The ‘killer instinct’
West End's Battaglia fought for Canada at 1928 Olympics and was among world's top welterweight boxers in 1930s
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/09/2017 (1977 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
West End boxer Frankie Battaglia may not have won any professional championships during his stellar career, but for thousands of Depression weary Winnipeggers that didn’t matter. He thrilled them with his aggressive boxing style that took him from local theatre bouts to a title fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The Battaglia story begins in Manitoba after Frankie’s parents, Nunzio and Angela, came to Canada from their native Italy in 1903. Four years later, they owned a two-storey building on Ellice Avenue at Victor Street. The main floor was home to Battaglia’s Fruit and Confectionery store while upstairs was the living quarters where the couple raised their eleven children.
Francisco, or “Frankie”, was born in 1910 and his career path was set early in life thanks to a brief encounter with heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey.
Dempsey spent a week in Winnipeg in November 1921 as part of a touring sports show that performed at Pantages Theatre.
When the boy met him by chance while delivering groceries, he told the champ he wanted to be a boxer when he grew up. Dempsey encouraged him to follow his dream.
As a boy, Battaglia was part of the One Big Union Athletic Club and it was there that he formally launched his amateur career in 1926. By the time the 1927 provincial boxing championship took place the following March, Battaglia was boxing under the YMCA banner.
The 16-year-old fought his way to the finals where he beat Paul Schiffer for the provincial bantamweight title. A Free Press reporter called the bout a “treat to watch” and commended Frankie for his “clever display of footwork and shifting.”
With Frankie and his father spending more time at the gym, it meant less time for the store. The Battaglias closed up shop in 1926 and Mrs. Battaglia managed a café on Logan Avenue with three of her children, including Frankie, as staff. Two years later, they moved back to Ellice Avenue near Arlington Street to live above another café that they ran until the 1960s.
The biggest break of Frankie’s early career came in the summer of 1928.
Six boxers were chosen to represent Manitoba at the national Olympic boxing trials in Montreal that July. It was in preparation for the Summer Games in Amsterdam, Holand later that year. Battaglia was not chosen as one of the six, but three weeks before the event, one of the boxers broke a bone in his hand while training.
Battaglia was picked to fill the void and sent to Chicago for an intensive two-week training session.
In Montreal, the 150-pound Battaglia beat his first lightweight division opponent from Toronto. A Canadian Press story noted he: “Showed more ring generalship than many of the competitors in the heavier classes”.
His semi-final fight was against a Montrealer named McCormack. The match went the distance with most fans and media feeling that Battaglia had the upper hand. When the decision went to McCormick it was reported that: “2,000 fans hooted, yelled, hissed and booed for a solid 15 minutes.”
Later that night, when the roster of boxers chosen for the Canadian Olympic squad —which should have only contained the names of the winners from each weight division— was released, Battaglia’s name also appeared. He was the only Manitoban to make the cut.
At the Olympics, Battaglia fought once, against South African Bobbie Smith. A Canadian Press story summed up the bout: “Battaglia was aggressive and landed some telling blows in the fight, which was a furious battle, but Smith gained the decision.”
Battaglia’s achievement was still celebrated in the local press and by local sports fans. Soon after his return to Winnipeg, he was feted at city hall by Mayor Daniel McLean and presented with a signet ring on behalf of the city.
After his Olympic experience, Battaglia announced he was turning professional.
His first pro bout was against Nick Lyster, who at the time was fighting under the name Frankie Jackson, at the Walker Theatre on November 26, 1928. It was another close match Battaglia ended up losing. He would get his own back, though, a month later when he was the victor in a rematch.
Fight statistics compiled by the International Boxing Research Organization show Battaglia went his next 20 fights, until March 1930, without a loss. Over the next year, he lost two of fourteen matches.
It was after this successful run Battaglia’s management decided it was time to relocate to the U.S. for better opportunities. It wasn’t long before the American sports media took notice of the young Winnipegger.
Venerable boxing magazine The Ring published an annual ratings list which was a compilation of the opinions of more than 100 boxing journalists from across the United States. Battaglia first made the middleweight list in 1931 in eighth position before jumping to number one in 1932. He remained in the top ten for the next five years.
His 1932 rating was no doubt due to a surprise knock out of Ben Jeby at Chicago Stadium. Jeby was the third-ranked middleweight in the world and by far the favourite to win the fight. Battaglia needed just 80 seconds to send him to the canvas.
Esteemed boxing journalist and referee George Barton wrote later that year: “Battaglia is a natural fighter. He does things instinctively, seldom makes any false moves and possesses the killer instinct in the ultimate. Battaglia packs a powerful punch in either glove and throws his whole weight and strength into the back of them.”
Jeby recovered from his knockout and went on to become the World Middleweight Champion. He and Battaglia met again in a title match at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Jan. 13, 1933.
New York bookmakers gave Jeby a slight 6 to 5 edge. In Winnipeg, however, there was little doubt of who the winner would be.
Boxing clubs and hotels advertised ticker tape play-by-play results. The Winnipeg Tribune set up a sound system in Trinity Church’s hall offering up-to-the-second readouts of wire updates transmitted from ringside.
As with most of Battaglia’s fights, it was long and hard-fought. Jeby delivered a punch in the second round that caused Battaglia’s eye to swell. As the match went on, Battaglia had the champ reeling on a couple of occasions in the fifth and sixth rounds, but once his eye completely closed he was wide open to attacks from Jeby’s left.
A wire story report describes the twelfth and final round: “It was the left-handed thumping that distorted Battaglia’s handsome features into a bumpy, unrecognizable mass that caused the crowd to shout for an end, and finally the referee to halt the bout.”
Despite the defeat, Battaglia was back in action four months later and back to his winning ways. He would not get another shot at a title match, however, until 1937.
On May 11, 1937, World Middleweight Champion Freddie Steele was scheduled to fight Ken Overlin in Seattle. Weeks before the fight, however, Overlin came down with jaundice and Battaglia was chosen as his replacement. Some saw it as a curious selection as even though Battaglia was still winning fights, many felt he was reaching the twilight of his career.
Steele made short work of Battaglia. Scheduled to go fifteen rounds, the champ scored his first knockdown 32 seconds into the first round. Battaglia hit the canvas again in the second and the knockout came in the third.
The defeat prompted Winnipeg Tribune sports columnist Herbert Manning to declare: “It must have been apparent to Battaglia’s supporters at ringside in Seattle last night that the Winnipeg Italian is through as a front-rank middleweight contender.”
After a stay in Winnipeg to visit family Battaglia returned briefly to the ring.
His last fight was just a few months later on Dec. 10, 1937 against George Black of Milwaukee.
He had beaten Black handily three years earlier, but this time found himself on the losing end of the match. He later recounted to a reporter: “When I found myself getting hit by a fighter I’d been able to handle easily, I knew it was time to quit.”
)Battaglia finished his 103 bout professional boxing career with 93 wins, 53 of those knockouts.
At the age of 27 Battaglia found himself retired from sports with not a lot of money to show for his work. Even his title fight against Steele had earned him only $5,000. This was thanks mainly to the Depression, which kept both ticket prices and purses small.
His post-boxing career was spent in the U.S. and included running a health farm in Wisconsin then a couple of short-lived restaurant ventures.
He eventually settled in southern California with his second wife and three children and a career in corporate security for the Douglas Aircraft Company.
Frankie Battaglia died in California of a heart attack in December 1971 at the age of 61.
In a 1966 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press’s Maurice Smith, Battaglia was asked if he had any regrets about his boxing career. He said he had none, adding: “Remember, when I began it was the Dirty Thirties and a kid was lucky to get a job. So where else could I have done as well as I did and earn as much money but in the ring?”
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
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