Graziano’s father was a club-level boxer and would make his sons fight each night with boxing gloves from the time they were toddlers. Graziano grew up as a street kid, in and out of reform school, before joining the army. He was kicked out of the service for punching a captain.
Although he had been an amateur standout, Graziano was not always enthusiastic about his calling as a professional, resenting the harsh discipline of training. His reckless, wide-open style and unnatural punching power made him a major attraction and world champion anyway.
Graziano is most well known for his three-fight rivalry with Tony Zale. Zale was nicknamed “The Man of Steel,” and along with Graziano, he was one of the most rugged fighters of the era.
Zale won the first meeting between the two by Round 6 knockout in September 1946. In their July 1947 rematch, Graziano lifted the world middleweight title when he stopped Zale in Round 6. Zale won the title back by Round 3 KO in a June 1948 rubbermatch.
It’s one of that era’s great boxing what-ifs that Graziano never faced his friend and fellow New Yorker, Jake LaMotta. The Brooklyn Bull vs. the Rock would have been an epic battle for Big Apple bragging rights.
Graziano challenged for the middleweight belt a last time, in April 1952, losing by stoppage to the great Sugar Ray Robinson. Graziano retired later that year. His 1955 autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me was made into an academy award winning film in 1956, in which Paul Newman starred as Graziano.
Graziano’s gregarious personality led him to have a successful post-fight career as a spokesman and actor. He guest-starred on numerous shows and even had his own program for a brief period where he co-starred with comedian Henny Youngman.