Izzy Jannazzo: A Daughter Remembers

By Clarence George on January 9, 2015
Izzy Jannazzo: A Daughter Remembers
“When you're fighting in a foreign country, you got to knock them dead to get a draw.”

“A boxing writer once sent me a film of one of my dad’s fights in Australia. I’d heard that all the films had disintegrated with age…”

“Your dad was a great fighter.”—Sugar Ray Robinson

In September of last year, I wrote an article on tough welterweight contender of yore, Izzy Jannazzo, who fought from 1932 to 1947, racking up a record of 65 wins, eight by knockout, 46 losses, six by knockout, and 15 draws. In addition to taking on such luminaries as Barney Ross, Holman Williams, and Jack Carroll, Jannazzo four times fought the great Sugar Ray Robinson, twice going the distance.

Shortly after the article appeared, I heard from Kristin Martinez, who told me how much she and the rest of her family enjoyed reading about her grandpa. I requested an interview, but she thought that her mother, Izzy’s daughter, could tell me much more.

Gerry Martinez, who’ll turn 70 in March, works as a receptionist for a large law firm in Columbus, Ohio. Her two children, Kristin and David, and grandson Aidan, all live in Columbus. Her brother, Tony Jannazzo, lives in New Jersey, as does his daughter, son-in-law, and two granddaughters.

CG: My thanks for taking the time from work and family to speak with me about your father, a fighter who deserves far more recognition and appreciation than he’s received in many a decade. Could we start with some early and family background? But first…where does ‘Izzy’ come from? Wasn’t his name Anthony?

GM: No. My father’s real name was Isadoro, though he sometimes used Isadore. He didn’t want to be called Isadoro, which sounded like a girl’s name. We don’t know where ‘Anthony’ comes from, though that is his middle name. It’s also the name of his father and my brother. Another thing, a lot of people growing up in Alabama Americanized their first names. My mom was Francesca, a beautiful name she never used. She was called Frances. My grandma was Rose, not Rosalie. My dad’s father was Tony, not Antonio.

CG: Thanks for clearing that up. And his background?

GM: Izzy lived in Ensley, Alabama, until he was 17. He had two brothers and a sister. His family was poor, and he became a fighter, probably to help support the family. He became the state’s bantamweight champ at 14.

CG: While an amateur, perhaps? He apparently had about a hundred such bouts. According to the official record, which isn’t necessarily impeccable, it looks as though Izzy’s first pro bout took place shortly after he arrived in New York. He fought somebody named Willie Miller, who outpointed him in December 1932. He won his next bout, the following month, outpointing a Joe Melletti.

GM: Remember, I’m just repeating what he told me as best I can.

CG: You’re doing great. Tell me more about his family, please. Your grandparents?

GM: Both sides of the family came from Sicily, and were very close. They came to the States via New Orleans, and I was told they were on the same boat. My grandparents were little children when they arrived. Izzy was born in 1915, and my mom in 1920, both in Ensley. At 17, my dad’s family moved to New York. His mom became ill and died. She was eight months pregnant, and the baby didn’t survive. Dad’s father wasn’t working much, and Izzy became the sole supporter of the family. He paid for his sister Bernice’s wedding, and bought my grandpa a pool hall to run. Grandpa didn’t do well, and the business folded. He remarried, and my grandma, Honey, had a son named Joseph, adding a fifth child to the family.

CG: And your mother?

GM: My mom’s family moved to New York shortly after my dad’s family, and in 1941 Izzy and Frances Tombrello were married. My mom and dad, and their families, lived on Troutman Street in Brooklyn. They lived in attached row buildings. My parents lived in one building, with my mom’s parents on another floor, while my dad’s parents lived in the other, along with some siblings.

CG: Am I right that Izzy wasn’t in the war?

GM: He was an air-raid warden.

CG: Your father not only fought all over the country, but also overseas, taking on tough boys on their home turf, including Kid Azteca in Mexico, Jack Carroll and Dick Humphries in Australia, Gustav Eder in Germany, and Joe Legon in Cuba. Pretty impressive for a kid from Smalltown, USA.

GM: His fighting career took him all over the world, and his health was amazing, even with fighting so often. I found fan letters from all over, including Germany and Australia. And a boxing writer once sent me a film of one of my dad’s fights in Australia. That was wonderful, because I’d heard that all the films had disintegrated with age. In 1979, my mom wrote to Nat Loubet, who edited Ring at the time, telling him that many mementos wound up stolen. He very kindly put together a compilation of articles. It’s so touching and informative. I remember the line, ‘No one could criticize Izzy for lack of heart.’ And there was another quote from the magazine, from 1942, saying that he was ‘the most feared welterweight in the world for the past five years.’

CG: And I thank you for my copy. It also included a quote from Izzy’s first manager, Guy Anselmi, who said something like, ‘When you’re fighting in a foreign country, you got to knock them dead just to get a draw.’ Izzy did draw against Eder, whom he decisioned in New York a couple of years earlier, but lost to the other four. Which brings to mind another topic…did your dad ever speak to you about any of his opponents?

GM: I know my dad really respected Sugar Ray Robinson as such a great fighter and nice guy. When I was about 10, Sugar Ray approached my family in a restaurant. Looking at me, he said, ‘Your dad was a great fighter.’ I remember being so proud of my dad, and also taken aback at how good-looking and dapper Sugar was. When we lived in Rego Park, Queens, Rocky Graziano would drop by once in a while to say hello.

CG: High praise indeed from the ‘Sugar Man,’ who wasn’t know for showing ring brethren affection, or even respect. Carmen Basilio, for instance, never forgave Robinson for high-hatting him. Rocky, on the other hand, was always affable. Anyway, your father left the ring in early ‘47, following a third-round TKO loss to Steve Belloise. What did he do then?

GM: When the fame and fighting ended, getting a job was difficult. He had a menial job working for the city, but never complained. He retired at 65, and spent lots of time with his children and grandchildren. He enjoyed life, and was loved by so many people. He was funny and had a good heart. Dad was extremely energetic, and I would laugh at him for eating fast, many times standing. He and my mom did some traveling. When I was in my 20s, they went on vacation to Europe. Also Hawaii. And they visited cousins in Alabama.

CG: Could you tell us more about this job he had?

GM: My mom always had us say dad worked for the city. After he was so famous, I know it was hard for her to see him in this job. He worked at an incinerator, I think in Greenpoint. It was close to Maspeth, where we lived at the time. It was where the garbage was dumped, and I know he did jobs like stoking the fires. I just remember he always came home after he showered there, and never was uncomfortable about his job. He was easy-going and always seemed contented. We all miss his clowning around and his funny sense of humor.

CG: I’m sorry, Gerry, but if you could tell us about the dementia?

GM: I think it was in 1990 that my dad’s condition was getting to the point that I wanted them to get a condo in Columbus so I could help my mom care for him. We had to put him in a nursing home the following year. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s. It was dementia. It was the boxing. The people at the nursing home loved him because he was still funny. He would use the pool table every day, and we all marveled when we played pool with him. He could still do trick shots, telling us what shot he would make, and some of the guests would come to watch him play. He’d been quite a pool shark in his younger days. As confused as he was, he was so loving. I took him to a Herman’s World of Sporting Goods one day, and people stood around watching him make the speed bag dance, at times even using his elbows. It blew me away. He never lost his strength or funny sense of humor.

CG: He died some 20 years ago?

GM: Yes. My mom died in March 1995, and my dad in June. They’re buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Columbus.

CG: They were very close, I’m sure.

GM: Mom visited him every day, and I went for about three hours, six days a week. We never told him when my mom died, but he must have sensed she was gone. It wasn’t long afterwards that he just shut down and closed his eyes. His kidneys stopped functioning, and Tony and I slept on the floor of the Alzheimer’s unit. By the second night, I suggested we go home to sleep. That must have been around 11. We got the call a couple of hours later. Shortly before we left, he lifted both arms in the air like he was reaching for someone. I often wondered if he saw my mother. My mom was a strong woman, and my dad knew it. She told us he wrote her a card once — I don’t know if he was away fighting or not — calling my mother, a natural redhead, his ‘beautiful watchdog.’ I guess that was Izzy’s idea of poetry. She told me she made sure he never had a manager affiliated with the Mob. His second manager was Chris Dundee, who said, ‘they don’t come finer’ than pop. My mom had the business sense.

CG: Anything you care to add?

GM: In the 1957 biopic of Barney Ross, Monkey on My Back, there’s a scene where Barney is reading the paper. I think the headline reads, ‘Ross Beats Jannazzo…Oh Yeah?’ I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I recently bought the DVD. I look forward to watching it again to see if I’m right.

CG: That’s very interesting. I know your dad fought Ross for the Welterweight Championship of the World in late ‘36. While he gave a good accounting of himself, he lost by clear unanimous decision. I wonder if the headline was predictive, something like ‘Ross to Beat Jannazzo…Oh Yeah?’ I, too, haven’t seen the movie in years. I don’t even remember who had the starring role. Cameron Mitchell? Anyway, an incentive for me to order it from Netflix. Anything else, Gerry?

GM: I just remembered something wonderful, I guess because of your ‘Izzy’ question and because we were talking about Barney Ross. We used to get letters from Jewish fans, all excited about Izzy, ‘the great Jewish fighter.’ I guess they thought he was Jewish because of the name. The day after the funeral, the whole family was eating at my kitchen table. The phone rings, and I can hear by his voice that he’s an elderly gentleman. He’s a retired dentist, and Jewish, who’d read pop’s obituary in the papers. When he was a boy, his uncle had taken him to see Izzy fight, and it made such an impression on him. I put him on speakerphone, and my brother signaled to me not to burst the gentleman’s bubble by telling him that dad wasn’t Jewish. We all couldn’t believe his seeking me out, calling from New York right after the funeral. That sweet man touched my heart.

CG: He must have been really torn when Izzy fought Barney. And what else would you like to add?

GM: Just to thank you for taking an interest in my dad. May I ask why?

CG: Because he’s forgotten…and he shouldn’t be. He was hard as hardtack, and took on anyone and everyone. He didn’t miss greatness by a whole lot. And his missing it is hardly cause for his being forgotten. Not on our watch, eh, Gerry? Anyway, it is I who thank you for sharing these wonderful memories of your father, the very tough indeed Izzy Jannazzo, especially as his centenary is this January 31. In fact, I mentioned that in a recent communication with Bob Duffy, asking him to consider your father for induction into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame. I also pointed out that Izzy is included in Jose Corpas’ New York City’s Greatest Boxers. Bob is president of Ring 8, the Veteran Boxers Association of New York, which founded NYSBHOF in 2012. Bob, who’s also president of NYSBHOF, and himself a 2015 inductee, has been kind enough to forward my petition to Jack Hirsch, chairman of the nominating committee. Too late for the Class of 2015, which was just announced, but fingers crossed for 2016.

GM: I know my family will be so excited if that works out.

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  1. Your Name 10:42am, 02/05/2018

    Please send me notices when someone responds
    to me concerning Izzy.

  2. Gerry Martinez 10:39am, 02/05/2018

    I’m Izzy Jannazzo’s daughter and I hope to
    keep getting notices of comments to this article.

  3. Chris crotta 02:50pm, 01/24/2018

    Hi my name is Chris crotta .my grandfather Vincent is Izzy Jannazzo brother. I love to hear story’s about my uncle and the family.  If you have other stuff can you please send me some. Thank you so much. I wish my mom could of seen this. Izzy was her uncle and also her godfather. Thank you again. Chris crotta Izzys niece.

  4. Barbara Powell Stone 04:05pm, 05/27/2017

    Izzy Jannazzo and my Dad, Fred Powell, were friends in Ensley, Alabama as children.  Izzy and Frances visited Alabama many years ago and spent a few days with my family before going on to Cullman, Alabama to spend time with my Dad. They were the sweetest people to have in my home.  Frances really enjoyed teasing me about my southern accent.  I will never forget the good times we had, both in NYC and Alabama.

  5. Gerry Martinez 06:14am, 02/29/2016

    Lynne Frances Fazzio,
    Please send me your e-mail address and I’ll respond with your request. 
    Thanks, Gerry Martinez

  6. Lynne Frances Fazzio 07:20pm, 02/26/2016

    Loved your article about Izzy Jannazzo. We are relatives of Bernice. She was married to our Uncle John Fazzio, and would love to be in touch.

    Please contact us if you have any information that could help us get in touch with her or any relatives.

    Your cousins,

    Lynne and Leonard

  7. Clarence George 06:03am, 01/17/2015

    By the way, Lafcadio is a deuced unusual name.  I thought it was pretty much exclusive to Lafcadio Hearn, though my aunt had two Bedlingtons—Pumpkin and, yes, Lafcadio.  Great name to give a boy as an inducement to learn how to box.  My mother toyed with Marmaduke for me.  Thank God reason reascended its throne—Clarence is Joe in comparison.  But if she’d gone ahead with it, I’d have been Heavyweight Champion of the World.  After all, what choice would I have had?  I mean, hell, I was brought up in New York.

  8. Clarence George 05:37am, 01/17/2015

    Great post, Magoon.  Thanks very much.

    Tony Riccio was a middleweight who fought out of Bayonne in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Limited and amazingly feather-fisted, he was nonetheless very tough.  He once beat Sammy Angott, though Angott was kinda faded at the time.  Riccio only died a few years ago.

    I didn’t have a specific memory of the Jannazzo-Riccio fight, so I looked it up.  Izzy outpointed Tony at the Meadowbrook Bowl on July 30, 1945.  That was a Monday.  Monday Night Fights!  How times, and boxing, have changed.  It’s also the day a Japanese sub sank the USS Indianapolis.  You know, with the sharks.  I assume your grandfather (Lafcadio, I’m guessing) had been in the Atlantic, and not assigned to that particular vessel.  Thank God for that.

  9. Magoon 04:25am, 01/17/2015

    A beaut, Mr. George. You too, Mrs. Martinez.

    Grandpa Laf did a little boxing as a middleweight in the Navy. He was on leave when he saw Izzy beat Tony Riccio in Newark in 1945. Grandpa was very impressed with Izzy. “Tough as salt rope,” he used to say. I’m not sure what that means, and I never thought to ask, but I like the sound of it.

    Again, great interview and story. And I hope he gets inducted.

  10. Clarence George 07:16pm, 01/15/2015

    Very glad you like it, NYI.

    I quite agree, Jose.

  11. J Corpas 05:14pm, 01/15/2015

    Izzy is as deserving as some of the boxers already in the NY Hall.  I have faith that they will get around to nominating him and the dozens of others who should be in.

  12. NYIrish 03:55pm, 01/15/2015

    Sweet article Clarence. All around!

  13. Gerry Martinez 06:18am, 01/13/2015

    Clarence,
    What can I say, you’ve gone over and beyond in trying to get my dad into the N.Y. Boxer’s hall of fame. Corresponding with you has been a joy and I am so touched by your thoughtfulness.  Whether or not dad is picked, your efforts have truly touched my family.  Again, “thank you”.

  14. Clarence George 07:18pm, 01/12/2015

    Wonderful words, Bob…much appreciated.

    Magnificently expressed, Mike…many thanks.

  15. Mike Silver 06:46pm, 01/12/2015

    Clarence, I feel compelled to throw in my two cents. Like everyone else I felt joy and warmth from reading this article. These decent, good men like Izzy Jannazzo, who sacrificed so much for a sport and art they truly loved, should not be forgotten. They mastered an extremely difficult trade and the word “champion” applies to them whether they won an official title or not. Many kudos for this wonderful piece.

  16. Bob 04:58pm, 01/12/2015

    Clarence: I bet when you conducted this wonderful interview you never would have imagined you’d touch so many people. Great work on a very under appreciated fighter who certainly had a championship caliber family and left a tremendous legacy.  You always hit triples and home runs, but this is a grand slam.

  17. Clarence George 02:12pm, 01/12/2015

    That is most gratifying to know, Gerry.  It was indeed my pleasure.  And I of course couldn’t have done it without your patience, enthusiasm, and wonderful reminiscences.  In fact, I didn’t do it—we did.

  18. Gerry Martinez 11:33am, 01/12/2015

    Daniel,
    I really appreciate you sending the videos of my dad’s fight in Australia, it was so kind and thoughtful of you. My family is enjoying the memory.

  19. Gerry Martinez 11:18am, 01/12/2015

    Clarence,
    Wow! You wrote a Wonderful article and tribute to my father. It was pleasure being interviewed by you. I appreciate all the time and effort you took to make this an
    accurate and enjoyable read. From all of us in the Jannazzo, Martinez
    family, thanks again.

  20. Clarence George 05:40am, 01/12/2015

    Gerry, Kristin:  Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been in touch with Scott Myers, executive director of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, proposing Izzy as a worthy candidate for induction.  I will, of course, keep you posted.

  21. Daniel Attias 06:49pm, 01/11/2015

    My pleasure Kristin. Ive spoken at length numerous times with the daughter of Jack Carroll who your grandfather fought whilst in Australia and who was the boxer he fought in the second video clip. We didnt speak a great deal about Izzy but I may just have to re contact her to enquire about their fight. Glad you enjoyed the footage!

  22. Clarence George 02:51pm, 01/11/2015

    It was my absolute pleasure, Kristin, and I’m delighted that you and the family like it.

    NYSBHOF’s committee members know their business and will, at the very least, recognize your grandfather as an amply worthy candidate.  I don’t know what they’ll ultimately decide, but (at a bare minimum) he’ll get the consideration he so richly deserves.  I’m confident of that.

  23. Kristin Martinez 11:08am, 01/11/2015

    Clarence,
    What a wonderful article about my papa! Thank you so much for taking the time to work with my mom to write this!
    You did a terrific job. We hope they take him into consideration for the boxing hall if fame induction next year. That would be so exciting.

    Daniel, thank you so much for the footage of Pop! So amazing to see him as a young man box!

    Thank you both so much. It means a lot to our family!

  24. Clarence George 03:19am, 01/11/2015

    Thanks, Matt.

    And thank you, Beaujack.  Yes, they broke the mold with Izzy, who was in so many ways the quintessential boxer.  Contrast him with, say, Mayweather. Two grossly overhyped fights a year?  Really?  Not entirely his doing, sure.  Boxing has changed drastically since Izzy’s day…and not for the better.

  25. beaujack 09:42pm, 01/10/2015

    Clarence, what a gem of an interview which I greatly enjoyed. Growing up I would read the name Izzy Jannazzo as an opponent of great fighters of those days The type of guy that fought everyone including tough middleweights as Georgie Abrams, Eddie Booker, Coley Welch, Ceferino Garcia etc. He was courageous taking on Ray Robinson four times,as well as Barney Ross, Fritzie Zivic,,Holman Williams, the very tough Jimmy Leto, and always was brave and competitive…They don’t make fighters like him anymore for darn sure…Thank you again for keeping his deserving name alive again…

  26. Matt McGrain 07:43pm, 01/10/2015

    Very cool.

  27. Clarence George 11:01am, 01/10/2015

    Chuck:  Much appreciated, and I think your assessment of Jannazzo is right on target.

    Irish:  Thanks, and you’re right—I was looking for what amounted to a conversation, not a by-the-numbers Q&A.

    Eric:  I think Isadore (regardless of how it’s spelled) is of Greek origin.  It’s also a Catholic name (St. Isidore the Farmer, for example).  But the few people who are given that name are almost always Jewish.  My understanding is that names such as Isadore and Irving are Americanizations of Hebrew names like Isaac.  I guess Jewish fans thought it expedient to disregard the surname Jannazzo (though, true, there are indeed Italian Jews).

    Daniel:  Gerry is very grateful for the footage.  She tried to post a comment here, but was unsuccessful.  She’ll try again.

  28. Eric 09:59am, 01/10/2015

    Remember that September article well. Thought it odd how an Italian had been brought up in Ensley, Alabama during that time period. Noticed that Ensley is more or less a suburb of Birmingham, and was a steel mill town. Never knew that Ensley was the hometown of former A’s owner, Charlie Finley and singer Eddie Kendricks. Remember that Marciano had a friend with the name Izzy Gold, and former Guns and Roses member, Izzy Stradlin, so this is the third “Izzy” that I’ve heard of.

  29. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:25am, 01/10/2015

    Clarence George-I can tell that you made her feel at ease and the result is a simply great one on one conversation….way more than just an interview.

  30. ch. 09:23am, 01/10/2015

    Terrific stuff, Clarence. His record doesn’t tell the true story. He fought on the road so much that his chances of winning a decision in a close fight were slim and none. His greatest legacy was that he took on all comers (black + white).

  31. Clarence George 08:54am, 01/10/2015

    Thanks very much, Bob.  Chris Dundee said of Izzy, “A wonderful person, good family man,” and that continues with Gerry and her daughter, Kristin, who introduced us.  It’s a delight and a privilege knowing both of them, I can tell ya.

  32. Bob 08:34am, 01/10/2015

    What a beautiful tribute. I had always known of JIzzy,  but knew little about him. The video clip shows that he is quite a boxer, and the interviews shows him to be a fine man from a wonderful family. What a heartwarming story. Fantastic interview.  Thanks for sharing memories of Izzy with the world.

  33. Clarence George 05:56am, 01/10/2015

    Thanks very much indeed, MHE, and I quite agree—speaking with Gerry about her father was a rare and wonderful opportunity, and one which lends dimension to a boxer particularly deserving of it.

  34. Mohummad Humza Elahi 04:50am, 01/10/2015

    Great interview, always fascinating to hear from those closest to those we can only see in grainy old footage.

  35. Clarence George 03:46am, 01/10/2015

    Thanks very much for the kind words, Daniel, but especially for providing links to some great footage.  What a characteristically princely thing to do.  I’ll see to it that Gerry knows of them.  I’m sure that she and the rest of the family will be delighted, given that much of their memorabilia was stolen.

  36. Daniel Attias 03:22am, 01/10/2015

    Great interview Clarence. Very enjoyable read. Here are some links to some footage of Izzy from his time in Australia. Hopefully his family get to view this.

    http://www.t3licensing.com/license/clip/48050044_0000.do?assetId=clip_8856616&keywords=boxing,australia

    http://www.t3licensing.com/license/clip/48050044_0100.do?assetId=clip_8856617&keywords=boxing,australia

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