Bad Boy Makes Good

Rocky Graziano: the original dead end kid
The cover of Jeffrey Sussman’s latest book features an AP photo of Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale in their 1948 middleweight championship bout.

“Rocky Graziano: Fists, Fame, and Fortune”
Jeffrey Sussman
Rowman & Littlefield, $36

Let’s begin at the middle. Because for Rocky Graziano that also means the peak, his epic trilogy of title bouts with Tony Zale from 1946 to 1948, “the bloodiest, most intensely fought middleweight fights of the 20th century,” Jeffrey Sussman writes in his new biography, “Rocky Graziano: Fists, Fame, and Fortune.” They matched the immigrant slums versus the industrial heartland, he writes, “the streetfighter, the Italian delinquent, the ex-convict who fought like a junkyard dog against the upright, all-American, clean-living good guy.”

Graziano was one of history’s hardest punchers. Zale, “the Man of Steel,” earned that sobriquet in part because of his past in the steel mills of Gary, Ind., but also for the strength of his impervious jaw, and yet by the third round of their first meeting at Yankee Stadium his face was “a mask of blood. The handsome Midwesterner looked as shattered as if he had been in a terrible car crash. . . . A plume of blood flew in an arc from Zale’s face with each punch.” Graziano’s gloves were wet with it.

Both fighters hit the canvas. But Zale was legendary for his body blows, and one such to Graziano’s solar plexus in the sixth round left him gasping for air. It was the turning point. Zale knocked him out.

“Hell, he looked like the loser, me the winner!” the outwardly unscathed Graziano told a reporter. 

The opposite would be the case in the rematch in 1947 in Chicago, when, with the likes of Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover in the audience, Graziano, his face “like raw, bloody hamburger,” won the title, again in the sixth round, but only after a cornerman wielding a quarter “broke the skin of the swelling” under his purpled egg of a right eye, clearing his vision sufficiently to allow him to make of Zale’s head “an inanimate, disengaged speed bag that was turning a brighter shade of red with each punch.”

“Ma, Ma,” Graziano shouted into the ring announcer’s microphone, “your bad boy done it, he’s world champion.” The stuff of the movies, really. Better than the movies. The dead end kid makes good. 

A year later Zale would regain the middleweight crown from Graziano, who, notoriously reluctant to train and only too happy to indulge in the good life once he had the means, wasn’t in his best shape. But historically it’s nearly an afterthought, for “the Wop, the Guinea, the guy with olive-oil hair, the Noo Yawk greaseball from the Lower East Side,” as the author imagines him thinking after his loss to Zale, “the thug, the former gangster wannabe,” who went AWOL from the Army after slugging an officer, showed himself, when he was champion, to be personable, charming, self-deprecating. He quickly became almost as big a star as Sinatra himself, and by his own estimation more popular than any champ outside of Joe Louis, this in a day when boxing was king.

Mr. Sussman, a boxing fan as much as a scholar, renders battles from 70 years ago with gripping immediacy, alternating between an apt midcentury sensibility (an errant punch “arrived like a man just missing a bus”) and deadpan humor (“Rocky’s mouthpiece flew from his mouth like a fleeing animal”).

And if the spraying droplets of blood put you in mind of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” about Jake LaMotta, so much the better, as LaMotta was a “reform school chum” of Graziano’s. The movies, in fact, are much to the point, as here was the original Rocky — before the undefeated Marciano, and long before the Sylvester Stallone film, in which, in fact, Graziano’s top cornerman, Al Silvani, portrayed, yes, a grizzled cornerman.

With his good looks and tousled jet-black Dean Martin hair, Graziano was effortlessly charismatic, attracting the attention of Hollywood as soon as he made a name for himself. Marlon Brando studied his walk and speech, with its “dees, dems, and dos,” for his role as the palooka Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront,” and even for Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Brando, Montgomery Clift, and, more improbably, James Dean were considered to play Rocky in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” the 1956 film version of Graziano’s hit autobiography, a role that wound up going to Paul Newman. 

(During filming, the author notes with some amusement, Newman, though in top shape, was crumpled, curled up on the canvas, and sucking air after taking a right hand to the midsection from Tony Zale, for some reason brought in to play himself and coasting at maybe 60 percent as they sparred. He was dismissed from the set.)

After his boxing career was over, Graziano, the natural, eminently likable simply by being himself, went on to co-star with the comic Martha Raye on television and appeared in innumerable commercials. 

He’s probably remembered more for pitching Lee Myles transmissions and Raisin Bran or bantering with Johnny Carson than for what he did as a pugilist, and this is what Mr. Sussman set out to rectify. He has successfully reintroduced to boxing fans and the culturally curious this ring savage with the mold-breaking personality who punched his way out of miserable poverty. 

“To get in the ring with anybody to fight you got to be a little wacky,” Graziano once said. “The fight for survival is the fight. . . . It’s a tough business, man. It’s a tough business.”

Jeffrey Sussman lives part time in East Hampton.