The Rise of Rocky Graziano

By Jeffrey Sussman on March 12, 2018
The Rise of Rocky Graziano
Is it any wonder that young Rocco had a chip on his shoulder as big as a cinder block?

His father was an alcoholic and failed boxer; his mother was a schizophrenic, who spent time in mental hospitals…

By the late 1940s, Rocky Graziano and Frank Sinatra were the two most popular Italian-Americans in the United States. Had one looked at the early life of Graziano, originally named Thomas Rocco Barbella, very few people would have thought that he could have avoided a life of crime and intermittent incarcerations.

His father was an alcoholic and failed boxer; his mother was a schizophrenic, who spent time in mental hospitals. The family was so poor that young Rocco, age five, was sent to steal coal to heat his family’s small apartment. For nourishment, he was sent to dig for clams on the beach at Coney Island. His father, known as Fighting Nick Barbella, would get drunk and put boxing gloves on the tiny hands of Rocco and gloves on the larger hands of Rocco’s older brother. Nick would command that the two boys box until one of them cried and gave up. Rocco never did.

Is it any wonder that young Rocco had a chip on his shoulder as big as a cinder block? As a teenager, he formed a gang of like-minded delinquents. They started out by mugging their peers, stealing lunch money and sandwiches. Rocco became so much of a street kid that he quit school in the sixth grade. He rarely went home. He and his gang graduated to more and more valuable heists, stealing anything that could be sold for a few dollars. Eventually, the law caught up with Rocco and sent him to reform school, where he met future middleweight champ, Jake LaMotta, the “Raging Bull.” The misnamed reform school taught its students the tricks and scams of racketeers. Upon release, the students were primed to enter the underworld of professional criminals.

When Rocco was drafted into the army, his mother thought he would learn to honor those in authority. Instead, Rocco knocked out his commanding office and went AWOL. On the advice of his friend, Terry Young, a promising journeyman boxer, Rocco signed on to become a professional boxer. To evade the attention of the military police, he changed his name to Rocky Graziano. The evasion worked only until Rocky was apprehended and sentenced to a year in Leavenworth Prison. There, Rocky joined the prison boxing team, took instruction from a former boxer, and won all the bouts he was entered in.

Upon his release, he returned to New York and Stillman’s Gym. There he agreed to be managed by Irving Cohen, a man of great patience and understanding, who was able to guide Rocky’s career up the jagged pyramid of boxing. Rocky had found the ideal father figure in Cohen, and the two men formed a relationship that would endure well beyond the end of Rocky’s boxing career. Unlike many managers, who are in the game for a quick buck, Cohen made sure that Rocky received all the money he earned and would advise him how to invest it so that he would have a capital cushion for his retirement.

Along the way, Rocky met Norma Unger, a well-educated Jewish woman with beautiful dark eyes. That she and Rocky fell in love and married is a testament to the notion that opposites attract: not only were their backgrounds different (she was the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants, he the son of second generation Italian-Americans), but so were their religions, educations, and ambitions. She hated boxing and never attended one of his bouts, but she supported his career and was always there to embrace him and nurse him after a bout.

In one of the bloodiest trilogies in boxing history, Rocky beat Tony Zale (aka The Man of Steel) for the middleweight championship. He received a parade from Grand Central Terminal to his old neighborhood on 10th Street and First Avenue. He even received a congratulatory telegram from President Truman.

Following his retirement from boxing, Rocky had a successful career on television, first on the Henny and Rocky Show with sidekick Henny Youngman, and then with Martha Raye on her weekly show. Rocky played the part of Raye’s boyfriend, known as the Goombah. In addition, Rocky made more than 3000 TV commercials and was the spokesperson for Post Raisin Bran Cereal.

The transformation from Rocco to Rocky was like a change from night to daylight. Rocky had not only become a beloved personage, he became a one-man philanthropic institution. One day, while watching up-and-coming young boxers in Stillman’s Gym, Rocky noticed a former boxer who had fallen on hard times: he was blind and living on welfare. Stillman’s had become his second home and social club. Rocky took up a collection from all in attendance, added some of his own money, and stuffed it all into the breast pocket of the blind boxer. He told him he would get the same thing every month. Rocky became so generous to those in need that his wife had to put him on an allowance for fear that he would give away all his money.

Most afternoons, one could find Rocky at his reserved table at P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue. There, he was always charming and friendly, happy to sign autographs and occasionally pick up the tab for other diners. Rather than a clenched fist, he greeted the world with an open and friendly hand and a broad toothy grin.

He had a wonderful sense of humor: When asked what he stole as a delinquent, he said everything that began with the letter A: a car, a television, a refrigerator, a bicycle. When asked why he quit school in the 6th grade, he said it was because of pneumonia. You had pneumonia, he was asked. No, he replied, it was because I couldn’t spell it.

I attended Rocky’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and was not surprised that more than a 1,000 people turned out to honor the former champion, for his story is one of an unlikely redemption that few others would have succeeded in achieving.

Jeffrey Sussman is the author of Rocky Graziano: Fists, Fame, and Fortune, which was published on March 10, 2018.

Reprinted by permission of The East Hampton Star.

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  1. Jeffrey Sussman 07:52am, 03/19/2018

    Macs Back,
    I appreciate your comments. My feelings about Rocky are the same as Heinz’s. I hope that you enjoy my book. I had wanted to write about Rocky for many years and was glad that I finally got the opportunity.

  2. Macs Back 07:47pm, 03/18/2018

    Mr Sussman, an excellent article on Rocky. I ordered your book and if it is as 1/3 as good as this article (And I am sure it is) it will be a big success. Rocky must have been and amazing personality. Because WC Heinz who I spoke to often on the phone before Mr Heinz passed on had the highest regard for Rocky.

    Regarding Rocky’s allowance I an understood years ago that his wife Norma would give him $20 a day. Rocky married the right woman he died unlike most fighters well off. Rocky was notorious for helping former oponents and friends from the lower Eastside.

    Sadly the last 10-15 years of his life he suffered from CTE. But as he said in his book, “Somebody Up There Likes Me. ”  He was a very lucky and grateful person. I was fortunate enough to meet him a few times.

  3. C.H. 03:58pm, 03/14/2018

    You are right, Mr. Brown, Cus was pissed. I didn’t write everything that D’Amato had to say about Rocky. He stated that he went looking for Rocky when he bolted, and Rocky said “don’t start any trouble Cus, these guys can help me, I’ll take care of you out of my end.” But shortly after Cus went into the army and got separated after the war. He wanted to open another gym and looked up Rocky, (who was the top box-office attraction in boxing) to see if he could help, after the promise to take care of him out of his end. Cus claimed it was hard getting clothes at the time and he was still wearing his army jacket and Rocky told him he would give him six of his least that was Cus’ version…...JIM CRUE, Rocky did all right in the amateurs after his initial episode of uncertainty. He won the Metropolitan AAU tourney the highlight being his first round KO’s of the Tuckett twins. In the quarter final, he took out Stanford and in the semi he put away Identical twin brother Stanley both at at the identical time of 1:30. A feat which made it into “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”...c.h.

  4. Ollie Downtown Brown 08:38am, 03/14/2018

    @Jim Crue…That sounds about right. I don’t see Rocky being afraid of much. I guess you must be referring to Teddy Atlas as being a chip off the old block. haha. Have to agree there as well. Maybe Cus was upset that Rocky didn’t stick around with him and it was just a case of sour grapes, me thinks.

  5. Pete The Sneak 04:15am, 03/14/2018

    Absolutely great and enjoyable piece on Rocky G. Mr. Sussman. Thank you!...Peace.

  6. Jim Crue 06:19pm, 03/13/2018

    Rocky was indeed matched carefully. He wanted to fight welter as he was very small for a middle but Irving Cohn would not let him. Both MW and WW were so rich in talent it’s difficult for younger fans to understand the depth and skill level of the competition in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. The younger fans actually think Mayweather was a great fighter.
    I worked with an older guy now deceased who grew up on Mulberry St. in Little Italy, when it really was Little Italy, with Rocco’s brother Lenny and was acquainted with Rocky. Sal always spoke highly of Rocky and he told me Rocky was not afraid of anyone or anything. Not to speak poorly of the dead but Cus was often full of crap and loved to make himself look like a know it all and the ultimate authority. Kind of like one of the guys he mentored. Regardless of how Rocky felt in the amateurs he electrified the crowds in his professional career. Zale was a perfect match for him. Rocky did not do well with boxers so they made very exciting fights. And Tony was really much naturally bigger than Rocky. They both came along at he right time.

  7. Jeffrey Sussman 02:53pm, 03/13/2018

    I am delighted that my article elicited so much commentary. I had a ball researching my book about Rocky. He was one of a kind, a boxer whom I admired ever since I read his autobiography when I was 12 years old. I still enjoy watching his fights on YouTube. If you like Rocky half a much as I do, I’m sure you’ll like my book about him.

  8. David 01:38pm, 03/13/2018

    Great and funny article about one of the true champions of the sport.

  9. Ollie Downtown Brown 12:36pm, 03/13/2018

    @CH… The ORIGINAL “Rock” is one of my favorites, but I never knew he was a “sucker puncher” extraordinaire. haha. I guess a street fight is just that, there are no rules, but I think most of us out there are disgusted with “sucker punchers.” It is one thing to land first, but to sucker punch someone is pretty low. Still won’t change my opinion of Rocky as a boxer, he indeed was a small middleweight himself, and he still was able to take the title from a full fledged middleweight like Tony Zale. Now every time I think of Graziano, I will think about your comment. haha. Thanks again for sharing that bit of info.

  10. C.H. 10:51am, 03/13/2018

    Ollie, Rocky was listed as 5’ 7’’ but I saw him a few times and I think he was no more than 5’ 6’’ with a very short arms. Rocky’s only advantage was a few pounds while the opponent has big advantages in reach and height. If him and a tall wirey guy fought a street fight, wearing clothes most of the people watching would be rooting for the little short guy who seems to be at such a disadvantage to beat the bigger guy. I think the short, stockier guy should have some help in order to compete with strong, tall, long armed wirey guys. What do you think?

  11. Ollie Downtown Brown 10:30am, 03/13/2018

    @CH.. Interesting story about Graziano. Rocky always looking for an advantage might have been the reason he largely made his reputation beating up welterweights and small middleweights.

  12. C.H. 08:12am, 03/13/2018

    Very enjoyable story on Rocky. Thanks Jeffrey.  In the 1957 edition of “Boxing Yearbook,” Cus D’Amato told an interesting tale on Rocky’s early days : ” I once picked a kid named Rocco Barbella off the street of New York. You’ll recognize him better as Rocky Graziano. I hear about this fella’ who has been knocking out everybody on the East Side in street brawls. One day he walks into [my] gym with his gang. I ask him if he wants to get inside the ring. “what and mess up this pretty face?” he sneers. ...“I promise I can show you how to fight so you won’t get hurt” I says. This appeals to him. I found out how he gets his reputation. When his gang meets another on the street he acts like a peacemaker “Look” he says to the other leader, “we don’t need any trouble. Lets settle this like friends”...The other guy relaxes. Rocky sees him let his guard down and lays him out with a sneak punch…But to get inside the ring without any advantage scares him. My assurance that he won’t get tagged gave him a little confidence…That lasted until his first amateur fight. After the first round he comes back to the corner in a panic. “I can’t take this, I quit.” “No you don’t, you—-,” I yell at him, I grab him by the seat of the pants at the buzzer and shove him right into the middle of the ring. Lucky for Rocky and all the guys who made money off him since, he knocks out his opponent in the second round…I had him through his whole amateur career. He was anxious to turn pro before he was ready. Going from the amateurs to the pro’s is like going from the minors to the majors, even if you’re a Graziano. So while I’m bringing him along slow, somebody took Rocky to the tough guys, and they sold him a bill of goods. And then they turn him over to Irving Cohen….” ...c.h.

  13. ceylon mooney 07:38pm, 03/12/2018

    great piece.

    jim, thank u so much for your post.

  14. Jim Crue 07:22pm, 03/12/2018

    Thanks for this essay. I grew up in Chicago and took boxing instruction form Tony Zale in the early 1960’s. He worked for the CYO and Chicago Park District. Always a boxing nut, I grew up watching the fights 3 nights week with my grandfather in the early 50’s,I talked with Tony about his career and his fights with Rocky. He never had a bad word to say about anyone and told me getting hit by Rocky was like getting hit with a brick. Years later before I left Chicago I was at a local park on the north side and saw Tony. He and I and a few others went for coffee at a local restaurant. We were sitting by the window, a guy walks by looks in the window, does a double take and rushes into the restaurant because he recognized Tony. Tony was very kind, gave him and autograph and wished well. I’ll never forget that.
    Rocky was a true American pull yourself up by the bootstraps story. Years ago I saw him in PJ Clarks with Jake LaMotta and some other guys. Rocky was a prince, Jake not so much.
    There was a fellow who commented here, I think he may have passed, who saw Rocky in almost all of his early fights. He saw Rocky fight Billy Arnold!!
    Forty areas ago I discover the writer WC Heinz. He was a wordsmith of the highest order, he wrote Mash and Run to Daylight, and he had wonderful columns in the paper he worked for about Rocky and the unbelievable excitement he generated as a young fighter. It is well worth looking for the columns by WC Heinz to read bout Rocky.
    I hope your book is a success. I will order it.

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