From New Orleans To
New York: Unforgettable Tony Canzoneri
By Mike Casey
Those who hadn’t heard the news seemed to sense what had happened
as they watched folks gathering outside the Broadway restaurant and heard them
speaking in hushed tones about the man they had loved and known and admired.
Tony Canzoneri, he of the small fists and the huge heart, had
taken the final count at the shockingly premature age of fifty-one. The gutsy
little fellow had been found by his friend, Norman Schwartz, lying on his bed at
the Hotel Bryant, having apparently died from natural causes.
Tony had been a permanent and popular guest at the hotel, but
hadn’t been seen around for a couple of days. It seemed odd and more than a
little sad that the absence of such a vibrant a hero of New York could have gone
unnoticed for forty-eight hours.
All his life, Tony Canzoneri’s presence had been joyous,
thunderous and infectious. He was one of the blessed ones who could light up the
darkest room on the darkest day.
Several years before his passing, with perfect truth and no sense
of self-delusion, he had said of his fighting career, “I often wonder whether it
was worth it. But I don’t have to wait long for the answer. Every day strangers
stop me in the street and say, ‘Aren’t you Tony Canzoneri?’ Lots of times,
little kids who weren’t even a gleam in their father’s eye when I was fighting,
ask for autographs or just to shake my hand. It’s a wonderful feeling to be
remembered after all these years. Sure it was worth it, every drop of blood and
every stitch of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The fifty-one years that the gods gave to Canzoneri comprised of
a barnstorming, glittering, turbulent journey. That journey swept him from the
streets of his native New Orleans to one championship after another in one of
the greatest boxing careers of all, until the upward curve finally peaked and
dropped when Tony clashed with his toughest opponent of all: retirement.
Canzoneri never could quite figure that particular fellow. The
erstwhile champ found that he could no longer meet misfortune head on and hit
back with a crushing left hook or a smashing right. The opponent was invisible,
the rules didn’t make sense and the pace of the struggle was far too slow for a
man of fire.
Tony and manager Sammy Goldman fared badly in various business
ventures. Canzoneri bought a farm in Marlboro, New York, for his family, but the
cost and the outgoings sucked away much of his hard earned money. Marital
problems and a taste for the high life also cut into the estimated three hundred
thousand dollars that Tony made in his long and hard career. He was the stooge
in an act with comedian Joey Adams, which made Canzoneri’s adoring fans wince
The Broadway restaurant that carried his name for so long was a
pleasant sanctuary for Tony, whose first love remained boxing right up until he
took his last breath. Never one to arrogantly dismiss his admirers, Canzoneri
would happily linger in the street after closing time, chatting away to all and
sundry about his many famous fights.
There were no outward signs that Tony Canzoneri was tiring and
about to give up. He never did that. It seemed he would live forever, as
permanent a Broadway fixture as Jack Dempsey. Bull-shouldered, belligerent Tony
had always beaten the count. He had always come back to win another fight
against the odds. He revelled in it.
His Last Great Fight
At around five minutes to eleven on the night of May 8 1936, four
great men were forgotten for possibly the first and only time in their
illustrious lives. Joe Louis, Jim Braddock, Jack Dempsey and Barney Ross became
academic as 17,000 people at Madison Square Garden rose to their feet and roared
their cheers. They only had eyes for the bloodied and battered Tony Canzoneri,
as his tired arm was raised by referee Joe Humphries.
In a marvellous battle of former champions, Tony had just come
back from the dead to gain a unanimous decision over Jimmy McLarnin. It might
just have been Canzoneri’s finest hour.
Tony had started out as a pro in 1925, Jimmy in 1923. Both men
were nearing the end of their glory days, yet still mustered magical reserves to
serve up one of the most thrilling fights of a golden era.
People had their hearts in their mouths that night as Canzoneri
dug deep and rallied back from the precipice of destruction. He was nearly swept
away in a frantic opening round as he teetered on the edge of the first knockout
defeat of his career.
Tony was staggering and tottering drunkenly after being hit by
three terrific right hands in succession by McLarnin. Jimmy, who always tried
for the early knockout and was a merciless finisher, struck Canzoneri yet again
and sent him into the ropes. McLarnin surged in for the kill, firing with both
fists. Tony sought refuge in a clinch, but was soon rocking and reeling again as
Jimmy ripped punches to the body and drove Canzoneri into a corner. The bell
rang but it seemed that Tony had only bought himself a brief stay of execution.
Not so. One could never make such assumptions where Canzoneri was
concerned. His comeback in the second round was a ferocious microcosm of
everything he was. McLarnin, sensing an early night, picked right up from where
he had left off and drilled Tony with a jolting left. More blows followed, but
then Canzoneri sprang back to life like a sleepy man thrown under a cold shower.
A left-right combination halted Jimmy’s march and three more lefts suddenly
reversed the roles and cast Tony as the hunter. A right to the cheek forced
McLarnin to hang on, but shelter was hard to come by as Canzoneri kept shelling
him. A left-right combination dropped Jimmy to one knee as the crowd roared.
People were jumping and jigging and throwing imaginary punches as they watched
Canzoneri turning the tide and turning back the clock.
McLarnin, with his trademark pluck, refused to take a count. He
needed to. He was quickly sucked back into the maelstrom and took a sustained
pounding for the remainder of the round.
Thereafter, Tony Canzoneri was a man inspired who never lost the
initiative. The pace of the fight remained exceptional right to the end as two
of the ring’s greatest mechanics fired away at each other. Canzoneri had perhaps
the smallest fists of any fighter of his day, yet possessed tremendous punching
power. In the last minute of the ninth round, he unleashed one of his Sunday
best and caught McLarnin flush on the jaw. Jimmy was all over the place and
nearly out as Tony followed up with another big salvo.
McLarnin, as tough and as gutsy as any man who ever stepped into
a ring, simply would not go under. But Jimmy was in a sorry state as he came out
for the tenth and final round, the left side of his face swollen and bruised.
Canzoneri was too tired by that stage to apply the finishing touches and cap a
brilliant performance with a knockout. But it really didn’t matter. He was the
hero of New York City.
In his later years, Tony Canzoneri would often think of his
native Louisiana and the bright lights of New Orleans. The elegant little
streets of the French quarter and the bright and garish lights of Market Street
would come back to him and remind him of how it all began. Tony’s father ran a
grocery store in the Italian area of town and worked ceaselessly to provide for
But young Tony was already being drawn to another way of life.
The aromas of different foods in the Italian section were deliciously hypnotic,
but Canzoneri became equally addicted to the harsher smells and the rougher
romance of the old fight clubs and gymnasiums. Tony idolised his oldest brother,
Joe, who liked to box.
A pivotal moment in Canzoneri’s life as a youngster was when he
shook hands with bantamweight legend, Pete Herman, who lived just three blocks
away. Tony made up his mind he wanted to be like Pete.
Canzoneri got his first experience of fighting in the ring at
eleven years of age and quickly began to impress the locals and his proud
father. Basil Galiano, a good fighter who would be instrumental in launching
Tony’s career in New York, gave the bullish kid every encouragement and
playfully called him the Italian terror.
In 1924, Canzoneri’s father and brother Joe moved north to the
Empire State to open a grocery store in Brooklyn. Young Tony and the rest of the
family joined them later. At the tender age of fourteen, Tony was holding down a
job with the Lucky Strike cigarette company and learning boxing technique at the
local National Athletic Club.
The kid had a good eye. He watched other fighters and learned
everything he could about different styles and the technical aspects of the
game. He crammed 84 amateur fights into a year, but turning pro was his driving
ambition. Canzoneri was a hustler too. With only a quarter in his pocket, he
took the subway from Brooklyn to New York after learning that his pal Basil
Galiano was working out at Lou Stillman’s gym. Sparring three rounds with
Galiano, Tony caught the eye of the cigar-chomping talent spotters through the
permanent blue cloud of smoke that permeated the tough gyms of the era.
Canzoneri was on his way. Manager Sammy Goldman soon took the kid
under his wing, taking him to professional shows and letting him soak up the
atmosphere and knowledge. By the time Tony turned pro, another great character
had come on board in trainer Isadore Gastonfeld, known as Izzy the Painter.
Tony never forgot his first professional fight. In a 1955
interview, he told writer Stanley Weston, “It was July 27, 1925. Bob Levy
matched me with Jack Gardner, who had a lot of fights. I had Sammy Goldman, Izzy
the Painter and two others working in the corner.
“I knocked Gardner out with a left hook and right cross in the
first round. Sammy said he didn’t have time to see if I could fight or not.
Years later I met Gardner on Broadway. We’re still good friends. He told me he
bet his whole purse on himself to lick me that night and lost it all. So I
bought him a meal and a couple of drinks to make up for it. On December 23 of
that year, Sammy got me a preliminary in the new Madison Square Garden. I boxed
Danny Terris and knocked him out in four rounds. That was the very first
knockout ever scored at the new Garden.”
Starting at bantamweight and thundering through the weight
divisions up to lightweight and junior-welter, Canzoneri would thrill boxing
crowds for the next fourteen years in what seemed like an endless chain of
fights against fellow greats. Aggressive, hard punching and durable, Tony was
also a skilful and shrewd fighter into the bargain. He was a promoter’s dream
and became the idol of the fans.
Could Canzoneri punch with history’s greatest? Could he ever.
Sadly, the bare statistics of his record do not offer an accurate reflection of
Tony’s hitting power, because of the breathtaking quality of his opposition.
You look at Canzoneri’s sprawling 175-fight record and struggle
to find a name you don’t recognise. He scored just 44 knockouts in his 137
recorded wins, yet consider that he crossed swords with the following aces of
the ring: Andre Routis, Bud Taylor, Johnny Dundee, Benny Bass, Al Singer, Sammy
Mandell, Jackie ‘Kid’ Berg, Billy Petrolle, Kid Chocolate, Barney Ross, Baby
Arizmendi, Frankie Klick, Johnny Jadick, Lou Ambers, Jimmy McLarnin and Al
Nor could other opponents be described as pushovers, among them
California Joe Lynch, Bushy Graham, Wesley Ramey, Bobby Wolgast, Sammy Fuller,
Leo Rodak and Al Roth.
Historian Mike Hunnicut has some interesting thoughts on this.
Says Mike, “Awhile back, some young boxing fan made some observations on Tony
Canzoneri after watching several of his fights on ESPN Classic.
dealt with his style and the other comment stated that he was a powder puff
puncher. The fan summed up his comments by saying that Canzoneri would have
trouble defeating some of today’s fringe fighters, never mind the elite
fighters, because of his style and lack of punching power.
“Well, one could
easily conclude that a fighter with a 25% KO ratio is not a puncher. But let’s
take a more detailed look at Tony’s record and compare it to a seemingly more
impressive record of the modern era.
“One only has to
look at the level of Canzoneri’s competition to realize that his opponents were
consistently of the highest quality. His impressive knockouts of Kid Chocolate,
Jackie ‘Kid’ Berg, and Al Singer indicate a fighter who could punch. He fought
them more than once (a total of 40 fights) and recorded three knockouts for a
very low KO ratio of 7.5%. But, again I say, consider the level of competition.
let’s look at modern renowned power puncher in Felix Trinidad, who engaged in 44
professional fights and scored 35 knockouts (1990 – 2005), an impressive KO
percentage of 79.5%.
“The level of Trinidad’s
competition includes quality fighters such as Hector Camacho, Pernell Whitaker,
Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Ronald (Winky) Wright, William Joppy, David
Reid, Fernando Vargas and Ricardo Mayorga.
“Felix fought each of these
guys once (a total of nine fights) and recorded three knockouts for a KO ration
of 33%, well below his career stats. Now, if Trinidad had fought Camacho, De La
Hoya, Hopkins and Wright several more times (as is the case with Canzoneri and
his opposition) his ratio would be even lower.
“It is so important to examine
these things in detail in order to give fighters of different eras their just
dues. You can’t just look at the bare stats and assume that they are the
be-all-and-end-all of the argument.”
Let us remember too that split titles in Canzoneri’s era were
rare and that there were far fewer weight divisions. The old National Boxing
Association (later to become the WBA) was already playing its mischievous games,
but championships for the most part were legitimate and universally recognized.
Even in that tough climate, it
seemed that Tony Canzoneri was competing for world honours every other week of
the year at his irresistible peak. He drew and lost to Bud Taylor, the Blond
Terror from Terre Haute, in unsuccessful bids for the bantamweight crown. Moving
up, Tony defeated the great Johnny Dundee for the featherweight championship,
lost it to Andre Routis and then took the brilliant Sammy Mandell to a split
decision in a bid to lift the lightweight title.
Canzoneri took a terrible
pasting from the flailing fists of Jackie ‘Kid’ Berg, the Whitechapel
Whirlwind’, at Madison Square Garden in 1930 in the first match of a memorable
trilogy. Yet ten months later, Tony was the lightweight champion after blasting
out Al Singer in one round in a huge upset.
Canzoneri avenged the Berg
defeat by knocking out Jackie in the third round of their return, and then took
their rubber match by decision. Tony was now in the prime of his life as a
fighter and many of his greatest duels were still to come. But he didn’t win
them all and one fighter who gave him fits was Philadelphia’s Johnny Jadick.
Johnny lost many fights he
really should have won, but he had Canzoneri’s number to the extent where Tony
would shake his head good-naturedly and say of Jadick, “There’s something about
There certainly was. Jadick
outsmarted Canzoneri to take the New Yorker’s junior-welterweight crown at the
Philadelphia Arena in 1932 and repeated the feat four months later at Philly’s
Four years would pass until
Tony, then in the autumn of his career, would finally get his own back to some
degree by copping a decision over Jadick in a largely meaningless ten rounder at
New York’s St Nicholas Palace.
His Great Fights
Canzoneri could scarcely
believe it when he lost his lightweight crown to Barney Ross in the summer of
1933. Nor could a whole bunch of other folks who saw the fight in the withering
furnace of the Chicago Stadium. Said a dismayed Tony, “The decision was the
surprise of my life and I have had many of them.”
Barney, of course, saw a
different story. “I fought just as I pleased. I coasted myself in those closing
A few moments of stunned
silence followed the announcement of the verdict, before the crowd of 11,204 let
rip with boos and hisses. Referee and former boxer Tommy Gilmour scored the
fight a draw, but was outweighed by judges Edward Hintz and William A Battye,
who narrowly favoured Ross.
Canzoneri and Ross set a hot
pace and threw plenty of punches in a spirited ten rounder. There were no
knockdowns, but Tony suffered a cut to his left cheek from Barney’s precise and
educated punching. Ross picked up a cut over his left eye.
Tony went for a quick
knockout, but Barney showed his boxing skill and versatility by countering
admirably and frustrating his opponent with a strong jab. Such was Barney’s
elusiveness, there were times when Canzoneri missed him widely.
But tireless Tony could always
move up a gear and he took charge from the third round. He loved nothing more
than a good fight, but he could change his style when the occasion demanded. He
began to box Ross with greater thought and intelligence and was in control of
the fight after six rounds.
But Tony always had a little
devil in him and could never resist having some fun. His cocky streak was his
one consistent weakness. He loved to clown and coast when he believed he had
enough points in the bag, a dangerous tactic that had caught him out in the
past. It cost him dearly in his 1930 loss to the storming Billy Petrolle and was
also a factor in his controversial split decision victory over Kid Chocolate.
Against Ross, Canzoneri
brought to the table all the excellent qualities that made him one of the
genuine greats. He possessed outstanding speed of hand and foot, had stamina in
abundance and a granite chin. His straight right was an accurate and formidable
weapon and he was a wonderful pressure fighter. He was no less proficient
defensively, even though he carried his left hand very low.
But Tony thought he was
cruising against Barney and the clown came out to play. Canzoneri began to dance
around and stick out his chin invitingly, while Ross paid attention to his
boxing and started tagging Tony with solid shots. Canzoneri sensed the danger
and got back to serious work as he opened up with two-fisted attacks in the
seventh round. In the eighth and ninth rounds, he tried to turn the bout into a
slugging match, but Ross kept jabbing and finding Tony’s chin with left hooks.
The title was lost. Ross was
the new champion and he defeated Canzoneri on points again three months later,
when a frustrated Canzoneri forfeited the sixth, eighth and ninth rounds on low
But irrepressible Tony still
had a couple of gems left in his locker. What he did at Madison Square in
November 1933 astonished everyone. In an eagerly awaited rematch with the
brilliant Kid Chocolate, Canzoneri painted what was arguably the masterpiece of
his career. Chocolate had been floored just once as a professional and never
Then he ran into a hurricane.
From the opening bell, Canzoneri was a revelation as he rushed the Cuban Bon Bon
and rocked him with a big right. The Kid, usually so assured and beautifully
poised, simply couldn’t get out of the starting blocks as Tony hustled and
At the start of the second
round, Canzoneri drilled Chocolate with two big shots to the body, forcing the
Kid to drop his guard. Switching his attack upstairs, Tony ripped a right to the
chin that sent Chocolate stumbling back into a neutral corner.
fought back and showed great pluck in doing so. But Canzoneri sensed his moment
and moved in for the kill with calmness and precision. He cracked the Kid with a
terrific smash to the chin and Chocolate collapsed face down. He rolled over
onto his back at the count of seven, gamely hauled himself up at nine but fell
back again to be counted out. Within two electric rounds, Canzoneri had
obliterated one of the greatest little fighters that ever came down the trail.
It wasn’t enough. Tony
wouldn’t rest until he was the lightweight champion again.
Tony Canzoneri was a 13/5
underdog when he was matched with Lou Ambers for the lightweight championship
vacated by Barney Ross. It was May 1935, and Madison Square Garden was packed
with 20,000 people.
Canzoneri’s fans didn’t quite
know what to expect. The rumour had been circulating that Tony had only sparred
for four rounds in training because he was concerned that his legs might not be
good for the fifteen round distance. He was still only twenty-six, but there had
been many hard fights against hard men.
Well, Tony had the legs that
night. He also had those small, pumping fists, the same old fighting spirit and
plenty of smarts on top. After decisively outscoring Ambers, Canzoneri heard
those magical words from the veteran master of ceremonies, Joe Humphries: “….
and once again champion of the world.”
Talking to reporters after the
bout, mischievous Tony couldn’t resist performing an ironic little jig on those
old and tired pins. “Hell, man, these legs were good for forty rounds,” he said.
“I actually laughed to myself along about the seventh round because I knew that
some folks would be worrying about them.”
The new champion had put forth
a marvelous performance. He had all but blown away the man they called the
Herkimer Hurricane. Off to a fast start, Canzoneri swept the first two rounds
and then decked Ambers with a right hand flush to the jaw in the third. Lou
gamely clambered to his feet, but another booming right had him in disarray at
the bell. Thereafter, Tony was always the master.
Ambers never stopped trying
and rallied magnificently to win the fourteenth round, but Tony sealed a
magnificent performance with a grandstand finish in the final heat.
What a road Tony Canzoneri had
travelled. He would charge on for another four years, but never again with the
same success as the punishing fights finally took their toll on his broad and
bullish little body. Ambers would come again to take his title and then defeat
him in a rubber match. Jimmy McLarnin would give Tony a bad beating in a return
go. Finally, in the winter of 1939, the shell of Canzoneri would be smashed by
the vicious left hooker from Brownsville, Al ‘Bummy’ Davis. No matter. Canzoneri
had long ago booked his place among the giants of fistiana.
From New Orleans to New York.
Tony Canzoneri had some kind of ride.
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