Zale Was One Fighter Who Knew How to Please

They used to say of Tony Zale, the fighter, that you could knock him down. But if he got up, you’d had it.

Tony Zale always got up.

If you saw the “Rocky” movies, you remember the fight scenes? Bloody, brutal, about as scientific as a cave drawing, they took you back to the dawn of history, or a 4 a.m. saloon fight.

Who or what would you say were the models for these fights? Dempsey-Firpo? Any Marciano fight? Custer’s Last Stand?


The likelihood is very real Sylvester Stallone studied instead the three Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano fights of the mid-1940s.

When a fighter throws away every stylish move he has ever learned, when he moves into the attack as unscientifically as a bull at a red barn or park mugger, he is said to be a “crowd pleaser.”

Tony Zale had style and grace and speed. He could have had the nickname “Sugar.” But he would throw it all away at the drop of a knee. If the other guy wanted to brawl, Tony would accommodate him. As a boxer, he was only a shade below contemporaries such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep. He probably could have won 99% of his bouts on points without getting his hair mussed.

But Tony liked to fight. His last three years in the ring, after he returned from the war, every one of his fights ended in a knockout. Twice, it was his. Eighteen times, it was the other guy’s.


His fights with Rocky Graziano were such suspenseful, brutal encounters, they looked as if they had been filmed on a sound stage with two stuntmen and a bucket of ketchup or were KGB “interrogations.” Blood flowed, noses broke, eyes blackened, ribs cracked.

By common consent, the third Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier bout is held to be history’s worst in terms of what it did to the contestants. If so, the Zale-Graziano blood baths have to rank second, third and fourth. Neither fighter was able to communicate in much above a whisper for long whiles after the fights.

The three fights lasted a total of 15 rounds but they probably set a record for scar tissue per round fought. Ringsiders long since lost count of the number of knockdowns. The knockdown timekeeper was busier than the principals. Tony Zale cut just easier than hot butter. They used to call him the “Man Of Steel,” only in part because he came from the steel mills of Gary, Ind., but he was also kind of silver-gray in color. He looked like a piece of stainless steel in trunks. His skin was as thin as it was white.

The first fight, which Zale won easily by a sixth-round knockout, it didn’t look like it. Graziano opened cuts and produced lumps with his style of fighting, which was modeled after a leopard pouncing on a zebra. “I wouldn’t say he was dirty,” grins Tony Zale at the recollection today. “Just opportunistic. Rocky did what it takes to win.”


What it took to win was just short of Murder One. The second fight was held in Chicago on a July night in 1947 when the temperature inside Chicago Stadium was 110 degrees. Zale got caught in the ropes and was, effectively, tied to the stake, but the referee stood calmly by while Graziano belabored his trussed-up opponent with sledgehammer rights. The minute Zale worked his way loose, Tony recalls, the referee stepped in and stopped the fight. Tony’s managers never complained. They explained later they had already signed a contract for a return match.

You can see boxing hasn’t changed much. Graziano, already in bad odor in New York and barred from fighting there for failure to report a bribe in another fight, took to the air to crow, “Hello, Ma! The bad boy done it!”

The third fight, in Newark, the bad boy got done. It was a walk in the park for Zale, who easily made Graziano look clumsy before knocking him out in three rounds. Rocky couldn’t have gotten up if he wanted to--which he didn’t much.

Tony Zale was a strange, improbable character even for the pugilism of that time. Even when he was champion, he never traveled with an entourage. He arrived alone, dumped a duffel bag on the floor and began to work out. “He brought a lunch and took the bus there,” his wife, Philomena, explains proudly. He went to Mass on Sunday and never broke a bar mirror or smoked a cigarette in his life. He never went to court or in front of a commission in his life.


He was one of seven Zale kids (the family name, Polish, was Zaleski) raised in the Depression in Gary, where he boxed on street corners for nickels before entering the ring. His father died when he was 2, and his mother raised the family, taking in washing and ironing. He got $30 for his first professional fight, but even though it put food on the table, “My mother didn’t want me in the ring,” Tony recalls.

When he wore white trunks, he was almost invisible. Even his eyes were such a light gray, they were almost white. “It’s like fighting a ghost,” one reporter wrote.

He was so conscientious, his career almost foundered on conditioning. “I thought the harder I worked, the better conditioned I’d be,” he says. His early career was instead hampered “by my fight in the gym,” he grins.

Which was ironic because Tony Zale probably owes his career to the fact he was a bad gym fighter. The champion, Al Hostak, was passing through Chicago in 1940 looking for a tuneup bout. His managers scouted Zale in the gym. Tony, at the time, was busy getting outpointed by the heavy bag. Hostak thought he looked like a safe warm-up.


He was anything but. Zale gave him a boxing lesson in the first (non-title) fight, then went to Hostak’s hometown, Seattle, and knocked him out in 13 to win the title. He later KO’d Hostak in two in Chicago.

The old champ was through here the other day on a visit to his old friend, and an old-time fighter himself, Georgie Levine. The man of steel has become a man of aches. At 78, the legs are more or less constant pain, the hearing is all but gone, the speech thick. His history is that of all ex-champions of the war years--restaurant host, boxing coach at the CYO in Chicago, fitness supervisor. His old business, boxing, is in decline, which distresses him. “We had thousands of fighters in our day,” he says regretfully. “You had to be good and work hard to stay good. It was an honorable profession.”

The way Tony Zale practiced it, it was. The old champ is still getting up. And carrying the fight to life.