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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Review of Family, Gangsters & Champions

Family, Gangsters & Champions: Boxer Tony Canzoneri's Life & World
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
La Nouvelle Atlantide Press, 2023

Tony Canzoneri was a five-time, three-division world champion who learned to box in New Orleans before his family moved to New York. After linking with manager Sammy Goldman, Canzoneri quickly moved up the ranks. Despite some setbacks along the way, Canzoneri would achieve greatness by taking on all comers and beating many of the best fighters of his era. One motivation for his success in the ring was to bring prestige to his family's resort in upstate New York.

In Family, Gangsters & Champions, Ramon Antonio Vargas shows he is an expert on New Orleans. Though Canzoneri's time in the Big Easy was cut short by his family's move, there are many fascinating and relevant tidbits about the city. Amazing anecdotes about Canzoneri's life fill the pages. Before Tony's debut, his opponent bet his entire purse on himself. When Tony ran into the man years later and heard the story, Canzoneri treated the opponent to a meal and drinks. The moment when Canzoneri's lifeless body was discovered in his hotel room many years later, ex-rival Al Singer was sitting at the bar of Tony's restaurant praising his former foe. These incredible details are part of the strength of the book.

Vargas's coverage of the fights is accessible- a footnote even explains how boxing matches are scored- but this isn't the best part. The author doesn't always use traditional boxing lingo, which is fine because the meaning is usually clear, but he does describe Canzoneri's non-title over-the-weight bouts as "exhibitions," a word that has a very specific meaning in boxing. It's important to note these matches were sanctioned fights that counted towards the fighters' records, not exhibitions.

The 1920s are often remembered as the golden age of sports writing, but anyone who has read recaps of random fights from the era will tell you there were plenty of meaningless references to two-fisted attacks to the head, jaw, and body as well. Without the benefit of much video footage of these old fights, modern historians are limited by the quality of contemporary coverage. That reality can leave the summaries of Canzoneri's fights a bit uneven. Some are exciting, but a couple aren't particularly informative. Aside from a few fights though, Vargas's writing is smooth, clear, and thoughtful.

Tony Canzoneri fought many Jewish boxers and quite a few are present here. After his debut, he's a 30-fight veteran three pages later, so there are only brief mentions of Danny Terris and Archie Bell, and nothing on Young Montreal. But there's a lot more on Benny Bass, Jack 'Kid' Berg, Harry Blitman, Barney Ross, Al Singer, and Al "Bummy" Davis, including short vignettes about what become of each at the end.

A couple of nitpicky issues about Jewish boxers: Singer is described as a bit taller here than in most sources and is called "the Bronx Flash," perhaps a lesser-used nickname, but Singer's primary alias was "The Bronx Beauty." Had Canzoneri's left hook knocked down Barney Ross in the eleventh round of their rematch, it's claimed that Tony would've gotten "at least a two-point edge for that round (pg. 126.)" But this was quite a bit before the ten-point must system, so a round only counted as a round regardless of any knockdowns. The biggest miss involves three Jews. The author says Berg won his junior welterweight world championship from Joe Glick (pg. 92), but Berg lifted the title from Mushy Callahan, who had held it for four years. Glick, a very good fighter that never won the title, was the victim of Berg's first defense.

Mushy Callahan's decedents might disagree, but Family, Gangsters & Champions.is well-researched overall. Using interviews and relatives' memoirs, the importance of the resort to the Canzoneri family can't be missed. Gangsters such as Joe Bananas spent their summers at the compound. A distance relative of Tony's even once shot Joe Bananas's son in the ass with a BB gun. The relative survived the ordeal.

This book is for a few distinct audiences. Those new to boxing will be able to follow along and appreciate the complex family dynamics at play. Readers who know some boxing history but want to move beyond the Muhammad Ali-Joe Louis paradigm will learn a lot. Those who love boxing history will savor the anecdotes. Family, Gangsters & Champions will available on June 29.

Update: Author Ramon Antonio Vargas said he corrected the errors mentioned in this review.

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