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Robbery Casts Light on Legacy of Tony Zale

(Tony and Ted Zale ​wearing the missing championship belts from tonyzale.org)

The alarm rang into the stillness of the early hours of Thursday, Nov. 5 as thieves broke into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. By the time local police arrived, five minutes later, three display cases had been broken into and six world championship belts were gone. Belts that had been won decades ago by Tony Zale and Carmen Basilio.

Zale’s nephew and biographer Ted gave an exclusive interview with Today’s Knockout to discuss the impact of the robbery.

“This museum never lost even a nickel in 25 years. This crime hurts the entire boxing community and the town is hurting as well. The museum is a part of that town’s identity and these thieves stole part of boxing’s heritage,” Ted said.

The belts are of marginal value as scrap. They are mostly bronze and copper with only limited gold plating. The thieves may have had alternative motives. Authorities believe the thieves had scouted the museum and targeted those specific belts.

The International Boxing Hall of Fame was started in part by Carmen Basilio, who died in 2012. The museum is just one example of the mark left by the former welterweight and middleweight champion on his hometown, even the local McDonald’s eatery has a statue of its favorite son.

In a New York Times interview, Josie Basilio, the former champion’s wife explained her frustration.

“It’s a very hard blow and very heartbreaking — I can’t understand how anybody could do that.”

Tony Zale and Carmen Basilio were good friends according to Ted Zale.

“My Uncle Tony and Carmen Basilio appeared before U.S Congress both in 1979 and 1983 to argue for safety in boxing, they trusted each other.”

Zale was inducted into the IBHOF in 1991 and before his death he told his family, “When I pass away someday, I’d like to have my belts at the hall. That way all of my fans will see them and always know I appreciated them.”

The robbery has attracted the attention of the FBI unit responsible for antiquities.

“The titles won by Basilio and Zale are considered relics like a painting by Monet,” Ted Zale explains.

The robbery has helped to cast light on Tony Zale, a forgotten champion who was born Antoni Florian Zaleski. During his career, Zale engaged in one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. Tony Zale fought three epic fights with Rocky Graziano between 1946 and 1948 for the middleweight title, 15 rounds of which contained some of the best slugging in the history of boxing.

In 1946, Tony Zale was a World War II veteran who was still rusty from his long-layoff due to the war. Graziano was younger and brought an impressive knockout streak into their first meeting. Yet it was Zale who had more punching power in the fight. He first knocked Zale down in the first round but, Graziano recovered and was winning rounds.

Before the sixth round, Zale’s corner told him to use all his power on one good shot to take him “back to the top” of boxing. Zale did just that, burying his wrist in Graziano’s stomach. The two met again in 1947, with Zale on the verge of winning the fight on cuts as Graziano eye continued to swell. Graziano’s corner man cut the swollen eye with a coin so Graziano could see, a tactic later immortalized in the Rocky films. This allowed Graziano to rally and win by knockout in the sixth round.

The three fought a final time in 1948. Zale knocked down Graziano in the first round. In round two, Zale had Graziano in trouble but, Zale summoned himself for a left-right combination to knockout Graziano in the third round.

In the series with Rocky Graziano, Tony Zale became the first middleweight to regain the title since 1918 when another Polish-American fighter, Stanley Ketchel, accomplished this same feat.

Despite losing the series, Graziano is more fondly remembered by the boxing public today. Indeed Rocky Graziano’s life story was made into a movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me” starring Paul Newman. The author Zale notes that “Graziano was extremely flamboyant in promoting himself. He did a series of TV commercials and a mini-series. He wasn’t afraid to put himself out there with his cornball antics.”

The rivalry between the men remained very real for years. Zale from Ohio campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s. Conversely, New York’s own Graziano was a staunch Republican who put a photo of himself and Ronald Reagan on the cover of his autobiography. Decades after leaving the sport, on at least one occasion, Graziano refused to sign a fight fan’s memorabilia when he discovered Zale’s signature on it.

This November, Tony Zale became one of the 30 inaugural members of the Illinois Boxing Hall of Fame. The move was planned this summer but, the honor is even more special for Zale’s family in light of the robbery. Some $7,500 reward has been offered for the return of the belts.

Ted Zale remains confident the belts will come back.

“We’re going to get the belts back. I don’t know if it’s today or tomorrow but, we will get them back.”

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