attempting to make their way in the broader society. As noted above, Marciano himself was able to say that one of his biggest sources of motivation was his fear of needing to return to the poverty that marked his childhood. Indeed, that aspect of his life seemed to have been related to the strange status of his finances on his death. Marciano had become notorious for his inability to part with his money. His friend Willie Pep, characterized Marciano as "the most insecure person I ever met. He lived his entire life in fear of returning to the poverty he grew up in. Rocky once told me, 'It was tough for me when I was a kid. It's never gonna be like that again. I'm never going to be broke again as long as I live.'" His mangager, Al Weill would say, "The almighty dollar was his shrine. He was a poor Italian boy from a large, very poor family. Rocky appreciated the buck more than anyone else. That's why he became a champion. He was hungry. After he got two decent purses with Roland LaStarza and Rex Lane, he became a tiger tasting blood." (Pep and Weill quotes are from Bill Kelly's article at .

Being unable to allow heros to remain heros, and being unable to find evidence of connections between nefarious characters and Marciano, the entertainment industry decided that they could turn Marciano's relationship with money into a docudrama that suitably degraded Marciano. The docudrama that resulted, making few efforts to distinguish between fact and fantasy, "turns Marciano's cash obsession into comic book silliness" (Sandomir at Marciano's son, Rocco Jr, noted that his family was never consulted about the contents of the film, and his brother refused to accept a fee to help to promote the film after seeing an advance copy. In his discussion of the docudrama, Richard Sandomir said, "But one need not know of the Marciano family's ire to conclude that the film makers failed at storytelling by not checking basic facts and altering the truth when it did not conform to their revision of the life."

A review of the available information on prize fighters who share an Italian-American background prompts the following conclusion: An account of the history of the involvement of Italian-Americans in prize fighting awaits the efforts of a writer who can bring a balanced perspective to the writing of that account. Telling that story in the bits and pieces that result from writing about one or another of the Italian-American men who made their fame through prize fighting, does not allow for setting and elaborating a cultural context into which to insert the stories of individuals. There is no question that the individuals who made their fame as boxers emerged from the bottom of the economic heap. An observer may easily conclude that the successful prizefighters who rose through the heap did not have reservations about inflicting and undergoing serious physical pain and damage. And, surely, those men who adopted that orientation in a world where the inflicting of pain and damage served to assure that those who most skillfully administered pain and damage would dominate those around them. The ambience in which such a personal orientation develops would be an ambience in which persons cannot easily find other means of reaching agreements or removing annoyances. To tell the story about the origins of persons who do not have reservations about inflicting and undergoing physical pain and damage, one would need to explain why there exist the kinds of ambience in which aggression and violence become the primary means of solving problems.

Over all the years of which we have a record many, many thinkers have tried to explain why there exist the kinds of ambience in which aggression and violence become the primary means of solving problems. To tell the story of the numerous Italian-Americans who have become successful prize fighters, a story-teller would need to be able to sort through and settle on a useful explanation of how individuals who develop in such an ambience learn to define their selves as aggressive and violent persons. Her despicable work, however, verifies the ease with someone may hang mob imagry on to an Italian-American boxer.

A review of the available information on prize fighters who share an Italian-American background prompts the following conclusion: An account of the history of the involvement of Italian-Americans in prize fighting awaits the efforts of a writer who can bring a balanced perspective to the writing of that account. Telling that story in the bits and pieces that result from writing about one or another of the Italian-American men who made their fame through prize fighting, does not allow for setting and elaborating a cultural context into which to insert the stories of individuals. There is no question that the individuals who made their fame as boxers emerged from the bottom of the economic heap. An observer may easily conclude that the successful prizefighters who rose through the heap did not have reservations about inflicting and undergoing serious physical pain and damage. And, surely, those men who adopted that orientation in a world where the inflicting of pain and damage served to assure that those who most skillfully administered pain and damage would dominate those around them. The ambience in which such a personal orientation develops would be an ambience in which persons cannot easily find other means of reaching agreements or removing annoyances. To tell the story about the origins of persons who do not have reservations about inflicting and undergoing physical pain and damage, one would need to explain why there exist the kinds of ambience in which aggression and violence become the primary means of solving problems.

Over all the years of which we have a record many, many thinkers have tried to explain why there exist the kinds of ambience in which aggression and violence become the primary means of solving problems. To tell the story of the numerous Italian-Americans who have become successful prize fighters, a story-teller would need to be able to sort through and settle on a useful explanation of how individuals who develop in such an ambience learn to define their selves as aggressive and violent persons.

A Bit of Autobiography
Alfonso Georeno

     I live in Mt. Laurel, NJ (Exit 4 on the Turnpike is within walking distance on a nice day).

     I was born in 1936 in Bolzano, Italy- the part they call the Tyrol. My father was killed in WWII when I was 7 (he was on the Italian side) and I arrived here in 1948. Bolzano is in the bilingual part of Italy and everyone knows both German and Italian.I suppose for this reason I majored in German as an undergrad and in Latin and Greek as a grad. student Both from U. of Pa. (NOT PENN STATE)!!!

     I taught for many years in the Philadelphia Public Schools but decided to leave the chaos behind in 1999. Had I remained there, I would have had to apply to the State Athletic Commission for a referee's license- the violence was (and presumably still is) that rampant.

     I married a Sicilian girl who is an RN (look at a map of Italy and you'll see how distant our roots are — north meets south). I have 2 sons (Dante and Marco Antonio) and a daughter Christina.

     I am an avid boxing fan but my true love is Italian soccer which I follow closely. No, I'd rather not comment on the World Cup matches. I'm still in mourning and shall wear the traditional black button-pin in my lapel for a year. :-) I've never played any sport except soccer.

     The fighters I knew in my youth were Joey Giardello and Danny Bucceroni. Joey lives near me in Cherry Hill and I frequently see him at Mass on Sundays. Danny Bucceroni is presently in Florida, after having operated a gymnasium in Philadelphia for a number of years. I've been reliably informed that Roland La Starza also resides in Florida. As Horace says: EHEU FUGACES, POSTUME, POSTUME, LABUNTUR ANNI (Alas, O Postumus, Postumus, the fleeting years are rolling by).

An Eyewitness Account of The Maxim-robinson
Boxing Match
Alfonso Georeno

       I was at the Maxim-Robinson fight back in my secondary school days (Saint Joseph's Preparatory School). We were hanging on the corner in South Philadelphia and someone suggested we ride up to New York to see the fight. No one appeared interested. Then someone reading the paper said,"Hey, Maxim's Italian. The paper says his real name is Giuseppe Antonio Berardinelli."

       That's all we needed to hear. First we headed for Termini's bakery and picked up some cannolis then piled into anon-airconditioned car for NYC. We got to Yankee Stadium about 8:30, bought the cheapest available seats, and watched some pretty bad prelims. It was really hot- the few cannolis we had left turned to a mushy liquid. We sat in the stands which wasn't too bad, since the seats on the infield weren't all that good anyway. One of the ushers we spoke with found out we were Italian and let us sit close to the field but high up enough so we could see extremely well. We put together and slipped him $10, which insured we wouldn't be disturbed.

       I've read in the papers that Maxim did little but lean on Robinson. Not so. In close he seemed to be doing a lot of effective body punching and smothering what infighting Robinson was able to attempt. More than once we could see Robinson's face wince from Joey's body shots. Maxim seemed to me to have fought the perfect tactical fight, given the sweltering heat and the size of his opponent. As early as the 10th round you could see Robinson begin to be a little unsteady. From the body language in Maxim's corner, there seemed to be agreement as to Maxim's tactics- no frantic gesturing, no panic. In the 11th Maxim started connecting with some pretty sharp left hooks and Robinson, who earlier had been able to parry them, seemerd unable to slip then or get his right up in time to block them. Additionally, Robinson's counterpunching which had been earning him points, seemed to have gone south. You could see his tank was empty and now he was the one trying to clinch. Of course this suited Maxim perfectly who now began to whip some real zingers to Robinson's midsection.

       You know the rest. Robinson tried to throw a roundhouse punch (I can’t recall whether it was a left or right) in the 13th. Maxim simply stepped aside as Robinson sprawled to the canvas, propelled by the force of his own miss. His team dragged him to his corner. We watched him carefully and saw him shake his head "no." The fight was over.

       We went back to Philly and celebrated with wine and pizza.

       There is a postscript to this story. My son, tired of hearing me talk about Joey Maxim, called a friend on the Cleveland paper (Cleveland Plain Dealer) who gave him Joey's home phone. I guess this was about six years ago. I called him and we spoke for half an hour or so. He seemed genuinely delifghted that someone remembered him. He sent me an autographed picture which I still treasure.

       I've also been in contact with Giulio Rinaldi whom I saw fight Archie Moore in 1962. He had already beaten Moore in Rome in a non-title fight and swears to this day that he was robbed on a decision. I heard rumors to that effect in New York several days before the fight that it would be impossible for Rinaldi to get a decision. The philadelphia and New Jersey papers all had Rinaldi the winner (8-6-1, 9-6, 8-7). I wrote to tell him what I had heard and he had been informed of these rumors before the fight. I write to him in Italian (he knows no English) and he is still bitter after all these years- rightfully so.

       Let me know and I'll send you a copy of his recent letter, if you'd like to read it.

       I hope I haven't bored you with my memories.

A Son Remembers His Father's Prize Fighting Career
James C. Mancuso
      As noted in the article on these pages, prize fighting offered one route out of poverty to men who came from families at the lowest end of the economic chain in The USA. Thus, one would find that during the years following the great Italy-to-The-USA avventura, the boxing rings of the country were occupied frequently by young men from Italian immigrant families.
      To write the complete history of Italian-Americans in prize fighting a historian would need to search the records for the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Italian-Americans who considered the possibility of becoming a prize fighter who could become financially secure through pursuing a championship. Such a search would find, one can be sure, that a very small percentage of those who trained and entered the professional circles achieved fame and fortune. A search of the complete record would no doubt show that the largest majority of those who aspired to become noted prize fighters quickly found that they had little chance of competing successfully with the most dedicated and skilled boxers.
An observer can discern some trends by a quick survey of the involvement of Italian-Americans in prize fighting by observing the records to look for the presence of some of these "near champions." Willy Pep (Guglielmo Papaleo), the featherweight whose career is described above, fought 241 professional bouts. A scan of the names of the men who he fought indicates that during the early part of his career, from 1940 to 1950, many of the names of the boxers who challenged Pep's top status can be identified as names having an Italian origin. During the latter part of his career (1950-1966) few names indicate an Italian heritage, whereas more of the names indicate that Pep's opponents originated in families that had one or another Spanish heritage.
     These observations provide evidence that, after World War II, Italian-Americans could find other routes to higher financial status, and they no longer needed to pursue their dreams by exposing themselves to the extraordinarily grueling life of a prize fighter.
As one surveys Willie Pep's record, noting the obviously Italian names, one can see the names of Sal Bartolo, Lou Transparente, Joey Silva, and Joey Iannotti. Other featherweight class prize fighters who went into the ring with the long-time champion used "Americanized" names. One must conclude, from this kind of casual search of the records, that many Italian-American men did persist in pursuing a career in prize fighting, even if they did not succeed in battling their way into a championship.
A historian who sets out to tell the complete story of Italian-Americans in prize fighting would want to uncover and report on the stories of the men who had set their sights on a career in prize fighting and then never achieved the fame accorded to title winners such as Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, and so on. Many of those stories, one would guess, would reveal the sordid and callous side of prize fighting. At the same time, a historian should not be surprised to learn that many of the contenders lived out careers that would parallel the careers of neighborhood small business men.
     One of the readers of this page, Ralph Iannotti, sent the author of this page information about his father, Joey Iannotti. Joey Iannottti is on the list of prize fighters who entered the ring with Willie Pep. On May 6, 1942, when Pep was in his prime, Joey Iannotti lost an 8 round bout to Pep.
     The following paragraphs contain other information from Ralph, who – as the reader will see – has great admiration for his father and his father's career.


     My father, Joey Iannotti. was a top New York featherweight and contender to the Junior Lightweight title. Dad fought in the 30's and 40's. He boxed Willie Pep, Harry Jeffra, Lulu Constantano, Al Reid, Pablo Dado, and Johnny and Eddie Compo. Dad boxed several time at Madison Square Garden.
     Dad was born in The Campania Region (San Prisco – a small town in the Province of Caserta, near Naples) Italy. He emigrated to The USA as a child with his family, who settled in New Haven. As a young teen he left school to pursue boxing. Like Willie Pep, he had earned money by shining shoes. His shoe shining had taken him into the arenas, where he saw the opportunities offered by a boxing career.
As an amateur, he built a record of 41 wins and 4 losses. He turned pro at age18. His decision to do so was prompted by a family tragedy. His brother Dom was badly burned in a factory explosion and fire. Young Joey gave him a blood transfusion. Joey made a promise to his dying brother to continue his boxing so that he could take care of Dom's young wife and infant daughter.
     He was then picked up by Jimmy D'Angelo and put in his stable of fighters.
     He went on to win the Connecticut bantamweight and featherweight titles. Dad was brought to NY to live, in order stay close to the boxing mecca of Madison Square Garden and the New York venues. He trained at Stillman's Gym. We lived in the Bronx where a lot of fighters of that era lived. Our neighborhood had the LaMottas the Belloises, Tammy Mauriello, Johnny Dell and others.
     In Sept 1940, after Dad beat Joe Echeverria, the NY writers picked him as the coming world champion and picked him to win it within the year. Well, Willie Pep beat Chalky Wright for the title. Dad was drafted and served in the army in Europe in 1943, 1944, 1945. These were his prime years. Although he continued to win fights after his discharge, he was not the same fighter.
     It was fun growing up then, amongst all these world class athletes – Italian-Americans every one them. Dad was recognized by everyone everywhere we went. Dad always signed autographs and accommodated everyone. His best friend was Marius Russo, All-star pitcher (team mate of Joe DiMaggio) of the New York Yankees. Russo also purchased a partnership in his contract.
     I am trying to keep Dad's legacy alive for future Iannotti generations. I want them to know who he was. We are all proud of dad. He was a product of poverty and did like all the Italian and Irish immigrants. He found success in boxing. He gave us a good life as children.
     Dad is alive and lives in Mount Vernon NY. He is 81 yrs old. I wrote you after reading your website. I am proud of my Italian-American heritage, and I thought you might get a kick from hearing from a child of one of the tough oldtimers. And they were TOUGH.
                        Respectfully, A Proud Son
                                       Ralph Iannotti

This essay was developed as a part of the effort of The Albany (NY) Area Lodge of The Sons of Italy to make available material that will develop an appreciation and understanding of The Italy-to-USA Avventura. The writers of this essay and other text found on this world wide web site claim sole responsibility for the content of their productions.


       Anyone interested in obtaining a printed copy of this essay may change the print size by going to the view menu, and then instructing the program to print the text. It would be advisable to set the printer to print in black ink.  

. The author, Jim Mancuso died on June 10th, 2005. We maintain this site in memory of all the things that he did for us.

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