Graziano Dies; Won Title in ’47 : Boxing: Middleweight who never forgot his street-wise childhood became a celebrity <i> after </i> fighting for the last time.
Rocky Graziano, the middleweight boxing champion whose life was turned into a movie, died of cardiopulmonary failure Tuesday night at New York Hospital. He was 71.
Graziano, who entered the hospital April 8 after suffering a stroke, died at 7:24 p.m. EDT, according to Diana Goldin, public affairs director for the hospital.
Graziano, who was treated last year for physical and mental exhaustion, suffered a heart attack in February.
In his 11-year pro career, Graziano had a 67-16 record with 52 knockouts. He is best remembered for three fights with Tony Zale; it was the second one that gave Graziano his only title.
In retirement, Graziano became as popular as he had been as a fighter. His life story, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” was a best-selling book that was made into a movie starring Paul Newman, and he was frequently seen on television as a sidekick to comedienne Martha Raye.
He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1971.
Graziano turned pro in 1942 and by 1946 he was a contender. On Sept. 16, 1946, in Yankee Stadium, he fought Zale for the middleweight title. Graziano was knocked down in the first round and was knocked out in the sixth. He recalled the knockout punch.
“It was a big left hook and I see it coming, but I can’t stop it,” he said. It was like the ground exploded up and hit me in the stomach. The lights spin in a circle, then dim down to a tiny little spot. I try to yell, but I can’t make a sound. I am deaf and I can’t talk and I can’t lift my arms and I am falling. For the first time in my life, I know what it’s like to be KO’d.”
Graziano and Zale had a rematch July 16, 1947, this time in Chicago. Graziano knocked Zale out in the sixth round.
Graziano held the title for 11 months, but Zale took it back June 10, 1948, with a third-round knockout.
Graziano got one more chance at the championship, but was knocked out in the third round by Sugar Ray Robinson April 16, 1952. He would fight only once more, losing a 10-round decision to Chuck Davey before announcing his retirement.
Twenty-five years after his last fight, Graziano laughed about his post-boxing popularity.
“This author stuff, TV and the movies--it’s a piece of cake, better than ripping off stores,” he said. “Pays better, too.”
Graziano was born Thomas Rocco Barbella on New York’s lower East Side. The son of a former boxer who used the name “Fighting Nick Bob,” Graziano grew up as a street brawler who learned to steal before he learned to read. He said later that he had been “the world’s champion punk.”
At 12, he was arrested for the first time, caught breaking into a subway gum machine. While on probation, he stole a bicycle and was sent to reform school for the first of three times.
In 1939 a friend, Jack Healy, took him to New York’s Stillman’s Gym to see if he could put his street fighting instincts to use in the ring. When a seasoned pro named Antonio Fernandez beat up the callow 17-year-old, he swore he never would box again. Two months later, however, he was back in the ring, this time fighting under the name of his sister’s boyfriend, Rocky Graziano. He won the the Metropolitan AAU welterweight championship.
“The AAU gave me a medal which I hocked for $15,” Graziano recalled. “Maybe this is not so bad a racket after all, I think. I will give this a shake.”