In boxing history, the hometown decision is an integral part of the dark side of the business. Marvin Hagler still feels that his first professional loss in 1976 to Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts in Philadelphia was the quintessential hometown decision. Philadelphia fans actually agreed when they lustily booed the result. Lamon Brewster and trainer Jesse Reid feel that they have to knockout Andrew Golota to be treated fairly in The Foul Pole’s adopted hometown of Chicago this Saturday.
Sometimes, the curse of the hometown decision can work in unexpected and mysterious ways. For instance, ultra-talented Tyrone Everett was robbed in his hometown of Philadelphia after clearly outboxing Alfredo Escalera for the WBC super featherweight crown on November 30, 1976.
Funny things happen in this sport, and when you least expect it. Boxing is often the theater of the bizarre where conventional wisdom is often wrong. Fighting in someone’s hometown can be an unnecessarily complex endeavor where the outcome is best determined by a knockout.
A great example of this phenomenon is the Jake LaMotta vs. Fritzie Zivic series of the 1940s. In a six-month stretch between 1943 and 1944, LaMotta and Zivic fought four times. Three of the four bouts ended in disputed split decisions, and three of the four bouts occurred in the hometowns of each fighter. LaMotta went 3-1 against Zivic, but once again, it wasn’t that simple.
The first Jake LaMotta vs. Fritzie Zivic bout occurred on June 10, 1943 in Zivic’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. LaMotta was a major force in the middleweight division. At the time, LaMotta was a month shy of his twenty-second birthday. The Bronx Bull was already 1-2 against Sugar Ray Robinson, and was a veteran of over forty professional fights. He was young, hungry and eager for a title shot.
In stark contrast, Zivic was considered a grizzled, fading, thirty-year-old former welterweight champion. Zivic was one of the most active fighters in boxing history. Fritzie had participated in an eye-popping 170 bouts when he and LaMotta first met. Leading up to the bout, Zivic had lost four of his last seven contests.
Regardless of Zivic’s latest showings, he hadn’t lost in his hometown since dropping a decision to Charley Burley in 1939. Nevertheless, some of Zivic’s most ardent supporters were predicting doom for the quotable, carefree, and peripatetic former champion. Even Zivic’s Ph.D. in butting, thumbing and heeling wouldn’t be able to overcome natural wear and tear and LaMotta’s strength and stamina.
As it turned out, Zivic proved the skeptics wrong, but not without unexpected controversy. Weighing 151½ to LaMotta’s 155½, Zivic was too smart and experienced for the young contender. He outboxed the charging LaMotta before the hometown fans, and seemed to win an easy ten round decision. Zivic’s biographer, Timpav, describes the action and controversy surrounding LaMotta vs. Zivic 1 in his book Champ: Fritzie Zivic: The Life and Times of the Croat Comet.
“At the start of the seventh, Zivic appeared to have the decision in his lap. LaMotta must have sensed it too, for he started rushing in that frame, and continued the same tactics in the 8th. Zivic, unruffled, took the 9th round with ease, and coasted to an apparent victory.
LaMotta staged a last-round rally to win that stanza, but his face was splattered in blood flowing from gashes over both eyes.
When the decision was announced, the crowd went wild. It just didn’t make sense to the fans who just saw the Crafty Croat fight one of the most brilliant battles in his long career.
Even LaMotta was amazed when the result was announced.
Referee Al Graybar tallied six rounds for LaMotta, four for Zivic; Judge Kid Stinger had six for LaMotta, two for Zivic and two even; and Judge George Martzo scored it six for Zivic, three for LaMotta, and one even.”
Fans reportedly booed the decision for a full twenty minutes. Along with several top writers, Timpav reported that Barney Ross and LaMotta’s pilot, Mike Capriano, thought Zivic won comfortably. The decision was so bad that when the rematch was ordered, new officials were appointed to oversee the action.
Zivic won the fifteen round rematch on July 12, 1943. The bout was a bloody, ebb and flow war, but it was also close and controversial. Zivic was effective in the middle rounds after taking a beating from LaMotta in the first round. LaMotta ultimately took charge and shut Zivic out in the championship rounds. The scorecards read: 8-5-2, 8-7, 5-7-3.
This time, most observers thought LaMotta won. Timpav reported that an eerie stench loomed over both decisions. In fact, part of the requirement for LaMotta vs. Zivic 3 entailed that the bout wouldn’t take place in Pittsburgh.
The rubber match occurred on November 12, 1943 at Madison Square Garden. LaMotta weighed 161 to Zivic’s 149¼. LaMotta was a 3-1 favorite.
LaMotta was the hometown fighter, but Zivic was extraordinarily popular in NYC. The 23,190 fans who witnessed Zivic’s welterweight title defense stoppage of Henry Armstrong on January 17, 1941 remains a Madison Square Garden attendance record.
As LaMotta would discover, being the hometown fighter isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For starters, Zivic successfully bargained for five-ounce gloves with hopes of cutting LaMotta to shreds. Timpav describes the action and controversy.
“For the first five rounds it was a pip of a brawl, with Zivic apparently ahead on points. The Croat Comet cut Jake’s eye in the 4th, but LaMotta never backtracked. Fritzie got his foe to straighten up out of his familiar crouches with telling hooks and uppercuts in the early rounds.
Starting with the 6th, Jake’s punishing punches began to slow Zivic down. A cut was opened over Fritz’s eye in the 7th. The 8th, 9th and 10th rounds had LaMotta in control all the way. He showed his good form in the 9th, when he stormed over Zivic from all angles. They were still slugging it out hard at the final bell.
Jake took the decision, but it wasn’t unanimous. Referee Eddie Joseph voted for LaMotta, 6-4, as did Judge Marty Monroe. But the third official, Judge Jack Goodwin, gave 7 to Zivic and 3 to Jake.”
Much to the chagrin of LaMotta, his hometown fans reportedly rooted for Zivic during the entire bout, and loudly booed the split decision victory in his favor.
Fighting in hometowns is indeed tricky.
LaMotta and Zivic would fight once more on January 14, 1944. For the first time, the bout occurred at a neutral venue: Olympia Stadium in Detroit. By the same token, for the first time, the bout ended without controversy. LaMotta dominated Fritzie over ten rounds despite being penalized for low blows in the second and fourth round. The scorecards read: 8-2, 8-2, 6-3-1.
LaMotta and Zivic were two of the toughest and most hardened fighters in boxing history. Their combined careers totaled nearly 340 bouts and over 2,600 rounds of ring activity. Despite the depth and veracity of their skill and will, neither could escape the tangled and intricate web of the hometown decision.