Article written by Angelo Prospero. Prospero is a native of Batavia and grew up knowing many of the local boxers from Batavia's Golden Age of Boxing. He became a boxing writer and boxing historian of some note. He holds degrees in history from Conisius College and taught history at Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C. He currently resides in Summerville, S.C. He's written for "Ring," the Batavia Daily News, "Boxing Illustrated," "Boxing Digest" and "Unitas Boxing World." He also wrote a book on boxing, "Great Fights and Fighters." Prospero has also been a ringside judge for professional boxing matches. Prospero provided us with the pictures, as well.
Patrons of Marshall’s News Store on Jackson Street in Batavia during the 1930s heard the sounds of shuffling feet, speed bags, heavy bags and shadow boxers skipping ropes upstairs as they purchased their newspapers and magazines.
The entire second floor was the home of the Batavia Boxing Club, the brainchild of Batavia businessman John DiCarlo, called by many the Father of Batavia Boxing.
DiCarlo, husband of famous artist Rose Pontillo DiCarlo, was a boxer, teacher, trainer and matchmaker who loved the sport. He was promoting his young brother, Ponce DiCarlo and was appalled at the lack of training facilities. Missing were a ring, showers, equipment and other paraphernalia that goes with a boxing gymnasium. So he took out a yearly lease and with his chief assistant, Tony Gaeta, renovated the upstairs Jackson Street area, making it as fine a place as any in Western New York.
It featured a homemade ring and DiCarlo used his own money to purchase all the equipment and gloves, and formed the BBC. Dues were one dollar a week and the initial response was slow as DiCarlo and Gaeta promoted the career of young Ponce, who became a sensation with a long win streak all over New York State and the surrounding areas.
About this time, the Great Depression hit and many unemployed youngsters flocked to the gym filling it to capacity. It was the Golden Age of Batavia Boxing. Teams were dispatched to Buffalo, Syracuse, Frank Powderly’s Elks Club in Rochester, Cleveland and even New York’s famed Daily News national competition in Madison Square Garden.
Tony Sciolino of Buffalo was a brilliant featherweight who won just about every honor in his hometown and decided to turn professional. He was engaged to a lovely Batavia Miss, Margaret Fusco, of Ellicott Street, who lived near Ellicott Square at Liberty and Ellicott streets. Sciolino was the nephew of John D. Gioia, civic leader and pharmacist.
Since Sciolino was spending so much time in Batavia, Gioia decided to install a makeshift gym behind his pharmacy on Ellicott Street and Sciolino did most of his training there. How good was Sciolino? He defeated world featherweight champion Tommy Paul and fought a draw with Wes Ramey, who this last June, was inducted into the Canastota Boxing Hall of Fame.
Mr. Gioia also convinced Father William Kirby of St. Anthony’s Church to purchase a ring and equipment and put it in the corner of the Community Center on Liberty Street. The Center was financed by the many Bingo nights held there by Reverend Kirby and the gym was portable enough to be disassembled easily and stored in the cavernous bowels of the Center. Many times the boxers-in-training there disassembled the gym themselves with the aid of the school kids at the nearby St. Anthony’s School, so Bingo could be played.
Around the corner on Central Avenue, was the home of the Cintorino family. Ma and Pa Cintorino made a living selling Treadeasy Shoes (made in Batavia) to support their six boys. The second eldest, Joseph, dropped in the gym where Sciolino trained and quickly showed excellence under the tutelage of Sciolino, displaying a stinging left jab and defensive prowess.
Ironically, the teacher and pupil would meet in the ring professionally in a few years. To prevent his father from finding out he was fighting, Joseph Cintorino used the fistic name of Mickey Devine. His younger brother Sam used the name Sammy Devine.
Mickey Devine, undoubtedly Batavia’s greatest professional fighter, used a circuitous route to gain fame in the ring. He fought in two venues, amateur and bootleg. Combined, he had a 70 win, 6 loss record.
There existed at the time a hybrid group called Bootleg Fights, a sort of semi-pro organization with its own officials and rules, outside the normal amateur sphere. Some pros fought as amateurs using different names and amateurs fought as semi-pros looking to pick up a few Depression dollars. They fought in “Smokers” at various places, so called because the smoke was so thick. One such place was the Eastman Kodak in Rochester where the legendary George Eastman would attend. When fighters weren’t paid in cash, sometimes, trophies and watches were awarded which the fighter sold to gain some valuable dollars.
Mickey Devine was a sensation on the circuit and decided to apply for a professional license. As a pro, he compiled a brilliant 18 win – 2 loss – 1 draw record. His one loss to Jeff Furrone was later reversed. In their 2nd contest, Devine won easily, flooring his rival twice. For his 22nd fight, Mickey was matched with his mentor, Tony Sciolino, at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo in what was billed as “For the lightweight championship of Batavia.” Devine was too slick and too fast for the aging Sciolino and pounded out an easy eight-round decision.
With lucrative bouts offered him, Devine decided to retire and get married. He took the $1200.00 from the Sciolino fight, his largest purse ever, paid off his parents’ mortgage and purchased a house for himself. He served as a referee at amateur contests and trained a protégé, Nick Tundo. Remarkably, he was unmarked despite all those bouts, a tribute to his defensive skills.
Back at the Batavia Boxing Club, all types of would-be pugilists would be in training under the watchful eye of DiCarlo and Gaeta. Some of the notables were Jimmy Amatrano, Cheech Trinchera, Chet Mruzek, Vinnie Lewandowski, Ken Pixley, Joe Syracuse, Tony Zito, Eddie Urban, Tony Stone, Nate DiSanto, Frankie Flynn, Mike Saquella, Kid Fillete, Sammy Devine, Norm Columbo, Paul Columbo, Scrapiron Marshall, Gordon Hyde and Dick Warboys.
But the two gems of the stable were Joe Church and Lou Cecere, both inducted into the Rochester Boxing Assn. Hall of Fame, along with Mickey Devine and Tony Zito. Church from Swan Street on Batavia’s South Side, was a 1929 graduate of Batavia High School. He won his first title, the Niagara District Amateur Championship and his second followed quickly as he swept through the Buffalo Championships and continued his Western New York Amateur dominance, winning the Courier Express title, and repeated his Niagara AAU title in a heavier 126-lb. division.
These wins garnered Church a chance to compete in the prestigious National Amateur Championship in Cleveland. The only problem was money and transportation. Determined to fulfill his dream of winning a national title and competing in the Olympics in 1936, Church and a friend hitchhiked to Cleveland and slept at the bus station the first night.
A 100-1 shot, Church swept through the prelims and then shocked the boxing world by winning the featherweight title. Floored in the first round, Church won the next four rounds handily to win a unanimous decision.
He was awarded a champion’s reception when he returned by train to Batavia, being greeted by dignitaries, including the mayor, who presented him with a Key to the City, as the City Band played proudly. The crowd gave him a tremendous ovation, appreciative of Batavia’s only national boxing champion, ever.
The festivities didn’t end there. A parade brought him from Swan Street to the Community Center on Liberty Street. 250 admirers showered him with gifts and standing ovations. He was introduced by Father Kirby and praised by John DiCarlo, Tony Gaeta and John Gioia. He received another standing ovation when it was announced he would be an alternate on the 1936 Olympic team, the event that featured Jesse Owens.
Church later won a boxing scholarship to the University of Miami and served as a boxing instructor in the Army.
Lou Cecere, one of 11 children, was a boxing fan as a teenager and with his friend, Tony Zito, began appearing at the Jackson Street gym. His speed and footwork caught the eye of John DiCarlo and Cecere’s ability to outbox the veterans put him on several cards in Western New York. He once won 40 consecutive fights, including the prestigious Syracuse Herald American Golden Gloves.
Cecere had a 92-7 record when he headlined the Open Air Amateur card at MacArthur Stadium in the summer of 1940. It was his 100th fight and he didn’t disappoint the thousand fans who showed up at the ballpark. They paid a dollar for ringside and 44 cents general admission to see Cecere put on a dazzling exhibition, winning all five rounds over veteran Buffalonian Earl Wilson.
On the same card, youngsters with big padded gloves regaled the throng. Sammy Devine won a four-round decision and Cecere’s stablemate, Vin Tresco, lost a five-rounder to Ed Stokes. Tony Stone of Oakfield and Frank Aquino of Batavia were winners by decision. But, Batavians Kid Fillette, Jimmy DiFalco and Angelo Pettinella were all knockout losers and Ed Urban lost on a decision.
Despite the success of the evening, World War II was approaching and boxing lost its luster for a while. Cecere was drafted into the Army, losing his chance to turn pro. However, he did serve with Billy Conn’s touring group in Europe giving exhibitions in several areas. After four years of distinguished service in World War II, he never fought again.
Tony Zito’s main ambition was to win the Buffalo Golden Gloves. He lost his first effort, then enlisted in the Army. There he became a Service champion compiling an impressive 38-2 record before being shipped overseas where he participated in many infantry battles. During his march through Belgium, a V-2 German rocket destroyed a hospital. Zito worked several days, under heavy fire, getting patients to safety and for this supreme effort, he was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery. He later was wounded twice by shrapnel and received the Purple Heart.
Upon discharge, Zito wanted to return to the ring, but was advised by doctors not to because shrapnel was still in his body. He went ahead any way and in 1946 won two bouts before running into Calvin Leigh of Rochester, later, a successful pro, and lost in the semi-finals. It was his last fight.
Zito, a longtime employee of Batavia Downs, prided himself on his boxing knowledge and became a noted boxing historian.
Boxing in Batavia received a faint spark of life in 1947 with the emergence of Batavia High School athlete Dick Brenkus, who excelled in basketball and football. He tried boxing under the direction of trainer Jack Shevlet and won his first six bouts, capturing the Buffalo Courier Express Novice Middleweight title.
In the final exhibition held in Batavia in April 1947, Brenkus headlined a six-bout card at St. Anthony’s Community Center. The old ring was located and 800 fans packed the auditorium. Anybody who was anybody was there and they were delighted as Jimmy Fasano, a nephew of Tony Sciolino, won his debut in a three-round bout. Bob Smith won a five-round decision. But it was not to be for Batavia boxers that evening.
Sam Nicometo was starched in the first round and Brenkus, with famed coach Danny Van Detta in his corner, was simply overmatched. He was pitted against Buffalo Open Division champion Mickey McGuire who had 60 fights. Brenkus held his own the first round, but McGuire kayoed him in round two with a flurry of combinations dropping him over the lower strand of the ropes as referee Tony Gaeta tolled the mournful 10 count.
The flaming embers for boxing in Batavia died out that evening. With other activities such as cars, television and drive-ins, there wasn’t a farm system to develop young talent. It was over, all over. But what a glorious ride!
Today, boxing is being challenged and probably surpassed by MMA and other kickboxing battles. Aided by reality television and today’s penchant for violence, these affairs are immensely popular and highly visible.
But to the boxing purists of yesterday, they will never match the Sweet Science of the Golden Age of Boxing.
And to that I say “Amen.”
Mickey Devine trains protoge Nick Tundo, circa 1941.
Top photo: The Batavia Boxing Team in 1937. Dick Warboys, Vince Lavandowski, Joe Syracuse, Natalie DiSanto, Nick Tundo, Lou Cecere, Ed Urban, Tony Gaeta, Gorden Hyde and Mike Saquella. Photo by Tony "Butch" Zito.