Forever Man: Everlasting Joey Giardello
By Mike Casey from Boxing Scene
It’s a funny thing about Joey Giardello. When you sit down with a bunch of friends and play them the films of Joey’s best fights, there inevitably comes that moment when somebody in the room lets out a little gasp and says, “My goodness, I didn’t realise how good this guy was.”
Giardello was indeed good. In fact he was much better than that. At his peak, which was some years before he finally got his shot at the world title, he was a genuinely great boxer fighter.
It seemed like forever before Joey won the championship, and it might just be forever and a day before he gets his just recognition as one of history’s finest middleweight ring mechanics.
Jim Amato, a good friend of mine who has been writing about boxing for many a year, contends that Giardello would have given fellow Philadelphian Bernard Hopkins all the trouble he could handle and would quite probably have whipped him. That is by no means a fanciful suggestion.
Joey G, he of the slick and skilful moves and the flashing left hooks and uppercuts to head and body, waited so long for championship glory. By the time of his deserved coronation, he was past his best and digging into his deep well of reserves. A great fighter had slipped a couple of notches to become a very good fighter, and the majority judged him accordingly.
Joey was already creaking a little in 1960, when he sat in his dressing room out west and chanted, “I’m the champion, I’m the champion.”
The chant was part taunting to his opponent and part consoling to himself. But Giardello wasn’t the champion, not even then. In Montana’s first world championship fight since Jack Dempsey’s historic victory over Tommy Gibbons, Giardello had slugged his way to a brutal draw with Utah’s bull of an NBA champion, Gene Fullmer.
But try telling Joey that fight was really a draw. He doesn’t buy that opinion even now.
It was some kind of fight too, waged viciously before 12,000 fans in the cauldron of the Montana State College Fieldhouse in Bozeman. It was a fight of butts and bruises, savage punching and streaming blood. When Giardello and Fullmer finally stopped hitting and mauling each other after fifteen, ill-tempered rounds, the outpouring of physical and mental relief wasn’t sufficient enough to imbue them with the spirit of brotherly love. To this day, they continue to pitch the occasional barbed comment at each other from their respective bunkers in the east and west.
Giardello didn’t possess Fullmer’s gloriously chopped and craggy looks, but Joey was no less lacking in stamina and toughness. Only in the autumn of his career, when the years and hard fights re-shaped his face into that of a hardened and world-weary veteran, did Giardello lose the bright and bouncy look of a mischievous college boy.
Tough Joey never did lose his ruggedness and durability, consistently surprising the fight fraternity with his ability to remain fresh and dangerous until the final bell. His jaw was rock hard, his body could absorb and survive the best punches of a generation of quality fighters, and he had great strength and movement in his legs. His repertoire of punches and his ability to mix them into different cocktails was quite frequently sublime.
Incredible as it seems, Joey was having the first fifteen-round bout of his career against Gene Fullmer in Bozeman, after 107 fights against a veritable lexicon of the world’s best middleweights. The pace of the brawl was frenetic as Joey and Gene ripped and tore at each other from the opening bell like two men possessed. Fullmer quickly learned that it wasn’t wise to take liberties with a New York man who had been born in Bedford-Stuyvesant and raised in Flatbush.
Like enraged rams, champion and challenger repeatedly cracked heads as they charged and butted and pushed for supremacy. The quality of the punching wasn’t too shabby either. Giardello kept scoring with nagging jabs and countering left hooks and right crosses, but Fullmer fought ferociously as he repeatedly steamed forward and slammed shots to the body. There were times when Gene almost broke into a run in his eagerness to get to Joey. Both men were bleeding from their facial wounds by the fourth round.
Referee Harry Kessler halted the action in the fourth to warn Joey and Gene about the butting after a violent head collision. Giardello’s right eye was leaking blood, while Gene’s claret was running freely from a gashed forehead. Furious at Fullmer’s tactics, Joey had rushed the champion and slammed him head on with the outstanding butt of the brawl. In all brutal candour, it was a beauty. The stats boys of today would have highlighted it, re-run it and compiled a major dissertation on its trajectory, force and overall effectiveness. When the action resumed, the fighters locked horns once more and continued their punching and mauling.
Joey maximised his hand and foot speed throughout the lusty battle, cleverly mixing street tactics with textbook jabbing and countering. Fullmer’s terrific smashes to the body seemed to have little visible effect on Giardello, who was calling on all the skill and guile he had fashioned from twelve years of ring warfare. At the age of twenty-nine he was already a grizzled veteran, a rare status in today’s gentler times for a man of such vintage.
Fullmer, seething and boiling and ever charging, took the play away from Giardello in the seventh and eighth rounds, rushing and hammering powerful shots to the body. Giardello kept a sensible distance, looking for chances to counter, always fighting intelligently. He rallied back in the eighth and ninth rounds with a series of beautifully timed left hooks and right uppercuts.
Gene, a devil of a man to fight and seemingly tireless, cranked up the pace in the tenth, but Joey matched him all the way for stamina and resilience, finding the mark with jolting punches to the head and body as he finished the fight strongly.
Referee Kessler cast his vote in favour of Giardello, to whom the pro-Fullmer crowd had warmed. They booed the draw decision when Kessler’s verdict was balanced by Jay Evans, who recorded a 145-142 triumph for Gene, and by Billy McFarland, who tabbed a 145-145 draw.
How frustrated Joey Giardello must have felt on that burning and passionate night. To an old campaigner who has toiled for so long, there is something infuriating typical about an inconclusive result. In the first emotional rush of the aftermath, the business of finishing so near and yet so far is about as consoling as missing the boat altogether.
Could Joey come again and finally cross the finishing line? He was really something in 1960. But before that, he had been something else.
Although he would become a Philadelphia man, Joey Giardello was born Carmine Tilelli in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn on July 16, 1930. Joey was just four months old when his family switched neighbourhoods and moved to Flatbush.
While such districts prove intimidating to many young children, Giardello was more than happy to cut his fighting teeth in street brawls and tussles with other kids. There was something about the raw honesty of street fighting that immediately appealed to Giardello. He had no early desire to test his mettle in boxing tournaments, preferring the simple laws and loose boundary lines of the good old rough-and-tumble New York outdoors.
He was eighteen when he made his professional debut in October 1948, knocking out Johnny Noel in Trenton, New Jersey. Joey quickly learned to swim in the deep waters of a middleweight division traditionally loaded with talent. In just two years he was mixing in top company, but there were early signs that he would be destined to battle bad luck as well as a seemingly bottomless pool of top-notch opposition.
In a 1950 bout with the clever Harold Green, Giardello was unable to come up for the seventh round after being scuttled by a left hook on the bell to end the sixth. He would outpoint Green in a return match in 1953, but further frustrations would follow.
Much has been made in recent times about the quality of Bernard Hopkins’ opponents during Bernard’s largely uninterrupted march through the middleweight ranks. Only Roy Jones Jnr beat him before Jermain Taylor came along. Take Jones out of the equation, people say, and who did Bernard beat? How many opponents taught him things he didn’t already know?
Well, dear reader, that is a matter of opinion like everything else. Of Joey Giardello, I would only say that in the first six years of his career alone, he crossed gloves with Ernie Durando, Joe Miceli, Pierre Langlois, Billy Graham, Joey Giambra, Gil Turner, Rocky Castellani, Bobby Dykes, Garth Panter, Willie Troy, Walter Cartier, Billy Kilgore and Ralph (Tiger) Jones. If you don’t know who those guys were, you need to do some serious cramming.
Did Giardello require a rest after all that exertion? Time and space to gaze at his navel and wonder if he still liked boxing, perhaps? No, he simply bashed on for another eleven years, pausing only to assault a gas station attendant in 1955 and serve some time at Uncle Sam’s pleasure.
In and out of the roped square, Joey certainly had some adventures. He took two out of three decisions off that wonderful artist of the ring, Billy Graham, the first hotly disputed and the second riddled with juicy sub plots. Both were split verdicts, but it was the second match in December 1952 that caused a furore. Just as Joey was thinking he had another important win in the bag, New York commissioners Robert Christenberry and CB Powell changed the scorecard of judge Joe Agnello, thus making Graham the victor.
Joey proved he was just as pugnacious a battler in legal matters, filing a lawsuit and persuading the New York Supreme Court to overall the reversal and re-instate him as the winner of the fight. It would have been enough to make a more innocent man paranoid, but Giardello was a smart cookie who knew how things were done in the turbulent world of boxing in the fifties.
He became even more versed in the art of injustice nearly a year later, when he was skinned in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia by future welterweight champion, Johnny Saxton. Johnny, shall we say, didn’t always mix with the right people, but they were people who could get things done. Giardello attributed that ‘defeat’ to the machinations of Blinky Palermo, a renowned goodfella of the era, who didn’t much care for the sporting thrill of guessing the outcome.
The big punch
Giardello was getting on. Ever professional and persistent, he was establishing himself as one of the world’s leading middleweights. He ducked no one in his great push to lead the pack of formidable contenders. Then he hit a purple patch in 1954, which came with the sudden acquisition of the big punch. Joey had scored some knockouts, but most of his victories had come by decision. Then he found the power in those talented hands. It came with a glorious rush as the accumulated knowledge of all the tough bouts reaped its dividends.
It happens in such a way for some fighters. I will never forget the sudden change in fortune of David Love, a San Diego middleweight of the seventies and an up-and-downer for the greater part of his career. In 1976, having rocked very few boats, Love travelled to the Spectrum in Philadelphia and sensationally knocked out the artful Willie (The Worm) Monroe in four rounds. With the rare taste of blood in his mouth, Love then blasted Bobby (Boogaloo) Watts in four and Edgar (Bad News) Wallace in five. Rocketing into world title contention, Love promptly rocketed back to anonymity. He lost nine of his remaining twelve fights and failed to score another KO. Just to remind him that the good times had gone, Edgar Wallace came back to knock him out in two rounds.
Joey Giardello’s great run of 1954 didn’t make him a knockout artist. Joey was never truly that. But three successive explosions that year enabled him to add another string to his bow and make himself a man to be feared.
Giardello approached technical perfection in his emphatic victories over Garth Panter, Walter Cartier and Willie Troy, all three fights staged before big and excited crowds at Madison Square Garden. Against the talented Panter, who was coming off successive wins over Pierre Langlois, Grover Jackson and Norman Hayes, Joey was frequently brilliant in his sharpness and overall technique. Belligerent but careful, he weaved his magic from a tantalisingly distance, close enough to strike yet inches too far for Garth to be able to hit him cleanly or with any great effect.
Giardello employed a fast, persistent jab, while skilfully slipping the leads of Panter with the subtlest of head movements. Not that Joey was ever predictable in his pattern. He would quite often lead with left hooks to the body and jaw or right uppercuts to the chin, flashing punches that were uncorked with marvellous timing and accuracy. Giardello’s slashing right cross was an equally stunning weapon, a whiplash blow whose trajectory was cleverly masked by a devilish little loop.
Garth Panter was a tough, crowding fighter who had never been knocked down in his many fights against high quality opponents. What unhinged him against Giardello was the dazzling variety of the incoming fire as much as its force. In the second round, Joey rifled home jabs three or four at a time and shook Garth with a double left hook to body and jaw.
Panter slipped into a crouch in the third round in an effort to make himself a harder target, but Joey had the answer in the form of a vicious right uppercut as Garth came onto him.
In the fateful fifth round, Giardello seemed to glide in and out of range with the air of a man who was in full command of his chosen discipline. A big right suddenly pushed Panter to the edge of destruction, and several more booming shots from the same hand concluded his evening by TKO.
Cartier and Troy
The classy Walter Cartier was a fine boxer and a good puncher whose fatal flaw was a weak chin. When his fighting days were over, he would become a platoon regular on The Phil Silvers Show, but Walter never got the nagging from Ernie Bilko that he got from Joey Giardello.
Once again, Joey’s fast and dangerous right hand was the key to victory. Single shots knocked Cartier down twice in an electric opening round, and Giardello knew that he required just one more decisive wallop to win the fight on the three-knockdown rule.
Rarely discussed is the ruthless streak that Joey possessed when he had his man on the hook, the rush of adrenaline always tempered by common sense. He didn’t go right-hand happy or showboat with exaggerated hand gestures or a silly shuffle of the feet. He pursued Cartier speedily and relentlessly with the usual, bewildering mix of jabs, hooks and uppercuts, before finally firing the right again to end it.
A month later, twenty-one year old Willie Troy came to the Garden with high hopes of beating Giardello, having lost just once in 27 fights. Like Walter Cartier before him, poor Willie ran into a firestorm. Joey, like so many skilled fighters of yesteryear who learned religiously to slip and feint, held his left low to achieve maximum leverage for his snapping jabs and fast left hooks. In the first round against Troy, Giardello led with the left hook four times in succession. Then he suddenly downed his man with a peach of a right to the jaw as Troy was moving into the attack.
There was no respite for Willie, who was quickly on the deck again from another perfectly delivered, chopping right. Giardello knew his trade so well. He shortened or lengthened his punches instinctively when he was in full flight, rarely needing a range finder to determine distance. His short range blows carried tremendous snap.
Bravely, Troy kept advancing in the second round, somewhat like a man who believes he can get to the pot of gold if he can just negotiate the minefield. But Willie simply could not find any joy. Giardello was slotting in his punches with exquisite skill, cleverly spinning Troy with a rapid combination of left hook, left uppercut and a right to the head. Then a crunching right to the jaw froze Willie in time as he stopped dead, lurched to his left and crashed off the ropes to the canvas.
It seemed the fight was over, but Willie Troy was as game as they come. In the competitive cauldron of his day, he knew that another chance to fight a man of Giardello’s class might be a long time coming. Willie scrapped and clawed his way through to the seventh round, but Joey sensed that his prey was finally ripe for the taking and fired in the final shots to the jaw that prompted referee Al Berl’s stoppage.
Joey Giardello’s three smashing triumphs of 1954 set the middleweight scene ablaze and got tongues wagging all across the fight fraternity. Joey was the toast of New York, Philadelphia and everywhere that mattered.
Ted Carroll, a long reigning and wonderful writer with The Ring magazine, was eager to sing Joey’s praises. Carroll also offered some interesting insights on how Giardello was perceived at that time.
“It seems that just when the yammering is at its loudest over the shabbiness of the pugilistic parade, along comes a middleweight to start the bands to playing and the crowds to cheering once again.
“Such a one is Joey Giardello, the new Philadelphia Phenom who has looked so good of late, he is being called the best all round fighter to come along since Sugar Ray Robinson first hit the big time more than a decade ago.
“A naturally clever boxer, Giardello has come up with the most potent punch since Rocky Graziano lifted the whole business out of the doldrums with his right hand kayo wallop. It looks like the scientifically applied pulverizers which are Giardello’s speciality are about to do the same thing.
“Some are calling the Philadelphian the ‘New Graziano’ but with all due respect to the big-hearted and likeable Rocky, there is as much difference between the styles of the two as there is between an accomplished swordsman and a guy swinging a baseball bat in a free-for-all.
“Along the way while taking on all comers, Giardello has picked up tricks of deception which lure his rival into bull’s-eye range of his rocketing right, a precision punch which finds the target as though guided by radar. Professional old timers have to go way back to come up with a fellow who mastered the straight right to the point reached by the dark-haired Brooklyn-born belter. Those paleolithic pals, Messrs. Joe Woodman and Jimmy Bronson, could recall only Mike Gibbons among the 160 pounders as having such deadly accuracy with his right hand, and that was more than forty years ago.”
A million times
Joey Giardello spoke loudly and excitedly above the chaotic din in his dressing room. “I fought this fight a million times, over and over, and at the end I always had my arms raised as the winner.”
It wasn’t 1954 and he wasn’t talking about his destruction of Willie Troy. Nor was it 1960 and a defiant blast at Gene Fullmer. Father Time had spun the clock forward all the way to 1963 and now Giardello really was the middleweight champion of the world. He had just outpointed a familiar old foe in Dick Tiger to win the crown at the Convention Hall in Atlantic City. Joey and Dick had split a couple of decisions back in the late fifties, when Giardello’s ‘golden boy’ tag had faded and he had gone back to fighting seemingly endless round-robin matches against the toughest of the tough. Joey won most of those fights, but there was always the odd defeat here and there that prevented him from breaking free of the pack.
Giardello was no longer knocking guys out. Not that often. He had matured into a cunning and crafty old fox with a punch that was still commanding enough to cut the mustard and afford him the occasional early shower. But he was never the new Rocky Graziano. Everyone had jumped the gun on that one. The great knockout run of 1954 had been a strangely isolated phase in his career, just as it would be for David Love and many others.
But Joey could still do the business at thirty-three years of age and he could still stay lively for fifteen hard rounds. Dick Tiger nearly went out of his mind trying to catch the old phantom from Philly. One expected Dick to stop chasing Joey at some point and try the old line, “Stand still and let me hit you.”
Tiger came close to such exasperation as the fifteenth and final round opened. Weary after a largely fruitless hunt in which he had been jabbed and countered with monotonous regularity, Tiger dropped his hands in what appeared to be a sarcastic invitation to Giardello to come in and fight. Joey kept on jabbing and moving, knowing he was three minutes away from the prize he had sought for fifteen years.
“I knew as long as I moved with Tiger, I’d beat him,” Giardello said. “I thought I made him fight my fight.”
Joey G had entered the last chance saloon and come up trumps. To those who had doubted the canny old card player, he chirped, “Remember, when the chips and the money’s on the line, bet on Giardello.”
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and a staff writer with Boxing Scene. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).