The Fighting Zivics 1918-1949

By Norman Marcus on December 28, 2013
The Fighting Zivics 1918-1949
Their parents were Croatian refugees. And the Zivic brothers were nothing if not tough.

“I’d give ‘em the head, choke ‘em, hit ‘em in the balls. I used to bang ‘em pretty good. You’re fighting, you’re not playing the piano…”

Five tough brothers came out of the smoky city of Pittsburgh, Pa. in the early 1900s. The one thing that set these men apart was the fact that they all earned a living in the square ring. They grew up in an area of Pittsburgh called Lawrenceville. It was a familiar story. The neighborhood was poor, filled with minorities and immigrants. The Zivic parents were Croatian refugees. This old country was in a tough neighborhood. And the Zivics were nothing if not tough.

Brother Joe fought as a middleweight, 1918-1922; Jack, lightweight, 1919-1929; Pete, bantamweight, 1919-1929; Fritzie, welterweight, 1931-1949; and Eddie, lightweight, 1932-1940. Fritzie became the sole titleholder in the family. He was known as the Croat Comet. He was an excellent boxer-puncher who often used every dirty trick in the book to win. Yet he had the uncanny ability to hide his antics from the referee’s sight most of the time. Still, you would not have wanted to put him on a box of Wheaties cereal.

Zivic thought he got a raw deal when it came to his reputation. “The public put a label on me as a dirty fighter, but I never lost a fight in my life on a foul. I’d give ‘em the head, choke ‘em, hit ‘em in the balls, but never in my life used my thumb because I wanted no one to use it on me…I used to bang ‘em pretty good. You’re fighting, you’re not playing the piano, you know.”

By 1920 brothers Pete and Jack had left their jobs in the steel mills and were picked to go to the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. Jack finished fourth in the featherweight class. He lost the bronze medal bout to Edoardo Garzena of Italy. He turned professional when he returned to the States. While brother Pete also came up short, losing at flyweight in the quarterfinals to someone named Anders Pedersen of Denmark. Later, Pete also turned professional and was known as the Golden Bantamweight.

Fritzie lost a SD10 to a young Billy Conn at the Duquesne Gardens in Pittsburgh on December 28, 1936. Zivic didn’t have too much respect for Billy’s punching power. He later said “Conn was a good boxer but he couldn’t knock your hat off.”

He won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong on October 4, 1940 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Arthur Donovan was the referee and he completely lost control of the fight. For the first five rounds Donovan never warned or called a foul on either man for blatantly illegal blows. Armstrong hit Zivic low, used his elbows, head butts, you name it. Zivic was no boy scout and did the same. Suddenly during round six, Donovan finally stopped the action and addressed each man: “If you guys want to fight like this it’s okay with me.” The carnage continued for another 10 rounds. Armstrong was even with Zivic on two cards going into the final round. The New York Times wrote of Armstrong, “He was battered in the 15th round and nearly stopped, and was pushed to the canvas right before the final bell.” It was a UD15 win for Zivic. He won the title and a purse of just $3,400.

On November 15, 1940, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Fritz defeated Al “Bummy” Davis in a DQ2. The referee was Billy Cavanaugh. According to the Boxing Record, “Davis was floored in the first round. In round two, Zivic thumbed Davis in the eyes and this caused Bummy to completely lose his temper. He landed at least ten low blows and was disqualified; then he kicked the referee and attempted to resume the fight with Zivic.” 

The next month on December 20, 1940 at Madison Square Garden, Fritzie decisioned lightweight champion Lew Jenkins. The New York Times saw it this way: “The reigning welterweight and lightweight champions… The referee George Walsh gave it to Jenkins (7-3), while the judges made it a (4-4-2) and (5-5) with the latter nominating Zivic as the winner as is his privilege.” The New York Times “scored it (5-5) but felt Jenkins was entitled to the edge because of superior boxing, cleaner hitting and ring generalship.” According to NYSAC rules at the time, the referee’s score was not counted since the two judges agreed on the scoring of the fight.

In a rematch with Henry Armstrong on January 17, 1941 at a packed Madison Square Garden, Zivic retained his title with a TKO12 over Hammerin’ Hank. Fritzie got $25,000 for the rematch. A heck of a lot more cash than he got in their first fight!

Six months later Zivic faced Fred “Red” Cochrane in another title defense. The New York Times wrote, “On July 29, 1941 at Ruppert Stadium, Newark, N.J. Zivic lost his welterweight belt to Red Cochrane on points in 10 rounds. Referee Joe Mangold, the only scoring judge had it (7-4-4) for Cochrane.”

Fritzie protested years later, “I never lost that fight. I thought I won it, but it’s the referee’s decision. Luke Carey was my manager. He should never have taken that fight. No judges in New Jersey. The referee didn’t hesitate. As soon as the bell rang, he walked right over and picked his hand up. I didn’t like it but I had a contract to box him back within ninety days like I did with Armstrong. Cochrane joined the navy, he wouldn’t box me back. I boxed him back in ’42, I beat him in a 10 round decision (in a non-title fight.)”

Zivic fought Sugar Ray Robinson twice. He lost to Ray in a UD10 at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1941 and lost to him again on a TKO10 at the same venue on January 16, 1942. 

Fritzie lost two bouts at the Garden to lightweight champion Beau Jack, a UD10 on February 5, 1943, and a UD12 on March 5, 1943. Zivic was up to his old tricks in the first fight. The Reno Gazette wrote, “As for that ‘low’ blow when (referee) Otto called it and took that eighth round away from Fritzie, it set off some extra fancy fireworks. The boos came down off the Garden’s second ‘shelf ’ for more than five minutes.”

Zivic’s four fights with Jake LaMotta are also of note. Zivic beat LaMotta once. He split with the Bronx Bull at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, first losing a toss-up SD10 on June 10, 1943, then winning a SD15 a month later. Their last two meetings ended in two decisions for Jake, a SD10 on November 12, 1943 in Madison Square Garden followed by a UD10 win on January 1, 1944 at the Olympic Stadium in Detroit. Zivic fought the best of his day. True, he lost three out of four bouts to LaMotta, but three of the four bouts were split decisions, very close fights. Zivic often said that “LaMotta couldn’t punch at all but he was tough, keep coming. He wore you out. You couldn’t miss him.”

While Fritzie was the best known of the five brothers, the others were also busy during those years. Joe never turned pro but was a popular judge and referee starting in 1932. Jack had a winning career at welterweight; he finished with a 39-29-4 (12 KOs) record. Interesting to note, he met Lew Tendler at the Motor Square Garden in Pittsburgh on January 19, 1925 and handed Tendler his first TKO career loss in round five. Pete, a bantamweight, wound up with a winning record of 41-34-11 (18 KOs) against solid journeymen. Eddie, a lightweight, fought Tony Canzoneri three times. He beat the multiple titleholder once, on October 17, 1938, at the Town Hall in Scranton, Pa. via split decision. Eddie wound up with a final record of 39-40-6 (18 KOs).

When you read about some of the big name fighters that the Zivic brothers met in the ring, it’s strange that they aren’t better remembered. Today they could hire a good PR firm and spin their tough childhood background into a positive for the whole family. They might have gotten their own reality show! Fritzie would even have wound up on that box of Wheaties after all. 

The great Ferdinand John Henry (Fritzie) Zivic left boxing on January 17, 1949, after eighteen years in the ring. His record was 158-65-9 with 82 KOs.

Sources: The New York Times, The Boxing Record, “In This Corner”/ Peter Heller, Reno Gazette

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  1. Craig Brewer 01:57pm, 12/12/2015

    When I was a teenager, I used to work for Mr. & Mrs. Zivic, cutting their lawn in the Summer. At that time He had a Doberman Pincher, named “Duke”, who He would walk everyday. Fritzie was always very sweet and friendly to me and others. Everyone like him. My Mom rode the bus with His wife Helen into Pittsburgh. She was just as nice. Really great people.

  2. Bruce Kielty 12:08am, 01/06/2014

    My late father was an amateur boxer in Pittsburgh and used a gym frequented by Fritzie Zivic in the Lawrenceville section of town.  He claimed that he once witnessed Zivic confront Charley Burley in a dressing room before one of their bouts and verbally intimidate him.

  3. Harry Guidotti 04:13pm, 01/03/2014

    In the mid 1970s I attended Fritize Zivic was guest speaker at a sports banquet. A group of friends invited me to go to the banquet with them.
    I had surgery a week prior to the banquet and this was the first time I had been up and around.
    After the banquet Fritize made his way to our group. One of the guys commented on his style.
    Fritize decided to demonstrate and put his hands up in a defensive stance bent his legs and hit me square in the balls fortunately I fell into a chair behind me.
    He and everyone around had a huge laugh. It was a few days later that the swelling went down.

  4. nicolas 03:53am, 12/31/2013

    Frtizie did fight Burley yes, however, my understanding has been, that when he defeated Armstrong, he bought Burley’s contract so that he would not have to defend his title against Burley. I think he may have fought Burley three times, winning the first, but losing the next two.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:30pm, 12/28/2013

    You can count Fritzie as one white fighter of that era who did not shy away from the fabled Black “Murderer’s Row”....if Charley Burley and Eddie Booker or any of the others anywhere near his weight class was ready and willing and there was a paycheck involved Zivic was all about trying to kick their asses.

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