FRESNO, Calif. -- Fifty years ago Young Corbett III was welterweight champion of the world, lionized by an adoring Italian community in San Francisco and a beloved hometown hero in Fresno.
Today, Corbett, whose real name was Ralph Giordano, is 77 and lives in a retirement home near the Sierra foothill community of Auberry. He suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, a form of senility, and is unable to recognize even his own wife, Gladys.
'It's hard for us to face,' Mrs.Giordano told Fresno State University student Steve D. Smith, in the current issue of the FSU newspaper Insight. 'He was such a dear, sweet man. I just wish people would remember him the way he was.'
As a boy, Giordano worked for the old Fresno Evening Herald.
'In those days all the newsboys had favorite corners,' says Billy Mahoney, a former boxer turned sports historian and one of Corbett's closest friends. 'If you got caught selling papers on somebody else's corner, you could count on a fight.'
The street circulation manager of the newspaper came up with the idea of holding boxing matches instead of street brawls. Young Ralph learned quickly and by 1920, engaged in his first pro match where the long forgotten ring announcer didn't like the name Giordano and called him 'Young Corbett' after former world heavyweight champion Jim Corbett.
Giordano was 14 years old and weighed 90 pounds. The fight ended in a draw but the name Corbett stuck and the future champ was on his way. He went on to compile a 126-10 record over 20 years, including 33 knockouts.
Corbett, who went undefeated in 22 fights in 1926, was invited to box in San Francisco in 1927. San Francisco had a large Italian population and Giordano became the biggest draw in the city's boxing history, his bouts regularly selling out.
On Feb. 22, 1933 he finally got his shot at the title against Jackie Fields (he had beaten Fields in a non-title bout in 1930) before 16,000 fans at Seals Stadium in San Francisco. Northern California newspapers gave massive coverage to the bout, following the fighters around in the final week of training.
One thing they didn't discover, says Mahoney, was that Corbett broke his hand in a sparring session three days before the fight but said nothing because he didn't want to forfeit a $5,000 appearance guarantee.
'That's the kind of guy Corbettt was,' said Mahoney. 'His trainer, Joe Burdick, doctored the hand up a little bit by numbing it with some cocaine and tightly wrapping it with tape before the fight. But Corbett didn't tell a soul.'
Despite the sore hand, Corbett dominated the first five rounds, coasted in the middle of the fight, and according to Chronicle sportswriter Harry B. Smith came out in the 10th round 'all over Fields, dancing in and out, flashing with lefts and rights, staggering and rocking the champion.'
Corbett's hand was raised as champ. He later told a reporter the first thing he did after the fight was 'go see my mother. Nothing else counted.'
'His family was always the most important thing to him,' his wife remembers. 'Even though he wouldn't let us see any of his fights, he always made sure he called us immediately after.'
Corbett returned to Fresno to a parade and riotous welcome that Mahoney compares to the recent public outbrust of enthusiasm for the Fresno State University basketball team which won the 1983 National Invitation Tournament.
'There was a big parade with speeches and everything. People were yelling and screaming their heads off. It was pretty wild,' says Mahoney.
Three months later, Fresno fight fans were thrown into shock. Corbett defended his crown on May 29 against Jimmy McLarnin in Los Angeles and was knocked out in the first round.
'It was really too bad Corbett even fought that night,' remembers Mahoney. 'He went into the ring with a 102 degree fever and the flu. But you know, he didn't use that as an excuse. Corbett never looked for an alibi after he lost.'
McLarnin never granted Corbett a rematch and the Fresno fighter never got another title shot. In 1938, he defeated reigning middleweight champ Fred Apostoli in a non-title bout but quit the ring in 1940 after defeating Sheik Rangel.
He later worked as head athletic instructor for the California Highway Patrol and then opened a bar in Fresno called 'Young Corbett's.'
'The one problem that Corbett had was that he liked to give out free drinks to everyone,' said Mahoney, who said the champ also gave out money on the streets. 'He was real generous and never turned anybody away. He could have made himself rich from that bar.'
Retired Fresno Bee sports editor Ed Orman says Corbett 'lost about four fortunes during his career' including $75,000 that he put in the Bank of America just before the Depression. He got back $2 on every $100.
He was seriously injured in a 1945 auto accident that left him paralyzed. But he recovered despite doctors' predictions he would never walk again and worked as a bartender in a local bowling alley. His wife says his mental condition began deteriorating about 10 years ago and 10 months ago he was put in the rest home.