Jimmy Toppi Jr. has so many boxing memories that he keeps the newspaper clippings in a giant sketchbook. Each page is adorned with three or four stories highlighting the heyday of Philadelphia’s boxing world.
One story dates back to 1939 and talks of the first boxing card Toppi promoted that featured former South Philly heavyweight Gus Dorazio.
"I was 16 and it was my first bout," the now-83-year-old Toppi recalled. "My dad managed all the fighters. He put my name on the license."
Toppi, who resides at 20th and Shunk streets, managed several fighters over the years, including Wally Sears, who worked in the coalmines of Minersville.
"I used to send him a penny postcard and tell him he was fighting on Thursday," Toppi recalled. "The day of the show, he wouldn’t even come to the weigh-in because he was working in the coalmine. He would come to the fight with his little bag."
Jan. 11, 1940, at the 2,500-seat Olympia, Broad and Bainbridge streets, Sears scored a sixth-round decision over Jack Hiller. Toppi usually needed special permission from the state athletic commissioner for Sears to weigh-in the night of the fight, being that the fighter was from out of town. The venue opened in 1934 and closed 15 years later.
Thursday nights were reserved for fight cards at the Broadway, which opened in 1925 and closed in 1935.
Toppi was also a successful businessman, as he purchased buildings and small arenas around the city, some of which he used for occasional boxing matches.
THE NOW-SHUTTERED ALHAMBRA Movie Theater, 12th and Morris streets, would become one of South Philadelphia’s more popular spots for boxing cards. When Toppi purchased the building in 1952, he spent $100,000 to remake it as a roller-skating rink. The facility also was used for weddings and banquets during the 1950s.
In 1959, South Philly promoter Jimmy Riggio, who owned the old Passyunk Gym, started running weekly boxing shows at the Alhambra, which had a standing-room capacity of 1,630.
The Sept. 25, 1959, card featured future junior welterweight champ Eddie Perkins of Chicago against local prospect Carl Hubbard, who won in a 10-round decision. The night also included Stanley "Kitten" Hayward scoring a first-round knockout over Jim Johnson in his second pro bout. Through 1962 the Alhambra was the area hot spot for Thursday night boxing. The biggest night in the venue’s history came May 15, 1961, when South Philly’s own Joey Giardello scored a ninth-round knockout over Canadian Wilfie Greaves. The full house was the largest to catch boxing at the Alhambra. Jimmy Soo, a lightweight from Grays Ferry, and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter also boxed there.
"Soo would sell out whenever he fought there," Toppi said.
In 1963, Toppi sold the Alhambra to the city. Because there was a need for parking along Passyunk Avenue, the city felt the site would be suitable for a lot.
Toppi still held boxing shows at the Plaza, Broad and Porter streets, for five years. He said it held 1,000 people.
In 1961, he purchased the Blue Horizon on North Broad Street and it became popular for matches. The first show was May 1, 1964, with Hayward scoring a fourth-round knockout over Curtis Cokes. Philadelphia-based Hall of Fame promoter J. Russell Peltz held his first boxing card there in 1969. Today, the 1,346-seat venue is famous. Ring Magazine voted it the number-one boxing venue in the world. The Blue Horizon is noted for producing 30 world-championship boxers. Monthly boxing shows are still held at the legendary venue.
Many boxers trained in South Philly at the Passyunk Gym and Juniper Gym, respectively. Future world champs and boxing Hall of Famers Matthew Saad Muhammad and Joltin’ Jeff Chandler, who are both South Philly natives, trained in the neighborhood.
Peltz, the Spectrum’s director of boxing from 1973 to 1980, said the mid-1970s was the last golden age for boxing in the city. Over the years, the South Philadelphia boxing scene has gone from slowly dwindling to barely existing.
The promoter is doing his part to revive the sport in South Philadelphia by holding bouts at the New Alhambra, Swanson and Ritner streets. It was previously known as Viking Hall. The next card is Oct. 28 and features Southwest Philadelphia’s Willie Gibbs in a 10-round middleweight fight against Marcos Primera. Joe Hand Boxing Gym moved from Northern Liberties to 7 Ritner St. so boxers could train in South Philly once again.
"I think the combination of the gym and the arena will spark a revival of boxing in South Philadelphia," Peltz said.