CHAPTER 20: U PUGILATU

U pugilatu–boxing in our native dialect was the national sport for us calabresi, and for all Italian Americans. The forties, fifties, and sixties were the Golden Age of boxing for Italian Americans. Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Carmen Basilio, and Rocky Marciano were our heroes, even more than Joe DiMaggio. Angelo Dundee, perhaps the greatest trainer of all time, was a calabrese.

We all watched the Friday night fights on small-screen black and white TV in the 1960s. We saw the great Emile Griffith, Benny Paret, Carlos Monzon, and yet another Italian, Nino Benvenuti. The fights were sponsored by Gillette or Pabst Blue Ribbon. I still hear the Gillette jingle in my head every time I see or hear the name.

The Sacco children of our generation were expected to learn the sweet science just like the Spartans did in the agoge. The first-generation Saccos had established a legacy for us to follow. My dad won over 80 amateur fights and he was the 1941 Golden Gloves runner-up in Chicago, quite a feat given Chicago’s tradition for producing boxers. Uncle Gene was a successful fighter in the Navy during World War II and Uncle Chris trained fighters at St. Andrew’s for decades.

My dad’s brightest moment in the ring was when he fought on the same fight card as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Billy Conn during their visit to Jefferson Barracks in Columbia, Missouri. That night, my dad was forced to fight twice but won both bouts. I framed the newspaper article from Stars and Stripes describing the evening along with the photographs and autographs of the three iconic fighters.

Our generation didn’t quite live up to theirs. The sweet science wasn’t sweet to me because I hated getting hit and I found no pleasure in hitting my opponent unless I was mad. I had inherited my mom’s sweet temperament to the silent consternation of my father. I loved basketball and I was a gym rat in high school.

My cousin Gene inherited my dad’s rage and huge fists, but he was a natural wrestler and much preferred it to boxing. If he had stayed in school, he might have won a state championship in Illinois and a college scholarship to a prestigious wresting program. After one boxing match that he lost at St. Andrew’s, he squared things by kicking his opponent’s ass in the locker room.

My own boxing career is an interesting study in pugilism. I retired undefeated—the only Sacco to retire undefeated in an amateur boxing career. My trophies still adorn my office desk at home. I retired with fewer losses than Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Mohammed Ali.

Before you get impressed, let me explain more thoroughly my boxing career. Yes, it’s true that I retired undefeated—but, I never ever won a sanctioned amateur fight either. I retired with two draws in my two amateur fights. Here’s the story of my “illustrious” boxing history.

Every spring, my military school sponsored a “mini-Olympics,” in which boxing was an event. Other events included ping pong, free-throw shooting, shuffleboard (I’m ashamed to admit!), checkers (even more shameful than shuffleboard), and intramural basketball.  Since most cadets avoided boxing like the plague, I reached the finals in both seventh and eighth grade. That meant both finalists got a trophy—one for first place and the other for second.

In seventh grade, I fought an eighth grader about five-to-ten pounds bigger than me. I thought I beat him easily, but the judges called it a draw. In eighth grade, I earned a draw even though I thought I had lost. After both fights, a coin toss determined the winner of the first-place trophy. I lost both flips. It didn’t matter because I was happy just to get a boxing trophy, any trophy.

I could tell that my dad was disappointed in my two fights. He attended both fights and prepped the boxers for all fights in the “tournament.” In the alley, I was smooth, reflective, and even talented–to an extent. When I got into the ring, my opponents fought like the Athenians at Marathon, charging and punching with their 16-ounce gloves for the nine minutes of the fight. Instead of remaining calm, blocking their shots and counter punching in a strategic manner (which would have led to a quick knockout), I started punching nonstop like my opponent, totally ignoring my dad’s instructions.

I did, and still do, enjoy watching boxing as a spectator. My dad and I talked boxing all throughout our eighteen years together. Despite his love for Italian American fighters, Joe Louis was his favorite. He admired Joe Louis’ talent and his tenaciousness. Time and time again, he described Joe Louis’ humiliating loss to Max Schmeling, followed by his comeback victory two years later. He told me the heart-warming story of Jim Braddock who overcame the Great Depression, long before Hollywood portrayed the Cinderella Man’s incredible comeback.

Sugar Ray Robinson was his choice of the best fighter pound for pound. To him, Billy Conn was the best pure boxer and he decried Billy’s failure to beat the heavily favored Joe Louis in their classic June 18, 1941 bout in Madison Square Garden. Leading for twelve rounds because of his superior boxing talent and tactics, Bill Conn decided to go toe-to-toe with the Brown Bomber in the 13th round . . . The rest is history.

My dad translated his amateur career into two fun pursuits for him in later life. First, he enjoyed emceeing boxing events at the local Veterans of Foreign Affairs hall. During the formal two-hour dinner/show, he showed large audiences boxing clips followed by analysis of each fight. At one event, he introduced Tony Zale, the great Polish American middleweight champion from Gary, Indiana. It was Zale who fought three memorable bouts with Rocky Graziano.

One day, my dad told me a shocking story about Tony Zale and the great Paul Newman. Paul Newman was starring in the role of Rocky Graziano in the 1957 film Somebody Up There Likes Me. Tony played himself in the movie and served as the boxing technical director. My dad relished telling me an incident I’ll never forget. While rehearsing the scene of the Zale-Graziano bout, Paul Newman “got cute” and popped Zale in a disrespectful way. Zale counter punched and knocked Newman on his ass. Rispetto (respect) was the moral of the story, but it didn’t deter my dad from loving Newman as an actor.

In the late 1960s, my dad became an official boxing trainer and second. He trained tens of fighters at Navy Pier in Chicago. One of his fighters reached the Olympic trials shortly after my dad’s death. Professional wrestlers used to watch my dad and the trainers work. One day, my dad told a wrestler that I thought professional wrestling was fake. My mistake: the wrestler threw me around the ring like a rag doll.

My dad’s love of boxing also provided insights into his views on race. He loved Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, and Sugar Ray Robinson, but he despised Mohammed Ali, whom he always referred to as Cassius Clay. If he hadn’t died in 1970, I believe that he would have admired and loved Ali as I do today.

My dad loved Joe Louis and Ray Robinson because they served their country. Ali refused to, even though my dad harbored serious doubts about the Vietnam War. My dad also loved Louis, Robinson and Frazier because their work ethic was apparent to all, a work ethic that was accomplished in relative silence, without the braggadocio of Ali. Work ethic was everything to my dad—a calabrese trait. He didn’t care what color someone was as long as he or she worked hard.

Boxing lessons still stick with me today despite my meager talent. “Road work” refers to the compilation of physical training necessary for success in a bout. I refer to “road work” in preparing for any major athletic event like the St. Louis Marathon in 1980 and the marathon I’ll soon be running on an elliptical machine in 2011. I still use the phrase “road work” in prepping any major venture: grant proposals, book projects, the construction of a new university in Vietnam, and the like. “Road work” means dedication and attention to detail. Failure to complete “road work” ensures a knock out in the ring or in the professional arena.

In the final analysis, “road work” for the Saccos has its roots in the Calabrian fields where my family, and thousands of families, toiled intermingled with the darkness of the dawn and the darkness of the dusk.

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About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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