Tony DeMarco hasn’t been in a ring for more than half a century, but the former world welterweight champion on Wednesday scored himself another knockdown, among his career best, when he was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“Yeah, I’d thought of it from time to time after all these years, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” said DeMarco, 86, chatting by telephone late last this past week from his apartment just off of Causeway Street. “I kind of thought I might have been there sooner, you know?”
Halls of Fame have their oft-quirky timelines, their agendas and their politics, their blend of mystique, magic, and mistakes. DeMarco’s wait no doubt was wrapped up in all of that, and probably more. But he made it, more than 56 years after he exited the punch-and-pain business with a farewell bout at the Garden vs. Hungary’s Stefan Redl.
The unanimous decision over Redl left DeMarco with a lifetime 58-12-1 mark, with two of those losses delivered in grueling battles against the great Carmen Basilio, fights widely recognized as two of the top bouts of the 20th century.
The losses to Basilio, both by TKO, first in Syracuse, N.Y., and then the Garden rematch, came in a span of less than six months in 1955. They were classic welterweight brawls, with DeMarco, 23, and Basilio, 28, each hunkered over and trading pounds of flesh until the referee stopped them.
“He and Carmen Basilio were all sacks of onions, kitchen sinks, baseball bats,” recalled Al Valenti, the decades-long Boston fight promoter, “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.”
Yet they were losses for DeMarco, the Boston Bomber, and no fighter finds glory, or much satisfaction, in the L’s attached to a lifetime punchlist. Fighting is the hurt business, full of broken faces and splintered souls. Those who live through it ultimately are defined simply by their W’s and L’s, not by how others care to position them in history.
“Hey, he stopped me, that’s it,” said DeMarco. He then quickly made note that he also once held the world welterweight title (a 1955 win over Johnny Saxton at the Garden), squared off against a total of eight world champs, and climbed into the ring 71 times.
That body of work, including a string of 15 wins from June 1953 to November 1954, will bring him to Canastota, N.Y., in June for his formal Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“I would think it’s an accomplishment, yeah,” said DeMarco, asked if the recognition had begun to resonate for him. “It’s the recognition of it all, you know?”
DeMarco also was in the last fight staged at Fenway Park, June 16, 1956, defeating Vince Martinez by unanimous decision in a 15-rounder. The crowd of 10,832 at the Yawkey grounds generated a gate of $88,440.
“Boxing then was all backrooms, dark glasses, and big stogies,” recalled Valenti, soon to celebrate his 68th birthday. “I just wish I could have been a part of it.”
The sweet science indeed was in its heyday, still the center of the American sports scene, when DeMarco first began to fight in the early 1940s at a youth club — the Burroughs Newsboys Foundation — in the shadows of Beacon Hill. He lived on Fleet Street in the North End and walked almost daily by the Garden to get in the ring vs. his fellow Newsies.
“The night he beat Saxton for the title,” noted Valenti, “he walked from Fleet Street to the Garden, then walked back home to the North End, carrying the belt. You know, ‘Rocky’ was a movie. Tony’s life ought to be a movie.”
One of five children, DeMarco was christened with the name Leonardo Liotta. He is quick to add an endearing North End Italian accent when saying his formal first. It shortens nicely to “Nardo.”
When it came time to leave the Burroughs boys and launch a formal amateur career, recalled the future world champ, he was still in his early teens, a year or two too young to enter the amateur ranks. What to do? He “borrowed” his ring name from Tony DeMarco, an older kid on Fleet Street.
“It was kind of the thing to do back then,” said DeMarco, his inner Leonardo Liotta enjoying a good chuckle. “That’s just how we did it.”
And what became of Tony DeMarco, fellow resident of Fleet Street? He, too, became a fighter.
“But under a different name,’” said DeMarco. “To be honest, I can’t remember what it was.”
Before he was DeMarco, little Nardo Liotta, all of 95 pounds, was a lefthander. He became a righthanded puncher well before his pro days, but it was his quick left hook that often set up his punishing right. He also was a shooting forward for the Burroughs Newsboys basketball team.
“Hook shot,” he said, not surprisingly, “my favorite.”
Not long after his fight career ended, DeMarco moved to Arizona, in large part because it was better for his then-young son’s health. He began a career in liquor sales, then bought his own cocktail lounge, The Living Room, in Phoenix. He ultimately sold the business not long after his son, Vincent, age 14, was killed when hit by a car on Father’s Day.
Back in Boston, he spent the remainder of his working days as a court officer at the State House.
“That was stimulating,” said DeMarco, again with a light laugh. “It’s always stimulating when you’re around politicians.”
A statue of DeMarco, unveiled in 2012, stands today in the North End, mere steps from the old family apartment on Fleet Street. As Valenti likes to point out, DeMarco is a true Boston legend, on par with Ted Williams, Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, and Tom Brady, yet distinct because he grew up here as one of us.
He drops his R’s. He dotters over to North End eateries now and then. From his apartment building near the corner of Lomasney and Causeway, he can fix an eye on the Garden property where he fought 28 of his 71 bouts.
“I was good because I had the natural power for punches . . . and, you know, I was fortunate to be a good learner,” said DeMarco, asked for the secret to his success. “Then you keep winning . . . and you keep winning. Occasionally you have a loss, and then another win. You know, it’s a nice feeling to be on top . . . and I was.”Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.