By: Patrick Mascoe
Walk into any sports bar today and you will notice they are just generic versions of each other. Often the only difference is their address. Hang a few hockey or football jerseys in the rafters and advertise the next UFC fight. Then turn all your televisions onto the sport’s channel, serve some average-tasting processed food, and you have yourself a sport’s bar.
If you are a boxing fan who wants to step back in time, when the only sport that really mattered was boxing, then I have a place for you. Head to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. When you are finished there, walk across the street to Graziano’s World Famous Inn and Restaurant. I guarantee when you walk in you won’t be able to sit down. You will be drawn to the many pictures of boxing greats that flood every wall in the place. It is literally like stepping into another boxing hall of fame. The photos on the wall are fascinating: Joe Louis, Carman Basilio, Roberto Duran, and Jake La Motta, to name just a few, as well as a collection of original fight posters including a 1938 poster of Louis vs. Schmeling.
So who is responsible for preserving this rich heritage of boxing memorabilia? A lovely, gentleman by the name of Tony Graziano, who is both owner and head chef. In the small town of Canastota, this diminutive fellow possesses an almost mythical reputation. Born January 18, 1922, in Verona, New York, Tony still drives to work every day and works a full 8 hour shift in the kitchen. So what is Tony’s connection to boxing? He was Carmon Basilio’s first manager. He also managed Basilio’s nephew, Billy Backus, to a world title in 1970.
It is not just his connection to boxing royalty that makes Tony stand out in Canastota. It is also his service to his country and his community that have made him a legend. Tony served as a paratrooper with the 17th Airborne Division during World War II. He told me that being a paratrooper certainly had its risks. On one particular jump, he was stuck hanging in a tree. He was shot in the foot and had to pretend he was dead so that the enemy would stop shooting at him. After they left, he was able to escape. He also survived Normandy and later went on to liberate concentration camps where the survivors resembled living skeletons.
Upon his return from the war, Tony moved to Florida. Having boxed as an amateur and in the military, he decided to set up his first boxing gym in West Palm Beach. After getting married, he and his new bride headed back to Canastota where he set up boxing gyms there and in Syracuse, and Utica.
He was instrumental in the launch of Carman Basilio’s career, but it was Basilio’s nephew who he loved as a son. Billy Backus was really no more than a fringe contender when Welterweight Champion Jose Napoles chose him as an optional defence in 1970. Both he and his managers thought Backus would be an easy fight. However, in the first round, Backus landed a punch that opened a cut over the Champion’s eye. By the fourth round, the fight needed to be stopped and Backus was declared the new World Welterweight Champion.
As the years went by, Graziano’s became the place that the Hall of Famers would go for a meal and a few pints before the official induction ceremony. Mike Tyson was in a few months ago and asked, “Tony, where’s my picture?” “Mike, I have a picture of you up at the end of the bar – but you won’t like it cause you’re on your ass”. There at the end of the bar is a picture of Iron Mike on his back courtesy of Lennox Lewis. Tyson just laughed. Not even the former ‘baddest man on the planet’ can get mad at Tony.
All the while, as we spoke, Tony kept offering my wife and I food and kept saying “Don’t worry there’s no charge.” We had only just met and he was already showing his true colours. It’s probably why all those who work for him adore him.
According to Tony, some of the best boxers ever were guys who never made it out of the gym. They were too good and no one wanted to fight them. Back in the 40’s and 50’s, without a good manager, your career could be over before it ever got started. “Boxing today is not the same as it once was. In my day every kid boxed.”
Tony then asked me to come around the bar – “I want to show you something”. He pulled out a pair of 1922 bag gloves worn by the legendary Joe Louis. That’s what makes the place so darn interesting. Tony has boxing memorabilia everywhere and a story to go along with every item. He is everything that is good about boxing. To the youngest 97 year old you will ever meet, Happy Birthday Tony!