Unforgettable Greatness: Tony Canzoneri
“Sure it was worth it,” said Canzoneri, “every drop of blood and every stitch of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way…”
Those who hadn’t heard the news seemed to sense what had happened as they watched folks gathering outside the Broadway restaurant and heard them speaking in hushed tones about the man they had loved and known and admired.
Tony Canzoneri, he of the small fists and the huge heart, had taken the final count at the shockingly premature age of 51. The gutsy little fellow had been found by his friend, Norman Schwartz, lying on his bed at the Hotel Bryant, having apparently died from natural causes.
Tony had been a permanent and popular guest at the hotel, but hadn’t been seen around for a couple of days. It seemed odd and more than a little sad that the absence of such a vibrant a hero of New York could have gone unnoticed for 48 hours.
All his life, Tony Canzoneri’s presence had been joyous, thunderous and infectious. He was one of the blessed ones who could light up the darkest room on the darkest day.
Several years before his passing, with perfect truth and no sense of self-delusion, he had said of his fighting career, “I often wonder whether it was worth it. But I don’t have to wait long for the answer. Every day strangers stop me in the street and say, ‘Aren’t you Tony Canzoneri?’ Lots of times, little kids who weren’t even a gleam in their father’s eye when I was fighting, ask for autographs or just to shake my hand. It’s a wonderful feeling to be remembered after all these years. Sure it was worth it, every drop of blood and every stitch of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The 51 years that the gods gave to Canzoneri comprised of a barnstorming, glittering, turbulent journey. That journey swept him from the streets of his native New Orleans to one championship after another in one of the greatest boxing careers of all, until the upward curve finally peaked and dropped when Tony clashed with his toughest opponent of all: retirement.
Canzoneri never could quite figure that particular adversary. The erstwhile champ found that he could no longer meet misfortune head on and hit back with a crushing left hook or a smashing right. The opponent was invisible, the rules didn’t make sense and the pace of the struggle was far too slow for a man of fire.
Tony and manager Sammy Goldman fared badly in various business ventures. Canzoneri bought a farm in Marlboro, New York, for his family, but the cost and the outgoings sucked away much of his hard earned money. Marital problems and a taste for the high life also cut into the estimated $300,000 that Tony made in his long and hard career. He was the stooge in an act with comedian Joey Adams, which made Canzoneri’s adoring fans wince with embarrassment.
The Broadway restaurant that carried his name for so long was a pleasant sanctuary for Tony, whose first love remained boxing right up until he took his last breath. Never one to arrogantly dismiss his admirers, Canzoneri would happily linger in the street after closing time, chatting away to all and sundry about his many famous fights. And why not? He fought in what was arguably the greatest and most competitive era of all.
There were no outward signs that Tony Canzoneri was tiring and about to give up. He never did that. It seemed he would live forever, as permanent a Broadway fixture as Jack Dempsey. Bull-shouldered, belligerent Tony had always beaten the count. He had always come back to win another fight against the odds. He reveled in it.
His Last Great Fight
At around five minutes to 11:00 on the night of May 8, 1936, four great men were forgotten for possibly the first and only time in their illustrious lives. Joe Louis, Jim Braddock, Jack Dempsey and Barney Ross became academic as 17,000 people at Madison Square Garden rose to their feet and roared their cheers. They only had eyes for the bloodied and battered Tony Canzoneri, as his tired arm was raised by referee Joe Humphries.
In a marvelous battle of former champions, Tony had just come back from the dead to gain a unanimous decision over Jimmy McLarnin. It might just have been Canzoneri’s finest hour.
Tony had started out as a pro in 1925, Jimmy in 1923. Both men were nearing the end of their glory days, yet still mustered magical reserves to serve up one of the most thrilling fights of a golden era.
People had their hearts in their mouths that night as Canzoneri dug deep and rallied back from the precipice of destruction. He was nearly swept away in a frantic opening round as he teetered on the edge of the first knockout defeat of his career.
Tony was staggering and tottering drunkenly after being hit by three terrific right hands in succession by McLarnin. Jimmy, who always tried for the early knockout and was a merciless finisher, struck Canzoneri yet again and sent him into the ropes. McLarnin surged in for the kill, firing with both fists. Tony sought refuge in a clinch, but was soon rocking and reeling again as Jimmy ripped punches to the body and drove Canzoneri into a corner. The bell rang but it seemed that Tony had only bought himself a brief stay of execution.
Not so. One could never make such assumptions where Canzoneri was concerned. His comeback in the second round was a ferocious microcosm of everything he was. McLarnin, sensing an early night, picked right up from where he had left off and drilled Tony with a jolting left. More blows followed, but then Canzoneri sprang back to life like a sleepy man thrown under a cold shower. A left-right combination halted Jimmy’s march and three more lefts suddenly reversed the roles and cast Tony as the hunter. A right to the cheek forced McLarnin to hang on, but shelter was hard to come by as Canzoneri kept shelling him. A left-right combination dropped Jimmy to one knee as the crowd roared. People were jumping and jigging and throwing imaginary punches as they watched Canzoneri turning the tide and turning back the clock.
McLarnin, with his trademark pluck, refused to take a count. He needed to. He was quickly sucked back into the maelstrom and took a sustained pounding for the remainder of the round.
Thereafter, Tony Canzoneri was a man inspired who never lost the initiative. The pace of the fight remained exceptional right to the end as two of the ring’s greatest mechanics fired away at each other. Canzoneri had perhaps the smallest fists of any fighter of his day, yet possessed tremendous punching power. In the last minute of the ninth round, he unleashed one of his Sunday best and caught McLarnin flush on the jaw. Jimmy was all over the place and nearly out as Tony followed up with another big salvo.
McLarnin, as tough and as gutsy as any man who ever stepped into a ring, simply would not go under. But Jimmy was in a sorry state as he came out for the 10th and final round, the left side of his face swollen and bruised. Canzoneri was too tired by that stage to apply the finishing touches and cap a brilliant performance with a knockout. But it really didn’t matter. He was the hero of New York City.
In his later years, Tony Canzoneri would often think of his native Louisiana and the bright lights of New Orleans. The elegant little streets of the French quarter and the bright and garish lights of Market Street would come back to him and remind him of how it all began. Tony’s father ran a grocery store in the Italian area of town and worked ceaselessly to provide for his family.
But young Tony was already being drawn to another way of life. The aromas of different foods in the Italian section were deliciously hypnotic, but Canzoneri became equally addicted to the harsher smells and the rougher romance of the old fight clubs and gymnasiums. Tony idolised his oldest brother, Joe, who liked to box.
A pivotal moment in Canzoneri’s life as a youngster was when he shook hands with bantamweight legend, Pete Herman, who lived just three blocks away. Tony made up his mind he wanted to be like Pete.
Canzoneri got his first experience of fighting in the ring at 11 years of age and quickly began to impress the locals and his proud father. Basil Galiano, a good fighter who would be instrumental in launching Tony’s career in New York, gave the bullish kid every encouragement and playfully called him the Italian terror.
In 1924, Canzoneri’s father and brother Joe moved north to the Empire State to open a grocery store in Brooklyn. Young Tony and the rest of the family joined them later. At the tender age of 14, Tony was holding down a job with the Lucky Strike cigarette company and learning boxing technique at the local National Athletic Club.
The kid had a good eye. He watched other fighters and learned everything he could about different styles and the technical aspects of the game. He crammed 84 amateur fights into a year, but turning pro was his driving ambition. Canzoneri was a hustler too. With only a quarter in his pocket, he took the subway from Brooklyn to New York after learning that his pal Basil Galiano was working out at Lou Stillman’s gym. Sparring three rounds with Galiano, Tony caught the eye of the cigar-chomping talent spotters through the permanent blue cloud of smoke that permeated the tough gyms of the era.
Canzoneri was on his way. Manager Sammy Goldman soon took the kid under his wing, taking him to professional shows and letting him soak up the atmosphere and knowledge. By the time Tony turned pro, another great character had come on board in trainer Isadore Gastonfeld, known as Izzy the Painter.
Tony never forgot his first professional fight. In a 1955 interview, he told writer Stanley Weston, “It was July 27, 1925. Bob Levy matched me with Jack Gardner, who had a lot of fights. I had Sammy Goldman, Izzy the Painter and two others working in the corner.
“I knocked Gardner out with a left hook and right cross in the first round. Sammy said he didn’t have time to see if I could fight or not. Years later I met Gardner on Broadway. We’re still good friends. He told me he bet his whole purse on himself to lick me that night and lost it all. So I bought him a meal and a couple of drinks to make up for it. On December 23 of that year, Sammy got me a preliminary in the new Madison Square Garden. I boxed Danny Terris and knocked him out in four rounds. That was the very first knockout ever scored at the new Garden.”
Starting at bantamweight and thundering through the weight divisions up to lightweight and junior-welter, Canzoneri would thrill boxing crowds for the next 14 years in what seemed like an endless chain of fights against fellow greats. Aggressive, hard punching and durable, Tony was also a skillful and shrewd fighter into the bargain. He was a promoter’s dream and became the idol of the fans.
Could Canzoneri punch with history’s greatest? Could he ever. Sadly, the bare statistics of his record do not offer an accurate reflection of Tony’s hitting power, because of the breathtaking quality of his opposition.
You look at Canzoneri’s sprawling 175-fight record and struggle to find a name you don’t recognise. He scored just 44 knockouts in his 137 recorded wins, yet consider that he crossed swords with the following aces of the ring: Andre Routis, Bud Taylor, Johnny Dundee, Benny Bass, Al Singer, Sammy Mandell, Jackie “Kid” Berg, Billy Petrolle, Kid Chocolate, Barney Ross, Baby Arizmendi, Frankie Klick, Johnny Jadick, Lou Ambers, Jimmy McLarnin and Al “Bummy” Davis.
Nor could some of Tony’s other opponents be described as pushovers, among them California Joe Lynch, Bushy Graham, Wesley Ramey, Bobby Wolgast, Sammy Fuller, Leo Rodak and Al Roth.
Let us remember too that split titles in Canzoneri’s era were rare and that there were far fewer weight divisions. The old National Boxing Association (later to become the WBA) was already playing its mischievous games, but championships for the most part were legitimate and universally recognized.
Even in that tough climate, it seemed that Tony Canzoneri was competing for world honors every other week of the year at his irresistible peak. He drew and lost to Bud Taylor, the Blond Terror from Terre Haute, in unsuccessful bids for the bantamweight crown. Moving up, Tony defeated the great Johnny Dundee for the featherweight championship, lost it to Andre Routis and then took the brilliant Sammy Mandell to a split decision in a bid to lift the lightweight title.
Canzoneri took a terrible pasting from the flailing fists of Jackie “Kid” Berg, the “Whitechapel Whirlwind,” at Madison Square Garden in 1930 in the first match of a memorable trilogy. Yet 10 months later, Tony was the lightweight champion after blasting out Al Singer in one round in a huge upset.
Canzoneri avenged the Berg defeat by knocking out Jackie in the third round of their return, and then took their rubber match by decision. Tony was now in the prime of his life as a fighter and many of his greatest duels were still to come. But he didn’t win them all and one fighter who gave him fits was Philadelphia’s Johnny Jadick.
Johnny lost many fights he really should have won, but he had Canzoneri’s number to the extent where Tony would shake his head good-naturedly and say of Jadick, “There’s something about that guy!”
There certainly was. Jadick outsmarted Canzoneri to take the New Yorker’s junior welterweight crown at the Philadelphia Arena in 1932 and repeated the feat four months later at Philly’s Baker Bowl.
Four years would pass until Tony, then in the autumn of his career, would finally get his own back to some degree by copping a decision over Jadick in a largely meaningless 10-rounder at New York’s St. Nicholas Arena.
His Great Fights
Canzoneri could scarcely believe it when he lost his lightweight crown to Barney Ross in the summer of 1933. Nor could a whole bunch of other folks who saw the fight in the withering furnace of the Chicago Stadium. Said a dismayed Tony, “The decision was the surprise of my life and I have had many of them.”
Barney, of course, saw a different story. “I fought just as I pleased. I coasted myself in those closing rounds.”
A few moments of stunned silence followed the announcement of the verdict, before the crowd of 11,204 let rip with boos and hisses. Referee and former boxer Tommy Gilmour scored the fight a draw, but was outweighed by judges Edward Hintz and William A. Battye, who narrowly favored Ross.
Canzoneri and Ross set a hot pace and threw plenty of punches in a spirited 10-rounder. There were no knockdowns, but Tony suffered a cut to his left cheek from Barney’s precise and educated punching. Ross picked up a cut over his left eye.
Tony went for a quick knockout, but Barney showed his boxing skill and versatility by countering admirably and frustrating his opponent with a strong jab. Such was Barney’s elusiveness, there were times when Canzoneri missed him widely.
But tireless Tony could always move up a gear and he took charge from the third round. He loved nothing more than a good fight, but he could change his style when the occasion demanded. He began to box Ross with greater thought and intelligence and was in control of the fight after six rounds.
But Tony always had a little devil in him and could never resist having some fun. His cocky streak was his one consistent weakness. He loved to clown and coast when he believed he had enough points in the bag, a dangerous tactic that had caught him out in the past. It cost him dearly in his 1930 loss to the storming Billy Petrolle and was also a factor in his controversial split decision victory over Kid Chocolate.
Against Ross, Canzoneri brought to the table all the excellent qualities that made him one of the genuine greats. He possessed outstanding speed of hand and foot, had stamina in abundance and a granite chin. His straight right was an accurate and formidable weapon and he was a wonderful pressure fighter. He was no less proficient defensively, even though he carried his left hand very low.
But Tony thought he was cruising against Barney and the clown came out to play. Canzoneri began to dance around and stick out his chin invitingly, while Ross paid attention to his boxing and started tagging Tony with solid shots. Canzoneri sensed the danger and got back to serious work as he opened up with two-fisted attacks in the seventh round. In the eighth and ninth rounds, he tried to turn the bout into a slugging match, but Ross kept jabbing and finding Tony’s chin with left hooks.
The title was lost. Ross was the new champion and he defeated Canzoneri on points again three months later, when a frustrated Tony forfeited the sixth, eighth and ninth rounds on low blows.
But irrepressible Tony still had a couple of gems left in his locker. What he did at Madison Square in Nov. 1933 astonished everyone. In an eagerly awaited rematch with the brilliant Kid Chocolate, Canzoneri painted what was arguably the masterpiece of his career. Chocolate had been floored just once as a professional and never knocked out.
Then he ran into a hurricane. From the opening bell, Canzoneri was a revelation as he rushed the Cuban Bon Bon and rocked him with a big right. The Kid, usually so assured and beautifully poised, simply couldn’t get out of the starting blocks as Tony hustled and overpowered him.
At the start of the second round, Canzoneri drilled Chocolate with two big shots to the body, forcing the Kid to drop his guard. Switching his attack upstairs, Tony ripped a right to the chin that sent Chocolate stumbling back into a neutral corner.
Instinctively, Chocolate fought back and showed great pluck in doing so. But Canzoneri sensed his moment and moved in for the kill with calmness and precision. He cracked the Kid with a terrific smash to the chin and Chocolate collapsed face down. He rolled over onto his back at the count of seven, gamely hauled himself up at nine but fell back again to be counted out. Within two electric rounds, Canzoneri had obliterated one of the greatest little fighters that ever came down the trail.
It wasn’t enough. Tony wouldn’t rest until he was the lightweight champion again.
The Final Coronation
Tony Canzoneri was a 13-5 underdog when he was matched with Lou Ambers for the lightweight championship vacated by Barney Ross. It was May 1935, and Madison Square Garden was packed with 20,000 people.
Canzoneri’s fans didn’t quite know what to expect. The rumor had been circulating that Tony had only sparred for four rounds in training because he was concerned that his legs might not be good for the 15-round distance. He was still only 26, but there had been many hard fights against hard men.
Well, Tony had the legs that night. He also had those small, pumping fists, the same old fighting spirit and plenty of smarts on top. After decisively outscoring Ambers, Canzoneri heard those magical words from the veteran master of ceremonies, Joe Humphries: “….and once again champion of the world.”
Talking to reporters after the bout, mischievous Tony couldn’t resist performing an ironic little jig on those old and tired pins. “Hell, man, these legs were good for forty rounds,” he said. “I actually laughed to myself along about the seventh round because I knew that some folks would be worrying about them.”
The new champion had put forth a marvelous performance. He had all but blown away the man they called the Herkimer Hurricane. Off to a fast start, Canzoneri swept the first two rounds and then decked Ambers with a right hand flush to the jaw in the third. Lou gamely clambered to his feet, but another booming right had him in disarray at the bell. Thereafter, Tony was always the master.
Ambers never stopped trying and rallied magnificently to win the 14th round, but Tony sealed a magnificent performance with a grandstand finish in the final heat.
What a road Tony Canzoneri had traveled. He would charge on for another four years, but never again with the same success as the punishing fights finally took their toll on his broad and bullish little body. Ambers would come again to take his title and then defeat him in a rubber match. Jimmy McLarnin would give Tony a bad beating in a return go. Finally, in the winter of 1939, the shell of Canzoneri would be smashed by the vicious left hooker from Brownsville, Al “Bummy” Davis. No matter. Canzoneri had long ago booked his place among the giants of fistiana.
From New Orleans to New York. Tony Canzoneri had some kind of ride.
Mike Casey is a freelance journalist, artist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).