Astoria Assassin Comes Clean

By Robert Mladinich on April 19, 2017
Astoria Assassin Comes Clean
“Maybe I should have went with the mob. Things might have turned out differently.”

Heavyweight boxer Henry Wallitsch was known as the Astoria Assassin during a career that lasted from 1957 to 1966…

O’Neill’s restaurant in Maspeth, Queens, in the city of New York has been a family-owned mainstay since 1933.  It is known for its fine food and drink and friendly neighborhood atmosphere.

Located throughout the bar are photos of athletes, including heavyweight boxer Henry Wallitsch, who was known as the Astoria Assassin during a career that lasted from 1957 to 1966 and saw him compile a deceiving record of 13-13 (1 KO). 

Wallitsch lives above O’Neill’s and can be found nearly every day at the same circular table, nursing a coffee, reading the newspaper and saying hello to a steady parade of well-wishers.

One longtime fan, John Dorst (pictured with Wallitsch), has been an NYPD member for 36 years, the last 15 as an executive board member of the Sergeants Benevolent Association.

“It is always good to see Henry,” said Dorst. “He’s a fixture in this place — and a fixture in Queens where everyone has a story about him. Like me, he is Queens born and raised. He has lived quite a life, but is the salt of the earth. He always has a smile on his face, and never says a bad word about anybody.”

With his gnarled hands and ruggedly handsome fighter’s face, Wallitsch is hard to miss. One look at him and you know that even at the age of 81 he is a force of nature.

A former president of the Veteran Boxers Association, Ring 8, Wallitsch, a born raconteur, talks about boxing with eagerness and enthusiasm.

“I didn’t really like boxing as a kid until my brother-in-law took me to Sunnyside Gardens to watch the fights,” said Wallitsch, whose parents were of Austrian descent. 

“The place was packed and there was a lot of smoke and noise. I had a few hot dogs and a beer and then the ring announcer introduced Tony DiBiase from Astoria and the crowd went crazy. What an adrenaline flow I had. I told my brother-in-law, ‘I want to be a fighter.’”

Wallitsch relinquished his role as leader of a street gang called the Midnight Boys and began training with zeal. He was a very adept student who early on could hold his own against more experienced fighters.

“I was very good at boxing until you hit me on the chin,” said Wallitsch. “Then I’d go cuckoo — nuts — and not use all that I worked on learning in the gym.”

In 1957, his very first year of Golden Gloves competition, Wallitsch was forced to compete in the open (more experienced) division. He didn’t make it to the finals, but he had already beaten the fellow who won the novice class where Wallitsch believes he belonged.

“Back then the game was crooked and corrupt,” he explained. “I had to fight a lot of gorillas (bigger men). Because I was small, I had to fight dirty.”

At 5’11” and about 185 pounds, Wallitsch was a smallish heavyweight, even by the standards of his day, but he squared off against such behemoths as the 6’6” Ernie Terrell and the 6’8” James J. Beattie (twice).

He also battled local heroes like Franco De Piccoli in Italy and unbeaten Carl Baker in Jamaica. He won a decision over Baker, who went into the fight with a 7-0 record. 

“If there was a cruiserweight division back then, I would have been the champ,” said Wallitsch. “Everywhere I fought, I sold the place out. I was a crowd pleaser.”

One newspaper called Wallitsch’s 1958 battle royale with Bobby Halpern the bloodiest fight in the history of the fabled St. Nicholas Arena. 

Whenever there was a dull fight at St. Nick’s after that, the fans would scream, “Bring back Henry and Bobby,” laughed Wallitsch.

“Bobby got a six-inch cut and there were bloody footprints in the ring. Halpern got the decision, but I still think I won. We were told we might have a rematch at Madison Square Garden, but Bobby went to jail a few weeks later, and I got bleep.”

(Halpern went on to serve 17 years for charges that included robbery, kidnapping, assault and grand larceny. He made a well-publicized comeback at age 43 in 1976 that ended with him getting stopped two years later by Guy “The Rock” Casale at MSG.) 

Throughout his pro career, Wallitsch admits to drinking heavily. He said that matchmaker Duke Stefano often called him hours before a show to see what condition he was in. If he was capable, Wallitsch would race to the arena and lace them up.

“When I fought Bob Stallings in my last fight, I was whacked,” said Wallitsch. “I was down about 10 times, but I fell down seven and was knocked down three. Before the fight I was drinking shots of whiskey and balls of beer.”

Wallitsch, who stopped drinking in the early 1980s, augmented his income by working as a sparring partner for some of boxing’s biggest names. He earned $50 a round for the work he did with Floyd Patterson, but only $15 a round for Ingemar Johansson.

He said Johansson was not only frugal, he was afraid that everyone involved in boxing was mobbed up.

“He was not a trusting guy, but he trusted me more than most people,” said Wallitsch. “He once got a new Buick from a dealer and he let me drive it to show him around.”

Wallitsch asserts that Patterson was one of the nicest men and finest champions that he ever met.

“I’d go away to training camp with him, and he treated everyone so well,” said Wallitsch. “Floyd was all class, a great man. I loved him. He never really hurt me, but he threw so many punches, he bounced my head back quite a bit.”

Wallitsch remembers sparring for about a week with a young Jerry Quarry during what was one of Quarry’s first trips to New York.

“They gave me $7 a round to work with him, but I gave it back to them,” said Wallitsch. “I had just made a ton of money in Floyd’s camp and figured the kid needed it more than me. He was a good, clean-cut kid, very polite and respectful.”

After his retirement from the ring, Wallitsch got into the bar business in a big way. For decades he ran topless joints, gay clubs, singles spots and even a rowdy country western place. He made piles of money, but often found himself in trouble with the law for protecting his interests.

“In those days if the cops came to your place, someone had to get locked up,” said Wallitsch. “I didn’t want my bouncers to get arrested, so I’d take the pinch myself. I was on a first name basis with the cops. They were doing their job and I was doing mine. We got along fine. No hard feelings.”

Wallitsch also did quite a bit of acting and modeling, much of which stemmed from his friendship with former middleweight champion Rocky Graziano.

There was no better friend in the world than Rocky,” said Wallitsch. “He was a dear, dear man.”

Among the advertisements Wallitsch did was for a baby food, where he had to eat turkey from a baby jar and say, “Even babies eat turkey” as he handed a spoon to a tyke.

He also did a magazine layout for Burlington Mills wrinkle-free bed sheets that appeared in many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar.

Later in life Wallitsch worked as a steamfitter, where he ran a bull gang that brought heavy equipment to the top of tall buildings. He went on to become a union shop steward before being injured on the job at the Met Life building in Manhattan.

What he thought was going to be a $5 million settlement was eventually whittled down to $100,000.

“I had one lawyer and Met Life had fifty,” he said. “It wasn’t a fair fight.”

Wallitsch admits to having had so many opportunities, but says unflinchingly, “I bleeped up, Papa. I was drinking a bottle of Vodka a day. I ran day to day. It was always party time.”

Although Wallitsch has led a colorful life, one nagging regret is not spending more time with his family, from whom he is now estranged.

Wallitsch lived on Long Island for several years with his son and his family, but is now back in Queens — where it all began and will likely end.

During better times, Wallitsch’s son David, a court officer, spoke openly how much he missed having his father around during his formative years.

“Now when I come home from work and see my father playing with my son, it makes me feel great,” said David. “I am glad that my son will get to know his grandfather. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Another beautiful thing is how committed Wallitsch is to helping boxers through his longtime association with Ring 8. About a decade ago, while serving as president of the organization, a former champion who was down on his luck asked the board for money to pay his rent.

The well-known and popular former champion started to tell a long, sorry tale, but was immediately cut off by Wallitsch who wanted to spare him any further indignity.

“Just tell us how much you need, Papa,” said Wallitsch, to which the ex-fighter replied $700.

“Write him a check for $1,000,” ordered Wallitsch after getting unanimous approval from the board.

He later dismissed any positive comments about how delicately he handled a difficult situation, especially for the fighter who had squandered millions.

“That’s all we are about, boxers helping boxers” Wallitsch said of Ring 8. “That’s why we’re here. That’s what we do.”

Another thing that rankles Wallitsch is the rumors that he had associations with organized crime, both as a boxer and a nightclub impresario.

“That’s a bunch of bull,” said Wallitsch. “If it was true, I wouldn’t have been fighting the guys I fought, and I should have been a millionaire from all the money I was making. The fact is, I gave everything away. I was too good-hearted, and I fought everyone they put in front of me.

“Maybe I should have went with the mob,” he continued. “Things might have turned out differently.”

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  1. peter 12:47pm, 04/20/2017

    What John Steinbeck is to American fiction, Bob Mladinich is to boxing journalism. Steinbeck wrote tenderly about the The Joads, (The Grapes of Wrath) and Lenny and George, (Of Mice and Men), all desperate characters living on the fringe of society; Mladinich writes compassionately about the rugged men living, (or who have lived), on the fringes of boxing. This excellent article successfully chronicles the irrepressible Henry “The Astoria Assassin” Wallitsch. Other Mladinich offerings shed light on Irish Johnny Turner, heavyweight Wimpy Halstead, seventy-year-old Eddie Small, Big Macka Foley and New York’s John Clohessy, and the list goes on and on. Both Steinbeck and Mladinich are successful because they write about the basic human goodness and grace found within these troubled, distressed souls…And both writers have gone on to write for the movies. Mladinich’s most recent venture into film was the well-acclaimed indie film just released untitled, The Expediter.  See it—it’s a knockout.

  2. Alt Knight 07:23am, 04/20/2017

    c.h….Excellent point. I would love to know who that ex-champ was, but given how selfish most people are, I would have to say that the ex-champ would have probably not helped a down and out, Wallitsch. And one wonders if that champ ever gets back on his feet, if he will ever repay Mr. Wallitsch, again, I doubt it. Me thinks it might be Iran Barkley. Just a wild guess.

  3. c.h. 06:45am, 04/20/2017

    It’s ironic that an ex-fighter who probably never got a purse over $2,500. financially helped a former champion who “squandered millions.” Would the former champ have helped Wallitsch had the roles been reversed ?..c.h.

  4. Jan Swart 03:43pm, 04/19/2017

    Great read, as always, Robert. Does anyone know whether the late Mitch Halpern (referee) was related to Bobby Halpern? Thanks.

  5. Alt Knight 11:32am, 04/19/2017

    See Ronda Rousey’s mug behind the big guy. “She’s Back?” And She’s Gone Already. Damn, Ronda had us all fooled, kind of like, The Donald.

  6. Pete 06:47am, 04/19/2017

    Been waiting a long time for this one, Bob. It was well worth it.

  7. Alt Knight 06:24am, 04/19/2017

    Halpern was even shorter at 5’10” and as of 1977, he was fighting at about 190lbs, give or take. One of Halpern’s comeback fights was against Trevor Berbick. Berbick wasn’t extremely tall, but he was at least in the 6’2-6’3” range and was built like rhino. Casale would go on to lose to Marvis Frazier. I think Casale wasn’t much more than a light heavy/cruiser either. Back in the day, a small heavyweight by the name of Bill Sharkey fought Scott Ledoux to a draw, and lost a close decision to a young Mike Weaver. Sharkey was all of 5’11” tops and scaled about 185-190ish. One of his last fights was against Frank Bruno who towered over Sharkey. Clearly no contest, Bruno got rid of him in a hurry. Sharkey would later be the victim of a homicide. Don’t believe they ever found out who murdered Sharkey.

  8. Alt Knight 06:02am, 04/19/2017

    Remember Beattie playing Jess Willard in the movie, “The Great White Hope.” Hollywood as usual tried to put their spin on reality. Jack Johnson was Superman, Jesus, and the Lone Ranger all rolled up into one. And of course he carried Willard all those rounds before deciding to throw the fight.

  9. Alt Knight 05:57am, 04/19/2017

    Yes, but light heavy champ, Paul Berlenbach was the original, “Astoria Assassin.” I still have the Sports Illustrated that did a feature on Bobby Halpern, and another one that did a bit story on how Halpern was shot in some clothing store later on. Wonder what ever happened to that guy? He’s got to be in his 80’s by now. Have to warm up the old search engine later. Halpern was somewhat of an oddity back then, a 44 year old fighter was indeed a sight to behold, now it is becoming the norm. Mr. Wallitsch seems like a real stand-up type of guy. Not to sound cliche, but they don’t make men like this anymore. Old guy still sports an impressive looking fist in that picture. Great article. These guys are usually much more interesting to read about than the “champs.” Like Marvin Hagler said, you cut his head open and all would find is a boxing glove. Great champion, but pretty boring.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:56am, 04/19/2017

    Great article! Forget cruiserweght….he should have been a lightheavy. Beattie and Terrell….are you kidding?! 5’11”?! Maybe with lifts. He’s had a great life but I’m just sayin’ he could have had a much better run at fighting if he had been taken care of and I’m not talking about the mob here.

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