Vincent (Jimmy) Gambino

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Name: Jimmy Gambino
Birth Name: Vincent Gambino
Born: 1932-06-20
Hometown: New York, New York, USA
Birthplace: New York, New York, USA
Died: 2003-03-23 (Age:70)
Height: 178cm
Pro Boxer: Record

From The Villager (April 03, 2003):
Obituary - Jimmy Gambino

Hard-Knock boxer, native Villager, vendor, local landmark on Bleecker St., dies at 71


Vincent "Jimmy" Gambino, a lifelong Villager and former heavyweight prizefighter, died Sun., March 23, in bed in the Bleecker St. apartment where he lived most of his 71 years. The cause was apparently a heart attack.

A much-loved fixture on Bleecker St., Gambino lost both legs to amputation after his boxing days. For the last 20 years, he sold T-shirts and socks during warm weather in front of his building, first outside a tailor shop, then after it was replaced by Cones ice cream store, in front of John's Pizzeria.

Last week they put a chair out on Bleecker St. in front of the pizza place in Gambino's old spot. On it were a bucket of flowers and in a plastic bag slung over the chair's back a Daily News. More and more flowers were added over the week. Lester Fernandez, a waiter at John's, put a glass of water on the chair--because Gambino always used to come in asking for water "with lots of ice."

Nicknamed the "Bambino" in his heyday, Gambino compiled a record of 14-1 as a professional boxer. A teenage Gambino was the sparring partner of Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight champion. He went 400 rounds with the Brockton Brawler from 1948-51. When they started sparring, Gambino was 16 and Marciano, who came to the sport late, 26.

"We had wars," Gambino recalled, in an interview last year. "We hated each other in the ring."

At first, Gambino was the better technical boxer, but Marciano eventually put it all together. Gambino would train an hour a day, Marciano seven hours.

"That was the difference between me and him," Gambino said.

Everett M. Skehan in his book, "Rocky Marciano: Biography of a First Son," described "A roly-poly sparring partner named Jimmy Gambino, who looked slow but had extremely fast hands, [and] was very helpful to Rocky."

"He had great staying power," said his sister-in-law, Eileen Gambino. "I saw him fight. He wasn't light on his feet. He could just stay there and take a pounding."

Peter Rotolo, a lifetime friend who still lives in Gambino's building, said Gambino had a shot at a great career. He said a sports writer of the day, Jimmy Powers, thought Gambino had more potential than Marciano.

"Jimmy was all flab but hands like lighting," Rotolo said. "I don't know if he would've been champ, but he would've made a lot of money."

Rotolo recalled how once in a late-night bar fight while coming back from the Nut Club, Gambino knocked out five unlucky antagonists with one punch each--"Every guy he hit didn't get up"--and how he once took a motor scooter from his brother Marty's store on Morton St. and proceeded to drive it off the garbage ramp on Gansevoort Peninsula and into the Hudson. But there were two things the rambunctious Gambino feared: dogs and his father. Rotolo never forgot how the senior Gambino, angered at his son for some reason, had grabbed a banana stalk off a pushcart and chased him down the street before thrashing him with it.

At 16, Gambino vied for the New York City amateur Golden Gloves heavyweight title*, losing to Coley Wallace, six years his senior, in a close fight. Gambino always said Wallace was the best fighter he faced**.

Gambino represented the East in Golden Gloves competitions and was intercity champ in 1949 and '50. At 18 Gambino turned pro but instead of training hard, partied hard, "driving around in a new car, going out with different girls," as he put it.

Yet, what ultimately derailed a promising career was heroin. The drug had infiltrated the South Village and many young men got hooked. Gambino figured 40 to 50 local youth died of overdoses during that period.

"They used to call Carmine St. 'LaGuardia Airport,' " Gambino recalled in an interview two weeks before his death. "Everybody was takin' off."

He spent two years in federal prison after being convicted of selling the drug on Oct. 10, 1951, to an informer working for the F.B.I. At first, he said, the informer inquired about a still and buying alcohol, then escalated it to a request for heroin. Shortly before his death, Gambino admitted to The Villager that he purchased the drugs at Rivington and Eldridge Sts. The murky incident ended with a robbery.

Gambino, who was 19 at the time, always maintained he was set up and that the authorities were looking to make an arrest in the Italian neighborhood.

Two weeks later on Oct 26, 1951, he was arrested after losing his biggest fight, an eight-round semifinal with Ray Wilding, the number two-ranked English heavyweight. The final that night pitted Marciano against an aging Joe Louis. Gambino liked to tell how at the weigh-in before the fight, he met Louis, his idol.

"So you're the Bambino," Louis had said coming up behind Gambino after the commissioner announced the Bleecker boxer's weight, Gambino recalled. "I turned, I said, 'Joe, I'm so happy to meet you.' "

Many of his friends and family members were sitting in Madison Sq. Garden as he was arrested in the dressing room after the fight. As Gambino was being led out in handcuffs, he heard someone down for the count. It was Louis, prompting Gambino to remark: "At least I'm going out with the best of 'em!"

After his release, he was reinstated and had one more fight, which he lost***. For a while in his 20s, he was a collector for local loan sharks. Bartenders would borrow money for betting; Gambino would come in, sit at the bar and without a word the bartenders would put $15 and a beer on the bar.

At 26, while getting clean from heroin in the Catskills, Gambino met his first wife, Jean ? Miss Westchester County 1954. They married and had two daughters, Josephine and Lisa. They divorced after eight years; she died of breast cancer a few years ago.

At the time of his death, Gambino had been estranged from his two daughters for 20 years. They did not attend his memorial service at Perazzo Funeral Home on Bleecker St. last Wednesday.

More hardship followed when at age 36, Gambino had one of his legs amputated below the knee because of a circulation disease. Gambino's smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes a day hadn't helped his circulation, and, he believed, his drug use may also have contributed.

Ashamed at his condition, Gambino stayed in his apartment for months until his prosthesis arrived, before going down to face the neighborhood. A year and a half later, the other leg was amputated and he got another prosthesis. Both operations were at St. Vincent's Hospital, where Gambino credited the nurses with providing excellent rehabilitation afterwards.

"It's a terrible feeling when you wake up in a bed after an operation and your legs aren't there--but it's my own fault," Gambino said.

Gambino found it hard to avoid relapsing, but losing his legs ended his heroin use. He still enjoyed his vodka though.

The youngest of three sons of Sicilian immigrants, Jimmy Gambino started boxing at age 11, encouraged by his father, Francesco, who thought it would keep the obstreperous youth out of trouble. Gambino started boxing at the Police Athletic League on Sullivan St.

"He took to it like a duck to water," Rotolo said.

There were lots of young fighters in the neighborhood then, including Gambino's good friends Angelo Luongo, a lightweight, and Frank "Chippie" DeGeorge, a featherweight.

Gambino attended Our Lady of Pompeii School, then spent a year at St. Bernard's and a year at Textile High School, then located on W. 17th St. He dropped out at 16 to fight.

Gambino's father owned Frank's Candy Store, at 259 Bleecker St., across from their building, 272 Bleecker St., working 16-hour days. In the front of the small store, egg creams and lemonades sold for seven cents. Behind a wall in the back of the store, shots of whiskey were 25 cents--in winter, pushcart vendors would avail themselves of a shot or two to warm up.

"I wish I was 10 percent of what he was," Gambino said of his hard-working father. "I would have been heavyweight champion of the world. I thought I knew it all, and that's what happens."

In addition to pushcart vendors selling food, horse stables dotted the neighborhood. Gambino loved the horses. He recalled how the kids liked to watch Louie Muzzo, a blacksmith on Cornelia St., hammer sparks from horseshoes--and would tease him about the dent in his forehead where he'd been kicked by a horse.

Gambino's two brothers were Nunzio, six years older, who became a police lieutenant, in charge of the commissary on Sixth Ave.; and Marty, four years older, manager for a musical wedding album company. Marty died of a heart attack at 35 and Nunzio died of a heart attack in his 50s.

Just before his death, Gambino had gotten divorced from a 38-year-old neighborhood woman he had been married to for 18 months. His friends and relatives and eventually Gambino, himself, suspected she married him to get his rent-controlled apartment. The Housing Court judge had asked Gambino how long he had lived in the apartment. Seventy-one years, he said. And how old was he? Seventy-one, Gambino answered. That was all the judge needed to hear, and ordered the woman out.

But Gambino sometimes let people stay in his apartment, including a sports betting bookie who set up a phone bank for a few months, and also a 19-year-old woman who needed a place.

His boxing days long behind him, Gambino was still known to pack a punch in later years. Once Gambino hopped over on one crutch and with a jab decked a man trying to steal a jacket from a leather store on the block.

Another time a driver gave him some lip as Gambino was holding a parking spot in front of John's Pizzeria. Gambino chased after the man into Matt Umanov's guitar shop and clocked him on the chin.

The man had called him a cripple.

"He was a mutt," Gambino said. "He didn't go down. But he knew enough not to retaliate. I'm not a cripple. I might walk limping. But my heart is still there."

At Gambino's memorial, the close-knit neighborhood came together to pay respects to a man who for many of them was a lifetime friend. Fittingly, in keeping with Gambino's personality, it wasn't overly somber but upbeat.

"He had a difficult, but interesting life," Jim Smith, former chairperson of Community Board 2, told The Villager. "He never lost his sense of humor. For all his troubles, I don't think he ever lost his enjoyment for life."

Said Frank Gambino, a nephew who is freshmen track coach at Archbishop Molloy: "He made some bad decisions and paid some prices for it. He was an interesting uncle to have. But for his own children it was tough."

"Always a smile, always friendly," said Nellie Crescio, who grew up and still lives across from Gambino's building. "It's going to be sad walking by there."

On a stand at the memorial was a scrapbook containing yellowed newspaper articles on Gambino's boxing career and photographs of him in the ring. Although it never made it into the scrapbook as the latest addition, a profile of him in The Villager last April had meant a lot to Gambino, his friends said.

In addition to his two daughters, Gambino is survived by nieces, nephews and cousins. A funeral Mass was held last Friday at Our Lady of Pompeii. Burial was at St. John's Cemetery in Queens.

He made the final twice of the Open New York Daily News Golden Gloves Championship at 16 and 17 years old.

Gambino won the Intercity Golden Gloves Title in 1949 vs. Bill Bangert and in 1950 vs. Van Leonard.

External link Life Magazine photo [1]

Preceded by:
Willie Clemmens
Intercity Golden Gloves
Heavyweight Title

Succeeded by:
Norvel Lee

  • *Gambino was reported as being overstuffed and weighing in at 225 lbs for the Open title, 20 lbs heavier than in his professional debut.
  • **Believed to be in reference to amateur fighters.
  • ***Sources actually have Gambino winning that presumed fight.