Just how big a sport was boxing in Amsterdam during the first half of the 20th Century? It wasn’t uncommon for boxing cards put together by local promoters like Jimmy Pepe or Jo Jo Zeno or Shorty Persico to draw over a thousand Rug City fight fans to boxing rings set up in the backyard of Lanzi’s Restaurant on Bridge Street, the Junior High gym, or at Sanford (Now Veterans Field) Park. In fact, over 2,300 people showed up at Lanzi’s place one September evening in 1938 to watch what many consider to be the greatest fight ever staged in the history of Amsterdam but more about that later. And where did the promoters mentioned above find all this local pugilistic talent? Believe it or not, Amsterdam taxpayers helped produce them. How? Every summer, the city’s Recreation Department sponsored boxing as an activity as part of its neighborhood playgrounds program. Pictured here is a playground boxing card that appeared in the local newspaper back in the late 1930’s. Now here’s my choices for numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 & 9 of the Top Ten Boxers in Amsterdam, NY history. I’ll post the other 5 in my upcoming book. (A note about the ring records cited in the accounts of the fighters below. They may or may not be exact. I found several inconsistencies in the reporting of those won-loss-draw numbers through the years.)
1. Buddy Benoit (aka Buddy O’Dell)
This guy was such a good fighter that after he graduated from Amsterdam’s Wilbur Lynch High School, Michigan State gave him a scholarship to fight for the Spartans. He did that for two years and then in 1940, after an amateur and collegiate career that included 120 fights he turned professional. He used his Mom’s maiden name as his pro-boxing moniker and as middleweight Buddy O’Dell he fought 76 professional fights during the next seven years and won 67 of them with one draw. This guy fought the very best middleweights in the World during his era and more than held his own. On April 21, 1942 for example, Benoit lost a 10-round split decision to the great, Jake LaMotta. Ten months later, LaMotta was becoming the first fighter ever to defeat Sugar Ray Robinson. Benoit then served in the Navy during WWII and after being discharged, resumed his boxing career and his education, taking law courses. He finally hung his gloves up for good in 1947 and started his own collection agency in Los Angeles.
3. Sam Crocetti
This East End featherweight started fighting as an amateur in 1930. He turned pro in 1935 after capturing the 1934 Amateur Sports Federation bantamweight title held in Rochester, NY, which required him to win four fights in two nights. He then won his first 11 bouts as a pro and was then paired against Jackie Wilson, who was the 4th-ranked featherweight contender in the world. The fight was stopped in the eighth round by referee Jack Dempsey when Wilson split Crocetti’s lip open for the Amsterdamian’s first pro loss. Often referred to as “Battling Sam Crocetti” by the late Recorder Sports Editor, Jack Minnoch, Crocetti and the number two fighter on this top ten list were the participants in what many local boxing fans considered to be the most famous fight in Amsterdam’s history, which took place at Lanzi’s Arena on September 14, 1938. Crocetti lost that epic bout in a six-round decision. No Amsterdam fighter faced any stiffer competition in their career than the title contenders this guy battled before retiring from the ring in 1941, telling Minnoch at the time that “It was all right” while it lasted.” Crocetti died in 2002 at the age of 83.
5. Alphonse “Measles” Raco
Those who followed his career closely claimed this Rug City welterweight never fought a bad fight. Raco’s career record certainly bears that out. He won 101 of 102 amateur fights and 13 more as a pro. He retired from the ring after breaking some ribs in a 1936 fight against Willie Pal in Albany, NY but then mounted a comeback two years later. Measles was a disciple of good conditioning and the training regimen he followed at Amsterdam’s YMCA set the standard for all the pugilists who succeeded him. He also ran the city recreation department’s summer playground boxing program for many years and was one of this area’s most respected ring referees as well. He later became the long-time proprietor of the Pink & Rock Grill on Amsterdam’s East Main Street.
7. Carl Palombo
The son of an Amsterdam West End shoe repair shop proprietor, “Carl the Cobbler” fought 200 times as an amateur and won 166 of those bouts. He captured two Albany Diamond Belt titles and the US Eastern Division Diamond Belt as well before entering service during WWII. It was while fighting the Nazi’s that he earned his greatest fame in the ring. While stationed in North Africa, he won the Allied featherweight championship in Algiers and was undefeated in 40 straight fights while in uniform. A respected AP sportswriter covering boxing in the armed services back then predicted Palombo would be a leading contender for the world featherweight title when the war ended. Unfortunately for this talented Rug City native, it did not end soon enough. He was hit in the lower body by shrapnel during the Allied invasion of France causing a leg wound that would never heal and which in the late 1950’s cost him the leg. He eventually married and moved out to California where he became a graphic artist. Carl has since passed away, but I still see his beautiful and ageless younger sister Mary Greco all around Amsterdam.
9. Bobby Stewart
This guy just about singlehandedly brought the sport of boxing back to the forefront here in Amsterdam in the 1970’s. Stewart went 45-5 during an amateur career that culminated with his thrilling National Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship in 1974, when he beat the future World Heavyweight Champion, Michael Dokes in the final bout. Amsterdam went crazy and that moment when the referee raised Bobby’s hand in victory after that Dokes’ fight in Denver would be the definite high point of his ring career.Stewart decided to turn pro after his victory in Denver, motivated by the fact that he was 22 years old at the time, with a wife and two boys at home to take care of. Though he went on to have a fine career as a light heavyweight, winning 13 of his 16 fights, he also found out quickly that the pro ranks of the sport were run with a lot less scruples than the amateur side was. He would always regret that he did not continue on as an amateur so he could have competed in the 1976 Olympics. In order to get the fairest shake possible as a young pro fighter you have to begin your career ranked as high as possible in terms of potential. An Olympic Gold Medal got you treated a lot more preferentially by pro matchmakers, promoters, judges and referees than a Golden Gloves title did. As it turned out, his 58 victories in the ring did not end up representing Stewart’s most noteworthy contribution to boxing. While working as a counselor at the Tryon School, a now-closed state-run Fulton County facility for at risk youth, Bobby gave a 13-year old kid from Brooklyn his first boxing lessons. That kid’s name was Mike Tyson.
Who were my choices for number’s 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10? You’ll find out when my “Book of 50 Top Ten All-Time Amsterdam Lists,” is released later this year.
Once a month, I will be sending out a newsletter that includes a portion of the All Time Amsterdam Top Ten Lists I happen to be working on at the time. I will also use this monthly newsletter to announce the topics for upcoming Top Ten Lists and welcoming readers to put forth their own nominations for these compilations. If you’d like be included, please add your e-mail address here.