Famed boxer Tony DeMarco still brings swagger at age 84

It’s half past 12 at the gym — the Long Life Fighter Gym on Patrick Lane — when the fighter strolls in from brilliant sunshine.

He is wearing a gray flannel sports jacket, floral print shirt, dark trousers, brown suede shoes. He seems overdressed for the unseasonably warm afternoon. Or the gym. But the fighter hails from the fighting city of Boston, where the high temperature was 10 degrees on Sunday, and one tends to overdress.

He hasn’t yet made the first fist to pose for the first photograph when Kenny Adams, who fought in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and has trained 34 Olympians and 26 world champions, calls out his name from one of the elevated boxing rings. Adams asks the fighter if he “brought his stuff.”

“Gimme five minutes,” the fighter says in a low, gravelly voice, and everybody laughs, because the fighter just turned 84 years old. He did not bring his boxing gear.

But he looked spry for a guy who slipped in the Boston snow and ice and broke his hip last year — and for a guy who fought two wars with Carmen Basilio back in the day. And fought other wars against other guys, the toughest welterweights of the 1950s.

Tony DeMarco — not his real name, more on that later — rattled off the names: Paddy DeMarco, Teddy “Red Top” Davis, Chico Vejar, Don Jordan, Johnny Saxton, who he knocked out in a vicious style on April Fool’s Day, 1955, to win the undisputed welterweight title. Then came the two wars with Basilio, within six months of each other.

Don’t forget Kid Gavilan, he said.

“I fought eight world champions,” DeMarco said in that low, gravelly voice. Along with a crooked nose, it is the only apparent side effect from him having stood toe-to-toe with the best fighters of his era — from him having stood toe-to-toe, winging furious hooks and crosses, with Basilio in those two glorious wars.

He was stopped in the 12th round in both of those fights.

In the second one, he had tagged Basilio with a left hook late in seventh round. BAM! Carmen’s legs were spaghetti noodles. But Basilio was tougher than shoe leather, with a granite countertop for a chin.

The bell clanged before Tony could finish him off and take back the title.

“I thought I had him,” he said, making a fist with the same left hand that nearly took Carmen Basilio right out of there, as the younger fighters and other people in the gym kept sidling up to have their photos taken with him.

They acted as if they had heard of Tony DeMarco, who began life as Leonardo Liotta, the son of Sicilian immigrants.

Nardo — also the title of a recent book about him — grew up in Boston’s North End. The old neighborhood was vibrant then, with a friendly bent, but on the waterfront there are always fistfights without gloves. And then Nardo started fighting with gloves, at the local boys clubs and whatnot.

Grownups were impressed. They thought he should turn pro — at age 15. That’s when Nardo assumed the identity of his pal Tony DeMarco, who was 18, and of legal age to fight for money and a pocketful of mumbles, as in that Simon and Garfunkel song.

As in the song, the newly reminted Tony DeMarco was no more than a boy in the company of strangers, many of which had narrow eyes and carried pistols.

But based on what I saw at the Long Life Fighter Gym — and based on information and anecdotes provided by his second wife, Dorothy — Tony DeMarco survived the fight game, and what would come afterward. He said he and Dorothy live comfortably in a condominium in the North End.

“Just across the street from Boston Garden,” he says, which like him, or at least his surgically repaired hip, has been rebuilt and is now known by another name.

The record shows Tony DeMarco retired in 1962 with 58 victories — 33 by knockout — and 12 losses, and one draw. It does not show he has had a nice life outside of boxing.

A humble man, he still is revered by the people of Boston, almost as much as Rocky Marciano himself, who grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, about 25 miles away, and Irish Micky Ward are revered.

Tony DeMarco whispered in a low, gravelly voice that in 1956, the people of Boston bought him a Chrysler New Yorker convertible; then two generations later, in 2012, they paid him ultimate homage by casting a bronze statue in his likeness.

It’s at the corner of Hanover and Cross Streets, at the gateway to Boston’s North End. There are two bronze statues in the North End. The other is of Paul Revere, in the Prado.

“The Flame and Fury of Fleet Street,” reads the inscription beneath Tony DeMarco’s statue.

He said he doesn’t go down there often, only when people visit and want to see it. The sculpture shows the fighter about to throw a big left hand, the same hand that nearly took Carmen Basilio right out of there in 1955.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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