WAIL! BACK ISSUES . . . THE CBZ JOURNAL Feb 2001
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ETHNIC WAR OR THE ROCK'S LAST SHOT?
BY ARAM ROCKY ALKAZOFF


"Rock, get ready to go to war," said Vinnie Voscopi, a small, wiry, curly haired guy, from the neighborhood. "You ain't gonna believe this! This fight is on now! This is for bragging rights!"

"What man?", I said, leaning back, against my red 1968 Dodge Charger, taking in the sunshine. "Whats up?"

"Man I got some news for you, that you ain't gonna believe," Vinnie went on, with excited eyes. "Man this is gonna be some action you ain't gonna want to miss."

"Well then," I said, knowing how excitable Vinnie was. "Calm down Vin and lets have it my man."

"Remember the computer tournament?" he said, slowing down. "The one on the radio we used to listen to?"

He was speaking about the imaginary heavyweight tournament on the radio, that had been organized by Murrey Woroner. We had gotten together, a crew of about five or six of us, and listened to every fight. The final match was one in which Rocky Marciano won the all time championship, by defeating Jack Dempsey.

Thinking about it for a split second, I remembered it had been fun listening to it. It was the first of a kind, and we got lost in the imagery of it while listening. In those days we grew up in a mixed, ethnic neighborhood of boxing fans. Around there we all grew up with the endless arguments of who was the best heavyweight, Joe Louis or Dempsey, or Louis and Marciano, or Dempsey and the Rock. There were even votes for Sonny Liston for a while, but usually it was those three. When Rocky Marciano won that tournament (a complete surprise to me) there were alot of happy guys around here, because this neighborhood was at least half Italian. The Rock was their guy. Even if the tournament was a fake, still they were proud of Rock's victory. The guys my age had grown up hearing about the Rock from their fathers and older brothers, and to love him was automatic.

"Hell yeah I remember," I said, casually. "I didn't miss any of that."

"Well remember how the Rock won?" he asked.

"Hell yeah I remember," I answered.

"Well they're gonna have another match, but this one is gonna be at the movies," he said. "You're gonna see the fighters. Rocky's gonna fight Clay for the all time title! Both of em are gonna be in a ring and get it on."

I was stunned by this.

"Rock's too old," I said.

"It ain't a real fight Rock," he said, explaining. "This is gonna be a computer fight, but they're gonna act it out! Rock got back in some shape. I seen him on television. Rock looks pretty good! Man I ain't gonna miss this. Rock's gonna pound that punk."

"Man, thats something," I said, getting interested. "I gotta see that too! Ali could outpoint him though. He's gonna keep moving." "Comon Rock," he said, looking at me like I was crazy. "Rock beat Dempsey in the tournament. The only way he can lose is if they fix it to make the "Yoms" (Italian slang for Blacks) happy. It might be political. But then again I don't think Rock would get involved in any bullshit." "I don't know Vinnie," I said. "You can't trust this stuff. Its only a make believe thing. I don't know how the hell he's getting involved with this. I guess its all for fun anyway. After all Max Baer beat Jack Johnson in that tournament and I don't think he could have done that in real life."

"The hell with that Rock," Vinnie went on with passion. "This is serious. The "Shines" have always been looking for someone to beat Marciano. This is the time. Clay's gonna be the "Great Black Hope"!"

"Yeah Vin," I answered. "But no ones ever beat Ali either. They're gonna make Rocky the "Great White Hope" in return! Its all the way you look at it Vin. And on top of it, its not gonna prove a damm thing." "Yeah but their gonna take it serious if Clay wins," Vinnie went on. "They ain't never gonna shut up if he wins. And if Rock wins they're gonna say it was a fake."

"Yeah but we're gonna say the same thing if Rocky wins," I said, smiling.

"Thats why Rock's gotta win," he said emphatically. "He's got to beat that son of a bitch. I wouldn't miss this fight for nothing either!" Well, as the story teller, remembering this tale, I have to make the picture clearer to the reader. I have to try to recreate the time so the reader will step into the period.

First of all Muhammad Ali, hard as this might be to imagine if you weren't there at the time, was not a national hero back then. In fact he was very disliked. Back then there was the tension between the races over school busing issues and integrating neighborhoods, and there was the Vietnam War. There was passion over all these issues, for and against and Muhammad Ali was in the forefront of the fights. He was a Black Muslim, a segregationist, perceived as anti White, and he also refused to go into the service. His mouth and beliefs were on a pedestal for everyone to see, and in this neighborhood he was not well received.

This was Chicago, a city of ethnic neighborhoods, and this neighborhood was full of the stock of immigrants who had fought the Second World War, Korea, and was now fighting in Viet Nam. People around here were taking it like Ali was spitting on the memory of the veterans and the son's of veterans. Then Ali took up the Black Muslim religion, talked bad about Christians and White people, and was posturing against his opponents both Black and White. This was a Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston neighborhood, and Muhammad Ali was not very popular around here back then.

See no one around here took the Ali victories against Liston as real wins. They were sneered at. So it was perceived that Ali couldn't fight and was soft. Then after that, Ali became a world beater and had punished Ernie Terrell, a Chicago boy not only physically but verbally. Many people around here felt Ali had fouled Terrell, and had won because of it. People were still disliking Ali, but they were starting to see that he could fight.

Now on top of all he's done and how he's so disliked around here, he is daring to say he can beat Rocky Marciano, and he wants us all to watch it on a big screen! Guys around here didn't take that very well, and were nervous about it.

Now I don't want you to think it was only the ethnic white neighborhoods that took this seriously. The Black neighborhoods around here were just as serious and nervous. Ali in many ways represented their causes and concerns, and was their man all the way. Plus the older Black fans knew how tough Rocky had been on their idols of the past, Louis, Charles, Moore, and Walcott. They were itching to see him beaten down and defeated. This fight was gonna be the revenge they were seeking. In their mind, Rocky was certainly not the greatest and they were hoping Ali would expose this for them; All of this seriousness over a fake fight that was no better than the wrestling matches they held at the International Ampatheatre with Buddy "Nature Boy" Rogers, Antonio Rocca, and Bobo Brazil.

Now at first I didn't think much about the match, except that it would be entertaining to see Ali and the Rock sparring away. After all this was 1970, and Marciano was well past his prime and retired over a decade. But as the match grew nearer you could hear rumblings that introduced a possible storm.

"Man Rock," said Al Demartino, a short heavy middle aged guy who worked at Alcamo's Market. "I heard Marciano is punishing Clay's body when they were filming that computer match. He's old but he can still belt! Clay can't take em down there. I always said that."

"I heard that," said "Shorty" DelRosso, a older burly customer, who had been a "head buster" for the Teamsters years before. "Rocky's still got the power. He probably wanted to show that loud mouth who's boss."

They were both nodding, and smiling like this was a sure thing.

"Fellas," I said. "Ali's still a young guy. Rock's out of shape. I got to think Ali's holding back. Its just a show. He don't want to bust Rock up."

"A show huh?" said Jimmy Alcamo, the bald, stocky owner of the place, who always wore a neat apron. "Rocky wants a piece of this big mouth "Mul-yon". He's a quiet guy, and his fists are gonna do his talking. No way he lets this jerk beat him. He's been itching to shut this big mouth's trap."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. These guys were taking this stuff as serious as the young guys. These guys were supposed to be mature.

Now I knew how boxing matches sometimes became wars that tried to settle racial bragging rights. I had seen that a number of times. Even cities get in on it. I mean when Tony Zale fought Rocky Graziano, it was like a New York versus Chicago thing. So racial or ethnic rivalries are naturals in the man against man sport of boxing. I had heard the older guys in the neighborhood tell the stories of the tension when Marciano fought the Black contenders, and of the LaMotta and Robinson St. Valentines Massacre. I myself remembered the tension in school and on the streets when Carmen Basilio fought Sugar Ray. I guess it couldn't be helped, as everyone was proud of their own native sons. Boxing was still the major sport on the inner city streets back then, and everybody followed the big matches.

This stuff really got crazy too. Inevitably when a Italian fought a Black guy in a big match, it was so much a color thing that the Puerto Ricans in the Hood, usually were for the Black guy, while the Mexicans went for the Italian. The Cubans would be split. The darker ones went with the Black guy and the lighter ones with the Italian. Of course if the Puerto Ricans had one of theirs fight a Black guy, they would go for their guy, and same with the Cubans. Same with the Irish. They'd be for the Italian guy against the Black guy, but if it was one of theirs against a Italian; Well quite naturally they'd be for the Irish guy. It goes without saying that the Mexicans went with their guys against a Italian, even though they backed the Italian against the Black. If you think that was crazy, the Mexican's born in Mexico backed guys from there against Mexican Americans, and it was the same with Italian nationals as opposed to Italian Americans. This stuff was complicated.

Now you gotta remember that this was a blue collar neighborhood, and nobody had much education around here back in those days. People were clannish, quick to cling together, and weren't too broad minded. Every group has educated, expansive minds who are able to get past this hurdle, but not very many were like that around here back then. Boxing many times became the platform for racial and ethnic pride amongst the dwellers in the inner city.

By the time fight night approached you could feel the tension. The Black guys I knew weren't any better than our guys.

"What you think Rock?" asked Jimmy Jones, a tall, dark skinned guy I knew from school, in a conversation at a drug store. "Bout what?" I asked.

"Bout that computer match?" he said. "Muhammad Ali and Marciano. What you thinks gonna happen?"

"Man, its just a fake thing," I said, trying to act disinterested. "Who the hell knows whats gonna happen."

"Man Marciano got no shot with Ali," he said. "Everybody knows that. Deep down everyone knows that."

"He didn't fight no one but old guys," said Ray Parker, another Black guy I knew from school, but shorter and stockier. "Joe Louis was a god damm old man and bald when he fought him. He didn't have no god damm business winning that computer tournament. That shit was fixed."

I saw where this conversation was headed, and even though I wasn't Italian, I came from immigrants too, so Rock was kind of our guy too. "Marciano had a shot against anyone," I said. "He could punch, he could take it, and he could go all night. He had a shot against anyone, including Ali. God damm, everyone knows Ali got the title on a damm fix anyway. Can you look me in the eyes and tell me he could'a handled Liston without help?"

Nobody said anything.

"Yeah, thats what I thought," I said. "Anyway Doug Jones whipped him too, only they stole Jones. Ali's damm good, but Marciano got a hell of shot against him."

"Yeah if they fix it," said Jimmy, with a surprising sneer. "They gonna fix it for the white man. Straight up he got no shot. Thats how he won that tournament in the first place. Quiet as kept, he wasn't supposed to even beat Jack Dempsey in the final. That was some fixed garbage there."

This went on and on, and it was starting to get on my nerves. I was trying to keep my cool, and not get into a argument about a fake fight. These guys were buddies of mine too, and we always got along. I could see we were getting into dangerous territory. But I had to say something.

"You guys going?" I asked.

"Hell yes," Ray said. "Thats why Ali asked for this fight. This ones gonna be right. He ain't gonna get mixed up in any bullshit."

"We'll see that night then," I said, in leaving. "Rocky got something for Ali. Same as he had for Archie Moore. A god dammed beating." They just laughed, and I was smiling too. But the tension was there. This thing was heading into crazy territory. I was determined to keep my head about the situation, but I could feel the heat.

To top off the feelings for Marciano was the fact that just before the fight, he was unexpectedly, tragically killed in a small craft airplane crash. This shocked all of his fans, all the Italians in the neighborhood, and sports fans all over the world. It was a terrible thing to happen to the indestructible Rock, and we all mourned for him. Now his fans were cheering for the honor of his family, and the ghost of what he was, that he somehow stay undefeated. This was getting eerie. The night of the computer fight, we all got together at Gary Ceccerelli's place, had a few beers and such, and headed out. The talk was pretty subdued, but I noticed four of the guys had guns on them, amongst other weapons. I didn't say nothing about that. This was the big city and carrying weapons was no big deal down here. But the thought did run through my mind, that I hoped there wasn't going to be any trouble. These were rough guys, several of whom years later went to prison for life as "Mob" enforcers; This neighborhood was always a breeding grounds for gangs and "Outfit" guys, and if there was trouble they wouldn't back down. I also knew many of Ali's fans were the same kind of guys.

The match as I recall wasn't shown at that many theaters, but the big one we went to was not only sold out, but like a zoo. It was smokey, noisy, full of favorable comments about both fighters, and about evenly split with supporters. I looked around trying to get a make on the crowd, as the thought that there might be trouble was still on my mind. The black half of the crowd were worker types, and blue collar, along with plenty of guys our age. The White crowd was a mix of the burly, beer bellied six pack guys and the suburban types, but there was a good amount of young guys too. They were a blue collar crowd too. That uneased me, and I didn't see any cops around either. Somehow nobody recognized the prospects for trouble here.

As we sat down, I started to get the same feelings you get before a good match. I got a little nervous. I knew the match was a "gaff" but still the crowd was yelling, shouting, and rooting for their guy. I was being swept up in the carnival atmosphere of the event.

When the thing started they showed highlight films of Ali and the pro Ali guys went wild. It was a good clip, and he was sparring, looking sharp, fast, artistic, pretty, well built. No matter what he did, the people loudly whooped and hollered, like they were seeing a "God". "Yeah baby," you'd hear. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a God damm bee! Bust that bitch up Ali!"

None of us said a word. The screaming for Ali was nerve shattering, intense, and he did look great up there. My guys were getting unnerved, and I felt uneasy myself. We knew how inner city guys were, and their tactics. They were making alot of noise and making tough comments out loud to intimidate the suburban Marciano rooters. It was a psyche thing, and it usually worked. We were city guys too, and we were hip to the tactic.

Then they showed Rocky Marciano. When the Rock came on the screen, you could see his rooters were a little awed to show emotion, especially after the loud, howling of Ali's rooters. Rock looked funny up there, in the black and white film, with his hairy chest and balding Italian looking face. He flexed his muscles in a old fashioned way, and it looked like a time machine film. But, suddenly as the cheering and clapping started slowly and inhibited, it grew into a proud crescendo just as loud as Ali's cheers. We were feeling proud of that, and we all cut loose with loud chapping and cheering. I did the same, being swept up in the thing, if only to show the Black guys, we were in the same building. This thing was getting insane.

Suddenly the camera went to the ring, in full color, and there they were. Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. I about choked! In the highlight films they were both young, strong and in shape. But this blew my mind. Ali looked no longer golden, but bloated, soft, pale, and had a belly! Marciano looked exactly like what he was; A middle aged Italian guy, wearing a wig, who had the ghost of a impressive, virile youth. He could of been any tough, middle aged, stocky guy we saw around the neighborhood, gambling or drinking wine.

What was really funny was that as bad as Ali looked, no Black guys around us said a word about that. Same with us. We all knew Rock was bald and the craziness of his wearing a wig in the boxing ring wasn't lost on us, but we kept it to ourselves also. Nobody in the theater wanted to give a inch in psyche to the other side.

When the match started, with Ali dancing around popping his left at the charging Marciano, it wasn't lost on me how bad both of them looked. I knew what the best of both men looked like. so it wasn't lost on me what I was watching with the pulled shots and such. But on the other hand, the punches were appearing to land, you could hear the "pops" of the leather. Also the people started to go wild from the first punch Ali landed.

"Pop" "Pop" went the Ali jab into Rocky's willing face.

"Stick em Ali." yelled the guy behind me. "Stick that slow mother fucker!"

"Pop em Ali," yelled another. "Bust him up. Bust up that eye!"

Rocky was getting worked over pretty good, and only half of the theater crowd was making any noise. But they were having a ball. This is what the pro Ali guys came for, and they were making the most of it. It was like a party for them, and they were besides themselves into the fake reality of the thing. This is what they had been bragging about, and it was happening.

Our guys had our heads down. We were taking a beating, and couldn't say a word. Every snapping punch and combination Ali landed on Marciano, sending fake blood dripping down his face, was hurting us deep in our souls. The Ali guys weren't only getting off on Marciano getting beat up, but they were getting the laugh on us too! We were getting beat up by them, as well as Marciano was by Ali. The screams and claps of Ali's fans were slaps to us just as well.

Marciano suddenly went down to a knee from a sharp wallop!

"Yeeahh" screamed the Ali rooters! They went crazy, throwing things, singing, wiggleing, slapping hands and such! We could just shake our heads at the insanity of it all. The screams were going to the pits of our hearts. I looked at my buddies and saw they were miserable in their seats.

"Yeah baby," said the same guy behind me. "Champion? This ain't no old man tonight Rocky. You got a young man in front of you tonight sucker!" Well I have to tell you that all this commentary was getting to me now too. Suddenly I became a little mad. Rocky Marciano was representing us wasn't he? Well then it was us getting beaten up, laughed at, and I was part of "us". It was me getting laughed at, beaten up, and getting taunted! It was my fight now.

Well Rock got up, like he always did. He also started fighting back as he always did. Suddenly a body punch here and there, and he was still coming.

"He's still strong," said a excited Vinnie Voscopi, his face sweating. "He isn't hurt! He's still coming!"

All of sudden as the crowd saw that Rocky was still moving foreward, you heard a cheer, here and there.

"Comon Rock!" "To the body Rock! To the body!" "Slow him up Rock!"

Rocky was coming back like usual. He was bloody but unbowed, and when he cornered Ali, he was hurting him with body shots. He was fighting his fight.

"Comon Rock!" I yelled, finally getting into the insanity myself. "He can't deal with the pressure! Keep on him. He can't handle that pressure man!"

Suddenly I realized that subconsciously I was saying these things to the Black guy behind me, and the others who hurt us with their cheers for Ali. This was turning into a racial thing, but it wasn't between Ali and the Rock, but between the guys in the theater.

Rocky was coming on. He was landing hard shots and brushing off Ali's jab and punches. The Marciano fans were getting louder and louder, a thunder cheering his every rush. The Ali guys were getting gloomy, sensing a bad turn for Muhammad, and I could see mean, pained looks on their faces.

"Tough," I thought to myself. "Our turn now, sucker."

When Rock got Ali in a corner and decked him, every Marciano guy got up on his feet, screaming and throwing up fists in the air. We were as bad as any, slapping hands, laughing, nodding, and acting as big a fools as the Black guys did when Marciano went down. It was our turn to party and act like fools, and we did. We had this thing now!

The ending was inevitable and everyone in the theater knew it. Rock cornered him again quickly and we were all up on our feet, screaming with every punch!

"Nobody gets away from Rocky when he's got em hurt," yelled Frankie DellAntonio, a short, slim, hard guy who carried a gun. "This shit is over!"

Ali went down in a heap, and we counted with the referee!

"...seven. Eight. Nine. Ten!"

It was over! We got through this thing. Rock was still undefeated! Man we were so happy we were almost hugging each other. I could see the looks on my buddies faces, and they were confident, cocky, and sure of themselves.

"I knew Rock would come back," said Sammy Alferi, a good looking, short guy with muscles like Popeye. "Thats his way."

"I was a little worried," I said. "But your right Sammy. Rock fights like that."

I could see the crowd going out quickly, and there was lines and crowding at the exits. Things were moving pretty good, but as I feared you could see a few groups of young Black guys, hanging out, talking loud, and looking for trouble.

"Fuck Marciano," I heard one young guy say. "Fuck these white mother fuckers. Thats the only way these suckers could win. Its the only way they could beat the man! Some Italian mother fucker got himself a computer and fixed this thing!"

All of a sudden, I saw a problem, as Ray Pizzino, one of our crowd, and pretty handy with his fists and a knife turned around and stepped to the guy.

"What the fuck you talkin' about that "some Italian" guy...."

All of a sudden it was on! The thing I was worried about. Ray and this young tall Black guy were arguing about the fight, other buddies of his were starting to crowd around, and our guys were standing by Ray. "Well fuck Marciano," said the Black kid defiently.

"Well fuck Ali," said Ray just as defient. They were nose to nose.

It was tense, they were tense, we were tense, everyone was snarling and the wrong word or a punch, and someone was gonna get killed. I knew it. We had weapons and I figured so did they. I was getting ready for anything, but then in scanning the situation I came across the face of one of the Black guys, a brown faced, good looking guy, dressed in a leather coat. He eye balled me and I eye balled him. Then he kind of smiled and started grinning at me, and I did the same. He was talking to me with his eyes. Suddenly we both started laughing.

"Comon Ray," I said, grabbing his arm, pulling him away, watching as the guy in the leather coat did the same to the Black kid. "It ain't worth it man. It was only a fake fight man! This shit didn't happen. It didn't prove nothing man. It was a fake. It ain't worth no drama....."

I could see the brown skinned good looking guy smiling at me was doing the same to his guy. We had defused the situation. By looking in each others eyes it had come to us at the same time how ignorant we were both acting, and how absurd it was to hurt each other over a boxing match, especially a fake one! Well thank God for that!

We got out of there, everyone got out, and nobody got hurt.

On the way back to the neighborhood, I was sitting next to Ray in the back seat.

"Man I'm glad you grabbed me Rock," Ray said, pushing back his big mustache out of his mouth. "I had my hand on my knife. Them guys were looking for trouble, and so were we. When you think about it, the thing was like that fake wrestling. They took us all in like a bunch of suckers and dummies. They was tryin' to set us up for a race war or somethin'. Us and the Blacks. Funny how boxing gets to drivin' people crazy like that. I kinda feel like a jerk now."

"Yeah its over now," I said, slapping his hand. "Can't blame the Ali guys though in a way. If Rock lost we'd have been miserable too. When he was getting beat I felt it was me getting hit. When he went down I wanted to crawl in a hole, especially with all those brothers laughing and sceaming."

"Yeah me too," he said. "I feel kind of bad for them in a way. They seen their idol go down, even if it was a fake."

"Yeah, you gotta feel for em," I said. "They ain't no real different than we are."

"Yeah," said Ray, nodding, taking a swig of beer. "But I'm still glad it was Rock who won. I got a feeling Ali's gonna win alot more matches in the future, and this was Rock's last shot."

"Yeah," I answered, thinking about how right he was.

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