U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Fidel La Barba Was a Phenom After a Rocky Start


By Arne K. Lang

In just a few weeks, the 2024 Summer Olympics will commence in Paris. One hundred years ago, also in Paris, two American boxers – Fidel La Barba and Jackie Fields -- captured Olympic gold medals. In an earlier story, we profiled Fields. Now it’s La Barba’s turn.

The fifth of seven children born to Italian immigrants, Fidel La Barba turned pro in his hometown of Los Angeles three months after returning from Paris where he won the flyweight competition. As a pro, he would carve out a Hall of Fame career, but it sure didn’t start out that way. After five pro bouts, his record stood 2-2-1.

There was an extenuating circumstance. Both losses and the draw came at the hands of Jimmy McLarnin. The baby-faced McLarnin was actually younger than La Barba, but he was more experienced and history would show that he was much more than a formidable foe; he can be fairly numbered among the all-time greats.

La Barba had to settle for another draw in his eighth pro fight, but this redounded well to him. Newsboy Brown, undefeated and with 36 pro fights under his belt, was thought to be too good for Fidel, but La Barba was every bit his equal in their 10-rounder at Hollywood’s Legion Stadium. Most of the newspapermen shaded the match to him. ”Fidel’s rounds were more decisive and he scored [the only] knockdown. On points he was clearly ahead,” wrote Sid Ziff in the Los Angeles Evening Express.

Three fights later, La Barba was thrust against Frankie Genaro in what was believed to be the first pro fight between former Olympic gold medalists. Genaro, a New Yorker, had won his diadem in Antwerp in 1920.

As a pro, La Barba was 6-2-2. Frankie Genaro, per boxrec, brought a professional record of 52-3-4.

Genaro was recognized as the American Flyweight Champion. As was common in those days, the champion was accorded the right to bring his own referee when he fought in his opponent’s backyard. Genaro picked New Jersey’s Harry Ertle, best known for being the third man in the ring for Dempsey-Carpentier.

La Barba vs Genaro was contested before an estimated 18,000 at LA’s Ascot Park where the usual bill of fare was motorcycle racing. At the end of 10 lusty rounds, the honorable Ertle raised La Barba’s hand without a moment’s hesitation. According to the correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner, a phalanx of 25 policemen were needed to keep well-wishers at bay as La Barba was being herded back to his dressing room.

This fight had taken on a much brighter tint the previous month when the great Filipino boxer Pancho Villa, recognized as the world flyweight champion, passed away at age 23 following surgery for an ulcerated tooth. With the title vacant, La Barba vs Genaro was elevated into a world title fight although not recognized as such in every jurisdiction.

At this juncture, Fidel La Barba was 19 years old and had been a pro for less than a year. Writing in 2019, the prominent boxing historian Matt McGrain mused that La Barba’s conquest of Genaro just may be the best win ever recorded by a teenager in all of boxing history.

La Barba stayed busy after this fight with 14 bouts in the next 17 months. Most were no-decision affairs meaning that La Barba would get to keep his title unless he got knocked out. On Jan. 21, 1927, he was matched against Scotland’s Elky Clark in a 12-rounder at Madison Square Garden.

The New York boxing commission, at odds with the National Boxing Association (NBA), had never formally recognized the Californian as the world flyweight champion. If Fidel were able to get past Clark, the undisputed European champion, he would receive their blessing and unify the title.

Clark, 29, had fought a slew of 20-round fights. As manifested in his cauliflower ears, he had a lot of mileage on him. The Scotsman lasted the distance, but Fidel had him on the canvas five times and won every round.

La Barba, who had reportedly been the president of his senior class at LA’s Lincoln High School, had always aspired to attend Stanford and in the fall of 1927 he did just that, turning his back on boxing to enter the prestigious university where he lived in the freshman dorm and helped-out with the school’s boxing team. But he left Stanford after one year and returned to the ring.

When he returned to boxing, he was no longer a champion, having outgrown the division, and a married man, having wed the ex-wife of prominent newspaper cartoonist Billy DeBeck (the first of Fidel’s three wives). Four fights in LA and one in San Francisco prefaced a belated honeymoon in Australia where La Barba had four fights in seven weeks, all scheduled for 15 rounds. He won them all.

The Trilogy

The highlight of La Barba’s post-college boxing career was his three-fight series with Kid Chocolate, one of the best trilogies in boxing history. They first met on May 22, 1929 at the New York Coliseum in the Bronx on a show promoted by Jess McMahon (the grandfather of WWE magnate Vince McMahon).

According to a story in a Brooklyn paper, Chocolate, born Eligio Sardinas, was unbeaten in 146 fights which included his amateur bouts in Cuba. There was no way to verify that record but the Havana Bon Bon was undefeated in bouts on American soil and was looked upon as a future world champion.

At five-foot-six, Chocolate was the taller man by three inches and he had a substantial edge in reach, but Fidel was able to smother his punches and after five rounds, said a reporter for a Pennsylvania paper, La Barba “was so far out in front that Chocolate wouldn’t be able to catch him with a deputy sheriff.”

But Chocolate did catch him and won the 10-round fight on a majority decision. “[Fidel] flouted one of the major tenets of gaming,” he wrote. “This merely demands that when you have the pot won, keep it won.”

The verdict was unpopular and it was inevitable that La Barba and Kid Chocolate would meet up again. The sequel was staged at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 3, 1930.

This would be La Barba’s finest hour since his conquest of Frankie Genaro back when he was just starting out. He took the fight to the Cuban right from the opening bell and at the end of the 10-round contest there was no doubt that his hand would be raised. “At the end,” wrote the ringside reporter for the Buffalo News, “the usually dancing, darting Cuban was flat-footed, leg-weary and swinging wildly.” (The decision was unanimous; the scores were not announced.)

Twenty-five months would elapse before the rubber match. In the interim, Kid Chocolate suffered three defeats, but against top-tier opponents -- Battling Battalino, Tony Canzoneri, and Jack “Kid” Berg – in bouts so closely contested they could have gone either way. LaBarba also lost to Battalino, failing to capture Bat’s featherweight strap in a dull 15-round fight, but La Barba-Chocolate III had a patina that was lacking in the first two encounters. In New York and a few other places, Chocolate had come to be recognized as a two-division champion, having laid claim to the featherweight and (lightly regarded) junior lightweight belts.

After 14 rounds, in the estimation of the New York Daily News man, the rubber match was deadlocked 7-7. But Fidel had run out of bullets and Chocolate out-slugged him in the final stanza.

La Barba emerged from this bout with a torn retina in his left eye, but would have three more fights before his career was finished. He lost a 10-round decision to four-time rival Tommy Paul, a first-rate fighter from Buffalo, lost a 12-round decision to British featherweight champion Seaman Tommy Watson, and ended his career on a winning note with a 10-round decision over a Pittsburgh club fighter in Pittsburgh. His final record was 69-15-7 and he was never stopped.

In Retirement

Although La Barba went to Stanford to study finance, in retirement he discovered he had a knack for writing. Two of his stories, one of which was published in Collier’s, were adapted into screenplays: “Savannah of the Mounties,” a 1939 western starring Shirley Temple and Randolph Scott, and “Footlight Serenade,” a 1942 musical wherein Victor Mature plays a former boxing champion turned Broadway stage actor. Both films were produced by Twentieth-Century Fox. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was a close friend.

During World War II, La Barba enlisted in the Army. Having only one good eye precluded him from combat duty. Discovered by a reporter in Naples, Italy, he defined his role as comforting old ladies in air raid shelters who were traumatized by the bombing. During the Korean conflict, he served as a physical fitness instructor at Southern California’s March Air Force Base.

La Barba was also a sportswriter for two short-lived newspapers, the Wilmington (CA) Daily Press Journal and the Santa Monica Evening Outlook where he was named Sports Editor. In the mid-1950s, he served on the California Athletic Commission, coached a paraplegic wheelchair basketball team, and attracted notice as the manager of promising heavyweight Elmer Willhoite, a former All American football lineman at USC who aborted his boxing career after only four pro fights because of brittle hands.

Fidel La Barba passed away on Oct. 2, 1981 at age 76 at a VA hospital in Los Angeles where he was being treated for a heart condition. He was inducted posthumously into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the class of 1996.


A recognized authority on the history of prizefighting and the history of American sports gambling, TSS editor-in-chief Arne K. Lang is the author of five books including “Prizefighting: An American History,” released by McFarland in 2008 and re-released in a paperback edition in 2020.