He never bothered with the fine arts of boxing. On the mean streets of the lower East Side, the young toughs were not interested in winning on points. It was destroy or be destroyed. The tactics were whatever came to mind. In that environment Rocky Graziano was schooled, along with the other young thieves and muggers. But later, in a remarkable transition, he was to rise above it all, saying, "Somebody up there likes me."
The other day, Rocky Graziano, at 71, lost his last fight. In the other corner was that cardiopulmonary thing that put him in that New York hospital for three weeks. It brought down all his defenses. And this time, Rocky couldn't get up off the floor, like he did against a lot of guys, especially the night he won the middleweight title from Tony Zale.
For Rocky, the early years weren't pretty ones. He stole, he fought, he lied, he was twice sentenced to the reformatory, he was a sixth-grade dropout, a roughneck, well launched toward a violent, wasted life.
It is how he turned it around that is the Rocky Graziano story. Like many prizefighters, he commanded a certain fascination for the dynamite that was in his fists. But few would suspect that Rocky Graziano would emerge as a somewhat lovable public figure, a darling of the television sponsors for whom his crooked face and simple dese-and-dose charm commanded an audience for their products.
Rocky thrived on this kind of new public exposure, even though he confessed to needing a quick, remedial reading course to understand the cue cards. He took to show business. As for his illiteracy, he knew what he was, never concealed it. His whole attitude on TV, his visage was a wink. He got more famous when a young actor named Paul Newman made a hit movie of Rocky's life story.
Rocky never forgot his roots. It was after he won Zale's title on a steamy night in Chicago in 1947 that Jake LaMotta was being suggested as his next opponent and I asked him did he think he could beat LaMotta. Said Rocky, "I always did in reform school."
Rocky was a 5-foot 7-inch flailer whose style was to walk in and swat the other guy, with the hand that was handiest. It was effective. He won 67 of 83 fights, 52 by knockouts, got six draws. But it was his three championship fights with Zale that made him most remembered. When one mentioned Graziano's name, it was almost in terms of Graziano-Zale, so violent, so climactic were those battles, all of which were for the title, all of which ended in knockouts by fighters who got up off the floor.
Zale's name thus almost became an appendage to Rocky's. It is remembered that Red Smith, like myself, covered all those fights, the first in Yankee Stadium, the second one in Chicago, the third in Newark. Red would be more candid about the unpredictability. "Yeah," he would say, "I covered each of those fights and I picked each one of them wrong." We could be forgiven. Nobody could be sure how a Graziano-Zale brawl would end.
Actually, they were, to use their real names, fights between Thomas Rocco Barbella and Anthony Florian Zaleski. Rocky had simply taken the name of his sister's boyfriend. Zale is remembered for when after being drafted he reported to the Navy's Great Lakes boot camp. Asked his name, he said, "Anthony Zaleski." Asked his profession, he said, "Pugilist, middleweight." Whereupon the admittance officer said, "Ho, ho. I'd hate to be you. Tony Zale is checking in here later in the day."
In their first fight in 1946, it appeared Rocky was a false 8-5 favorite when Zale, who could also be violent, floored him for five in the first round. But, ha, the man who was down in the second round, the bell saving him, was Zale. The gore was awful with both streaming blood, when, in the sixth, a weary Zale made an astonishing comeback and flattened Rocky with a massive left to the middle and a finishing right.
In their second fight the outcome was just as surprising. Rocky was a badly beaten fighter, his roundhouse swings missing widely, one eye reduced to a narrow slit and a Zale right sending him to the floor in Round 3. Somehow, Rocky brought off a comeback -- that battered Zale into a helpless state in Round 5 and knocked him out in Round 6. In his own fashion, the new champion did pay tribute to his victim after the fight. "That Zale ain't no slob," he said.
So, there would be a third fight and this time Rocky would be a big favorite, a false one. He would be flattened by Zale in three, in the customary wild swinging brawl. A searing left hand to the midriff set up Rocky for the knockout, and he would later say of Zale: "That body punch he's got is like a red-hot poker. He hits you with it and leaves it in there." Cocky Rocky could compliment his opponents after a fight, if never before it.
In later years Rocky could say, in his gratitude, "Somebody up there likes me." And so many down here liked him too.