Generously employing an explosive left hook, Tony DeMarco pummeled welterweight champion Johnny Saxton in Boston Garden on April Fool’s Day in 1955, letting loose a seemingly endless flurry of punches that left Saxton staggering.
Soon into the 14th round, the title bout ended with a technical knockout as the hometown crowd’s roar echoed far beyond the Garden’s walls. Stopping the fight, the referee grabbed and lifted Mr. DeMarco’s right wrist to let the world know that the Boston boxer, who had grown up a short walk away on Fleet Street in the North End, now owned the welterweight crown.
“I can’t believe it,” Mr. DeMarco whispered in the locker room afterward, eyes moist. “It happened to me. Thank God. Thank God.”
A Boston sports icon since that night, Mr. DeMarco was 89 and his health had been failing when he died Monday.
Literally a Boston landmark — a statue of him throwing his legendary left hook stands at the intersection of Hanover and Cross streets — Mr. DeMarco established a reputation as one of boxing’s toughest fighters during 71 professional bouts.
“Those concussive fists, principally the rocketing left hook, made Tony probably the most appealing, even adored, of Boston-bred fighters,” Globe sports columnist Bud Collins wrote in 2005. “He was a big puncher — 33 knockouts in 71 starts.”
Mr. DeMarco, who was born Leonardo Liotta and borrowed an older friend’s name to begin boxing before turning 18, readily agreed with that description.
“It’s great to be a puncher,” he told the Globe in May 1957 while preparing for a bout. “I’d rather be that any day.”
Yet away from the ring, from his days as champ until the very end when he walked Boston’s streets, Mr. DeMarco was gracious to all he met.
“He was a true, true gentleman in all things, and humble. He always conducted himself with dignity,” said his wife, Dorothy McGarry Liotta, who added that he signed autographs and posed for photos for those who recognized him in the North End.
In 1955, an age when top fighters stepped into the ring multiple times a year, Mr. DeMarco lost the welterweight title on June 10, after 10 weeks as the champ.
He wasn’t able to stand up after Carmen Basilio knocked him down in the 12th round of a fight in War Memorial auditorium in Syracuse, N.Y.
“Stop it! Stop it now,” Mr. DeMarco’s father, Vincenzo, pleaded in the living room of his Fleet Street home as he watched the fight on TV and saw his son unable to lift his arms.
About six months later, Basilio defended his title in another bloody bout with Mr. DeMarco, this time back in Boston Garden. That historic match was dubbed the fight of the year by Ring magazine.
Mr. DeMarco appeared on his way to reclaiming the welterweight crown in the seventh round when he landed one of his left hooks on Basilio’s chin.
“Tony staggered me,” Basilio recalled in 2005. “It was a big punch, very big. Everybody wanted me out. That’s OK. He was the hometown boy, and I’d taken the title from him a few months before, in June. They were yelling for my blood.”
But Basilio hung on and knocked down Mr. DeMarco twice in the 10th round and once more in the 12th for a technical knockout to match the 12th round victory he had secured in Syracuse.
Despite their fierce fights, the two remained close friends to Basilio’s death in 2012 — Mr. DeMarco and his wife attended the wake and funeral. “Carmen loved Tony and Tony loved Carmen,” Dorothy said.
Fighting professionally until 1962, Mr. DeMarco retired three times, returning to the ring after the first two and walking away for good with a 58-12-1 record when he defeated Stefan Redl of Hungary in Boston Garden.
In all, Mr. DeMarco fought eight world champions during a career in which he was known more for power than finesse.
“He and Carmen Basilio were all sacks of onions, kitchen sinks, baseball bats,” Boston fight promoter Al Valenti told the Globe in December 2018, just before Mr. DeMarco was inducted into the hall of fame, “and Tony just stood in there and punched. No standing eight counts in those days. And refs weren’t inclined to stop anything. Amazing fights.”
One of four children, Mr. DeMarco was born in Boston on Jan. 14, 1932, with the name Leonardo Liotta.
His father, Vincenzo Liotta, also went by James and ran a successful shoe repair shop. He and Mr. DeMarco’s mother, Giacomina, were Italian immigrants.
Giacomina and Vincenzo initially didn’t want their son to pursue boxing when he began fighting as a youth.
“My family certainly didn’t like the idea of me being a fighter,” he told the Globe in 1953. “And they didn’t waste their time telling me about it. What a belting I took.”
In his mid-teens, he was too young to enter the professional ranks, so he asked Tony DeMarco, an older friend, for a favor.
“I borrow his birth certificate. That worked. My first fight was at the Garden, a 4-rounder,” he recalled in 2005 of his first knockout.
“But then the genuine Tony DeMarco decided to be a boxer,” Mr. DeMarco added. “He couldn’t be DeMarco because I was … so he borrows the birth certificate of another neighborhood guy.”
Mr. DeMarco’s first marriage, to JoAnn Costonis, ended in divorce.
They moved to Arizona, where Mr. DeMarco ran a lounge called Tony DeMarco’s Living Room, in large part because their son, Vincent, had asthma and they hoped a drier climate would help.
Vincent was killed at age 14 when he was struck by a car on Father’s Day. The couple’s daughter, Sylvia, died years later of leukemia. Mr. DeMarco later returned to Boston, where he worked as a court officer until retiring.
In 2011, Mr. DeMarco chronicled the joys and sorrows of his life in “Nardo: Memoirs of a Boxing Champion,” which he wrote with Ellen Zappala.
He was sometimes known as the Flame and Fury of Fleet Street, a nod to his boyhood address.
While he was growing up, many friends called him Nardo, a shortened version of his birth name. But in later years he was known simply as Tony, or sometimes an easier nickname that paid tribute to his lasting accomplishment.
“Everyone in the North End knows him as ‘champ,’ " Dorothy said.
In addition to his wife, Dorothy, Mr. DeMarco leaves two stepdaughters, Jessica Hain of Leander, Texas, and Rachael Talbot of Auburn; two stepsons, Jason McGarry of Franklin and Paul McGarry of Millis; a sister, Josephine Liotta Vitale of Medway; and five grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 11am Tuesday in St. Leonard Church in the North End. Dorothy said the Mass will be livestreamed for those who are unable to attend in person.
“He really represented the Italian community and the North End. Those were his loves — his beloved North End and his beloved Boston,” Dorothy said. “And he never changed. He still had the same friends he grew up with.”
The prayer card, she added, will include the boxer’s prayer, which asks protection for all fighters.
“He’s at home now,” Dorothy said. “That’s what I call it. He didn’t die. He went home.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.