Throwback Thursday: Charley Norkus Victor In Eight Knockdown War With Danny Nardico

Even among boxing’s detractors, there is little doubt that the sport is unique in many ways. Beyond the inherent danger involved in voluntarily getting pasted, and beyond the one-on-one aspect of prizefighting that only a few mainstream sports enjoy, the fact that the result of a fight can never be certain no matter how far ahead one fighter may be is the boxing fan’s opium.

Probing deeper still into the philosophical whys of boxing suggests that one of its trademarks — the knockdown — epitomizes the different ways in which the sport tickles our fancy.

Even among other combat sports, boxing’s knockdown is peculiar in its ability to both score points and temporarily stop the action. But it also serves as a wider metaphor, for both the fighter on the receiving end and the one doing the deed; for the former, rising from a legitimate knockdown is often considered a sort of certification or trial by fire, while scoring a knockdown and coping with the adrenaline surge it brings is a sign of in-ring maturity and discipline.

On a more paleolithic level, knockdowns are just fun to watch — even when a fight is one-sided.

Charley Norkus dashed potential big plans by trading knockdowns aplenty with Danny Nardico on January 20, 1954.

At 6’0″ and stout, Norkus was a natural athlete, excelling in swimming and track and field before picking up boxing in his teens. Norkus twice reached the Golden Gloves finals before joining the U.S. Marines, where he would successfully fight for the All-Navy team.

Norkus was being groomed for success in boxing from early on in his fistic career. Months before he turned professional, in June of 1948, George C. Carens of the Boston Traveler reported, “Suppose Louis beats Walcott and then retires — who will succeed him? Some think Gus Lesnevich might hit the top, but when Joe quits there will be a rush for his crown. And it could just happen that combined efforts of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy in recent months will have turned up likely candidates for the heavyweight honors. Charley Norkus, a 19-year-old Marine from Paris Island, might carry Navy hopes into the final Olympic boxing tryouts Monday and Tuesday nights at Boston Garden.”

A Harlem-based fighter named Coley Wallace would terminate Norkus’ hopes of fighting in the Olympics, though there was no shame in that; Wallace had beaten Rocky Marciano in an open Golden Gloves tournament in 1948, and was both a Golden Gloves and AAU heavyweight champion.

The world of fighting for money proved to be unforgiving, however, and in his first 10 bouts Norkus racked up a 7-3 record, with only one of his victories against someone with a winning record. Paired nicely with Norkus’ tendency to apply pressure and sledge away was thin skin that cut easily. But a few fights later, Norkus had avenged his first three losses and moved on with his career, often haunted by the feeling of his own blood on his face.

By 1954, Norkus had endured 11 losses, with three directly resulting from cuts, but possibly more in which cuts played a factor. But Norkus had also been cut and injured in victory. Norkus was to have fought Rocky Marciano in Providence, R.I., in May of 1952, but Marciano was suspended by the Maine boxing commission for engaging in intentionally deceptive sparring exhibitions with his brother Louis, who used the fake names Pete Fuller and Tony Zullo. The suspension was in turn honored by the Rhode Island commission, and the fight was then scrapped. When Marciano won the heavyweight title one year later, it made the potential match-up all but impossible, as Norkus couldn’t seem to string many high quality wins together.

Then Danny Nardico came knocking.

A guard in high school football at Harvey High in Painesville, Ohio, Danny Nardico was named All-Lake Shore League lineman — a credit to his ability to engage in close. Soon after, at only 18, he was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star for his bravery in the Battle of Okinawa, and later for serving in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War.

Nardico turned professional in 1949 and was later quoted as saying, “After World War II, everything in life is a cakewalk.”

His career was steadier than Norkus’, to be sure, though it wasn’t without road hazards. His daughter, Danella Plum, would recall after Nardico’s passing, via the Tampa Tribune, “I remember when he got his cauliflower ear from a hard fight and his manager bringing him home, laying him on the sofa, and letting loose a whole jar full of colorful leeches to suck out some of the excessive fluids.”

In 1950, Nardico moved with his family to Tampa, Fla. and fought under the management of living legend Willie Pep.

Nardico had mixed results in his previous 10 or so bouts before meeting Norkus, though, defeating an aged and heavy Jake LaMotta, scoring his third and fourth wins over Lalu Sabotin, and tabbing two stoppages going into the Norkus melee. He also dropped decisions to Joey Maxim, Dan Bucceroni and Larry Watson. Likely his most significant accomplishment in that timespan was knocking out Herman Harris in the first sanctioned mixed race bout in South Carolina. Second to that, he became the first fighter to legitimately knock Jake LaMotta down.

When fight time rolled around, Nardico’s record was 49-10-4 (34 KO). Nardico’s trainer, who was fittingly named Bill Gore, said of his charge, “My guy’s a Pier Six brawler. When he gets hit, he sees red and wants to tear in and kill the other guy. He’s got no finesse.”

The ill-tempered fellow with the pirate tattoo on his right bicep was pegged a 5-to-1 favorite, nonetheless. Both fighters had agreed to waive the three knockdown rule. Though another television program had bought the Wednesday time slot that was generally used for fights and Norkus vs. Nardico was held off-TV, it was fortunately still filmed, and was apparently shown on local stations in a few places.

Seconds into the fight, Norkus scored first with a smacking left hook that appeared to briefly take Nardico by surprise. From there, the fight was defined by both men jockeying for position on the inside while trying to time right hands on the way in from being separated, and liberal use of head and forearms. If a jab existed, it was Norkus dabbing at air with it before attempting a bigger shot. With about one minute remaining in round 2, despite a slightly swollen cheek, the heavier Norkus connected with a right hand that rocked Nardico and the two collided, locking up inside. In the following exchange, Norkus scored another right that stiffened up Nardico’s legs and sent him down swinging. Committing perhaps too much in his attempt to finish, Norkus fell into his man, unable to close the show.

But seeing his prey visibly shaken, Norkus went right at Nardico to start round 3; the latter had no intention of going quietly, instead forcing Norkus backward with bull rushes and quick swats before receiving a pair of left hooks to the chin which ended that discussion. Suddenly Norkus couldn’t miss, but was swapping safety for a chance at ending the fight. Nevertheless, an overhand right temporarily made bipedalism an abstract concept for Nardico, who fell where he stood. The damage appeared to be accumulating, and every time Norkus landed with power, Nardico’s energy evaporated.

A cuffing push-down from Norkus actually seemed to buy a moment or two for Nardico, but an uppercut-hook combination downed him again seconds later. Up on stiff pillars, Nardico was again aided by Norkus’ tendency to fall into his punches, leading directly to momentum-slowing clinches that offered Nardico a reprieve. Right after Nardico uncorked a few left hooks that got Norkus’ attention, he literally fell into a glancing right hand that once more earned him a count, which he protested before the bell tolled. A disastrous round was made worse by blood flowing from the right side of his mouth.

As game as ever, Nardico braved salty jabs and a few snappy right hand to catch Norkus with hooks as he retreated straight back, gloves down in round 4. Halfway through the round, Nardico’s left forearm connected with Norkus’ temple, which visibly affected the latter’s legs. Though it wasn’t ruled a knockdown, Norkus was helped to his feet by referee Jimmy Peerless and looked concerned for the first time in the bout. A few moments later a double helping of left hooks sent Norkus staggering backward into his own corner and finally down hard. His nose and left eye dripping with proof of battle, Norkus rose and made it to the bell.

It was clear that neither man would be setting many traps or developing opportunities. Both had a relatively straightforward job, in terms of strategy.The Miami Beach crowd’s blood warmed in the 5th round, and a slightly groggy Norkus used Nardico’s reckless aggression against him, pivoting away from big punches and whipping out a few of his own. Nardico’s primary issue in his attempt to seize the fight was that he had no choice but to march headfirst into Norkus’ right hand to score. Round 5 also signaled a shift in strategy from Norkus, though, as he worked his right uppercut and jab into the fight as Nardico ducked low.

Round 6 continued to be a mugging affair inside, but the difference at range was Norkus’ jab. It was close, however, and the physical skirmishes inside weighed on the momentum.

Norkus fought as if stunned by Nardico’s tenacity in round 7, not exactly going defensive early in the round, but rocked back onto his heels regularly. But a right hand once more had Nardico dancing a jig, then another few punches had him sagging almost through the ropes later in the round. On a few different occasions the fight came down to nearly slow-motion right hand trading sessions, with Norkus winning all but the last one, which decked him proper. The bell stopped the count at three and Norkus was allowed to get his legs back.

A steadier Norkus wiggled his way out of trouble in the 8th round, looking for familiar success landing his right hand over Nardico’s lazy left. Tunnel vision on Norkus’ part walked him into a left hand or two, one of which cut him over the right eye, but he landed the heavier right hands.

Just prior to the start of round 9, a collective deep breath was drawn, as if it became apparent that, one way or another, this kind of fight couldn’t last much longer.
Exhaustion was setting in for both men, and the first serious offense in the 9th was Norkus nearly losing his footing from a jab. Norkus slowed the pace with a few clinches, then landed some effective rights — first an uppercut, then a straighter version. A lightning bolt of a short right caught Nardico on the front of his chin and sat him down with authority. He stood up and answered the referee’s call, just barely, but was helpless against the hooking onslaught that awaited him. Nardico again hit the canvas, and again rose. And again he was met with an absence of mercy from Norkus, who slashed and stabbed at what remained of Nardico until referee Jimmy Peerless jumped in to end matters, seemingly at the advice of someone else at ringside.

His lips swollen and cut in a few places, Nardico was quoted by the AP as saying just after the bout, “I don’t think they should have stopped it.” Norkus told the same reporters, “I fought a good fight, but I’ll get sharper as I go along.”

A separate AP report called the dust up “one of the most brutal fights ever seen in the Miami Beach City Auditorium” — certainly not an insult, but a compliment of unknown enthusiasm. But just over 2,500 people paid a total of $10,663 to witness a cult classic in the making. Said the AP, “Ringsiders were splattered with the blood pouring from Norkus’s nose and left eye and Nardico’s mouth.”

Plain Dealer writer James E. Doyle said of the fight two days later, “Danny Nardico, the old Painesville High football guard who has grown up to one of this world’s top-flight light heavyweight fighters, was looking ahead to a midwinter shot at Rocky Marciano’s heavyweight championship in Miami. But that project fell through, so Danny decided to take on a soft touch in Charlie Norkus, the New Jersey veteran who flattened a youngster named Al Boylston in one of the minor bouts on the Cleveland News’ Christmas card last month. You may have seen the Nardico-Norkus fight on television or read about it yesterday. If so, there’s no need of telling you how hard the soft touch landed on the 5-to-1 favorite–to put a ninth round stop to him. But Danny Boy shouldn’t feel too badly. What if he’d been in there with Marciano?”

As unattractive as the notion of matching Nardico against Marciano for the heavyweight title seemed on paper, the bout would have featured two slugging steamrollers who could absorb starchy punches splendidly. But the stoppage loss to Norkus humanized Nardico quite a bit, and the AP cited a “strong source” in prematurely announcing Marciano’s defense of the title against Bucceroni in New York for March of 1954. When Marciano instead decided to sit out until June, Archie Moore called out Bucceroni, who then lost to Tommy Jackson by stoppage. The title shot went to the more deserving man in Ezzard Charles instead.

Later that year, Nardico and ex-fighter Jack Grebelsky were founding members of Ring 8, a nonprofit organization that helped pay for the health insurance, financial assistance and even funeral costs of fighters. Shortly thereafter Nardico was employed as a sparring partner for a young Ingemar Johansson for extra pay.

He only fought four more times, including a rematch with Norkus that saw the latter take a convincing decision. Seven years and almost 70 fights was plenty. He was the recreational director and boxing trainer at the Norther Nevada Correctional Center for over a decade in Carson City, Nev. before struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and passing away in 2010.

Norkus likely peaked in beating contender Roland LaStarza in December of the same year and lost to Willie Pastrano, Archie Moore and Charlie Powell before retiring in 1959. He was later a liquor salesman, then a bouncer — which got him shot a few times, no big deal — and then a referee. Norkus was the third man in the ring when legendary trainer Al Certo’s young charge Isidro “Gino” Perez lost consciousness in the ring before passing away a few days later due to an errant brain injury sustained in the 1983 bout.

Cancer took Norkus’ life in 1996.

Throughout their lives, both Nardico and Norkus embodied the more noble and rough-cut versions of a life that many have come to only revere from afar. Tougher times, tougher fighters, and so forth. But it truly took horrific diseases to kill these men, years after they chipped away at themselves in the ring, their battlefield away from home.

About Patrick Connor

Patrick Connor is a long time boxing fan and historian. He is additionally a voice actor and co-host of TQBR Radio, Queensberry-Rules' boxing podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Vine: @VoiceOfBeard