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Boxers Of Yesteryear - Rocky Graziano

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Rocky Graziano was born Thomas Rocco Barbella in New York between (January 1, 1919 to  January 22, 1919) the fifth child of Nick and Ida (Scinto) Barbella.

Graziano (Italian-American) is considered as one of the greatest knockout artists in boxing history often demonstrating the potential to take his opponent in one fell swoop. He finished twenty-third Ring Magazine list of greatest punchers of all time.

The young Barbella did not have a happy childhood and the relationship with his father was strained and filled with anger. When Rocky was as young as 3 years of age, his father would make him and his brother Joe (who was three years older) fight almost every night in boxing gloves. All the washed-up boxers from around the neighborhood would go to the Barbellas' house to drink and watch the two brothers fight.


Nick Barbella had pursued a career as a boxer for a short while as a welterweight boxer in his youth under the name Fighting Nick Bob, but retired from the sport after about seventy bouts.

The fights usually ended badly for Rocco. As he would get hit more and more, he would become angrier and angrier. Usually he would fall asleep from getting punched or sheer tiredness. The only person in Rocco's life to feel any sort of sympathy for him was his mother. She believed Rocco was her lucky child, as he was born on the first day of the New Year.


Rocky was in trouble for much of his childhood and adolescence .


At age 8, Rocco went to live with his grandparents on Second Avenue near Houston Street. There he met his first friend, Sam Villa, nicknamed “Houdini” – The young Barbella began running with a juvenile gang that specialized in petty theft and street fighting with rival gangs. By his own estimate, he spent at least half of his time before his twenty-first birthday in reform schools or jail cells.

After three terms in reform schools as a teenager, Barbella started to find a more stable influence in his life when he began visiting Stillman's Gym around 1939. Although he had hated boxing under his father's direction, he now enjoyed the discipline and physical outlet of the sport. There he heard from a couple of his friends about a tournament going on with a gold medal for the winner. Rocky entered under the name of "Joe Giuliani". He fought four matches and ended up winning the New York Metropolitan Amateur Athletic Union Boxing competition (1939). He sold the gold medal for $15 and decided that boxing was a good way to make cash.

A couple of weeks into amateur fighting, he was picked up for stealing from a school. He went to Coxsackie Correctional Facility, where he spent three weeks, with boyhood friend Jake LaMotta, and then he went on to the New York City Reformatory where he spent five months.


altAfter Rocky got out of the Reformatory, he headed back to the gym to make money. There he met Eddie Cocco, who started his professional career. He entered the ring under the name of Robert Barber. A couple of weeks later, when he was making good money, he lent out a car to friends who robbed a couple of bookies and shot them in the chest. Rocky was charged with a probation violation and sent back to reform school. There, he was charged for starting a minor riot between the "East Side Gang" and the "Blacks". He was sent to Rikers Island.

When Rocky got out of jail, he was approached by the military and told that he had to join. Rocky went A.W.O.L in the military after punching a captain. He escaped from Fort Dix in New Jersey and started his real boxing career under the name of "Rocky Graziano". He won his first couple of bouts. After gaining popularity under the name of Graziano, he was found by the military. After Graziano's fourth bout, he was called in to manager's office to speak with a couple of military personnel. Expecting to be prosecuted and sent back to the military or jail, Graziano fled. He then returned to the military a week later. He turned himself in, but instead of being punished he was pardoned and given the opportunity to fight under the army's aegis.



Graziano immediately began compiling an impressive record in his professional career with a string of knockout wins against his opponents. Overall Graziano racked up sixty-seven wins—fifty-two by knockout—ten losses, and six draws over the next ten years. The high point of his career came in a three-match duel for the title of World Middleweight Champion with Tony Zale between 1946 and 1948. Zale, the son of Polish immigrants known as "The Man of Steel," had served in the military during World War II. In addition to his status as a war veteran, Zale was regarded as a much more skilled boxer than Graziano. The popular favorite going into their first match in Yankee Stadium on September 27, 1946, Zale knocked out Graziano to take the fight in the sixth round. Graziano immediately demanded a rematch, but the bout was delayed when the boxer had his license suspended by the New York State Boxing Commission for failing to report an attempted bribery to the board.

Undaunted by the bad publicity, Graziano capitalized on his underdog status to fuel his rage against Zale in their second match on July 16, 1947 in Chicago. This time Graziano knocked Zale out in the sixth round to take the title. He declared at the end of the bout, "Hey, Ma, your bad boy done it…. I told you somebody up there likes me."

The utterance later inspired the title of Graziano's colorful, if somewhat fictional, 1955 autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me. After publishing his autobiography in 1955, Graziano agreed to serve as a consultant for the film version of his life, which appeared on movie screens in 1956. He spent several weeks helping star Paul Newman learn his boxing technique, speech patterns, and physical movements in preparation for the film.

The third Graziano-Zale match took place on June 10, 1948 in Jersey City. In their final match, Zale took back the title after knocking out Graziano in the third round. After Zale retired, Graziano made one more attempt to regain the middleweight crown in an April 1952 bout against Ray Robinson, which he lost in a third-round knockout. Graziano's last professional fight occurred in September 1952.


Personal - He married Norma Unger on August 10, 1943; the couple subsequently had two daughters, Audrey and Roxie.





Retirement - In addition to his autobiography, Graziano's recurring role as comedienne Martha Raye's boyfriend on her self-titled television show kept him in the public eye throughout the 1950s. Graziano eventually turned into an all-around entertainer, appearing in television shows, movies, plays, and advertisements, almost always in a comic role that played up his Lower East Side persona and accent. Graziano published a second memoir, Somebody Down Here Likes Me Too, in 1981 and often campaigned for Republican Party candidates, including Ronald Reagan. In declining health throughout the 1980s, Graziano died from cardiopulmonary failure on May 22, 1990 in New York City. He is buried at Locust Valley Cemetery, New York, USA.





1955    Publishes autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me

1977    Induction into the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame

1991    Induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame

1981    Publishes Graziano, Rocky & Ralph Corsel. Somebody Down Here Like Me Too.




For many professional boxers, their post-athletic careers are filled with disappointment and frustration. Graziano was one of the few to become even more successful after his days in the ring ended. The grade-school dropout became a published author; the reform-school inmate befriended some of the most powerful Republican politicians in the country; the quintessential New Yorker became a beloved national celebrity. Although the tales he told about his life were somewhat fanciful, Graziano's candor and commonsense outlook earned him respect far beyond the boxing ring.