For more than a decade Joey Giardello has been boxing's version of the groundhog, annually emerging from his hole in search of some shadowy substance only to descend in frustration once again. Last Saturday night scowling, scar-faced Joey emerged at a most improbable location; in the center of Atlantic City's vast Convention Hall, where Miss America parades in peaches-and-cold-cream glory each fall. In Bert Parks's absence, the music came from Giardello's fists as he bounced enough lefts and rights off Dick Tiger's Nigerian profile to win, after 15 years and 123 professional fights, the middleweight championship of the world.
Boxing is often a morality play in reverse—you cannot keep a bad man down—and the life and hard times of Joey Giardello are as good an example as one will find east of Sonny Liston. At important moments in his career, Joey could always be depended upon to involve himself in a scrape with the police or with some available athletic commission or with his managers or, most frequently, with himself. Joey asked himself a lot of questions and usually came up with the wrong answers: Should he or should he not train for a fight? Should he or should he not forsake hoodlum friends? Should he or should he not, at the age of 25—or 28 or 32—cease being a juvenile delinquent?
Yet despite his endless troubles, because of his exceptional fighting skills Giardello has always managed to mine a good living from the ring, and last weekend, when the last big opportunity ever likely to present itself came along, Joey was ready as never before. "I suddenly realized," he said shortly before the fight, "that at 33 I might not have many tomorrows left." Never had he worked so hard or trained so long or held his whims and impulses so tightly in check, and on Saturday night all of the things that have often promised to make Joey Giardello an artist at his craft came together at one time.
He outmaneuvered Tiger, he outguessed the slab-sided little champion, he conducted a boxing lesson for 15 rounds. Using his advantage in reach, he kept a left in Tiger's face. After some uncomfortable moments in the early rounds he solved the problem of Tiger's own left, which was threatening to beat the right side of Joey's head as flat as scaloppine every time the two moved into a clinch. In constant danger of being trapped in a corner or up against the ropes by his harder-hitting opponent, Giardello slipped and whirled and feinted and fled; when all else failed he fought back in furious flurries, punching his way to safety. And instead of weakening as the fight went on, Giardello surprised everyone, except possibly himself, by growing stronger.
December 16, 1963
"For 12 years," Joey said when it was all over, "I've been allowed to press my nose against the window, to get close to the title but never to touch it. Now it's mine and it's wonderful."
About the only one willing to philosophize about this sudden denigration of good (Tiger is a dedicated little man who in better moments has been exhibited as a testimonial for temperance and the clean, wholesome life) was Adolph Ritacco, Giardello's trainer. "It's a miracle," he said. "It's a miracle that he's still fighting today, that he ever won a fight.
"I can't tell you," said Ritacco, "how many times Joey left the house just to go to the corner to get a pack of cigarettes—and then wouldn't be heard from again until six weeks later when he'd call his wife from Chicago. Six weeks before a fight I'd say, 'Joey, we start training tomorrow.' He'd say, 'Sure, Adolph, tomorrow. I'll be at the gym in the morning.' A month later I'd finally run him down and drag him in. Then I'd have to spend the two weeks left sweating off 20 or 30 pounds so he could come in as a middleweight. The night before some of his fights he'd be in the clubs until 2 or 3 in the morning."
Despite these obstacles, Giardello actually has entered the ring a good many times. He fought Tiger twice before, and he won the last of those, partly because Tiger was penalized for butting tactics. He fought Gene Fullmer to a draw on April 20, 1960 in a championship fight in Bozeman, Mont. In time, he fought—and defeated—most of the worthwhile middleweights of the past 15 years, and those who escaped him did so out of choice, a choice their own, not Giardello's. And so his joy at winning last Saturday night could be excused. He had waited a long time.
Nine years ago Joey Giardello was the No. 1 contender for the middleweight title. He was scheduled to meet Bobo Olson for the championship, but as a prelude he wrecked his automobile and injured his knee, which eventually had to be operated on. The title fight was postponed, and never did take place. A few months after the postponement, Giardello and a carload of friends got into an unfriendly discussion with a gasoline station attendant. Joey and his buddies smashed the gas tanks, the station, the attendant—and Giardello's chance for a fight with Olson. Unconsciously—Giardello's acts always seemed unconscious—Joey gave Bobo an out, and Olson took it. "I will not fight Giardello until his name is cleared," Olson said. Giardello was not cleared. He served a 4½-month sentence, the beginning of his years of frustration.
"As time passed," says one matchmaker, "Joey became the most poorly managed fighter in the history of the ring." According to Joe Louis, "the worst managing he got was from himself. He didn't take care of himself and wound up losing fights he should have won." Giardello has a different theory. "It wasn't that at all," he says. "It's just that some nights I felt like fighting and some nights I didn't." Like those surrounding John O'Hara's Pal Joey, there was always an astounding collection of oddball characters—cops, robbers, even the Dodgers—waiting at Giardello's elbow to help confuse the issue. A devoted Dodger fan, on first-name clubhouse acquaintance with all the players, Giardello couldn't tear himself away from Brooklyn games long enough to train or concentrate on his fights. Worse, a good part of his purses went as wagers on the Dodgers and—when he ran short—he always had access to syndicate loan sharks.
After a sinister New York hoodlum and usury kingpin had loaned Giardello $1,000 to bet on the Dodgers, the New York State Athletic Commission became unhappy. Commission members' doubts were not resolved by an occasional lapse of form on Joey's part in what should have been easy fights. The Pennsylvania Athletic Commission suspended the licenses of Carmen Graziano and Tony Ferrante, Giardello's co-managers, for associating with unsavory persons. The New York commission found the managers themselves unsavory—Ferrante's police record was modest, not quite as long as his arm, but it certainly reached his elbow—and it suspended Giardello's license. Since 1957 Giardello has been barred from fighting in New York, and this in turn has kept him off TV (except for the fight with Fullmer in 1960). Injured financially, Giardello finally got rid of his two managers, but New York is not completely convinced even today, and Giardello remains an undesirable in New York rings.
Despite his harsh trade and frustrating career, Giardello is still carefree and unworried. He is a man about town—South Philadelphia, that is, where he has hung out since leaving Brooklyn—and to this heavily Italian section of the city, Joey Giardello is a hero, an easy touch and, until recently anyway, a willing companion. There is always a sizable claque of South Phillyites who make every Giardello fight—an entire train-load turned up in Bozeman, Mont, for the one with Fullmer. There were a hundred times that many Philadelphians in Atlantic City to dance and cheer at last week's decision.
One who resisted the impulse to join in was Dick Tiger. "Ridiculous," he snorted. "How can you win a title by running away?" Guaranteed a rematch in four or five months, Tiger planned to return to Nigeria for a rest. "Then I will come back," he said, "and prove that I am the old Dick Tiger."
The question is whether or not there is really a new Joey Giardello.