1940s: Rocky Meets His Master
Note: This unedited article was lifted from the December 1946 issue of THE RING Magazine for our special 90th Anniversary issue (February 2012).
With Victory in Hand, Graziano Is Dropped for Count by Tony Zale in Thrilling, Vicious Bout for World Middleweight TitleÔÇöRight Under Heart Followed by Left to Jaw, Ends Contest at Yankee Stadium
IN AS SAVAGE a brawl as has been seen in a championship fight in many years, an affair that was a throwback to the bare-knuckle era of slashing, brutal slugging, Tony Zale proved his right to occupy the throne on which sat such immortals as Mysterious Billy Smith, Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb and Bob Fitzsimmons, by scoring a sixth round knockout over Rocky Graziano in the Yankee Stadium. 39,827 persons had flocked to the home of the Yankees in anticipation of seeing a slugging match, but little did they expect that they would see two bulldogs tear into each other as they were unleashed at the clang of the opening gong and gave an exhibition of socking the likes of which have not been surpassed in any battle in many years.
The underdog, Tony Zale, came through and by his victory, he provided his right to a place among the high ranking middleweight kings of all time. The spectators who had paid a gross of $324,497 to see the shindig, left the stadium singing the praises of victor and vanquished with the remarkable performance of Zale receiving the greater attention. Tony, on the brink of defeat on several occasions, battered in the fifth round so badly he could scarcely get to his corner, his rubbery legs barely able to keep the champ in an erect position, demonstrated that with a fighting heart and the spirit to carry on even under the most adverse conditions, there is always a chance to turn defeat into victory.
Most of the spectators didn’t concede Tony that chance after the terrific beating he got in the fifth round. It didn’t seem possible that he could go any further. But the champ apparently thought otherwise. In a pre-fight interview he declared that he expected to stop the challenger in the sixth session and his prediction came true despite the fact that he had broken a bone in his thumb as early as the second round.
Tony also bled badly from the mouth and nose, the result of a merciless barrage from Graziano’s hammerlike fists.
A RIGHT under the heart did the trick, though a left to the side of the cheek near the temple was the finishing blow. Many of the scribes viewed the most devastating punch of the fight, the one that preceded, the kayo wallop, as a right to the solar plexus but they erred in their description. The punch that knocked out Jim Corbett and made famous the Fitzsimmons solar plexus blow, was a left to the body and there was no similarity between that and the one that put Rocky Graziano out of commission.
Until Zale connected with the haymaker that took all the wind out if his cocky and over-confident challenger, Rocky looked like a sure winner, but one minute and 43 seconds after the heart punch had done its damage, the Gary, Indiana, titleholder was the victor by a kayo, and still the world middleweight king! He had accomplished what seemed only a few minutes previously, as the impossible!
Only 60 seconds before he was sent out for the sixth round, his handlers had worked over him frantically in an effort to prepare him for the coming frame. They doused his head with cold water, applied ice to his neck, massaged his legs and slapped his face to make certain he knew what was going on.
They realized what that gathering of 39,827 persons was thinking. “It’s the last round for the champ,” was the thought running through the minds of those fans, but that was not apparently the opinion of his chief seconds, Sam Pian, Art Winch and Ray Arcel.
They knew their man! They had been with him through fights where Tony had been dropped one or more times to come back for a kayo triumph and as the bell sounded for the sixth session, almost in unison the trio shouted “This is it, Tony, go get it!”
And get it he did! Like a shot from a gun, came that right of Zale’s as Graziano came sailing into him to deliver a right for the head that missed. That clout followed by the left to the cheek, close to the temple, dropped Rocky to his knees.
He looked bewildered. “What was going on,” he seemed to ask, as he turned about and scanned the ringside.
THE lethal wallop numbed the challenger. He tried to get to his feet but somehow he couldn’t raise himself though he had grasped the lower ropes. He was on the canvas in a sitting posture near Tony’s corner and looked at Referee Ruby Goldstein with dazed eyes.
The count proceeded above him in unison with Johnny Burns, the knockdown timer, and the referee tolling off the fateful seconds. Rocky, who first had grabbed the lower strand, succeeded in grasping the upper one as the count proceeded and he seemed perfectly aware of what was going on. He had not lost consciousness. The kayo smashes had merely numbed his body to such an extent that, try as he did, he couldn’t gather sufficient strength to raise himself to an erect position.
At nine, Rocky was alert. It then seemed that he would beat the count of the doleful decimal. He was rising and with one great effort, he leaped to his feet but not until after Ruby Goldstein had waved his arms, signifying that he had completed that ten count and the fight was over.
For a moment, Rocky didn’t think so. He rushed at his adversary to resume the battle but the alert Goldstein, one of our best officials, leaped forth as he had done on similar occasion when Rocky knocked out Harold Green, and pinning the arms of Graziano to his sides, Ruby held Rocky until the challenger’s seconds took command.
It was all over! The champion, badly whipped in three of the five previous rounds, the recipient of a terrific shellacking, had come through with bells on! He had accomplished the unexpected! He had shattered the hopes of the challenger to gain a spot in the fistic firmament as another Stanley Ketchel!
If ever a fighter deserved that honor, Zale was the man. He showed in those six rounds of the most vicious fighting seen in New York in years, that he possessed all the attributes of a truly great ring gladiator. Like Ketchel, he had the fighting heart, the punch, the ability to take it and dish it out and the fighting spirit that only the iron-hearted ringmen display.
GOLDSTEIN had counted Rocky out but there were many, including ringside scribblers, who thought that the New Yorker had received a fast count. Such, however, was not the case. As usual, I had two watches on the fight and my timepieces showed ten and three-tenth seconds. Rocky had lost out by a fraction of a second. The count had been clearly tolled.
When he finally realized that his attempt to win the world crown had failed, with a sheepish grin, Rocky, in full possession of his faculties, left the ring amidst wild cheers that rent the air for the hero of the evenings, the defending titleholder: Zale, bleeding from the mouth, his thumb fractured, the claret flowing from his nose and cuts on several parts of his face, sat in his chair while his handlers patted and congratulated him.
The fighting champion who had refused to crumple before the onslaught of this devastating hitter, had lived up to the tradition of his division, one of the greatest in pugilism. He had come back from the brink of defeat to win a glorious victory.
The power of his punch was exhibited early in the first round when he dropped Graziano with a right uppercut and a left hook to the jaw for a count of four. That near kayo punch seemed to act as a stimulator for the challenger. Rocky tore into his rival with a vengeance and made a furious bid for the crown.
That he failed to annex the title was due to the fact that in Tony he met a scrapper who was not afraid of him and who was his superior in ring generalship, a more seasoned and better fighter and a sturdier opponent under heavier punishment.
In Graziano, Zale found a crude, savage, primitive fighting man, whose sole asset is a powerful punch. When stung, Rocky sailed in and tossed blows from all angles. He fought back with the fury of a demon, lashing out with paralyzing fists, yet the fighting spirit carried Zale to the top in 1941, remained with him throughout the devastating assault of his challenger, and in the end enabled him to retain his crown.
IN the second round, Graziano turned the tables on the champion and retaliated for the knockdown Rocky had suffered in the first session by landing the champ on the canvas only a few seconds before the session had come to an end. The bell, sounding at the count of three, undoubtedly saved Zale from a knockout. He could scarcely get to his feet when aided by his seconds, yet he showed amazing recuperative powers when he came out for the third round and stood up under withering punishment.
The 32-year-old former gob, absent from the ring for four years because of the war, and in the first defense of his crown since 1941, gained the sympathy of the Stadium throng as blow after blow carrying T.N.T., landed on his body and face. Any other boxer lacking the fighting heart of the champion, would have wilted under the fire, but not Zale.
He even carried the fighting to his powerful rival to carry off the fourth round though battling with a broken thumb. Rocky, at 154 pounds, to 160 for the champion, who just made the limit weight of his division, came out for the fifth round puzzled by the brave stand of his opponent. He tore loose with everything he had and how Zale stood up under that bombardment, will never be known. Tony was battered so terrifically that I remarked to Dan Parker, sitting at my side, “Too bad, it’ll all be over next round. Zale can’t stand that punishment much longer.”
But he did and he went on to turn the tables in the greatest middleweight scrap seen in years.