Graziano, Rocky

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Rocky Graziano

1922-1990

American boxer

In his ten years as a professional boxer, Rocky Graziano held the title of World Middleweight Champion for less than a year; yet he remained one of the most famous athletes in the sport through the time of his death in 1990. Indeed, the 1955 film adaptation of his autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me, a series of appearances on comedy shows and television advertisements, and his work as a Republican Party spokesman kept him in the public eye far beyond his athletic career. Even those who were not boxing fans immediately recognized Graziano's New York City attitude and accentnot to mention his battle-scarred faceand enjoyed his pronouncements on fame, fortune, and just about any other topic under the sun. His down-to-earth sensibility also helped him maintain a proper perspective on the ups and downs of his various careers. As he concluded in his 1981 autobiography Somebody Down Here Likes Me Too, "Do me two favors. First, if your kid needs a friend, buy the kid a dog. And second, in the years to come, if you see me making my way down First or Second Avenue in New York City, please don't kick the cane out from unner me. I never really hoit nobody."

Rough-and-Tumble Childhood

Born in New York City on June 6, 1922, Thomas Rocco Barbella grew up as the fifth child of Nick and Ida (Scinto) Barbella. Nick Barbella had pursued a career

as a welterweight boxer in his youth under the name Fighting Nick Bob, but retired from the sport after about seventy bouts. He encouraged his sons to take up the sport, but his youngest son felt that the elder Barbella favored his older brother, Joe, in their matches. Their relationship was further strained by his father's alcoholism, which often produced violent outbursts directed at everyone in the family. Adding to the tension, Ida Barbella was often hospitalized for mental problems. All of this occurred in the unrelenting poverty of the Barbella family's Lower East Side neighborhood, where many children pursued a life of crime on the streets in order to help their families survive.

Dropping out of school in the sixth grade, young Barbella began running with a juvenile gang that specialized in petty theft and street fighting with rival gangs. By his own estimate, he spent at least half of his time before his twenty-first birthday in reform schools or jail cells. After three terms in reform schools as a teenager, Barbella started to find a more stable influence in his life when he began visiting Stillman's Gym around 1939. Although he had hated boxing under his father's direction, he now enjoyed the discipline and physical outlet of the sport. He began fighting some bouts as an amateur and adopted a new name, Rocky Graziano, which he took from a boyfriend of his sister. As he had on the streets, Graziano quickly gained a reputation in the ring as a boxer who lacked finesse but made up for it with the raw brutality of his punches.

Professional Debut in 1942

Although he made a promising start in the amateur ranks, a parole violation sent Graziano back to reform school and then a stint in the New York City jail on Riker's Island in 1940. After being drafted into the U.S. Army, Graziano courted trouble again when he got into a fight with an officer and fled the camp. His decision to go AWOL (Absent Without Leave) caused him to serve nine months in the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. After his release on a dishonorable discharge, Graziano returned to New York and began fighting as a professional. He married Norma Unger on August 10, 1943; the couple subsequently had two daughters, Audrey and Roxie.

Classic Series with Tony Zale

Graziano immediately began compiling an impressive record in his professional career with a string of knockout wins against his opponents. Overall Graziano racked up sixty-seven winsfifty-two by knockoutten losses, and six draws over the next ten years. The high point of his career came in a three-match duel for the title of World Middleweight Champion with Tony Zale between 1946 and 1948. Zale, the son of Polish immigrants known as "The Man of Steel," had served in the military during World War II. In addition to his status as a war veteran, Zale was regarded as a much more skilled boxer than Graziano. The popular favorite going into their first match in Yankee Stadium on September 27, 1946, Zale knocked out Graziano to take the fight in the sixth round. Graziano immediately demanded a rematch, but the bout was delayed when the boxer had his license suspended by the New York State Boxing Commission for failing to report an attempted bribery to the board.

Undaunted by the bad publicity, Graziano capitalized on his underdog status to fuel his rage against Zale in their second match on July 16, 1947 in Chicago. This time Graziano knocked Zale out in the sixth round to take the title. He declared at the end of the bout, "Hey, Ma, your bad boy done it. I told you somebody upthere likes me." The utterance later inspired the title of Graziano's colorful, if somewhat fictional, 1955 autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me. After publishing his autobiography in 1955, Graziano agreed to serve as a consultant for the film version of his life, which appeared on movie screens in 1956. He spent several weeks helping star Paul Newman learn his boxing technique, speech patterns, and physical movements in preparation for the film. Although Somebody Up There Likes Me took some dramatic licenses with the facts of Graziano's life and careermost notably, his second (and winning) title fight with Zale is the film's climax, but his defeat in their third match is not includedthe film's realism won praise from critics. Indeed, it is still cited as one of the best dramas of the 1950s, ranked alongside On the Waterfront, Marty, and Rebel Without a Cause. It also remains one of the best films about boxing ever made.

The third Graziano-Zale match took place on June 10, 1948 in Jersey City. In their final match, Zale took back the title after knocking out Graziano in the third round. After Zale retired, Graziano made one more attempt to regain the middleweight crown in an April 1952 bout against Ray Robinson, which he lost in a third-round knockout. Graziano's last professional fight occurred in September 1952.

Career as Entertainer

In addition to his autobiography, Graziano's recurring role as comedienne Martha Raye's boyfriend on her self-titled television show kept him in the public eye throughout the 1950s. Graziano eventually turned into an all-around entertainer, appearing in television shows, movies, plays, and advertisements, almost always in a comic role that played up his Lower East Side persona and accent. Graziano published a second memoir, Somebody Down Here Likes Me Too, in 1981 and often campaigned for Republican Party candidates, including Ronald Reagan. In declining health throughout the 1980s, Graziano died from cardiopulmonary failure on May 22, 1990 in New York City.

Chronology

1922 Born June 6 in New York City to Nick and Ida Scinto Barbella
1939 Begins training as a boxer
1940 Serves jail term for parole violation in New York City
1941 Serves term in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for being Absent Without Leave
1942 Begins professional boxing career
1943 Marries Norma Unger
1946 Loses World Middleweight Title match against Tony Zale
1947 Boxing license suspended for failing to report a bribe
1947 Wins World Middleweight Title match against Tony Zale
1948 Loses World Middleweight Title match against Tony Zale
1952 Concludes career as professional boxer
1955 Publishes autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me
1977 Induction into the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame
1991 Induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame
1990 Dies in New York City on May 22

Awards and Accomplishments

1947 Wins World Middleweight title
1977 Induction into the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame
1991 Induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame

Despite his rather crude technique as a boxer, Graziano was remembered at the time of his death for one of the most exciting boxing rivalries in history against Zale. Yet he was also celebrated for his accomplishments outside the boxing ring. For many professional boxers, their post-athletic careers are filled with disappointment and frustration. Graziano was one of the few to become even more successful after his days in the ring ended. The grade-school dropout became a published author; the reform-school inmate befriended some of the most powerful Republican politicians in the country; the quintessential New Yorker became a beloved national celebrity. Although the tales he told about his life were somewhat fanciful, Graziano's candor and commonsense outlook earned him respect far beyond the boxing ring.

SELECTED WRITINGS BY GRAZIANO:

Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1955.

Somebody Up There Likes Me

After publishing his autobiography in 1955, Graziano agreed to serve as a consultant for the film version of his life, which appeared on movie screens in 1956. He spent several weeks helping star Paul Newman learn his boxing technique, speech patterns, and physical movements in preparation for the film. Although Somebody Up There Likes Me took some dramatic licenses with the facts of Graziano's life and careermost notably, his second (and winning) title fight with Tony Zale is the film's climax, but his defeat in their third match is not includedthe film's realism won praise from critics. Indeed, it is still cited as one of the best dramas of the 1950s, ranked alongside On the Waterfront, Marty, and Rebel Without a Cause. It also remains one of the best films about boxing ever made.

(With Ralph Corsel) Somebody Down Here Likes Me Too, Stein & Day, 1981.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Graziano, Rocky, with Ralph Corsel. Somebody Down Here Like Me Too. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1981.

Periodicals

Berger, Phil. "Rocky Graziano, Ex-Ring Champion, Dead at 71." New York Times (May 23, 1990): B7.

Povich, Shirley. "Graziano, He Knew the Ropes." Washington Post (May 25, 1990): B01.

Povich, Shirley. "Zale Was No Ordinary Boxer." Washington Post (March 3, 1997).

Other

"Cyber Boxing Champ Rocky Graziano." The Cyber Boxing Zone. http://www.cyberboxingzone.com/boxing/graz.htm (October 19, 2002).

"Rocky Graziano." International Boxing Hall of Fame. http://www.ibhof.com/graziano.htm (October 19, 2002).

"Rocky Graziano." National Italian American Hall of Fame. http://www.niashf.org/inductees/graziano_rocky.html (October 19, 2002).

"Somebody Up There Likes Me." American Film Institute. http://www.afionline.org/wise/films/somebody_up_there_likes_me/sutlm.html (August 23, 2001).

Sketch by Timothy Borden

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