Young Corbett’s lounge was a place the Champ welcomed friends and strangers alike

December 28, 2016

Fresno Bee

Then: Fresno boxing legend, Young Corbett III (Ralph Giordano) in dark suit at center left, stands in front of his Young Corbett\'s lounge in 1939 at Mariposa and Broadway streets.

Young Corbett III was Fresno’s homegrown boxing world welterweight who never forgot his roots

Young Corbett’s lounge was probably a lot like the “Cheers” bar run by fictional bartender and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone, a place “where everybody knows your name.”

Patrons entering Young Corbett’s in downtown Fresno greeted the friendly bartender and owner by his moniker, “Champ.”

Retiring from the boxing ring at age 32, Fresno’s boxing pride and joy, world welterweight champion Young Corbett III – whose real name was Ralph Giordano – needed something to keep busy. A social man, he opened his tavern at a prime location at the corner of Mariposa and Broadway on March 3, 1939.

The building – a former bar – was the result of the beatification and widening of Broadway Street through downtown Fresno in 1933. Broadway became the main thoroughfare through town as part of State Route 99 and Highway 180. City leaders encouraged construction of new buildings in the Spanish Revival style to add an aesthetic feel for travelers along the route. The style is reflected in a 1939 photograph of Young Corbett’s lounge with its Spanish-style tiled facade and faux balconies.

The place became a major draw for travelers, city dwellers and fans of the Champ, who swelled with pride for their hometown hero who never forgot his roots.

The bar itself was a shrine to his boxing feats. Flanked by colorful tropical artwork scenes, the centerpiece of the bar’s artwork featured a depiction of a boxing ring with a photo of Corbett at the pinnacle of his career, when he became the world champion, and his gloves. Above that was a sweeping arc of cutouts of boxing gloves, each with a name of a cocktail special named in honor of boxers Corbett had defeated: Jackie Fields “Mohito” Punch, Corbett’s “Knock-Out” Collins, Cerfino Garcia’s “Hawaiian” Daiquiri, Glenn Lee’s “New Orleans” Cocktail and so on. Amidst back bar bottles sat numerous trophies Corbitt had garnered through his long career in the ring. And a mainstay of the bar was Corbett himself, always dressed in a sharp suit and tie.

And no matter the age of a patron, most were met with the same greeting from the grinning champ, “Hi, kid.”

When World War II broke, the city became an integral cog in the war machine. Because of its central location in the state, it housed a major regional Army training base.

Corbett’s lounge became a haven for young servicemen. His own son, Victor Giordano, joined the Army.

His niece, Josephine Giordano Gutilla, wrote of the time in a 1984 story: “The servicemen benefited more by knowing Corbett at the time than they realized. When they were broke, he gave them money, many times never seeing them again or being repaid. He didn’t care. He liked to think that someone would do the same for his son serving his country in Germany. If they were lonely, he allowed them to call home to speak to their families, wives or girlfriends, and never once charged them for the call. When they were hungry, he fed them. He was a true apostle of love.

“Here they found a home away from home, a father, brother and a true friend,” she wrote.

On a funny side note, Corbett inadvertently became a collector of G.I. overcoats. Soldiers would pawn their Army-issued, heavy overcoats – unnecessary in the Valley heat – at the bar for loans to buy drinks. The tabs were usually left unpaid, and the overcoats were never picked up.

Young Corbett III came into the world as Rafelle Capabianca Giordano, who was born in the province of Protenza near Naples, Italy, on May 27, 1905. When he was a few months old, his family immigrated to the United States, first settling in Pittsburgh, before moving to Fresno four years later.

He cut his boxing teeth on the streets of Fresno during World War I. As a “newsie,” he hawked newspapers for the Fresno Evening Herald. Known throughout his boxing career as a gentle and caring person, as a youngster he was anything but, especially when it came to selling newspapers.

And like with the location of his tavern decades later – and actually a block away from his old “newsie” stomping grounds – young Ralph Giordano staked out a prime corner to sell papers. His corner was Tulare and H streets, a good corner to catch passengers from the Southern Pacific train depot and across from the best hotel in town, the Hughes Hotel.

His pal, Billy Mahoney, said in a 1983 Fresno Bee story, “In those days, all the newsboys had favorite corners. If you got caught selling papers on somebody else’s corner, you could count on a fight.”

The young Giordano was not opposed to protecting his territory: “Oh my gosh, he was a rough kid,” Mahoney said. “Everybody was scared of him. Nobody went near his corner. You couldn’t even get close to his corner.”

A new kid would make a big mistake even if he took that corner, even when Giordano wasn’t there.

When the fights became pretty bloody, the Herald’s circulation manager came up with the idea of holding boxing matches instead of street brawls.

When not in school – which, according to Mahoney, was most of the time – Giordano would be polishing his skills in the back room of a hockshop. He said Ralph “became the artist of the offensive.” He could take your head off, although throughout his career, he was most feared for his body punching. He was a southpaw, but Mahoney said his best blow was a left uppercut to the stomach: “You kill the body and the head dies.”

Giordano made his professional boxing debut (although it was outlawed at the time) as a 90-pound 14-year-old on Oct. 3, 1919, in the basement of the Fresno Herald building at Fulton and Merced streets, where a makeshift ring had been set up. Not being able to afford boxing trunks, he fashioned a pair out of his sister’s black bloomers.

He and another “newsie,” Freddie Hall, fought to a draw, each taking home half of the $28 purse from money that spectators would throw into the ring. He left with more than the money: The story goes that the referee dubbed him Young Corbett III for his black, slicked-back hair like an earlier heavyweight boxing champion, Gentleman Jim Corbett, and the name stuck. And a legend was in the making.

Corbett reached the peak of his career on his 126th professional bout, on Feb. 22,1933, when he won the world welterweight title in a 10-round decision against Jackie Fields at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium in front of 16,000 fans. His win raised the spirits of Fresnans, who were mired in the Great Depression. A weeklong celebration followed, with an estimated 25,000 lining the downtown streets for a parade in his honor.

Speaking to the toughness of Corbett was a secret known for a long time to only himself and his trainer: He fought Fields with a broken hand. He broke it sparring three days before the fight. To forfeit the fight meant that Corbett would lose the $5,000 appearance guarantee he put up, money he refused to give up.

His celebrity grew after the fight. Friends included movie stars Clark Gable, Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen, and boxing legends Jack Dempsey and Henry Armstrong.

But his reign as world champ was a short one: Just 96 days later, on May 29, he suffered a first-round knockout by tough Irishman Jimmy McLarin in Los Angeles. It was Corbin’s biggest career letdown.

Disheartened, Corbett shortly afterward announced his retirement and accepted an offer to be head of physical education for the California Highway Patrol. But this, too, was short-lived, as the lure of the ring brought him out of retirement.

He would fight 22 more times through 1940. A quick and crafty boxer, his devastating left fist and great skill in body blows gained him high respect in U.S. boxing circles. Amazingly, during his long career, he defeated six Boxing Hall of Famers: Billy Conn, Mickey Walker, Gus Lesnevich, Jackie Fields, Fred Apostoli and Ceferino Garcia. According to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he compiled an incredible record of 126 wins, 12 losses, 15 draws and 32 knockouts. (The list is known to be incomplete because the earliest part of Corbett’s career took place when boxing was an outlaw sport.)

His professional career came to an end at the Civic Auditorium in Fresno with a 10-round decision against Sheik Rangel on Aug. 20, 1940.

On Oct. 2, 1945, at age 40, Corbett’s was life changed forever. On Highway 99 near Delano, a truck-trailer rig drifted across the highway and hit Corbett’s sedan head on. He was thrown through the windshield, suffering skull fractures and other injuries. Wife Gladys also was seriously injured. In a coma for months, it took Corbett 10 years to recover and, even then, he never regained his full strength.

With downtown redevelopment underway and a realignment of Broadway planned, Young Corbett’s was razed along with other buildings on the block for parking lot space for the new Fulton Mall. That section of Broadway now houses the Fresno Executive Plaza, which was built over four acres in 1981-82.

Corbett in later years worked as a bartender at Cedar Lanes and become a skilled snooker player. He started showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in the mid-1970s. He spent the rest of his life at an Auburn care facility and died on July 15, 1993. He was 88 years old.

In 1985, an 8-foot-tall bronze statue of the hometown hero Young Corbett III by Clement Renzi was placed on the west side of Selland Arena. Corbett was posthumously inducted into the the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004.

Worth noting, Young Corbett III was not the only hard-hitting member of his family. Great grandson Matt Giordano is a champion himself, a former NFL free safety known for his hard hits and was a member of the Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl XLI championship team that defeated the Chicago Bears in 2007. He is Buchanan High’s head football coach.

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: Part of the Fresno Executive Plaza complex, built in 1981-82, now sits on the site of the old bar along Mariposa Street.