"He whipped me, he whipped me, and oh, how can he hit!!"
--Kansas after Benny Leonard kayoed him in 8
With the multitudinous amounts of world titles around today a good
fighter can find a "title" held by some hobo champion to get around
facing the dominant fighter at the top of the division. Rocky Kansas
didn't have a promoter go out and create or find a worthless title
for him. Instead he went after the great Benny Leonard in two losing
title efforts. Fortunately Rocky was able to land a third opportunity, and on the
third try he finally succeeded.
The fighter better known as Rocky Kansas, was born Rocco
Tozzo on April 21, 1895 in Buffalo, NY, though it is widely believed
that he may have been born as early as 1890. Kansas's introduction to the
squared circle came through a run-in local promoter Joe Murphy, best known for
promoting the Joe Gans vs. Frank Erne Lightweight
title fight. Kansas's older brother Joe was a local fighter in the Buffalo area,
and the promotor approached Rocky (at the time working as a newsie),
and urged him to take up fighting like his brother Joe.
Thus, Kansas turned pro in 1911, earning a $1 purse in for a 3d-round
kayo win. Fighting mostly out of his home base of Buffalo, Kansas
only lost just two official decisions in his first 75 fights. He met his first
contender in 1914, losing a Newspaper Decision to Johnny Dundee.
He then faced Featherweight Champion Johnny Kilbane in a non-title match. Kansas
held his own for the first seven rounds, before Kilbane rallied down the
stretch to earn a Newspaper Decision over Kansas.
After another No Decision "defeat" against Johnny Dundee, Kansas was
given the opportunity to face former Lightweight champion Ad Wolgast. It
was a sad site, as Wolgast already suffering from the dementia that would
later drive him to train for a bout with Battling Nelson while in a
insane asylum, was hammered unmercifully for 10 rounds by Kansas.
Now entrenched as a contender, Kansas with his stocky 5-2 frame was now
facing the cream of the Featherweight and Lightweight divisions. Kansas
had a scrappy and some times dirty, brawler style that was annoying to
his opponents. While Kansas' wild swings were easy to counter, opponents
quickly found that Rocky possessed a granite chin that allowed him to
walk through his opponents best shots and attempt to land his potent
On February 28, 1916, Kansas got to face for the
first time theman who would become his nemesis. Across from him
was Benny Leonard, a top contender for the Lightweight Title. Leonard dazzled
Kansas with his quick feet and fast hands, giving him a paint job. At one point, Leonard
dropped in a big right hand that shook Kansas and left him on queer street, yet
Kansas managed to stay up and last the full 10 for a No-Decision.
Between 1916 and 1921, Kansas faced many of the top fighters around his
weight. Among his opponents were guys such as "K.O." Chaney, Gene Delmont,
Johnny Dundee, and Willie Jackson. With World War I taking up the
world's attention there were no lightweight title fights for almost a 2 1/2 year
period, between 1917 and 1920. With Leonard giving out very few title
shots, Kansas needed to make a statement, and early in 1921 he found
just the right opponent to make it against.
Richie Mitchell was a highly regarded Lightweight out of Milwaukee,
whose brother Pinkey would later become the first Junior Welterweight
Champion. He had been a contender for years like Kansas, on January 14,
1921 he got his big shot at the title. Leonard in a rare state of
urgency came out blazing and floored Mitchell three times in the first
round. Right before the bell though, Leonard walked into a huge Mitchell
right hand that sent him down for a nine count. Leonard was saved by the
bell, and later recovered to stop Mitchell in the sixth round.
Mitchell had all of a sudden become a sensation for almost knocking out
the great Leonard. A little over a month later on February 18th he was
put in against Kansas. In the first round Kansas pinned Mitchell against
the ropes and drove a left hook to Mitchell's ribs and then followed up
with a monster right cross that knocked Mitchell down for nine. Kansas
then tore into Mitchell, driving him through the ropes to knock out
Mitchell at 2:36 of the first round.
The huge upset had spoiled the plans of Tex Rickard and Madison Square
Garden who had hoped to use Mitchell as a headliner. Since there were no
automatic suspensions for being kayoed back then, Mitchell was
immediately rematched with Kansas 19 days later in Mitchell's hometown.
Kansas proceeded to eliminate Mitchell from further consideration as a
title threat, taking a easy Newspaper Decision from Mitchell. With
the win Kansas landed the 1920's equivalent of an HBO contract when Tex
Rickard announced that he would headline at the Garden against Willie
Jackson in his next bout. Jackson had secured his fame with a first-round
knockout of unstoppable Johnny Dundee in 1917.
After beating Jackson and losing a Newspaper Decision to Johnny Dundee,
Kansas finally landed a non-title shot against Benny Leonard. Back in those days
the champion often took a non-title fight with a contender before giving him
an actual title shot. For 12 rounds Leonard danced
circles around Kansas, who swung for the fences trying to land his
sledgehammer right. Nothing seemed to work so Kansas resorted to low
blows, this only angered Leonard more, as he struck Kansas with vicious
right hand counters. After twelve rounds the best anyone could say for
Kansas was that he might have won two rounds.
Having failed to impress fight fans with his performance
against Leonard, Kansas needed to come up with another big performance.
Madison Square Garden brought in Philly Southpaw Lew Tendler in a
crossroads battle for Kansas. Tendler was no slouch having only lost
once on a foul at that point in 107 bouts. Tendler presented a difficult
style of clever boxing skills, quick hands, and a punch that could knock
you out at anytime. For five rounds Kansas didn't have a clue as Tendler
dominated. In the sixth round though Rocky came boaring in headfirst
and collided with Tendler's head, opening up a gash over Tendler's right
eye. With blood pouring down his eye, Tendler became a much easier and
less mobile target. In the ninth round Kansas swayed the momentum even
further when he knocked Tendler down with a right. His face drenched in
blood now, Tendler could only muster a few uppercuts inside as Kansas
took a close decision.
Having defeated Tendler, Kansas was awarded his first title shot on
February 10, 1922. In the first round Kansas jumped all over Leonard,
messing up his hair in the process. Leonard's hair was always slicked
back and he took great pride in the fact that it usually never got
ruffled. Like another Leonard 58 years later would be, he was drawn
into a macho struggle with a fighter who was accustomed to that kind of
fight. Refusing to use his edge in speed, Leonard stood toe-to-toe with
Kansas. The action was grueling, and in the fourth round Kansas
staggered Leonard with a right uppercut that drew blood from Benny's
nose. Leonard was still a brilliant fighter nonetheless and he could
still hold his own fighting this way. Despite this Leonard's face became
covered with blood as he was staggered again in the eighth. After ten
rounds the fight was dead even. In the eleventh Kansas tried a wild
right that missed, he then attempted to backhand Leonard off the miss.
Leonard neatly slipped it and came overtop with a smashing overhand
right that sent Kansas down for the first time in his career. Kansas
staggered up at nine, and Leonard tried unsuccessfully for the finish.
Leonard then proceeded to go back to dancing and swept the remaining
rounds to take the unanimous decision.
After the grueling struggle with Kansas, Leonard who had been struggling
to make 135, attempted to go for the Welterweight Title. While
dominating Jack Britton, Leonard mysteriously fouled out after knocking
Britton down. Stuck with the Lightweight title, Leonard's people elected
to give Rocky a rematch.
Rocky came into the rematch with the same old plan as before, rough
Benny up and hopefully knock him out. Unfortunately for Kansas, Leonard
brought back the old style that had made him a legend. For seven rounds
the fight was completely lopsided as Leonard countered Rocky's bull
charges with overhand rights. Sometime during the fight Kansas broke his
wrist, somewhere around that time Rocky quit trying as well. In the
seventh resorting to wrestling and fouling inside, Kansas was nailed
with two flush uppercuts that left him in bad shape at the bell. Coming out for
the eighth, Leonard sensed his opponnents demise and poured it on. He
finally nailed Kansas with a right hand that caused him to stumble
aimlessly to a neutral corner. Leonard quickly jumped all over him, and
as he did Kansas' corner threw in the towel.
Now 0 for 2 in title shots and probably as old as 33, Kansas was faced
with a very dim outlook. He continued fighting and winning, but with
Leonard entrenched as champion he would have to wait, unfortunately time
wasn't on his side. In 1924 he took on Chilean Lightweight Luis
Vicentini. The crude Chilean was easy pickings as he did next to
nothing, often staring out into the crowd instead of fighting. In the
10th, Kansas dug a left hook to the body and landed an overhand right
that floored Vicentini. With two rounds to go Vicentini needed a
miracle, somehow he got one. Midway through the eleventh, Vicentini
threw a tremendous right that detonated on Kansas' chin. He crumpled to
the canvas and rose at the count of three. Kansas was out on his feet
though and Vicentini teed off on him before landing another big right
that laid Kansas out for the count.
Kansas came back though and avenged the loss to Vicentini and followed
it up with a win over Jack Bernstein. Meanwhile Leonard had retired and
the title was about to be decided between Jimmy Goodrich and Stanislau
Loayza, who had surged to the front of a large group after a gruelling elimination tournament.
One of the fighters that had lost out on the bid to fight for
the vacant Lightweight title was Jewish stringbean Sid Terris. Kansas
was matched with Terris on April 27, 1925. It was a total mismatch as
Terris equipped with a 8 inch height advantage poked away at a hopeless
Kansas. A frustrated Rocky landed a crushing shot to the groin that finished Terris.
The referee promptly disqualified Kansas.
Despite the loss, after three minor wins Kansas was given his third
title shot against Jimmy Goodrich, who had beaten Loayza. The againg Kansas
put on a great performance. He managed to work his way inside
from the start, winning all but one of the first 13 rounds. Goodrich
sensing he needed a knockout to win, went all-out in last two rounds. Goodrich
though didn't have the punch needed to dent Kansas. Kansas gave away the
two final rounds, and still took a unanimous decision. After over 14
years of professional fighting, Rocky Kansas was finally a champion.
Rocky Kansas wouldn't be a champion for long though. He was lured to
Chicago for a July 3, 1926 bout with 22-year-old rising star Sammy
Mandell. The fight was fought during a mild rain, and Kansas never got
going. Having gotten old finally Mandell outboxed Kansas in a snoozer,
where neither man showed much movement due to the rain.
Kansas retired after the loss, having saved over 200,000 dollars during his career.
Unfortunately he lost it all in the Crash of '29. Forced to make a living, Rocky Kansas
took up working on construction jobs and later working for the city of Buffalo.
A one-fight comeback in 1932 resulted in a loss that convinced him to stay out of the ring.
Rocky Kansas died at the age of 59 (or 64) on January 10, 1954 of cancer.