BRANFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — The Italian-Americans in Connecticut used their hands to build much of the state, but that’s not all they used them for. Some of them “put them up’ as prizefighters and made a lot of history.
Branford High School social studies teacher and track coach Rich Biondi loves teaching and coaching, but boxing really fires him up, specifically Italian boxers from New Haven.
“I never really thought I’d write a book, but I did it,” he said. Two books to be exact: “Pugilistic Paisani: A Concise History of the Italian and Italian American Boxing Champions,” and a supplement to, “Elm City Italians: The Italian-American Prizefighters from New Haven.”
“I interviewed over 400 boxers, managers, trainers, family members,” the North Haven native said.
Biondi’s love of boxing goes back to his childhood and watching boxing with his grandfather
“On Saturdays they had “Wide World of Sports,” and I would watch fights with him,” said Biondi. “Whenever a fighters name ended with a vowel, we were definitely rooting harder.”
So he started this project to honor his grandfather. Over 15 years he researched and poured over family histories, but you can’t just walk into a library to learn about Italian-American boxers from New Haven; you’ve got to find people from the neighborhood.More Italian in Connecticut:
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“Right now we’re at the Saint Andrew’s Society on Chapel Street, which was started by immigrants from Amalfi, Italy in 1900,” Biondi said. “I started my journey by walking into these societies and asking men for their information.”
Men like longtime family friend Louis Lamberti, also know as Donald Lambert, a club fighter who fought probably 1,000 times as an amateur, and was 25-5 as a pro. The almost 86-year-old Lamberti fought for one reason.
“I didn’t want to work,” he said.
Felix DelGiudice grew up in Fair Haven. His uncles, Johnny and Eddie Compo, were legendary fighters back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Like many others, boxing was a way for them to pay the bills.
“Boxing comes from poverty,” said DelGiudice. “People don’t have an education, so the first thing they do is use their dukes.”
And although boxing’s heyday in New Haven was half a century ago, you can still find remnants of what was.
“We’re at Anastasio’s Restaurant on Wooster street,” said Biondi. “This photo is of Frankie Gans, who was a club fighter from Wooster Square. He would fight typically for a wristwatch during the Great Depression.”
After finishing this project, Biondi says not only has he learned a lot about boxing and his Italian heritage, he learned a lot about himself.
“Just like the world champions that I interviewed, I’m one of theirs so they took me in,” he said. “I’m one of their own and they took me in because my last name is Italian and it makes me feel really good.”