Giardello, The Equal Opportunity Middleweight Great

By Sembello C. Hasson on May 5, 2015
Giardello, The Equal Opportunity Middleweight Great
In the beginning Giardello relied on what he called his "old South Philly slugging style."

Georgie Benton called Joey the “smartest and toughest he ever fought,” and said that “nobody could take a punch like Giardello…”

Although Joey Giardello never marched on SELMA, he helped financially more black middleweights of his era than anybody else (including Ray Robinson) by NEVER ducking a deserving black opponent, no matter how tough, risking his rating and enabling many of them to “earn” the largest purse of their career by opposing him, including: Dick Tiger (4x), Willie Troy, Bobby Boyd, Sugar Ray Robinson, Gil Turner, Georgie Benton, Rory Calhoun (2), Holly Mims, Spider Webb, Otis Graham, Henry Hank (2), Jesse Smith (2), Charley “King” Cotton (4), Randy Sandy, Tiger Jones (3), Johnny Morris, Ernie Burford, Leroy Coleman, Johnny Saxton, Bobby Jones, Rubin Carter, Clarence Hinnant, Willie Vaughn, Jimmy Beecham, among many others. Get the picture ? All of these men were top contenders and headliners.

Giardello was refused a boxing license in New York from 1956 until 1965 because they claimed his co-manager, Anthony Ferrente, was mob connected. It’s true that Ferrente was a nephew of Antonio (Tony Bananas) Campanigro who was the consigliere of the Bruno Crime family. People have called Giardello a “mob fighter with the right connections” in the fight game, but in reality his management were mavericks who disliked Blinky Palermo and claimed Blinky stole the Johnny Saxton fight from them in 1953 in Philadelphia. Blinky hated Girdello / Ferrente because he had to kick money “upstairs” to Campanigro and Marco “The Czar” Reginelli (and later Angelo Bruno) his bosses in the Philadelphia organization. If Giardello was a favored mob fighter why did it take him so long to get a title shot? As Mike Silver relayed, [why is Giardello singled out?] “when so many fighters were knowingly connected to mob management, I mean if you take away mob managed boxers in the ‘50s and your left with…who?”

He first became a high rated contender in 1952, and after three sensational KOs at Madison Square Garden in 1954 he shot up to number one, where he remained throughout most of the fifties (except for the four months he served on a riotous assault charge in 1955). Yet he never got a title match until the savage battle with Gene Fullmer in 1960, that was declared a draw, but even then he was refused a deserving return match because Fullmer claimed Giardello “fought dirty.” Joey who had appeared on TV 38 times never got another TV shot until 1964.

Giardello had to fight all the “beasts” of the division (who were being ducked by the top guys) to stay high up in the ratings. How many favored mob fighters had to meet the fierce competition that Giardello faced? Giardello was as tough as they come and his chin was legendary, only down three times in his career. When Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer, Jack McKinney, asked Henry Hank if he thought he would KO Giardello when he had him badly hurt during their RING magazine 1962 “Fight of the Year,” Hank replied, “Who knocks out a Giardello?” Georgie Benton called Joey the “smartest and toughest he ever fought,” and later said that “nobody could take a punch like Giardello.”

Born Carmine Tilelli in Brooklyn on July 16, 1930, Joey was pretty guarded about his early life allowing only that he was from a loving family and was an average kid who gave his parents few problems except for often being put “on report” at school for fighting classmates and neighborhood bullies. Growing up as a teenager during the war, by the time he was sixteen he and a buddy named Charley Bonfiglio were then living in a room over a Turkish bath and decided to join the Army and become Paratroopers. Joey being underage, Charley went out on the street and bought a birth certificate for $5 from the first guy who looked old enough, who turned out to be Joseph Giardello, and joined up. He finally separated from the service in 1948 and first decided to visit a pal in South Philly, where he would remain for many years until moving to Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the early 1960s.

Joey really liked the atmosphere in the Italian-American neighborhood along Passyunk Avenue and after catching a glimpse of beautiful 16-year-old Rosalie Monzo, he decided he would stay around for a while. He moved in with the family of boxer, Joe Bonadies, and started going with Joe to the Pen-Mar Gym. In October of ‘48 he took his first pro fight under the direction of manager Jimmy Santore and trainer, Joe Polino. In the beginning he relied on what he called his “old South Philly slugging style.” His only amateur experience was “hundreds of street fights” but with his natural ability he started to pick up tricks of the trade and was becoming a very tough and crafty battler taking on anybody, any style, to learn his trade in order to provide for Rosalie (now his wife) and a growing family.

After scoring upset televised wins over Pierre Langlois and Billy Graham in 1952 at Eastern Parkway Arena he became a rated contender but it was his return with Graham at Madison Square Garden that really put him on the map and gave him “a million dollars worth of publicity.” First declared the winner over Graham in an exciting battle, Commissioner Christenberry changed the scorecard of one of the officials and gave the victory to Graham. Giardello and his managers, Tony Ferrente and Carmine Graziano (who by then had replaced Santore), took their case the higher courts and had Christenberry’s verdict overturned.

Giardello met Graham in a 12-round rubber match at the Garden before a large crowd but lost it when he faded in the late rounds. But 1953 was a good year, except for the disputed Saxton verdict, as Joey scored wins over Gil Turner, Georgie Small, a revenge win over Harold Green (who had stopped Joey in 1950), Walter Cartier and the very rugged Tuzo Portuguez in a match that solidified Joey’s reputation as a “real tough cookie.” The following is RING magazine editor Nat Fleischer’s comments on this battle:

“It isn’t often that TV fans get a chance to see what an old time dock fight looks like, but they got it in New York recently when JOE GIARDELLO and TUZO PORTUGUEZ fought ten vicious, dirty rounds at Eastern Parkway Arena. Butting, use of elbows, hitting on the breaks, use of knees — in fact everything that is termed a foul under the rules of boxing was on display…Referee Ruby Goldstein had his hands full. He took away two rounds, one from each fighter for rough [housing]...Goldstein would have done well had he tossed both fighters out of the ring, but he did an excellent job of curbing the violence after halting the bout and warning them. The fight was the roughest, most turbulent affair seen in New York since the Zivic–Bummy Davis fracas. It was a disgraceful exhibition, one that gave televiewers an opportunity to see the type of fighting that was outlawed.”

1954 was Giardello’s greatest and worst year of his life. After scoring his third straight nationally televised KO at Madison Square Garden over Willie Troy, then called the most feared middleweight in the world, he was promised a shot at champion, Bobo Olson, for the title that summer at an outdoor New York ballpark. But Al Neiman who managed Rocky Castellani offered Sid Flaherty, Olson’s manager, $125 thousand to meet Castellani who was the number two contender behind Giardello. Being that this was $25 thousand more than the IBC guarantee for an Olson defense against Giardello, Flaherty and the IBC accepted Castellani over Giardello. Joey then appeared to go into a free fall after this. He lost a huge upset to Pierre Langlois and barely squeezed by Bobby Jones and Tiger Jones. On top of it all his second son, Carmine was born mentally handicapped and Joey had a hard time dealing with little Carmine’s misfortune.

Joey was definitely operating with a chip on his shoulder at this time but was finally offered a shot at the champ in November in San Francisco (not outdoors in NY) and was away at training camp when trainer Adolph Ritacco (who replaced Polino — it’s a long story) fell asleep, Joey decided to sneak out and drive to Atlantic City for a little fun. On his way back to camp around dawn, he along with a couple old friends he had met up with were speeding back at over 100 mph on the Garden State Parkway when his car flipped over three times. One of his friends lost an eye in the accident and Joey broke the cartilages in his knee. He spent weeks in St. Agnes Hospital before he was released. Frenchman Pierre Langlois substituted for Joey against Olson.

Not long after on Halloween night 1954, Joey while on crutches was out partying and drinking along Passyunk Avenue with some of his cronies when he decided to get some gas and they stopped at a gas station on Broad Street across from “Father Devine’s Heaven.” As they were getting petrol from the black station attendant the congregation was just leaving the services when one of the occupants of Joey’s car started making rude remarks about the churchgoers and Joey said to the attendant not to mind what the fellow was saying because he has a big mouth. As the attendant moved away from the car he was said to have replied “all you guinea’s have big mouths.” One of the guys in the car jumped out and punched the attendant and as they drove off somebody threw a gas can that shattered Joey’s rear window. They went back and tore up the station (which was owned by an Italian). Joey claimed he never got out of the car because he was on crutches and couldn’t walk, but one of the guys grabbed his crutch and hit the attendant with it. Later that night the police, with the gas station attendant, picked up the guys and the man identified all but Giardello as the ones who assaulted him and damaged the station. But a few days later Joey was picked up and charged with riotous assault. Joey had claimed he was brought in as a political ploy by District Attorney Richardson Dillworth, who was running for mayor, to court the black vote in the coming election.

Joey was now a bitter, moody man as he waited for his trial and it was during this time that one of the local legendary episodes in his career took place. This was at the height of the time when ‘Philly Gym Wars” were at their peak and a very rugged Philly fighter was sparring with Giardello and getting a little more rough and rambunctious than was necessary (trying to “take” Giardello’s name) when Joey finally nailed him (Joey could punch when he had to) and flattened him — and then “put the shoes to him.” For the rest of his career nobody ever took liberties with Giardello in a Philly gym.

Giardello was sentenced to 6 to 18 months and served 4 before Dillworth paroled him. But it was during his incarceration that Joey said “I finally grew up.” Always a loving father and husband, Joey now became a great dad and husband. Also during his term in prison, his dad, who Joey idolized, passed away. Joey was brought to the funeral parlor under guard. He was so upset about the shame he had brought to his father that he went up and swore on the father’s casket (and later at the grave) that he would win the middleweight championship for his dad. (This story was first broken by Jack McKinney before the Fullmer fight and repeated by Larry Merchant after the Tiger title win.)

Fulfilling his oath proved to be anything but easy due to the runaround he got. When he returned in 1956 he upset the top contender, Bobby Boyd, who was being called the new Ray Robinson and had defeated Gene Fullmer, Eduardo Lausse, Tony Anthony and Holly Mims. Joey scored a spectacular fifth round KO over Boyd and was promised a title shot by George Gainford, manager of Ray Robinson (who had re-won the title from Olson) after the Fullmer fight (Jan. ‘57).  Well Fullmer won and Joey got sidelined. Then when Joey beat Rory Calhoun in May, he eliminated a dangerous opponent that Gainford wanted no part of and he promised Joey the next shot. Then the big outdoor Yankee Stadium extravaganza with Basilio came up and Joey was again out. Joey had kept himself in pretty good shape (for him) the whole time, winning 18 straight and thinking he was next in line, finally he got discouraged and blew some fights but his readiness to take on “anybody, any time” always brought him back in the limelight. That is how he got his shot at Fullmer and finally in December of 1963 he was granted a shot at Dick Tiger in Atlantic City because Jersey Jones (Tiger’s manager) said he deserved it because he was the number one contender and that he had taken on Tiger twice when Dick first arrived in America. Joey finally won the title with his career masterpiece in beating Tiger and always remembering the vow he made on his father’s casket that kept him going.

After his career was over Giardello’s devotion to his son Carmine became legendary, taking his son along with him to many affairs, meeting famous celebrities and fans. He gave much of his time to raise funds for the ST. JOHN OF GOD SCHOOL FOR SPECIAL CHILDREN in Cherry Hill, N.J., and was highly thought of and respected by his friends and neighbors. Giardello died in 2008 and is sadly missed by his legions of friends and fans including myself.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Rob D. 05:03pm, 06/28/2015

    GREAT ARTICLE!!! I have read many articles on Joey and this one by far covers his life and career better than all others! Great job! A follow up to this one would be very interesting, But what I would LOVE to see is a movie on Joey’s life. His life story has all of the elements that would make a box office smash!

  2. Charles Redner 11:19am, 06/10/2015

    Outstanding article, much of what I knew ... many stories told to me differently by Joey, naturally.

  3. Don from Prov 05:56pm, 05/08/2015

    CH: I don’t actually live in Providence anymore, but I’m impressed that you caught that.  I also never knew Harold Gomes, but if I recall correctly he at one time ran a bar right on the edge of Fox Point and the East Side.  I went to school over there and remember someone pointing the place out to me.  Federal Hill is not ‘da Hill’ anymore but Fox Point remains the same and is never really overrun by the East Side/Brown University/RISD, etc.  Again, you wrote a really good piece; I don’t come on here with any regularity at this point but will look for you work whenever I do.

  4. ch 03:27pm, 05/08/2015

    Thanks very much Don, glad you enjoyed it. How is Harold Gomes doing? I had a nice conversation with him about 6 or 7 years ago discussing his career and his idol Georgie Araujo and the good fighters that came out of Fox Point and Federal Hill. He was a nice fellow.

  5. Don from Prov 11:40am, 05/08/2015

    Wow, I’ve read three great articles in a row today—

    Very good writing on a hell of a fighter.

  6. Mike Silver 07:47am, 05/07/2015

    The Tiger should know. He fought ‘em all.  In any case a Bobo vs. Giardello match up would have been a great fight.

  7. ch 03:35am, 05/07/2015

    Mike Silver, I think Bobo is very underrated and one of the best infighters we ever had. But a focused, well trained Giardello would have been too slick and too rugged for Bobo. Tiger Jones said Giardello was the strongest man he ever met.

  8. Mike Silver 01:02pm, 05/06/2015

    Very enjoyable read S.C.H. I wonder how Giardello in his prime would have done against Bobo Olson? I think Olson, another superb mechanic, might have had the edge but who knows?

  9. beaujack 08:29pm, 05/05/2015

    Mr Hasson an excellent piece on Joey Giardello who I saw ringside many times. The first time I saw Giardello fight was at the Eastern Parkway Arena in 1950 against an acquaintance of mine Harold Green..Harold Green was a bit past his best in 1950, had beaten the rambunctious Rocky Graziano twice, but in their 3rd bout Graziano kod Harold Green.In their bout in 1950 I was sitting in the 3rd row from the ring, when in the 6th round, Green exploded a left hook on Giardello’s chin flattening Joey…I can never forget that left hook Giardello defeated Harold Green in a later bout…Joey was a rugged and wily middleweight in a very rich division. One other thing, some people forget when Giardello won a 15 round decision over Hurricane Carter, Joey was at age THIRTY FOUR past his peak by then..And yes Giardello was part of a terrific contingent of Italian middleweights along with Joey Giambra, Joe Miceli, Rocky Castellani, Lee Sala,and the hard punching Joey De John. Those were great days for boxing fans for sure…

  10. nicolas 07:56pm, 05/05/2015

    Mr. Hasson, I have never seen film if you can believe that. I had heard the criticism at the time of the phoniness of the movie, and the way that Italian Americans were portrayed. It was also mentioned at the time that Joey Giardello really got the shaft from that movie. In fact, what he did actually got him more famous because of the film. His law suit, and the criticism that the film received on those issues I think really hurt the reputation of the film, and really took away a sure thing from Washington, much in some ways what happened to Orson Welles Citizen Kane. One of the ironies to prove my point about Giardello’s greater popularity after the movie, Carter was I think on C-Span, talking to an audience, one of the audience members asked him, “what was it like fighting Joey Giardello”, figure that one. Also being somewhat a good sport, or perhaps because maybe he did not want to get sued, he said that Giardello beat him fairly because he did not fight the fight he should have. Giardello’s reputation after that movie really went up, much like Jake LaMotta after the Raging Bull film. Ironically, Hurricane Carters reputation has gone down, with many now believing that he did kill these men in cold blood. Also, being shown that he was really not the great fighter that the film would I suppose have one believe. I never felt that you were attacking Robinson for not fighting a lot of black fighters, though some today actually do this. I just wanted to suggest why. I guess I would like to see how many black fighters did Fullmer, Basilio, DeMarco fight.

  11. ch 04:07pm, 05/05/2015

    Eric; Kid Blast; Jim Crue; Irish Frankie : thanks for your always welcome input.
    Nicolas : I love ya’ brother, thanks for your input.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 03:19pm, 05/05/2015

    “For America, for just allowing me to live here, I kiss the ground.” (Frank Capra) When I read this heartfelt sentiment from this genius who was born in Sicily and who really and truly loved the idea that is America….I get sad and then I get pissed….really pissed.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 02:57pm, 05/05/2015

    Sembello C. Hasson-Joey fought those guys for one simple reason….he knew he could whip their asses not unlike Fritzie Zivic….plain and simple! Jim Crue is right….Joey was always as they say in the pocket and could slip punches that had KO written all over them all night long with very little shoulder rolling thank you!

  14. Kid Blast 02:49pm, 05/05/2015

    I’m learning a lot just reading the posts and the debate.

  15. Jim Crue 02:42pm, 05/05/2015

    Giardello had moves in the ring today’s fighters have never seen nor done and neither have their trainers.
    Like today it was mostly about money. Teddy Brenner told Robinson in 1944 that fans did not want to pay to see black guys fighting. That’s one reason it took him so long to win the welterweight title. That and he was just too darn good. There were so many terrific contenders in the 40’s and 50’s no one could have fought all of them. I agree with WC Heinz who said of Robinson ” we will never see his like again”
    Another well done piece.

  16. ch 02:37pm, 05/05/2015

    Nicholas, i attended the Giardello-Carter fight and thought Joey won a close verdict but what does Denzell losing the oscar have to do with this piece? Why aren’t you pissed at the way they portrayed Giardello, who had to wage one of the toughest campaigns in boxing history, as being part of a conspiracy against Carter and almost ruining the reputation he earned through blood and supreme effort.

  17. ch 02:28pm, 05/05/2015

    Nicholas, I am not attacking Robinson. I consider him one of the greatest ever. One point I am trying to make is that Giardello fought far more top black fighters than anybody of his era, and if he was a mob fighter with the right connections he wouldn’t have had to meet such fierce competition. There is ALMOST as much back-stabbing, cheating scamming and undermining between these mobsters as there is in Wall Street, corporate America and politics. Believe me Giardello got screwed by Blinky and Carbo. There was so much shadow management, fronts, the Palermo led “managers guild” that as Mike Silver said almost every fighter was touched by it but Giardello and Liston seemed more ostracized for it. Giardello was no saint but he never got what he deserved.

  18. nicolas 11:28am, 05/05/2015

    In Ray Robinson’s defense about not fight more black fighters than Giardello did. I think that for a black fighter, it was considered more profitable to fight white fighters. Also during the years of Giardello, white fighters were starting to be a rarer commodity than before. It would be harder for a white fighter not to fight black fighters. Rocky Marciano not only took the world heavyweight title from a black fighter in Jersey Joe Walcott, he would defend it four out of six times against black fighters. Before his fight with Liston, though he had defeated Archie Moore to win the vacant heavyweight title, He would only defend one time against a black fighter in Tommy Jackson, six times he would defend against white fighters. It was I believe not considered so profitable to have only black fighters in the ring for the heavyweight title. Muhammad Ali with his controversial character did change that, but even Joe Frazier, on the majority of his defenses mostly defended against white fighters.

  19. nicolas 11:18am, 05/05/2015

    ERIC: I don’t know what happened with the law suit that Giardello filed against the producers of the film THE HURRICANE, but I think that the outrage about the portrayal of Giardello cost Washington the Academy Award that he might have otherwise gotten. I watched the fight not long ago, and can say it was very close, though the judges I think favored Gairdello by way to wide a margin.

  20. Kid Blast 11:15am, 05/05/2015

    Great stuff here.

    Giardello, Micelii, Giambra, had trouble keeping them straight back in the day.

  21. Eric 10:21am, 05/05/2015

    Nice to see an article on Giardello. Vastly underrated. Thanks to the bullsheet “reel” fight in the movie about Rubin Carter, most non boxing fans, probably view Giardello as a cheese champ. Sometimes one might even confuse Giardello with his former opponent Joey Giambra, not that bad of a fighter himself.

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