Fidel LaBarba: Olympic and Flyweight Champion of the World

By Norman Marcus on December 30, 2014
Fidel LaBarba: Olympic and Flyweight Champion of the World
LaBarba was good with his hands and started to box at the Elks Club in Los Angeles.

Fidel had the grades to get in Stanford. Not surprisingly, he decided to put off college. The boy decided to seize the moment and go for the cash…

Fidel LaBarba came out to Los Angeles from New York City around 1915. His mother died soon after they arrived in California. His father was a good man from southern Italy but had no work skills. He took any laborer job he could get to put bread on the table, but it was never enough. He used to work in faraway towns and send the rent money home for the family. Sadly, the oldest son Ted (a pro boxer himself) used to spend the dough on women and liquor. Fidel and his younger brothers Joe and Tony never saw a dime of it. In desperation, he got himself a paper route to make some food money. Fidel sold the Los Angeles Express, a second-rate paper that tried to compete with the Los Angeles Herald. This is where the boy learned to fight, right there on the street. A busy corner would always be controlled by one paper or another. If a boy wanted to take over a corner to sell a different paper, he had to fight for it. LaBarba at that time was barely twelve years old. He was 5’3” tall (he never grew much taller) and had a reach of 66” but that didn’t stop him from holding onto a corner. In those days boys used their fists, not guns to settle arguments.

He was good with his hands and started to box at the Elks Club in Los Angeles. The promoter was Carlo Curtis who used to manage former heavyweight champion Jess Willard. LaBarba did more than fight at these smokers. Fidel said about those nights, “Sometimes we would have nude women at these events!” (Bad for the legs!)

He later began to box at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Fidel was trained by the club’s boxing coach George Blake. Blake came out to L.A. from Chicago in 1904. He had been a boxing instructor in the U.S. Army during WWI. LaBarba won the National Amateur Flyweight Championship in 1924. He then won a spot on the Olympic Boxing Team that same year and went to Paris, France. There were four boys on the team from California: Fidel LaBarba, Jackie Fields, Ray Fee and Joe Salas. LaBarba won the Olympic Gold Medal as a flyweight. These four boys helped win the team championship for the United States.

When Fidel got back home he had a decision to make about his future. Should he turn pro and make a lot of money for his family? Or should he finish up at Lincoln High School and then enroll at Stanford University? Fidel had the grades to get in there. Not surprisingly, he decided to put off college. The boy decided to seize the moment and go for the cash. He was young and in his prime now. He got George Blake to agree to be his manager on a handshake, no contract required between them.

Fidel’s first pro fight was against his best friend Frankie Grandetta at the Arena in Vernon, California on September 14, 1924. He felt really strange fighting someone who was a friend. But that was part of the business and his cut for the fight was going to be $1500.00! You could buy a new house in the 1920s for under a grand. The Los Angeles Times said of that fight, “It was the worse beating that Frankie ever received in public.” Fidel won in a UD4. LaBarba then fought three of his next four fights against Jimmy McLarnin. Jimmy was already a ring veteran. These bouts were all four-rounders. The first fight ended up a win for McLarnin on points. The second was a draw on points and the last bout was another win on points for Jimmy.

August 22, 1925, LaBarba fought Frankie Genaro for the American Flyweight Championship in Los Angeles. Fidel won it on points in 10 rounds. He had been a pro for barely a year! Two years later he won the vacant World Flyweight Belt with a win over Elky Clark at Madison Square Garden in New York on points over 12 rounds. Finally with some money in his pocket, he gave up the Flyweight World Title to attend Stanford University.

The next year, 1928, LaBarba returned to the ring. He was lured by more big money and the fame he had given up. He had put on some weight and came back as a bantamweight. He won nine straight before losing a heartbreaker to Kid Chocolate on May 22, 1929 at the New York Coliseum, Bronx, New York. It was called a MD10 for Chocolate but the Boxing Record reports that “Many persons in the crowd thought LaBarba had won the fight by a rousing last round rally and they booed the decision.”

Fidel again moved up in weight and challenged Battling Battalino for his NYSAC World Featherweight Title at Madison Square Garden, New York on May 5, 1931. Though LaBarba was favored, he lost the contest in a UD15. LaBarba fought on for the next two years, winning 24 out of 27 bouts. He then met his old nemesis Kid Chocolate on December 9, 1932, this time for the NYSAC World Featherweight Title at Madison Square Garden. The Boxing Record stated, “In 15 rounds of boxing packed with scintillating ring work, both defensive and offensive, and carrying the added thrill of a champion almost toppled off his throne, Chocolate emerged with the decision over LaBarba… The majority of the 14,000 who witnessed the battle however disagreed… Two judges gave it to Chocolate while the referee made it a draw.” The New York Times later reported “LaBarba severely injured an eye while training for this bout, resulting in its eventual removal.” (It was a torn retina which left Fidel virtually blind on one side for the Chocolate fight.) Three months and three fights later Fidel LaBarba retired from the ring.

He wound up with a record of 68 wins (KO16), 15 losses (KO 0), and 6 draws.

Fidel then went back to Stanford and finally finished his degree in journalism. A career as a sportswriter now occupied his time. He later went to Hollywood where he wrote screenplays for some of the biggest studios. He often worked as a technical advisor on studio fight films.

Fidel LaBarba, a smart little guy with a big heart.

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  1. F. John LaBarba 12:22am, 06/23/2015

    Norm, You’ve done a good job covering my fathers life. There are a few things that need correction, otherwise mostly on the mark.

    F. John

  2. nicolas 09:53am, 12/30/2014

    fI think that the fight with Genaro was for the NBA version of the flyweight division. Interstingly though, I think this was the first time that two Olymipic champions had fought.

  3. Clarence George 04:49am, 12/30/2014

    Nice overview, Norm, of my favorite flyweight, though I don’t understand the use of the adverb in, “Sadly, the oldest son Ted (a pro boxer himself) used to spend the dough on women and liquor.”

    Interesting bit of trivia:  Fidel’s first wife later married the very funny Charlie Ruggles, who gave such a memorable performance in “Bringing Up Baby.”

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