Book Review – Nardo: Memoirs of a Boxing Champion

By Ted sares | Published: November 8, 2011

nardo“[Tony] is a very humble man, so getting him to open up about his triumphs and tragedies was a challenge. In the end, we accomplished what we set out to do … offer a glimpse into Tony’s very rich and fulfilling life. I believe the reader will be both entertained and inspired.” – Ellen Zappala, Editor

Someone once said that boxing is a tight fraternity, and unless you have been in the ring, you can never cross the line that separates boxer from fan. But “Nardo: Memoirs of a Boxing Champion” comes close to making that happen. This lean and chronologically precise book is a refreshingly honest portrayal of Tony DeMarco, a beloved boxer from the streets of Boston’s North End, the city’s Little Italy.

From Boston to Phoenix and back again, the reader is taken on an intimate journey in which there are unimaginable heartaches, but also great dreams and joys, including DeMarco’s conquest of the world welterweight championship. The journey is greatly enhanced by exceptional photos.

Tony DeMarco, whose real name is Leonardo Liotta, is a first generation Italian-American who started boxing at age 11. Just 16-years-old and underage at the time of his first professional fight, he “borrowed” the name of 18-year-old Tony DeMarco, and it stuck.

The book provides a close account of DeMarco’s boxing exploits. Readers will be especially thrilled by the explosive technical knockout of rival Johnny Saxton that won him the world welterweight title in 1955, his wars with Carmen Basilio and his many interactions with other boxing and entertainment greats.

DeMarco owned the Boston Garden – his fights consistently sold out, breaking attendance records in the process. He had a rare connection with the fans – full of charisma and electricity. Pure 1950s through and through, DeMarco toiled through the entire decade amid the hazy smoke generated by cheap cigars and the odiferous mix of perfume, beer and sweat.

What sets this book apart from most boxing stories is the subtle manner in which it describes a time defined by some as “old school,” not only in terms of boxing, but in the way people lived. Whether you were a cobbler (as was the case with DeMarco’s beloved father) or a boxer, DeMarco’s heyday came in an era of perceived higher societal standards and craftsmanship in all things.

Fighters were humble outside the ring, but ferocious inside. Courageous, respectful and hard working, their behavior reflected the values that existed in the 1940s and 1950s. They were hard and determined, well-schooled with great trainers and fought far more fights – helping them to stay sharp – than boxers do today. And these fighters had an uncommon ability to regroup from misfortune. In the book, DeMarco reflects on his own resilience demonstrated by his ability to recover from the loss of some of his loved ones including a brother, son and daughter.

In the end, what “Nardo” achieves can best be summed up by writer Pete Hamill in his June 1996 Esquire magazine article, “Blood on Their Hands: The Corrupt and Brutal World of Professional Boxing.” “I came to believe that fighters themselves were among the best human beings I knew. They were mercifully free of the macho bullshit that stains so many professional athletes. They were gentle in a manly way.”

“Nardo” may lean toward being a “feel good” portrayal of boxing, but in a sport known for its inherent brutalities and sleazy underbelly, there is nothing wrong with a boxing story that has a happy ending.

“Nardo” is the second book brought to market by Ellen and Tom Zappala of ATS Communications. This Merrimac couple has deep roots in the Merrimack Valley. Tom hosts the WCCM-AM radio show, The Sicilian Corner, and is still involved with the family business, Jackson Lumber in Lawrence. Before branching out on her own, Ellen was Publisher at the Weekly Newspaper Group, Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company.