Inducted on November 13, 1987
THE TOUGH, gritty Giardello slowly but steadilty fought his way up the ranks until he won the world middleweight title — at the end of his 16th year as a pro. But Giardello, whose real name was Carmine Tilelli, was a “Rocky” story.
He turned pro in 1948 at age 18. He fought primarily in Philadelphia, and built his record, and reputation in the “City of Brotherly Love” and other East Coast towns. In 1951 he entered the world rankings with a 10-round decision win over contender Ernie Durando in Scranton, Pa. With the exception of one year, 1955, Giardello would fight and beat at least one ranked contender every year until 1966.
In 1952-53 he waged a thrilling three-fight series with future Hall-of-Famer Billy Graham. Every fight was decided by the judges, with Giardello taking the first two. In the second fight, a spilt-decision win, two New York State athletic commissioners changed one judges scorecard and the verdict went to Graham. But Giardello sued and the decision was eventually reversed.
Giardello remained a top middleweight but couldn’t secure a title shot. In 1959, he spilt a pair of 10-round decisions with future champ and future Hall-of-Famer, Dick Tiger.
He received his first title fight against Gene Fullmer in April 1960. But after 15 rounds in Bozeman, Montana, the fight was declared a draw. He didn’t get another opportunity until December 7, 1963, when he defeated Tiger over 15 rounds in Atlantic City.
He had one successful defense, a unanimous decision over Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1964, then lost the title to Tiger via points in Oct. 1965.
Giardello had four more fights before retiring in 1967. He was a top middleweight for 15 years and had an admirable 5-3-1 record against fellow World Boxing Hall-of-Famers.
Joey Giardello was born “Carmine Orlando Tilelli,” in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, New York City, on 16 July 1930. When he was still a baby the family moved to Flatbush, a slightly upmarket district which he recalled as being A nice neighborhood, we had a nice home?. In those days Brooklyn was not the ghetto which later produced world champions Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Mark Breland. Nevertheless growing up in New York in the 1930?s and 40?s brought its own difficulties and the young Giardello ran with street gangs and got involved in fights.
he was always independent and, like so many of the war generation, grew up before his time. By the second half of 1945, World War II was officially over, but there was still plenty of mopping up to be done. The 15-year-old Carmine bought a birth certificate from an elder cousin named Joe Giardello, and joined the US Army. He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, but before he could go off and put his new skills to use, his parents traced him and he was discharged.
FIRST STEPS IN PHILLY
The youngster didn’t stay at home for long, preferring to move to Philadelphia, where he earned a living as a labourer. In October 1948, with only a few Army bouts behind him, he made his professional boxing debut in Trenton, New Jersey, and once again he used the name Giardello, hoping that any parental disapproval could be avoided. It went well and he knocked out Johnny Noel inside two rounds.
After a couple of years, manager Jimmy Santore sold his contract to Carmine Graziano and Tony Ferrante. The Mob connections of the latter were undeniable ? he was a relative of a known Mafia figure, Joe Bonnano ? but how much. if any, use this was is not known. Giardello’s argument that he would have had a world championship bout before the 1960s if his career had been run by the Mob is undeniable.
The youngster’s skill and speed marked him out as a prospect to watch and. by the end of 1949, he was unbeaten in 17 fights, with one draw. He eventually lost for the first time, in January 1950, when he travelled to New Haven, Connecticut, and was outpointed over eight rounds by Joe Di Martino, having boxed his way into a clear lead, only to fade over the later rounds. Nevertheless, he was back in action 10 days later, scoring the first of two back-to-back decisions over Johnny Bernardo.
THE LEARNING PROCESS
These were essential learning years for Giardello and, in 1950, he suffered two of only four stoppage defeats in his entire career ? Carey Mace heat him because of a cut left eyebrow in the eighth round at the atmospheric St Nick’s Arena in New York City. and Harold Green knocked him out with a left hook and a short right just before the end of the sixth round at the Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn.
Giardello had broken his nose in the third round against Green, but he was back in the ring 31 days later drawing an eight-rounder with Gene Roberts. The setbacks meant little in the long run but as the year closed it seemed, to the few who considered his career at all was destined for life on the club circuits of New York, New jersey and Pennsylvania.
His first win of any national significance came in April 1951 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when he outpointed Ernie The Rock. Durando, a respected middleweight.
However, he lost his next fight, against Gus Rubicini, and ended the year with a pair of split decision defeats by world-rated Rocky Castellani and rising star Bobby Dykes. He dropped Castellani in the third round, and acquitted himself well, and gave Dykes a tremendous battle. ‘Giardello, who can come back to Miami Beach any time, meant business,’ wrote Ring correspondent Tom Ephrem.
He then started 1952 with three draws ? against Sal Di Martino, Sammy Giuliani ‘and Joe Miceli ? which meant he had gone five fights without a win. At last, however, he began to be noticed, and he broke into the rankings that year with victories in the Eastern Parkway Arena over Pierre Langlois of France, Billy Graham and Joey Giambra.
The victory over Graham earned him a No. 10 rating from Ring. It was a considerable upset at the time as Graham was using the fight as a warm-up for a fight with world welterweight champion Kid Gavilan. Giambra reversed his defeat when the pair met again in Buffalo, in New York State, but a return with Graham brought Giardello another win to confirm his right to be considered in the top bracket.
Giardello’s second victory against Graham was one of the most controversial incidents in boxing in the 1950s. He won a split decision, but New York commissioner Robert K. Christenberry disagreed with the scoring of a round on the card of judge Joe Agnello and altered it, giving the verdict to Graham. Giardello took the case to the Supreme Court and was legally awarded the points win. In 1953, Giardello lost a 12-round decision to Graham in a third meeting in Madison Square Garden ? ‘I went to a training camp for the first time in my life and I lost the fight.’ said Giardello. He was also outpointed over 10 rounds by Johnny Saxton, but won his other six outings, including decisions over Gil Turner and Tuzo Portuguez from Costa Rica. Giardello said the Saxton defeat was a fix.
When Giardello began 1954 with impressive stoppage wins over Garth Panter, Walter Cartier and Willie Troy, he was on course for a title challenge against Carl ‘Bobo’ Olson. However, he lost on points to Pierre Langlois in a return in May 1954, and after three more wins, the last one against the dangerous Ralph ‘Tiger’ Jones, he was involved in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike which left him with a damaged knee and sidelined for four months. His title chance had evaporated. After three wins at the start of 1955, Giardello was back in the frame and he actually signed an agreement to meet Olson…until disaster struck.
Giardello was jailed for six months for his relatively minor part in a violent row at a petrol station. He was still on crutches at the time, but had used one of them to strike the pump attendant.
In 1953, Giardello lost a 12-round decision to Graham in a third meeting in Madison Square Garden ? ‘I went to a training camp for the first time in my life and I lost the fight.’ said Giardello. He was also outpointed over 10 rounds by Johnny Saxton, but won his other six outings, including decisions over Gil Turner and Tuzo Portuguez from Costa Rica. Giardello said the Saxton defeat was a fix.
I was robbed in my own home town, Philadelphia, because of Blinky Palermo. He bought the fight. One official gave seven rounds even! I know I didn’t lose it.’ This in itself probably would not have amounted to a jail sentence, except for the fact that one of his companions also hit the poor man on the head with a pistol. Giardello was disgraced and his New York State licence confiscated.
He served four and a half months in Holmesburg Prison, just outside Philadelphia. but while he was in jail, his father died. Giardello was allowed out to attend the funeral, but only with prison guards on either side. It was a complete humiliation. As he stood at the graveside, he promised himself that he would win the world title for his father. Further heartache followed when his second son, Carmen, was born mentally disabled.
‘My kids were the reason I matured.’ Giardello said years later. “The reason for going to church and saving my money and taking adult education courses and becoming a different person.’ THE LONG ROAD BACK
When Giardello returned home, he took his wife, Rosalie, and his children to Brooklyn, signed for a new manager, Frank Laurenzi, and set about re-establishing himself as a worthy title challenger. The New York Commission, now under the leadership of Julius Helfand, reinstated his licence and he fought once a month until the end of the year. During that time, he had four bouts against Charlie Cotton, losing the first two in St Nick’s Arena, but winning the third and fourth in Milwaukee and Cleveland.
In February 1957. he outpointed Randy Sandy on a split verdict in Chicago, but then survived a scoring mix-up in Kansas City when it seemed be had lost against Willie Vaughn. The result was announced as a split decision win for Vaughn, but the referee used the 10-point scoring system instead of the five that was in use in Missouri at the time. The commission declared his card null and void, and ruled a No Decision. TITLE SNUB
Wins over ‘Roarin’ Rory Calhoun, college boy Chico Vejar, the talented Canadian Wilf Greaves and Ralph Jones should have brought Giardello a world title fight, but once again, nothing happened. By the end of 1957, even Ring was calling him a veteran, his official record listing 95 fights. Unofficially, there may have been one or two more at the start of his career. What was certain is that he had clocked up 26 appearances in televised bouts.
Then, in May 1958, Giardello heat Calhoun once more to he installed as number two challenger to Sugar Ray Robinson, with only Carmen Basilio above him. Yet, the following month, his dream collapsed around him when he lost a 10-round decision to old rival Joey Giambra. Even worse, Giambra claimed that he was asked to take a dive. He refused and fled the arena immediately after the final bell. Giardello’s world was in ruins.
I f Giardello had thought the setback against Giambra, in June 1958, had been bad, worse was to follow in his next fight, in San Francisco, in November. Ellsworth ‘Spider’ Webb, one of the best middleweights around, counter-punched Giardello to a seventh-round stoppage defeat, the ending caused by deep cuts below and above the left eye. Perhaps Giardello should have allowed the injuries more than a couple of months to heal, but he returned, in Louisville, Kentucky, in January 1959, and lost a split decision to another old rival, Ralph ‘Tiger’ Jones in a bruising, bloody 10-rounder.
Despite his three defeats, Giardello’s performances had been good enough for him to retain his number eight world ranking and, although he must have wondered if his career would just peter out, he came back again, in May 1959, with a points win over Holley Mims.
Then, suddenly, the middleweight division opened up. Sugar Ray Robinson had gone into virtual retirement after his fifth title win, against Carmen Basilio, in March 1958. By the following year, the National Boxing Association had lost patience with Robinson and stripped him of recognition as their champion. Instead, they paired Basilio and Gene Fullmer for the vacant championship ? Fullmer winning the title in 14 rounds.
The NBA was heavily criticized for breaking boxing’s oldest tradition ? that a champion can only lose his title in the ring ? but at least the move provided the division with some much needed spark. Fullmer, a Mormon from Utah, defended with a points win over Spider Webb, and then looked around for a second challenger.
Giardello was coming off a pair of battles with Dick Tiger. He had lost a decision to the Nigerian in Chicago, but won the return in Cleveland. Before a decider could be arranged, Giardello was offered a championship chance.
Giardello, 29 years old and with 106 fights behind him, travelled to the small town of Bozeman, Montana, to meet Fullmer for the NBA middleweight title, in April 1960.
In one of the dirtiest fights in history, they butted and brawled their way through 15 bad-tempered rounds. Both accused the other of starting the rough stuff, yet both were guilty of committing repeated fouls. Referee Harry Kessler eventually gave up on the pair of them and let them get on with it. The eventual result was a draw, which sparked another altercation outside the ring, with both boxers’ brothers wanting to carry on the family rivalry.
Understandably, both thought they had won. Giardello, who had gone 15 rounds for the first time, complained: ‘I know I won. and I can beat him again. No way was it a draw. I won nine. 10 rounds. Gene Fullmer was the big shot around there and they just gave it to him. What can you do? I wanted to continue fighting right then and there.’ Fullmer’s camp claimed Kessler should have disqualified Giardello for a butt in round four.
Years later. the hostilities had still not cooled. ‘Gene Fullmer was one of the dirtiest fighters around.’ said Giardello. ‘When you played a little dirty with him. he complained to the referee. I butted him. I admit I butted him. But at least I didn’t say. ‘Excuse me it was an accident.” he did it four or five times to me. ‘Of all the fights I had, he’s the only man I disliked…he was the dirtiest fighter in the book and when you retaliated on him he couldn’t take it.’ Fullmer, naturally, had different memories. `Giardello butted heads with me. After, I said: “How come you butted me?” and he said: “I wanted to win.” He admitted he butted me. A lot of people said that I was a rough fighter and that I butted heads. I fought crude and it maybe looked dirty to the spectators, but I never fought dirty.’
For all the bad feeling, the NBA belt stayed with Fullmer and Giardello returned to Philadelphia with, by his own admission, some of the fire gone forever from his belly. Although he was still to win the world title, he would never be as good a boxer again.
From October 1960 to July 1961, he lost four of his five fights, beginning with a decision to Terry Downes at the Empire Pool, Wembley . The exception was a good ninth-round injury stoppage of Wilf Greaves, but which ever way you looked at it, his career was drifting.
He did pick things up again, and lost only once ? to Philadelphia middleweight George Benton. who was to become one of the finest trainers of the modern era ? in a span of nine fights. Then, in February 1963, he beat Greaves again and the following June he heat 42-year-old Sugar Ray Robinson over 10 rounds in Philadelphia.
Finally, in December 1963, in Atlantic City, his reward came: a shot at world middleweight champion Dick Tiger, with whom he had shared two decisions four years earlier. TAMING TIGER
Lou Duva, who had become involved with Giardello’s career, helped set things up. He said Giardello could not get a world championship title shot in the late 1950s because his people would never cut the notorious mobster Frankie Carbo into the deal. In 1961, Carbo was jailed for 25 years, after which Duva and the rest of Giardello’s team made headway.
‘I maneuvered Joey into a title fight because I had the right connections,’ said Duva. ‘I sat down with the right people and worked out the right deal. It wasn’t so much giving a piece. It was a friendship thing.’
When he learned he had the world title fight, Giardello went into a training camp for nine weeks to prepare. There were plenty of sceptics who felt his time had already come and gone_ is it Too late for Joey Giardello?’ ran the banner headline in the British trade paper Boxing News. Yet Giardello had warned the critics beforehand and he proved everyone was wrong.He danced and countered his way to a 15-round points win over the ever-prowling , but slow, Nigerian in the Atlantic City Convention Hall. He won by three points on the card of the sole judge, referee Paul Cavalier. Tiger argued about it, claiming Giardello had stolen the title by running. But after 123 fights, he was a world champion and. whatever happened from then on, nobody could take it from him. Giardello said: ‘I paced the fight my way, slow at the start. faster in the middle, then kept out of trouble at the end. To go in and fight it out would have been suicidal. The only thing that surprised me was that the referee didn’t give me 11 rounds instead of eight.’ DEFENCE OPTIONS
Giardello had been grateful for his title shot and told Tiger he could have a return. However, his management team had other plans. Jack Solomons tried to tempt Giardello to fight Hungarian Laszlo Papp in Vienna, while London rival Harry Levene wanted him to meet Downes at Wembley. There was also a plan for him to fight Nino Benvenuti in Italy, with a guaranteed return fight in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Giardello enjoyed a couple of non-title points wins over tough club fighter Rocky Rivero, in April and May 1964, and then agreed to defend against Rubin Carter in Philadelphia the following December. Carter was a ruthless, menacing character who had stopped Emile Griffith and Florentino Fernandez inside a round. lie would eventually he sentenced to three life sentences for three murders he did not commit, and only after sustained pressure from the outside was his conviction overturned. lie was freed after serving almost 20 years.
Carter pushed him hard, but Giardello used his vast experience, stayed out of trouble and won on points. The hunger. however, was diminishing. PUTTING ON THE POUNDS
Between fights. Giardello’s weight would drift up to as much as 180Th. and the battle to get down inside the 160lb limit was tougher than it had ever been. By the time he fulfilled his promise and gave Tiger a return, he was all but finished. At 35, he could no longer get the weight off and he had to starve himself for the last 48 hours prior to the contest, at Madison Square Garden, in October 1965.
Sadly, Giardello’s weight problems were all too apparent and his 22-month reign as world middleweight champion came to a rather listless end.
The challenger shook him with a left hook in round two, outworked him for most of the remaining rounds and won the contest clearly, although Giardello was still there at the finish, going out the way he had always wanted to go, on his feet. The scores may have been decisive, with margins of between two and five rounds, but Giardello had grossed $6,000 ? the biggest purse of his career. In the dressing room after the fight, Rosalie Giardello sat with her bruised and disconsolate husband and talked of retirement. The beaten champion said he didn’t know what he would do. Eventually, Giardello decided to carry on and he fought another four times. He won a 10-round decision over Cash White in Reading, Pennsylvania, in September 1966, a fight for which he weighed 1681b and finished with a cut eye. Giardello claimed that he wanted to try things out as a light-heavyweight, hut this was a pointless quest ? one which Nate Collins exposed ruthlessly in San Francisco in December 1966. Giardello was stopped on his feet, taking a pounding, in round eight. The end of the road for the ageing Giardello finally came in 1967. In May, he lost over 10 rounds to an upcoming prospect, Jack Rodgers, in Pittsburgh, before reversing the decision. in November, in Philadelphia.
He announced his retirement after heating Rodgers, delighted that he had managed to go out with the victory that he craved.
The result against Rodgers also carried with it some degree of professional satisfaction for the veteran as, up to that point, Rodgers had won 25 in a row.
CHERRY HILL LIFE
In retirement. Giardello sold insurance and then moved into marketing for a chemicals firm, while continuing to bring up his four sons with his wife. Giardello’s experience with his son. Carmen, led him to commit himself to long-term voluntary work for the St John of God’s School for the disabled near the family home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Related Photo
- Became an insurance salesman after his boxing career ended. He later joined the Misco International Chemical Company as their New York-Philadelphia-New Jersey distributor. He also worked with the handicapped, particularly the St. John of God School for Special Children.
- It has been said that Giardello changed his name from Tilelli in an attempt to join the US Army under the legal age, towards the end of World War II.
- Giardello appeared in the 1975 film Moonrunners, on which the original Dukes of Hazzard television series was based.
- Filed a federal lawsuit against Universal Pictures, Beacon Communications and Aloof Films, for unspecified damages, for its “thoroughly false depiction” of his bout with Rubin Carter in Norman Jewison’s 1999 film The Hurricane. “In a key scene, the film shows a punch-drunk, blood-spattered Giardello being clearly beaten by Carter but winning a racially-tinged decision…. [Giardello had] suffered only a small cut in the middle rounds and won what a majority at ringside thought was a clear decision over a listless Carter….” Giardello settled out-of-court for an undisclosed sum and Jewison’s agreement to make a statement on the DVD version of the film that Giardello “no doubt” was a great fighter. The Italian Stallions: Heroes of Boxing’s Glory Days, p. 213.
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