I was at the Mohegan Sun covering the fights not long ago and it was as festive as only live boxing can be, yet the occasion got a special charge when a special award was given to a special fighter named Tony DeMarco. The former champ was wearing a tux, looked like a million bucks, and appeared sturdy, sane and dynamic.
Tony DeMarco was born January 14, 1932 in Boston and grew up in the North End. DeMarco told me “the North End is the Little Italy of Boston, at that time particularly.” Tony’s father Vincent and mother Jiacomina (Jacqueline) came from Sicily. I wondered if DeMarco had any brothers and sisters.
“I do. Rather I should say I did. I had two brothers, one before I was born, just before I was born, and I took his name. He passed on when my mother was pregnant with me. In viewing the body at the home in those days, my dad in a quirky way believed in reincarnation, hoping it would be another boy to take over the name of the boy at the wake. He was also named Leonardo,” Tony DeMarco said. “That’s my name. But they called him Nardo. And sure enough I became the Nardo they hoped to have.”
Tony’s real first name is Nardo. DeMarco’s real last name was Liotta. I asked the former Leonardo Liotta, aka Tony DeMarco, how he and boxing first met.
“I kind of owe my career to the Boys Clubs,” he said, “the Parks Department. That’s how I got started. You go to the Boys Club and you pick up a pair of gloves and you’re not serious about it but you slap each other around and you’re only eleven and then all of the sudden you start getting serious about it – and that’s how it happened with me.”
Was it because he liked boxing or because he was skilled at the sport?
“Both,” DeMarco said. “I took a liking to it – and in the beginning it was such fun – and I started to pick up the techniques out of it and I stayed with it. I was winning championship after championship as a young boy in different tournaments. And of course you always want to become the champion. I was a champion a million times – in my dreams – and finally it came to be.”
Like most of the greats, Nardo Liotta started when he was young.
“Maybe ten, maybe eleven. When I was 95 pounds, 95 pounds,” DeMarco repeated. “I entered the tournaments at the borough’s Newsboy Foundation, which was a Boys Club downtown near the courthouse. We got started over there. I was 95 pounds and I won the Greater Boston Tournament, of all the Boys Clubs in Boston. It was a three-day tournament where we boxed each day – a process of elimination – and I knocked out three kids in three days, which, as you know, is quite difficult to do where you’re 95 pounds.”
I wanted to return to the subject of the champ’s name and how he became Tony DeMarco.
“When I was young, I wasn’t able to receive a boxing license unless I was eighteen. Consequently, I had to borrow someone’s name, and I borrowed Tony DeMarco’s name,” Tony DeMarco said. “He was 18 years old. That’s how I became Tony DeMarco . . . and I stuck with it!”
DeMarco had his first professional fight when he was sixteen years old. It was October 21, 1948. He kayoed Mestor Jones in one round.
“I don’t think it was the right thing to do,” DeMarco said about turning pro so young. “Not at the time, but now. I realize it wasn’t the right thing to do because I still could have used the experience. I would recommend youngsters stay in the amateurs and get a lot of experience. I had many fights in the Parks Department and many fights in the Boys Club as a youngster, but then I turned amateur and only had maybe 12 fights, which is very little experience. But the people I was with were not exactly the most sensible individuals and they thought, really, sincerely, that I would do good in the professional ranks. And I did. But I think I would have been better off to have waited a couple more years. But, as it stood, we fought 4-rounders, 6-rounders, and eventually the 8-rounders, and Tony DeMarco was the focus. I had lots of ups and downs – I had a lot of downs – going nowhere fast – because I think I had bad judgment in my management. They weren’t bad people, but I think they left a lot to be desired when it comes to management.”
Bad management in boxing is one of the things that plague the sport today. But good fortune was about to smile on DeMarco.
“Then a change came with my management and I ended up with someone who knew more about it. I start to have more meaningful fights and I became a main eventer in no time and I continued on and I became boxing champ of the world. I’ve had 71 fights and knocked out 33 guys of my 58 victories. And that’s where I am.”
DeMarco won the welterweight title on April 1, 1955 with a fourteenth round TKO over Johnny Saxton.
“Johnny Saxton was a good fighter, a colorful fighter,” remembered DeMarco. “He beat Kid Gavilan and he beat Carmen Basilio – who beat me by the way – and he fought other champions. He fought Gil Turner. Joey Giardello he fought too, the middleweight champion. He beat Virgil Akins, who also beat me. So Saxton was no stumblebum.”
Because Tony DeMarco is from Boston, a city as charming as it is tough, the former champ, once the toast of New England, fought in the old Boston Garden.
DeMarco smiled and said “I had 31 fights there. In fact, 21 of them were main events. I fought in Mechanics Hall. And then there was the Boston Arena. I fought there. I fought twice in Fenway Park. I also fought in Braves Field on the card of Rocky Marciano. I was still just getting started.”
I asked DeMarco to describe his skills for those who missed him in action.
“I’m a puncher, number one,” he said. “I’m a puncher. There are times when I fight on instinct. Sometimes I’m able to counterpunch, and sometimes I’m able to box, but mainly I would consider myself a slugger. But I did have the skills enough to box some boxers occasionally – like Vince Martinez, like Kid Gavilan – but the overall picture of me as a fighter, I would say I was a puncher.”
The former welterweight champ continued: “I had kind of a walk-in style. Jake LaMotta was one of my favorite fighters growing up, and I related to him. I looked up to him as a fighter. He’s quite a guy.”
DeMarco grew tight with some other legendary fighters.
“I was very friendly with Marciano. He’s from Brockton and I’m from Boston. We hit the same places several times. In fact, he trained at the Catskill Mountains and once or twice we ran into each other. He was training at Grossinger’s Country Club and I was four miles away from him at Kutsher’s Country Club, and we would visit each other, with our fathers no less, and they had a lot in common. They were both shoemakers. They were both like five feet two,” DeMarco recalls, “and they were very compatible.”
The fathers were compatible. So were the mothers.
“My mother went into a beauty shop and the next thing you know there’s a woman next to her and the conversation came where they were speaking about their sons. My mother says, in Italian, ‘Il mio figlio e campione del mondo.’ Which is, ‘My son is champion of the world.’ And the woman next to my mother says ‘Mio figlio e campione del mondo.’ And my mother says ‘What’s your name? Como se chiama tu?’ ‘Io sono Marchegiano.’ And Marchegiano is Marciano, the original name. ‘Io sono DeMarco. My son is Tony DeMarco.’ And of course they had a great celebration in Lee’s Beauty Shop in Hanover Street. My mother and his mother got to be friendly, and his father and my father got to be friendly, so we all knew each other.”
Was there anyone else he remembered from those days?
“I met Carbo,” DeMarco said. “Those guys were wiseguys and they loved to own a fighter. It was like owning a racehorse.”
All in all, it sounds like Tony DeMarco feels good about the game.
“Boxing’s been good to me. I’ve become well known. I’m still reaping my benefits from boxing because of my reputation. I’m a very fortunate individual. I didn’t make a lot of money, unfortunately, unlike today where you fight today and you make a million. In my day we fought, we were lucky to make a couple thousand. So it was a different status then. But boxing has been good to me. I’ve been faithful to it, and I was determined to be and did and I became,” DeMarco said. “But I also had lucky streaks too.”