Rocky Graziano grew up the product of a tough, slum district in New York City known as “Alphabet City,” the lower eastside of Manhattan. As an impoverished, delinquent Italian kid, Graziano managed to beat the odds that were clearly stacked against him. After a stint 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 ring.
Tony Zale was born and grew up in the Midwest steel town of Gary, Indiana. Raised in a middle-class family, Tony and his brothers were involved in amateur boxing when he graduated from 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. It was in 1945 that Rocky Graziano made a name for himself, having fought six fights that year, winning each fight by KO or TKO, all but two fights lasting four rounds or less.
Tony Zale had just returned home from World War II, resuming his ring career in 1946. Zale fought six fights that year. From January to May he won all the fights by KO, and none of the fights lasted more than five rounds.
The three fight war between Zale and Graziano started in 1946. Zale held the title when he was challenged by Graziano for the first time in New York. The two Hall-of-Fame fighters met in front of a crowd of 39,827 at Yankee Stadium on September 27, 1946. It was the first fight in what would go down in boxing history as the best three fight battle of the century. Actually, the first fight of the three was considered by Ring's International Ratings Panel as one of the four greatest fights of all time.
Graziano was at the height of his career at the time, with 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. 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 once with a body shot. Then Zale caught Graziano with a left hook, again dropping him in the 6th round. This time Rocky stayed down for the count and Zale retained the middleweight crown.
Several years later, Graziano and Zale made an appearance on a TV talk show to discuss the fight. Upon viewing a tape of the sixth round, Graziano recalled, “After that body shot that knocked me down I was out on my feet, the referee should have stopped the fight than, I didn't even know where I was.”
It was also noted by ringside observers of the fight, “Zale was so battered from the punches of Graziano, by the end of the fifth, he mistook his opponent's corner for his own. Fans yelled for referee Rudy Goldstein to stop the fight, but the veteran official allowed the fight to continue.” The fight was a classic, one of the most brutal in ring history, and a rematch was 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 State Athletic Commission pulled Graziano's license to fight in New York just the same.
A rematch was held a year later, July 16, 1947, at the Chicago Stadium, where a new paid admissions record was set for an indoor fight–$422,918. The spectators in Chicago were treated to one of the greatest middleweight championship fights ever fought. Rocky Graziano won the middleweight championship belt by a 6th round TKO over Tony Zale. It was said the two fighters ripped each other apart until the referee stopped the bout in the sixth 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 the two 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 10, 1948. Zale knocked Graziano out in three rounds to reclaim the title. Highlights of the fight proved it 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 for 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, Graziano turned to a very successful career in television and the movies. Somebody Up There Likes Me, a movie about his rise to fistic fame, earned Rocky more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Both men were inducted into The International Boxing Hall-of-Fame in 1991.