To the untrained eye, it seemed that prior to the 1920s there were few noteworthy American boxers of Italian origin and only a limited presence in the decades that followed. But behind many Irish boxing names there frequently stood an olive-skinned, dark-haired battler with a hidden identity. More than one thousand Italian professional boxers went by Irish pseudonyms.
Italian immigrants entered boxing at a time when the booming American economy took advantage of Italian muscle to fuel the nation’s growth. However, the ruling elites – the very ones who benefited from cheap labor – disparaged Italians, describing them as “biologically incapable” and a “burden on America.”
In addition to enduring these attacks, Italian immigrants came into conflict with the established Irish working class in almost every sphere of society. They fought over municipal and construction jobs. They argued over church matters within the predominantly Irish-controlled Catholic Church. In many instances, Italians were forced to worship in the back, and sometimes even in the basement of these buildings.
Neighborhood enmity spilled onto the streets with frequent skirmishes, particularly in New York. Italians feared the Irish controlled police force leading some to change their names. This included one Peter Robert Gagliardi, who changed his name to Bobby Gleason in an attempt to keep the Irish cops from beating him up. Gleason later became a boxer before opening the famous Gleason’s Gym in the Bronx, a place where the likes of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson trained.
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During the pre-World War I era, most Italian men were laborers, many of them working in railroad construction camps and on large-scale city-wide projects. Their Irish counterparts complained that they worked for lower pay and longer hours. Brawls ensued, and in some cases the problem got so bad that separate crews were delineated along ethnic lines. The strife contributed to an overall anti-Italian sentiment. Some of that sentiment painted Italians as anarchists and or communists. It also led to the enactment of immigration quotas, singling the group out as undesirable and inferior. With such prolonged stigmatization, many Italians opted for a name change.
The world of boxing was not immune from anti-Italianism. Angelo Dundee, the legendary boxing trainer from Philadelphia who trained champions like Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, said: “In the early 1900s it wasn’t advantageous to have an Italian name. Italians were not held in high esteem by the host population. We lived in Italian ghettos, held menial jobs, spoke funnily and ate spaghetti and ice cream and were considered by the average American to be “gangsters” and members of crime societies.”
The Palermo-born Gaspare Leone was the first notable Italian prizefighter, competing between 1891-1904. Leone changed his name to Casper Leon, yet he still bore the brunt of racist epithets and jeers from the predominantly Irish club patrons. By the time he retired the derision had not diminished. In 1903 the National Police Gazette captured this, reporting that:
“It is amusing to note the way in which the crowd at ringside receives the different nationalities of fighters. There is always a hearty cheer and earnest backing for the Irishman; grins and good-humored tolerance for the German and virulent hostility to the Italian and the Negro. Put a boy of any race in with an Italian and everybody in the house who is not himself of Italian origin at once begins to root frantically against the son of ancient Rome. It is to the credit of the Italians that they have pushed so far forward against such adverse influences.”
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Immigrants had arrived in the United States, and those who pursued boxing quickly discovered that an Irish cohort dominated the sport. Boxers like John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett were part of the steady stream of Irishmen who held the heavyweight title, creating the misconception that nobody could be successful in the ring unless they had an Irish name. This led many Italian fighters to adopt a pseudonym so that their ability to make a living in the ring wasn’t defeated before they even set foot in it.
The Irish stronghold over what was America’s second most popular sport at the time gave them a virtual monopoly over it and allowed them to dictate the rules of engagement to ethnic newcomers. According to Carmelo Bazzano, Professor Emeritus of Physical Education at the University of Massachusetts, commercial considerations also pressured Italians into adopting non-Italian names. Irish or English promoters sought to manipulate the cosmetics of boxing. They forced Italian boxers to adopt Irish names, thereby producing an army of “ready-made Irish” boxers who were palatable to the predominantly Irish patrons.
Those who refused to change their names frequently complained at the lack of regular fights. Minnesota native Tony Caponi who fought between 1902-1917, blamed his lack of booking on his surname, believing that to promoters his real name sounded “more like a music master than a prizefighter.” For a time he changed it to TC O’Brien. For the next several decades, a host of other Italian boxers from all across the country followed the trend.
New Jersey-native and pre-World War I heavyweight contender Andrew Chiariglione claimed his Irish moniker on a Utah boxing card. Irritated by the announcers’ inability to pronounce his surname correctly and anxious to get the fight underway, Chiariglione bellowed, “Oh, hell, just call me Jim Flynn.” From then one he became known as Fireman Jim Flynn, the only fighter to ever knock out Jack Dempsey.
The Calabria-born Francesco Conte settled with his family in Kenosha, WI where he grew up attending Catholic School. When he flattened the school bully one day, his Irish friends started calling him Frankie Conley. He later adopted the alias and in 1910, Conley laid claim to the world bantamweight title when he knocked out Monte Atell.
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Vincent Esposito, who hailed from South Philadelphia, fought as a flyweight boxer during the early 1930s and changed his name to Jimmy Dugan just to get fights. Later on, he reflected on the South Philly Italian enclave that “all of the fighters down there were (Italians), but almost none of them used their real names.”
John De John (Di Gianni), a member of the famous fighting clan from Syracuse, NY and the eldest son of sharecroppers from Avellino, Campania. He grew up during the 1920s, managing and training Italian boxers through the 1940s and 1950s, and remembered the strain on his fellow countrymen to conform. “The Italians were forced to change their names because the Irish and the Germans were running everything. They had to change their names otherwise they would have got the worst of it. They got better jobs.”
While no area remained untouched, having an Irish moniker was a necessary evil just to get a foothold in the boxing arena. It offered more prominent billing on boxing cards and ensured a wider appeal to audiences expecting to see men with crowd-pleasing qualities that were synonymous with Irish-American prizefighters.
But with greater participation and frequent championship success, Italian boxers started to become more visible. As the economic position of Italians improved, vigorous support from the fighters' local community followed. Italian crowds clamored to see their hero enter the ring under his real name.
The boxing landscape started to shift, and shrewd promoters began to exploit neighborhood inter-ethnic tensions by bringing them into the ring. Ticket sales rose and boxers with Italian names grew to be so common that they started to gain acceptance. From the 1920s to the 1950s Italian boxers with Irish names steadily became a thing of the past. Instead, names like Tony Canzoneri, Jake la Motta (the “Bronx Bull”), Joey Giardello, Carmen Basilio, and Rocky Marciano filled the boxing ring. By the mid-century, Italian boxers didn’t have to face a backlash simply because of their name. They could finally step into the ring under their real names, ones that proudly represented those who came before them.
Rolando Vitale is the author of “The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955”. This is currently available in paperback and in ebook format from www.amazon.com www.amazon.co.uk and www.ypdbooks.com