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Graziano fought epic battles with Zale

Rocky was a champ...and a character
By Bob Diskin
Special to

"Pound-for-pound, punch-for-punch, violence-for-violence, Graziano-Zale was by far the greatest rivalry in boxing history," says Steve Farhood, former editor-in-chief of Ring magazine, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Today, for many, the name Rocky conjures up memories of the Sylvester Stallone movies. Rocky I tells the tale of a fighter that rises from obscurity to fight a seemingly invincible champion. In numerous sequels, Rocky fights war after war in the ring, winning some and losing some but always promoting the image of the struggling underdog.

Flash back to the forties and early fifties, some three decades before these movies' release, and we find the original Rocky.
Graziano went 67-10-6 as a middleweight. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.
He too fought some wars in the ring, not always observing the rules as set down by the Marquis of Queensbury. The cinematic Rocky came from the tough streets of South Philadelphia and frequently had trouble mastering the nuances of English grammar. The real-life Rocky was a Noo Yawker through and through and not only had similar difficulties with the language but at times seemed to have created an entirely new dialect.

Rocky Graziano was the middleweight champion for 11 months during the late forties, but his three wars with Tony Zale plus his winning personality have contributed to making the Rock a ring legend.

Born Rocco Barbella on the Lower East Side of New York on Jan. 1, 1919, Rocky was the son of a third-rate former boxer named Fighting Nick Bob, who worked as a longshoreman. Because he was unmanageable to his parents, Rocky was sent to live with his grandparents as a kid before moving back home.

Rocky grew up on Manhattan streets stealing things that began with, in his words, " 'a' -- a piece of fruit, a radio, a car, anything that wasn't nailed down."

At 12, Rocky and his pals were caught jimmying a gum machine and it was off to the first of several stints in reform school. As his boyhood pal, former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, said, "We were the first juvenile delinquents."

In 1939, a friend took Rocky to Stillman's Gym in New York to see if he could turn Rocky's natural aggressions into more useful pursuits. After Rocky got his head handed to him by a more seasoned pugilist, he put the gloves aside temporarily. However, he soon put them back on and won the Metropolitan AAU welterweight title.

"I got a medal which I hocked for $15 and thought this can't be too bad a racket," he said. A budding professional was born.

After spending much of his adolescence in reform schools, protectories and the city jail, Rocky was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. After going AWOL several times and punching out a captain, he spent seven months in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kans., and then was discharged dishonorably on April 29, 1943.

While in the Army, Rocky had become a professional fighter, taking the last name of his sister's boyfriend, Graziano, in order to avoid detection by the Army. He went 35-6-5 with 25 kayos from 1942-44. His career took off in 1945 when he knocked out top-rated middleweight Billy Arnold in the third round after being whipped over the first two.

He followed this spectacular victory with kayos over Al "Bummy" Davis and welterweight champ Freddie "Red" Cochrane twice in nontitle bouts. He knocked out Harold Green, who had defeated Rocky twice by decision at the end of the previous year, in the third round. After Rocky knocked out welterweight champ Marty Servo in the second round in a nontitle bout on March 29, 1946 -- sending Servo into retirement -- he was set for his first title fight.

It was against Zale on Sept. 27, 1946. Zale had spent the last four years in the service and his title had been frozen during that time. A crowd of 37,827 came to Yankee Stadium to see if the local hero could dethrone the Man of Steel from Gary, Ind.
Graziano's (R) overhand right nails champion Tony Zale on July 16, 1947.
Zale's manager, Sol Gold, was apprehensive going into the fight, citing Graziano's propensity for stretching the rules. Gold said Graziano had choked Cochrane with his left hand while clubbing him with his right, hit Davis while he was down and failed to go to a neutral corner against Servo.

Graziano, an 11-5 favorite, was floored in the opening round by a left hook. In the second round, he decked Zale with a series of rights, and only the bell saved the champ. Graziano continued to punish Zale for the next three rounds.

The sixth round began with Graziano landing more fierce rights. Suddenly, Zale, who thought he had broken his right thumb in the fourth round, unleashed a vicious right to the solar plexus that paralyzed Graziano. A left hook then sent the challenger to the canvas. By the time Graziano had regained his wind, referee Ruby Goldstein had counted 10. When Graziano rose, he was ready for more while Zale, although still the champion, had the look of the beaten fighter.

Soon after the fight, Graziano was suspended by New York State Athletic Commisioner Edward Egan for allegedly failing to report a $100,00 bribe to throw a bout against Cowboy Ruben Shanks. Graziano, though, was allowed to fight in other states and on July 16, 1947, he had his rematch with Zale in Chicago Stadium.

Zale took the fight to Rocky from the outset, swelling Graziano's right eye in the first round and decking him in the third. But again Graziano showed the heart that made him a crowd favorite as he rallied in the fifth round, taking some of the starch out of Zale.

Midway through the sixth, Rocky uncorked a series of rights that knocked down the champion. After Zale got up, Graziano drove him to the ropes with a stinging flurry of punches that caused the ref to stop the fight. The kid from the Lower East Side was the middleweight champion of the world.

The rubber match, on June 10, 1948 at Roosevelt Stadium in Newark, N. J., had little of the drama of the previous two fights. Zale, a 12-5 underdog, floored Graziano in the first round before knocking him cold with a left hook at 1:08 of the third to regain his crown.

Graziano's suffered a third round KO in his title bout against Sugar Ray Robinson on April 16, 1952.
After staying away from the ring for a year, Rocky returned and went 20-0-1 (with 17 knockouts) over the next three years. This earned Graziano another title shot, this time against Sugar Ray Robinson, considered by many to be the greatest fighter ever pound for pound.

On April 16, 1952 in Chicago Stadium, Rocky consistently connected in the first two rounds and scored a flash knockdown at the start of the third. The trip to the canvas served as Sugar Ray's wakeup call. Midway through the round he exploded with two hooks and a right to knock out Graziano.

"I've met many tough fighters in my long career," Robinson said, "but no one ever stung me more than Rocky did."

Graziano fought once more, losing a decision to Chuck Davey in September 1952, before retiring with a 67-10-6 record with 52 knockouts. He turned to show business and in 1953 got a job on the "Martha Raye Show" as a foil for the comedienne, becoming famous for his new take on the English language. Rocky remained in the public eye for the next three decades doing guest appearances on variety shows, as a spokesperson for the Claridge Casino and appearing in television commercials.

After Rocky wrote his autobiography, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" in 1956, it was turned into a popular movie starring Paul Newman.

Graziano's health began to decline in the late eighties. He suffered a stroke in April 1990 and a month later he died at 71 on May 22. At his funeral, former middleweight champ Vito Antuofermo said Rocky was "what a fighter should be. He was tough, could hit like a mule and had all the guts in the world."

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