Let me get it out of the way. Yes, I am an Italian American. My name screams it, and if you tune into any ESPN show I am broadcasting, surely it doesn't take more than a quick look to confirm it.
My people have celebrated, and cringed a few times, as pro boxing and our Italian culture have danced together through the last 60 years of American sports history. Willie Pep's sterling defense, Rocky Marciano's undefeated glory, Ray Mancini's heartwarming realization of his father's dreams, Rocky Balboa's Academy Award: That's all good.
The Mafia-boxing connections, the abusive Jake LaMotta, Vinnie Pazienza's name change, Balboa's ignorance: No thanks.
With respect to Joe DiMaggio, Vince Lombardi and Jim Valvano, the truth is baseball, football and basketball don't come close to the Italian-American connection boxing has.
More Italian-Americans have gained elite level success in the ring than on any field or court. But beyond that, it is the way the sport and Italian-American ethnicity seem to blend that constantly fascinates me.
This is a big week of ESPN boxing. A much anticipated "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN, 9 ET) card will rev us up for a "Contender Special" Sunday night (ESPN, 9:30 ET). Both cards are full of established TV fighters. Both main events are headlined by Italian-Americans.
On "Friday Night Fights," junior welterweight Paul Malignaggi (20-0-0, 5 KOs) puts his undefeated record on the line against tough Donald Camarena (16-1-0, 9 KOs). Then Sunday in Providence, "The Contender" star Peter Manfredo Jr. (24-3-0, 10 KOs) will take on recent world super middleweight title challenger Scott Pemberton (29-4-1, 24 KOs).
As is expected, assimilation to America has made it so the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants don't always exude, identify or align with the characteristics of Italian-American culture. That isn't the case with Paulie and Peter.
These two boxers fight the way most Italian-Americans live. They are extremely passionate, outspoken and entertaining. Think Sinatra meets Everlast.
Manfredo has long feasted on the love affair between his heavily-Italian populated hometown and the fight game. According to the National Italian-American Foundation and the 2000 U.S. Census, some 19 percent of Rhode Island residents claim Italian ancestry. No other state has a higher concentration, by percentage, of Italian Americans.
They supported Pazienza on his way to stardom, and after the 2005 nationally-televised "Contender" series, they are doing the same for Manfredo.
I met with Manfredo before his well-hyped October fight at the Staples Center with Sergio Mora. Among the topics he wanted to discuss was the pride he had in his new trunks. An interlocking "I W" was the theme. "Italian Warrior," he said.
Manfredo is a warrior. He falls right in line with so many Italian-American traits. He puts his family first. As a proud father of two little girls, his only thought is to better their life. He is conscious of his ancestry. He takes great pride in his name, as a proud son of a hardworking Italian father. Manfredo will never back down. He always will give it his best. Not much different from a lot of ringside tales from the 1940s and '50s.
Gugliemo Papaleo and Thomas Barbella (a.k.a. Willie Pep and Rocky Graziano, respectively) would like him. The fact that so many successful Italian-Americans changed their names to conform to the Anglo public opens up a lot of wounds that I won't discuss. They are a little easier to understand for some.
Paul Malignaggi could relate.
He was born into an Italian-American community in Brooklyn but his family immediately moved back to Sicily. At 6 years old, Malignaggi came back to America unable to speak English.
Recently my mother delicately told the story of how, when she first came to New York from Italy, she refused to speak in front of Americans for two years. After being teased by school children, her silence was a cruel self-punishment. My mom went on to explain that, all of sudden one day, she had the courage to speak English and hasn't shut up since. The same is true with Malignaggi.
At 25, Malignaggi hasn't claimed the top prize in his profession, but he is on top of another boxing list. The brash and bold fighter has cemented himself as the pound-for-pound king of talk.
Internet message boards buzz over Malignaggi. I've read threads claiming he is the missing "Growing Up Gotti" brother. He might have a physical resemblence. But he's got a different attitude.
He's more like the lost brother of Arturo Gatti, not the lost son of John Gotti.
Malignaggi is as nice a guy as we deal with in the sport, yet when the TV lights are on him, watch out.
Malignaggi is a polarizing figure. It seems many fans tune in just to root against him. He is flashy in the ring. His defensive skills are based on pure speed and movement.
Meanwhile, Malignaggi's offensive skills seem to mock and jock more than they sock.
Boxing has long paralleled America's growth.
When the Irish swarmed this country, there was a run of shamrock success in the sport. From late 19th century heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan through the "Cinderella Man" James J. Braddock, the Irish made their mark.
The Jewish immigrants gave the sport greatness, also. Barney Ross and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom were on top. But, as has always been the case, boxing was a way to climb up the economic ladder. It was a way out.
To a certain extent, Italian immigrants also used the sport as a route to a better life. Boxing offered it, they took it.
Yet the Italian-Americans never really left. Today, first and second-generation Italian-American success spans from Fortune 500 CEOs to Supreme Court Justices. Still, my people are in the fight game.And they want to be there.
It begs the question: If the main attraction to boxing is no longer about getting out of the ghetto, then what appeal does it have for Italian-Americans?
I think it's programmed in us. Italian-Americans are passionate people. We love to love and we love to fight. We have more drama in our family dynamics than most made-for-TV movies.
Heck, think about how many popular movies play up the Italian-American element. Boxing is the only sport that really is as raw, confrontational, dramatic, expressive and pure as our own Sunday dinners.
This weekend, Malignaggi and Manfredo will be draped in their Italian pride and their American dreams. They don't have the legendary status of Italian-American warriors of the past, but they do have the same blood running through their veins and fire in their eyes.
"Friday Night Fights" Flashback
Some quick takes after the Feb. 3 edition from Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
• Mary Jo Sanders needs to be on our air again. Some people are telegenic because they are well polished and shine under the lights. The cameras love Sanders because you can see how wonderful of a person she genuinely is. Her athleticism was on display in her TKO of Iva Weston, but her skill was even more impressive. I would love to see a fight between Sanders and Sumya Anani. And I'm sure ESPN would love to make it the televised main event it is worthy of being.
• Buddy McGirt's son, James McGirt Jr., had another walk in the park with a KO victory. Buddy said he wants to take some challenges in 2007 with the middleweight prospect. I think they need to step it up sooner than that. It's time for Junior to learn a little more on the job. It will serve him well to face eight-round type fighters rather than former toughman competitors.
• Koba Gogoladze showed he is very well skilled in his defeat of Antonio Davis. I just don't know if watching Koba makes for great television.
Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."