DEMARCO IS IN!
At long last, Boston boxer earns Hall of Fame induction
by Don Stradley
His fights were thrillers. He was a left-hook artist. He was built like a tugboat and could take a beating. He won the welterweight championship by beating Johnny Saxton on April Fools Day, 1955, kicking off a four day celebration in his North End neighborhood. No Boston fighter since has captured the city's imagination quite like Tony DeMarco.
When it was announced that DeMarco will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as part of the 2019 class, the general reaction was "What took so long?"
Like another Boston sports icon, Jim Rice of the Red Sox, DeMarco had to be patient while waiting for voters to get wise. Like Rice, there was talk that DeMarco's numbers simply weren't strong enough to rate him alongside Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and other ring immortals. But also like Rice, one had to look beyond the numbers to appreciate DeMarco's allure.
"He was our hope," said Walter Lopez (aka Wally Mambo), a friend who witnessed DeMarco's amazing effect on post war Bostonians. "Hope for the neighborhood, for the North End, for the entire city. When he won, we all won. When he became champion, we all became champion. And that's not just the truth, it's a fact."
The Boston Garden nearly capsized on the might DeMarco beat Saxton. DeMarco has the fight on a worn VHS tape, and occasionally puts it into a creaky old machine for visitors. They wait for the moment in the 14th round when DeMarco drove Saxton into a corner and unloaded 25 consecutive punches. Saxton was tough and had connections to the mob, but this wasn't his night. DeMarco was once asked his opinion on Floyd Mayweather. "You know who he reminds me of?" DeMarco said. "Johnny Saxton."
Friends who have known DeMarco for 70 years remember when he had trouble getting fights, and how he actually went to Los Angeles with plans to box under an alias. He couldn't get fights out there, either. He took a job driving a truck, transporting plumbing parts. From the earliest days of his career, DeMarco seemed destined for magical highs and desperate lows.
He turned pro at 16, borrowing the identity of an older kid in the neighborhood. Some key career decisions were made by coin flips in backrooms. He was shuffled around, from Boston to New Jersey to Montreal. He took fights on short notice. On some nights he bled so much he feared the ringside reporters were getting drenched with his blood. Managers came and went. He met Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. He met John Garfield and Jeff Chandler. He met Lili St Cyr, the bubble bath dancer. He won fights. He lost fights.
The Boston Garden was DeMarco's battlefield. He headlined there more than 20 times. He used to walk to the Garden from his home on Fleet Street. The night he beat Saxton, he strolled back home with the title belt. Even now at 86, he lives just up the street from where it once stood. The more modern, slightly sterile TD Garden stands in its place. He wishes the building still hosted boxing."I stay close," he says, "in case they need me for a preliminary."
Like many fighters, DeMarco came from a hard neighborhood. DeMarco stayed out of trouble, but admits to being friendly with several of the North End's alleged bad guys. He even had a passing acquaintance with Frankie Carbo, the gangland killer who controlled much of boxing during the 1940s and '50s. "We talked a few times," DeMarco said. "Never in depth. To tell the truth, I wish he had managed me. I would've made more money."
Taken as a whole, DeMarco's career wasn't spectacular. But he was beloved in Boston, and for a few years he was as popular as Ted Williams or Tom Brady or any other New England athlete. Even now, when he ventures beyond his zip code, older citizens still recognize him and stop him. "People are very kind," DeMarco says. "Here we are 60 years later, and people still remember. Sometimes I think, 'How did this happen? I'm just a little guy from the North End.'"
The little guy had some big moments. He beat Kid Gavilan, one of the all time greats, at the Garden. There was a rousing trilogy with Gaspar Ortega, a favorite of TV's golden age. Ortega once said, at a time when DeMarco seemed unlikely to ever be inducted, "I don't know why Tony isn't in the Hall of Fame. He was Mr. Excitement."
Sometimes DeMarco shrugged it off. If the Hall didn't want him, he was fine. He had his friends and his health. He had a cozy West End apartment. The city erected a statue of him in 2012. He was happily married. Life was nice. Yet, he was hoping there would be room for him in Canastota, the shrine for boxing legends.
Friends created petitions. There were phone calls. There were mass e-mails. Every few years, some well-meaning boxing writer would try to get DeMarco's name on a ballot. Nothing panned out until this year. The late Bert Sugar once griped, "He should be in there with Carmen Basilio because the two names belong together like pork and beans."
The Basilio - DeMarco fights were unfettered violence disguised as sport. DeMarco had only been champion for eight weeks when he went to Basilio's home turf in Syracuse. He was knocked out in the 12th. The rematch took place in Boston. DeMarco landed a brick of a left hook and had Basilio dazed. Somehow, Basilio survived. Again, DeMarco was stopped in 12.
"It was thirty years before I could talk about those fights," DeMarco said. "I was in a casino, and I looked up, and ESPN was replaying one of the bouts with Carmen." DeMarco started to crack jokes about the action. "The people around me probably thought I was crazy, but I felt good. Relieved. I finally had a sense of humor about losing."
The case for DeMarco's Hall of Fame membership gained momentum with the recent inductions of Ray Mancini and Arturo Gatti. Like DeMarco, they weren't members of boxing's elite, but they were fan favorites who fought like tigers. If they were in, the argument went, there was certainly a place for DeMarco.
When news of his induction finally reached him, Tony D. played it cool.
“Yeah, I’d thought of it from time to time after all these years, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” he told the Boston Globe. “I kind of thought I might have been there sooner, you know?”
DeMarco never had a shortage of local support for the cause. Several people had hounded the Hall of Fame's executive director, Ed Brophy. The question was always the same: What exactly was the hold up?
"A lot of people were pulling for him," said writer Springs Toledo. "Jimbo Curran, a local legend who founded the South Boston Boxing Club has been haunting Ed Brophy with calls for over a decade. Ring 4 (the Massachusetts Boxing Hall of Fame) has a lot of rough characters and they've been all over Brophy, too."
Regarding his won-loss record, which DeMarco admits isn't stellar (he prefers to say he had 71 professional bouts, rather than break it down into 58-12-1), his record is actually better than some of the IBHOF's previous inductees.
But more important than the stats are the moments:
- Like the time DeMarco, a 21-year-old lightweight in his first 10-rounder, overcame a 5-stitch gash over his left eye and rallied to defeat 10-7 favorite Paddy DeMarco.
- Or the one round blowout of Chico Vejar, a top rated fighter.
- Or the spectacular brawl with Wallace Bud Smith, won by DeMarco via ninth round KO.
- Or the time he headlined at Fenway Park and pounded out a decision over Vince Martinez, one of the slickest welterweights of the era.
- Or the night in 1955 when he stopped Saxton in the 14th.
That night was the payoff after many years of struggling. As an amateur he'd often sold back his trophies so he could afford his gym fees. As a pro he endured buffoonish managers, "likable jerks" who didn't know how to promote him. There were long stretches of inactivity, where DeMarco found himself in a couple of sidewalk scuffles where he knocked the hell out of some local mugs. Fearing bad publicity or a lawsuit, he made his memorable California trip.
Life after boxing saw more struggles. He had two children who died young. He went through a stressful divorce. There were bad investments and business deals gone awry.
DeMarco stayed busy, though. He worked as a liquor salesman. He owned a cocktail lounge. He worked as a court officer in Boston's State House. He amused himself by acting in amateur theatricals, usually in dinner theater productions where he played a Mafia boss. He rarely had lines. He just wore a nice suit and looked tough.
He was often invited to attend Hall of Fame dinners and take part in the annual motorcades, but no induction was forthcoming. Sometimes it irked him. Year after year he heard about other fighters being inducted, fighters he'd beaten. He couldn't figure out why he remained a bridesmaid. Was it his short title reign? A friend who wished to remain anonymous offered a theory: "It was because he was so closely associated with Boston, which isn't well-known as a boxing city. If Tony had been from New York or Philadelphia, he would've been in the Hall of Fame years ago."
What kept him going was a generation of Bostonians who never forgot him.
The late Herald writer Tim Horgan once said that it was difficult to compare DeMarco to any Boston athletes who came later. "He was major, there's no doubt about it. When he lost, there was sadness. It was probably more personal than when a team loses. People identify with individuals more than they do a full team. I think there was more of a personal grief about it."
"Everybody liked Tony," said Lou Lanci, an old friend. "The old people, the kids, the cops, the priests, and the wiseguys. They all liked Tony."
"Those people in Boston," said Ortega, "they acted like they would give their life for Tony."
That his career amounted to anything was a long shot. Along with contracts that gave him fits, DeMarco had an undiagnosed blood sugar problem which caused him to tire in fights. He also had a problem with his nose - a mere tap would have him bleeding like Niagara Falls. Still, he was the underdog who kept punching.
"When I was a boy," DeMarco said, "I had pictures on my bedroom wall of Willie Pep, Jake LaMotta, Joe Louis, and Ray Robinson. They were my heroes. I got to meet them all, and I became a champion, too. It was only for eight weeks, but I would've been honored to be champion for one day."
This June, Tony DeMarco will be on a podium in Canastota, about 25 miles from where he once fought Basilio. He'll receive a Hall of Fame ring. He'll deliver a short speech. Maybe there will be a plaster cast made of his fist. It will be a nice afternoon for him.
DeMarco was only a champion for a brief time, but he'll be a Hall of Famer forever.