Zale Was No Ordinary Boxer
By Shirley Povich
In the obituary, he was atrociously shortchanged. Tony Zale deserved more than the bare-bones mention that he had died Thursday at 83. Tony Zale was a boxer, yes, but no ordinary one. He figured in three battles that highlighted boxing history.
They were the vehement brawls with Rocky Graziano one, two, three of them in 1946, '47, '48, all for the middleweight title. In preeminence, they conceded nothing to Ali-Frazier or Dempsey-Tunney or Louis-Schmeling. For sustained fury, Zale vs. Graziano surpassed them all.
They were not contests, they were wars. I covered them all, in New York and Chicago and Newark. Twice, the fight was won by the man who got up from the floor. The fans were in a continuous uproar. So wicked was the punching that there could be no telling who would win the fight until the referee raised the arm of one or the other. In each case the favorite was the loser.
Even as heavy punchers they were a contrast: Graziano, the wild-swinging flailer, and Zale, the straight puncher looking for targets, especially with body shots. One opponent had described those shots as: "When he hits you in the belly it's like someone stuck a red-hot poker in you and left it there."
Zale and Graziano were as different in their lifestyles as in their approaches to boxing. Zale was the model family man and hometown hero in the steel mill city of Gary, Ind. Graziano, nine years younger than Zale, was up from the mean streets of Queens and tailed by trouble in almost everything he attempted. His real name was Rocco Barbella.
Zale was already nationally known as the holder of the world middleweight title when he volunteered for the Navy in 1942. The respect for him was obvious when he registered as a Naval rookie at the Great Lakes boot camp.
"Name and occupation," demanded the registration officer.
"Anthony Zaleski," said Zale, giving his true name. Professional boxer, middleweight. From the officer, this drew the comment: "I'd hate to be in your shoes, Zaleski. Tony Zale's due in here this week."
Graziano was known to be a toughie, and one remembered incident appeared to confirm this. When he was at the peak of his career, I asked Rocky if he thought he could lick the rising challenger Jake La Motta. He said: "I always could in reform school."
In the drama of boxing, Zale vs. Graziano stands as a major document, never to be glossed over in dealing with the affairs of that game.