Carlos Acevedo takes a look back at the life of one time world heavyweight title challenger, Gus Dorazio.
Gus Dorazio, a fearless but limited contender during the late 1930s and early 1940s, made his name by being pole-axed in two rounds during a championship bid against Joe Louis in 1941. Outside of the ring Dorazio was notorious for his scrapes with the law. On the fringes of the underworld for most of his life, Dorazio even resembled the part of a thug: his craggy face suggested a character Chester Gould might have invented.
At his peak, Dorazio made life hell for a slew of top fighters with his roughhouse style and determination. Although Dorazio scored several upsets during his career, most notably against Bob Pastor and Joe Baksi, world-class fighters nearly always turned back his crude rushes, and his debacle against Joe Louis reduced his career to a “Bum-of-the-Month” punchline.
Years later, a wistful Dorazio would always recall his only chance to make it big. Perhaps, with a better showing, things might have turned out better for a man who seemed haunted by his feeble performance against Louis for the rest of his life. “I still dream of that fight,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981.
Gus Dorazio, whose real name was Justine Vincolota, was born on July 4th, 1916, in South Philadelphia. In 1932 nearly a quarter of Philadelphia residents were jobless, and by 1933 Pennsylvania as a whole recorded an astonishing unemployment rate of forty percent. The Great Depression had waylaid the Keystone State and survival often meant fighting in one way or another. As a teenager, Dorazio learned to scrap on the harsh streets of Little Italy by providing security for a neighborhood waffle wagon. He also sold candy apples and often had to defend his wares from other neighborhood hooligans.
Dorazio soon gave up the street corners for a job as a stevedore. He also began training in a local gym. After winning the Philadelphia Golden Gloves and the District Amateur Championships as a light heavyweight, Dorazio turned pro in 1935. His first bout took place at the Waltz Dream Arena in Atlantic City. Over the next four years he earned a sizable local following with his roughhouse style and repertoire of hardboiled wisecracks.
Early in his career Dorazio fought exclusively in the Philadelphia and Atlantic City clubs. Under the guiding light of local businessman Joe Martino, Dorazio won his first twenty-one fights. Thirteen of these opponents, however, had zeroes in the victory column, and several others had notched fewer the three wins apiece. Martino sent Dorazio down the “set-up” route from the very beginning, but when Dorazio faced fringe contender and Jack Dempsey protégé Red Burman on April 23, 1937 his nifty streak came to a dead end. Burman earned a 10-round split decision over Dorazio, and the burly Philadelphian went on to drop three more nods in just over a year, including a bruising points loss to fellow paisan Al Ettore. Nearly 10,000 fans packed The Arena on Market Street to watch their native sons swap leather for what Dorazio amusingly referred to as the “Championship of Little Italy.” Ettore, on the downslide after having been knocked out by Joe Louis in September 1936 and nearly murdered by Tony Galento in July 1937, still had enough cute moves left to score a majority decision over a plodding Dorazio.
Gritty as always, Dorazio kept plugging along, grinding his way to points wins over undistinguished stumblebums before losing a decision to former amateur star and Tommy Loughran apprentice Matt Raymond in July 1938. Raymond would later be “outed” as a faux big man after removing his pants at a weigh-in to reveal that he was wearing a lead belt weighing twenty pounds!
Two months later Dorazio won the rematch and went on to spring a major upset over Bob Pastor on December 12, 1938. 6,000 spectators crowded the Philadelphia Arena to watch hometown hero Dorazio twice deck the nifty boxing Pastor en route to a surprise decision over 10 rounds. Certainly Pastor hitting the canvas twice was a shock. In addition to his poor defensive skills and limited footwork, Dorazio lacked the pop a Hollywood starlet might have been expected to possess. In fact, at that point, Dorazio was in the midst of an incredible stretch of 23 consecutive fights without a stoppage. In a statistic worthy of Robert Ripley, Dorazio, who scored 16 of his 21 career knockouts during his early undefeated stretch, scored only five knockouts over his last 77 fights for a KO percentage of just under 4%.
Defeating Pastor, who went 10 fleet-footed rounds against Joe Louis in 1937, shot Dorazio into his first appearance at Madison Square Garden. His dream gig on the biggest stage in boxing quickly turned into a nightmare, however, when Roscoe Toles, veteran spoiler, pounded him into submission for a seventh round TKO on the Red Burman-Tommy Farr undercard on January 13, 1939. (Toles, the lanky Detroit wrecking ball, is notable for his own strange-but-true statistic: his first ten opponents, including a rampaging Joe Louis in a not so friendly exhibition bout, had a combined record on 124-24-6!) Dorazio returned to the Garden two months later and lost a decision to contender Patsy Perroni. He never won a fight in New York City.
In 1939 Dorazio took on streaking light heavyweight champion Billy Conn in Philadelphia. Before the fight, Conn gave Dorazio, who was kvetching about the color of his trunks, a politically incorrect tongue-lashing: “Listen Dago, all you’re going to need is a catcher’s mitt and a chest protector.” “The Pittsburgh Kid” was, more or less, right. He thumped Dorazio all over the ring on the way to scoring a bloody eighth round TKO before a crowd of 12,000. Throughout the fight Dorazio showed the heart and toughness that would endear him to Quaker City fans; although he was beaten like an old rug for most of the match, he still protested the stoppage.
Photo courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring
After the Conn bout, Dorazio ran off a solid winning streak, drawing large crowds in Pennsylvania with his back alley style. But the punishment he took, even in victory, was debilitating. He mauled and bled his way to eleven consecutive wins, but only one of them ended by knockout. The long rounds were taking their toll on him. “My poor mother,” his sister, Marion Biscaccia, would later tell The Philadelphia Daily News. “Mommy used to have the pots on the stove to bathe his eyes.” His streak ended when Chilean hard case Arturo Godoy outpointed him over ten strenuous rounds in October 1940.
By then, five years into his career, Dorazio was already running on empty. But when Mike Jacobs decided that his money-making magic machine, Joe Louis, might be lost in a gathering fog of war, the “Bum-of-the-Month Club” was established, and Gus Dorazio was quickly offered a discount membership.
Two weeks after knocking out Red Burman in Madison Square Garden, Louis stepped into Convention Hall in Philadelphia to face Dorazio, his third “bum“ in as many months. But Louis was never happy with the disparaging label reporter Jack Miley pinned on his opponents. “Those guys I fought were not bums,” he told Art Rust, Jr. “They were hard-working professionals trying to make a dollar, too. I knew the training they went through, and I knew the dreams they had. No different than me. I respected every man I fought.”
Louis may have respected Dorazio, but he would have to go a long way to find someone else who shared his sentiments. Betting lines fluctuated and neared lottery odds before finally settling on Dorazio as a 15 to 1 underdog. James P. Dawson of The New York Times called Dorazio “...one of the most harmless challengers Louis, or any other champion of recent years, for that matter, has ever faced.” Even Pennsylvania Senator John J. Haluska, a former amateur boxer, called the match a farce and threatened a congressional hearing. In response, Dorazio promised to knock Louis through the ropes and into the lap of Senator Haluska. Rarely are wish fulfillment scenarios so farfetched.
Ticket prices, scaled from $1.25 to $5.75, were indicative of the second-rate show promoter Herman Taylor thought the fight would be. Dorazio, on the other hand, was as chipper as ever. “I’ve been training for three weeks now and I’ll be in top form when I meet Louis,” Dorazio told the Associated Press. “I can’t lose. I always fight best against the good boys.”
On February 17, 1941, Gus Dorazio entered the ring against Joe Louis for the chance of a lifetime. Even a strong losing effort would make him a hero throughout Pennsylvania. Anything less than that and Dorazio faced the possibility of being a laughing stock. Indeed, Dorazio seemed acutely aware of his reputation in the days leading up to the fight. “All the money in all the banks in Philadelphia couldn’t make me climb into that ring Monday night if I thought I couldn’t win,” he told the newswires. “Not with all those people looking at me.” Of course, if he won, his rough and tumble life would be changed forever. 15,902 fans jammed Convention Hall to see if he could do it.
When the bell rang for round one, Louis, 203 ½, and Dorazio, 193 ½, met at ring center. Dorazio was counting on his crouching style, in theory--if not exactly in practice--similar to that of Nathan Mann and Arturo Godoy, to fluster Louis, and it did--for all of a minute. Louis looked awkward sailing shots over his ducking opponent early in the opening round, and Dorazio, to the astonishment of the Milky Way, even managed to land several hard body shots as well as a flicking left hook. But Louis remained unflustered. Midway through the first round “The Brown Bomber” started to reach his target and Dorazio began to resemble a man staggering through Tornado Alley. Still, it was a fairly good round for Dorazio, and he returned to his corner in high spirits. During the rest period Dorazio told his trainer Jimmy Wilson that Louis was not nearly as tough as advertised. “I’m going out and stiffen him,” he said. But it was Dorazio who would wind up stiff.
Round two began with Dorazio squatting so low that he resembled Arturo Godoy in disguise. He exchanged a few jabs with Louis and rushed in without consequence. A little over a minute into the round, Dorazio popped up from his crouch and Louis straightened him up with a left hook. Then he stepped forward and connected with a short straight right that landed with the force of a Howitzer. “Dorazio,” reported Ted Meier, “fell flat on his face completely senseless.” The Philadelphia tough guy was counted out by referee Irving Kutcher while struggling to regain his feet. He had to be carried to his corner by his seconds.
Despite the humiliating knockout defeat, Dorazio continued his career, now losing nearly as often as he won. His record after the Louis fiasco includes an upset of Joe Baksi and decisions over Gunnar Barlund and Harry Bobo, but the TKOs started to mount and the scar tissue lining his brows began to split with revolting ease. He was still an attraction in Philadelphia, however, and thousands paid to see him war with the likes of Melio Bettina and Turkey Thompson. By 1943 Dorazio was under the management of the infamous Blinky Palermo, numbers king of Philadelphia and close associate of Frankie Carbo, and was hitting the road more often where spotty decisions often went against him.
In 1946 Dorazio, with his career in a deadfall, was convicted of draft dodging after the FBI discovered that his job as a wartime welder was strictly “no show.” He was sentenced to a year in prison. After his release, Dorazio mounted a dismal comeback before retiring for good in 1946 with a record of 77-20-5.
In retirement Dorazio revealed a bleak entrepreneurial side that included numbers running, leg-breaking, and armed robbery. But it was as a union goon that Dorazio found himself in existential trouble. In 1949 Dorazio lost control while performing his duties as an enforcer at the C. Schmidt and Sons Brewery in Philadelphia. Ostensibly a bottler at the plant, Dorazio was really hired muscle for the mob. The vicious beating he gave to Albert Blomeyer, 33, on January 27, 1949 proved to be fatal. Blomeyer, a bottler who had been circulating pro-labor petitions at the brewery, died of a fractured skull after Dorazio was through with him.
Did Dorazio miscalculate the amount of force he needed to teach Blomeyer a lesson? Or did he just snap at the wrong time? When collared by detectives at his home in Yeadon, Dorazio spluttered out an impromptu, pre-Miranda Rights defense: “”People had been taunting me,” he said. “They called me punch drunk. They called me on the phone to heckle me. I just got the notion to get even with someone.” His outburst, negligible as a defense, seems odd in light of the circumstances. Did Dorazio slip over the edge and take out the frustrations of his life on Albert Blomeyer?
None of this, of course, made any difference to his open and shut case. The evidence against Dorazio was overwhelming, and it took less than an hour for a jury to find him guilty of second-degree murder. Dorazio spent nearly three and a half years in notorious Eastern State penitentiary. After being released, he drifted in and out of both jobs and trouble for the next decade. Dorazio slowed down when a chronic back injury suffered during his days as a boxer flared up and forced him to collect disability. Never far from his mind, it seemed, was the fight with Joe Louis.
In his later years, out of work and with a reputation for being slightly punchy, Dorazio would repeat his claim that he would have beaten “The Brown Bomber” in a rematch to whoever would stop and listen. When Louis died in 1981, The Philadelphia Inquirer sought Dorazio out for an interview. “I still dream of that fight,” he said. “I was sure I could beat Louis, and in the first round I hurt him. I know I’d have beaten him if I hadn’t left my feet throwing a hook and he nailed me. I could’ve handled him--honest.” Gus Dorazio, often cited as one of the inspirations for the character of Rocky Balboa, died in 1987, more than 50 years after he first stepped into the Waltz Dream Arena.
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Friday, June 12, 2009
Carlos Acevedo takes a look back at the life of one time world heavyweight title challenger, Gus Dorazio.