Rocky Graziano & Tony Zale: The Rock v The Man of Steel
By Simon Graham
Throughout the decades of boxing there have been some great rivalries, two fighters that just can’t seem to separate themselves from each other, like some sort of bond they lock horns and battle for supremacy these sometimes-bitter rivalries bring out the best in both combatants. Their fights live long in the memory and become legendary.
Bowe vs Holyfield, Frazier vs Ali and Lamotta vs Robinson stand out as some of the best epic battles in boxing history with the fighters fighting each other on numerous occasions.
One rivalry in particular stands out for me above all others, during an era when sheer brutality, heart and the determination to win meant everything. Two men came together they took part in a trilogy of fights during a period of less than two years that boxing historians still talk about to this day.
Rocky Graziano was a rough and ready street fighting kid from Brooklyn New York he spent much of his early life in and out of reform school, but soon realised that his fighting skills could earn him a few dollars however the thought of hard training put him off the allure of the pro ranks, after joining the army he soon went AWOL after hitting his Captain, out of the Army Graziano turned pro but was eventually caught by the Army authorities they gave him a pardon with no further action, allowing him to continue boxing, my guess is they were glad to see the back of him.
Graziano “The Rock” adopted a mid-crouch style of boxing and quickly gained the reputation of a one punch knockout artist, he became known for his ability to take copious amounts of punishment before unleashing a one punch knock out hammer blow that would end fights instantly his record of 52 wins by way of knockout cemented his legacy in the boxing hall of fame as one of the hardest punchers in boxing.
Tony Zale would become Graziano’s dancing partner in the ring, born and raised in Gary Indiana he came from a hard-working class family, a very shy an unassuming man Zale used boxing as a way of controlling the guilt he felt over a family tragedy, after leaving the Navy Zale amassed a total of 87 pro fights winning 67, 52 of them coming via a knockout earning him the name “Man of Steel.”
Zale had a more polished style of fighting utilising a great jab with tremendous power shots to his opponents’ body, his work ethic was such that he wore fighters down before eventually knocking them out on most occasions.
They say styles make fights, as polar opposites Zale and Graziano would fight each other three times, each fight just as spiteful and brutal as the first, so much so that Ring Magazine named two of their 3 fights “Fight of the Year”.
The Strange thing about Zale v Graziano 1 and 2, is that both fights were mirror images of each other, during fight one September 27, 1946. after flooring Graziano in the first round, Zale then picked himself up during the second round where for the next 3 rounds was pummelled by Graziano taking a savage beating yet managed to rally himself in round 6 knocking out Graziano and retaining the middleweight title
Fight 2 July 16, 1947, saw the exact opposite, Graziano was knocked down early in the 3rd round and for the next 3 rounds was battered so much that one eye was closed and the other severely cut bleeding so much that he couldn’t see yet somehow managed to battle through and knock out Zale in …. Yep the 6th round.
June 10, 1948 was their final and most memorable meeting, with the middleweight title once again at stake both men entered the ring ready for the battle ahead. As the bell sounded Graziano in his usual half crouch style began to throw long-range swinging hooks to which the more upright orthodox style of Zale easily moved out of range from, as the round progressed Graziano would continually launch himself at Zale with hopeful swings, only to be met with a hard barrage of Zale counter punches.
Midway through round one Zale dropped Graziano with a perfectly time left hook lead, Clearly dazed the arrogant champion Graziano continued swinging widely at Zale, who patiently slipped and moved countering with ease before unleashing another pinpoint left hook to the jaw of Graziano who barely managed to stay on his feet as the bell sounded to end the first round.
Round 2 saw a much more composed Graziano coming forward picking Zale off with stinging jabs and combinations, clearly winning the round and gaining the upper hand.
As round 3 started Graziano picked up where he left off in round 2, outboxing his fearsome foe, from out of nowhere Zale rallied dropping a leaping left hook lead flush on the Rocks jaw sending him dazed in to the corner, gamely he tried to trade back with Zale. But the sheer ferocity of punches from Zale almost sent him to the canvas if not for the middle rope keeping Graziano up, countless Zale body punches followed by left hooks seemingly had Graziano beat but somehow as only Graziano did he stayed on his feet taking some savage blows.
However, a devastating left hook dropped Graziano face first into the canvas astonishingly by grabbing the bottom rope Graziano hauled himself to his feet beating the referees count, by today’s modern refereeing standards the bout would have been stopped 30 seconds in to the start of the round 3 such was the brute force of Zale’s power punches knocking Graziano senseless, but continue the fight they did.
Sensing the end was near (and me screaming at the computer screen for the referee to stop the fight) Zale moved in for the kill a sickening right-handed body shot which had Graziano almost double over followed by a vicious left hook rendered Graziano unconscious before he hit the floor.
In the most brutal, yet the most famous of the 3 fights, Zale had regained the world middleweight title, thus ending their epic ring romance, in later years the pair would become lifelong friends.