By James Blears
Today August 16th is the eightieth anniversary of when Tony Zale successfully defended his middleweight title against Billy Pryor, knocking him down eight times before the bout was stopped in the ninth round, in front of a crowd of one hundred and thirty five thousand fans In Milwaukee`s Juneau Park.
In the WBC`s Year of Boxing, we fondly look back to the glorious era of Tony “Man of Steel” Zale, an all- time middleweight great, and so deserved member of Boxing`s International Hall of Fame.
The son of Polish Immigrants, Anthony Florian Zaleski was born on May 29th 1913 in the town of Gary, Indiana. Famous for its steel mills, some of which must have seeped into his blood via the smelting pot, because as well as being a sublimely talented fighter, on occasion he absorbed and weathered ferocious bolts of riveting punishment. But, often as not, he refused to bend, buckle or melt in the while hot intensity of ring war. Rather, he fashioned fortitude, via tensile strength, through iron determination and he fought back to win.
Tony`s career spanned 1934-1948. It encompassed eighty seven fights including forty five KO`s, twenty two decision wins and eighteen losses.
On this day in history, he fought durable and brave Billy Pryor from Boise Idaho. Billy hadn`t been the original choice of opponent, yet was as keen as mustard. But in the ring that day, Tony outclassed him and outpunched him. A year later, Billy fought and lost a decision to “Cincinnati Cobra” Ezzard Charles. But against Tony he was hammered from pillar to post. Billy was the middleweight champion of Texas and Colorado. The marked difference… was that Tony was the champion of the rest of the world! Billy`s career tally concluded with a record of: 26-18-6, including five KO victories.
Back then, it was the start of the Milwaukee Mid-Summer Festival/National Eagle Convention. Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon aka PBR Beer, admission was free, so instead of tuning in on WTMJ Radio`s airwaves, folks toasted the opportunity offer, by turning up in droves, to enjoy the rounds.
The official attendance was 135,132 fans, a record which surpassed the Dempsy Vs Tunney Soldiers Field fight in 1927. Zale Vs Pryor, which was aptly refereed by Jack Dempsey, was only pipped fifty two years later, by the Julio Cesar Chavez Vs Greg Haugen bonanza in the Azteca Stadium, Mexico City in 1993.
In a better behaved era, only one hundred and thirty two Cops were assigned to marshal the vast crowd. The Milwaukee Journal wrote: “As it turned out, only one child reported lost, but he was recovered in a jiffy.”
Amazingly, officiously, pompously, tetchily and sadly, just prior to round three, Fred Saddy, the President of the Wisconsen Boxing Commission, told both fighters to up the tempo, and Tony heeded this. He put Billy down in the third round, again in the fifth, twice in the seventh, twice in the eighth and twice in the ninth. It ended with a perfectly timed left hook to the jaw. Hopefully, for Mr Saddy and other savvy aficionados, this was enough excitement for one day?!
It was certainly a thrills and spills knockabout, but the combats which truly defined Tony`s career were the three epic encounters in 1946, 1947 and 1948 in the space of just twenty one months, with Rocky Graciano. Tony won the first by KO in the sixth. He appeared to be on his way to another stoppage victory in fight two. The Referee was almost going to halt it in the third due to a terrible gash over Rocky`s left eye, but in the minute of respite, veteran Cutman Morris “Whitey” Bimstein was able to staunch the blood flow.
Then as the action intensified even further, Rocky`s right eye swelled shut. So “Whitey” removed a coin from his pocket, nicked and opened the “Over ripe Plum” and Rocky`s vision was partially restored.
Of course, in those hard times, people were more frugal and better knew the value of money. Silver screen star Spencer Tracey who was the first actor to win consecutive Oscars for Best Actor recalled:
“There were times when my pants were so thin, that I could sit on a dime and know if it was heads or tails!”
No complaints about Rocky`s work ethic, which brought him a KO in the sixth, and just as well. “Whitey” kept a tailor`s pin in his pocket to stick into the rump of fighters he considered lazy, as they exited the stool in HIS corner!!! The Trilogy fight ended with a KO for Tony in the third!
Bert Sugar who among his other accomplishments edited Ring Magazine said of Tony: “Zale was the greatest body puncher in the history of Boxing. He knocked out Rocky Graciano in their first fight, by burying his hand up to the wrist in Graciano`s mid-section.”
Tony was out of the ring for four years because he volunteered for the Navy in World War Two. At Great Lakes boot camp in 1942, the Registration Officer, who was obviously not from the Intelligence Corps, curtly demanded: “Name and profession!” To which Tony mildly and modesty replied: “Anthony Zaleski, professional boxer, middleweight.”
Back shot the reply: “I`d hate to be in your shoes Zaleski. Tony Zale is due in next week!”
Magnificent two times middleweight champion of the world in the ring, outside of it, people would invariably find Tony kind. Married to Philomena, they were the doting parents of two daughters. A devout man, he once said: “I gave myself to God, and God helped me with my championships.”