Tony Zale: The Man of Steel

10.11.05 - By Craig Parrish: It seems like there are certain names that come up again and again when people discuss the “Golden Age” of Boxing. Louis. Marciano. Johnson. Dempsey. Graziano. But there were so many great fighters during that era, it seems many of them are forgotten, perhaps because they weren’t as charismatic as other fighters, or maybe just didn’t get the breaks. Fighters that had stellar careers, but just never seemed to become household names like the aforementioned greats.

Tony Zale is one of those fighters. Fans seem to recall his greatest rival, Rocky Graziano, more readily than Tony, even though Zale won 2 of their 3 fights. He was a 2-time World Middleweight Champ and had an impressive career record of 67-18-2 with 45 Ko’s (they FOUGHT in those days) and was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.

He was born Anthony Florian Zaleski in Gary, Indiana on May 29th, 1913 and worked at the steel mills there through his amateur career. His nickname, “The Man of Steel” was born from these roots, although it was also fitting as Zale seemed immune to pain. He turned Pro in 1934 and rose steadily through the rankings. A ferocious body puncher, Zale would steadily wear down opponents with body shots then set them up for a big KO.

Zale got his first shot at a title in 1940. Earlier that year, he had fought the NBA Champ Al Hostak in a non-title fight, winning the decision. The rematch was set, this time for the belt, and Zale knocked out Hostak in the 13th round. He continued to fight for the next two years, with title and non-title fights, and then in 1942 Zale joined the Navy to fight in World War II.

When the war ended, Zale was still considered the Champ. Now, at 33 years old, he began his series of three fights with Graziano, which took place over 21 months. Graziano was only 24 years old and coming off a series of knockouts. The first fight took place at Yankee Stadium and Graziano, true to form, came out swinging. Both fighters went down in the first two rounds, and Rocky seemed to control the fight from that point on. But “The Man of Steel” somehow rallied, and KO’s the challenger in the 6th round for a stunning comeback. Zale was still the man.

The second fight took place a year later in Chicago. The fight had to be staged there as Graziano was in trouble for not reporting an attempted bribe. This fight was practically a mirror image of the first, with each fighter dishing out and receiving shot after shot. However, it was Zale, not Graziano, who went down in the 6th this time around. Rocky had won the Middleweight crown.

The third and final match took place later in 1947 in New Jersey. This time, Tony knocked out Graziano in the 3rd round with a vicious shot to the liver, followed by a hook to the chin that floored Rocky. Tony Zale had regained the crown, and ended the series with Marciano. Zale only defended the title once more, losing by an 11th round KO to Marcel Cerdan. Tony called it a career and retired.

Even though they had vicious ring wars, Zale and Graziano became good friends. Graziano was quoted once as saying, “there’s only one way you can lick Zale—you gotta kill him”. Each time Zale fought Graziano, it was voted as Ring Magazine’s “Fight of the Year”. Even in his swan song against Cerdan, Zale gave it his all and that match was also voted “Fight of the Year”. Tony Zale was a devastating puncher with a granite chin who always gave as good as he got. A Fighter who might not have had the best tools, but made up for it with heart. He passed away on March 20, 1997.

Article posted on 11.11.2005

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