IT’S a fact that does not make one feel good, but no former world boxing champion has lived long enough to hit the century mark. The closest was Max Schmeling who exited at age 99. In truth, the odds of anyone in society making it to the age of 101 are long, but when you consider what Tony Graziano has been through, perhaps we need to find a word in the dictionary to replace miraculous.
Graziano was not a former world champion, far from it. Box Rec lists two fights he had as an amateur, both losses, but his impact in boxing, particularly in Western, New York, has been immeasurable.
Tony is legendary to those who have regularly attended Canastota on Hall of Fame weekends since the first festivities occurred in 1990. His bar and restaurant ‘Graziano’s Casa Mia’ was the ultimate meeting establishment for the fight crowd. His Motor Inn of the same name provided lodging all year round, as well. But as they say, all good things must come to an end.
Even though he continues to defy Father Time to this day, it had become apparent to Graziano that even he could not continue to work forever. That and economic factors resulted in him selling his properties in 2018, to the Oneida Indian Nation. It stayed open for a while, and out of respect to Graziano, he continued operating the establishments on his own timeline, one which saw Tony driving to work well into his 90s while putting in a full day at the restaurant. In 2021, he decided to retire. At that point the demolition of the properties began.
To the fight crowd that frequented the restaurant during its 70-year run, Graziano was mainly known as the friendly proprietor who moved freely among the people in greeting the patrons. The memorabilia on the restaurant walls were a hardened boxing fan’s delight. Graziano had a reputation, and one well-earned, for being a chef who took great pride in not only the atmosphere of his establishment, but the quality of the meals served.
“Too many restaurant owners are only interested in mingling with the customers,” says Graziano, “but to stay in business and be a success you have to learn how to be a good cook as well.”
Little did people know that the man who served a dish of spaghetti and meatballs second to none was a highly decorated World War II veteran, serving as a paratrooper in the United States army. How perilously close he had come to death was vivid in a photo with his army friends, none of whom survived the attack on that fatal D-Day. Graziano, forced to eject from his plane early, became entangled in a tree, was shot at by the Germans and survived by faking his demise. He helped liberate the concentration camps and finds it hard to speak about what he witnessed when doing so. With that type of pedigree, it is understandable why he does not consider boxing as dangerous as others might.
It is a weekday morning when Graziano picks up the telephone in his Canastota home with the request to be interviewed for this story. Being accommodating to others has always been his style, but he’s less than enthusiastic at first. “I have some appointments I have to go to, can we talk next week?” he asks.
Soon he relents, and an intended 15-minute conversation turns into one that lasts approximately 40.
Graziano’s daughter, Valerie, had told us her dad was spry, in good shape. “He is independent,” she said. “He lives alone, cooks and cleans for himself.” Tony, who has a wonderful sense of humour, put to bed the myth that you get grumpy with age once he’d warmed into our chat.
Graziano’s memory is remarkable in recounting his long history. However, he is somewhat hard of hearing and several times questions have to be repeated and clarified, but it is apparent that his faculties are intact. And when you are finished speaking to him one thing abundantly stands out: He has given far more to the sport than all but a few realise.
Graziano settled in Canastota as a young man, but was born in the neighbouring town of Verona, New York on January 18, 1922. He was attracted to boxing at a young age. “Before I got out of the army in 1946, I had started to put on amateur shows in Canastota and other places around the area. It then started to grow from there” Graziano remembers.
“I opened gyms all over upstate New York, and at one point had 70-80 pro fighters and a lot of amateur kids I worked with. By my estimate I promoted about 300 shows (amateur and pro) as well.”
The one that stands out the most was at Syracuse’s War Memorial Auditorium on December 3, 1970 when prohibitive underdog Billy Backus shocked Jose Napoles to win the world welterweight title. Graziano, who also trained and managed Backus, put his money where his mouth was in getting his man a shot at the title. “I lost $25-30,000 on the show,” he estimates, “but it was a thrill to see Billy become a world champion.
“I was like a father to him. He lived around the corner from the restaurant.” Graziano then recounts how they met. “One day when he was in high school Billy got into a fight outside of the restaurant with another kid. One of the waitresses told me what was going on. When I went out to see what was happening, I saw this small southpaw knock out a much bigger kid. I asked him how he learned to fight. He said he didn’t know. I then invited him to go to the Canastota Boxing Club which I had started and offered to train him.”
If Graziano was not that familiar with Backus, the opposite was certainly not true. Previously Graziano had trained and managed Billy’s uncle, former world welterweight and middleweight champion, Carmen Basilio. “I started Carmen Basilio out in boxing,” says Graziano. “I had him in the amateurs and then trained and managed him for his first 22 fights as a pro. We then went our separate ways, but I helped him become champ. I was the one who discovered him.
“Fighters sometimes go their separate ways, but we never had a falling out. He always remained a lifelong friend. Carmen needed a job (before he became champion) and moved from Canastota to Syracuse.” The night his nephew became champion, Basilio worked the corner with Graziano.
Among the other fighters Graziano promoted at one time or another were former world light heavyweight challengers Hal Carroll and Tommy Hicks. He also trained and managed light-middleweight contender, Rocky Fratto. “I never made big money in boxing,” Graziano admits. “There were times I even had to borrow money to put on shows. I promoted shows in Canastota, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Ithaca, and Scranton. We had no television in those days for our shows. If you couldn’t sell tickets you lost money. It was that simple.”
Hall of Fame executive director Ed Brophy concurs. “Tony would be up until two in the morning working on shows, getting the posters up, selling tickets and doing everything to make a show a success. He has meant so much to the history of boxing in Canastota and treated me so well from the time I was a boy.”
Graziano is not your typical old-timer who necessarily thinks that the boxers of yesteryear were superior to those of today. He does not have strong feelings on the matter but does distinguish between eras, at least to a degree.
“The fighters of today rely on speed and quickness,” he surmises. “Those of the 70s, 80s and 90s relied more on power. My way of training a fighter was to develop his jab and punching power.”
Despite enjoying legendary status in the small village of Canastota, Graziano’s contribution to boxing history has been overlooked by some. He has never been on the ballot for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame which is housed in his backyard. Yet if not for Graziano, it is reasonable to surmise the Hall of Fame would not exist, at least not in Canastota. It is common knowledge that both Basilio and Backus served as the inspiration for the town starting the Hall of Fame. And it was Graziano who started them out, propelled them to world championships. “I helped in my own way to get the Hall of Fame started, but the credit should go to Ed Brophy who does a great job,” Graziano said modestly.
Now on the grounds across the street from the museum is an empty lot on which, not long ago, Graziano’s establishments stood. Eventually the Oneida Nation will fill up the space. There is talk of a casino among other things. But no matter what it becomes, it will surely never duplicate the years that the crowds gathered at Graziano’s.
Of all the champions who frequented the place, be it Archie Moore, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, or Mike Tyson, the most enduring memory will always be of its upbeat owner who greeted everyone so enthusiastically regardless of who they were.
Maybe Graziano didn’t have the championship fights plenty of his famous customers did but, even at the age of 101, the wily old veteran sounds like he might still have some quality rounds left.