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Rocky was an original

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Graziano fought epic battles with Zale
By Bob Diskin
Special to

Signature Fight
July 17, 1947 -It was hot and stifling inside Chicago Stadium for Graziano-Zale II. Some ringside observers said the temperature in the arena might have been as high as 120 degrees.

At the opening bell, the middleweight champ went right after Rocky Graziano, pounding him with vicious shots to the body and raising a lump on his left eye. In the second round, Tony Zale switched his attack to the damaged eye and opened up a severe cut. Right before the end of the round, Graziano landed a hard right that staggered Zale and sent him reeling to the wrong corner at the bell.

In round three, Zale continued to rip open Graziano's left eye and swelled his right eye almost shut. A solid right dropped Graziano for no count. Zale pummeled his opponent against the ropes as the round ended. Round four brought more of the same punishment to Rocky as he struggled to regain his vision.

Between the fourth and fifth rounds, Graziano's corner took a coin to Rocky's closed right eye, applied pressure to break the skin, and restored their man's vision. The heat also began to get to Zale. In the sixth round, a barrage of Rocky rights dropped Zale. When the champ rose, Rocky drove him to the ropes, draping him over them under a hail of punches. Referee Johnny Behr stopped the bout at 2:10 and Graziano was the middleweight champion.

Stepping to the ring microphone, he exulted, "Hey, Ma, your bad boy done it. I told you somebody up there likes me."

Odds 'n' Ends

  • Rocky says he left school after the sixth grade "on account of pneumonia. I didn't have it, I just couldn't spell it."

  • After winning the title from Zale, the National Boxing Association asked for a ban in many of the states for Graziano, who was under suspension by New York for failure to report a bribe for a fight that never took place. Rocky fought one Sonny Horne in Ohio for a purse of $1, winning an uninspiring decision and all was forgiven.

  • Childhood friend and former middleweight champ Jake LaMotta tells about pulling Rocky's leg one time by saying, " 'Hey, Rocky, your wife's cheating on you with your best friend.' So Rocky goes out and shoots his dog."

  • Rocky and LaMotta spent the better part of their youth running together. They even were in the same reform school in Coxsachie, N.Y. When Rocky was in quarantine, Jake says, "I set him up with candy, comic books and cigarettes."

  • Rocky dutifully avoided any confrontation with his buddy LaMotta when they were both among the leading middleweights. When queried on the subject, Rocky always said, "Why should I fight him? I always licked him in reform school."

  • Longtime boxing announcer Don Dunphy considers the first Zale-Graziano the finest he's ever seen. Graziano once told Dunphy, "If I could talk like you, I'd be broke."

  • After trainer Frank Percoco took the quarter to break the skin over Rocky's swollen right eye during the second Zale fight, W. C. Heinz wrote, "for two bits they won the middleweight championship and maybe $250,000."

  • That move may also have inspired Sylvester Stallone in the first Rocky film to have the same thing done to a battered Rocky Balboa.

  • Graziano was banned by the New York Boxing Commission in February 1947 for failing to report a bribe offer. The suspension lasted 27 months, until May 1949.

  • Tony Janiro, a slick Philadelphia fighter, fought to a draw with Rocky in March 1950 and Graziano won a close decision later that year.

  • In their third bout, in September 1951, Rocky's corner told him to box the boxer, Janiro. Rocky listened to his corner and lost the first nine rounds. As longtime boxing publicist Harry Markson told it, "Rocky returned to the corner and said, 'I don't want to be no boxer.' He came out for the final round, grabbed Janiro by the throat, pinned him in a corner and then knocked him out. He wasn't a boxer. He was a slugger."

  • Nat Hiken, a writer for Martha Raye and the creator of Sgt. Bilko, may have been inspired by Graziano when he named Bilko's closest confidant Cpl. Rocco Barbella.

  • Shortly before his death in 1990, Rocky summed up his life by saying, "Half the time, I didn't know what I was doin', except I was doin' great."

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