WHEN JOHN COYNE put out the word over the e-network advertising first-come-first-serve to review a book about Two Ton Tony Galento, my finger itched to hit the reply button. The name Tony Galento triggered ’60s memories of Gillette Razor, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and Palmolive After Shave commercials shown before Friday Night at the Fights. It conjured images of grainy “classic” fights shown on an even grainier black-and-white television set. It reminded me of my dad, very much a son of the depression, hearing the name Galento and saying, “That guy was a palooka.“ And finally, it restored to me flashing images of a short, barrel-shaped, balding, hairy, ungainly man waiting in the corner to battle the great Joe Louis in one of the most unlikely heavyweight championship match-ups in professional boxing history. Then there was the fight.
Yankee Stadium, 1939, a sweltering summer night. Joe Louis, at the very peak of his career, administering a methodical dissection of a pudgy man’s face, whacking him like a speed bag, and making his mouth look as though he wore a clown’s makeup. But in between, the rotund one, as Howard Cosell would have said, lashing out with a thunderous left that shook Louis in the first round and deposited him on the seat of his pants for the fleetest of seconds in the third and then . . . Those were my memories. I hit the mouse and won the prize.
Two Ton: One Fight, One Night, by Joe Monninger was both more and less than I expected. The book more than restored my childhood memories and perceptions it enhanced and deepened them. Tony Galento, the man and fight character, is vividly described by Monninger as a Runyonesque cross between James Cagney and Popeye the Sailor Man. His favorite phrase is, “I’ll moida da bum,” when speaking of prospective opponents, and he is also quoted, after almost dying of pneumonia, “before I won my bout with dat bum ammonia.”
He is very much the Italian-immigrant son of the Great Depression: Orange, New Jersey, working class, willing to do almost anything to make a buck. Galento boxes a bear on a regular basis in his bar, Tony’s Tavern, takes on multiple opponents in a single night, and even gets into a water tank to battle an octopus. After his boxing career is over, he appears as a union thug in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. A convincing role for a man who could have easily passed for a teamster truck driver or a mafia enforcer. And, in fact, a suspicious aroma of funny-looking fights and held-up purses dogs Galento during his winning streak in the run-up to the Louis fight.
A man of enormous appetites, Galento imbibes oceans of beer, consumes pounds of hot dogs and spaghetti and meatballs at a sitting, and never ever lets training interfere with a good meal or a good time. He’s the Babe Ruth of the boxing world without the overwhelming talent and charisma. Joe Six-Pac with one hell of an attitude, a sense of humor, and a left hook to match. While Joe Louis is rumored to have flings with Mae West and is known to have had one with Olympic gold medal skater Sonja Heinie and a few Hollywood starlets, Galento might have got a few of the ones hanging around at last call if his wife had left.
So it goes. Always there is the juxtaposition between the handsome sleek young Joe Louis, his image carefully guarded and burnished, his public statements honed and monitored by his management team, and the outrageous public utterances of the troglodyte Galento and his bombastic manager, Joe Jacobs. Buffoonery with a purpose. Laughing all the way to the bank.
Remember, the era is the 1930s when sport writers could refer “affectionately” to Joe DiMaggio, one of the most elegant and image-conscious athletes of any time, as “The Big Dago.” Political correctness never interfered with the pursuit of money and ethnic and racial rivalries were exploited to the hilt down on the street. Joe Louis was the classy “Brown Bomber” who whipped that “Nazi” Schmeling, but it’s another story if he goes against one of our own white boys in the stadium. Dago, Mick, Kike, Nazi, Greaser, or Nigger, it’s all grist for the mill and the pursuit of selling tickets in tough economic times. It’s 1930s America and Monninger describes it well. He intercises the actual call of the four round fight with images, anecdotes, and events from the era.
That said, I was put off at times by relentless statistics: how much concrete, steel, and wood went into the construction of Yankee Stadium; how many newtons the force of a falling apple are contained in an average heavyweight’s punch and its effect on an opponents brain, etc., etc. Monninger’s sometime obsession with statistics struck me as excess padding.
Beyond that, I was troubled by a tendency to attribute mass emotions and feelings to a crowd and society by Mr. Monninger as he assumed the role of omnipotent narrator in a nonfiction work. Such as, among other examples, the “swells at ringside” felt, thought, said, “no one, deep down, expected Galento to put Louis on the floor.” No, how about some of the gamblers who picked Tony based on his dynamite left?; the thought that he had that one punch that could put Louis out as it had so many other opponents? More than a few “swells” won money that night by betting Galento would go more than two rounds. He was, after all, a dangerous brawler who had put many good fighters on the floor..
Overall, however, these were hiccups on a trip down memory lane and a very enjoyable read about the kind of fighter we may never see again. Well, unless you leave out the fat old George Foreman.