One of the most popular fighters of any era—a controversial, colorful, and adored champion until the day he died.
Born Thomas Rocco Barbella on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1922, Rocky Graziano rose above the mean streets of his youth to become one of boxing’s legends. This colorful and controversial boxer was celebrated both in the record books and in a movie on his life starring Paul Newman (the entertaining Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956).
A crude puncher and true street fighter, Graziano mauled his opponents with a tireless attack and potent right hand. His ability to take a punch was legendary; opponents ultimately withered as they tried to stop a man who appeared made of rock.
Graziano fought between the welterweight and middleweight divisions, but made his mark in 1945 when he knocked out welterweight contenders Billy Arnold, who was 31-1 before Graziano kayoed him, and Al “Bummy” Davis.
Graziano’s three-fight series with middleweight champ Tony Zale defines his career. The three contests lasted a combined 15 rounds and saw seven knockdowns.
In the first fight, at Yankee Stadium in 1946, Zale seemed on the verge of collapse under Graziano’s pounding, but he suddenly scored a sixth-round knockout to hold onto the title.
The rematch was in Chicago a year later because Graziano had his license suspended in New York for failing to report a bribe. Bleeding badly, Graziano knocked out Zale in six to win the title.
Illinois then passed a law barring anyone with a dishonorable discharge from boxing. The third Graziano-Zale fight was held in Newark on June 10, 1948, and Zale regained the title with a third-round knockout.
Graziano was unbeaten in his next 21 fights, and was given a shot at Ray Robinson for his old title in April 1952. He dropped Robinson in the third with a right, thrown like a stone out of a sling. Robinson got up and knocked him out.
Graziano retired in September 1952 after a $50,000 payday against Chuck Davey. In his retirement, he began acting in commercials and movies.
In 83 professional fights, Graziano had 67 victories, 52 by knockout. He lost 10, three by knockout, and fought to six draws.
He died on May 22, 1990. Graziano is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was elected into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1977.