The Fall of Gino Braccione (1962)
Gino, Gino, whatever happened to Gino? We had big hopes for that boy. That is, when Gino was Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion and also the A.A.U. Champion and winner of the Sugar Ray Robinson Award for top amateur boxer, and chosen for the Olympics but couldn’t make it because they had to freeze his left hand in the A.A.U. runoffs, and he wasn’t supposed to use it—he knocked out his opponent without—but at the last minute, on the way down, he gave the guy a short, over-hard left chop without thinking, shattering the already chipped bone. He won and the other guy went out on a stretcher and Gino got the Sugar Ray Award!
Now I’m getting ahead of my story. Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a rough neighborhood, where even if you’re somebody, you’re nobody. Everyone there knows that, too, although everyone pretends it’s not so, or at least it’s not important. I wasn’t even a somebody; I couldn’t fight and I wasn’t too good at sports—not even street hockey, although I was on the team and I had my three dollar and fifty cent jet-black jersey with the gold shoulders and the big gold “EAGLES” written across the front. Maybe I wasn’t the least important guy on the block, though; I was good at school, and I liked to read a lot about the guys I knew had really made it. Not Superman or Capt. Marvel or Batman—I mean the literary guys: Odysseus, Achilles, Roland, Sir Gawain. They were my heroes, epic heroes I learned they were called.
But it was Gino who was the real hero in my life. He was a big guy: six feet, 200 pounds, yet light on his feet and graceful as a ballet dancer. He was good at anything he did, too, but best at boxing. When the lots became Yankee Stadium, he was Joe DiMaggio; between the cars on our Ebbets Field, he was Blanchard and Davis, and even the real Goose Tatum couldn’t outplay Gino when our Globetrotters took on all comers in the schoolyard. When Joe Pallone—he used to be a top pro fighter; they called him “The Stardust Kid”—saw Gino playing touch football one afternoon, he said, “Hey kid, you wanna learn to fight, wanna make the big time? Come up to the P.A.L. gym t’night and we’ll see whatchya can do.”
And that night Gino went, and he started up to the top, Joe Pallone managing him like he was his own son or himself starting over again. And when Gino started fighting and knocking them out in the first or second round of the three-rounders, we went with him, every fight; he was our way to the top. And we were with him the night he won the A.A.U. Championship in St. Nick’s Arena, with the hand we knew was frozen right out in front of him, but that terrific right of his doing all the damage. We were all worried that night, but the other guy didn’t know about the left and he looked plenty worried too—Gino had never lost a fight, and few of them went past the second round. Well, Gino faked him out with the left and when that right hit him square in the solar plexus, that patsy looked like he was relieved, because he knew as well as we did that it was all over. Gino followed that with another faked left—out of habit, I guess—then a crushing right cross that folded that chump’s face like a paper bag. If he hadn’t chopped him on the way down, the left hand probably would have healed in time for the Olympics, and Gino would have won that, too. But he did get the Sugar Ray Trophy and everything else around in the amateur field. And our boy Gino was on top and he pulled the whole block up with him.
Ah yes, Gino Braccione. Let me see now. Yes, I know a great deal about Gino. Of course I can’t tell all—I’m bound by the laws of the church, you know—but there’s a good deal to be said; the Blessed Virgin in heaven take mercy on his soul. His mother and father still come to Mass every Sunday, and they receive the sacrament regularly. Poor people, they are, like most of my flock; for a while, though, they thought they would be wealthy, when their son became heavyweight champion of the world. They weren’t always so proud of him, you know. Gino’s father didn’t want his son to get mixed up in the boxing game, and his mother was afraid he’d get hurt. Pride soon got the better of him, though, and his worries dwindled beneath the bragging of his son’s accomplishments. But she worried about his getting hurt after he turned professional. Didn’t need the Lord, he said; had all the religion he needed in his hands; prayed to a punching bag and danced around an altar where he was god. Ah Gino, Gino, poor lad. I fear an agent of the wicked one took over from good Joseph Pallone, of this parish, who guided him like a son to the top of the amateurs. When he turned professional, he not only gave up the guidance of Joseph—who cared for him well—but he left the grace of his Father in heaven who looks down on us all and only asks we be humble and repentant for our sins to gain his favor.
Gino turned pro and started winning by knockouts in the first few rounds—like he did as an amateur. Jimmy Davis, the columnist for the Daily News, said that Gino was the best thing in the heavyweight field since Joe Louis, and that if he worked himself right, he’d have no trouble fitting into the crown, especially if the big clown who was dragging it all over the world in his “bum a month” campaign, ignoring the real threats at home, was still around when Gino’s time came.
Don’t you think that filled us with pride? I spent all my spare time reading the sports pages and magazines like RING, and cutting out all I could find about Gino, and pasting it in a big scrapbook with a purple velvet cover.
When Gino dropped Joe, to turn pro, we figured he knew what he was doing. Joe was a good manager for the P.A.L. League and the Golden Gloves, and even the A.A.U.; but in the big time, Gino needed somebody with connections, somebody who knew the ropes and would help him get a crack at the title—which Joe never did get even when he was a pro and undefeated.
So Joe in his disappointment took to Dooley’s Bar and foamed into the 10-cent mug of beer about how Gino had let him down and how the big boys would push too fast just to make a buck out of him, and how he really wasn’t ready to fight pro, even though he was knocking them over like bowling pins. Everyone slapped old Joe on the back and yeah-yeahed him, but we were sure Gino did the right thing—anything he did was right—and Joe was just crying in his beer.
I ain’t got much to say, ’cept—I told you so, didn’t I? You all thought old Joe was off his trolley, huh? Sure it hurt for my boy to drop me like dat, after I’d trained him for years and moved him along like was my own son. Sure I expected him to treat me better than t’drop me like a hot potata d’first time big boys came around with an offer. Wuz I surprised? Nah, I wuz just hurt. Gino had this streak in him f’ the big time right along. Always talkin’ about cars ’n’ fancy clothes ’n’ braggin’ to the girls about how someday he’d treat ’em to the works.
Yeh, he was a fighter, all right. The best I ever seen, considerin’ his age. An’ he had more than ability, he had guts t’ go with it! Lotsa guys is natural-born fighters, but they ain’t all got the guts to go with it. Gino fought best when he was hurt. He was usually boss in th’ ring, but let d’ other guy land a few, ’n’ Gino was all over him, an’ every punch, even his short jab, had enough wham in it t’ put the other guy away.
But I had trouble trainin’ him from the beginnin’. Of course it didn’t bother him too much in the three round fights, ’specially since he finished most of them in the first or second round, but he was never a strong finisher when it was a touch fight ’n’ went the distance. I knew he wasn’t ready to turn pro. Eight rounds is sumptin’ else for a guy who puffs weeds ’n’ dates skirts when he’s supposta be trainin’.
Yeh, when Gino left me, I know what would happen; I been around in the pros, and I coulda helped him—when he was ready. I never got a crack at d’ title being I wouldn’t play ball with them, but I wasn’t a heavyweight. They can keep a welterweight off the top ’n’ the fans don’t say much, but when a big boy’s good, they got to let him fight, even if they don’t get to him.
Sure, I knew Gino wasn’t ready to go pro. An’ I wasn’t surprised when the flash-a-green made him jump, and I knew he’d have a tough time—not in the beginnin’, with the wet kids he’d been fightin’ all along, but when he got up into the real pros, them who know all the tricks, ’n’ how to make him go the distance ’n’ wear him down with the kidney punches, an’ behind the ear when the ref wasn’t lookin’, an’ makin’ him fan the air with those big powerhouse swings o’ his. An’ 6 oz. gloves can chop the hell outta any big boy, no matter how much guts he’s got!
Yeh, they’re rotten, an’ the whole fight game is rotten, but we coulda made it. We coulda told them to shove their crooked money, an’ we coulda fought our way t’ the top, alone—the two of us. An’ we coulda showed the fans what a real fighter was like, brought some pride back to da ring. Gino coulda been a real champ!
Gino was king of the block and king of the amateurs and we all expected him to be king of the world. Sure, we saw him dragging on a cigarette once in a while, but we laughed with him as he described the car he was going to buy and the apartment he would rent, and how he’d throw a blast when he won the title and we’d all be invited, and he’d have the diamond-studded broads lined up in the coatroom so we could just pick one up when we checked our hats; and it would all be on him.
Joe was right—Gino did like the girls. But if he could fool around with them and still win his fights, who cared? I remember right from the beginning in the P.A.L. gym, the girls used to come to watch him. The ring was at the end of a big gym, up on a stage. I guess it doubled for an auditorium when the place had been a public school. And the girls used to come up to watch Gino train, but they pretended to be really interested in playing basketball. There was the good-looking one, Earlette, who used to run around the court throwing up her skirts when she thought Gino might be looking; and one night he was looking, and talking to her, the towel draped over his head and down his shoulders, ending before his black trunks, making him look like a husky nun in Bermuda shorts—if such a thing could be possible. Anyway, Joe caught him and made him hit the heavy bag for an hour and then shower up. She was gone when he came out, and I noticed every night after that she would disappear when Gino stopped training and went in to take his shower. And Gino wouldn’t come out the front through the gym anymore, but I guess he used the fire exit behind the locker room. It didn’t hurt his fighting, so who cared?
Ah Gino, if only you had listened to your mother—poor woman—and me in the beginning. I told you the fight game was crooked and no place for a nice boy like you. There was football or even baseball—honest sports where a man can win and still be a man. Sure we finally said yes, and I went to all your fights. Your mother couldn’t stand to see you hit, even though you usually won, and she stopped coming, but I was there, right up front at every fight. And I was proud to see my boy take all the honors. Sure I bragged to the neighbors, a little, and the men at the job, but who wouldn’t if it looked like their son was going to be heavyweight champion of the world? And we only moved out of the old house because we thought you were ashamed of it? And doesn’t a man deserve to buy some new clothes once in a while when he’s worked hard all his life to bring up a family?
When your older brother died of polio, Gino, we put all our hopes on you. And you were always so good at everything—you seemed bound for the success your mother and I never had, and we kept all your trophies polished real bright and carefully arranged in the china closet your mother emptied for them. She was so proud when the relatives came for Thanksgiving or Christmas and the neighbors would drop in, and the china closet was right out in the parlor where everyone coming in could see. Salesmen coming to the door would stare in amazement at the glittering cups and the studded crown that rested on top of them all! Ah, but Gino, we only wanted the best for you and we thought you were happy to have us so proud of you.
It hurt us to see him change. He used to come home and tell his mother about the fights; but his voice got louder, and when he talked we used to feel he wasn’t talking to us at all, but like he was speaking to an audience; and he got so that he would always be looking over our heads, never at us, anymore. And he started coming home later and later, and sleeping Sunday mornings instead of going to church. What hurt his mother most of all was that he wouldn’t talk to her like he used to, about the things boys should talk about.
We couldn’t stop him from going professional. After all, boxing became his life. Could you tell a boy like that he should drive a truck or work with the railroad, like his father? I didn’t like the hoods that were managing him, either. But when he moved away from home, what could we say about the way he ran his life? At least he didn’t steal, or push dope, or anything like that.
At first it seemed that everything would work out all right. He kept winning, knocking them out, didn’t he? But his mother stopped going to the fights, and it got to be the only time I would see him would be in the dressing room or in the ring on fight nights. The first time he lost—that old ring bum Tommy Green beat him—we blamed the judges and the blind ref who should have disqualified that bum for hitting low a dozen times; then we thought Gino just had an off night. He won the next two, but only after connecting with roundhouses after weak starts.
Joe was right; those hoods pushed him too hard just to make a buck. They shouldn’t have put him in with Claxton; he wasn’t ready for the top 10 yet. Another year and Gino would have clobbered him. It was a sad night when he lost that one in the sixth round. Gino had never been off his feet before, but Claxton knocked him down three times before the ref stopped it in the sixth.
We told him to lay off a few months, that he should drop his crummy managers and go back to Joe Pallone, who would take care of him. But who could make him listen? Less than two weeks later they had him matched with Scappone, because everyone thought Gino would be blood hungry to get back to Claxton and break his way into the top contenders.
I guess you all know what happened that night, there in St. Nick’s Arena where we had been so happy when he won the A.A.U. championship with only one good hand. Scappone’s a hitter. He chopped away at Gino like a butcher. Worked on his body for the first three rounds, until Gino was so tired he didn’t know what he was doing. And Gino kept fanning the air with those big sweeping rights that could have killed a bull—if they’d hit. Scappone would duck under them, hammer away at Gino’s stomach, then back off and hit him in the head. Gino had guts enough to finish the fight, and he never went down—not once; what a boy! But he passed out in the shower, and they rushed him to St. John’s, and kept him there for three days—never once did he open his eyes, or speak to his poor mother who sat beside him all day and night except when he was in the operating room.
When Gino died, part of us died. We loved that boy so much. And all the relatives and neighbors came to the funeral—the biggest they’d ever had in the old neighborhood, at Connor’s Funeral Home. There were so many flowers that they even had to put some in the hall. And the neighbors still stared in awe at all his gold trophies. That was my idea. I thought Gino would want them to be buried with him.
It was a big funeral. And big Gino there in the middle of all, looking like an Egyptian king, dressed in the purple velvet robe he had used in the ring with that studded gold crown on his head, surrounded by all the golden treasure cups he had given all his life for.
The day he was buried, it rained like it’s supposed to when somebody important is laid to rest. And four of us who knew Gino best served as pall bearers We rode out to St. Michael’s in Queens, following one of those big, black hearses; Gino said he’d have a big Cadillac, someday. They opened the grave where his brother was buried years ago and put Gino in on top. And we all placed our wilted flowers on the casket and walked away leaving him there in the rain, surrounded by those gray mausoleums they bury rich people in.
I pass by there a lot, on the parkway, and I’ve often meant to stop at Gino’s grave, but I guess I’m afraid of seeing nothing but dirt and a carved piece of granite with his name on it. Gino’s headstone should be a big gold crown, bigger than the one he was wearing when they closed the coffin.
God knows what is best. Though we sometimes cannot understand His ways, we ought not to judge Him; we, with our human frailties have no right to question the Almighty who sacrificed His own son for our salvation. Let us all pray for the soul of His servant, Gino Braccione, who God in His mercy will spare from the tortures of Hell.
Sure, I knew dey was gonna hurt him, but I never thought they would kill him! Why didn’t he lissen t’me? Gino, my boy; I coulda helped ya! I knew, Gino, I knew!
He was a good boy, too. Never talked back to his mother, went to church, and prayed to God.
Ah Gino…Gino…Nuts! There are no more heroes.
A former Golden Gloves boxer from Astoria, William DeVoti is now a retired schoolteacher living in the Berkshires.