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Champion Boxer, Pitchman Rocky Graziano Dies

May 23, 1990 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Rocky Graziano, whose rise from ″world’s champion punk″ on the streets of the Lower East Side to world middleweight boxing champion was chronicled in the movie ″Somebody Up There Likes Me,″ has died.

Graziano, who put his dese’s and dose’s to work after his boxing career as a TV pitchman for products from yogurt and foot powder to dog food and auto mufflers, died of cardiopulmonary failure Tuesday at New York Hospital.

Hospital spokeswoman Diana Goldin gave his age as 71, but other sources listed him as young as 68.

He was hospitalized April 8 after a stroke. He had a heart attack in February.

Graziano’s reign as middleweight champ lasted less than a year, but he became one of boxing’s most popular figures. ″Somebody Up There Likes Me″ was a best-selling book that was made into the 1956 movie starring Paul Newman.

The wisecracking boxer later appeared frequently on television as a sidekick to comedian Martha Raye and in commercials.

Growing up on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, Graziano learned to steal before he learned to read.

Born Thomas Rocco Barbella, the son of a former boxer who used the name Fighting Nick Bob, he ran with a tough crowd. Recalling those days later in life, he called himself ″the world’s champion punk.″

At age 12, he was arrested for the first time after he was caught breaking into a subway gum machine. While on probation, he stole a bicycle and was sent on the first of three trips to reform school.

In 1939, a friend took him to New York’s famous Stillman’s Gym to see if he could put his street-fighting instincts to use in the ring.

When a seasoned pro named Antonio Fernandez beat up the 17-year-old, the kid swore he’d never box again. Two months later, however, he was back in the ring, this time fighting under the name of his sister’s boyfriend, Rocky Graziano. He won the Metropolitan AAU welterweight championship.

″The AAU gave me a medal which I hocked for $15,″ Graziano recalled years later. ″Maybe this is not so bad a racket after all, I think. I will give this a shake.″

Graziano turned pro in 1942, and in his 11-year career had a 67-16 record with 52 knockouts. He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1971.

″He wasn’t a great fighter, but he was an awesome puncher,″ said Murray Goodman, a boxing publicist and longtime friend.

Graziano is best remembered for three fights with Tony Zale.

In 1946, in Yankee Stadium, he fought Zale for the middleweight title. Graziano went down in the first round and was knocked out in the sixth.

The fight was such a crowd-pleaser that in 1947 the two had a rematch, in Chicago. Graziano knocked Zale out in the sixth round for the championship.

But in his first defense, Zale took the crown back in 1948 with a third- round knockout in another bloody battle.

Graziano got one more chance at the championship but was knocked out in the third round by Sugar Ray Robinson in 1952. He would fight just once more, losing a 10-round decision to Chuck Davey before announcing his retirement.

Twenty-five years after his last fight, Graziano chortled about his post- boxing popularity. ″This author stuff, TV and the movies - it’s a piece of cake, better than ripping off stores,″ he said. ″Pays better, too.″

Graziano often made himself and his delinquent childhood the butt of jokes.

″I quit school in the sixth grade because of pneumonia,″ he once said. ″Not because I had it - but because I couldn’t spell it.

″We stole everything that began with an ‘a’ - a piece of fruit, a bicycle, a watch, anything that was not nailed down.

″It took me nine years to get through the fourth grade. When I got into television commercials, I had to take a crash course in reading. I was 32 years old and I couldn’t read the cue cards.″

Funeral arrangements were were not immediately known.

Graziano is survived by his wife, Norma, two daughters and five grandchildren.