Dave Zyglewicz, who was known as the Mail Order Heavyweight when he challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston, Texas, in April 1969, passed away just before midnight on March 19, just 16 hours prior to a street renaming in his honor in his hometown of Watervliet, New York.
The squat and thick-trunked “Ziggy,” who fought out of Texas in the late 1960s and was given the nickname “The Animal” by Mexican fans for his slam-bang-style, was 79 years old.
He was afflicted with the deadly trifecta of dementia, stomach cancer, and Covid-19. His beloved son Shane, a former lacrosse and football star at Shaker High School in Albany’s Capitol District passed away last August at age 50 of a heart attack. Shane had played college lacrosse with Alexis Arguello Jr.
The elder Zyglewicz was suffering from dementia at the time of Shane’s passing, and, according to family members, alternated between being heartbroken and oblivious to the loss of his son. Ziggy, a U.S. Navy veteran spent his final months at the Veterans Hospital and the Albany Medical Center when he was diagnosed with cancer a few months back.
On March 20, the city of Watervliet, where Zyglewicz was born, attended LaSalle Academy, and ran a bar called Ziggy’s Corner for many years, renamed Wiswall Avenue Dave Zyglewicz Way in his honor.
“My father was a very humble man who never bragged about anything he accomplished,” said Ziggy’s daughter, Nan Romano, who did not know he was an All Service champion.
“I couldn’t believe what I heard at the street renaming. He was in the LaSalle Academy Football Hall of Fame. He only started boxing when he joined the Navy. After he beat all the Navy fighters, he then beat all the Army fighters, the Air Force Fighters, Marines, and Special Forces. I had no idea.”
In today’s world of pay-per-view extravaganzas, it is hard for many fans to comprehend what gutbucket appeal a fighter like Ziggy had in his heyday. After being discharged from the Navy and returning to upstate New York, he responded to a magazine ad placed by Texas businessmen Hugh Benbow and Perry Payne, who were looking to create a heavyweight contender from the ground up.
The 21-year-old Dave Zyglewicz was on the first bus out of Albany. Between April 1965, when he turned pro, and his date with Frazier four years later, Ziggy ripped through an assortment of journeymen that included Sonny Moore, Dave Centi, Willie Besmanoff, Johnny Featherman, Levi Forte, and Bob Felstein.
Fighting on Ali Undercards
He won the Texas Heavyweight Title against Ray Martin in late 1965 and fought on the undercards of Muhammad Ali’s bouts against Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell.
“When I was coming up, there were no guarantees,” he said in 2017. “There was no [major] TV or radio back then, so you were paid by how many people you put in the seats. If the gate did $30,000, I might get 20 percent of that. Ringside tickets were $6.50 and general admission was $2. I sold a lot of tickets.”
Ziggy said he often made more than his purse from the coins and bills that grateful fans threw into the ring after his fights.
“It was different back then, there were great live audiences,” said Ziggy, who had fought 26 bouts in the Lone Star State, 23 of them in Houston.
“I built a great local following. The fans came to see me, especially the Mexicans, because I came to fight. They appreciated that. They were great fans—very loyal.”
The short, stout and bullishly strong Ziggy lived in a back room of the gym where he trained alongside Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams and George Foreman, who had just won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games. He answered the phone when the call came that Big Cat had been shot and wounded during an altercation with a state trooper. Ziggy remembered both of them rampaging through sparring partners, with many taking early exits before their first day was over. Williams -or Big Cat – would often tease sparring partners by saying “Meow” as they touched gloves. Ziggy saw their terror – and understood it all too well.
By the time Dave Zyglewicz squared off against Frazier, he was battle hardened and as confident as he would ever be. The fight was for a portion of the heavyweight crown after Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title for dodging the draft. It didn’t last long but it was exciting while it lasted.
A hook early in the first round staggered Frazier briefly, but Frazier’s hooks were faster and snappier. Ziggy was dropped early by a left hook but was up quickly and ready to resume. The fight only last 96 seconds, and Frazier later said he felt Ziggy “quiver” with each body shot he landed.
Ziggy was not derailed by the disappointing loss and fought three times over the next 12 months. Because of familial obligations, he took on extra shifts cleaning industrial smokestacks to care for his growing family. In January 1971, he was inside a chemical smokestack with a co-worker when the chutes were mistakenly opened. Noxious fumes seared through the stack, killing the co-worker and bringing Ziggy to the brink of death.
He was about to embark on the fight of his life.
For 10 months he was hospitalized with chemical burns on his outer skin, as well as throughout his respiratory system. If he survived, it was assumed that he would be forced to lead a tubercular existence. Against doctor’s orders—as well as all odds—Ziggy returned to ring and stopped Curtis Whitner in Beaumont, Texas, in April 1972. Afterwards, he realized the severity of his injuries and called it quits.
Ziggy After Boxing
By 1975 he was back living in upstate New York, when Dave Zyglewicz signed to fight an up-and-comer named Bobby Walker and was ingloriously stopped on cuts in the fifth round.
He soon opened a tavern called Ziggy’s Corner in Watervliet, which he ran for many years with his late first wife, Fran. It became the go-to place for the boxing insiders when the Albany area was somewhat of a fistic hotbed from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s with red-hot ticket sellers like Danny Ferris, and later, Mike Tyson. Tyson fought nearly all of his first 20 fights in the Albany area. Joe Frazier sometimes visited with his singing group, The Knockouts.
But Ziggy had unfinished boxing business, so he hooked up with the colorful late promoter John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, who was unofficially known as the mayor of New York City’s Mulberry Street in Little Italy, for a comeback fight.
Citing Ziggy’s “advanced age” of 38, the New York State Athletic Commission refused to sanction the bout.
Dave Zyglewicz successfully sued the commission on the grounds of age discrimination and signed to fight Indiana journeyman Clyde Mudgett in November 1982.
Forty-something heavyweights were not yet commonplace, and the media-savvy Mudgett tossed Geritol bottles at Ziggy to generate interest in the bout.
Comeback, Then Dave Zyglewicz Stopping For Good
Before a sold-out arena and a large contingent of local and Houston press, Ziggy stopped Mudgett in two rounds. He was invigorated and felt redeemed by the victory.
Afterwards, he retired from the ring for good with a 32-4 (17 kos) record. He held on to the bar for 10 years, reveled in son Shane’s athletic exploits, divorced Fran, got remarried, moved to Key West, got divorced again and moved back to Watervliet where he lived with Shane, his wife Sharon and their twins Cain and Cole.
He visited the Saratoga racetrack as often as he could before the dementia grounded him for good.
Dave Zyglewicz was as old school as old school gets. He went after his dream with drive and determination. He had great respect for his fans and the sacrifice required to be successful in such a tough vocation. He took no short cuts, expected no favors, and was as honest as the day is long.
Today’s fighters could learn a lot from him.
Funeral services will be held from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 26, at the Parker Brothers Memorial Funeral Home, 2013 Broadway, Watervliet, New York 12189, phone 518-273-3223,
Burial will be Monday, March 27, at the Saratoga National Cemetery.