Editors Note: The following story on Fremont Center resident Manzolillo known as Libby Manzo in his fighting days as it appears in the current issue of Boxing Digest
By Thomas Jamieson
December 2, 2005 Libby Manzo was a popular lightweight in the 1950s and an accomplished crooner known as The Singing Slugger. But a mobbed up manager derailed his career.
It was a left hook, says Libby Manzo, describing a distant but vivid memory. The scene: the old Madison Square Garden in New York City. The date: November 17, 1950. Manzo was an up-and-comer whod won his first four matches, three by knockout. On this night he was squaring off against Mickey Zazza on the undercard of a Kid Gavilan headliner.
At the opening bell Manzo and his opponent met in center ring. First came the fighters sizing each other up. Then came the punch: the left hook. It landed flush on Zazzas jaw. He hit the canvas. He didnt get up -- not by the count of ten.
The fight was over in 26 seconds. Manzo had scored another decisive win. Hed also set a record for the fastest ever knockout at the old Garden, one that was secured for all time when the structure was demolished in 1968.
Now 76, Manzo (Liberato Manzolillo) is one of those talented fighters who almost made it to the top in the rough-and-tumble 50s. A power puncher who compiled a 21-6 record in a stirring but abbreviated career, Manzo is anonymous as todays boxing mainstream goes. Time will do that to old fighters. Even the mention of a champion from 30 years ago other than Muhammad Ali hardly registers with young fans.
Manzo, for the record, fought two champions: Paddy DeMarco, and the great Sandy Saddler.
Saddler was tough, says Manzo. Sandy Saddler was tough. And he was dirty. His preferred tactic, known as lacing, would turn a fighters face into crimson confetti. Manzo gave Saddler all he could handle, but the fight was stopped in the final round as he rose unsteadily from a knockdown.
The truth is Manzo shouldve never taken that fight. Not then. He was something of a phenomenon, having dropped just one decision in 21 fights. But he was too young for the likes of Saddler, who had more than 140 professional fights under his belt and had already won, and lost, two separate world titles.
So why did Manzo fight Saddler? I got involved with a guy named Bobby Ruffin, he says, regret still heavy in his voice. Ruffin was a prizefighter in the 1940s. After hanging up his gloves he turned to managing. His business was signing young fighters whod make him money fighters like Manzo. And Ruffin had the muscle behind him to get things done.
The films On the Waterfront and Raging Bull had it pegged: boxing and organized crime have always walked in stride. In Manzos day mob influence over the sport was heavy. Ruffins sponsor in fact was Philadelphia mob boss Frankie Carbo. For decades Carbo not only ran the boxing rackets, Carbo was the boxing rackets. And Ruffin played the part of mob lackey to the hilt. He was unscrupulous, often betting against his own fighters. Hed throw them into big money fights with opponents they werent ready for. Theyd take a beating; hed collect on the short money.
By contrast, Manzo spent his formative years training with Ray Shaara, a popular club fighter out of Jersey City in the 1920s. Shaara turned the gifted Manzo into a bona fide warrior through a rigorous workout routine. Ray was a good man. He taught me everything about boxing, says Manzo. And unlike Ruffin, who required lets just say for a generous portion of his fighters purses. Shaara requested only travel expenses from Manzo. He was bringing his protege along slowly, building his technique and his confidence.
The temptations of fortune and fame are probably overwhelming for a young prizefighter.
Manzo tried to remain loyal to Shaara, but Ruffin was relentless in his pursuit of the fighter. He used flattery and deception to reel Manzo in, promising to fast track him to a title fight. And despite Shaaras warnings, Manzo signed a contract with Ruffin.
With Shaara out of the picture, Manzo employed the discipline hed gleaned from his mentor, Ruffin, however, was less concerned with training his fighter than getting him in publicity photos. He even noticed that Manzo had a voice, so he told him to sing.
Its not uncommon today for athletes to parlay their popularity into a singing career, or something resembling one. this wasnt the case in Manzos day. Fighters were just fighters. Manzo was unique: a touch of Bennett, a splash of Dino. He sang on TV and radio. He crooned at Jack Dempseys Broadway Bar. He rubbed elbows with champions and celebrities. Sports writers like Dan Parker at New Yorks Daily Mirror covered The Singing Slugger. It was good PR and Manzo was becoming a name. The problem? Ruffin was creating a persona for his fighter instead of making him better.
Ruffin did get Manzo headline fights, but they were premature. Saddler was the first, and there were two against DeMarco. Manzo lost those fights on close decisions, yet most boxing experts at the time said he outfought DeMarco.
In late 1955 Manzos career took another dramatic turn when Ruffin told him to take a dive. I wouldnt lay down, says Manzo. So he decided to call it quits. Ruffin pressured him to stay under contract, but Manzo walked away from boxing at age 26.
Over time the roar of crowds and the lights of Broadway faded. Manzo settled in upstate New York and raised a family. He never saw Ruffin again, yet he stayed close to the man who made him a fighter. Until Ray Shaara passed away, Manzo visited him regularly, like a devoted son. The past was history. There was nothing to forgive. They were just two ex fighters with plenty of stories to share.
There are still reminders of Manzos brush with boxing glory: the newspaper clippings, the publicity photos. and theres that knockout record at the old Garden. He even recalls some of the songs. You Alone, Manzo says, with a smile. I even sang The National Anthem before a fight.
Editors Note: Thomas Jamieson is a graduate of Jeffersonville-Youngsville Central School and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Cinema from Ithaca College. His articles have appeared in such publications as WIRED, Information Week, Film and Video and Business Intelligence Pipeline, among others. He is a writer/producer for CitiMedia a division of Citibank developing video and web-based projects for its worldwide clients. He is also a co-owner of Ribbit Films, which produces hi-definition live action footage for clients such as Microsoft, ADL, CNN, Fox Sportsnet and IBM. Thomas is the grandson of the late Ray Shaara and was trained by Mr. Manzolillo in the 1990s. He lives in New York City.