I first saw the classic film “On the Waterfront” more than 30 years ago. To this day, it is my favorite movie of all time. Because I enjoyed it so much, I learned all I could about its production as well everyone who appeared in it.
That is when my interest was piqued in the career of former heavyweight title challenger Tami Mauriello of the Bronx, New York. He had a small but integral role as a union hood named Tullio in the film, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1954.
Also appearing in the film as Mauriello’s cohorts were Abe Simon and “Two Ton” Tony Galento. All three had fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight title.
Mauriello had long been considered Frank Sinatra’s favorite fighter. He also unsuccessfully challenged Gus Lesnevich for a version of the light heavyweight title when he was all of 17 years old, and he even floored Louis in the first round before more than 38,000 fans at Yankee Stadium before the Brown Bomber turned the tables and stopped him in the very same round.
Campaigning from 1939-49, Mauriello compiled an enviable record of 82-13-1 (60 KOs). Besides Louis and Lesnevich, the latter of whom he fought four times, he squared off against such notables as Jimmy Bivins and Lou Nova, each of whom he fought twice, Steve Belloise, and Cesar Brion.
The only time I met Mauriello was at a boxing show in White Plains, New York, in 1992. While he had a steady and welcoming smile, he also had an unsteady gait. At first I thought he was drunk, but it soon became obvious that he was afflicted with dementia.
When he passed away on December 3, 1999, there was barely a mention in any of the local newspapers. To my surprise, I came across an In Memoriam notice, replete with a photo of him in fighting pose, in the New York Daily News on the day after the sixth anniversary of his death. It read (verbatim):
Mauriello, Tami (Stephen) 5/24/23-12/3/99. Miss you, Tami. So young, you were aged 13 Stephen when you started to fight professionally, then they had to call you Tami. You were pushed Dad, that was wrong, such a fragile age Stephen for mind and body, to be a pro gladiator. 1945 and again 1946, Tami, you were ranked number 1 heavy weight in the world, with Joe Louis Champion. September 18, 1946 you showed tremendous heart, courage, sensation, losing to Joe Louis for the championship of the world. I know Dad, any problems such as hangers on, compulsive gambling, anger problems, marital problems with beautiful Lucille, are due to the day Stephen became Tami. All is forgiven, Tami, also your sister, aunt Marie, loves you very much. Your son, Ronnie and Judy, grandchildren Carolyn and Rebecca, and great-grandchild Rachele.
I was blown away. Within minutes I was on the Internet, trying to obtain a phone number for Mauriello’s son. No such luck.
The next day I called the Daily News and had them reach out to Ronnie for me. They called back and told me that he wasn’t interested in talking to the press. I was disappointed, but not deterred.
Fate soon intervened. Several weeks later a friend named Art Perry, a retired NYPD detective who competed in the New York City Golden Gloves for several years in the early sixties, met Mauriello’s niece, Roseanne, at a doctor’s office where she was employed as a nurse.
When he noticed her name, he asked if she was related to the famous fighter. The connection was made. Within a day or two I was on the phone with her. She had nothing but fond memories of her uncle, but suggested that I speak with her aunt Marie to learn more about him. She was one of only two surviving siblings in a brood of nine children.
“My brother was a beautiful, beautiful man,” said Marie Internicola, a widow who still resides in the Bronx. “I took care of him when he divorced after 43 years of marriage. He came back to live in the Bronx.
“At first I thought he was just slowing down,” she continued. “I took him to a specialist who took care of the brain. He said he had pugilistica dementia. He said it wasn’t bad now, but it was gradually getting worse. The only thing he remembered was gambling. He loved horses and was always at the racetrack. Gambling ruined him.”
Before the dementia set in, Marie described her brother as being happy and go-lucky by nature. “He was loved by everyone,” she said. “He had a magnificent heart. Anyone who had a problem would go to him. He was there for everyone. He never turned his back. He avoided big shots and loved little people, common people.”
One person who Mauriello impressed long after his boxing career was over was noted boxing historian Mike Silver. Back in sixties, the youthful and naïve Silver wandered into a Queens night spot where Tito Puente was performing. Already a maniacal boxing fan, Silver was star-struck when he saw Mauriello working security inside.
“I got so excited and kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re Tami Mauriello,’” laughed Silver. “He was very gracious, very cordial. Finally he said, ‘Kid, I don’t think you want to hang out here. This isn’t the place for you.’ I think he realized that I was out of my element in this place, if you know what I mean.”
Asked how Mauriello would have fared in today’s moribund heavyweight division, Silver was unequivocal in his response. “Was Tami a great fighter?” he asked. “Of course not! But the fighter who nearly upended Joe Louis would have wreaked havoc among today’s alphabet belt soup holders. If he were fighting today, Tami would be a heavyweight champion.”
One place that Mauriello was never out of his element was in the ring. His father had died when he was very young, so he fell in with a neighborhood mentor named Lefty Rimini. Rimini realized what a gifted athlete Mauriello was and encouraged him to box. To say that Mauriello was a quick study would be an understatement.
“Everything came so natural to him,” said Marie. “My mother didn’t like him boxing, but he did it anyway. Tami won a gold watch in his first tournament. He took the watch to my mother, who was in Fordham Hospital where she died of kidney trouble. After that Tami broke the watch into little pieces and threw it away.”
A few years later, Mauriello, whose birth name was Stephen, forever became known as Tami. “He went to fight in the Golden Gloves in Cuba,” said Marie. “He was only 14 years old, but had to be 17 to compete. He took my brother Tami’s (Thomas) birth certificate so he could fight. After that, it was like we renamed him Tami. Nobody ever called him Stephen again.”
With both parents dead, Marie put her life on hold to become a surrogate mother to her brothers and sisters. Although she wasn’t thrilled with Tami fighting, she couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement he generated, especially when he squared off at Madison Square Garden or at the scores of now defunct Bronx venues that included the New York Coliseum, Starlight Park, and the Bronx Arena.
“Every fight was a big event,” she said. “Wherever he fought in New York, it was big. Celebrities loved him. Everyone loved my brother. When he fought Joe Louis—the screaming—it was just unbelievable.”
When Mauriello knocked Louis down with his vaunted right hand, Marie thought she was in the midst of an earthquake. To this day Marie believes that the referee pushed her brother aside to give Louis more time to recuperate.
Although it is nothing but a hunch on her part, she thinks the referee might have had a bet on the champion.
“My brother wasn’t bitter,” she said. “After the fight he went to a restaurant he had called Tami’s Corner. He stayed late and broke down and cried.”
But, she adds, even if the referee was involved in any chicanery, she thinks he might have inadvertently did her brother a favor. “The end result might have been the same, but my brother would have taken a worse beating,” she said. “He might have been hurt worse.”
Even after the high-profile loss, Mauriello’s popularity didn’t wane. Marie says that Sinatra was in her apartment on many occasions, and he was even expected to show at her wedding. While Sinatra didn’t make it, Jimmy Durante, Rocky Graziano, and several other celebrities from the sporting and entertainment communities did.
Mauriello’s friendship with Graziano was so deep, the former middleweight champion didn’t forget his friend even when gripped by his own case of dementia.
“Rocky was having his own problems, but three months before he died he took a chauffeured limo to the Bronx to see Tami. He showed him the hat that Tami had given him many years before. Tami had that effect on people.”
If not for his gambling and the scores of residual problems associated with it, Mauriello might have had a wonderful life. He had a great wife and two beautiful children and after he stopped fighting he worked for many years at Grumman, the Long Island-based defense contractor.
Although he made good money, every dime was spent on gambling. “I pleaded with him to give up gambling,” said Marie. “We would fight all the time over it. I would ask him if he had his life to do over again would he avoid the gambling. He’d say he would do it again.”
In his final years, Mauriello had some questionable characters hanging around him. With his mind going quickly, he didn’t seem to realize their less than honorable intentions. But Marie did so she spoke to his mailman about not leaving her brother’s pension and Social Security checks in his box. She changed the locks on his apartment on more than one occasion.
When things worsened, Marie wanted to transform her dining room into a bedroom for her beloved brother. Her doctor warned her that because of his size, she would not be able to handle him. “You’ll die before him trying to care for him,” he insisted.
With no alternatives, she made the heart-wrenching decision to place him in a nursing home. By then his mind was all but gone. Still, after much prodding she accepted an invitation to bring him to the Ring 8, Veteran Boxers Association’s annual Christmas party a few years before he died.
“Tami didn’t realize anything,” she recalled tearfully. “Everyone was hugging and kissing him, but he didn’t recognize anyone. I told everyone that I was glad they all saw him.”
When Tony Mazzarella, the proprietor of the Waterfront Crab House in Long Island City – where the event was held – asked her to speak, she could not believe the words that flowed so freely from her mouth – and her heart.
“I warned all those fighters about what might happen to them,” she said. “I told them if you don’t put money away, you won’t have money in the end. I told them to look at my brother, and said that all came from boxing. I told them to take care of their families, take care of themselves, and put money away.”
Marie is not sure if she reached anyone, but she hopes that she did. In her mind, she said what had to be said. It’s been six long years since her brother’s passing. She thinks of him, as well as her other family members, often. But it is Tami who commands most of her attention.
For a man who gave so much, he got so little. She knows that he was his own worst enemy, but that doesn’t make her love him any less.
“My brother was a tall, handsome man,” she said. “He was always dressed so well and always so nice to everyone. When I think of him, I don’t think of a fighter and I don’t think of a gambler. I think of a wonderful brother who would do anything for anyone. He had a heart of gold. I miss him so much.”