“After World War II, everything in life is a cakewalk.”-Danny Nardico
“On the day my father died, we were informed that he was elected into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. That meant the world to me, and it would have meant the world to him if he had been there to experience it himself.”–Charley Norkus, Jr.
“Norkus was as honest of a fighter as the day is long, and he never gave anything less than a superlative effort in everything he did both in and out of the ring.”–Robert Mladinich
“Even among other combat sports, boxing’s knockdown is peculiar in its ability to both score points and temporarily stop the action. But it also serves as a wider metaphor, for both the fighter on the receiving end and the one doing the deed; for the former, rising from a legitimate knockdown is often considered a sort of certification or trial by fire, while scoring a knockdown and coping with the adrenaline surge it brings is a sign of in-ring maturity and discipline. On a more paleolithic level, knockdowns are just fun to watch — even when a fight is one-sided”.—Patrick Connor
What with nonsensical comebacks, titles that mean very little, conflicts of interest among members of the boxing press that have become the norm, -too-many cancellations, and far too many PED abuses always accompanied by lame excuses, this has been one of those times where boxing has become less than compelling for me. Even the great Roy Jones Junior has become a laughing stock. Boxing has always been my sanctuary from the madness of reality, but that sanctuary has once again been penetrated by hate mongers without boundaries who seem to emulate the world outside of boxing and by those so-called experts who are incapable of discerning the forest through the trees. One again, the inmates seemed to have taken over the asylum and in so doing, they have invaded one of my few remaining safe places. So, as I have always done in these situations, I reach back into my rich memory bank to see if I can restore some faith.
So let’s get back to boxing and as Patrick Connor notes above, knockdowns are indeed fun to watch. In this regard, could anything match or even be more fun than Durelle-Moore, Foreman-Lyle, Letterlough-Gonzalez, or Cooper-Moorer? Well maybe not Moore-Durelle given Archie’s comeback, but for unmitigated savagery combined with constantly changing ebb and flow, I return to the Auditorium in Miami Beach on January 20, 1954 when Charley Norkus fought Danny Nardico. I have written about this classic before, but this piece contains some different twists and turns.
“…A TV crew that [was] in town to televise the Maxim-Moore title fight the following week, asked Chris Dundee if the TV crew can tape a few rounds of this fight to have their cameramen test new lenses out before the Moore fight. All parties agreed with no extra compensation. The fight … has no sound, as announcers were not needed. You can see the lighting changes as the crew filmed the subjects. As this ferocious battle ensued, a film producer realized he was filming a Ring Classic and ordered his men to film the entire fight, hence the footage above. You can’t tell by the black and white, but blood rained down on the people sitting ringside with each connected punch to both fighters. The rematch had people bringing plastic sheeting to the match sitting in the first couple of rows…. My father said that Nardico was the only opponent to curse at him during the fight which only enraged my father more in the first fight.”—Charlie Norkus, Jr.
“I remember when he [Nardico] got his cauliflower ear from a hard fight and his manager bringing him home, laying him on the sofa, and letting loose a whole jar full of colorful leeches to suck out some of the excessive fluids.”-Danella Plum, Nardico’s daughter
Danny Nardico (50-13-4, 35 KOs), was an ex-Marine who had been awarded multiple Purple Hearts in WWII and also served in the Korean War. He holds the distinction of being the only man in boxing history to put Jake LaMotta on the canvas (in a 1952 fight in Florida, LaMotta was shockingly knocked down in the 7th by a right hand and his corner stopped the bout between the 7th and 8th rounds). Here is the YouTube of that famous fight: with the Knockdown occurring at the 9.58 mark. Note how Jake holds onto the ropes to survive the onslaught. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta3GFGc250E
Nardico put together a string of wins and knockouts to move into middleweight contention during the 1950s. Not unlike Bob Satterfield, Charlie Norkus and Charlie Powell, he fit into an exciting mold of a hard hitting, aggressive puncher without the much defense. Nardico has his eyes set on a fight with Rocky Marciano, but the Norkus battle pretty much ended that idea. While he never got a title shot, he entertained as a rugged combatant and fought very tough opposition.
Here is what Charlie Norkus Jr. had to say about Nardico: “Danny was a light heavyweight who wanted to fight the big guys so he tried to move up in weight. At his increased weight- He still had the necessary speed to compete with the bigger guys. If there was a fault it was in his defense. When he got tagged-he got mad, and this caused him to be a bit wild in the ring with his punches. This opened him up for more shots, but he was a very dangerous fighter to face in the ring. He possessed knockout power in the heavy division but the damage he took made for ferocious fighting and lots of connecting haymakers by both fighters. “
Charley Norkus, like Nardico, was a natural athlete who excelled in swimming and track and field in high school. He hailed from Queens, New York and after a successful amateur career in which, among other accomplishments, he went undefeated as a boxer in the US Marines; he turned pro in 1948 and became a top ranked heavyweight fighter known as “the Bayonne Bomber”– Bayonne, NJ being his early home base. He amassed a deceptive record of 33-19 (22 KOs)—deceptive because he was prone to cuts which played a role in many of his bouts. While keeping his left hand low, he possessed a lethal left hook that also produced a number of spectacular knockdowns and/or KO victories.
Ernie “The Rock” Durando , New Jersey Hall of Famer and a stable mate of Charley Norkus was a personal friend with whom I worked on the New Jersey Turnpike back in the early70s. I had many opportunities to discuss Norkus (and other fighters) with Ernie and to learn some interesting things about The Bomber. According to what I recall, Norkus had a great killer instinct and an ultra- aggressive style of boxing.
By 1955, “The Bayonne Bomber” was a highly ranked heavyweight beating such other high ranked fighters as Roland LaStarza, Cesar Brion, and an undefeated Charlie Powell to whom he lost in a rematch. Norkus earned a shot at Rocky Marciano in 1955, but a hand injury to the Rock during training in San Diego forced Charlie into a ten rounder in Madison Square Garden against Ezzard Charles and he lost a close decision and with it his one chance at the championship. From a styles standpoint, a fight with Marciano could have been fascinating but it was not to be. There is a story behind the story on why Charlie never fought Marciano, but that’s a interesting tale for another day.
Charlie also had notable non-title fights against champions Archie Moore and Willie Pastrano, but his most talked about and career-defining fight was the first bout against the aforementioned and highly touted Nardico.
Here it was, two hard men, two ex-Marines, both possessing paralyzing power, meeting in the square ring in Miami Beach in 1954 and there was palpable anticipation of a slugfest. What the fans got was something that went well beyond.
Both fighters were athletic and naturally ripped with monster biceps, broad backs and muscular legs. Norkus looked much bigger and, in fact, outweighed his opponent by 16 pounds (197-181). He controlled the early action and put Nardico down in the second with a long and thunderous right. Nardico was hurt again and decked in the third, and was also thrown to the canvas twice by the stronger Norkus who fought in an old timer standup sort of way. Nardico used good movement and a counter left to keep Norkus away and survive the round.
In the fourth, Nardico turned the tables on Norkus and hurt him badly with his trademark left hook. Both fighters forgot about body shots and exchanged simultaneous head shots that would have KOd most. These were fully-leveraged hay makers and each was meant to end the fight. And one almost did as Norkus caught one of Nardico’s patented left hooks and went down like he had been pole axed. He was ripe for the taking but Nardico couldn’t finish him off. They say, never hook with a hooker. These two never heard that expression.
Both men continued to exchange sizzling shots in the fifth and sixth and both were wobbled. The brutal battle continued into the seventh when Charlie unleashed a number of crunching overhand rights on Nardico’s head, but at the bell, Danny amazingly floored Norkus with a sharp, nasty, and sneaky right to take the round.
Finally in the ninth, with exhaustion setting in for both men, Nardico attacked at the bell with a sense of urgency and Norkus met the intended onslaught with a power-laden straight right that sent Danny down and for all practical purposes out. Somehow, he got up and was sent down again by a flurry of Charlie’s clubbing and mind numbing shots. Referee Jimmy Peerless inexplicably let the fight continue and Norkus attacked again with crunching shots that left Nardico helpless. This time Peerless had no alternative but to stop the slaughter. The fight was a savage pier six affair yielding eight knockdowns, count ’em eight, and several pushes to the deck that could have been ruled knockdowns. It was full-tilt boogie; it was extreme violence featuring a total disregard for defense on the part of both fighters. This was a 1950s fight at its very best; a spine tingler in which both fighters gave their all. The fight is still discussed by aficionados and historians, though few have seen it. I have a video of the action (thanks to New Jersey Hall of Fame referee Ron Lipton) which just might be worth a fortune. Here is a YouTube version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6oagovQgs8
The grainy film does not do the fight justice, as it was an extremely bloody encounter. .According to the Miami Herald, Norkus had a new fan come up to him after the fight in a white suit that was blotted with blood from both fighters. “Hey Norkus” the fan exclaimed “I’m never going to get this suit cleaned. It’s from the best fight I ever seen”. Later it was learned that the fan sat in the third row ringside.
A highly anticipated rematch on national TV had no knock downs but was a toe-to-toe affair with Norkus again the victor. Here is the footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuNaRa5iCco
As Patrick Connor writes in a superb article dated July 31, 2014, “Throughout their lives, both Nardico and Norkus embodied the more noble and rough-cut versions of a life that many have come to only revere from afar. Tougher times, tougher fighters, and so forth. But it truly took horrific diseases to kill these men, years after they chipped away at themselves in the ring, their battlefield away from home.” See: http://thecomeback.com/queensberryrules/2014-articles/throwback-thursday-charley-norkus-victor-in-eight-knockdown-war-with-danny-nardico.html
These two were representatives of a different time; a time when boxers viewed their work as a craft. A time when the best fought the best and when names like Murphy, Barone, Lavorante, Powell, Neuhaus, Patterson, Harris, Maxim, Bucceroni, Bessmanoff, Marciano, Maxim, Bucceroni, Johansson, Machen, Jackson, Pastrano, Charles, Folley, DeJohn, LaStarza, Brion, Satterfield, Valdez, Layne, Baker, Cleroux, and many others resonated. Somehow, I don’t see them fitting into today’s boxing scene, but the current crop of heavyweights suggests there is hope for the first time in years.
Charles Norkus died too soon but lived a robust and full 67 years, including a stint as an actor and as a notable referee. As an actor, he appeared in “Requiem for a Heavyweight”,” The Hustler”, “Mad Dog Cole”, several other movie & TV roles. He was best known for beating up Warren Beatty in “Splendor in the Grass” during the New Years scene.
He was honored by New York’s Downtown Athletic Club as one of Boxing Greats in 1978. He passed away on March 22, 1996 of pancreatic cancer.
As for Danny Nardico, he worked as the recreational director at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. Later, he moved to California where died in 2010 at age 83 after suffering from Alzheimer’s diseases. He carried to his grave anger about not having been mentioned in the movie Raging Bull as the only man to ever have decked and stopped Jake LaMotta.
Jake LaMotta is closing in on 95.