Famous Ring Wars – Graziano vs. Zale 2

By John F. McKenna - 02/17/2024 - Comments

On July 16, 1947 the second fight of a three fight trilogy took place between Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale in Chicago Stadium. Rocky Graziano was the 1940’s bad boy of boxing. Rocky was born Thomas Rocco Barbella on January 1, 1919 in New York City and raised on the lower east side in Little Italy. Tony Zale was born Anthony Florian Zaleski on May 29, 1913 in the steel town of Gary Indiana, hence his nickname “The Man of Steel”. His nickname was enhanced by his granite chin and his style of fighting.

Graziano had been in numerous scrapes with the law as a kid and was put under Catholic protective services numerous times. Rocky and neighborhood pal Jake LaMotta, AKA “The Bronx Bull” spent time in the same reform school. When asked many years later why he never fought his buddy Jake LaMotta, Rocky would always respond “Why should I fight Jake, I always licked him in reform school?”

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In the first fight held at Yankee Stadium on September 27, 1946, Zale, AKA “The Man of Steel”, had scored a six round KO over Graziano in a savage fight that many boxing historians rate as the best fight ever. Prior to the first fight, Zale thirty three years old , had served for four years in World War II. Appearing rusty after the long layoff, Zale was battered around the ring by his younger challenger, who appeared to be in his prime. “The Man of Steel” had the ability to take incredible punishment, coupled with an indomitable will. As the fight progressed Zale began to shed the ring rust and he was able to salvage victory from what appeared to be certain defeat, knocking out Gaziano in the sixth round. This exciting fight set the stage for the inevitable return match, which would prove to be every bit as savage and exciting as the first encounter between these two ring warriors.

The return match between Graziano and Zale was held in Chicago Stadium. The heat inside the stadium was stifling with the temperature under the ring lights exceeding 100 degrees. Zale, with full knowledge of how dangerous his foe was, immediately went after Rocky in an effort to end the fight quickly. Zale attacked with vicious hooks and right crosses that raised a lump over Graziano’s left eye in the opening round.

In the 2nd round Zale concentrated on Rocky’s damaged eye opening a huge cut. In round three, Zale continued to work on Rocky’s injured eye closing it and blinding him in that eye. Zale also scored a no count knockdown in the 3rd round and pummeled his opponent along the ropes as the round ended. The one sided fight continued through the 4th round. In between the 4th and 5th rounds Whitey Bimstein, Rocky’s trainer and cut man, took a coin and pressed it against the injured eye, breaking the skin and reducing the pressure. This allowed Rocky to partially regain his vision.

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This scene was incorporated into one of the Rocky movies. By the 5th round the intense heat was beginning to take its toll on Zale. Graziano, who possessed the best right hand in boxing at the time, started to come on. In the 6th round Rocky dropped Zale with a series of right hands. When Zale arose Graziano drove him into the ropes under a hail of punches. Rocky continued raining punches on the defenseless Zale draping him over the ropes. Referee Johnny Behr stepped in and called a halt to the fight at two minutes and ten seconds of the sixth round.

After the fight was stopped making Rocky Graziano the Middleweight Champion of the World, he stepped up to the ring microphone. In perhaps the most dramatic scene in boxing history, Rocky uttered the famous line: “Hey Mom! Your bad boy done good ! Somebody up there likes me!” That quote would inspire a book and a movie by the same title, “Somebody up There Likes Me.”

In 1956 Paul Newman would play Rocky in the lead role, replacing James Dean who was killed in an auto accident before the movie was shot. The movie would be one of Newman’s first starring roles. It would also be one of Steve McQueen’s first movies. Tony Zale, who was still in good shape almost played himself in the movie, but Newman was intimidated by Zale and would flinch during the fight scenes. Much to his disappointment, Zale had to be replaced. It was also rumored that Frank Sinatra wanted to play the lead role, but the rugged and muscular Graziano looked at Sinatra and laughed saying “Frank, your too skinny to play me!”

Graziano and Zale would fight again in their trilogy. All three fights were epic battles.

As so often happens with fighters, Graziano and Zale became good friends, appearing together for television interviews. Rocky had a captivating personality and was a good interview on the late night television shows. He also did numerous commercials and once said that he made more money doing commercials then he ever dreamed of making in the ring.

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