Boxing’s Dirtiest Fighters

By Jim Galiano.

There are two types of “dirty” fighters. One is the fighter who sometimes fights dirty. And then, there’s the outright DIRTY fighter. Mike Tyson is well-known for his ear-biting meltdown against Evander Holyfield. Actually, Holyfield himself wasn’t exactly a stranger to using his “head” for things other than strategy during his career. But neither man used fouling as a regular part of their overall strategy throughout their careers.

Andrew Golota was well acquainted with the low-blow. He even bit an opponent’s shoulder on one occasion (a maneuver Harry Greb would have undoubtedly approved of). But with Golota, it was more a case of mental meltdowns which spotted his career.

These can all be used as examples of men who fought dirty on occasion.

What follows, however, is a list of Boxing’s DIRTIEST fighters. These men didn’t just foul every now and then. They turned fouling into an art-form.

Fritzie Zivic: Perhaps THE dirtiest fighter of all time. Zivic mastered the art of low blows, thumbing the eye, head butting and dragging the heel of the glove over an opponent’s cut. Both the fans and the media alike detested Zivic’s use of “foul play” in the ring. After a foul-fest against an aging Henry Armstrong in which he took his Welterweight title, the crowd booed and jeered him. It didn’t bother Fritzie in the least. Armstrong was led back to the dressing room with both eyes swelling shut and gashes which had been torn through both eye lids.

Fritzie’s manager Freddie Fierro once said, “Fritzie was the kind of fighter who could walk into a clinch with a clean opponent and when the referee broke them apart, the clean opponent would look like a veteran pug, all broken up with blood streaming down his face. And all that damage without landing a single punch.”

In reference to his fight with Lightweight great – Lew Ambers, Zivic said, “I dug my thumb into his neck all through the fight, his Adam’s apple must still be in a sling.” Zivic enjoyed his reputation and was unhappy that many fans considered Harry Greb to be the meaner fighter of the two. Keep in mind, Zivic wasn’t just the type of fighter who felt at home dishing it out. He could take it, too! Zivic’s face looked as though it’d been fed through a shredder and then hastily stitched and molded back together again. Would Zivic have been as successful had he been a clean fighter? Obviously, he didn’t want to find out!

Harry Greb: Long before Mike Tyson thought about taking a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear in their infamous rematch, Harry Greb had turned “the bite” into an art form. He could do it without getting caught and disqualified too! Like Zivic, going into a clinch with Harry Greb was basically taking your life into your own hands. Elbows, thumbs, knees, backhands, the dragging of the glove laces across the face – these were all part of the Greb arsenal. A New York Paper wrote, “He has two active hands that fly around in all sorts of weird motions, but the top of his head is his most dangerous weapon. If the rules of boxing were strictly enforced, Greg wouldn’t last a round before being disqualified.”

As the Middleweight champion, he challenged Gene Tunney for Tunney’s American Light Heavyweight title.  For Tunney, it was an education in street fighting like he’d never had before. In the first round, Greb rammed his head into Tunney’s face, breaking his nose. Holding Tunney from behind the head with one hand, he’d then blast him with the other. It was amazing Tunney made it to the 15th round. He finished the fight with cuts above both eyes as well as blood streaming from the nose and mouth.

Greb enjoyed fighting not just in the ring, he enjoyed fighting on the streets, too. He hated police officers but was smart enough to keep out of physical altercations with them. There were several times in the ring that Greb lost patience with referees trying to separate him while he was engaged in his style of “in-fighting.” He’d then yell at them and – challenging their authority! For Greb, the ring was his cage… and he felt completely at home playing the part of an animal.

Like Mickey Walker, Greb’s swarming style was perfectly suited for bigger, heavier fighters and he did very well against them. Pound for pound, he was one of the greatest fighters ever. Why then did he foul so often? As one writer put it, “It was just a natural extension of his personality.”

Sandy Saddler: Saddler logged an incredible 144 wins in an amazing career. Unlike Greb and Zivic, Saddler preferred to play by the rules until his opponent crossed the line. All it took was one time… and the rules went right out the window for the rest of the fight. His 4 brawls with arch-rival Willie Pep rank way up there as some of the dirtiest, most foul-filled fights of all-time. Elbows, butting, heeling with the glove and lacing, they were “everything-go’s” foul-fests from start to finish. While Pep and Saddler wrestled on the inside, Saddler thought nothing of putting Willie in a headlock before throwing him to the floor.

Even the referee was knocked to the floor several times in an attempt to separate the two fighters. Needless to say, the boos and jeers shook the joint to the rafters!

Saddler said afterward that he felt insulted by those who insisted he was a dirty fighter.

In 1956, Saddler added an extra-helping of “dirty” into his fight with Flash Elorde. Sandy butted Elorde, turned him and hit him from behind. Then, after another headbutt opened a gash over left eye, he tore it open even further using the laces of his gloves. The fight was finally stopped in the 13th round due to the severity of Elorde’s bleeding. New York Daily columnist Dan Parker wrote: “Saddler has cheapened the title during his long, unpopular reign.”

My father who saw Saddler throughout his career once said to me, “Sandy Saddler? Oh, he was one dirty fighter!”

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