Looking Back at Rocky Graziano

By Jeffrey Sussman on October 8, 2014
Looking Back at Rocky Graziano
“I’m walking the big guy,” Graziano told me. “If I don’t, my ankle could be his dinner.”

Born in that young boy’s brain was the language of fists: don’t yell, don’t argue: a punch ends with a stronger exclamation mark…

In the cool dimness of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I sat in a pew and waited for the funeral of Rocky Graziano. The middleweight champ had been one of my childhood heroes. A few days earlier, I had read in The New York Times that the Rock had died of cardiopulmonary failure at New York Hospital. He was 71 years old.

I had been too young to see the Rock’s fights, but I had been excited by his autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me. During my aspiring delinquency when I was a teenager, the Rock’s anti-authoritarian life stirred my admiration: while stationed at Fort Dix in the army, Rock had flattened an officer with one punch, after the officer had challenged him. As a wild kid, he spent time in a reformatory with his boyhood pal Jake LaMotta. Rock’s father, “Fighting Nick Bob,” a failed boxer, had put the gloves on his son’s tiny fists when the boy was barely out of diapers. He forced the toddler to box with his older brother. Born in that young boy’s brain was the language of fists: don’t yell, don’t argue: a punch ends with a stronger exclamation mark. If you want it, you can punch your way to get it. If someone challenges you, a quick right and left will deflate the challenge. Yet, he was a charming, friendly raconteur, beloved by all who knew him.

I recall climbing out of a hot, humid subway one summer evening in 1963. There in Forest Hills, on the grounds of the Parker Towers apartment complex, was the Rock walking a small, white poodle. I was surprised to see this tough guy with such a small bundle of fluff, who would not be expected to protect his master. I waved and called out:

“Hey Rock. How you doin?”

“I’m walking the big guy,” he said. “If I don’t, my ankle could be his dinner.”

I laughed, waved, and said: “Nice to see you. You’re one of the great ones.”

“I’ll tell my wife. Thanks pal.”

With a smile on my face, I walked the next five blocks to my apartment.

There, in St. Pat’s, I replayed in my mind the movie of Somebody Up There Likes Me. I thought that Paul Newman had been a convincing Rocky Graziano. And I was surprised to learn that, if he hadn’t died in a car accident, James Dean had been scheduled to play the part. The blond Nordic-looking Dean seemed inappropriate for a son of Italy. Newman was just right. I was also surprised to learn that the Rock had married a Jewish woman named Norma Unger. I wondered if their children were raised as Jews.

After his boxing career ended, Rock appeared in a short-lived TV series with Henny Youngman called The Henny and Rocky Show, but it was his regular appearances on the successful Martha Raye Show where I got to see him almost every week. He went into the living rooms of millions of people who were won over by his elemental charm, his good-guy humor, and his self-deprecating jokes.  Asked how he got his role on the Martha Raye Show, he told W.C. Heinz: “The producers were sitting around and one of them said why not get a stupid guy like Rocky Graziano? And then one of them said, ‘Let’s get Graziano.’” About his education, he said: “I quit school in the sixth grade because of pneumonia. Not because I had it, but because I couldn’t spell it.” Regarding his juvenile delinquency, Rock described his modus operandi: “We stole everything that began with an ‘a’ – a piece of fruit, a bicycle, a watch, anything that was not nailed down.”

Years later, rather than watching those early TV shows, I turned to YouTube, where I was able to view many of Rock’s most impressive bouts. As a boxer, he was a brawler, not a scientific fighter. W.C. Heinz had written: “You could louse Rocky up if you wanted him to jab and move. So what you did was get him in shape and turn him loose.’’ And when turned loose, he was a dynamo.

His three fights with Tony Zale were like gladiatorial combats, they were that brutal. It was the second one, when the Rock knocked out Zale in the 6th round, that earned him the middleweight championship. In 1952, at age 33, Rock fought the inimitable Sugar Ray Robinson. It was the brawler versus the elegant stylist. Rock was the aggressor and Ray was the counterpuncher. Rock was 5’7” and his reach was 68½ inches; Robinson was 5’11” and had a reach of 72 inches. Though he was knocked out in round 3, Rock landed a number of hard blows that stunned Ray. “I’ve met many tough fighters in my long career,” Ray said, “but no one ever stung me more than Rocky did.”
Rock had only one fight after that and then retired. His overall record was impressive: 67 wins, 52 knockouts, 10 losses, and 6 draws.

As I sat in St. Pat’s, I heard former middleweight champ Vito Antuofermo say “Rocky was what a fighter should be. He was tough, could hit like a mule and had all the guts in the world.” When I was 13 that’s what had stirred my imagination. I left the church, but not the past.


Jeffrey Sussman is the author of ten books and has a marketing/PR company, www.powerpublicity.com.

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Marcado por el odio -Somebody Up There Likes Me- (Trailer) ©MGM. Más en http://www.ociozine.com



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  1. FrankinDallas 08:13pm, 10/10/2014

    Lol the ref counting over the unconscious Graziano in the Zale fight..
    Rocky had gone down queer street and took a left turn to Mars. The count
    could have gone to ten thousand.

  2. The Fight Film Collector 08:58pm, 10/09/2014

    At this point in time, from the various sources I have been in touch with over the years, much of what is known to exist regarding boxing footage up through the 1980s has already circulated in one form or another.  I am certain there is more material sitting undiscovered in basements, attics and buried in newsreels, but I don’t believe there’s a motherload that’s stored in secrecy.  There aren’t enough people interested in, or any monetary value in withholding footage anymore.  ESPN bought the Big Fights collection to make money, which means showing footage and selling advertizing for it.  The sad reason we don’t see more of the archives programmed on ESPN is because they can’t sell as much advertizing for the vintage material as they can for the endless replays of Thriller and Rumble.

  3. Jim Crue 07:50pm, 10/09/2014

    I don’t remember which episode of the Sweet Science it was attached to. It also may have been one other other boxing history shows ESPN Classic was showing. It must be 10 year at least so I just cannot remember. I pointed it out to a friend who I have lost touch with and he agreed it is clearly Graziano/Zale 1. It is a short clip in the montage but you can see Ruby Goldstein and Rocky and Tony quickly move through the screen.  You can even see insects floating near the ring lights as the fight took place in the summer of 1946. Perhaps it was just filmed briefly for some promotional; purpose. If Steve Lott knows nothing about it I am stumped.

  4. Clarence George 07:26pm, 10/09/2014

    Look forward to it, FFC.

  5. The Fight Film Collector 03:01pm, 10/09/2014

    Clarence, I have Galento-Ettore and was planning on writing and posting it sometime soon.  It’s another, likely amateur film, which stops and starts in attempts to catch the action - of which there is much, and yet not enough.  Jim: I spoke with Steve Lott about the Graziano-Zale II film a few years ago, and while they did get a copy from the family who owned it, I don’t believe it ever became part an official part of the Big Fights Collection.  Also, I looked again at The Sweet Science Immigrants episode and did not see any Zale-Graziano footage.  Which episode are you referring to?

  6. Eric 01:17pm, 10/09/2014

    Dream Bout: Rocky Graziano vs. Carmen Basilio.

  7. Clarence George 12:38pm, 10/09/2014

    And what of Tony Galento vs. Al Ettore?  It surfaces on occasion, only to be quickly pulled.  An unresolved royalty or licensing issue, I suppose.

  8. Jim Crue 12:07pm, 10/09/2014

    It’s been claimed since the fights took place that the 1st 2 Graziano/Zale fights were not professionally filmed because the camps could not agree on how the royalty money would be split. When I asked Tony Zale in 1971 he had no knowledge of films existing. Rocky’s wife was too smart to let the fights take place without being filmed in my opinion. No matter how the royalties would be split, some money is better than no money. The second fight was promoted by Jack Hurley who was living in Chicago at the time. Perhaps he had something to do with it.
    The home movie of the second fight you have sited shows almost nothing as you know. ESPN got all of their films from Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cyaton as I remember. Ever since I noticed the quick clip of the first fight and tha’ts clearly what it is I felt a film must exist.
    My friend Sal Corso was at the 1st fight and he told me it was an unbelievable war. Tony liked guys that stood in front of him and Rocky did that. WC Heinz felt the best of Rocky was gone by the third fight. He no longer possessed the animal intensity that commenter Beaujack saw.
    Also..where are the films of Robinson/Gavilan’s 2 fights and what about virtually no film existing of Harry Greb??

  9. The Fight Film Collector 08:05am, 10/09/2014

    Portions of Graziano-Zale II were filmed in 8mm by an audience member, from about half way back in an upper row.  It’s only a couple of minutes.  None of the shots are very long, so there’s no flow to the fight, and the person was usually a little late catching the peak action.  That includes missing the moment the fight was actually stopped.  The film does capture the scene before and after the fight, and in the action you do see, Graziano looks way stronger than he does in the third fight.  The family may never have licensed the film to ESPN, which is why it’s not been shown.

  10. Clarence George 07:07am, 10/09/2014

    I wonder if someone like Craig Hamilton would know.

  11. Jim Crue 06:53am, 10/09/2014

    Thanks Clarence,
    another thing I have to add.  Remember the ESPN Classic Series “The Sweet Science”? During the lead in, introduction, to the show they have a montage of fights. There it is !! They show a few seconds of Zale vs Graziano ! It’s clearly at night outdoors and the short clip shows the 2 fighters and Ruby Goldstein! It is unlikely that brief shot is the only one of the fight. I’m convinced a film of the fight exists.

  12. Clarence George 06:44am, 10/09/2014

    Some outstanding posts here, such as Jim Crue’s.  Such reminiscences are worth their weight in gold…maybe platinum.

  13. Jim Crue 06:23am, 10/09/2014

    Beaujack, thanks for commenting on Rocky G. In the 1980’s i was friends with a nice guy named Sal Corso, he’s now deceased, who grew up on Mulberry St in Little Italy.His dad had a butcher shop. He was buddies with Lenny, Rocky’s brother and also friendly with Rocky. Sal told me great stories about the Rock. Sal said he was a great guy, very funny and the toughest guy on the lower east side. Sal said Rocky just had no fear.
    About 12 years ago I was able to speak on the phone with the great writer W C Heinz who wrote lots about Rocky back in the day. It was an honor to speak to Bill Heinz and to get his impression of the Rock.
    Most boxing fans today have no idea how popular Rocky was in NYC all the way to his last days. And I agree with Clarence George. He is underrated today. I also spoke with Tony Zale about his career. He worked for the Chicago Park District in the 1960’s and 70’s overseeing their boxing program. He was a proud man but told me Rocky’s punches were murderous. My great uncle was at the second fight in Chicago Stadium in 1947 when Rocky won the title. It’s a shame no professional films exist of their first 2 bouts. I spoke with Rocky’s grandson a few years ago and he was convinced that their were films of the 1st fight but Rocky’s wife Norma was keeping them under wraps. She died a couple of years ago. Rocky and Norma have one daughter still living. Maybe she has the film.

  14. Jeffrey Sussman 06:53pm, 10/08/2014

    Andrew,

    The past participle had is used for events the pre-dated those that happen in the past tense. To wit: Past perfect tense verbs are formed with the helping verb had and the verb’s past participle.

    They show an action that came before another action in the past.
    The team had won before I arrived.

    My sister had just left when we walked in the door.
    Although this verb tense shows an action that came before another action in the past, that other action does not have to be stated in the sentence.

    It can simply be implied.

    For instance, these sentences are still made with the past perfect verb tense although the past action is not state like it is in the sentences above.

    Regards.

  15. andrew 05:56pm, 10/08/2014

    Nice article Mr Suss but with all due respect it would read so much easier if you paid attention to a basic rule: minimize use of the participle ‘had’. Just saying.

  16. beaujack 04:30pm, 10/08/2014

    Jeffrey, I’m probably one of the few still kickin who saw Rocky Graziano fight early in his prelim days and after ringside. I have seen many great fighters ringside from the 1940s on, but no one, yes no one, ever excited the crowd and I, as much as Rocky Graziano…Watching him early in his career was akin to watching a street brawl…In the early 1940s, I , a youngster used to visit Stillman’s Gym on 8th Ave weekly. One summer afternoon I sat by the ring watching some fighters sparring. On a radiator [cold] a good looking tough guy was seated on the edge of the ring apron, and spitting on the floor..A large heavyweight after shadow boxing tried to get through but his path was blocked by this young fellows feet, so he asked him to remove his feet so he could walk through. The guy told him to “go under my feet”, which the heavyweight did. I thought this punk was some tough egg. Well about one week later my dad and I was at St Nick’s Arena, when this same guy was introduced as Rocky Graziano fighting one of the prelims. At this very time this guy whose real name was Thomas Rocco Barbella, was a soldier AWOL fromCamp Dix after flattening an officer and fleeing the Army…Cujones Rocky had those days…Saw him many times ringside and I shall never forget Rocky Graziano,  the original “dead end kid”...

  17. Clarence George 12:17pm, 10/08/2014

    Nicolas:  I didn’t know about Graziano vs. Matthau, but I did hear of Zale knocking out Newman during the making of the Graziano biopic, which got him replaced by Courtland Shepard.

  18. nicolas 10:44am, 10/08/2014

    Didn’t Rocky Graziano lose a fight to a guy in his youth who would later be known as Walter Mathau, and also I heard during the making of the movie, Paul Newman got knocked out by some guy during a sparing session who was supposed to play Tony Zale in the movie, and that guy was Tony Zale.

  19. peter 10:36am, 10/08/2014

    Thanks for this excellent article on one of boxing’s beloved characters. People could connect with Graziano in ways they could never with LaMotta. Perhaps it was Graziano’s impishness and humor…Regarding Graziano’s show biz relationship with Martha Ray, he was very clever to market himself as dumb—he was smart to be stupid…I ran into both Graziano and LaMotta in NYC., at different times. I was in a grocery store, waiting on line to pay. The guy in front of me was Rocky Graziano. He patiently waited on line to buy only one item—a pint of Breyer’s vanilla ice cream. When he finally reached the cashier, he fished into his pocket,  smiled at the cashier, and sapped down a twenty dollar bill. His gesture was so old school; it was like him saying, “Here’s my money—take it.”...Another time, I took the elevator up to visit LaMotta at his apartment when he was living on the east side, on 57th Street. When I knocked on his door, he swung it open a bit too fast—almost like a challenge. I then accompanied him on a 20-minute stroll around his neighborhood. It was fascinating to see his fighting spirit still intact as he eyed drivers in their cars at red light. At times, in the crosswalks, after the light just turned green, he would challenge them by walking in front of their car. These meetings occurred in the 1980s when both men were well past their fighting days. While Graziano seemed to be a soul at peace, LaMotta still seemed agitated in some way…Again, thanks for a great story.

  20. Clarence George 09:22am, 10/08/2014

    Irish:  I once had a brief meeting with Julia Roberts.  Never thought much of her as an actress, but I must say that I found her very pleasant.  Not sure about Zale and LaMotta, but I suspect it’s because Zale was out of the picture for most of the war.

    Mike:  Never heard of the, um, disagreement between Graziano and Gleason.  What a great story in and of itself.  I wonder if it was before or after Gleason’s painful encounter with Galento.  Either way, he wasn’t much on learning lessons, was he?

  21. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:05am, 10/08/2014

    Clarence George- Always wondered why Zale and LaMotta never got it on.

  22. didier 08:58am, 10/08/2014

    First interview with Ray Robinson after Graziano fight seems to me he was a symphathic man

  23. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:46am, 10/08/2014

    Clarence George-I was always fascinated by Martha Raye’s big mouth and luscious lips .... for some reason. In the present day Julia Roberts arouses those same libidinous longings..

  24. Eric 08:29am, 10/08/2014

    Damn. Seems like everyone was knocking out Jackie Gleason back in the day.

  25. Mike Casey 08:14am, 10/08/2014

    One of my favourite fighters who never lost his inner fire. He knocked out Jackie Gleason in a store after Gleason had given him too much lip.

  26. Eric 08:09am, 10/08/2014

    Oops. I stand corrected. All these years I thought that Marlon Brando was Italian. Must be that Godfather thingy. I still think that role would have suited Brando more than Paul Newman.

  27. Jeffrey Sussman 07:57am, 10/08/2014

    Regarding Eric’s comments about Marlon Brando’s ethnicity: According to Wikipedia, Brando was descended from German, Dutch, Irish, and English ancestors. The family name was German and origially spelled Brandau. His mother’s maiden name was Pennebaker.

  28. Eric 07:41am, 10/08/2014

    Paul Newman was okay in that role, but I think Marlon Brando would have been more convincing portraying the original Rocky. Brando had a muscular build and was Italian to boot. Good movie, but not one of Newman’s best IMO. Liked Newman much better in, “The Hustler,” “Hud,” and “Cool Hand Luke.”  Unfortunately, Graziano is often remembered by casual boxing fans as that other Rocky or for his boyhood association with Jake LaMotta.

  29. Clarence George 04:46am, 10/08/2014

    Martha Raye!  That is not a name one hears much anymore.  While no beauty, she was cute and brassy, and I remember how funny she was in a dual role in an Abbot and Costello movie, “Keep ‘Em Flying.”  Rocky (outrageously underrated today) lived next door to me, and he was often seen heading west to visit her, who lived close by.  She called him “goombah.”  Henny Youngman lived in my building, and Rocky often came by to visit.

    Bob:  Your story reminds me of when my father was at the White House, using the facilities, when a couple of Secret Service men came in, followed by President Lyndon Johnson, who went to the urinal next to my father, saying, “Howdy, pardner.”  My father got a good look at the presidential schmekel, one of the few (men, anyway) to have the privilege.

  30. Bob 04:23am, 10/08/2014

    It’s amazing what an inspiration Rocky was to so many people. In Peter Woods’ columns on boxing people’s favorite books, so many say it was his autobiography.  I had the pleasure of meeting him just once. He was at the next urinal at a MSG fight in the 1980s, but everyone (of all ages) recognized him. He was not only a great fighter and charming raconteur, he was the quintessential New Yorker which, in my book, counts more than anything else. Love his comment about calling the poodle the big guy. What a character!

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