Pittsburgh sports fans are familiar with local celebrities like “Mean” Joe Greene, Roberto Clemente and Mario Lemieux, but what about Harry Greb, Billy Conn, and Fritzie Zivic? Although it’s not as popular as football, hockey and baseball, Pittsburgh has a storied boxing history.
Douglas Cavanaugh, a Burbank, Calif. native, has written about boxing for 24 years. He documents Pittsburgh’s fighting history on his Facebook page, Pittsburgh Boxing: A Pictorial History. He said he is working toward publishing a book based on his research.
90.5 WESA’s Ty Polk spoke with Cavanaugh about his love for Pittsburgh’s boxing legacy.
Their interview was edited for content and clarity.
TY POLK: You’re a native of California, so what intrigued you to write about Pittsburgh’s fighting history?
DOUGLAS CAVANAUGH: I noticed that a vast number of boxers that I liked were from Pittsburgh. Guys like Billy Conn, Harry Greb, Fritzie Zivic, Sammy Angott and Frank Moran. I wondered what was in the water there. Pittsburgh isn’t a big city compared to fight towns like Chicago or Philadelphia. I also noticed that as I did the research, Pittsburgh was the only town that didn’t have many books on its boxing history. Pittsburgh has largely been overlooked, which is amazing considering how many world champions and top contenders came from there.
POLK: Were there times you dug through the archives of the Pittsburgh Press and weren’t able to find a certain fight or fighter? Did it ever get frustrating going through all of those incomplete records?
CAVANAUGH: Yes, but it was part of the fun of researching it. I got to dig through these old newspaper archives and find these fights. It was like uncovering a lost civilization. It’s exciting and I enjoy it. What I had to bring to the project, and in turn bring to the people of Pittsburgh was, “Hey here’s your history.” People know about Greene, Lemieux and Clemente. They might have heard the name Harry Greb, but they don’t know about how he’s arguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time and he’s from Garfield. Greb slaughtered people from middleweight to heavyweight. I believe this something that should be brought to the forefront.
POLK: Who are your favorite fighters?
CAVANAUGH: Fritzie Zivic was a comedian and so darn funny. He could be on the Pittsburgh nightclub circuit easily. The image everyone has of him is this flat-nose, sneering villain, and I hated the way he looked at first. You immediately want to hate him when you read about his tough reputation and see his picture, but when you read more about him you learn he’s a charming rascal. His opponents loved him and wanted to hang out with him. Fritzie was considered the worst boxer out of his three Olympian brothers, but in the "Golden Age of Pittsburgh Boxing" during the 1920s, he did better than all of them.
Charley Burley is another fighter I like. Troy Maxson from August Wilson’s Fences was based on him. Wilson grew up across the street from Burley and admired him. In real life, Burley was the opposite of the character, he was gracious, had a practical view on life. He was a great fighter. One fighter he beat handedly in their prime, Archie Moore, said he was, “Slick as lard, and twice as greasy.”
POLK: Steelers founder Art Rooney was also an acclaimed boxer. How is boxing connected to other sports in Pittsburgh?
CAVANAUGH: Rooney was considered a hot young prospect in the late 1910s, and he qualified for the 1920 Olympics. He was knocking everybody out, he was a killer. However, in the 1920s he decided to pursue other things like baseball and football.
In the 1930s during the Great Depression, Art began financing boxing with Barney McGinley and later created the Rooney-McGinley Boxing Club. It became a big deal and everybody wanted to fight for them because they knew they’d get paid and there was no ego, they were about principle and honesty. Art was the figurehead of boxing in Pittsburgh. For Pittsburgh, boxing was head-to-head with baseball in popularity from the 1920s to 1960s. When Billy Conn would fight, half the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers were in the audience. He would invite celebrities to come down to fights. Everybody wanted to be a part of the boxing scene in Pittsburgh. It was a glamorous time.
POLK: What do you hear from your followers about your page?
CAVANAUGH: When I made the page, suddenly people were coming left and right asking if I had heard of their grandpa and exchanging photos and newspaper clips. I’ve had people tell me the page brings them to tears. They say their grandfather was an obscure fighter, and then I would find five articles and eight pictures of him. They love the stories and anecdotes because it’s been lost. If you want stories on New York City boxing, there are lots of books where you can find it. Pittsburgh had its own scene and it hasn’t been captured enough in book form or website form. It’s had a rich history, so many stories, pictures, connections and things people didn’t know. People love it. It’s a service to the people of Pittsburgh and the boxing history community.