Former middleweight champion Rocky Graziano personified Nu Yawk. He was born Thomas Rocca Barbella in a Rivington Street tenement in 1922 and came of age on the Lower East Side. Rocky was a rambunctious kid with a rap sheet by the age of ten. Seemingly born to raise hell, he was a truant, punk, thief and hoodlum before he hit adolescence.
In his autobiography “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” first published in 1954 and turned into a film noir movie about his film noir life two years later, Rocky describes Rocky as only Rocky can: “I was so crooked ya coulda used my arm for a corkscrew. I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent. I was just a kid with an impediment of the reach.”
Rocky wrote about growing up in New York’s slums: “We go from one roach palace to another on Tenth Street and First Avenue. This pad, even though they was supposed to have steam heat, go find it. Here, in the middle of winter, even the janitor banged on the pipes. And if you paid your rent on time, you could be arrested for suspicion of robbery.”
In response to being poor, Barbella hustled reality. “I never stole anything unless it started with ‘A.’ ‘A’ truck. ‘A’ car. ‘A’ payroll.”
Always in and out of trouble, it was Manhattan Island one day/Riker’s Island the next for the recidivist Rocca Barbella. In lieu of a long stretch in the joint, a judge took pity on the repeat offender and forced him into the military. If ever a match was made in hell it was the U.S. Army vs. Da Rock. In no time Rocky was AWOL. In no time Rocky was in the brig.
History was repeating itself and Barbella, as usual, never could do nothing right.
“There was always something I want to say but I never knew how, so I let my fists do the talking for me.”
Rocca Barbella finally saw the light. He loathed following orders and hated khaki and knew the soldier’s life was not for him, so he borrowed another GI’s name – Rocky Graziano – and went absent without leave forever.
“There was still one thing I had to find out for myself. I had to learn that I was only happy when I was fighting.”
Rocky Graziano turned pro on March 31, 1942 in Brooklyn with a second round kayo over Curtis Hightower. Rocky had seven more fights that year, eighteen fights in 1943, and twenty fights in 1944.
“The only time I’m straight about what I’m doing is when I’m in the ring taking punches and giving them.”
Rocky wasn’t a sweet scientist. Nope, not even close. He went for the jugular.
“You can look at my face and you’ll know it’s a tough business.”
Graziano could take a mean punch. He also loved to dish it out. He thought nothing of taking four, five, six shots to land a haymaker of his own.
“I give in to nothing or nobody. Cut me, break my bones, it was all the same.”
Rocky never let his lack of finesse deter him.
“Anybody hurts me gets busted in two and dumped in his own blood.”
Rocky was also, in keeping with a New York tradition, a dirty fighter.
“In a fight it’s the thumb in the eye, the knee in the balls. In pool you cheat on the score. In baseball you rap the base runner sliding in or use your spikes. In poker it’s the marked deck, loaded dice in craps. The important thing is not how you do it,” Graziano wrote. “The important thing is to win.”
His three explosive bouts with Tony Zale – Rocky lost the first in 1946, won the rematch and middleweight title in 1947, and lost the 1948 rubber match – are touchstones in the sweet science of bruising.
“There’s only one way to lick Zale. You gotta kill him.”
Rocky Graziano retired from boxing in 1952 with a 67-10-6 (52 KOs) record and commenced his career in showbiz. He morphed from a granite-chinned pugilist into a solid gold celebrity. He became a TV host and pitchman. He became a bestselling author. He was pals with Presidents and Hollywood stars.
In an amazing turnaround of fortune, Rocky was famous, he was adored, and he was rich.
“You know why I like to hang around millionaires?” he asked. “They never ask you for money.”
Boxing rescued a nowhere man and turned him into something fabulous, and his life, according to Da Rock, was some kinda miracle.
“I once heard a poem with religion in it and there was this line I never forgot: My cup runs over.”