(Originally published in FraNoi, Vol. 55, Issue 12, December 2015. Reprinted here with permission of Fra Noi, www.franoi.com, Copyright 2015.)
By Steve Corbo
There was a time in this country, before the advent of television and the explosion of the NFL and NBA, when three professional sports dominated the American landscape: baseball, horseracing and boxing.
By today’s standards, it’s impossible to fathom just how popular boxing was back then. Gyms and fight clubs were once a part of almost every city and town, and fans turned out in droves to watch their favorites slug it out in the ring. The bigger events were held in Major League ball parks and other outdoor arenas to accommodate the huge sellout crowds. We need look no further than Chicago’s own Soldier Field, where on Sept. 22, 1927, 104,943 fans were on hand to witness Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey battle for the Heavyweight Championship of the World!
To be a professional boxer in the ‘20s and ‘30s was to be a major player in a major sport. One of the greats of his day was a 5-foot-6-inch featherweight keg of dynamite from the West Side of Chicago who fought under the name of Eddie Shea.
With no computers or centralized system of record keeping available, no one knows the exact number of fights in which Shea competed. Written records indicate that he engaged in at least 134 professional bouts from 1922 to 1934. One source indicates a record of 95 Wins, 33 Losses and 6 Draws; other sources differ. However, when you consider that in one year, 1930, 19 of Shea’s bouts made it into the record book, his career numbers may well be in the neighborhood of 150 to 175 fights. To put that in perspective, current World Champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. has had 19 bouts in the last 12 years.
Although never officially recognized as a world champion, it is not an exaggeration to say Shea was one of the best fighters to never earn the title.
Just how good was he? Good enough to make the cover of the May 1931 issue of Ring magazine, aka “The Bible of Boxing.” The headline read, “Eddie Shea, Chicago’s Great Battler, Is The Hardest Puncher in Featherweight Division.” In 1925, after Shea won a fight by knockout in Madison Square Garden, the New York Times wrote his opponent “had been floored twice for nine counts under Shea’s pile driving lefts and rights to the jaw.” He was also good enough to fight for the Bantamweight Championship of the World in 1925 against Charlie Phil Rosenberg and the Featherweight Championship of the World in 1932 against the great Kid Chocolate. While Shea came up short in both of those bouts, they helped establish him as a force to be reckoned with and secured his place in boxing history.
Don’t be fooled by the last name either. Shea was Italian. Born in Italy, he immigrated to America as a child in 1907. His family settled in Chicago’s Taylor Street neighborhood, joining tens of thousands of other Italian immigrants looking for a better life. His nome de guerre, no doubt, came as a result of the prejudice of the times that many Italians faced, not only in the fight game but also in society as a whole. In boxing, it was hard for Italians to get fights. Their names were hard to pronounce, and from a promoter’s point of view, the names were often too long and cumbersome to put on a fight poster. So Guglielmo Papaleo became “Willie Pep,” Luigi Giuseppe d’Ambrosio became “Lou Ambers,” Giuseppe Antonio Bernadinelli became “Joey Maxim” (named after the WW I Maxim Machine Gun), Rocco Marchegiano became “Rocky Marciano” and a young Eduardo Donofrio came into the ring as “Eddie Shea,” a name given to him by his manager.
Turning professional on June 23, 1922, Shea scored a four-round knockout over Eddie O’Neil in Aurora, Illinois. He fought through the roaring ‘20s and into the Depression at venues around the country. From the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, to the Chicago Stadium, to the Olympia in Detroit, to the Boston Garden, to Madison Square Garden in New York City… Shea hit them all. Wherever there was a dollar to be made in the ring, Shea was there taking on all comers. He fought the best of his era in the Bantamweight, Featherweight and Super Featherweight divisions, in weight limits ranging from 118 to 130 pounds. More often than not he traveled to the hometowns of his opponents, where the chances of getting a fair and unbiased decision were often in jeopardy. In fact, of his last 50 fights on record, only four took place in Chicago.
His willingness to fight anybody, anytime, anywhere led to Shea becoming a major attraction around the country: a bona fide star in a star studded sport. While others may have been standing in a bread line, Eddie Shea was in demand, making money as one of boxing’s top attractions.
This was no small feat in an era when banks had closed, jobs were scarce and Roosevelt’s New Deal was struggling to kick start a broken economy.
Shea was one of 12 children in the Donofrio family and his ring earnings helped sustain them at a time when many families weren’t so fortunate. While many were out of work and struggling to get by, the Donofrio family enjoyed a measure of comfort due to Shea’s prizefighting. Meager compared to what today’s superstar athletes earn, it was none the less enough to not only feed the Donofrio Family, but also to feed several families in the old neighborhood for whom the next meal was not always a sure thing. There was also “The Eddie Shea Boosters,” established to help those in need and support a variety of charitable causes.
Nephews Ken and Tom Donofrio say they often encounter current and former Taylor Street residents who tell stories about how Shea and his family took care of them and their families in those lean years. “If it wasn’t for Eddie and the Donofrios,” the nephews would typically be told, “there were times when we wouldn’t have eaten.”
Shea’s first crack at a world title came in 1925 when he met reigning Bantamweight Champion of the World Charlie Phil Rosenberg in New York. Shea was considered the favorite and was expected to win the fight. With a career knockout rate of only 10 percent, Rosenberg was hardly considered a big puncher. But on July 23, 1925, the unimaginable occurred: he knocked Shea out in the fourth round.
Shea had established a reputation as a top fighter, known for his rugged style and ability to take a punch. He had never before been stopped cold, and in typical boxing fashion, the rumors immediately began to fly that Shea threw the fight. … The fight was fixed. … The loss had been a setup so gamblers with the inside track could clean up by betting on Rosenberg. There was even a rumor that Shea’s life had been threatened by gangsters and he had to lose in order to stay alive.
However, the following day, The Chicago Daily Tribune wrote, “From start to finish, it was a great slugging match and the crowd was kept in a fever of excitement. … Twice in the third round the champion floored the challenger with stiff rights to the jaw, but Shea didn’t know when he had enough and continued to fight. He came up without taking a count and rushed back with both arms flying.”
Lost in the aftermath of this dramatic knock out was this fact: In order to get the title shot against Rosenberg, Shea had to cut his weight down to the 118 pound bantamweight limit. The strain of having to make 118 pounds more than likely weakened him to the point where he was unable to perform at his peak level. And the reality is, big puncher or light puncher, you don’t beat a world champion and take his title away from him unless you are 110 percent on your game.
In the end, not one of the rumors surrounding this fight has ever been substantiated.
Shea’s second shot at a world title came seven years later, when he fought Eligio Sardinias, a fighter from Cuba who compiled an amateur record of 100 wins and no losses before turning professional, and who was undefeated in his first 56 professional bouts. Known to the world as Kid Chocolate, this Hall of Fame boxer was dubbed by Ring magazine as one of the top five featherweights in history. He and Shea fought for the super featherweight championship, with Shea losing to the Kid by decision.
There was also an interesting bout in 1930 between Shea and then-Junior Lightweight Champion Bennie Bass. This was a “No Decision” contest in which Bass’ title was only at risk if he was stopped inside the 10-round scheduled distance. At the end of the bout, no winner was officially declared, but the newspaper reporters at ringside and the crowd of more than 12,000 had Shea as the winner. And the bout even appears as a win for Shea in the record books. But the “No Decision” quirk in boxing’s confusing by-laws denied Shea the right to officially claim the title of Junior Lightweight Championship of the World.
Shea’s true greatness as a fighter lies in the fact that, despite never having been officially crowned world champion, he fought and in many cases beat some of the greatest fighters of his generation, and in no fewer than three separate weight divisions. His record reads like a Hall of Fame Who’s Who.
In addition to duking it out with Rosenberg, Bass and Chocolate, all of whom were world champions and all of whom were inducted into Boxing’s Hall of Fame, Shea traveled to Los Angeles in 1933, where he lost two close decisions with Baby Arizmendi, also a world champion and Boxing Hall of Famer.
Shea also fought and knocked out Chalky Wright in the first round. A Featherweight World Champion and Hall of Fame member, Wright was rated by Ring magazine as one of boxing’s top 100 punchers. The bout took place at the fabled Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. And since Wright was from nearby San Bernardino, the record book says the bout was for the California State Super Featherweight Title.
In a period of just 11 weeks in 1933, Shea had six fights in California, including the Arizmendi wars and the Wright victory. As a testament to his popularity, his nephew Ken Donofrio offers, “When he fought in California, he stayed at actor George Raft’s home.” Eddie Shea was a star among the stars.
There were also hard-fought decisions dropped to a few more world champions: Abe Goldstein and Hall of Famers Bud Taylor and Freddie Miller.
And there were more wins. Shea fought World Champion and Boxing Hall of Famer Battling “Bat” Battalino twice, winning a decision in the first bout before dropping a decision to Bat the second time around. Shea also had a win over Olympic Gold Medalist, World Champion and Hall of Famer Fidel la Barba.
Of all the greats Shea fought, perhaps the one with the most tragic story was Kid Francis. Born Francesco Buonaugurio in Naples, Italy, he and Shea were just 14 months apart in age. The Kid was a slick punching boxer and a rising star who was featured on the cover of Ring magazine the month after Shea’s cover appearance. In 1931, the two met in the ring at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where they battled it out for ten rounds. Shea came up on the short end of the decision. After several more fights, Kid Francis returned to Europe in 1932 and finished out his career fighting in France, England and North Africa, finally retiring in 1936.
But as World War II broke out, the German Army invaded France, where Kid Francis was arrested and deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz, where he was forced to fight in boxing matches for the entertainment of his guards. Francesco Buonaugurio, aka Kid Francis, perished in the notorious concentration camp sometime in 1943 at the age of 35.
Coming full circle, Shea ended his career on Aug. 31, 1934, with a loss to a familiar face, the champion and Hall of Famer he previously whipped in 1930, Benny Bass. After a knock-out loss to Bass, only the second time Shea had been stopped in more than 130 trips into the professional ring, it was time for Shea to hang up the gloves.
But just because he was no longer boxing didn’t mean that Shea was no longer a fighter. When World War II broke out, Shea answered his country’s call to duty, serving in the Army even though he was in his late 30s. Nearly twice the age of many of the soldiers he served with, Shea saw duty in New Guinea in the South Pacific. Ken and Tom Donofrio recall that, after Shea was wounded in the ankle by shrapnel, he was sent back to the States, where he fully recovered and returned to duty just as the War ended.
After returning home from the service, the uncrowned world champ died of a heart attack in 1947, leaving behind a wife and young son. He was buried with military honors at the age of only 42.
About the author:
Steve Corbo has more than 30 years in the boxing game. He is a professional boxing judge; color commentator for televised boxing; and top ring announcer, especially in Europe, where he has announced major world championship title bouts. Harold Lederman, a Boxing Hall of Famer and member of HBO Boxing’s broadcast team, has called Corbo, “one of the best boxing ring announcer’s in the entire world.” A Chicago native, he has also been heard as the backup PA announcer for the Chicago Blackhawks.