Zale-Graziano Triology
By Sam Gregory, DoghouseBoxing (Aug 9, 2009)  
On September 27th, 1946 Rocky Graziano was matched to fight the current title holder Tony Zale for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. Graziano and Zale were to embark on three of the most savage and sensational middleweight fights in boxing history.

Rocky Graziano was born Rocco Barbella on January 1, 1922. He grew up on the tough streets of New York City’s Lower East Side. An impoverished juvenile delinquent, Rocky was in and out of reform school from an early age. It was during this time Graziano developed his ability as a hard-hitting street fighter. After one of his stints in reform school Rocky joined the Metropolitan AAU boxing tournament in New York. Graziano was a replacement for another fighter and ended up winning the tournament. It was his first experience in organized boxing and would lead to a magnificent career in and out of the boxing ring.

Tony Zale was born and raised in the Midwest steel town of Gary, Indiana. Brought up in a middle-class family, Tony and his brothers were involved in amateur boxing when he graduated high school. Tony worked in the steel mills as a day job only long enough to support himself while compiling an amateur record of 87-8. Not wanting to spend the rest of his life laboring in the steel mills, Zale turned pro in 1934.

Zale and Graziano were not only from completely different backgrounds, Zale was nine years older than Graziano and turned pro 8 years earlier; Zale 1934 Graziano 1942. It was in 1945 the Rocky Graziano made a name for himself, having fought six fights that year, winning each fight by KO or TKO and none of the fights lasting more than four rounds.

In 1942 Tony Zale had just returned home from World War II and resumed his ring career. Zale fought six fights that year. From January to May he won all the fights by KO, and none lasted more than five rounds. On September 26th, Tony Zale was matched to put his title on the line to fight Rocky Graziano at Yankee Stadium in front of a crowd of 39,827 fans that came to see if the tough Italian kid from The Lower East Side lived up to all the hype they had been reading about. It was the first fight of a three fight war between two of the greatest warriors that every fought in the 160 pound division.

Graziano was at the height of his boxing career at this point in his life; he had 32 knockouts to his credit. He was ready to add one more knockout to his record, instead, Rocky suffered the first knockout loss of his 83 fight professional career.
According to Rocky, “He (Zale) was as tough as me, it was just who got the better punch in first.” Zale knocked Rocky down in the first round. In the third round, Graziano sent Zale through the ropes. Zale recovered quickly from the knockdown. Later, on the verge of defeat and ready to collapse, Zale managed to drop Graziano with a body shot. Then in the 6th round Zale caught Graziano with a left hook that dropped him hard to the canvas; this time Rocky wasn’t able to cover from the punch in time to beat the count and Tony Zale retained the middleweight title.

Years after the fight both Graziano and Zale made an appearance on a TV talk show hosted by Dick Schaap to discuss the fight. After viewing the tape that showed the body shot Tony landed responsible for Rocky’s second knockdown Graziano recalled, “After that body shot knocked me down I was out on my feet! The referee should’ve stopped the fight right there”, as Rocky pointed to the screen, “I didn’t even know where I was.”

It was also noted by ringside observers at the fight, “Zale was so battered from the punches of Graziano, by the end of the fifth, he (Zale) mistook his opponents corner for his own. Fans yelled for referee Rudy Goldstein to stop the fight, but the veteran official allowed the fight to continue.” This first fight in the Graziano - Zale trilogy was a true ring classic. It was one of the most brutal in ring history, and a rematch was already tentatively scheduled for Madison Square Garden.

Because of a problem with the District Attorney in New York over a supposed bribe in which Graziano was implicated for a tune-up fight with a journeyman fighter, the New York fight with Zale was called off. A Grand Jury later tossed out the allegations due to lack of evidence. The New York Athletic Commission pulled Graziano’s license to fight in New York just the same.

A rematch was held a year later. On July 16th, 1947 the second fight in the Graziano-Zale trilogy was held at the Chicago Stadium where a new admissions record was set for an indoor fight--$422,918. The spectators in Chicago that night were treated to one of the greatest middleweight championship fights ever fought. Rocky Graziano won the middleweight championship belt from Tony Zale by stopping the champ in the 6th round. It was reported by ringside fight fans that the two fighters ripped each other apart until the referee stopped the bout in the 6th round, when Graziano landed a barrage of punches to Zale as he went down against the ropes. Rocky later wrote in his book, “This was no boxing match. It was a war, and if there wasn’t a referee one of us would have wound up dead.”

Rocky Graziano held the middleweight belt for a year. The rubber match was held in Newark, New Jersey on June 10th, 1948. Zale knocked Graziano out in three rounds to reclaim the title. Highlights of the fight proved to be as vicious as the first two fights.

In all, the three fights showcased the two great fighters styles and abilities. What Graziano lacked as a clever boxer, he more than made up for with his punching power and ability to absorb a tremendous amount of punishment while waiting for his chance at the knockout punch. Graziano’s punching power was exemplified in his record of 52 knockouts in 83 fights.

Tony Zale went on to fight once more in his hall-of-fame career that spanned from 1934 to 1948. Graziano went on fighting until 1952, though he never again was in a war like the three he fought with Tony Zale.

After retirement from boxing, Graziano turned to a very lucrative career in television and the movies. Somebody Up There Likes Me, a movie staring Paul Newman about Rocky’s rise to fistic fame, earned him more than a quarter of a million dollars.

Both Graziano and Zale were inducted into The International Boxing Hall-of-Fame in 1991.


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