Al Hostak, 90, Middleweight Champ of the 1930s
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Al Hostak, who died Sunday at 90, was a world-class puncher from Seattle who twice in the late 1930s was boxing’s middleweight champion.
Promoted on fight posters as the “Savage Slav,” Hostak wasn’t much of a boxer from a technical standpoint, but Ring magazine pronounced him one of the top 100 punchers of all time.
As the Pacific Northwest’s gift to the sweet science, Hostak was a somewhat obscure figure for East Coast boxing fans, and when he first won the middleweight crown, in a 1938 bout with the champion Freddie Steele, the New York Athletic Commission refused to recognize him as champion.
Hostak — also frequently billed as “Hostile Al” — was placed in the somewhat confusing position of being recognized as champion in 47 states but not in the one that mattered most, since New York was the center of the boxing world. The sportswriter John Lardner produced a years-long series of columns for the Hartford Courant insisting that Hostak was a nonexistent phantom, although he grudgingly acknowledged that he was “the toughest piece of ectoplasm this side of the castle of Macbeth.”
Hostak’s July 26, 1938, fight with Steele is still regarded as one of the great sporting events in the history of Seattle, various reports from the region indicate, although it lasted only 1 minute and 43 seconds.
Steele was counted out by a former heavyweight champ, Jack Dempsey, who was then working as a referee. Dempsey protested the New York commission’s refusal to recognize Hostak as “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of,” but to no avail. (Dempsey added that Hostak was one of the greatest hitters he ever saw.)
Understandably, Hostak refused to fight in New York, where Fred Apostoli was considered the champion. A unification bout would have been the logical move, but it never materialized.
On November 1, 1938, Hostak took on the challenger Solly Krieger — a “ringwise bomber from Brooklyn,” according to the Associated Press — who had agreed to travel to Seattle to fight for the title. Krieger beat Hostak in a 15-round decision after Hostak broke both hands early and could barely land a punch the rest of the fight.When the two met again in Seattle on June 27, 1939, Hostak won the middleweight title back with a fourth-round TKO. He became the first middleweight to regain the title since Stanley Ketchel did it in 1908.
Ectoplasmic or spectral, the broken hands would come back to haunt Hostak in his subsequent fights with contender Tony Zale. Zale decisioned Hostak in Chicago on January 30, 1940, in a 10-round nontitle bout that saw Hostak again break his left hand, in the fifth round.
That fight earned Zale the right to a title fight, which happened July 20 in Seattle. Hostak lost the title after breaking his left hand again in a brutal affray that ended in the 13th round with the ex-champion having taken a thrashing that left his eyes swollen nearly shut.
Hostak got one more chance at the title, on May 28, 1941, in Chicago. Zale sent Hostak to the canvas eight times in the second round before Hostak was counted out. Hostak was never a serious contender again.
Hostak was born January 7, 1916, in Minneapolis, the son of Czech immigrants who soon moved to Seattle. A childhood stutterer, he learned to defend himself with his fists early, and had his first professional fight at age 16. He went on to win more than 60 fights and lose fewer than 10, although his exact record is in dispute.
Hostak trained as a paratrooper during World War II and returned to boxing for a few years after the war, without much success. In 1949, the Associated Press reported that he had placed an ad in the personals section of a Seattle newspaper: “Al Hostak, twice world’s middleweight boxing champion, will come to your home and teach your boy to protect himself.”
He went on to become a bartender and tavern owner, and a jail guard. He had two sons, and after his wife died, in 1981, he became a habitué of flea markets. He amassed a collection of pop music recordings on vinyl and tape that threatened to engulf his entire home.