There have as we know been some incredibly fierce, and genuine, boxing rivalries over the decades: with legends like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier pushing themselves to the brink in order that they might prove their superiority over the other. With Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran also giving us three intense fights. Or maybe the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield rivalry gets your pick when it comes to the best trilogy ever seen.
For many old timers, however, the three middleweight wars – and they could only be described as such, they were not boxing matches – between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano will never be beaten for sheer violence and ferocity. These two men, who fought each other shortly after the end of World War II, did not like each other. At all.
Zale, born Anthony Zaleski, had won the world title (NBA) for the first time back in 1940, with a thirteenth round TKO over the great Al Hostak. Zale actually defeated Hostak three times, twice inside the distance, proving his genuine world class. Still, his rise to the top hadn’t been anywhere near easy. Thirteen times in his first four years as a pro, Zale met defeat, usually on points. He was, however, knocked flat in a single, sensational round, by one Jimmy Clark, a young and super fast middleweight. Eventually though, after two revenge KO’s over Clark, the title was Zale’s. And after three successful defences, in matches that had been sandwiched in-between a number of non-title bouts, as was the trend back in those days, Zale met Graziano for the first of their three epic encounters.
By now, Zale was thirty-three years old, which was considered to be fairly well advanced for a middleweight boxer back then. “The Man of Steel” had also seen some of his best years wasted due to idleness forced upon him because of WWII. While in comparison, Graziano was only twenty-four years of age and had no such bouts of inactivity to his name. Despite his youthful advantage, however, it was the raw Graziano who was to lose two out of their three epic fights.
Graziano, like Zale, had come up the hard way in the fight game. Born in a tough area of New York, Thomas Rocco Barbella became known to the fistic press as Rocky Graziano. And after serving time in prison, the tough street fighter discovered legalized mayhem was to be his saviour. With his crude yet effective fighting skills polished as much as was possible, Graziano set about winning the world title. The path he traversed while on the way to his first shot at one was some hard road. Six points defeats, two of them to Harold Green in fights where both men tasted the canvas, along with a few draws, served to educate the young campaigner in the finer points of the sport. And despite the setbacks, Graziano continued to climb the middleweight ladder, closing in on the world title as he did so.
Two excellent wins over Freddie “Red” Cochrane, followed by a quick win over Marty Servo, finally earned Graziano a crack at world honours. The man who held the title was a warrior who would quickly become his number one rival in the sport. Graziano and Zale were about to meet for the first time.
Fight-one – September 27, 1946 – might have been the best of the three wars Zale and Graziano had. Both men were hit and hurt plenty, both men going down. It appeared as though the crown was Graziano’s, only for Zale to roar back, somehow, from a quite brutal hammering, and sensationally stop his challenger in the sixth-round of a classic.
The return – July 16, 1947 – was demanded and this time it was Graziano who took the worst of it only to manage to come back and get the stoppage win. Zale belted the challenger with everything he had, only for Graziano to pull off an even more astonishing comeback than the one Zale himself had done the previous year. Again the fight ended in round-six. Graziano was the new champ and the forthcoming film, ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me,’ was born.
The rubber-match – June 10, 1948 – though brutal, was too one-sided to rank alongside the other two rumbles. Zale was way too sharp for a slow and even easier to hit Graziano, KO’ing him in the third-round. The beautiful combination Zale unleashed to win back his title was something to behold.
Two tough, tough middleweights, their grudge settled, went on to live into old age. Zale passed away at age 83 in 1997, Graziano left us at a younger age of 71, in 1990.
Zale’s final record reads 67-18-2(45). Graziano’s final ledger reads 67-10-6(52).
Two great warriors who will forever be entwined.