How Rocky Graziano Became Boxing's Greatest Muse

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In the late 1940s, a young Nebraskan actor named Marlon Brando had been starring for several months in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway when he was contracted to play a fighter in a TV pilot, Come Out Fighting! For the role, Brando decided to secretly study the famous New York tough guy with the hoodlum backstory, middleweight Rocky Graziano, and began training and hanging around Stillman’s on Eighth Avenue, where Graziano’s workouts regularly packed the house.

As he worked out, Rocky began to notice the young blonde kid watching him day after day. From his memoir:

This kid took to hanging around me in Stillman’s gym, training along beside me, shooting the breeze. He looked like he might have been a fair fighter once, but he was in bad condition for the ring now and his punch looked slow. I felt sorry for the kid. He rode around town on a secondhand motorcycle, wearing patched-up blue jeans. Whenever we went downstairs for a cup of coffee or anything, I always paid for it.

After about a month of training, Brando asked Rocky to take a lunchtime walk one day downtown to 46th Street, where he pointed out a name on a theater marquee.

“‘Rocky,’ he says, ‘that’s me. That’s where I work. I want you and your wife to come see me.’” Then he thanked him, which Graziano found odd until a few months later when, “I am watching the television, and they introduce this show about fighting and his name is on the screen, and then he comes on and it’s me! The son of a bitch is talking like me and walking like me and punching like me! How you like that? I got conned into learning this bum his part by a motorcycle and a pair of blue jeans.”

The pilot, Come Out Fighting!, was not picked up by the network, but this would not be the last impersonation of the charismatic Rocky.

Graziano had no trouble explaining his tremendous popularity with the public: “All this happens to me because I got a hard, fast right punch, because I’m a mean, wild bastard in the ring and a guy who likes everybody outside the ring.” To the sportswriters of the 1940s, he was a gift: the most exciting middleweight since Stanley Ketchel, a former New York street hoodlum whose vivid life and brawling style could fill any editorial space as easily as his wars with Tony Zale packed ballparks. Looking back decades later on Graziano’s violent rise to the title, the sportswriter W.C. Heinz called it “An event that involved me as did none other among the hundreds I covered in sports.”

Before Down These Mean Streets or Manchild in the Promised Land—and long before his boyhood friend Jake La Motta’s Raging Bull—came perhaps the greatest of the New York street gang memoirs. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1955) is Graziano’s cornily-titled but harrowing survival story, tracing his journey from the East Side slums to the middleweight title by way of numerous protectories, reform schools and prisons. Written with Rowland Barber, the book is fantastically observed, by turns violent, funny and filled with rage, like the Rock himself, and competed for that year’s Pulitzer Prize.

Rock strikes a pose. Photo via Getty

“I was always part good, part bad,” wrote Rocky, “until I grew up and smashed the devil out of me.”

No one else could beat the devil out of him: not the truant officers who stalked him or the cops who regularly smacked him around the East Side neighborhood; not his hard-drinking father, a disappointed former boxer who amused himself by matching Rocky in fights against his large older brother; not the kids from rival blocks he fought in the street or the guards who clubbed him and stuck him in solitary. Born Thomas Rocco Barbella in New York City in 1919, Rocky was not a fan of authority from early on. “I quit school in the sixth grade because of pneumonia,” he often joked. “Not because I had it, but because I couldn’t spell it.” Two twin siblings died of it, though, and the family’s poverty asked a lot of his mentally fragile mother, “If my mother had been around all the time, and kept her health, I might have been a better kid.”

Rocky Bob, as he was then known, was unloaded on his grandparents, moving from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side. There he found more than enough to eat, which was a novelty, as well as his own room. But in the streets below their tenement windows he and his 10th Street mob lived a different life, making easy thefts from pushcarts and mom-and-pop stores, social clubs and subway vending machines. “We stole everything that began with an ‘a’ ,” he remembered. “[A] piece of fruit, a bicycle, a watch, anything that was not nailed down.” Often they escaped to the rooftops to split the loot.

After hearing that Peter Stuyvesant had been buried with his silver peg leg and gold watch, young Rocky and a friend bought shovels and spent most of a night digging up Peter’s churchyard plot until a nightwatchman spoiled their treasure hunt. Even when he wasn’t in trouble, Rocky was often in danger—twice hit by cars while playing in the street; once, when his running rooftop leap fell short; Rocky only survived by hitting a series of clotheslines on his way down. He became a veteran of children’s court, protectories, the Tombs, Raymond Street Jail, Rikers Island, and Coxsackie reform school, where he was reunited with his friend Jake La Motta, who used to come down from the Bronx to go on thieving adventures with Rocky on the Lower East Side. At Coxsackie, La Motta supplied him with comic books for his stretches in the hole. “It was a long time,” Rocky explained later, “… before I learned that boxing was the only way to burn up all this energy that used to steam around inside of me.” Baited by friends into entering a boxing tournament, he became city welterweight amateur champion, then hocked his medal.

At 20, his parole case came before Lou Gehrig himself, who, struck by his tragic illness, had been given a job on the parole board by the mayor. From the bench, Gehrig asked Rocky what was his favorite sport, listened to his answer about the merits of baseball, then sent him back to reform school. It was the unkindest cut of all for Rocky, who claimed he said, “Go to Hell, Mr. Gehrig” to the dying Yankee great. Only two months after his next release from reform school the Army took Rocky, in January 1942. It was not a perfect match, like a prison full of “legitimate guys” who didn’t want to have fun. Rocky went AWOL several times, served some months in the hard Governors Island brig and at Leavenworth, and during one of his escapes began boxing for money under the assumed name of a guy from the old neighborhood, Thomas Graziano, who was safely “out of commission.”

Between 1942 and 1944 he went 35 and 6 (with five draws) and by 1945 was a crowd favorite, a volatile boxer with a right hand powerful enough to compensate for his lack of polish. His knockout win over welterweight champion Freddie Cochrane (in a non-title bout) was Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year for 1945; he fought him again two months later with the same result. He beat Al “Bummy” Davis and then retired Marty Servo, leaving Rocky as the top challenger to Tony Zale, returning from the war to defend his frozen middleweight championship. Their great rivalry would now begin.

Excited to cover the big bout in 1946, New York Sun columnist W.C. Heinz got his own break when the great Damon Runyon, though mute with throat cancer, recommended him on a cocktail napkin to the editor of Cosmopolitan for an assignment. Having mastered the format of the 750-word sports column, Heinz knew Zale and Graziano were fighters whose styles would “mesh like gears.” Rocky could carry the kind of epic story he had in mind, “Day of the Fight,” which eventually ran to 6,000 words, reporting the Rock’s words and movements for an entire anxious day, from opening his eyes in the hotel room that morning to having them closed by Zale under the lights at Yankee Stadium that night in the sixth round of “one of the most brutal fights ever seen in New York.” With “Day of the Fight,” Heinz discovered the kind of long, beautifully observed profile he would do the rest of his career.

Tony Zale celebrates his victory over Graziano. Photo via AP

After the excitement caused by their vicious first bout, Graziano and Zale agreed to meet again for the title on July 16, 1947. Rocky had meanwhile lost his boxing license in New York for failing to report bribe offers allegedly made at Stillman’s over a fight that ultimately did not come off. The National Boxing Association did not at first honor New York’s decision, and so the rematch was made for Chicago. It was as savage as its predecessor and would be Fight of the Year for 1947.

A generation of moviegoers who never saw Rocky in action would nevertheless recognize one dramatic moment from the rematch. Between the 4th and 5th rounds, with Graziano bleeding above his left eye and with his right one swollen closed, his trainer opened the eye with the edge of a quarter he retrieved from his pocket. (This scene was copied by Sylvester Stallone for Rocky, whose hero’s name, Rocky Balboa, also echoes Graziano’s original Rocco Barbella.) Cutting the eye lowered the swelling enough that Rocky could drop Zale in the sixth round and then pound him out against the ropes with 30 unanswered punches. Then, standing in the bright, hot ring and looking more like the fight’s pulpy-faced loser than the new middleweight champion of the world, Graziano was offered a radio mike into which he made the triumphant boast that came to define him: “Hey Ma—Your bad boy done it. I told you somebody up there likes me.” Somebody had taken a long time to show it.

Rocky would be champion for less than a year. A third fight with Zale was granted for Newark in 1948, which Rocky lost in three. “What I didn’t realize was that with that left hook in the third round, the last of Rocco Barbella had been knocked out of me,” he remembered. “The wild kid was gone forever, the streetfighter and the troublemaker.” He fought four more years, dropping Ray Robinson in his final title shot, before Robinson put him away. He was no longer champion, but he was kind of iconic: He had an authentic presence. There were lots of guys now who, as Rocky said, “got kicks out a the way I used to talk.”

The writer Gerald Early first pointed out (in an essay called “The Romance of Toughness”) the fact that Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman all studied the Rock for acting roles. After Brando came Dean, hired to play Rocky for Robert Wise’s film of Somebody Up There Likes Me. Dean had just begun researching the character when he died in a crash of his Porsche convertible in California in Sept. 1955. Newman (who first replaced Dean as a boxer in a TV adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Battler”) was then cast in the part that made his career.

Apprenticing under Rocky, Newman learned his hunched forward, shoulder-rolling gait, his sideways talk and hoodlum accent, how to sit a porkpie hat just right and turn on a dime from street banter to violence. Rocky had a presence that actors envied and he later showed a knack for comedy. “Rocky got a lot of laughs on account of the strictly New York City accent he had, like me,” Jake LaMotta remembered. But according to Paul Newman, when he brought his tough guy mentor to a class at the Actors’ Studio, and asked if Graziano, who was done with fighting, might like to take acting lessons, Rocky turned him down. “What for?” he answered, listening to all the New Yorkese being rehearsed around the room, “They’re all trying to talk like me.”

Indeed they were. There is a direct line in method acting from Rocky through Brando, Dean, and Newman to De Niro, and, though his own acting largely consisted of Raisin Bran commercials and variety shows, it is pretty easy to imagine Graziano in a movie turning from the bar and authentically growling, “You talkin’ to ME?”

The 1956 film of Graziano’s life received excellent reviews, as did its star Paul Newman. Rocky, of course, loved the movie, which opens with his on-screen testimonial: “This is the way I remember it…definitely.” Only one writer who’d known the real Rocky early on, W.C. Heinz, felt that something of his wise-guy charm was missing from the performance. Newman had “caught the sullen moods,” he wrote, “but not the exuberance that made the fighter exciting just walking down the street.” You can’t learn that exactly, but many have tried.

Top photo via AP

Nathan Ward is the Brooklyn-based author of The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett (Bloomsbury, 2015) which was excerpted in Deadspin in September.

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