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Contributed Photo

FREMONT CENTER RESIDENT Liberato Manzolillo, who was known as Libby Manzo in his fighting days, strikes the classic boxer’s pose in this 1950s photo.

Local Resident Once
A Famous Boxer

Editor’s 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 who’d 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 Zazza’s jaw. He hit the canvas. He didn’t get up -- not by the count of ten.
The fight was over in 26 seconds. Manzo had scored another decisive win. He’d 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 today’s 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 fighter’s 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 should’ve 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 who’d 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 Manzo’s day mob influence over the sport was heavy. Ruffin’s 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. He’d throw them into big money fights with opponents they weren’t ready for. They’d take a beating; he’d 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 let’s 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 Shaara’s warnings, Manzo signed a contract with Ruffin.
With Shaara out of the picture, Manzo employed the discipline he’d 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.
It’s not uncommon today for athletes to parlay their popularity into a singing career, or something resembling one. this wasn’t the case in Manzo’s 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 Dempsey’s Broadway Bar. He rubbed elbows with champions and celebrities. Sports writers like Dan Parker at New York’s 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 Manzo’s career took another dramatic turn when Ruffin told him to take a dive. “I wouldn’t 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 Manzo’s brush with boxing glory: the newspaper clippings, the publicity photos. and there’s 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.”
Editor’s 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.

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