Emmett Rocco: The Nylon Jungle

By Clarence George on October 8, 2017
Emmett Rocco: The Nylon Jungle
"He was as comfortable with a ditch digger as he was with a celebrity or corporate titan."

Something of a Rocky Marciano lookalike, Emmett Rocco, the “Tarzan of the Connoquenessing,” fought out of his hometown from 1925 to 1933…

“By all accounts Rocco was someone you could count on.”—Jeff Bales Jr.

Born on December 18, 1906, in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, heavyweight Emmett Rocco, the “Tarzan of the Connoquenessing,” fought out of his hometown from 1925 to 1933 (though out of the ring in ‘26), winding up with an official record of 26 wins, 14 by knockout, 17 losses, 10 by knockout, and two draws. There were also 14 newspaper decisions (7-7).

Something of a Rocky Marciano lookalike, 5’11” Rocco lost his first fight, knocked out in the fourth by Charlie Haddad at Shelby Auditorium in Ellwood City on December 15, 1925, but won his next 14 (nine by KO or TKO) before losing to Jack McAuliffe II by newspaper decision at Rayen-Wood Auditorium in Youngstown, Ohio, on November 29, 1927.

The impressive number of names and toughies he took on include Battling Levinsky, who won by newspaper decision at the Armory in Akron, Ohio, on June 6, 1928, though losing by unanimous decision at the Jolly Bowl in New Castle, Pennsylvania, 19 days later (an easy win for Rocco, according to newspaper reports); Al Friedman, who lost by unanimous decision at Centennial Field in New Castle that September 14 and by newspaper decision at Cleveland’s Public Hall on March 1, 1929, though winning on points at the Jolly Bowl on March 17, 1930, with their fourth and final bout—at Pittsburgh’s Motor Square Garden that December 1—ending in a draw; Joe Sekyra, who won by newspaper decision in Youngstown on October 10, 1928, losing the same way at Rayen-Wood Auditorium that November 14, but winning by unanimous decision at the Castle Bowl on March 16, 1931; Frankie Wine, “The Fighting Blacksmith,” who lost by newspaper decision in Akron on December 12, 1928, and at Rayen-Wood Auditorium on December 15, 1930; Big Bill Hartwell, the “Kansas Tornado,” outpointed at the Armory in Akron on January 1, 1929; Jack Gross, who won on points at Madison Square Garden 24 days later (Rocco’s only bout at the Mecca); Yale Okun, who lost by newspaper decision at Rayen-Wood Auditorium that February 21; Johnny Risko, the “Cleveland Rubber Man,” outpointed at Cleveland’s Public Hall that May 7, but winning the same way at the same venue that July 29, giving Rocco “a severe drubbing”; Otto von Porat, who scored by eighth-round TKO at Chicago Stadium that June 10 (“Emmett dropped like a log”); Marty Gallagher, outpointed at Boston Garden that November 22; Moise Bouquillon, “The Iron Man of France,” outpointed at Cleveland’s Public Hall that December 9; Patsy Perroni, who lost by unanimous decision at Meyers Bowl in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, on August 18, 1930 (he’d been undefeated in his previous 15 bouts, winning 14, six by KO or TKO, with one bout resulting in a draw); Tuffy Griffiths, who kayoed Rocco in the second in Detroit that September 29 and in the fifth at Meyers Bowl on August 31, 1931; Tom Heeney, “The Hard Rock from Down Under,” outpointed at Motor Square Garden on October 13, 1930; Angus Snyder, in a bout that ended in a draw in Oklahoma City that November 10 (one of two draws in what was otherwise an eight-bout winning streak for the Canadian); and Arthur De Kuh, who won by third-round KO in Wichita on January 28, 1931.

Emmett’s last win came that April 27, outpointing King Levinsky at Motor Square Garden. The “Pennsylvania Menace” lost his remaining eight fights, six by KO or TKO, to King Levinsky, Stanley Poreda, Tuffy Griffiths, K.O. Christner, Charley Retzlaff, George Panka (in what must surely be the fastest knockout in Pittsburgh’s fight history, Panka was canvassed four seconds into the first by Tony Galento at Motor Square Garden on November 23, 1931, ref Al Grayber counting him out 10 seconds later. As “Two Ton” observed, “It don’t look like he’s going to get up”), and John Henry Lewis. He last fought on April 20, 1933, knocked out in the second at the Pasadena Arena by Billy Papke Jr.

“In retirement he found employment as a laborer at a defense plant and a shipyard, worked in the trucking industry, and remained involved in boxing as a trainer and ringside official,” writes Jeff Bales Jr. in a moving tribute to a “formidable contender.”

Emmett died of a heart attack on December 5, 1961, 13 days before his 55th birthday, and is buried in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles (widow Marguerite was buried next to him upon her death at age 91 on February 2, 2003, their resting place bookended by the graves of actor William Bendix and director Roy Del Ruth, who directed Bendix in 1948’s godawful The Babe Ruth Story). He was inducted into the Lawrence County Sports Hall of Fame in 1991.

In 2012, Bales asked one of Emmett’s three daughters—the youngest, Susan Fernau—for a word or two on her father. “He was kind, compassionate, protective, generous, smart, trustworthy, loyal, and very thoughtful,” she said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and could be mischievous if the spirit moved him. He also could be quick to anger if the occasion arose and when he felt it was warranted. He was the champion of the underdog. He never held a grudge and was a good friend to many in different social strata. All types of people were drawn to him. He was as comfortable with a ditch digger as he was with a celebrity or corporate titan. He loved people. All types. I guess you could say he had charisma,” adding, “What did I learn from my dad dying so early in my life? Well, never—never—hold back your love for the special people in your life. Tell them you love them all the time. Never assume you or they will be alive tomorrow.”

As for having four females in the house, “Well, other than it sometimes feels like I live in a nylon jungle—I love looking at them and being with them,” Emmett said, “I am grateful I had beautiful girls. God forbid if I had sons that looked like me.”

But not too bad if they’d fought like him.

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  1. Clarence George 12:15pm, 10/10/2017

    Much appreciate the kind words, Mr. Garfield.

    The rather unappreciated Tom Heeney eventually became a U.S. citizen, living in Miami, but I don’t know if that was true in 1930.  He may very well have come by romantic steamship.  Yes, reminiscent of “China Seas” (Jean Harlow!), but also of “Charlie Chan in Honolulu” (with Sidney Toler in the starring role).  And 1930s Honolulu always makes me think of Thalia Massie.  Speaking of steamships, you yourself were in “Between Two Worlds.”

    Best,

    Henry Kulky

  2. Clarence George 11:50am, 10/10/2017

    Thanks, Bill.

    Yes, I think he was content (assuming his womenfolk didn’t follow in the footsteps of Mae Busch!), if understandably disappointed that his boxing career wasn’t quite all he hoped for.  Referring to him as a contender, as some have, really isn’t accurate.  But he was arguably a fringe contender, which is a lot more than most boxers can say.

    Nothing wrong writing about Joe Louis, say (in fact, I’ve done it myself), but the Brotherhood of Ham-and-Eggers is amply worthy of our remembrance.

  3. John Garfield 09:53am, 10/10/2017

    Clarence George-Great! Your work always gets me going! Tom Heeney probably came the whole way from Oz by steamship with several ports of call along the way including Honolulu….makes me think of Clark Gable and Rosalind Russell in China Seas!

  4. Bill Angresano 09:01am, 10/10/2017

    Different era , very “different” man. A survivor of the toughest profession . Great read here Clarence George we love all our fighters not just the ones that grabbed the big headlines. Begs the question , what is the “successful life” I’d say he had one.

  5. Clarence George 05:45am, 10/10/2017

    Glad you liked it, Mr. Begley.  I’m working on another that may also merit your approbation.

    Sincerely,

    Charlie Hall

  6. Ed Begley Sr. 03:42am, 10/10/2017

    Mr. Rocco sounds like a formidable fighter and exceptional family man. He shared the ring with some formidable opposition, and is now in great company in death as he lies near the great William Bendix, one of my favorite actors of that era. Thank you, Mr. George, for bringing Mr. Rocco back from the scrap heap of anonymity. He sounds like a fine fellow.

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