The Boston Bomber: An Interview with Tony DeMarco

*****

Tony DeMarco, “The Boston Bomber,” former welterweight champion of the world, was one of the last significant prizefighters to come out of Beantown. A give-and-take brawler with a wrecking ball left hook, DeMarco, born Leonardo Liotta in 1932, won the world title by stopping Johnny Saxton in the 14th round at Boston Garden on April 1, 1955. He lost the title in his first defense two months later via 12th-round TKO in a ferocious scrap against Carmen Basilio in Syracuse, New York. The rematch, which DeMarco also lost by knockout in the 12th, was named Fight of the Year for 1955 by Ring Magazine. DeMarco retired in 1962 with a record of 58-12-1 with 32 knockouts. Among the quality opponents DeMarco defeated in a career that began in 1948 were Vince Martinez, Paddy DeMarco, Johnny Cesario, Wallace “Bud” Smith, Chico Vejar, George Araujo, Kid Gavilan, Larry Boardman, and Gasper Ortega. Dan Hanley, a contributor to the Cyber Boxing Zone, recently caught up with DeMarco, now 79, to reminisce about his glory days.

DAN HANLEY: Tony, how old were you when you started in boxing and where?

DEMARCO: I started at the Boroughs Boys Club in Boston when I was eleven. That year I won the Massachusetts Boys Club championship for 100 pounders. By 1947 when I was 15 I was really into it, fighting out of the Boys Club on Fleet Street, sparring with the pros.

HANLEY: When did the name change come into play?

DEMARCO: Well, when I was 16, there was no such thing as ‘if’ I was going pro, I was told I was going pro. But you had to be 18 to get a pro license. So, I went down to the Parish to see Father Mario, who gave me a fake baptismal certificate and I ‘borrowed’ the name of another kid named Tony DeMarco for the certificate. Of course, Father Mario – good man that he was – thought I was using this to get a job, not to become a professional fighter at the age of 16. Anyways, shortly after that the real Tony DeMarco tells me he was going pro. I said, “What name are you fighting under?” He said, “Tony DeMarco.” I tell him, “You can’t have it! Pick another name.” So he took the name of another kid named Michael Termini, who also wanted to turn pro but he had to take his brother’s name. So there was three of us fighting, all from the same neighborhood, all using someone else’s name.

HANLEY: How active was Boston back then?

DEMARCO: It was good. We had the big three in promoters back then. Sam Silverman, Rip Valenti and Johnny Buckley.

HANLEY: Johnny Buckley! Jack Sharkey’s old manager?

DEMARCO: That’s right, he was a promoter by this time. As a matter of fact, I used to train at Jack Sharkey’s Bar. There was a pool room on the next level and the New Garden Gym on the level after that.

HANLEY: Who did you turn pro with?

DEMARCO: My legal manager was Bobby Agrippino, but it was Rip Valenti calling the shots. See, a promoter can’t hold a manager’s license, so Bobby, who was a friend, was my manager of record.

HANLEY: At what point in your career did you realize you had something that set you apart from the other fighters? That you had something special in that left hook?

DEMARCO: At the end of ‘47, when I was still an amateur, Johnny Greco, the Canadian welterweight champion was headlining Boston Garden against Ralph Zanelli and they came to see me fight at an amateur show. I was still only 15 but I knocked out a Marine. Jimmy Doyle, Greco’s trainer said to my corner, “Wow, with a left hook like that, you’d better convert him.” See, I was fighting as a southpaw, which is probably where the power came from.

HANLEY: Are you a natural lefty?

DEMARCO: No, I’m right-handed. But when you’re starting out at eleven, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just messin’ around with the gloves and somehow my right foot was extended and suddenly I was a southpaw.

HANLEY: How did they convert you right-handed?

DEMARCO: Bobby and a trainer named Frank MacFallen tied my right arm down for three days straight. All I could do was jab and hook with the left hand. It worked.

HANLEY: In ‘51-’52 you left Boston and fought out of the New York-New Jersey area. Was it to gain more experience?

DEMARCO: No, it was because, even though we had three good promoters, things slowed down a bit in Boston. So we contacted Willie Gilzenburg out of New Jersey and he told me to come on out. I bought myself a $29.00 suit from Filene’s Basement and was on the train that night.

HANLEY: What would you consider your breakthrough bout?

DEMARCO: Well, my second fight on the east coast was in Madison Square Garden. To fight in the Garden was something else. And you know they paid me $500.00 for a 4-rounder on the undercard to Sandy Saddler—Paddy DeMarco. I never saw that kind of money before. But my first big fight would have to be the Jackie O’Brien fight. Jackie O’Brien was a veteran main-eventer and was scheduled to fight Tony Pellone, another world class fighter, in Ridgewood Grove. Pellone pulls out and they offer it to me on a day’s notice. I tell them ‘no’. But then I thought about their offer of $300.00 plus 17.5% of the gate and I agreed. And I won the fight.

HANLEY: By ‘54 you were back in Boston and had been beating good fighters such as Paddy DeMarco and ‘Red Top’ Davis. And then you were matched with New England rival Georgie Araujo. Was this fight considered that big to hold it in Fenway Park?

DEMARCO: Oh yeah! Georgie Araujo was a helluva fighter and had given Jimmy Carter one helluva fight for the title. Georgie had beaten me as an amateur and was a main-eventer when I was fighting 6-rounders. He made the grade and we both had a local following, but on this night I knocked him out in five.

HANLEY: You held a #6 rating in the welterweights when you fought your own war with lightweight champ Jimmy Carter in a non-title 10 rounder. Tell me about the fight.

DEMARCO: I beat him, but they scored it a draw. We all think we won the fight, but I know different (laughing).

HANLEY: Were you surprised when you got the call to fight Johnny Saxton for the world welterweight title?

DEMARCO: You know, it was understood at the time that it would be either myself or Carmen Basilio getting the title shot, with the winner to defend against the other. Now, I know Rip Valenti had connections with Blinky Palermo, Saxton’s manager. I also think maybe after getting only a draw with Jimmy Carter, Saxton’s people might have thought I was a soft touch. But I really believe it was simply a backroom flip of the coin which gave me the shot.

HANLEY: Tell me about the biggest fight of your career.

DEMARCO: Body punches won that title for me that night. I softened him up, and finally in the 14th round, I decked Saxton with a right hand, and Johnny was not easy to knock down. He got up and I hit him cleanly with about twenty consecutive punches. Mel Manning, the referee, really should have stopped it sooner. But there I was, world champion.

HANLEY: It was a close fight up until then. The officials, Mel Manning and Jim Shaughnessy had you ahead, but Tom McNeeley had Saxton leading.

DEMARCO: Look at that! (Laughing) You can’t trust anybody.

HANLEY: How did it feel?

DEMARCO: Unbelievable! Y’know, there have been world champions from Boston. John L. Sullivan, Jack Sharkey, Sal Bartolo, Paul Pender. But I’m the only native of Boston who ever won a true world title in Boston. And I’m proud of that.

HANLEY: Let’s talk about your first title defense.

DEMARCO: Awww…do we have to?

HANLEY: Yes (laughing), we do. Tell me about the fight with Carmen Basilio.

DEMARCO: Well, I don’t want to say anything bad, otherwise Carmen might want to beat me up. But I got talked into Country Club training up in the Catskills. It was supposed to be befitting a champion. But that wasn’t me. And to tell you the truth I think I could have gone on in the 12th when Referee Harry Kessler stopped it.

HANLEY: Was that your biggest payday?

DEMARCO: Yes, $60,000. As a matter of fact 1955 was my biggest year. I made $150,000. But my handlers took half of that and Uncle Sam took half of what was left. So then what did I have?

HANLEY: Let’s talk about the Basilio rematch. In the 7th round you hit Basilio with a left hook and I gotta tell you, that was the closest I ever saw anyone going down without going down.

DEMARCO: I wish I had followed up better, but what can you do? I was in much better condition this fight, having trained in the city, but Carmen hit me a right cross in the 12th and it was over.

HANLEY: Despite the loss, you were still holding world-class company, beating Bud Smith, Vince Martinez, Kid Gavilan and Gaspar Ortega, which led to the elimination tournament after Basilio vacated 147. Tell me about your first fight with Virgil Akins.

DEMARCO: It was a heckuva fight. I thought I had him in the 12th and 13th but he got me in the 14th.

HANLEY: A rematch was signed almost immediately by Rip Valenti, to take place within three months. In hindsight, after such a grueling fight, do you think it warranted a longer rest?

DEMARCO: Yeah, but I was stubborn and didn’t want to leave anyone hanging.

HANLEY: After the Akins rematch you seemed to have a stop and go schedule, like you were unsure if you wanted to fight or retire.

DEMARCO: Well, I took off after the second Akins fight but I would end up getting hurt when I did start fighting again, like in the Denny Moyer fight. The bell rings and Denny and I run across the ring and immediately bang heads. I step back and Denny is covered with blood. But it was my blood. I split an artery in my forehead. They stopped it in the 2nd round after I had doused the ring and every ringside official with blood. I was off again after that.

HANLEY: You went at it hard in late ‘61 and you were doing well. Tell me about your last two fights and why you suddenly retired.

DEMARCO: Well, I knocked out former welterweight champion Don Jordan in two rounds with a body shot and then decisioned Stefan Redl. But before the Redl fight my mood changed. I said to myself, “What am I doing? I’m 30 years old and I don’t feel like running anymore.” So that was it.

HANLEY: So what have you been doing in boxing retirement?

DEMARCO: I was a liquor salesman for awhile, then relocated to Arizona due to my son’s asthma and opened a cocktail lounge called Tony DeMarco’s Living Room. After a family tragedy, I let the lease run out after 14 years and returned to Boston. Now, here’s where I gotta tell you a story. When I was fighting, there was this kid in the gym, just starting out, who always looked up to me. He did very well in his career. He fought everybody, Joey Giardello, Emile Griffith, Joey Giambra and so on. After retiring the kid got into politics and eventually went on to become the Auditor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Now I know you want to know who I’m talking about.

HANLEY: (laughing) I am racking my brain as to who this is.

DEMARCO: Former middleweight contender Joe DeNucci. And when I wanted to come home to Boston I asked Joe if he could help me out and he set me up. I was a court officer until my retirement.

HANLEY: So, at 79, what is Tony DeMarco up to these days?

DEMARCO: I just finished writing my book, which should be released around the summer of 2011.

HANLEY: What’s the title?

DEMARCO: “Nardo.” As in Leonardo.

*****

This interview originally appeared in The Cyber Boxing Zone. Special thanks to Dan Hanley and Stephen Gordon for permission to reprint it. The Cyber Boxing Zone is the place to go to get your boxing history fix.

*****

Topics: Carmen Basilio, Johnny Saxton, Tony DeMarco, Welterweight World Champions

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  • johnpaulfutbol

    Very cool, great read. It’s always fascinating to hear the insights and memories of guys like DeMarco. DeMarco certainly didn’t mess around in the ring, he threw with some serious intent, no jazz hands for him!

    • Carlos Acevedo

      Hi JPF,

      well, thanks for reading it. Lots of folks are always paying lip service to “boxing history,” but they never seem to go any further back than 2003! I laugh really hard every time I read one of these “Best of” lists and “All-Time” lists…I’m laughing right now just thinking about them…

      Only 29 people have clicked on this piece so far. I should probably throw up a post about Manny Pacquiao’s new CD….

      Anyway, DeMarco wasn’t a great fighter but he was action personified in the ring and that’s ultimately what people want from an action sport, right? Action! But if you notice, that left hook he throws is tight, man, tight…at least most of the time. In 1955 he fought Johnny Saxton, Chico Vejar, and Carmen Basilio twice…in one year! They don’t make fighters like that anymore. He was probably, alongside Marciano, the biggest draw in America at that point. The dude fought in Fenway Park, goddammit!

      • johnpaulfutbol

        CA,

        I need to get my left hook tight, like DeMarco’s. BTW, just ordered a copy of “Writers’ Fighters” and that new Pacquiao CD. I’ll burn you a copy!

  • http://theboxingbulletin.com Andrew Fruman

    Nice interview, and glad to hear that DeMarco is doing well these days.

    He was in some remarkable scraps, especially the first fight with Virgil Akins. That’s one of those old fights that has to be seen to be believed.

    • Carlos Acevedo

      Hi Andrew,

      Dan Hanley did a nice job. DeMarco was a terror in the ring but had the misfortune of running into Carmen Basilio…otherwise he might have been able to make a few defenses of the title. But the welterweight championship at the point was completely dominated by backroom dealings and there was little wriggle room until Palermo and Carbo were sent up the river….

      Those Akins bouts are ridiculous. It’s amazing how lucid DeMarco is after all that punishment he took in the ring. Akins, when he was allowed to, was a fine fighter, but most of the time, he was kept under wraps.

  • benwfc

    Hi Carlos,

    Thanks for reproducing this interview, I really enjoyed it. I’m fairly new to the sport, but as someone who until recently studied history for a living, the regular lip service to boxing’s backstory annoys me also.

    I was wondering if you could recommend any books which document the key eras in boxing history? I’m aware that this is a rather open-ended question, but would appreciate your help. I’ve read ‘The Fight’ by Norman Mailer, which I found to be thoroughly engaging, if a little self-referential for my taste..

    Thanks a lot.

    • Carlos Acevedo

      Hi benwfc,

      You’re welcome; I’m glad I got a hold of it. This is a great little chat with a legend who also happens to be personable and funny.

      As far as boxing books go, they fall into a few categories: books written by good writers who don’t know much about boxing; books written by bad writers who do know about boxing; and books written by bad writers who don’t know anything about boxing. The latter category, naturally, dominates.

      The best writers on boxing are John Schulian, Hugh McIlvanney, Gay Talese, John Lardner, Jimmy Breslin, A.J. Liebling, Frank Graham, Barney Nagler and W.C. Heinz. Many works of these writers are scattered in newspapers and magazines, but any collected volumes should be read.

      For general history–not a strong suit in boxing literature–I would recommend The Boxing Register by Roberts and Skutt. They have an updated version coming out soon, I think, so I would wait for the 5th edition.

      Also, In This Corner by Peter Heller is indispensable for those interested in the lives of the old-timers.

      Other general histories worth a look, but not necessarily must haves are: A Pictorial History of Boxing by Andrade and Fleischer; The Ring: Chronicle of Boxing by Weston and Farhood; and Ten and Out! by Alexander Johnston.

      Key eras are covered by Elliot Gorn in the Manly Art (an excellent academic/sociological study of bareknuckle boxing in the 1800s); Jeffrey Sammons in Beyond the Ring (another academic study, this time of heavyweight boxing in the 20th century with an emphasis on race); James P. Dawson in a chapter of Sports Golden Age edited by Danzig (boxing during the Roaring Twenties); Jack McCallum in The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship; and Peter Walsh covers the history of the middleweights in Men of Steel.

      I have books on the history of boxing from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Australia, America, and Puerto Rico, but the only one I have on British boxing is Big Fight by Denzil Batchelor–worth reading, I would say.

      Excellent boxing books otherwise are:

      White Hopes & Other Tigers by John Lardner

      Dempsey by Jack Dempsey

      The Toy Bulldog by Mickey Walker

      On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates

      King of the World by David Remnick

      Anything by McIlvanney and Schulian

      Liebling was a real wordsmith and worshiped by many, but he was a little too arch for me. As a “lowlife” writer, he knew his subject well, but writing about boxing in a bourgeois periodical like the New Yorker in the 1950s might have taken away some of his bite, though surely it is heresy to say so. Nevertheless, The Sweet Science and A Neutral Corner both provide colorful views of boxing in the 1950s and early 60s.

      Boxing’s Unforgettable Fights by Lester Bromberg is great fun as is The Million Dollar Gate by Doc Kearns, the hilarious story of an unbelievable life and character.

      I probably missed a few, but it’s almost 2:00 in the morning! Good luck with all that.

      Also, you can click on the “Out of the Past” tab above and follow Andrew Fruman’s weekly 1931 series….

      And surfing through the IBRO website and the Cyber Boxing Zone site is always great fun.

      • johnpaulfutbol

        CA,

        Nice list! I like your take on Liebling. I’ve read “The Sweet Science” two or three times, I like it…for the boxing (obviously), but it sort of evokes memories of my grandfather and shit like that. But you’re right, or at least I agree with you!, he is too “arch.”

  • phils

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. I respect these fighters a lot, and could listen or read their stories for days. Hilarious that three kids from the da neighborhood all were in boxing with fake names. So great.

    Here in MN, a historian named Jake Wegner has created a MN boxing hall of fame to honor the guys that fought in the ring giving it all that everyone has all but forgotten. MN has quite a rich history, but you gotta go WAY back.

    At any rate, I always like these pieces. Thanks for posting. Great piece by Hanley.

    • Carlos Acevedo

      Hi phils,

      these interviews with old timers never fail to entertain, especially since Hanley obviously knows what he’s talking about and knows his subject. Not always the case, alas, in boxing interviews.

      I know Jake Wegner, sort of–we are both members of the IBRO. Minnesota did have a rich history of boxing years ago. I used to post links to the histories of boxing in specific states in a column called The Lowdown (discontinued due to lack of interest; one post actually only got 6 reads!) but I never got around to Minnesota. Maybe one day I will.

      • phils

        I could see the lack of interest, but that’s exactly why Jake started the Hall of Fame here in MN. If you are interested, Jake did all the bios here: http://www.mnbhof.org/inductees.html

        There are so many great stories from this state, like King Tut and of course the last few years of Billy Miske’s life is an absolute no-brainer movie. I have no idea how that hasn’t been made yet.

        Thanks for the book list as well. I have not read a good number of those.

  • benwfc

    Carlos,

    Many thanks for such an extensive list! I shall work my way through them. Keep up the great work.