It was the afternoon of October 4, 1940 and a flat-nosed little man named Fritzie Zivic pressed his nose even flatter against a large plate-glass window on New York's Eighth Avenue, staring at the shiny new automobiles on the showroom floor. As a kid in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, Fritzie had pressed his nose against bakery windows in the same hungry way. Now he was to take on Henry Armstrong in Madison Square Garden, and the prize, for Zivic at least, was not so much the welterweight championship of the world as a new Cadillac.
If he won the title, he was prepared to blow the entire purse on a car. He walked into the showroom, his eye on a bright-red convertible. The salesman took one look at the battered fighter's face, at the mail-order suit—then turned his back and fled.
"I followed him into the office," Zivic remembers, "and tried to tell him that I was fighting for the championship of the world in Madison Square Garden in just a few hours. He ignored me."
Back at his hotel, Zivic ate his last meal before the light—steak, rare, and baked potato—and tried to take a nap. "I couldn't sleep," he says, "but it wasn't because I was nervous about fighting Armstrong. I just couldn't sleep, thinking about how I would look behind the wheel of that Cadillac."
Zivic was still dreaming about the new car when the fighters were introduced to the crowd. The referee, Art Donovan, gave his instructions—and Armstrong promptly belted Zivic back to reality. "When Armstrong started punching me," says Zivic, "I saw the car turn and head for Chicago. By the time we finished the seventh round, the Cadillac had passed California and was on a boat to Hawaii. Armstrong was belting me around pretty good. As I came out of my corner for the eighth round, that car was close to halfway around the world."
Shortly after the start of the eighth, however, Armstrong hit Zivic with a rabbit punch while moving out of a clinch. Fritzie Zivic had never been mistaken for a boy scout in the ring. He promptly stuck a thumb in Armstrong's eye in retaliation, and the rest of the round rapidly went downhill from there. Eventually, Donovan gave up all hope of restoring order. "If that's the way you boys want to fight, it's all right with me," he said.
"When the referee said that one sentence," Zivic remembers, "the Cadillac turned around and started back on the boat to the United States.
"By the 10th round, the Cadillac was safely in California and headed back East. With the sound of each bell, it was closer to my garage. When the final bell rang, I was all set to drive that big car down the streets of Pittsburgh."
The announcer bellowed over the microphone, "The winner and new champion of the world, Fritzie Zivic."
Zivic collected his share of the purse in cash and went across the street to his room, dumping the money on the bed. Then he bounced the bedspread and watched the bills float around the room. "I thought I was the richest man in the world," he says.