KNOWN as "The Man of Steel," middleweight champion Tony Zale is best remembered for his thrilling three-fight series with fellow Hall of Famer Rocky Graziano.
Born Anthony Florian Zaleski, in Gary, Indiana, Zale opted for a boxing career rather than a lifetime spent working in Gary's steel mills. He worked the mills throughout his amateur career but turned to boxing full-time when he entered the pro ranks in 1934.
By 1939, Zale was considered a top-10 middleweight by virtue of splitting a four-fight series with contender Nate Bolden. He was considered impervious to pain. He managed to endure endless punishment and time and again would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In 1940, he decisioned NBA middleweight champ Al Hostak in a non-title fight. That win earned him a return match with Hostak. This time, with the belt on the line, Zale knocked Hostak out in the 13th to win the title.
Zale remained busy, splitting a pair of non-title fights with Billy Soose and Fred Apostoli to close out the 1940 campaign. In 1941, he defended the NBA title with knockout victories over Steve Mamakos and Hostak. Then he gained universal recognition as middleweight champion by decisioning New York State king Georgie Abrams.
In 1942, Zale dropped a 12-round decision to former light heavy king Billy Conn and then joined the Navy, serving until the end of World War II.
Zale, now 33, was still recognized as champion when the war ended and thus began his series with Graziano. In the first match, at Yankee Stadium, each fighter went down in the first two rounds. Then Graziano assumed control of the fight, battering Zale through the fifth round. But somehow, Zale came out and knocked Graziano out in the sixth. That win earned Zale Fighter of the Year honors from Ring Magazine and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
The rematch in 1947 was just as brutal as the first fight, with Graziano winning this time by sixth-round knockout. In the third and final match, later in '47, Zale knocked out Graziano in three to regain the crown.
Three months later, Zale lost the title to Marcel Cerdan and retired from boxing. So exciting were Zale's fights that two of the Graziano contests and the Cerdan fight were named "Fight of The Year" by The Ring magazine.