Sunday, February 8, 2015

Book Review: Tony Zale: The Man of Steel

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review By Peter Silkov

"You receive far more from life by what you give, rather than what you get."

~Tony Zale 


 Most boxing fans are familiar with the life stories of Rocky Graziano and Jake Lamotta. Both boxers were World middleweight champions during the late 1940s at a time when the middleweight division was enjoying a golden era of great fighters and great fights. After their fighting days were over, each man would have successful autobiographies and films released about their lives and boxing careers. Graziano only had to wait until the mid-1950s to see both come to fruition. Yet, there was one man who missed out on the post-career acclaim afforded to both Graziano and Lamotta, and his name was Tony Zale. Zale was also a World middleweight champion during the 1940s, winning the title twice, being the first man to regain the title since the legendary Stanley Ketchel.  Despite this achievement, and a record that speaks for itself, Zale would not receive the same attention afforded to both Graziano and Lamotta.

Zale and Graziano are indelibly linked together by the three wars that they waged for the World middleweight title between the years 1946 to 1948. While Zale emerged from the trilogy the winner, with two victories out of the three fights, it was Graziano who would go on to enjoy a profitable post-fight career, being a regular fixture on tv, while Zale was to slip into the background, almost unnoticed, and forgotten.

Graziano was a loud, colourful and controversial character, whereas, Zale was a quiet, and reserved person outside of the ring; a man who preferred to do his talking with his fists inside a boxing ring, rather than try to gain attention for himself outside of it. As a result, while the legends of both Graziano and Lamotta have grown through the years, Tony Zale has in many ways become a forgotten champion, and when he is remembered, it is primarily because of his connection to Rocky, and their classic fights together, rather than his own individual boxing career, aside from his battles with Graziano.

However, after many years of anticipation, a new book, “Tony Zale: The Man of Steel” looks to redress the balance and finally bring back some long deserved recognition to “The Man of Steel.”

Written by Zale’s nephew, Thad Zale, and Clay Moyle, “Tony Zale: the Man of Steel” looks closely at the man behind the boxing gloves, resulting in an intimate biography that varies between recounting Zale’s exciting career within the ropes, to his personal life outside of the ring. This includes some moving, and at times, startling revelations about Tony’s private life which reveals the strength and integrity of his character as a man, not just a fighter.

The subtitle of this biography is “His toughest battles weren’t fought inside the ring” and as one delves into its pages, the reasons for such a subtitle becomes clear. 

Zale was born Anthony Zalezkie on May 29, 1913, in Gary, Indiana, of Polish stock. It is almost a cliché to say that a fighter had a hard upbringing, but Zale’s life was marked by tragedy early on when his father Josef died in a traffic accident when Tony was still an infant. The loss was made even more acute for Zale as his father died while riding his bike to the local pharmacy to buy medicine for a two-year old Tony, who was sick with measles and chicken pox. 

Losing his father at such a young age, and under such circumstances, might have been enough to push someone with less character off the rails and into a troubled childhood and adolescence. Yet, the Zale family was a strong unit, with a deeply held religious foundation, and led by Tony’s mother, Catherine, Zale and his six siblings pulled together in the coming years to keep the family together and put food on the table. It was the kind of attitude that was needed to survive, especially during the darkening years of the depression.

Instead of rebelling, or becoming a juvenile delinquent, Tony would play his part to help his family survive, and this search to improve the lives of his mother and siblings eventually led Tony to follow his older brothers and take up boxing, first as an amateur, then as a professional. Despite an impressive amateur mark of  over 200 fights, Zale's professional career started off with a false start, as from 1934 to 1935 he was mismanaged to a 17-9-1 record, and promptly retired for a time, and chose to earn his money in the hot hell of the Gary Indiana’s steel mills instead. Perhaps some of the steel of Gary’s infamous mills seeped into Tony’s skin, but the story of his return to the ring, and how he built himself up from just another struggling young fighter, into one of the world’s premier fighting machines, and eventually the Middleweight champion of the world, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this biography.

At his peak, Zale was a box-fighter, with one of the most deadly body attacks in the business. He was also a lionhearted fighter who was at his most dangerous when he was hurt. It says much for Zale’s pugilistic ability that he participated in his classic trilogy with the much younger Graziano when he was in his early 30s, having lost four of his peak years due to WW2. Zale’s fights with Graziano are only a part of his ring story. The battles that he went through in order to win the world title just before WW2 intervened upon his career are fully explored in this book.

The details of Zale’s fights are well recounted, and at times, you can almost feel his crunching left hooks to the body, and his right hooks to the head. Indeed, it is one of the almost typically perverse ironies of boxing that the first two Zale vs. Graziano contests were not filmed, although rumours of clandestinely filmed footage existing somewhere still surfaces every now and then. With this in mind, the detailed descriptions of all three fights between Zale and Graziano, and their build-ups and aftermaths, are especially welcome.

In addition to his fighting career, we also see how Zale’s private life with his first wife was disintegrating, even as he was thriving as world champion. The eventual demise of Zale’s first marriage, including the loss of custody of his two daughters, straight after the end of his boxing career, is a devastating blow from which the proud champion never fully recovered.  True to his character, Zale simply takes the blows and gets on with life the best he can, and furthermore, spends much of his time giving back to others. He spent much of his post-boxing life training youngsters, but would not only encourage their physical development, but also their mental development. He encouraged those that he encountered to complete their academic education at all costs, believing as he did, that a full education was a fundamental basis of success in life, and regretting his own abbreviated time at school.

As well as its detailed narrative, this biography is filled with numerous photos, most of them rare. In fact, the last 109 pages of “Tony Zale: the Man of Steel” are a collection of hundreds of photos from the Zale family collection, in addition to an index and Zale’s full fight-by-fight boxing record.

Both Thad Zale and Clay Moyle have lovingly put this book together, and the respect and affection, that the authors hold for their subject, is clear, at the same time,  does not overshadow the end product.

During my own journey as a lifelong follower and fan of boxing, I can remember first reading about Tony Zale at the age of about 8, and reading about how he emerged the overall winner from his three bloody wars with Rocky Graziano.  I would go on to read as much as I could about both of these fighters, and remember my puzzlement when I found so little literature on Zale, in comparison to that upon Graziano. In many ways, this is a boxing biography that I have been waiting for ever since I first read the name Tony Zale, as a wide-eyed eight-year old. Having finally read it almost 40 years later, I am happy to say that the wait has been worthwhile. This is a biography which I feel positive that the champion himself would have been proud. Much of it is bittersweet, Zale did not have an easy life, and there are some episodes within this book when you feel moved and disturbed upon Zale’s behalf.  However, what shines through the pages of this biography, most strongly, is the constant strength of character, which Zale exhibited, even in his lowest times. This man truly had a steely resolve not to give in to the blows of misfortune and fate, and faced the many ups and downs of life with the stoical determination with which he faced his opponents inside the boxing ring.

Despite this steeliness, Zale comes across as having a warm and gentler character beneath the external toughness. Tony Zale emerges from “Tony Zale: The Man Of Steel” as a champion in life, not just in the ring, which is perhaps the greatest compliment that can be bestowed upon anyone. Just like Zale himself, this biography packs a hefty punch, and I would regard it as a must read for anyone who is a serious boxing fan, and especially those who are fascinated by the great champions of Tony’s era, when the top fighters thought nothing of fighting on a monthly basis, and every weight division had just one world champion.  “Tony Zale: The Man Of Steel” not only portrays the life and fighting career of Tony Zale, but it also brings the reader back to an era in boxing that will probably never be seen within the sport again.

“Tony Zale: The Man of Steel” is out now, and can be purchased by either of the authors, or from Amazon.  Hopefully this biography will bring Zale back into the minds of today’s modern boxing fans, and he will be granted the kind of respect and recognition that for so long seemed to elude this iron man of years gone by.

You can order from the authors directly and also read more about Tony Zale's life on the website


Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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