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The Hauser Report: Literary Notes

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  • The Hauser Report: Literary Notes

    As years pass, memories of boxers who once captured the public imagination fade away. The number of people who were alive when they waged their wars and remember them firsthand diminishes. A small group of fighters - men like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali - are immortal. Their most compelling battles are fixed in American history, not just boxing lore. But most fighters - even champions - recede from memory. We know their names and a bit about them. Maybe we've seen videos of them in combat. But it's hard to understand their importance in the context of their time.

    The brutal trilogy between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano was a big deal when it happened. It came at a time when baseball and boxing were America's two national sports. In 1946, Zale stopped Graziano in round six of their first encounter. One year later, Graziano returned the favor, also in the sixth round. Their rubber match was contested on June 10, 1948. Like its predecessors, it was for the middleweight championship of the world. Zale knocked Graziano out in the third round.

    Brick City Grudge Match by Rod Honecker (McFarland & Company) is a dual biography of Zale and Graziano that recreates their fights against one another with emphasis on their climactic third bout.

    Zale and Graziano had markedly different personalities. Zale was respected in the boxing community but thought of as a bit colorless. It was said that he put the straight in straight-laced. Graziano was a stereotypical bad boy with a criminal past but a somehow likable pug. Arthur Daley of the New York Times called him "the most colorful and exciting fighter we have."

    Zale-Graziano I was a huge financial success, drawing 39,827 fans to Yankee Stadium and generating the second-highest live gate for a non-heavyweight fight in boxing history up until that time. Zale-Graziano II (fought indoors at Chicago Stadium) doubled the previous record for the live gate at an indoor boxing match. Graziano-Zale III was contested at Ruppert Stadium in Newark - an industrial city that, in 1948, had a well-deserved reputation for political corruption and organized crime. It was the biggest sporting event in the history of Newark, attended by Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Ezzard Charles, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, and other luminaries.

    The three Zale-Graziano fights have been called . . . savage . . . bloody . . . barbaric . . . gory . . . vicious . . . violent . . . and more.

    Their first confrontation was described by the New York Times as "one of the great fights in fistic history" and designated by The Ring as its 1946 "fight of the year."

    Zale-Graziano II was more of the same with Graziano saying afterward, "This was no boxing match. It was a war. If there wasn't a referee, one of the two guys would have ended up dead." At The Ring's 75th anniversary celebration, Zale-Graziano II was honored as one of the three greatest fights of the previous seventy-five years.

    Graziano-Zale III was the least competitive of the three fights. But The Ring called the ending "the most thrilling knockout" since Joe Louis's historic 1938 stoppage of Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium.

    In 83 professional fights, Graziano was knocked out only three times. One of these stoppages came at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson in the next-to-last fight of Rocky's career. The other two knockouts were administered by Zale.

    Brick City Grudge Match is a bit of a misnomer since Zale and Graziano evinced mutual respect before, during, and after their trilogy fights. Indeed, there were times when the two men seemed to actually like each other. That said; Honecker recounts their three fights in brisk dramatic fashion. He deserves credit for this since Zale-Graziano I was televised live on NBC but not filmed. And no video footage of Zale-Graziano II exists other than some grainy snippets of home film.

    Honecker also offers readers some interesting nuggets of information. For example; the first film produced and directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey) was a 12-minute documentary now available for free on YouTube entitled The Day of the Fight that tracks middleweight Walter Cartier on the day of his April 17, 1950, fight against journeyman Bobby James.

    At its best, Brick City Grudge Match is a reminder of what boxing can be and once was. "The excitement generated by a big fight," Honecker writes, "is like nothing else. That strange mix of heightened senses, passionate advocacy, and anxiety is only released when the bell rings and the fight begins. Often, the fight itself is a letdown. But in those rare instances when the fight lives up to the buzz of a match capturing the public's imagination, the stuff of legends is made. So it was with Zale-Graziano."

    * * *

    Muhammad Ali: A Humanitarian Life by Margueritte Shelton (Rowman & Littlefield) is a recitation of Ali's public life in and out of the ring. There's little depth and no new information. Shelton sugarcoats Nation of Islam doctrine, glosses over Ali's cruelty to Joe Frazier, and ignores Muhammad's profligate womanizing. Ali's family life from cradle to grave is presented as something akin to a 1950s Walt Disney movie.

    The last twenty years of Muhammad's life, in particular, are ripe for exploration and interpretation. But Shelton offers nothing of note in that regard. Moreover, her writing is often ponderous and falls of its own weight. A sample: "His radiant light of self-pride shattered against the refractive lens of a racist culture when the waking reality defied his dreams. Evidence of suffering was starkly visible against a vivid spectrum of ubiquitous color boundaries that scarred the landscape."

    Muhammad Ali: A Humanitarian Life is a well-intentioned effort that falls short of the mark.

    Thomas Hauser's email address is His most recent book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing's highest honor - induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.