New York's Madison Square Garden—the one at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, that is—has seen its last athletic contest. There's a new Garden now and they're going to show movies or rent apartments or do some such quiet thing where the fight fans used to yell. But it will be a long time before the echoes of some of the wild nights at the old Garden die down. Close your eyes tight now, and maybe you can hear the screams of the crowd the night Bummy Davis met Fritzie Zivic there some 27 years ago.
Like those of Ivan the Terrible, Charles the Mad and Eric the Red, the nom de guerre by which one Abraham Davidoff (alias Al Davis) entered history is both lurid and misleading. Bummy earned it as a kid along Livonia Avenue in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Yet his reputation as a "dirty fighter" rose out of a single 154-second rampage in the Garden in 1940. Before that, Bummy's deportment in the ring was as exemplary as that of any other man who earns his living trying to convert the gray matter encased in the skull of an opponent into runny gelatin. Bummy's real sin was artlessness.
His opponent on that memorable night was a boxer who pursued his craft with genuine deviousness. To poke a soggy thumb into a clear blue eye, to grasp an unwary head and pull it down into the path of a short uppercut, to lay open an eyebrow with a well-placed butt—these were the grace notes with which Fritzie Zivic embellished his performance.
The best of Pittsburgh's five fighting Zivic brothers, Fritzie had boxed for 10 years all over the country with indifferent success. In the course of his travels he had inflicted considerable damage with his various extremities on local heroes. In turn, his nose had fronted such violent storms that Red Smith likened its shape to "a mine cave-in."
Fame and a modest fortune reached Fritzie simultaneously in October 1940, when he met and defeated Welterweight Champion Henry Armstrong in New York. Exhausted after 15 brutal rounds and blinded by his own blood, Armstrong could not withstand Zivic's closing surge and lost the title. Six weeks later, on November 15, Zivic was matched against Bummy Davis in a non-title bout.
The first round was a true measure of the ability of the two fighters. Davis, his record nourished by soft touches in the small clubs and sustained by a truly lethal left hook, was face to face with a thoroughly experienced champion. He rushed Zivic crudely, trying to put over his one effective punch. Zivic simply moved away and stabbed Bummy with long left jabs. Occasionally, as Bummy bore in, Fritzie hit him with straight rights to the head. At the end of one round the blood was bubbling out through Bummy's thick lips.
The treatment dished out in those first-round clinches proved to be more than a proud son of Brownsville could endure. At the bell for round 2, Davis walked across the ring and fired a left hook that landed, according to one reporter, "about a foot above Zivic's knees." Zivic's face screwed up in pain, then settled into righteous indignation as he glanced at Referee Billy Cavanagh. Cavanagh was looking elsewhere.
Davis returned to the attack. Another low blow brought a chorus of boos from the crowd. Zivic backed away, but Davis pursued him, ripping two more left hooks into his groin. Fritzie, his face contorted with pain, hopped stiffly, first on one leg, then on the other. He fired back at Davis, rocking his head and drawing blood again from his mouth. But Bummy, in his passion, was impervious to punishment. He crowded Zivic, hooked him low, shifted his attack to the ribs and then lowered it once more. Only once did Referee Cavanagh warn him to keep his punches up.
Most of the crowd was standing on chairs now, roaring protestor encouragement. A wadded newspaper landed in the ring, then somebody's hat. The referee kept his fascinated gaze on the fighters, like a young lab assistant observing a couple of ferocious insects. General John J. Phelan, the elderly chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, left his seat and toddled through the aisles outside the ring, looking for all the world like an agitated Mr. Pickwick as he frantically wigwagged at the referee. Davis dug another left into Zivic's groin. Finally, at 2:34 of the second round, jolted from his rapture by the sight of General Phelan, Cavanagh stopped the fight.
Or, at least, he tried to. But Bummy was not yet ready. His answer to the referee's restraining gesture was to bounce a left hook off Zivic's skull. Faced with a more orthodox attack now, Zivic quickly solved it by hooking Davis twice in the face, bloodying his nose. Handlers from both corners, as well as a squad of burly special cops, poured through the ropes and tried to drag the berserk Davis to his corner. Bummy, his arms pinioned now, aimed a kick at Zivic, who had plunged into the struggling mob. Missing the intended target area on Fritzie's trunks, the kick instead caught Referee Cavanagh in the thigh. Bummy finally was hauled, spitting and cursing, from the ring.
The fight was awarded to Zivic on a foul. Even while the excited crowd streamed out of the Garden, journalists and politicians prepared to publish their outrage to the world. General Phelan, calling the fight "the most disgraceful thing I ever saw," banned Davis from boxing in New York state "for life."
Unfortunately for his own well-being, Davis was offered too many opportunities to redeem himself. Having joined the Army shortly afterward, he was granted a pass by his commanding general and a pardon by General Phelan on condition that he fight Zivic again for an Army charity. In a bout notable for its strict adherence to the commission's regulations, Zivic dealt Davis a savage beating and stopped him in the 10th round. But this orthodox defeat did nothing to break Bummy's rebellious spirit. Some four years later he was shot to death as he charged, bare-handed, into an armed gang trying to hold up the store of a friend in Brownsville. He was still trying to get that left hook across when he went down.