A tribute to Tony DeMarco

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston pays tribute to former world welterweight champion Tony DeMarco who passed away earlier this week.

Although he was world welterweight champion in the 1950s and won 58 fights in a 14-year career, Tony DeMarco, who died on October 11 at the age of 89, will mostly be remembered for two fights he didn’t win. These were his two incredible wars with fellow-Italian American Carmen Basilio, which took place five months apart in 1955. Basilio won in the 12th round each time but he had to reach deep down to prevail, especially in the second fight, which took place in DeMarco’s hometown of Boston.

DeMarco (spelled De Marco in some reports) boxed in an era when the best fought the best and unbeaten records weren’t given the importance they are today. He wasn’t a skilled boxer as such but he was tough and tenacious, with a powerful left hook. Born Leonardo Liotta, he applied for a boxing licence under a friend’s name so that he could bend the rules and turn pro before the state-stipulated age of 18. He had his first fight three months before his 17th birthday.

It took DeMarco seven years and 51 fights to get a title fight, and he pulled off an upset when halting the more talented Johnny Saxton to win the 147lbs championship on a 14th-round stoppage at the Boston Garden on April 1, 1955.

Saxton entered the bout a 1/3 betting favourite and he was able to outbox DeMarco in the early rounds. “Tony was an easy mark in the first six rounds although never in trouble,” Associated Press reported. But DeMarco, who was cut over the left eye in the second round, came on strongly, hurting Saxton to the body and by the 14th round he was in front on the scorecards of the referee and one judge while the other judge had Saxton ahead. 

DeMarco landed a series of big punches on a worn-down Saxton in the 14th, finally dropping the defending champion. The YouTube video (with dubbed-on commentary) shows a defenceless Saxton taking at least 12 flush shots to the head before dropping to the canvas. Referees today would surely have stopped the fight at this point, but when Saxton got up he was allowed to take another 12 or so full-blooded hits before referee Mel Manning finally waved the finish.

Boxing historian Nat Fleischer found DeMarco’s finishing onslaught reminiscent of Jack Dempsey throwing caution to the winds when he had an opponent hurt. He described DeMarco as “a fighting little demon…a squat, swarthy, game and courageous hot-fisted Italian from Boston’s North End”.

Perhaps inevitably, writers likened DeMarco to another slugging Italian-American from the Boston region, heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. “Little Tony is, actually, a miniature Marciano,” United Press reporter Oscar Fraley noted in his coverage of DeMarco’s title-winning bout with Saxton. 

“Watching De Marco in the ring at Boston Garden Friday night was like looking at Marciano through the wrong end of a telescope,” Fraley reported. “He crouched down and bulled forward relentlessly in that now familiar Marciano manner.”

DeMarco’s reign as champion lasted only a little over two months, Basilio hammering him to defeat in the 12th round in the challenger’s hometown of Syracuse, upper New York State, on June 10, 1955. It was a meeting of converted southpaws (both men were naturally left-handed). 

“Tony fought in the true manner of the champion, carrying the action to his rival and eagerly endeavoring to trade with the more experienced Basilio,” the New York Times reported. But Basilio knocked down a tiring De Marco twice in the 10th round and “fired away without let-up” to bring the referee’s intervention in the 12th.

In the rematch in Boston on November 30, 1955, DeMarco had his greatest moment in the two fights when, in the seventh round, he landed a left hook that sent Basilio reeling across the ring on rubbery legs. Basilio survived the round, “fighting on instinct” as the TV commentator noted, and came back to stop DeMarco with two knockdowns in the 12th.

“I knew what I was doing,” Basilio told reporters afterwards when asked about the shaky moment in the seventh round. “I said to myself: ‘Tony, you got me with a real good punch. But you’re not going to hit me with another one this round’ — and he didn’t.” 

DeMarco never got another title chance unless you count his two bouts with the dangerous Virgil Akins, which the Massachusetts commission sanctioned as title fights after Basilio moved up to the middleweight division. Akins won in the 14th round in the first fight — a thrilling seven-knockdown affair, with DeMarco down six times and Akins once. DeMarco was again knocked out, this time in the 12th round, in the rematch. 

Associated Press described the first DeMarco-Akins bout, on October 29, 1957, as a “savage slugfest”, with DeMarco down twice in the 10th round but coming back to drop Akins in the 12th. DeMarco appeared to be on his way to victory when Akins caught him with a right hand and dropped him in the closing seconds of the 13th round. Saved by the bell, DeMarco was dropped three times in the 14th round. In the rematch three months later, Akins was down once but scored three knockdowns himself.

DeMarco had only five more bouts, winning four. A second-round TKO defeat against Oregon’s welterweight contender Denny Moyer was due to getting cut in a clash of heads in the second round and would have been a no decision under present-day rules.

As was the way back in DeMarco’s day, he routinely fought top-level opponents. DeMarco survived a first-round knockdown to stop lightweight champion Wallace Bud Smith in the ninth round of a non-title bout, with Smith’s corner throwing in the towel, and he won decisions over such fighters as future lightweight champion Paddy DeMarco and former welterweight champion Kid Gavilan as well as world title challengers Vince Martinez and George Araujo. He fought a draw with three-time lightweight champion Jimmy Carter in a non-title bout and stopped former welter contender Chico Vejar in the first round.

Contemporary reports suggest DeMarco was essentially a slugger, but looking at the rematch with Basilio it seemed to me he had better boxing ability than he was generally given credit for possessing. For instance, he used the jab well against Basilio, and he also showed an effective right hand as well as the big left hook. His toughness and great fighting heart were beyond dispute. 

DeMarco retired from boxing with a record of 58-7-1 (33 KOs).

Main image: Tony DeMarco pictured in 2017. Photo: Maia Kennedy/Alamy.