Boxing by the Book: Rolando Vitale’s “The Real Rockys”

By Robert Ecksel on February 15, 2016
Boxing by the Book: Rolando Vitale’s “The Real Rockys”
Rolando Vitale’s "The Real Rockys" is the real deal, a book as significant as its subject.

“Boxing fans are passionate and thankfully some of them take that passion and write about it and share that passion with others…”

The Italian American fighter looms large in boxing history. Names like Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, and Jake LaMotta resonate as the embodiment of what it means to be tougher than tough. But those gentlemen, who were anything but gentle in the ring, and in some cases not too gentle outside the ring, only scratch the surface of the hundreds of American-born fighters of Italian origin who have graced the sport of sports.

“The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955” by Rolando Vitale is the first book to explore in depth the history of Italian Americans in boxing. It is an exemplary collection of sociological essays, historical insights, and detailed appendices, examining the role and achievements of the Italian American prizefighter in the first half of the 20th century.

The journey of the Italian American boxer, like the journey of the Irish American boxer, the Jewish American boxer, the African American boxer, and the Mexican American boxer, is a story that repeats itself from decade to decade and from century to century. Outsiders who had to fight for acceptance, who had to fight to feed their families, they emerged from humble beginnings to gain eventual acceptance and became, due to their hearts, guts, skills and fighting spirits, exemplars not only to their own people, but to America at large.

Inter-ethnic rivalries were the norm, where the Italian fought the Irish who fought the Jews who fought the blacks, and the Italian Americans captured the greatest number of world titles and produced the highest number of contenders. But discrimination being what it was and today still is to some extent, Italian identity was hidden under a cloak of Irish linen, which was deemed somehow more tolerable than the dark-skinned, relatively speaking, new Americans who had emigrated from Italy.

There is no shortage of boxing books being published on a regular basis. Some of them are very fine, but “The Real Rockys” is as fine a book as it is a necessary one. Few boxing books have been so thoroughly researched and richly detailed, about a subject and era that has been largely ignored. The first nine chapters, 218 pages in all, describe the evolution and rise of Italian American boxing in the United States, tracing its roots back to the gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome. Moving through the millennia up until the present day, the author writes about the major players and the vicissitudes they encountered on the road to Mount Olympus.

The 35 separate appendices that follow the body of Vitale’s book are a treasure-trove of information unto themselves, that only a topnotch researcher could have unearthed, or would have even dreamed of unearthing. Rolando Vitale spent years working on “The Real Rockys” and it shows. This no slapdash bio, nor is it an assemblage of articles in book form. “The Real Rockys” is the real deal, a book as significant as its subject.

More than impressed by the work he has done, I contacted Rolando Vitale in London and asked how the book came into being.

“I became a sportswriter in the mid-‘80s for a weekly London newspaper,” he said. “Soccer and boxing was my thing. I covered 100-120 fights in my time. I remember doing coverage in advance of the Michael Watson-Mike McCallum fight and was at the gym watching Michael Watson going through his paces and came across a man named Dennie Mancini. He was an international matchmaker, promoter, manager, cutman, trainer, he was kind of a jack of all trades, and he had an uncle who was a world-ranked lightweight in the 1920s. And if I’m not mistaken he had a cousin named Tony Mancini who boxed at British level and was quite a good boxer himself. Dennie asked me, ‘Are you from an Italian background?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ He said, ‘I’ve got a job for you, a job you really should do when you have the time.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said to me, ‘I’ve been around boxing a long, long time, and there’s a book that needs to be written that no one’s actually written. It’s about the history of the Italian American boxers.’ That sowed the seed. Then he started telling me about the fighters, not so much the fighters like Marciano, LaMotta, and Graziano. He was telling me a lot about these guys that made headlines in the ‘30s and ‘40s and even before then. He said to me, ‘You’ll be surprised when you actually begin the research how many guys there were that contributed to boxing, but they boxed under English and Irish names. But I’ll leave that up to you. When you’ve got time, why don’t you look into it? It’s an interesting story.”

An interesting story it surely is and one well worth telling. Vitale though nothing of it at first and a few years went by. Then he lost his job, did some freelancing, which didn’t pay the rent, and went back to university and studied history and Italian studies at the University of Westminster in London. It was there that he wrote a thesis on the successes of the Italian American boxer from a historical/sociological perspective. His tutor at the time told him the script had the makings of a book and was something he ought to consider.

Vitale’s tutor was the second man in as many paragraphs to suggest he write a book on the Italian American boxers, yet there was more persuasion to come.

“It just so happened that I went a book launch, a book launch for a book titled ‘My Father, Primo Carnera.’ It was written by his daughter Giuliana Fantuz. Anyway, at the launch I saw Dennie. I hadn’t seen him for about a year and he again was on my case. He came up to me and said, ‘Listen, have you done that book yet?’ And he was quite cross with me. He’s a cantankerous person. He was very annoyed that I hadn’t acted upon his immediate advice. So he took me to one side and said, ‘You have to write the story. I’ll give you all the contacts I have,’ and he had an impressive directory of international boxing contacts, especially in the U.S.”

They met the following day at the Lonsdale sports shop in London. Then they went to an Italian restaurant and spent the next five or six hours talking about boxing. “And to be honest, that really sold me. It was a question of trying to find time around all my commitments, but I knew that I had to do it. It was almost like a calling. It’s taken a lot longer than I would have like, because I was working on it on a part-time, rather than a full-time basis. But in the end I got there. That’s the main thing.”

Using Dennie Mancini’s contacts, Vitale traveled to the States three times. His first stop was New York City, where he spoke with Arthur Mercante Sr. and Peter Heller, author of “In This Corner.” He also interviewed Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta, and Tony DeMarco.

“Those interviews began the process that I needed to see how far I was going to get with the book.”

Vitale returned to the U.S. in 2005 and spent a month doing research and chasing down leads. He spent quite a bit of time at the New York Public Library. But one of his most fruitful research expeditions was at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, specifically at the Joyce Sport Research Collection, described on its website as “an internationally recognized resource for scholarly inquiry into the history, sociology, economics, and culture of American sports, and their antecedents abroad.” It was, given Vitale’s objectives, like having struck gold.

“I ended up spending about 12 days,” he said, “and they were like solid 12-day, 18-hour shifts, every day, and I became a very good friend with George Rugg, the curator at the sports library. He was a fantastic help to me. He made available so much literature that I could have never found anywhere else. He actually laid bare the Stanley Weston Archives to me, which was donated to the library by the Weston family. I found some of the nuggets of information, for example, where I list the Italian Americans that used Irish pseudonyms. They were basically on scraps of paper that were contained in unnamed files. It was just heaven for a boxing researcher. That’s all I can say. It was indispensible in enabling me to complete the script. Another thing that they had at the Joyce library was all the Police Gazette newspapers from their inception right through to when they stopped publishing. They had all The Ring Annuals there. They had all the T.F. Andrews Boxing Annuals. You name it, every magazine—Veteran Boxer, that was published in Milwaukee—everything you can think of.

“But the cherry on the cake was once I left the University of Notre Dame, I ended up going to Miami where I interviewed Angelo Dundee. That was fantastic in itself. But what really made it for me was when I spent two or three days with Hank Kaplan at his home in Miami. I was impressed with the University of Notre Dame’s sports archives, but all the data Hank Kaplan had in his garage—he had these metal file cabinets, it was unbelievable—hundreds of metal cabinets with everything listed in alphabetical order—I just only wished that I had taken a whole month and bummed around his house, rather than do anything else. But those three days were good because they enabled me to cross-reference a lot of the data that I had acquired during my research at Notre Dame and the research I’d begun at the newspaper library in London.”

The excitement in Rolando Vitale’s voice was palpable. It was if the adventure of discovery was occurring as we spoke.

“What it was,” said Vitale, “everything that Dennie had told me was beginning to unravel itself, and that’s what dawned on me. Dennie was telling me years before that it was a story that needed to be written—and I understood what he meant. For example, you may have heard of a contender named Tommy Daly, who flitted between featherweight and lightweight in the late 1890s, the early 1900s. I was always convinced Tommy Daly was of Slovak or Czech background, or at least of Eastern European background.  That was the common conception and the way his name was spelled led me to believe that. So when I actually started looking into this boxer I realized he wasn’t of Czech or Slovak or any other background, he was actually of Italian American background. It was that the authors in those days, the chroniclers or scribes, they had misspelled his name. His true surname is spelled Bresha, which led me to believe he was Eastern European. But that’s a misspelling. His real name is pronounced in the same way, but it’s spelled Brescia. Well, obviously that gives a whole different meaning, and when I checked that out, where he was born, it led to small town in Southern Italy. It’s things like that, those nuggets of information that I discovered, that just made me feel as if Dennie was telling the truth. And even when I brought back information to him, he kept sort of laughing and saying, ‘I told you. I told you. Didn’t I tell you?’ So I do feel quite excited about what I lived through.”

He also does, or at the very least should feel excited at what he has accomplished.

“A lot of stuff that’s contained in the book hasn’t been revealed before,” Vitale said, “like head-to-head results of boxing matches between the most prominent ethnic groups during the period under discussion. I’ve used data that I collected and collated from hundreds of books, journals, magazines, and thousands of newspapers that specifically related to the Italian American boxing achievement. ‘The Real Rockys” is not a book that potential buyers are going to read once and put back on the shelf. It’s a reference book. It’s a sports history. It’s a boxing history book. I think that a fan, a researcher, a historian, an Italian American—anyone interested in sports should return to it again and again.

“When I undertook this venture I didn’t understand why there weren’t other books on the Italian American boxing experience. Yes, there have been biographies of Rocky Marciano, Graziano, LaMotta, even on Willie Pep, and there was a book that came out about 10 years ago called ‘The Italian Stallions.’ But it was primarily a list of SPORT articles, which was the forerunner to Sports Illustrated, and they were on some of the famous boxers of the ‘40s and ‘50s. So there were articles on LaMotta, on Pep, Graziano, Giardello, et cetera, but they were just articles that were taken out of that magazine and then used in the book. It was like an introduction about Italian American boxers, but there was hardly anything pre-1940. There’s such a lack of knowledge here, there’s also some level of ignorance here, and that was one of the reasons I felt that there’s definitely a book that can be written and will be written and along the way I’ve managed to shatter a few myths as well.”

I am not easily impressed. One man who is even harder to impress is the eminent boxing historian Mike Silver. The author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” and the soon to be published “Stars in the Ring” has read “The Real Rockys” and was as blown away as I was.

“This is an important book,” said Silver. “No doubt about it. The expanse of research that this person has done is phenomenal. Boxing is, especially in America, an ethnocentric sport. Unlike baseball, football, and basketball, it is directly tied to the socio-economic progression and acceptance of various ethnic groups in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants. What Rolando Vitale emphasizes in his book, and it’s so clear once you get into it, is that the four main ethnic groups within boxing during its golden age, which you can say is from the early 1900s to the 1950s, was comprised of the Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African Americans. You can’t talk about the Golden Age of Italian Americans in boxing without discussing their main ethnic rivals in that great chapter of American boxing history—and Rolando Vitale does that. Aside from the statistical data that he provides in this book, which is just so interesting, he does what is essential for anybody writing about boxing in relation to its history.”

That essential thing is research, followed by more research.

“The first part of ‘The Real Rockys’ is a very well written and informative history of the Italian Americans in boxing, taking account the surrounding society and what was going on at the time. Included are biographies of several prominent Italian American champions. And then there are these wonderful appendices, which are worth the price of the book alone. Is it overkill? Who cares? It’s great stuff. He covers the sport when boxing was one of the major sports in this country, when it rivaled baseball in popularity, when boxing mattered. It’s a cliché to say it belongs on every fight fan’s bookshelf. But it also belongs on every Italian American’s bookshelf. It’s a great history and one to be proud of, as any African American would be proud of what they accomplished in the ring, as any Jewish American would be proud of their history in boxing, as any Irish American, who were the first to populate the sport, starting with John L. Sullivan, would be proud of all they have done in the sport.”

‘The Real Rockys’ doesn’t only tell the story of the ethnic rivalries during boxing’s golden age. It also intertwines their stories in an elegant, seamless manner with facts heretofore lost to the mists of time.

Mike Silver continued, “You’re going to find things in this book that you won’t find anywhere else. Rolando Vitale compiles the top 10 rankings in all weight classes from 1924 to 1955 using The Ring magazine rankings and then breaks it down according to the four main ethnic groups in boxing during that period. He also created a list of his own top 10 from 1900 to 1923 when there were no rankings, but from his own sources. Another has the result of head-to-head contests between Italian Americans and rival ethnic American boxers listed in the world’s top 10 rankings from the years 1924 to 1955. This is stuff I’ve never seen anywhere else. One of his appendices is ‘The Most Prominent Ethnic American Groups in the World’s Top 10 Rankings for Each Decade.’ It shows how the Irish Americans began to fade out as early as the late teens of the last century, after inundating boxing from the 1850s to the early 1900s. They were the first ethnic group to get out of the cycle of poverty, and as the number of Irish American contenders began to drop off, the Jewish fighters became the dominant group of title contenders during the 1920s. Then the Italian American fighters became the dominant group in the 1930s as the number of Jewish fighters began to decline. By the 1940s and ‘50s the Italians were still very strongly represented, but the African Americans had begun to take over as the Italian Americans began to enter the socioeconomic mainstream.

“I’m happy to say we’ve seen a greater number of outstanding boxing books within the past 10 or 15 years than in the previous 50 years. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because the sport has disintegrated so much that people with an understanding of its history and what has been lost and are good researchers are moved write about that. When I pick up a book like this, it counterbalances the disenchantment I feel about the current scene. I loved the book. Boxing fans—and I’m not talking about the casual fan but the fan who has boxing in his blood—are passionate and thankfully some of them take that passion and write about it and share that passion with others. There are a lot of good boxing books out there, but Rolando Vitale’s ‘The Real Rockys’ is one of the best.”

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  1. oldschool 11:43am, 02/16/2016

    I have a copy and agree with Robert’s review. The book is structured very well and incredibly readable. Clearly the author put a great deal of effort into breaking the book down into appropriate sections and making it easy to thumb through. I highly recommend this book.

  2. Robert Ecksel 07:03am, 02/16/2016

    From the review:

    “There was a book that came out about 10 years ago called ‘The Italian Stallions.’ But it was primarily a list of SPORT articles, which was the forerunner to Sports Illustrated, and they were on some of the famous boxers of the ‘40s and ‘50s. So there were articles on LaMotta, on Pep, Graziano, Giardello, et cetera, but they were just articles that were taken out of that magazine and then used in the book. It was like an introduction about Italian American boxers, but there was hardly anything pre-1940…”

  3. Baby Yahoo 06:45am, 02/16/2016

    Hardly the first book to “explore” in depth the history of Italians in boxing. A book titled, “The Italian Stallians,” was published over a decade ago.

  4. peter 05:07pm, 02/15/2016

    The passion with which this book was obviously written, and the passion it has engendered in readers is impressive. I guess I will be picking up a copy.

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