Tuesday night’s learn from the fight lesson spotlighted fights connecting two middleweight champions Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale.
Rocky Graziano – real name Thomas Rocco Barbella – was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was the son of sometime boxer Fighting Nick Bob Barbella. His father encouraged Rocky to don boxing gloves and fight with older brother from when he was only three years old almost every night. Rocky disliked authority of any kind and although he did well as an amateur, winning the Metropolitan A.A.U. welterweight championship at age 18, he didn’t like the discipline of training. During his teenage years and whilst he was boxing he was repeatedly sent to reformatory schools and eventually prison, including Rikers island after he started a mini-riot in one institution. He also spent some time with the other future world middleweight champion and boyhood friend, Jake LaMotta. By his own words, Rocky was a “bad boy”, and went AWOL after enlisting in the army and punching out his captain.
He began his professional career under Eddie Cocco and initially fought under the name Robert Barber. Other managers had problems with him, especially his lack of interest in training. However, Irving Cohen encouraged him to pay more attention by gradually pairing him with over-matched opponents. He gave him the ring name “Rocky Graziano”. Graziano was a straightforward slugger who largely fought on his instincts and had a tremendous right hand. He cared little for defence and would rather brawl with opponents in the belief that once he landed his right hand he would win. His record would finish with 52 of his 67 wins by knockout. He favoured right hook or overhand, but would often close the distance with a hopping gazelle lead hook similar to Henry Armstrong’s and would also wade in left power hooks once he landed a good right.
Rocky Graziano versus Billy Arnold 09.03.1945
Rocky began 1945 with a record of 35–6–5. He had lost two high profile matches against Harold Green and it was speculated his career could be on the decline before he got a title short. However, his management decided to gamble it all the following year on fighting rising star, Billy Arnold. Arnold was a hot prospect who had a style similar boxer-puncher to Sugar Ray Robinson. Arnold was the odds on favourite to beat Graziano at 8-1 and was considered by many to be the next Joe Louis or Sugar Ray Robinson. Arnold had begun his professional career whilst in high school and would go on to rack up 27 stoppage win in his first 28 wins.
We only had highlights available of this fight. Apparently vice president Harry Truman was in the audience and was on his feet at the third round knockout of the scheduled eight round match. The knockout came out of nowhere as Graziano was absorbing a tremendous amount of punishment from the more skilled Arnold. The defeat ruined Arnold’s career and he was reportedly never the same fighter again. Graziano would then win a string of seven victories, mainly knockouts one of which would be Harold Green who also went down in round three.
In 1946 with a record of 43-6-5, Graziano challenged World Middle Champion, Tony Zale. Zale, born in Gary, Indiana, gained the nickname “The Steel Man” due to Gary’s reputation as a steel town. He was also a slugger, but more in line with the Max Schmeling scientific school of sluggers than Rocky’s brand of raw aggression. His favourite knockout combination was right uppercut to the solar plexus followed by a left to the jaw. However, he hadn’t defended the undisputed title in five years mainly due to service in World War 2.
The Zale/Graziano slugfest looked like it was going to go Rocky’s way when the champion was only saved by the bell in round two. Round three was also all the challenger’s, but round four saw Zale come back from the brink and win the round from Rocky. However, the match then went back to Graziano in round five getting close again to victory. It had been a gripping match for all those who watched, both fighters at different points being seemingly one punch away from victory or defeat. Round six ended it all. Zale had barely been able to make his corner at the end of the fifth, but his corner told him that Graziano was tired and to go for broke in this round. The champion did just that. He saw his moment when Graziano took a breather after launching a blistering two-fisted assault and put his favourite uppercut/hook combination that saved his title and gave Graziano his first knockout. This was Ring Magazine’s Fight of the year but sadly there is no existing footage.
There is available footage of the legendary rematch on 16th July 1947, but it is taken from a long distance and of extremely poor quality. Graziano had knocked out two more fighters before he tried for the title a second time. He had also had his New York boxing licence revoked due to not reporting he had been offered a bribe. The fight had to be rescheduled from February at Madison Square Gardens to the Chicago Stadium.
This time Zale was on the early attack injured the challenger’s right eye in round one and tried to take advantage of this in round two, only to get stung by Rocky’s venomous right hand just before the bell. Zale did not take his foot of the gas. In round three he cut Graziano over his left eye, knocked him down and pinned him against the ropes. Graziano’s face was a mask of blood by the end of round three with the referee threatening to stop the bout. However, round four was still much of the same with Zale trying to finish it all as quickly as possible.
Rocky could hardly see by the end of the round and his corner took immediate action by cutting swelling about his right eye and pressing it with a coin. It did the job in not only restoring their man’s sight but in getting back into the fighting spirit. Graziano went into round five with a renewed fury and tore into Zale with more accuracy, winning the round as he piled on the pressure. Round six was a continuation and Zale could not withstand the barrage. Three clean rights sent Zale down once. The champion just beat the count only to be almost sent through the ropes and Rocky took victory from the same man who had beaten him in the same round winning the world championship. In a moment that would give his biopic a title, Graziano then grabbed the ring mic and said, “Hey, mum, your bad boy done good. Somebody up there likes me.”
Tony Zale versus Rocky Graziano 3 – World Middleweight Championship – 10.06.1948
After beating Sonny Horne in a non-title match by an uncharacteristic unanimous decision, Rocky Graziano took his first title defence in the rubber match everyone wanted to see. Tony Zale was six years Rocky’s senior and now the 12-5 underdog.
The fight lasted three rounds. Round one shocked everyone when after coming out of a slug-fest on the ropes that Zale dominated he caught Rocky with a gazelle hook of his own, knocking the champion down for a three count. Round two put Graziano in charge and he wobbled Zale with a furious exchange. Round three saw the two of them go toe-to-toe, but Zale was now running things after landing a hook to the head and a right to the body (the reverse of his usual combination). Another left hook on the ropes sent Graziano down for the seven count. He got back up, but Zale took the victory as he knocked him down with a follow barrage of punches. Zale had regained the World Middleweight Championship.
Before the ‘40s close out on the middleweight division we will cover Zale’s title defence against the rising French star Marcel Cerden and Cerden’s fight against the Bronx Bull Jake LaMotta.