Zale and Graziano slug it out at Yankee Stadium

A Backward Glance: September 27, 1946 – Tony Zale vs Rocky Graziano I

Tony Zale

“Graziano belabored Tony with everything but the ring post, hard head smashes that sent the blood flying and battering body blows.  But Tony kept coming back, relentlessly, waiting for that one fading chance.”

– Oscar Fraley, United Press

Few fights have lived up to the hype as spectacularly as the first meeting between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano.  A Yankee Stadium crowd of 39,827, paying a gate of $342,497 – a then record for the middleweight class – witnessed Zale withstand a tumultuous assault from Graziano to hold onto his crown in a thrilling give-and-take affair.

“The fight was furious from the start, just as the fans had expected.  There was no clinching, no waltzing or stalling of any kind.”

– Edward Burns, Chicago Tribune

Rocky Graziano

Zale broke through early, dropping Graziano with a left hook in the opening session, but the New Yorker roared back in the second, giving Zale a terrific lacing before sending the champion crashing down hard in the waning moments of the round.  Zale, sprawled out near the ropes, was saved from further damage by the bell, though his lips were badly cut from the challenger’s blows.  Worse for Zale, he had broken his thumb, the result of landing a right hand high on Graziano’s head.

The next three minutes offered more fireworks, with the challenger maintaining the upper hand…

“In the third round Graziano was again the fighter of maniacal fury.  He hammered the champion all over the ring with rights and lefts to the head, face and jaw until it seemed Zale must drop.  But Zale survived the storm, though in distress and apparently near the end.  But Graziano could not land that finishing punch.”

– James P. Dawson, New York Times

The fourth round saw the momentum swing yet again.

“Zale took command of the fight temporarily in the fourth round.  He staggered Rocky three times with combination attacks that started with terrific right shots to the kidney and ended with hooking smashes to the head.  But Rocky’s youth came to his aid and at the end of the round it was the dead-end kid from New York’s streets who was forcing the ‘man of steel’ backwards.”

– Jack Cuddy, United Press

Zale tried to seize back the advantage early in the fifth with a two-handed body assault, only to suffer a siege of fire in return.   The crowd, screaming themselves hoarse through much of the contest, rose in expectation of the local man’s coming triumph, as Graziano smashed Zale across the ring, connecting with heavy lefts and rights.  Blood flowed from Zale’s nose and mashed lips, as he staggered backwards and sideways under the assault, seemingly moments away from defeat.

Graziano came charging out for the sixth, looking to finish the wounded champion.  But Zale, his energy flagging, had one last stand to make…

“Tottering away on shaky legs under a fusillade of Graziano punches, Zale suddenly countered hard with a right uppercut to the chin, rocking Rocky back on his heels.  Zale followed with another right to the head and then, in close, lashed out with a left which seemed to lift the brawling, beetle-eyed challenger six inches into the air.  It landed just above the jaw line.  Rocky, the recipient, landed on the bottom of his pants – heels up.  They hung their grotesquely for an interval so pointed in length it seemed to be a tableau.  Graziano struggling to establish some means of liaison between brain and heels, finally got the latter down under him at a count of five.  Then he crouched in a bleary daze, shaking his head in dubious wonder and peering sightlessly about him.  At eight, it seemed Rocky would get up; at nine, it seemed not.  At 10, he did – but too late.”

– Davis J. Walsh, International News Service

For a moment, it appeared that chaos might break out, as the ring quickly filled with handlers from both sides, while Graziano, unaware his night was done, tried to resume his pursuit of Zale and charge across for another go at the champion.  But Referee Ruby Goldstein was quick to grab hold of the ornery challenger, and the fighter’s seconds were able to convince their man the bout was over.  Zale, physically beaten, and too tired to celebrate, slumped down in the other corner, as police maintained order in the ring.

“Tony, the victor, 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.  As they led the protesting Rocky out of the ring, Tony sat in his corner and surveyed the scene with the puzzled expression of a gent who received a last minute reprieve.”

– Gayle Talbot, Associated Press

In the dressing room after the bout, Zale sat, with his tender right hand in a bucket of ice water.  Gene Tunney, among those congratulating the champion, called Zale’s effort, “The greatest exhibition of heart I’ve ever seen.”  Too tired to respond, Zale, his face a “mass of welts” nodded his head in acknowledgment.

Graziano said he only picked up the count at 8, but had no issue with the result.  He just wanted another chance at Zale.  A few days later, with the boxing world still abuzz over the sensational bout, the champion agreed, and it was announced that they would renew hostilities the following summer.


  • thenonpareil

    Hi AF,

    what an extraordinary battle. I remember reading about how a lot of writers called Graziano a dog after that fight. There was never any quit in these two guys (although Rocky did business at the tail-end of his career). Zale was already well past it when he fought Graziano, but since he actually knew how to fight and Rocky didn’t, he was able to come out ahead in the series. Zale did not have the speed and athleticism that you see in so many fighters today, but he understood the technical aspects of boxing much better than many current fighters. You can say that for a lot of the guys in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. A guy like Archie Moore knew what to do almost every second of every fight!

    Rocky was an animal–he still wanted to fight after it was over! My god, that left hook was thunderous. But, as you wrote, Zale didn’t have enough oomph to celebrate. That’s a nice quote from Gayle Talbot, by the way.

    • Andrew Fruman

      Hi CA,

      This is one of those fights that I WISH there was film of!

      Zale was tough as they come, knew what he was doing and could really punch. But as you mentioned, he was definitely past it by this stage and I think several of the other top middleweight contenders at the time would have beat him, but he still had just enough to get by Rocky… even with a broken thumb. He said his right hurt every time he threw it, but he kept using it, especially to the body, and it may have softened Graziano up just enough to where he was vulnerable at the end.