By John J. Raspanti
There are times when the real and the imaginary intertwine.
The legendary Joe Louis was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived. He defended his heavyweight championship 25 times from 1937-1949, and won 66 of 69 fights with 52 knockouts.
A little-known fact is that Louis fought three heavyweight contenders who, after their careers had ended, co-starred in the 1953 classic film, “On the Waterfront."
Spotted backing up waterfront crime boss Johnny Friendly (played by Lee J. Cobb) are former heavyweight contenders, “Two Ton” Tony Galento, Abe Simon, and Tami Maureillo.
Directed by Elia Kazon, and starring Marlon Brando,the film is one of the greatest Hollywood ever produced. Ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Brando) is an average Joe who works the New Jersey docks for corrupt crime boss Friendly. Friendly bullies Terry, insulting his intelligence and humiliating him in front of his cronies.
Terry takes the abuse until he unknowingly helps set up a fellow dockworker’s death and suffers from guilt and resentment. Terry finds solace and love with Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and his conscience from Father Barry (Karl Malden). He eventually discovers the moral courage to face Friendly and his goons, and the consequences that follow.
Brando, who captured the 1954 Academy Award for best actor, delivers a riveting performance. He’s a man torn by feelings of survival, loyalty to his brother, and what’s right and wrong.
Messrs. Galento, Simon, and Maureillo have quite a bit of screen time. Chomping down on a cigar, Galento glares and grunts throughout the film. The six-foot four-inch Simon, with a face only a mother could love, uses his bulk to intimidate.
Maureillo, as Tillio, bullies and laughs at the misfortune of others. It’s quite enjoyable when Terry, repulsed by the corruption surrounding him, sends the mouthy Tillio flying with a crisp combination.
The three former fighters acquit themselves well in the film. It doesn’t feel like much of a leap to think that during a break in filming, they might have discussed facing Louis in the ring.
Galento fought Louis in 1939, and almost pulled off the biggest upset in boxing history. Louis had just turned 25, and was in the prime of his career. He had won the heavyweight championship two years before by knocking out “The Cinderella Man,” James J. Braddock. Louis was coming off two first round knockouts over light heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis (a close friend) and Jack Roper. Many expected Galento to go the same route.
The portly Galento, who owned a tavern in Jersey, stood 5’8” and weighed 233 pounds. Galento had engaged in over 100 fights, winning 76 of them, with 54 knockouts. “Two Ton” could crack. His left was powerful. His mouth was colorful. Galento called every boxer he ever fought a bum.
“I’ll moider da bum,” he told the press days before the fight. Galento badgered Louis with nightly phone calls.
Louis didn’t like it.
“He had been so bad in calling me all kinds of names and things,” said Louis years later on the television program, The Way It Was. “He called me everything.”
Louis wanted to punish the mouthy Galento, but a minute into the fight, he was the one staggered by a leaping left hook (Galento called the blow his "beer punch") Louis recovered and by the of the round, was tattooing Galento’s noggin with sharp combinations. Louis spent most of the next stanza butchering Galento’s face with various hooks.
Galento continued to throw his left hook, but was paying a bloody price.
Near the end of the round two, Louis drew more blood with jabs, then stepped back and let fly with a right from hell. The blow connected perfectly, knocking the sense out of Galento. A follow-up up left hook floored Galento for the first time in his career. He got up quickly, his mouth agape, beckoning Louis.
Round three was more of the same. Galento’s face was a mess, but still he found the strength to clobber Louis with an inside hook that toppled the champion. Louis was up before the count of one, his face impassive. He went back to pounding Galento from pillar to post. Galento was no more than a punching bag, but he made it through the round.
Though he still wanted to carry Galento, to make him pay for the all insults he had endured, Louis decided enough was enough.
“If I hadn’t gotten knocked down in the third round,” Louis said. “the fight would have gone ten rounds.”
Louis wasted no time strafing Galento’s face with punches. His bleeding pulp of an opponent was being held up by courage alone. Louis showed no mercy. His jab was his range finder. A vicious right staggered Galento—causing him to sag. Louis stepped in and unleashed a barrage of punches, 13 in total, until Galento fell into the ropes. The referee threw his arms around Galento, like a mother would a child, stopping the fight. Louis calmly walked back to his corner.
Two years later Louis, fighting in his hometown of Detroit, MI, met the hulking Abe Simon, who had knocked out future heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott in 1940.
On fight night, heavy underdog Simon (34-7, 23 KOs) outweighed Louis by over 50 pounds. Despite being knocked down four times, Simon, showing great courage, lasted till round 13. His valor earned him a rematch with Louis a year later.
Louis made quicker work of Simon in fight number two. Simon was floored and saved by the bell in rounds two and five. Louis knocked him out in the next stanza. After the fight, Simon retired, while Louis joined the U.S.Army.
After his service stint, Louis returned to the ring wars in 1946. He knocked out Billy Conn in a disappointing rematch of their sensational 1941 battle. Louis might have slowed down, but he could still punch.
A few months after the Conn affair, Louis met top 10 contender, and Frank Sinatra favorite, Tami Maurierllo, who entered Yankee Stadium with a record of 69 wins and seven losses, with 51 knockouts. Mauriello had swapped hands with fellow contenders Jimmy Bivins, Lou Nova, and Steve Belloise, and lost in a bid to win the light heavyweight title when he was 17.
He wasn’t scared of Louis-as he proved in the opening seconds of the fight. Mauriello let fly with his money punch, his right, which clipped Louis—sending the champion reeling to the ropes. Louis, more surprised than hurt, gathered himself and tore into Mauriello.
A flurry of combinations deposited Mauriello on the canvas. He got up at nine, gazed at Louis, and fought his heart out, trading shots until a vicious Louis left hook sent him down permanently.
"I thought I had him," Mauriello lamented in an AP article filled by Gayle Talbot a day after the fight. “I thought I had him, and I grew careless."
Mauriello, a tavern owner like Galento, fought three more years. Louis retired in 1948, retuned, and finally said goodbye after being knocked senseless by the younger future-champion, Rocky Marciano.
It’s fun to watch Galento, Simon, and Mauriello sharing the screen with such acting legends as Brando and Steiger. I would bet they enjoyed the experience more than the pain Louis inflicted on them in the ring.