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MEMORIES WITH MLADINICH: Charley Norkus

BY Robert Mladinich ON January 12, 2010
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Although onetime heavyweight contender Charley Norkus of New York more than held his own against such championship caliber fighters as Willie Pastrano, Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles, it was through no fault of his own he never got to fight Rocky Marciano, who went on to retire as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history.

The April 26, 1952, issue of the Syracuse Post Standard reported that the Norkus-Marciano bout, which was scheduled to take place on May 26th of that year, was cancelled  because of a 30 day suspension that had been handed down to Marciano by Rhode Island boxing commissioner Charley Reynolds.

The future heavyweight champ had been charged with “deception” during an exhibition tour in which he sparred with his brother, Louis Marchegiano, who fought under the pseudonym Pete Fuller.

“My father fought a lot of great fighters,” said Charley Norkus Jr., a retired New York City firefighter. “But he would have loved to have fought Marciano. Their styles were well-suited for each other.”

Between 1948 and 1959, Norkus compiled a record of 33-19 (19 KOs) against some very formidable competition. Although he lost to the aforementioned champions, as well as Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, Pat McMurtry, and Roy “Cut and Shoot” Harris, he beat such notables as Roland LaStarza, Cesar Brion, and Charley Powell, who also beat Norkus in the latter’s second to last fight.

What old-timers remember more than anything, however, are Norkus’s thrilling back-to-back bouts against Danny Nardico in 1954 in Miami Beach.

Boxrec.com describes the first encounter as “a thriller, with eight knockdowns,” six of which were scored by Norkus. For the second fight, just two months later, a sellout crowd of 4,500 jammed into the Miami Beach Auditorium. This time the hard-punching Norkus, who esteemed columnist Bill Gallo once described as having a “low hands style, always with that great left hook ready to unload,” stopped Nardico in the ninth round.

According to Norkus’s biography in the journal for his posthumous 1996 induction into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, “[The] rematch on national TV had no knockdowns, but was a toe to toe fight with Norkus the victor again.”

What was probably Norkus’s biggest knockout is one that few people even know about. In the 1962 film “Splendor in the Grass,” Norkus and Billy Graham, who many consider the “uncrowned welterweight champion” after getting robbed against Kid Gavilan in 1950, rough up and “knock out” a young Warren Beatty during a New Year’s party scene.

If you listen closely, says the younger Norkus, you’ll hear his father say, “Okay Charley, had enough?”

As an actor, the multi-talented senior Norkus also appeared in the films “Requiem for a Heavyweight,”  “The Hustler,” Breakfast at Tiffanys” and “West Side Story.”

Born in Queens in 1928, Norkus was a standout athlete in swimming, diving and pole vaulting. He first entered a boxing gym at the age of 16, and like so many other kids of the era was immediately hooked. Within months he was competing in the Golden Gloves tournament, losing in the 1944 and 1945 finals.

According to his son, his father and a group of his friends dropped out of Jamaica High School to join the Marine Corps prior to the end of World War II.

When his superiors learned that he was an accomplished boxer, Norkus began competing on the Marine Corps team and he soon won a title. Out of the ring, he earned a World War II Campaign Medal.

Norkus later lost a decision to Coley Wallace, who owned an amateur victory over Marciano, in the 1948 Olympic Trials. He wound up going to London as an Olympic alternate.

Later that year he turned pro in New Jersey, where he quickly became a fan favorite. Norkus was as honest of a fighter as the day is long, and he never gave anything less than a superlative effort in everything he did both in and out of the ring.

While still active, he was one of the founding members of the Veteran Boxers Association, Ring 8, in New York, the venerable organization that was formed in 1954 to help indigent boxers.

The organization held its annual holiday luncheon on January 10th. This year’s honorees were boxers Mark Breland and Vinny Maddalone, journalist Bill Gallo, Drs. Jerry Lynn and Michael Schwartz, trainer Pete Brodsky, and Ring 8 board member Tony DiPippo. Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was Bobby Goodman.

Among the luminaries in attendance were actors Paul Sorvino, Burt Young and Frank Albanese of “The Sopranos” and boxing figures Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, Vito Antuofermo, Tommy Gallagher, Henry Wallitsch, Randy Neumann, Larry Stanton, Arthur Mercante Jr., Joe Dwyer, Jill Diamond, and the younger Norkus.

At the event, Norkus Jr. said his father was smart enough to know when it was time to leave the rigors of boxing as a competitor behind. That is exactly what he did in February 1959, even though he had won his final bout by 10 round decision in a place that was most dear to him.

His victory over Waban Thomas took place in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, one of the places Norkus had been assigned while on active duty in the USMC.  

“My father was a sensible man,” said Charley Jr. “He was in Ingemar Johansson’s camp as a sparring partner, but he realized at that stage of his career he was there to build up the careers of other fighters. He knew where that was going, so he got out. But he had saved enough of his ring earnings to buy a house for his family.”

Living on Long Island, Norkus began working as a liquor salesman. He moonlighted as a bouncer at place called the Frolic Café, which was located around Seventh Avenue and West 50th Street in Manhattan. One night, in July 1959, he threw out a patron who had been harassing a female customer.

Not long afterwards, the guy returned. This time he was packing heat. As Norkus tried to bounce him out a second time, the gunman, who eight months earlier had been paroled after serving 21 years for killing his wife, opened fire. Although Norkus was shot three times, he decked the culprit with a right hand as he was going down.

The parolee was quickly arrested and sentenced to a long prison term. He died at Sing Sing in the mid 1980s. Norkus was rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors said his tremendous physical condition enabled him to pull through.

He went on to live a very full and happy life, and was always ready to lend a hand when needed. While working as a liquor salesman, Jake LaMotta asked Norkus if he could help him out.

Norkus helped get the Raging Bull a route in Manhattan that included the legendary saloon Toots Shor’s. According to Charley Jr., because LaMotta was a champion and his father was a contender, the caste system resulted in LaMotta not being able to just do his business in such establishments and leave. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to buy the champ a drink, and the champ didn’t know how to decline.

Norkus, on the other hand, was extremely responsible and always knew where to draw the line between work and play. Maybe the Marine Corps taught him that, or perhaps it was just his nature or his upbringing, but he was squared away in all aspects of his personal and professional life.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Norkus was a well known referee in the New York area. He was the third man in the ring for bouts featuring the likes of Mike Tyson, Buddy McGirt, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Gerry Cooney and Renaldo Snipes.

He supported his family, acted in films, was recognized by the Downtown Athletic Club as a “boxing great” in 1978, and honored by the New York City Detectives Association for numerous altruistic endeavors a few years later.

This writer remembers him well during my early days on the boxing beat. Whether speaking to a young journalist or a fighter, Norkus was extremely respectful and benevolent. You only had to be around him for a minute to realize what a nice man he truly was.

One night in a Long Island dressing room, he and Graham, both of whom had worked a card as referees, were changing into their street clothes and chatting with me, a journalist in my early twenties, as if I was the most important guy in the room.

I wish I had memorialized the conversation, or committed it to memory, because I don’t remember what it was about. What I do vividly recall was how these two fine men with such rich boxing pedigrees were so quickly dispelling every negative boxing stereotype I’d been told to watch out for.

Norkus passed away from gall bladder cancer at the age of 68 in March 1996. During a life that was fully lived and greatly appreciated by all who had the pleasure of knowing him, his son said there was one final irony.

“On the day my father died, we were informed that he was elected into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame,” said Charley Jr. “That meant the world to me, and it would have meant the world to him if he had been there to experience it himself.”

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