While the Pirates may have bestowed their first major sports championship on Pittsburgh when they defeated the Detroit Tigers in the 1909 World Series, their boxers gave Pittsburgh its first claim to the City of Champions title.
There were nine boxing champions with ties to Pittsburgh and the surrounding area in the first half of the 20th century. They had titles at all boxing levels from featherweight to light heavyweight. Only the heavyweight crown escaped the Pittsburgh boxers, although East Liberty’s Billy Conn, nicknamed “The Pittsburgh Kid,” overtook heavyweight champion Joe Louis on the night of June 18, 1941 until he hit the unfortunate 13th round fatal decision made to knock out Louis.
Pittsburgh’s boxing champion’s notable run began in 1913 when New Castle Braddock’s George Castle challenged and defeated Fred Klaus for the middleweight title. When light heavyweight champion Billy Conn stepped into the ring against Joe Louis in 1941, Pittsburgh area boxers Harry Greb, Teddy Yaroz and Billy Soose had also worn the middleweight crown. During the same period, featherweight Jackie Wilson, lightweight Sammy Angott and welterweight Fritzi Zivic won boxing titles.
A year before taking the middleweight championship in 1923, Garfields defeated Harry Greb, known as the “Pittsburgh Windmill” and widely regarded as the greatest boxer in Pittsburgh sports history, Jack Tunney in their first of five bouts. Tunney later described his five fights with Greb as “ferocity”, claiming that his first fight with Greb was the worst blow of his career. Tunney defeated Greb in a second leg, fought him to two draws and defeated Greb in their final fight. He survived his bouts with Greb, defeating Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title in arguably the most controversial fight in boxing history with its infamous long count that saved Tunney.
While Pittsburgh’s champions competed against some of the greatest fighters in boxing history, including Henry Armstrong, who held the featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight titles during his notable career, they often fought each other, starting with George Chip and Fred Klaus. On the map of the first bout for the Chip Klaus championship, Harry Greb later fought George Chip four times, including a controversial tie in his first bout which took place in the old Duquesne Gardens.
After winning the middleweight title, Monacas Teddy Yarosz, nicknamed “the new windmill of Pittsburgh”, fought as a light heavyweight and faced Billy Conn four times, winning once and losing three times, including two controversial decisions. Popular Conn, who fought earlier in his welterweight career, met Lawrenceville’s Fritzi Zivic, who later defeated Henry Armstrong for the welterweight title in 1940.
The match between Conn and Zivic, fought in 1936, was supposed to be a friendly meeting between two local favorites, but turned into a brawl in which Conn won a controversial decision. Zivic, known as “the Croatian Comet” and regarded as one of the dirtiest fighters in the game, praised Conn as a bright fighter but said, “He couldn’t knock your hat off.” Conn made Zivic a prophet when he tried to beat Joe Louis five years later and was knocked out. Conn later admitted that this was the stupidest step of his career in the ring.
Billy Conn wasn’t the only Pittsburgh boxer to make a stupid decision that cost him a boxing title. On the night of October 12, 1913, middleweight champion Fred Klaus stepped into the ring at Pittsburgh’s Old City Hall for a six-round bout against the easily respected George Chip. After fighting his way to the middleweight title against the best boxers of his time. Klaus didn’t see Chip as a threat to his crown and was so confident he didn’t bother to train. Observers of the fight, including Richard Guy of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, noted Klaus’s “extra weight around his belt and lack of wind”.
Before the fight began, Klaus waved to the crowd and joked with friends who were sitting by the ring. When the fight started, Klaus seemed to be holding back his best punches in what looked like an attempt to carry Chip and start a rematch. When he landed a punch that hurt the chip, Klaus backed away and gave Chip time to recover.
Guy noted that while Chip “was never classified as a champion or championship contender,” he had “a terrible wallop.” Klaus, however, had a reputation for allowing his opponents to punch him in the jaw and never flinch: “The owner of a true iron jaw takes his average fight as no concern.”
In the sixth round, Chip stunned the crowd by landing a right hook on Klaus’ jaw, which dropped the champion on the canvas for the first time in his career. Klaus managed to get to his feet, but as Richard Gay reported, “he was stunned and unable to fight and the referee waved Chip into his corner.” There were less than ten seconds in the final round when the referee ended the fight and gave Chip the win.
While the crowd greeted Chip with a wild party, after his recovery Klaus could only climb through the ropes and return to his dressing room, where he apologized for his performance: “It was my own fault. I thought it was too cheap. Getting knocked down is a new sensation for me. I never tried to get a knockout, but Chip had a real chance and he took it. “
Fred Klaus had his rematch with George Chip a few months later in a championship bout at old Duquesne Gardens, but again failed to get in shape and lost to Chip with a TKO. It was the beginning of the end of Klaus’ career, but despite his losses to Chip, he was finally honored with induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008.
With his election, Fred Klaus became the sixth Pittsburgh area champion to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Harry Greb and Billy Conn were inducted into the opening class in 1990, followed by Fritzi Zivic in 1993, Sammy Angott of Washington PA in 1998 and Monaca’s Teddy Yaroz in 2006. Three years after Klaus’ election, Farrell’s Billy Soose, who went professional before him, was the intercollegiate Boxing champion while joining the boxing immortals in Penn State.
To date, only Homewood’s Jackie Wilson, who held the featherweight title from 1941 to 1943, and George Chip have not yet joined Pittsburgh’s golden age champions in the Boxing Hall of Fame. Wilson, who battled legends like Willie Pep throughout his career, seems like a likely candidate for introduction, but Chip, while also battling the best in boxing, could suffer from his reputation as a one-punch wonder.