Hand color tinted photo of Middleweight Boxing Champion, Rocky Graziano
Rocky Graziano, born Thomas Rocco Barbella in New York City (1 January 1919 – May 22, 1990), was an Italian American boxer. Graziano was considered one of the greatest knockout artists in boxing history, often displaying the capacity to take his opponent out with a single punch. He was ranked 23rd on Ring Magazine’s list of the greatest punchers of all time.
Graziano’s life story was the basis of the 1956 Oscar-winning drama film Somebody Up There Likes Me, based on his 1955 autobiography of the same title. The film starred Paul Newman and was directed by Robert Wise.
Rocky Graziano was the son of a boxer known as ‘Fighting Nick Bob’, and was born in Brooklyn. He later moved to Little Italy in New York’s Lower East Side. Rocky grew up as a street fighter and learned to look after himself before he could read or write. He spent years in reform school, jail, and Catholic protectories.
When Rocky was as young as 3 years of age, his father would make him and his brother Joe (who was three years older) fight almost every night in boxing gloves. All the washed-up boxers from around the neighborhood would go to the Barbellas’ house to drink and watch the two brothers fight. The fights usually ended badly for Rocco. As he would get hit more and more, he would become angrier and angrier. Usually he would fall asleep from getting punched or sheer tiredness. The only person in Rocco’s life to feel any sort of sympathy for him was his mother. She believed Rocco was her lucky child, as he was born on the first day of the New Year. However, Rocky was in trouble for much of his childhood.
Rocky at six was recognized officially as the toughest six year old in the park district, at ten he picked Tony Canzoneri for his special idol, at 15 (having run away from a halfdozen schools) he was beating up the other boys in his yard in reform school, and at 18 he won the Metropolitan A.A.U. welterweight championship. Despite the fame and money that professional fighting seemed to offer, Rocky didn’t especially want to become a serious prize fighter. He didn’t like the discipline of training any more than he liked the discipline of school or, later, the Army. He didn’t want his face messed up, either. His father had been a boxer known as “Fighting Joe Bob” and hadn’t been famous or rich. His uncle enjoyed the same situation. Rocky had memories of them and their friends sitting around the gloomy tenement, swapping boisterous stories about the boxing business over buckets of beer. His father, who got occasional work as a longshoreman, kept boxing gloves around the house and encouraged Rocky and his brothers to fight one another something they didn’t see much profit in, since they felt most of their energies ought to be devoted to bringing in money or raiding pushcarts for groceries.
At the age of 8, Rocco went to live with his grandparents on Second Avenue near Houston Street. There, he met his first friend, Sam Villa, nicknamed “Houdini” for his ability to “disappear when there’s work or trouble around.” Houdini introduced Rocky to the pool hall and other games popular on the East Side, including stick-ball, football, and handball. Around this time, Rocky saw kids on the street riding scooters. He went up to a kid and told him to give him the scooter, but the other kid wouldn’t. Enraged, Rocky went a couple blocks up, found another kid, punched him in the face, and came back to where the other kids were. He sped down the street and attempted to do a spinning stop. However, he was hit by a car, the impact of which broke his leg and required a two-month stay in the hospital.
When Rocky was discharged from the hospital, he met up with his old crony and continued his mischievous ways. One of Rocky’s biggest money-makers was robbing gum machines in the subways. The two boys would visit different stations to avoid suspicion and being caught. One day, Rocky forgot to check a utility closet and was caught when a detective burst out of the door. Rocky was sentenced to probation by Children’s Court. Houdini, however, was able to cry his way out of Children’s Court.
One morning, he woke up early and stole 50 cents from his grandfather. His grandfather confronted him, advancing on Rocky with a shaving block. Rocky jumped out the window and ran down the fire escape, then continued to run to Brooklyn to his old house. He told his father what had happened and was beaten anyway, since he didn’t let his grandfather do it.
He spent the next couple of days at his old house. He saw his brother playing in the street one day and stole a bicycle to give to his brother. His brother unknowingly rode the bicycle toward where Rocco had stolen it. His brother was arrested and confessed to police that Rocky had stolen it.
Rocky attended a court meeting and his old school truancy and probation records caught up with him. He was sent to a Catholic protectory, one of three terms he spent there.
Eddie Cocco is the main reason Rocky started amateur boxing. Rocky heard from a couple of his friends about a tournament going on with a gold medal for the winner. Rocky entered under the name of “Joe Giuliani”. He fought four matches and ended up winning the New York Metropolitan Amateur Athletic Union Boxing competition (1939). He sold the gold medal for $15 and decided that boxing was a good way to make cash.
But he also thought that stealing and ripping apart houses was a better idea, although trainers who saw him fight thought he could make a real mark on boxing. A couple of weeks into amateur fighting, he was picked up for stealing from a school. He went to Coxsackie Correctional Facility, where he spent three weeks, with boyhood friend Jake LaMotta, and then he went on to the New York City Reformatory where he spent five months.
After Rocky got out of the Reformatory, he headed back to the gym to make money. There he met Eddie Cocco, who started his professional career. He entered the ring under the name of Robert Barber. A couple of weeks later, when he was making good money, he lent out a car to friends who robbed a couple of bookies and shot them in the chest. Rocky was charged with a probation violation and sent back to reform school. There, he was charged for starting a minor riot between the “East Side Gang” and the “Blacks”. He was sent to Rikers Island.
When Rocky got out of jail, he was approached by the military and told that he had to join. Rocky went AWOL in the military after punching a captain. He escaped from Fort Dix in New Jersey and started his real boxing career under the name of “Rocky Graziano”. He won his first couple of bouts. After gaining popularity under the name of Graziano, he was found by the military. After Graziano’s fourth bout, he was called in to manager’s office to speak with a couple of military personnel. Expecting to be prosecuted and sent back to the military or jail, Graziano fled. He then returned to the military a week later. He turned himself in, but instead of being punished he was pardoned and given the opportunity to fight under the army’s aegis.
As he grew older, Rocky forsook the street games of ring o levio and stickball for gang fights in parks. He spent more time on street corners and less time in school. He felt his poverty more. Since it was more profitable to fight for gold watches than for free in an alley, he joined clubs and won watches, which he sold at the going rate. He was scouted, naturally enough, by sharpeyed managers, and finally, getting sick of the diet of doughnuts and seeing no other way to raise his standard of living, he listened to the blandishments of some of them and signed a few contracts. But the rigmarole of training disgusted him and he and his early managers went their separate ways, the latter hoping he would get stiffened when he stepped into the ring with a competent fighter. Rocky finally wound up with Irving Cohen, who had the sense to give him a long leash. Cohen changed Rocky’s name from Barbells to Graziano (his grandfather’s name) and lined up a fight. Refusing to train much, Graziano nevertheless showed a gang war, killer instinct and won by a knockout. Other fights were lined up with Cohen trying, in his subtle way, to overmatch Rocky, get him defeated, and thereby show Rocky the value of getting into condition. It was impossible to overmatch him. Rocky kept knocking them over. He even demanded a fight with Sugar Ray Robinson which, fortunately, he didn’t get for a good many years. He had money in his pockets and he set them up for his friends their number was growing by the hundreds in every bar on the East Side. He wallowed in noisy celebrity. He was moving up in the world, at least in the only world he had ever known.
In March 1945, at Madison Square Garden, Graziano scored one of the major upsets in boxing over the phenom Billy Arnold. Arnold’s style was similar to Sugar Ray Robinson; he was a slick boxer with lightning-fast combinations and a knockout punch. The Ring Magazine and various newspapers across the United States touted Arnold as the next Joe Louis or Sugar Ray Robinson. Arnold was a heavy favorite to defeat Graziano, and then to go on to fight for the world title. However, in a brutal battle, Graziano absorbed a beating in the early going, before going on to batter and knockout Arnold in the third round of the scheduled eight round bout. Following his defeat to Graziano, Billy Arnold was never the same.
Graziano went on to become the world boxing champion, and he fought Tony Zale in one of boxing’s most storied rivalries. He also fought Sugar Ray Robinson, losing by early knockout in three rounds.
He is most famous for his three title bouts with Tony Zale, all for the middleweight title. In their first match (September 27, 1946), after flooring Graziano in the first round, Zale took a savage beating from Graziano, and was on the verge of losing the fight by TKO. However, he rallied and knocked out Graziano in the sixth round to retain his title. The rematch, a year later in Chicago (July 16, 1947), was a mirror image of their first fight. The referee almost stopped the second fight in the third round because of a severe cut over Graziano’s left eye, which would have awarded the victory to Zale, but Graziano’s cutman, Morris (“Whitey”) Bimstein, was able to stop the bleeding to let the fight continue. Graziano was battered around the ring, suffered a closed eye and appeared ready to lose by a knockout, then rallied and knocked Zale out in the sixth round, becoming middleweight champion of the world. Their last fight was held in New Jersey the following year (June 10, 1948). Zale regained his crown, winning the match by a knockout in the third round. The knockout blows consisted of a perfect combination of a right to Graziano’s body, then a left hook to Graziano’s jaw. Graziano was knocked unconscious.
His last attempt at the middleweight title came in April 1952, when Sugar Ray Robinson knocked him out in three rounds. He retired after losing his very next fight, a 10-round decision to Chuck Davey.
In 1946, Graziano was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) for failure to report an alleged bribe attempt.
In 1948, Abe Green, the National Boxing Association President, announced that they were indefinitely suspending Graziano in all parts of the world under NBA supervision, following similar action by the California State Athletic Commission. This was due to Graziano’s “running out” on a scheduled Dec. 1 bout with Fred Apostoli. The suspension covered all of the American States, Great Britain, the European Boxing Federation, Cuba, Mexico, and Canada. Boxing promoter Ralph Tribuani got Graziano a license in Delaware, where the allegations were perceived as ridiculous. This led to the reinstatement of Graziano by both the NBA and NYSAC and Rocky’s return to prosperity.
After his retirement from boxing, he became a well-known television comedian, co-hosting a short-lived series titled The Henny and Rocky Show with famous comedian Henny Youngman. He was also a semi-regular on NBC’s The Martha Raye Show, portraying host Martha Raye’s “boyfriend.”
Graziano also appeared as a regular on the United Artists TV series Miami Undercover for its entire run, and appeared in several series and shows, including The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom on ABC and an episode of NBC’s Car 54, Where Are You?. He portrayed Packy, an ex-boxer, in the 1967 Frank Sinatra film Tony Rome.
In the 1960s, Graziano opened a pizza restaurant called Rocky Graziano’s Pizza Ring on Second Avenue in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan, eventually creating a modest franchise for the restaurant in the New York City area. He also became the celebrity spokesman for Lee Myles Transmissions in the New York City area, appearing on dozens of television commercials from the mid-1970s to the mid 1980s.
In his retirement, Graziano dabbled in painting and developed an admiration for the work of Pablo Picasso.