Updated: 6 days ago
By Paul Zanon
I never stole nuttin unless it began with an ‘A.’
A truck, a car, a payroll, a bicycle, a watch. Anything.’
Thomas Rocco Barbella. Sound familiar? You probably know him as Rocky Graziano.
Born into extreme poverty on the Lower East Side of New York on New Years Day, 1919 to Nicola Barbella and Ida Scinto, Graziano grew up in tough surroundings to say the least. Graziano’s father, an alcoholic who often had violent outbursts, had a brief and unacclaimed boxing career under the name of Fighting Nick Bob and worked as a longshoreman, which meant he couldn’t dedicate the hours to steer young Rocky from the distractions on his doorstep. His mother also had her issues, being hospitalised on many occasions for mental health issues.
Graziano learned the way of the streets before navigating his way around a school classroom and once said, ‘I quit school in the sixth grade because of pneumonia. Not because I had it, but because I couldn’t spell it.’ Consequently, the future world champion was sent to live his grandparents to keep him on the right side of the tracks. Unfortunately, both sides of the tracks on the Lower East Side were rotten and by the age of 12, young Graziano and his friends were caught breaking into a gum machine and was sent off to what would be the first of many visits to reform schools and jails. In fact, before the age of 22, half of his life was spent in correctional facilities, including the likes of Rikers.
At the age of 18 Graziano followed one of his friends to Stillman’s gym in New York to improve his fighting skillset. Despite getting beaten by a veteran Graziano returned to win plaudits, albeit, he was motivated by the prize. He found out that boxing medals had cash value and in 1939 entered the New York Metropolitan Amateur Athletic Union boxing tournament. After winning all four of his contests, he was crowned welterweight champion, given a gold medal and at a later date said, ‘I got a medal which I hocked for $15 and thought, this can’t be too bad a racket.’
Despite proving he had genuine talent as a boxer, his rebellious streak and a love for a more colourful life on the streets proved far more attractive. After further stints in a number of jails, including Coxsackie Correctional Facility alongside childhood friend Jake L Motta, Graziano was drafted into the United States Army in 1942. The structure of discipline, goals and achievement should have given The Rock a positive mindset, but instead he knocked out one of his superiors, went on the run and started boxing as a professional. In an attempt to slide under the Army radar he started his professional boxing career on 31 March 1942 at the Broadway Arena, disposing of Curtis Hightower in two rounds, fighting under the name of Robert Barber. He soon changed his name to Graziano, which was rumoured to be inspired by his sister’s boyfriend surname. Shortly after his fourth professional fight against Godfrey Howell on 20 April 1942, he was court-martialled and dishonourably discharged on 29 April 1942.
Despite his lack of commitment and honour to many aspects of his life at this point, he married Norma Unger on 10 August 1943, had two children and remained with her until the day he died. She would outlive him by 19 years, passing away in 2009.
By the end of 1944 Graziano had racked up 35 wins in 46 fights, with five draws. His last two fights of the year against Harold Green at Madison Square Garden were both very competitive, with the latter contest seeing both boxers hit the canvas. Unfortunately for Graziano, he lost both contests on points. Three months after Green, Graziano was pitted against highly ranked Billy Arnold at Madison Square Garden on 9 March 1945.
Arnold was the heavy betting favourite and touted to be the next big thing in boxing. After being dominated for the first two rounds of the scheduled eight round contest, Graziano unleashed hell, knocking down Arnold three times in the third session, before the referee intervened and stopped the contest. Graziano received a healthy round of applause from the crowd, which included Vice President Harry S. Truman. On a similar parallel to Jeff Lacy following his loss to Joe Calzaghe, Arnold was never the same again.
Over the next couple of months Graziano knocked out Solomon Stewart and Al ‘Bummy’ Davis before locking horns with ring veteran Freddie Cochrane on 29 June 1945 at Madison Square Garden. The fight was attended by over 18,000 as Graziano was outboxed and out-foxed over the first eight rounds of the scheduled 10. Once again, Graziano’s get out of jail power put Cochrane on the canvas in the ninth, before finishing the job 16 seconds into the final round. The fight was named 1945 Fight of The Year by Ring Magazine. Inevitably, the pair had a rematch two months later and once again, Graziano finished the job in the final round, but this time with only 23 seconds on the clock. The referee for this bout was nonother than ring legend Benny Leonard. Benny The Great would sadly pass away less than two years later whilst suffering a massive heart attack in the ring refereeing a contest between Bobby Williams and Mario Ramon. He was only 51.
Five weeks later, on 28 September 1945 Graziano was up against the man who had handed him back to back losses in 1944, his old nemesis Harold Green. Not intending to leave the decision in the hands of the judges again, Graziano knocked out Green in three rounds. Six months later The Rock knocked out the reigning world welterweight champion Marty Servo in two rounds, in a non-title contest. Graziano had put the world on notice that he was coming for straps.
Six months later on 27 September 1946 at the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Graziano took on long reigning middleweight champion, teak tough Tony Zale. The Man of Steel, or Anthony Florian Zaleski as he was born, had held the titles since 1940 and was not intending on losing them to the local hero in front of a 38,000 strong crowd.
After his performance against Servo, Graziano went into the fight the narrow betting favourite. Either way, everyone was expecting fireworks from the pair and they didn’t disappoint. After hitting the canvas in the first round, Graziano pounded the champion with clubbing rights hands and had it not been for the bell at the end of the round, he would have no doubt knocked him out cold. Rounds two to five and most of six, Graziano was dishing out serious punishment to Zale in what seemed to be a one sided contest. The ending looked inevitable, until the champion let loose with a perfectly placed right hand to the solar plexus which put Graziano to the canvas beyond the 10 count. This was Graziano’s first stoppage loss.
Ten months and three fights later, the pair met once again, but this time in Zale’s backyard of Chicago. There was almost a role reversal in the contest this time round. Zale started like a steam train, landing heavily on Graziano’s face, causing swelling and bruising, whilst even managing a knockdown in the third round. Come the fifth, the tide turned and Graziano started his own barrage. Midway through the sixth round Zale was on the receiving end of over 30 punches whilst on the ropes, leaving the referee no choice but to stop the fight and declare Rocky Graziano the new middleweight champion of the world. Whilst being interviewed by the media after he said, ‘Hey mum, your bad boy done good. Somebody up there likes me.’
After defending his title against Sonny Horne and donating the reported $10,000 purse to charity, Graziano met with Zale for the third and final time. Once again Graziano was the betting favourite and once again it didn’t matter. On 10 June 1948 at the Ruppert Stadium, Newark, Zale now coming to the end of his career went out with a do or die attitude. Knocking Graziano down in the first round, he went on to knock him out cold in the third, regaining his title once again. Zale only fought once more, two months later, losing his crown to possibly France’s best ever fighter, Marcel Cerdan.
After taking a year off to lick his wounds, Graziano returned in blistering form on 21 June 1949, knocking out Bobby Claus in two rounds. After the Zale defeat, Graziano didn’t lose a fight in his next 21 contests, which increased his stock once again and earned him another title shot. This time he would be challenging arguably the best fighter of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson.
On 16 April 1952 at the Chicago Stadium, Graziano genuinely looked like he might do the unthinkable. After connecting cleanly for two rounds, The Rock floored Robinson in the third, but unfortunately for Graziano, that simply made the champion mad and he came back with a barrage and closed the show the same round. Robinson said after the fight, ‘I’ve met many tough fighters in my long career……..but no one ever stung me more than Rocky did.’
Five months later Graziano had his swansong against Michigan’s Chuck Davey, who boasted an unbeaten record in 36 fights. The Lower East Side’s favourite son had lost the passion from years gone and lost a decision against a good fighter, but one he most likely would have knocked out a few years earlier. Graziano retired with a very respectable record of 67-10-6.
Shortly after retirement Graziano had his life story penned, which was soon followed by a brilliantly depicted feature film in 1956, starring Hollywood heartthrob, Paul Newman. The movie was called ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me.’ It’s worth a look if you haven’t seen it. He also starred in a number of television shows and films over the next few decades, including The Martha Raye Show, Miami Undercover and Naked City. Graziano once said of his showbiz experience, ‘This author stuff, television and movies is a piece of cake. Better than ripping off stores and pays better to!’
He also opened a restaurant in the 1960’s called Graziano’s Pizza Ring, which was located in Kips Bay, Manhattan and proved to be very successful, eventually leading to a franchise chain across New York City. Similar to Jack Dempsey, Graziano was always willing to give a slice of himself to any customer who visited his restaurants, posing for photos and signing whatever they wanted.
Sadly, Rocky Graziano suffered a heart attack in February 1990, then a stroke in April and consequently died from cardiopulmonary failure in May at the age of 71. He was buried at the Locust Valley Cemetery in Nassau County, New York, the same place his wife would also be rested eventually. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Nassau County Hall of Fame in 2007.
A flamboyant knockout artist who came from the gutters, rose to the top and exuded sartorial elegance, Thomas Rocco Barbella really was one of a kind. He only ever suffered knockout losses to Tony Zale and Sugar Ray Robinson in a career spanning 83 fights and would have mixed it up with any middleweight of any era. The best of all time? Probably not. A middleweight whose story will long outlive many world champions? Absolutely.
Paul Zanon, has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and was a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly magazine amongst other publications.