Boxing Clever: Tony Zale – Forged from steel

A look at the middleweight legend

One day, when Tony Zale (67-18-2) was little more than a toddler his father went out to collect him some medicine from a local pharmacy. On the way back his bicycle was hit by a car and he was killed. For a couple of years afterwards, every time little Tony saw a man on a bicycle he would excitedly scream to his desperate mother “Daddy’s coming home.”

As a child, Zale could never separate himself from the unreasonable guilt that he heaped on himself for his father’s death. As a coping mechanism, he presented a silent and impenetrable air to the world. Uncommunicative and desperately shy he emoted nothing and built his barriers high to ensure that his anguish remained unreachable to all but himself.

Hailing from the steel town of Gary, Indiana, it was inevitable that Zale eventually found employment in the steel mills. The 1920 US census reported that 30% of Gary’s inhabitants were foreign-born, with the majority having migrated from Eastern Europe. A population flow that was critical in meeting the labor requirements of an industry that then employed upwards of 50,000 people, in permanently harsh and debilitating conditions. Zale’s family were part of this trend, having migrated from Poland and later Americanizing their surname from Zaleski to the abbreviated and now familiar form.

This is the world that Zale was born into in 1913. A town riven by institutional corruption, limited opportunity and an unbroken destiny from schoolyard to the dirty and dangerous grind of the Gary Steel Works. A prototype for the bleak and noisy Pennsylvania heartland portrayed in 70s Hollywood Blockbuster “The Deer Hunter” or the angry, yet resigned hopelessness of Bruce Springsteen’s old album track “The Factory.” A song that ends with the following cry of desperation:

“End of the day factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in
Their eyes,
And you just better believe boy,
Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,
It’s the working, the working, just the
Working life.”

These days the steelworks is eulogized as an icon of lost American community and confidence. The white-hot industrial furnace that drove the nation’s 20th-century domination, despite its unpleasant restraints, is a remembered symbol of a shared, common identity. From its zenith in the 50s, it now employs less than 5,000 people today. Whether Zale would have shared this misty-eyed view of his town and its dominant industry is not known. Regardless, his ring nickname “The Man of Steel” tied him inextricably to his small town roots. However, it is certain that following his own stint there he was desperation to escape it and the ring provided him with his only accessible opportunity to do so.

Shortly after his 21st birthday, Zale saw his chance to breakout following the launching of his professional boxing career, at Chicago’s evocatively named and now long defunct Marigold Gardens Arena. He won the decision over four rounds and triumphed in his first nine contests accumulated in just a ten-week period. From that initial high point he lost three of his next four and by the following summer had accrued the nondescript record of seventeen wins and nine defeats.

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Despondent, he gave up boxing and retreated back to the suffocating surrounds of the steel mill. Maybe it was the grudging acknowledgment of the harsh limitations that this would place would have on his future that made him give the fight business one last try. His return to the ring didn’t prove to be a movie montage of immediate and unbroken success. Instead, it was a tough, pot-holed journey, where the victories were still liberally sprinkled with bitter defeats; especially on the occasions he strove to make a positive step up in class. Most observers considered him to be not much more than a tough if dangerous-punching journeyman.

Armed with this unprepossessing record (38-14-2), Zale topped the bill for the first time at Chicago Stadium in a January 1940 matchup with Al Hostak. The man known as the “Savage Slav” was famed for his hard punching style and was the then reigning National Boxing Association middleweight champion of the world. In a result that shocked the bookmakers, Zale won a unanimous decision over ten rounds, in a non-title encounter.

The surprise result was the breakout victory that Zale had been searching for, and one that six months later, secured him an unexpected shot at the world title In front of Hostak’s home-crowd in Seattle. Zale eased to victory via 13th round stoppage, against a poorly prepared and surprisingly gun-shy Hostak. The local crowd and Seattle newspapers lambasted the ex-champion for his listless and seemingly uncommitted performance.

This victory provided Zale with partial recognition as a world champion, but he had to wait until November the following year for an opportunity at a unification match with Georgie Abrams. The electrifying contest took place at Madison Square Garden and represented only Zale’s third appearance there–the earlier contests being lowly six-rounders at a time when he could barely have dreamed of topping the card there in a world championship unification match.

Abrams started the favorite and lived up to the tag by dropping Zale heavily for a nine-count in the opening round. The “Man of Steel” proved able to weather the early storm and with a combination of vicious right-hands to the body and chin, he won the unanimous decision over the championship distance. A stunned and gallant Abrams remarked to interviewers after the fight that “Zale is one of the toughest body-punchers I ever fought, and if I hadn’t been in the best shape of my life, he might have splattered me all over the ring.”

The initial shock and publicity wrought by Zale’s victory, quickly passed from attention as just ten days later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered WW2. Zale’s career and the championship belt largely slipped into suspended animation throughout the war years –except for one non-title defeat to light heavyweight great, Billy Conn–where he served his time in the US Navy.

It was then that Zale made his ring acquaintance with an Italian-American New Yorker, with whom boxing history and American folklore would always have him linked. Tony Zale defeated Rocky Graziano in two of their three epic world title fights, yet he is always recorded as the junior partner.

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I remember as a kid having a boxing encyclopedia that headlined their pugilistic relationship as “Rocky vs The Man of Steel”. It immediately conjured up in my mind images of Zale as some type of superhero and watching their third meeting back–the only one captured on film–it wasn’t necessarily far from the truth.

Starting the underdog following his 6th-round stoppage defeat in the earlier rematch, and on the substantially thinner end of the purse, Zale downed Graziano inside the first minute. He sent him to the canvas again before knocking him out with a pulverizing left hook in the 3rd round.

All of their battles can adequately be categorized under the title of all-out wars. The first at Yankee Stadium went to Zale via 6th round knockout. In what a 90s edition of The Ring listed as their fifth greatest fight of all-time, Zale dropped Graziano in the 1st, only to be dumped on the floor in the 2nd. By the time the fifth stanza commenced the man from Indiana was struggling with a damaged right-hand and was wilting under the unrestrained battering from his opponent. Zale, imbued with a ceaseless fighting spirit from those hard days in the Gary Steel Works, summoned a final scintilla of strength and caught the marauding Graziano with a big right hand to the body and a follow-up left to the chin. Despite his best efforts, “The Rock” couldn’t beat the count. The newspapers in that characterful language of the period reported that a triumphant Zale “looked like a man who had been in hand-to-hand combat with a buzzsaw, and somehow, much to his own astonishment, had come out ahead.”

Their second meeting at Chicago Stadium concluded in the 6th with Graziano triumphing, following the intervention of the referee after an uncontested 30-punch barrage on a stricken, defeated, but still upright Zale. A fight that was almost the polar opposite of the first in that for most of it Zale was the aggressor. The Ring rated this one as better than the first, inserting it at number two on their greatest list.

Zale retired in September 1948, following defeat to Marcel Cerdan–the Frenchman that went on to lose the middleweight championship to Jake LaMotta before dying tragically in a plane crash ahead of the rematch.

A small town boy at heart, Zale was never comfortable with fame and ultimately returned to his native Indiana. He would sometimes show up at reunions where he would usually play the quiet, modest, straight man to Graziano’s charismatic and larger-than-life personality. An intensely private and shy man, he was always polite and respectful, but few could break his impenetrable reserve. He did all of his talking in the ring, where it was one-on-one and the rules of engagement were clear. True to the town that raised him he could dish it out and take it in spades.

Later in life, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s before dying in a nursing home aged 83. Through the blistering attacks, the unrestrained courage, and the championship belts, perhaps at the center driving it all was the memory of a heartbroken little boy searching for his father’s bicycle.

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