Fritzie Zivic is forever one of the most colorful characters in the history of boxing and with 158 wins on his record, he was also no slouch in terms of ring accomplishments. But there’s a reason why you won’t find his name on too many lists of the all-time best, despite the fact it probably deserves to be there.
How many other boxers possess a roll-call of scalps to rival Zivic’s? Fritizie’s roster includes such names as Jake LaMotta, Sammy Angott, Lew Jenkins, Al Davis, Charley Burley, Kid Azteca, and of course Armstrong. Add in his tough battles with Sugar Ray Robinson, Lou Ambers and Billy Conn and you’ve got a warrior for the ages. Robinson himself said no one taught him more about boxing than Zivic did in their two bouts.
But the fact is, aside from there being a whopping 65 losses on his record, “The Croat Comet” was one of the “dirtiest” boxers in ring history, perhaps the dirtiest, even though, as the record shows, he was never disqualified. As a result, his reputation suffered. Everyone understood what Zivic was about. Tough, canny and clever, he was a master at the dark art of errant elbows and well-timed head butts, discreet low blows and painful thumbs to the eyes. Zivic didn’t try to deny it either. As far as he was concerned, this amounted to standard procedure. For Zivic, professional prizefighting was a rough and dirty business and when it came to foul tactics, boxers had to be ready to both take it and dish it out.
“I’d hit guys low,” admitted Zivic. “Choke ‘em or give ’em the head. My best punch was a left hook to you-know-where.”
Zivic’s career began in 1931 and by 1940 he had yet to earn a title shot, his inconsistency preventing the public from viewing him as a legitimate threat. But a big win over Sammy Angott set him up nicely for a chance at Armstrong’s welterweight crown in Madison Square Garden. And Zivic began dreaming about that big, new Cadillac he always wanted. A triple division champion with eighteen straight defenses of his welterweight title to his credit, Henry Armstrong was regarded as an all-time great and a lock to win. But that didn’t stop the longshot underdog from going down to the Cadillac dealership the day of the fight to give himself some extra motivation.
But the first several rounds of the match were not good for the challenger. The aggressive Armstrong looked as strong and capable as ever and ready to notch a record nineteenth successful title defense. Zivic, his reputation preceding him, sought to be extra careful about any unseemly tactics and appeared inhibited.
“That night Henry’s givin’ it to me pretty good,” recounted Zivic years later to Red Smith. “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 outta the ring.”
Zivic in fact was pacing himself, as he had never gone fifteen rounds and knew he had to have something extra for the late going; stopping the tough Armstrong inside the distance was simply not a realistic prospect. So entering the middle rounds, the challenger began to pick it up. He used hard uppercuts to perfection, nailing Armstrong repeatedly. And then, according to Zivic, he got the big break he needed.
“In the seventh round I give him the head a couple times and choke him a couple times and use the elbows 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 there out I saw that Cadillac turn around and come rollin’ back.”
The bout turned into a bloody alley war. And while Zivic’s uppercuts were his prime weapon, his thumbs and laces to the champion’s eyes also took a painful and bloody toll. By round ten the champion bled from cuts around both eyes as Fritzie began to dominate the action and it soon became obvious that, barring a miracle, a massive upset win for the challenger was about to happen.
In the final round, Zivic closed the show, battering a hurt and exhausted Armstrong mercilessly. And with seconds left in the fight, he put “Homicide Hank” on the deck. We’ll never know if Henry could have beaten the count; the final bell rang before he had a chance. And while Zivic took a unanimous decision, those applauding at fight’s end were in fact paying tribute to Armstrong’s courage.
“He’s the gamest guy I ever saw,” said the new champion.
It was an all-time great upset, but Fritzie Zivic didn’t keep that world title belt for very long. He defeated Armstrong in a rematch and then lost the crown to Freddie Cochrane just six months later. But he held on to that big, beautiful Cadillac for many years. For his part, Armstrong retired after he lost a rematch to Zivic three months later, but he came back to the ring in 1942 and in October of that year he got his revenge, winning a clearcut ten round unanimous decision over Fritzie in San Francisco.
— Michael Carbert