The Rise of Rocky Graziano

By Jeffrey Sussman
The story behind Rocky Graziano’s right cross to Tony Janiro’s jaw from one of their bouts in the early 1950s highlighted the October 1964 issue of Boxing Illustrated/Wrestling News magazine.

By the late 1940s, Rocky Graziano and Frank Sinatra were the two most popular Italian-Americans in the United States. Looking at the early life of Graziano, originally named Thomas Rocco Barbella, very few people would have thought that he could have avoided a life of crime and intermittent incarcerations.

His father was an alcoholic and failed boxer; his mother was a schizophrenic who spent time in mental hospitals. The family was so poor that young Rocco, age 5, was sent to steal coal to heat his family’s small apartment. For nourishment, he was sent to dig for clams on the beach at Coney Island. His father, known as Fighting Nick Barbella, would get drunk and put boxing gloves on the tiny hands of Rocco and on the larger hands of Rocco’s older brother. Nick would command that the two boys box until one of them cried and gave up. Rocco never did.

Is it any wonder that young Rocco had a chip on his shoulder as big as a cinderblock? As a teenager, he formed a gang of like-minded delinquents. They started out by mugging their peers, stealing lunch money and sandwiches. Rocco became so much of a street kid that he quit school in the sixth grade. He rarely went home. He and his gang graduated to more and more valuable heists, stealing anything that could be sold for a few dollars. 

Eventually, the law caught up with Rocco and sent him to reform school, where he met a future middleweight champ, Jake LaMotta, the Raging Bull. The misnamed reform school taught its students the tricks and scams of racketeers. Upon release, the students were primed to enter the underworld of professional criminals.

When Rocco was drafted into the Army, his mother thought he would learn to honor those in authority. Instead, Rocco knocked out his commanding office and went AWOL. On the advice of his friend Terry Young, a promising journeyman boxer, Rocco signed on to become a professional boxer. To evade the attention of the military police, he changed his name to Rocky Graziano. The evasion worked only until Rocky was apprehended and sentenced to a year in Leavenworth, where he joined the prison boxing team, took instruction from a former boxer, and won all the bouts he was entered in.

Upon his release, he returned to New York and Stillman’s Gym. There he agreed to be managed by Irving Cohen, a man of great patience and understanding who was able to guide Rocky’s career up the jagged pyramid of boxing. Rocky had found the ideal father figure in Cohen, and the two men formed a relationship that would endure well beyond the end of Rocky’s boxing career. Unlike many managers, who are in the game for a quick buck, Cohen made sure that Rocky received all the money he earned and would advise him how to invest it so that he would have a capital cushion for his retirement.

Along the way, Rocky met Norma Unger, a well-educated Jewish woman with beautiful dark eyes. That she and Rocky fell in love and married is a testament to the notion that opposites attract: Not only were their backgrounds different (she was the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants, he the son of second-generation Italian-Americans), but so were their religions, educations, and ambitions. She hated boxing and never attended one of his bouts, but she supported his career and was always there to embrace him and nurse him after a bout.

In one of the bloodiest trilogies in boxing history, Rocky beat Tony Zale (a.k.a. the Man of Steel) for the middleweight championship. He received a parade from Grand Central Terminal to his old neighborhood on 10th Street and First Avenue. He even received a congratulatory telegram from President Truman.

Following his retirement from boxing, Rocky had a successful career on television, first on “The Henny and Rocky Show” with sidekick Henny Youngman, and then with Martha Raye on her weekly show. Rocky played the part of Raye’s boyfriend, known as the Goombah. In addition, Rocky made more than 3,000 TV commercials and was the spokesman for Post Raisin Bran cereal.

The transformation from Rocco to Rocky was like a change from night to daylight. Rocky had not only become a beloved personage, he became a one-man philanthropic institution. One day, while watching up-and-coming young boxers in Stillman’s Gym, Rocky noticed a former boxer who had fallen on hard times: He was blind and living on welfare. Stillman’s Gym had become his second home and social club. Rocky took up a collection from all in attendance, added some of his own money, and stuffed it all into the breast pocket of the blind boxer. He told him he would get the same thing every month. Rocky became so generous to those in need that his wife had to put him on an allowance for fear that he would give away all his money.

Most afternoons, one could find Rocky at his reserved table at P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue. There he was always charming and friendly, happy to sign autographs and occasionally pick up the tab for other diners. Rather than a clenched fist, he greeted the world with an open and friendly hand and a broad toothy grin.

He had a wonderful sense of humor: When asked what he stole as a delinquent, he said everything that began with the letter A: a car, a television, a refrigerator, a bicycle. When asked why he quit school in the sixth grade, he said it was because of pneumonia. You had pneumonia? he was asked. No, he replied, it was because I couldn’t spell it.

I attended Rocky’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1990 and was not surprised that more than 1,000 people turned out to honor the former champion, for his story is one of an unlikely redemption that few others could have achieved.

Jeffrey Sussman is the author of “Rocky Graziano: Fists, Fame, and Fortune,” which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield on March 10. He lives part time in East Hampton.