Joe Rollino: A man of many distinctions

By Robert Mladinich on March 8, 2019
Joe Rollino: A man of many distinctions
To say he was a physical marvel would have been an understatement. (Robert Mladinich)

For Brooklyn kids back then, Coney Island was the world. The impressionable Rollino grew up quickly amid the fellow strongmen and bearded ladies…

When Joe Rollino was struck by a minivan while crossing a Brooklyn, New York, street in January 2010, he held many distinctions. Not only was he one of the borough’s oldest citizens at 104 years old, he was certainly the strongest.

When he passed away from his injuries, a large piece of old New York was lost for good. In a city of extraordinary lives, there were arguably none more extraordinary than Rollino’s.

Although he was just 5’4” tall and about 155 pounds, Rollino once lifted 475 pounds using only his teeth and 635 pounds with just a finger. 

Rollino said he had hundreds of boxing matches as Kid Dundee, an “armory boxer” in the 1920s. He fought at about 122 pounds, and said he often beat boxers 50 pounds heavier than himself.

“I was a good boxer and I could take a good punch,” he said months before his death, at his 104th birthday party at a Brooklyn eatery.

“Fighters would hit me in the jaw and I’d just look at them. You couldn’t knock me out. If we got in a clinch, no one could move me because I was so strong.”

Because Rollino was so often matched against much bigger fighters, he says that Harry Greb, a natural middleweight who often fought and beat heavyweights, was his favorite fighter of all time.

“Greb beat some of the best heavyweights in the world, like Gene Tunney and Bill Brennan,” said Rollino. “He weighed as little as 152 pounds. He was unbelievable.”

Rollino also believes that Joe Gans was the best lightweight of all time, and that included Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran.

He also had much fondness for Mickey Walker and said Sugar Ray Robinson was “a great welterweight, but he was not so great as a middleweight.”

Floyd Mayweather, he believed, would have been easy pickings for Barney Ross and Tony Canzoneri.

He described Mayweather as “a flake” and said, “The old-timers fought 30 times a year. Could Mayweather fight that often?”

Rollino’s love affair with boxing started at a young age. It reached its apex in 1919, he said, when as a 14-year-old, his brother took him to Toledo, Ohio, to see Jack Dempsey knock out the gargantuan Jess Willard.

“It was the most exciting fight I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them,” said Rollino. “Dempsey came out like a wild animal, but he was the best fighter in the world. He beat a lot of guys that were bigger than him. The only fighter who came close to him was Harry Greb.”

Still lucid at what would be his last birthday bash, Rollino did not seem like a man who was prone to hyperbole. Moreover, he was still agile and loose-limbed, which belied his stocky build.

If you believe that someone as muscular as Rollino could not box effectively or with any degree of fluidity, think again. When asked to show his form as a boxer, the centenarian Rollino shadow-boxed beautifully.

He deftly threw combinations, parried imaginary punches, and dipped like a man 80 years his junior. After his one-minute display of fistic derring-do, he was not the least bit winded. To say he was a physical marvel would have been an understatement.

“If he told me he was 75, I would have said he looked great for his age,” said the extremely fit Arthur Perry, a retired NYPD detective who boxed in the 1966 New York City Golden Gloves tournament.

“When he started shadow boxing, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

As much as Rollino loved boxing, it was another physical activity that excited him even more. He was the patriarch of the Old Time Barbell and Strongmen, an organization consisting of men, some in their seventies and eighties, who could still bend steel nails or railroad spikes with their bare hands, rip books in half from the binder side, or twist quarters with their teeth and thumbs.

“I was always very strong,” said Rollino, who produced a photo of himself at the age of 10. He was muscular, but not at all freakish looking. He appeared to be throwing a medicine ball around like a softball.

He grew up to have 20-inch neck affixed to his short and squat frame. A pupil of the 1920s strongman Warren Lincoln Travis, Rollino once raised a carousel with 14 people on it, utilized nothing more than a pinch grip to do hundreds of pull-ups on a two-by-four beam, and used only his back to move 3,200 pounds.

During this time, he was known as The Great Rollino, The Mighty Rollino, and the Strongest Man in the World.

“Joe is the real deal,” said Pete Spanakos, who along with his brother Nick ruled the New York City and national Golden Gloves tournaments in the 1950s. Nick went on to represent the United States at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. While there, he roomed with Cassis Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

As much as Rollino enjoyed boxing, he was more drawn to what was once called “the iron game” because of the relative purity of that business. This was long before steroids were in vogue, so those who toiled in the small but close-knit community had good reason to be proud of their accomplishments.

“There was a lot of corruption in boxing,” said Rollino, a lifelong vegetarian who still had all his own teeth, ate oatmeal every morning, and walked five miles a day regardless of the weather.

“I was introduced to this world at the age of 10, so I’ve been going at it for over 90 years.”

Louis “Arms” Leccese had once been a youth on the fence, who could have gone either way if fate didn’t intervene. He had developed an affinity for arm wrestling, and Rollino took him under his wing. Leccese wound up winning the national AAU title in the early 1970s.

“He trained me on a lat machine with a chain,” said Leccese. “We started with 25 pounds, snapping the weight down like it was someone’s arm. We finished up at 225 pounds. No steroids in those days, this was all legit.”

While Rollino’s exploits as a strongman are well-chronicled in Coney Island lore, there are other aspects of his life that are a bit more cryptic. Growing up in South Brooklyn, his mother was a vegetarian, which in those days was as unusual as the young Rollino’s superhuman strength.

For Brooklyn kids back then, Coney Island was the world. The impressionable Rollino grew up quickly amid the fellow strongmen, bearded ladies, and other assorted performers.

“I loved the life,” said Rollino. “For a young kid, it was the greatest place on earth.”

Boxing was huge in those days, so it was natural that someone as strong and athletic as Rollino was drawn to it. Living a healthy lifestyle became second nature to him, and to the day he died he had no ingestible bad habits.

Rollino, who was born in March 1905, was too young to serve in World War I, but he saw enough action in the Pacific Theater in the Second World War to be awarded three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star. He still carries shards of shrapnel in his legs.

“He’s got so much shrapnel in him, you could sell him for scrap,” quipped Pete Spanakos.

Rollino seemed like a fellow who was always happy, but his demeanor changed when asked about his immediate family. It is believed that when he entered military service, he had a wife and at least one child. When he returned several years later, he was a man alone. He offered no explanation, other than to say with extreme firmness that it was not a subject that was open to discussion.

He did talk about his years as a longshoreman, standing up to union goons, and even getting a small part in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” as a “winch man.” Much to his chagrin, his fleeting moment of celluloid fame would up on the cutting room floor.

When not on the docks, he was active in the Iceberg Athletic Club, which was founded in 1918 and is quite different from today’s Polar Bear Clubs, whose members take one quick, annual winter ocean dip.

The Iceberg members swim in the ocean three or four times a week. They attribute that practice to enduring good health. It is called “winter bathing.”

The water temperature, they insist, is often warmer than the air temperature. If they stay in for five or ten minutes, they believe the cold water kills germs that might otherwise fester inside their bodies. All agree that since they started winter bathing, they have not been sick.

“When you come out of the water and put your sweatshirt back on, you feel like you’re 10 years old,” said Daniel Leahy, who started winter bathing in 1986.

Rollino, who couldn’t remember the last time he was ill, said he winter bathed for nine straight years without missing a day.

“Rock pile to rock pile, 220 yards in Coney Island,” he said, to which an elderly pal joked that he had the first known case of shrinkage.

You could have spent days with Rollino talking about nothing other than iron men, boxing, and a gloriously gritty Brooklyn that no longer exists. Unlike some elderly curmudgeons, most of whom were significantly younger than Rollino, he was not skeptical, cynical, angry, or resentful.

He seemed determined to live life to the fullest, and he still looked forward to each new day with eagerness and enthusiasm. He used to derive a lot more joy from boxing but was still happy to weigh in on matters related to the sport. 

Of all the current or recent fighters in 2010, he believed that Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. would have been best suited for the demands placed on a boxer in the 1920s and 1930s. As far as the heavyweights of 2010, he was dismissive.

The best heavyweight of all time, he reiterated, were Jack Dempsey, followed by Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Gene Tunney and Joe Frazier. When asked if he mistakenly left Muhammad Ali out, he said he did not.

“Maybe I’d put him around ninth,” he opined.

When asked why he was defying conventional wisdom, he was adamant in his response.

“There were a lot of fixed fights,” he said. “Do you really think he knocked out Sonny Liston (in their rematch)? Ten cops couldn’t knock Sonny out with bats. How could he knock him out with a cosmic punch?”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. peter 05:28pm, 03/11/2019

    I like the idea that Boxing.com has immortalized Joe Rollino here in video, song, and in print. Big Bad Joe Rollino lives on!

  2. Pete 10:04am, 03/08/2019

    And Robert Mladinich right across the street. Wonderful piece.

  3. Lucas McCain 08:17am, 03/08/2019

    Wish Rollino had lived around the corner from me—or maybe not, since I would have spent too many hours talking to him.  Fascinating guy with a great attitude toward living and aging!

  4. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 07:26am, 03/08/2019

    I have heard and read about Mr. Rollino before the article. Nice article. I like reading about the old time strong men. Many of these guys were remarkable and were committed to fitness first and foremost. These old time “iron men” in many cases were quite flexible and could perform gymnastic back bends, back flips, handstands with ease, etc. They showed what proper weight training could do for a person. Look at Jack LaLanne, the guy would swim from San Francisco to Alcatraz as a 70-something year old. Today you have guys who abuse the use of weights ( modern bodybuilders)  and IMO look ridiculous. Have to disagree with Mr. Rollino regardo Muhammad Ali though. Ali was the greatest heavyweight of all time without question. However, I do feel that the second Liston fight was an obvious fix and I question even the first fight with Sonny.

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