Tribute to Mario Duccini, boxer who ran a gas station / beer bar

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Mario Duccini and his older brother Larry regularly watched professional boxing at Sacramento’s L Street Arena and dreamed of fighting there themselves when they grew up – an ambition that came true for both boys. They fought under the name “Duchini” because they were underage at first and wanted to hide what they were doing from their parents at the same time as they sought fame, keeping the new spelling even as professionals.

Not world beaters even though each brother had several dozen professional fights, Mario was the best boxer, winning Golden Gloves titles as an amateur, hoping to make the 1936 Olympic team until he meets Charley Burley at the AAU National Tournament in Cleveland. Burley is one of the greatest fighters in boxing history, but Duccini believed he beat Burley that night, saying he knocked him down and the decision was a “crowd-nerving verdict”.

“I wanted to go to Berlin so badly that I could taste it,” Duccini said, arguing well into his retirement years – retirement from the gas station he owned and operated for 46 years – that he was “pronounced loser because that the AAU committee did not want to pay his travel expenses to return to Sacramento and then to Berlin.

All that could be verified to that end was an April 17 article in the Pittsburgh Press, which read “Pittsburgh colored boy Charley Burly knocked out Mario Duchini of Sacramento, Cal.

Born on the corner of 4th and T but growing up a few blocks south on Front Street by the river, a neighborhood that Mario admitted has become more difficult as the city’s development pushed the poor to outlying areas, he fondly recalls his childhood, saying “it was really great, the way we lived then. There was nobody around.

The boys’ father worked for the railroad and sold vegetables that he grew himself. Mario’s early workouts included more fights “in the back of the old cooler at 5th and R than I’ve ever had in the L Street Arena.”

Turning pro at 17, the same year he took over a gas station and beer bar at 5631 H Street, Mario was a crowd pleaser. Curley Grieve of the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “Not enough attention has been paid to the well-built, olive-skinned Sacramento welterweight named Mario Duchini.” He was, according to Grieve, “a whirlwind of action. He doesn’t train or dance. He feigns and then throws punches. He constantly pulls his opponent away from the leather which is pouring in from all directions.

The service station in the late 1930s was at the eastern end of the east side of town, the last place to be filled before turning onto a “two-lane country road winding through fields of hops, olive groves and cow pastures…” But, when Duccini closed in 1982, this neighborhood was close to the heart of one of Sacramento’s most established and important neighborhoods.

Mario had a pair of fights with local rival Johnny Bassanelli, a fellow bartender who later became a judge and referee, serving as judge for Rocky Marciano’s 1955 defense of the heavyweight championship against Don Cockell.

But his best win as a professional was a 1939 knockout of Pat Valentino, who in ten years went from middleweight to the exciting San Francisco heavyweight who challenged Ezzard Charles for the heavyweight title.

Duccini’s professional life was taking longer and longer. Gas was nine cents a gallon and a beer was a penny. “I was so busy selling beer that when a guy went to the pump to get gas, I would get everyone down in the cafe so they wouldn’t see anyone around and he would drive off” , said Duccini.

His last fight was in 1941, a draw with Bobby Pacho (click here to see Mario’s BoxRec.) I thought it was obvious I had won, it was time to hang them up.

Mario served in the Marines during World War II, with Larry and another brother, Al, in the Coast Guard. Their father died in 1943. Mario returned to his gas station after the war, with bartender Larry at the Tan Tan and then the Raven Club before opening the Subway Café in 1956 on the same block as Mario’s station.

Mario and Larry were very close, even marrying sisters, Evelyn and Dora, respectively. When the Sacramento Bee reported in 1967 that Evelyn had collapsed at a neighbor’s house and was pronounced dead at the hospital, the neighbor’s house was Dora’s.

Larry promoted fights for a few years in the late 1950s while Mario earned a manager’s license, managing Raul Flores – whose fame as a boxer is Eddie Machen’s first professional opponent – before becoming a referee in 1957.

Working as a boxing official for 25 years, for amateur and professional fights, Mario preferred to supervise children rather than adults. “I especially like working amateur fights,” he said. “They bring back a lot of memories for me.”

Hugely popular, Mario’s introduction as a referee often drew more applause than boxers received. “In his day, Mario was as well known in this area as Mills Lane is in Nevada,” local matchmaker Sid Tenner said in 1999.

He oversaw many excellent boxers in this capacity – Yaqui Lopez, Rodolfo Gonzalez and heavyweights such as Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams, Mac Foster and Henry Clark. He was a judge for Pete Ranzany’s 1976 win over Adolfo Viruet, the fight that put Pete on the welterweight map.

Larry sold the Subway after ten years and ran the Round Corner bar for a quarter of a century. Tavern owner Joe Orsi said Larry was a good, polite and attentive bartender who “made strong drinks” and “was generous with customers”.

“He also likes to play with the horses,” added Orsi.

Mario served as president of the Sacramento Valley Boxing Association and secretary of the California Federation of Service Stations, maintaining his station until 1982, the same year he retired as a boxing official. Stan Gilliam of the Sacramento Bee allowed Mario to apologize in a July 1986 column for his “memory lapses”. He sometimes failed to recognize even longtime friends and didn’t want anyone to think he was being rude.

Remarrying after Evelyn’s death, Mario’s second wife, Ruth, died in the fall of 1998. Mario did not follow her until a few months later. Larry lived until 2001.

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