When Dave “Ziggy” Zyglewicz climbed into the ring to battle Joe Frazier at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston, Texas, in April 1969, more than 12,000 fans were in attendance and nearly all of them were rooting for him.
Although he originally hailed from Watervliet, New York, Ziggy was called the “Mail Order Heavyweight.” After his discharge from the Navy in 1965, 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 Zyglewicz was on the first bus out of upstate New York.
The squat and thick-trunked Zyglewicz was 5’10” tall, but his slam-bang style quickly won over Mexican fans who nicknamed him “The Animal.”
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.
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.
To say that Ziggy was a ticket-seller is an understatement.
“If you didn’t sell tickets, you didn’t get paid,” explained the now 76-year-old Zyglewicz, whose final ring record was 31-4 (17 KOs).
“When I was coming up, there were no guarantees. 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 two dollars. I sold a lot of tickets.”
Ziggy says 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 Zyglewicz, 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 Zyglewicz 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 remembers both rampaging through sparring partners, many of whom left after one day. Williams would often say “Meow” to a new sparring partner, which, because of his physique and demeanor would instill terror and often result in the hired hand sneaking out of the gym.
Ziggy, who entered the Frazier fight with a 28-1 (15 KOs) record, lasted just 96 seconds, but it was a barnburner for as long as it went. The fight was for a portion of the heavyweight crown after Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title for dodging the draft.
A hook by Ziggy actually staggered Frazier briefly, but Frazier’s hooks were faster and snappier. In the post-fight interview, he said he felt Ziggy “quiver” with each body shot he landed. A few headshots and two knockdowns later, the fight was stopped and Ziggy was derailed but not deterred.
Over the next 12 months, he fought three times, winning twice and losing a decision to Charley Polite. Because of familial obligations, he took on extra shifts cleaning smokestacks to care for his growing family.
On January 8, 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.
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 order—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.
By 1975 he was back living in upstate New York, where he signed to fight an up-and-comer named Bobby Walker and was ingloriously stopped on cuts in the fifth round.
He soon opened 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 Danny Ferris and Mike Tyson, who fought nearly all of his first 20 fights in the Albany area.
Joe Frazier sometimes visited with his singing group, The Knockouts.
But Ziggy felt as if he 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.
However, citing Ziggy’s “advanced age” of 38, the New York State Athletic Commission refused to sanction the bout.
Ziggy successfully sued the commission on the grounds of age discrimination, and signed to fight Indiana journeyman Clyde Mudgett in November 1982.
This was long before fortyish heavyweights were commonplace, so the media-savvy Mudgett hurled Geritol bottles at Ziggy to generate promotional interest.
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.
Ziggy soon retired from the ring for good, with a 32-4 record, closed the bar a decade later, and rejoiced in his son Shane’s many athletic achievements as a high school football and lacrosse star.
He divorced Fran, got remarried and split his time between Key West, Florida, and upstate New York. He is now again divorced and resides with Shane, his wife Sharon, and their twins Cain and Cole.
Besides his family, Ziggy derives much joy from going to the Saratoga racetrack, which he calls “my vacation.” He still follows boxing, and is glad that a heavyweight resurgence seems to be happening.
“For boxing to thrive, you need the heavyweights,” he said. “Everyone wants to see them. You need the big guys to keep the sport alive.”