July 11, 1943: His fists helped him survive the tough streets of Lawrenceville, then became the tools of his trade as he fought his way to a boxing title and earned induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
One of the genuine characters to come out of Pittsburgh, Ferdinand Henry John Zivic, commonly known as Fritzie, was the youngest of five brothers. He fought professionally for 18 years, his last prize fight coming in 1949. But his fame lives on.
Two older brothers also boxed, giving the family the name of “The Fighting Zivics.” But Fritzie climbed the highest peaks and etched his name in the record books.
Born to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother, Fritzie learned to fight at an early age. To venture out onto the streets, he knew he had to fight. And he was never one to want to stay inside.
He turned pro in 1931 during the depths of the Great Depression, earning meager payouts while working his way up the ranks, including a bout with fellow Pittsburgher Billy Conn.
The high water mark of Zivic’s career came on Oct. 4, 1940, when he defeated Henry Armstrong in New York City’s Madison Square Garden to win the welterweight title eligible to those who weighed 147 pounds or less.
Three months later, he won a rematch with Armstrong, nicknamed Homicide Hank. That fight at the Garden drew 23,170 fans. Zivic is said to have been the first fighter other than a heavyweight to sell out the Garden.
Known as “The Croat Comet,” Zivic held the title for nine months and 25 days, losing on a decision to Freddie Cochrane on July 29, 1941. In 1940, he was honored as Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year in the award’s second year of existence.
But Zivic didn’t stop boxing. He had a couple of memorable fights with Sugar Ray Robinson. And he had a series of bouts with Jake LaMotta of “Raging Bull” fame. The LaMotta fights left both fighters bloodied and bruised. Zivic won only once against LaMotta — on July 12, 1943 at Forbes Field. But even the local sportwriters opined that Zivic was the beneficiary of generous scoring in his hometown.
Zivic was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993. It was said that he was not only one of the best fighters in history, but one of the dirtiest. Zivic made no bones about his tactics in the ring. His motivation was to get the other guy before he got him.
“You’re not in there to play the piano,” he would say.
One of his favorite tactics was to flick out a long left hand, loop it behind an opponent’s neck and draw him him close to deliver a couple of right uppercuts. He would thumb an opponent in the eye and use head butts and elbows to inflict damage. Zivic said his best punch was a left hook — to an opponent’s groin. But his fights were always filled with action, which made him a popular fighter even in defeat.
After hanging up the gloves in 1949, Zivic tried his hand at several jobs — as a boxing promoter, a bartender, a laborer on an Allegheny County work crew and finally as a boilermaker in a steel mill.
He died in 1984 at the age of 71 after being hospitalized three years earlier with a stroke.