Joe Miceli: A Knockaround Guy

By Robert Mladinich on January 23, 2015
Joe Miceli: A Knockaround Guy
Getting hit with Kid Gavilan’s bolo punch was like getting “swatted with a piece of paper.”

His all-action, hell-bent style made him perfect for television, and he soon became a staple on the fabled Friday Night Fights in the 1950s…

The late Joe Miceli, who campaigned as a lightweight, welterweight and middleweight during a whirlwind 13-year career that lasted from 1948 to 1961, readily admitted to being his own worst enemy. Although enormously talented, he was always one round away from inevitable exhaustion brought on by his undisciplined lifestyle outside of the ring.

A constant source of frustration to his managers and trainers, Miceli was competitive against 12 world champions, and even beat Ike Williams, but never received the title shot he desperately craved.

A television staple during the period many aficionados consider boxing’s golden age, Miceli is best remembered as a gatekeeper who could have been champion if only he had more discipline.

“Ten years in the ring haven’t taught boxing’s flamboyant wild man a thing,” wrote Elliott Pasternack in a 1958 edition of Boxing Illustrated. “He still drives his managers crazy and is as unpredictable as the weather.”

“I always loved fighting, but I hated training,” conceded Miceli back in 2005, while sitting in the backyard of his Long Island home. “I did everything bad. My managers used to tell me if I trained like a fighter nobody could beat me. But I was a knockaround guy who used to smoke, play cards and stay out late.

“Then I’d go to the gym and spar. I loved sparring, but hated running, jumping rope and hitting the bag. As soon as I left the gym, I’d go looking for a card game.”

It wasn’t just his managers and trainers who implored him to take his career more seriously. Even former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano told him if he lived anywhere else but New York City, where there were so many distractions, he would have probably won a world title.

As much as she loved and respected her husband, Miceli’s wife Catherine, to whom he had been married for over 50 years, was not so sure.

“He certainly had the ability and the talent, and there’s no doubt Joe was born to be a fighter,” she said. “Fighting was in his blood. There’s even a baby picture of him in his knickers and his fists are up. But nobody could talk to him. He was just too thick-headed.”

Throughout his career, and right up until a 1993 heart attack rid him of the habit, Miceli smoked at least two packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day. While still in the hospital, he remembers telling God if He would only give him the time back, he would do everything right.

Miceli got a reprieve and lived 15 more years, which enabled him to enjoy precious times with Catherine, his two sons, Joseph III and Anthony, and three grandchildren.

However, his multitude of memories are best defined not by what he did accomplish, which was certainly significant, but by what could have and should have been.

Growing up on the hardscrabble streets of New York’s Little Italy, Miceli was known as Whitey, the fiercest and most eager street fighter in the neighborhood. When he started boxing, he quickly became a larger than life neighborhood hero. His all-action, hell-bent style made him perfect for television, and he soon became a staple on the fabled Friday Night Fights in the 1950s.

Miceli said that as long as he was fighting hard and often, winning or losing really didn’t matter to him. He later found that kind of thinking inexplicable.

“I just don’t understand it,” he said. “When I was a kid we would fight for watches, which I would go out and sell. Looking back, it seems so stupid. But now I realize my mistakes and how much my laziness cost me.”

Not only was Miceli willing to fight anyone, he was willing to fight them anywhere. In compiling a career record of 60-42-8 (28 KOs), he tangled with such top contenders and championship caliber fighters as Ike Williams, Kid Gavilan, Johnny Saxton, Johnny Bratton, Virgil Akins, Joey Giardello, Isaac Logart, Don Jordan, Ralph Dupas, Curtis Cokes, Yama Bahama, Gene Fullmer and Art Aragon.

He was a true warrior of the road, who laced up the gloves in New York, Detroit, Dallas, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Scranton, Trenton, Buffalo, San Antonio, Phoenix, Oakland, Honolulu, Syracuse, Rochester, Boston, Omaha, Cincinnati, Toledo, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Washington, D.C., Miami Beach, Chicago, St. Louis, Toronto, Buenos Aires and Havana.

“I loved being on the road,” said Miceli. “So many guys became champions after I fought them.”

Miceli said all of his opponents were tough, but none were tougher than Williams, whom he considered the smartest and Bratton whom he said hit the hardest. He disputed his decision losses to Giardello and Gavilan, and even said getting hit flush with the latter’s fabled bolo punch was like getting “swatted with a piece of paper.”

He was always annoyed about the Fullmer fight, in which he was stopped in the second round in Fullmer’s hometown of Salt Lake City. He and Catherine both insisted that Fullmer incessantly fouled him with rabbit punches, while the referee stood by and did nothing.

“A few months earlier I beat his brother, who was undefeated, real bad,” said Miceli, referring to the third-round knockout he scored over the highly touted Jay Fullmer, who had been 13-0.

“He was supposed to be the best fighter in the family. Gene knew he could get away with a lot in his hometown, and every punch he threw was a rabbit punch.”

Years later Catherine approached Gene Fullmer during a Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, New York, and lambasted him for the tactics he had employed four decades earlier.

“I told him he didn’t fight fair,” she explained. “He just smiled and said, ‘I had to get even because he beat my brother.’”

After losing a decision to Cokes in his hometown of Dallas in January 1961, Miceli was coaxed into quitting by the New York Athletic Commission. They told him he “had fought too many tough guys” and, in essence, should get out while the getting was good.

Miceli felt betrayed, but he heeded their advice. However, much to his and his family’s chagrin, they were dead broke.

Although Miceli had earned $6,600 against Bratton and $5,800 against Aragon, there were too many nights like the one in May 1952 when he battled Giardello before a sparse crowd in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Fighting for a share of the gate, Miceli’s take was a mere $65.

Times had always been lean when he was boxing, but relief was always just one fight away. Without boxing to fall back on, the family endured some even leaner years.

“We had nothing, absolutely nothing,” said Catherine, who in 1962 took a temporary job with the local school district that wound up lasting 28 years. After retiring from that job, she worked for another 14 years as the admissions officer for the New York office of St. George’s School of Medicine in Grenada.

Her husband, meanwhile, found employment as a truck driver, airplane parts rigger, and barroom bouncer, and they settled into a somewhat comfortable suburban existence, where Miceli lived until his passing from cancer in July 2008 at the age of 79. 

Until a year or so before his death, Miceli was mentally sharp, appeared physically fit, and was blessed with a devilish sense of humor. A longtime member of Ring 8, the Veteran Boxers Association in New York, he loved to regale listeners with stories of his days on the road, taking on all comers and fighting as hard as he could for as long as he lasted.

He just wished that at the end of his “book” there was a “championship” chapter.

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Joe Miceli KO 5 Wallace "Bud" Smith I

Gene Fullmer KO 2 Joe Miceli

Gil Turner TKO 6 Joe Miceli I (better quality?)

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  1. Danny 07:08pm, 12/23/2015

    Joe Miceli was a great guy. As a kid I was always down at the gym and he would take me aside and show me how to throw combinations. Great guy I still miss him.

  2. marvin moskowitz 12:55pm, 01/30/2015

    Miceli worked my corner for a couple amateur bouts that I had and was a fixture at the Islip Recreation Center where I trained.. real nice guy.. loved to tell the story of Gavilan’s bolo punch .. and everyone was told to never ask him about Fullmer even though my friends dad also an ex fighter asked him and was ignored by Joe..

  3. beaujack 12:34pm, 01/26/2015

    Ah, Joe Miceli a name from the past who I saw ringside lots of times as a LW,and at his best as a welterweight. A real tough guy like his contemporary Rocky Graziano but without Rocky’s fire and brimstone.
    Miceli never seemed to bother with his defense and absorbing punches. His main attribute was his unusual left uppercut-hook thrown from an orthodox position, and unlimited courage….Amazing that this truly tough guy lived a long life. Miceli DODGED NO ONE in his career…

  4. peter 06:33pm, 01/23/2015

    Miceli stopped fighting just as I started following the game, so I never was able to follow his ring career, but his name kept popping up. When I finally met, and sat down with him at a boxing event held at The Copacabana in NYC, he was with his wife, who was still a bonified looker.  He was a proud man, who seemed to be proud of his career accomplishments, but also a bit wistful for what he wasn’t able to achieve. Reading this excellent Mladinich article gave me quite a few nuggets of Joe-Miceli-information, more than I got when I sat down with him on that noisy evening at The Copa. Thank you.

  5. Eric 01:44pm, 01/23/2015

    nicolas… Noticed the same thing. But the way Fullmer was bulling Miceli around the ring, I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. Fullmer was just too strong for the guy.

  6. nicolas 12:46pm, 01/23/2015

    From the video I saw of Miceli-Fulmer, I think it is correct that Fulmer got away with Rabbit punches.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:13pm, 01/23/2015

    IBF….WBA….WBC….WBO….WTF! 68 job openings for “Champs”! Training or no training, Joey would have nabbed one of these spots if he were around today!

  8. Eric 09:25am, 01/23/2015

    Not training enough was Roberto Duran’s favorite excuse when he would lose and sometimes even when he would win. Remembered when Duran knocked out Ray Lampkin cold. The little demonic looking Duran said, if he had trained, they would be taking Lampkin to the morgue instead of the hospital. Besides stomach cramps, being out of shape was an excuse for Leonard II, Kirkland Laing, Hearns, etc. Fighters like Marciano, Basilio, and Frazier knew that fitness was probably even more important than talent and trained accordingly.

  9. FrankinDallas 08:00am, 01/23/2015

    I’d be a billionaire if I had $5 for every fighter who said
    “If I’d only trained harder I’d have been a champ”. They all forget,
    or don’t know , rule #1 of the Bushido Code: The Way is in training.

  10. Clarence George 06:32am, 01/23/2015

    Flawless portrait, Bob, of a deserving but outrageously neglected fighter.

    He beat Sonny Boy West, I remember, who died a few months later.  That was following his bout with Percy Bassett at St. Nick’s.

    So he did a little bouncing, did he?  I know from personal experience that that’s not much fun.  But my favorite part is his wife wagging an admonitory finger in Gene Fullmer’s face.  I would have loved to have witnessed that.

    Anyway, it’s too bad he spent so much time on the town, but he was a good-looking kid with a lot of hair, so…

  11. ch. 06:11am, 01/23/2015

    Joe was one of my favorites on TV when I was a kid. He used to throw the hook and could instantly turn it into an uppercut with terrific power. I also remember the picture in RING mag of Joe walking down the isle with the very beautiful Catharine Tuzzo at their wedding.

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