Invisible Italian American boxers

Invisible Italian American boxers – To the untrained eye, it seemed that prior to the 1920s there were few noteworthy American boxers of Italian origin—and a limited presence in the decades that followed. But behind many Irish boxing names, there frequently stood an olive-skinned, dark-haired fighter 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 benefitted from cheap immigrant 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 and led to frequent skirmishes, particularly in New York. Italians feared the Irish-controlled police force, leading some to change their names. One individual, Peter Robert Gagliardi, 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.

During this 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 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 to such anti-Italianism. Angelo Dundee, the legendary boxing trainer from Philadelphia 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. He changed his name to Casper Leon, yet he still bore the brunt of racist epithets and jeers from the predominantly Irish crowds. 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.

By 1910, more than three million Italian immigrants had arrived in the United States, and those that 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 and 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 crowds.

Those who refused to change their name 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, Caponi changed his name to TC O’Brien. For the next several decades, a host of other Italian boxers from all across the country followed this 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 under way, Chiariglione bellowed, “Oh, hell, just call me Jim Flynn.” From then on 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, Wisconsin, 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 Attell.

John DeJohn (Di Gianni) was a member of the famous fighting clan from Syracuse, New York and the eldest son of sharecroppers from Avellino, Campania. He grew up during the 1920s, fighting 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,” he reflected. “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 the 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 fighter’s 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.

By looking at the table of Italian American champions and title claimants we can see that during the twenties names like Tony Canzoneri, Frankie Genaro, Fidel La Barba and Mike Ballerino filled the boxing ring, but a significant 62.5% still used Irish/Anglicized names. In the next decade this figure declined to 50%. Between 1940-49 it is evident that the name changing practice is steadily becoming a thing of the past down to 36%.

That said Willie Pep (Guglielmo Papaleo) from Hartford, Connecticut was one boxing star who adopted a ring alias. He asked, “How could I fight with such a name [Papaleo]? It wasn’t a fighting name. I agreed with it. It worked out well for me. We changed our names to fit our styles.”  Pep confirmed that he had never been leaned upon to change his name and his manager Lou Viscusi was Italian. When Pep ruled the featherweight division there was an established presence and dominance of Italian American managers, promoters operating nationwide.

By the fifties there are hardly any Italian boxers using an Irish or Anglicized nom de guerre. They no longer faced a backlash simply because of their name. Champions Jake La Motta, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Tony De Marco, Paddy De Marco, Joey Giardello and Willie Pastrano and contenders Rocky Castellani, Joey Giambra, Ernie Durando and Danny Nardico could step into the ring under their real names and proudly represent those that came before them.




 Champions/title claimants

Hugo Kelly (Ugo Micheli)   1905-07, 1910 world middleweight title claimant

Kid Murphy (Peter Frascella)  1907 world bantamweight title claimant

Frankie Conley (Francesco Conte) 1910-11 world bantamweight title claimant

Johnny Wilson (Giovanni Panico) 1920-23 world middleweight champ

Johnny Dundee (Giuseppe Curreri) 1921-23, 1923 Jr-lightweight & 1923 featherweight champ

Carl Duane (Carlo Iacconetti)  1923-24 world junior-featherweight champ

Steve “Kid” Sullivan (Stefano Tricamo) 1924-25 world junior-lightweight champ

Eddie Martin (Eduardo Martino) 1924-25 world bantamweight champ

Rocky Kansas (Rocco Tozzo)  1925-26 world lightweight champ

Bushy Graham (Angelo Geraci) 1928-29 world (NYSAC) bantamweight champ

George Nichols (Phillip Nicolosi) 1932 world (NBA) light-heavyweight champ

Young Corbett III (Raffaele Giordano) 1933 world welterweight champ

Lou Ambers (Luigi D’Ambrosio)  1936-38, 1939-40 world lightweight champ

Jimmy Perrin (James La Cava) 1940 world (Louisiana) featherweight champ

Willie Pep (Guglielmo Papaleo) 1942-48, 1949-50 world featherweight  champ

Tippy Larkin (Antonio Pilliterri) 1946 world junior-welterweight champ

Joey Maxim (Giuseppe Berardinelli) 1950-52 world light-heavyweight champ

Editor’s Note: Rolando Vitale lives in Hertfordshire, England. This article is excerpted from his book The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955. A treasure trove of previously unpublished material with lengthy appendices to each chapter, the book is available in paperback and in kindle format from, and We here at TSS recommend it highly.

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Invisible Italian American boxers


Comment on this article


-Radam G :

Nice copy! And pugs and top talking heads have a long history for changing their names for many reasons. That is why I never understood haters for singling out the late, great GOAT Ali. I guess it is like your story goes. A certain type of ethnic name was always under attacked back in da day. Few people know that the late, great talking head (GTHOAT) Howard Cosell and the late, great trainer (GTOAT) Angelo Dundee changed their names. Nowadays top trainer, former two-division world champ, Joey Gamache also changed his name. Plus there are tons of Pinoy former outstanding pugs and champs out of Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, California, and Arizona that fought as Mexicans, blacks, Italians and when light enough as Irish and German because of ethnic hate and/or ignorance of a name. To this day, they are under all their ethnicities on boxrec as champs instead of Filipinos. In the old TSS Universe, I was constantly attack by readers with the pseudonyms Anony, Leroy Peters and Candor because they believed me to be an Arab Muslim or a black one because of my TSS moniker of "Radam" and my syntax of writing in boksing slanguage and jive. To this day, I have yet to meet an Arab, black or Muslim anywhere in the world with the name "Radam," which is Latin, Filipino, Portuguese and German. The various spellings are Radamo, Radamez, Radames and Rodham -- the maiden name of the ex U.S. First Lady, who is running for the U.S. pretense -- I mean president. Boxing, with hiding and changing of one's name has change a lot of hate things. Holla!

-Radam G :

The following clip is from an old movie's representation of how ev'ybodee and dey momma in one of Pops Butterfly's inner-group ethnicities hated the GOAT after he dropped the born name of Cassius Clay.
-> Holla!

-Tex Hassler :

I have done enough research in boxing to know you cannot know a fighters heritage from his name. Many, many fought under other names. In fact a staggering amount of them did just that.

-ArneK. :

In the piece that we excerpted from his book, Rolando Vitale mentions one of my favorite old-time fighters: Frankie Conley. Conley beat Monte Attell to lay claim to the world bantamweight title. This 1910 fight on Washington's Birthday lasted into the 42nd round, and we are talking about Queensberry (three-minute) rounds. When this great battle of attrition was over, said the ringside reporter for the LA Times, Monte Attell "was so badly disfigured that his own mother would hardly have known him." In terms of national name recognition, Conley had the misfortune of winning this amazing fight on the same day that Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast went 40 rounds for Nelson's lightweight title. Nelson vs. Wolgast was a much bigger fight, a fight that hogged the front page of all the sport sections, reducing Conley-Attell to only a few column inches in most of the important dailies. Depending on the source, Frankie Conley was 19, 20, or 21 years old when he fought Monte Attell. According to BoxRec, Conley's record heading into that fight was 27 wins, 4 losses, and 9 draws. His record after that 42-round war was 12-26-7. Monte Attell's erosion was even more severe. In the last fights of his career, when he was almost blind, Attell was little more than punching bag. The 42-round fight ruined both guys. I don't subscribe to the opinion that old-time fighters were more talented than modern fighters, but Conley and his cohorts in that era were rough customers with astounding stamina. And I believe that Frankie Conley -- the boy from Kenosha, born in Italy -- would be considered (at the least) a borderline Hall of Famer today if he hadn't participated in that 42-round fight, the sort of battle from which no boxer can ever be the same again.

-deepwater2 :

what a great piece and comments. nice work. I always had a silly idea to call myself John Doe from parts unknown. Midge kelly from the movie was a cute name.

-Bernie Campbell :

Outside of Peter Manfredo, We Got Dominick Brazeale? Put that in your pipe!