Lower East Side Story

By Mike Casey on December 19, 2012
Lower East Side Story
There were several significant differences between Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta.

After all the punches had been thrown and all the cuts and bruises had healed, Jake LaMotta was in the mood to look back and reflect on the good and bad things about his life. He recalled a hot summer afternoon on the Lower East Side in New York, where a crowd was watching two boys fighting in the street.

“These two kids were a lot alike,” said Jake. “They were 12 years old. They were tough. In their kind of poverty you had to be tough to live and carry your head up. They fought bitterly for one solid hour, without gloves or rules, while the crowd cheered, egging them on. Only when it seemed as if they were both going to drop from exhaustion did someone in the crowd break it up and call it a draw.

“One of those kids was Rocky Graziano. The other was me, Jake LaMotta. We both became middleweight champions of the world.

“It got to be a pattern. I came to expect that in the course of a day I would get into at least a couple of fights. After a while I didn’t bother much about arguing. My fists would settle any argument. My hands got very sore from punching other guys’s heads.”

Getting to the meat of it, LaMotta said: “The road to the title almost broke my heart. To get a chance at the championship, I had to make a deal with the fight mob, the crooked managers, just as Rocky had gone along with the same kind of wise guys, just as many other fighters have gone along with a system that makes it almost impossible for a fighter to be both independent ITALICand successful.”

Rocky Graziano didn’t go quite so deep or wax quite so lyrical about the toughness of his early life. He almost parodied it. “You take a look at my face or Jake LaMotta’s face, and everybody else’s face in the fight game, and you’ll know that it’s a tough business. Anyone that becomes a fighter has got to be wacky or crazy.

“When you’re playing football, you got twenty-six guys on your side, when you’re playing baseball you got twenty-whatever guys on your side, basketball you got a gang of guys on your side. When you’re in the ring, you’re all alone, baby.”

There were several significant differences between Graziano and LaMotta. One of the most important of these was that Rocky, for all his fiery resistance to authority, was kinder at heart than Jake and had a more temperate streak. Rocky was also a curiously honorable man who drew his own special line in the sand and wouldn’t be pushed beyond its boundary.

LaMotta said that Graziano went along with the bad guys. But not to the extent that Jake did. When a certain guy called up Rocky at Stillman’s gym and offered him $50,000 to throw a fight, Graziano told him to “go take a crap.” His mistake was not reporting the matter to the boxing authorities, for which he received a suspension. When LaMotta was offered $100,000 to throw his 1947 fight with Billy Fox, Jake accepted. Reluctantly so, but he took the money in return for a title shot later on.

The difference between Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano was the difference between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Frank was always flattered by the attention of The Mob and attracted to the gangster lifestyle and folklore. He reasoned, perhaps to make himself feel better about it, that it wasn’t wise to argue with such men.

Yet the debonair Martin coolly punched a hole that old chestnut one day at the Cal Neva Club at Lake Tahoe. Dino was having a bite to eat when a wise guy sat down at his table and asked him if he would do a favor or two for some friends who would show their appreciation. The guy reached across to grab one of Martin’s French fries and Dino slapped his hand and rebuffed the offer. The wise guy never came around again and nor did any of his friends.

Graziano never denied his wrongdoings or punching a bunch of guys along the way. But he made it a law not to hit anyone old or frail and he certainly didn’t smash or club an innocent person to the brink of death in a frenzied attack.

LaMotta very nearly nipped his boxing career in the bud after a vicious and sustained street assault on a shop owner who had done him no harm. Jake wrapped a lead pipe in newspapers and hid in an alley before springing on the man and knocking him to the ground. The badly hurt man kept moaning and LaMotta kept hitting him until the moaning stopped. The man lived but began to haunt Jake’s mind.

After a spell at the Coxsackie correctional facility in upstate New York, an obsessed LaMotta returned to the scene of his crime, repeatedly walking past the shop owned by the man he could have killed. It became a tortuous ritual, a penitence of sorts. The man was never there. Then Jake finally caught a glimpse of him.

“He was paler than I remembered him, grayer and weak-looking, but alive. I stopped and stared, unable to believe it for a moment. Then I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll look up and recognize me.’ I went away, trying not to run. I have never passed that shop again.”

Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Eve Galewitz 10:39am, 06/11/2014

    fyi - The photo above the article about Jake LaMotta’s memories of Rocky Graziano and himself, is misleading.  If I am not mistaken, and viewing other photos - that is Harold Green and Rocky Graziano, in the photo, following a fight.

  2. Mike Silver 02:53pm, 12/23/2012

    Yes, W.C. Heinz was one of the best. Highly recommend “Once They Heard the Cheers” and “The Professional”.  He also edited a great compilation of boxing stories by other authors called “The Fireside Book of Boxing”. Must reads for all serious fight buffs.

  3. burt bienstock 11:05am, 12/23/2012

    As a youngster I would go every Saturday to a place I loved. Stillman’s Gym on 8th Ave in NYC. One summer afternoon I was seated watching the boxers sparring. Seated on an old fashioned tall radiator [off,summer] was a good looking toughie with his feet resting on the ring #2 apron and he was spitting on the floor. A big burly heavyweight finished punching a bag and trying to get past but couldn’t as the guy blocked his exit, asked the guy to please let him get through, but was told to” go under my legs ” spitting on the floor also. Well the big heavyweight went under his legs as told, and I remember thinking “:hell this punk has a lot of nerve..Well about one week later I was with my dad at the old St. Nicholas Arena watching some bouts when a prelim boy fighter was announced. And lo and behold it was the same young tough guy from Stillman’s gym boxing under the name of Rocky Graziano! What is amazing is at this time Thomas Rocco Barbella, his real name was AWOL from Camp Dix and on the lam for flattening an Army officer…He ko’d his opponent and I saw him many many times after when he became the famous “dead end kid” and by far the most exciting fighter I ever saw…

  4. Jim Crue 06:36am, 12/23/2012

    GREAT story.
    Rocky as not as hard headed as Jake in more ways than one.
    Read the great writer WC Heinz. He wrote some wonderful stuff about Rocky back in the 1940’s. Heinz was I think the best prose stylist of all the sport writers. I’m sure Mike Silver has read him.
    According to Heinz and Burt Beinstock who posted above Rocky was a force of nature in the ring. Heinz said the was the most exciting fighter he had ever seen.
    And Rocky was really a blown up welterweight. Irving Cohen his excellent manager matched him right. Both MW and WM divisions were so rich with talent in those days. Everywhere you looked there was a tough guy.
    Mr. Silver thanks for pointing out that Rocky did not give his best against IBC pretty boy Chuck Davey. I have watched the film many times and Rocky did not even try. I also think Carmen Basilio in their fight at Chicago Stadium did less than his best but he denied it.

  5. Norm Marcus 02:38am, 12/23/2012

    Well Mike, another well researched, interesting story about two American icons. I have been reading your stuff for years now and the stories all continue to be gems that teach, observe and entertain. Keep up the river of good work Mike. You are definitely Da Man!

  6. Burt Bienstock 09:42pm, 12/22/2012

    I saw the 3 Graziano / Harold Green bouts in MSG. In 1944 Green who was a neighbor of mine beat Rocky twice in decision fights and in 1945 they fought the third bout in which Graziano all of a sudden dropped Harold Green for the count, and at the 10 count Harold Green sprung up and charged the referee and a free for all ensued…To me it looked suspicious and in 1990 after Graziano died, Harold Green “confessed” to the Ring Magazine that he HAD to take a dive so he could get a title shot…He said he waited after Graziano died to reveal the “:truth”, for what it’s worth…

  7. Mike Silver 09:18pm, 12/22/2012

    I think fact and fiction are hard to separate when it comes to these two tough guys. Rocky had the better PR. Let’s not forget that Jake refused to have the mob control him until he agreed to throw the Fox fight. Far more courageous in this regard than Graziano who was mob managed (hoodlum Eddie Coco was silent partner) almost from the beginning. Graziano was mobbed up to his eyeballs. I’m sure a few guys “layed down” for him. The savvy New York fight crowd knew he threw his last fight against Chuck Davey. Obvious from the film.  BTW, Jake was also the better actor too.

  8. the thresher 06:50am, 11/17/2012

    Eric, great post. You obviously know your boxing and your boxing history. I am impressed.

  9. burt bienstock 06:19am, 11/17/2012

    Eric, I agree with you that LaMotta would have beaten Graziano were they to have met. LaMotta was a full sized MW who was much bigger and wilier than the grenade throwing Rocky Graziano…LaMotta most likely stops Rocky in a late round. Hell LaMotta took the punches of a Bob Satterfield ,survived and prospered…But I have never seen a more slam bang exciting fighter than a young Rocky Graziano…Watching his early bouts was like being witness to a street brawl…”:Chickie the cops “...
    Young Rocky was a Digitalis fighter…

  10. Eric 05:40am, 11/17/2012

    Graziano feasted on smallish middleweights and welterweights and was bested in two out of his three fights with the great, albeit past prime, Tony Zale. If Graziano and LaMotta had met in the ring like they did in the street as kids, I see LaMotta winning a comfortable decision or even stopping an exhausted Graziano sometime in the 9-12th rounds. Despite the power Graziano carried in his punches, I don’t see him being able to bother the legendary chin of LaMotta. LaMotta, not known for his power, would have simply worn down the naturally smaller Graziano with his strength and volume of punches. Surely, Graziano would have been discouraged and broken in spirit when he would have found his powerful haymakers having little of the effect on a granite chinned, full sized middleweight, like LaMotta, than they had on blown up welterweights.  LaMotta is just a class above Graziano in middleweight rankings.

  11. burt bienstock 08:45pm, 09/17/2012

    Another great article Mike.
    I can attest to the “toughness” of Rocky Graziano….As a youngster I was at Stillman’s gym in 1942, where I would visit every Sat. One summer afternoon I saw a good looking young fellow sitting on the cold radiator with his feet resting on the apron of the ring…A BIG heavyweight after hitting the bag by the rear wall wanted to pass to get to the front of the gym, but this tough looking guy sitting with his feet blocking his exit refused to remove his feet, and spat on the floor telling the big fighter to go under his feet to pass, which he DID. I said to myself, “This is a tough S.O.B.” Well a few days later my dad and I went to the bouts at St. Nicholas Arena, and who was in a prelim bout, but this same tough guy…His name was introduced as Rocky Graziano, and at this time he was AWOL from ,Camp Dix in New Jersey where he under his real name Thomas Rocco Barbella, flattened his Army Captain and went AWOL…A real “Dead End Kid” who I saw many times thereafter….

  12. Mike Casey 04:27am, 09/14/2012

    Norm, Irish, Bodyshots - thanks for your comments, fellas. Best wishes.

  13. norm marcus 04:48pm, 09/13/2012

    Mike: Another fine article about the old world. When men were men and women were glad of it! You are the man.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 03:56pm, 09/13/2012

    “Dino slapped his hand”....I’ll wager that his big beefy hands could deliver a pretty stout slap! If there was a real tough guy in the Rat Pack I’m guessing it was Dean Martin.

  15. Bodyshots 03:34pm, 09/13/2012

    i wonder if some day in the distant future, another writer will wax sentimental about the Mayweathers? Nawww. they barely register on Jake’s “behaving badly psycopath meter” beating up helpless victims and then pleading helpless victim himself seems to be a habit with him. Graziano is a healthier example of a neighborhood upbringing. him i can respect.

  16. Mike Casey 10:00am, 09/13/2012

    Robert’s friend Paulie Walnuts asked me if I’d write a few more stories, Ted. It sounded like an offer I couldn’t refuse! Yes, will happily check out your FB photo. Agree very much with your assessment of Jake and Rocky. Tony Janiro, as you well know, was a clever operator. Thanks for the kind words, champ.

  17. the thresher 09:45am, 09/13/2012

    Holey moley Mike, You are becoming proloici and keep your high level of quality as well. I may have to go into turbo charge to break away. I’m honing in on 200 articles/blogs, but it’s not easy to keep the level up to your standards, matey. Keep ‘em coming and also note the great photo I have of these two on my Facebook photo page.

    Both were far better fighters than most think, but Jake was especially crafty when he needed to be. His demolition of Janiro still sticks in my mind and his possum act against Dauthille is still a classic ending in boxing annals.

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