Tony DeMarco was fearless and ferocious in the ring, an undisputed world welterweight title holder, the son of Italian immigrants, born in the North End and raised but a short walk from Paul Revere’s house.
“A Hollywood script of a life,” said Richard Johnson, longtime curator of the Sports Museum, and a pal of DeMarco’s for more than 30 years. “In fact, if someone wrote the Tony DeMarco script, a producer would throw it back and say, ‘C’mon, no one’s going to believe this . . . Come back with something real.’ ”
Long before we started to boast that Boston is the city of champions, DeMarco was the city’s champion, a glorified local boy best known for the night he brutalized Johnny Saxton at Boston Garden to win his title in 1955, and equally admired for the two nights that he and legendary Carmen Basilio beat one another from pillar to post, DeMarco each time folding up in the 12th round.
Basilio’s first win, at War Memorial Auditorium in Syracuse, N.Y., came only 70 days after DeMarco’s title-clincher against Saxton. DeMarco never snatched the title back, including in his rematch with Basilio, the Upstate Onion Farmer, before a jam-packed Boston Garden Nov. 30, 1955.
“Hey, [Basilio] stopped me,” a matter-of-fact DeMarco said just a couple of years ago, upon finally being inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. “That’s it.”
DeMarco, who lived in recent years in a West End apartment around the corner from where he defeated Saxton, died Monday at age 89. His mass of Christian Burial will be held Tuesday morning at St. Leonard’s in the North End, near the statue that stands in his honor, close by the corner of Hanover and Fleet known as Tony DeMarco Way.
“Tony DeMarco is the greatest undisputed champion in the history of Boston,” said Al Valenti, whose grandfather, Rip Valenti, was DeMarco’s manager and promoter. “I think a lot of us fail to realize that players like [Larry] Bird and [Ted] Williams and [Tom] Brady — all of them great — didn’t grow up on Fleet Street in the North End. They’re not Bostonians. Tony was pure Boston.”
Mario DelMonaco, now 90, was sitting in the Garden balcony the night that DeMarco, fighting in his 52d pro bout, beat Saxton the way a kitchen broom beats a scatter rug hanging from a clothesline.
“I saw all of Tony’s fights,” said DelMonaco, reached at his home in Roslindale, recalling DeMarco’s championship night. “I remember I was so nervous . . . and finally, he knocked him out!”
DelMonaco’s son, Michael, 62, recalled his dad telling him that North Enders routinely went to church the day before DeMarco’s bouts and prayed for the pride of Fleet Street.
“The whole North End was at church,” said Michael.
On April 1, 1955, a modest crowd of 8,704 filed into the Garden for DeMarco’s bout with Saxton. It was one of the 28 bouts the 5-foot-5-inch, 145-pound DeMarco would have on Causeway Street over his 14-year career. His final 10 bouts were all at the Garden — over a span of five years, he fought on average every six months at the Garden.
DeMarco trained at the adjacent New Garden gym. He also fought at Braves Field, Fenway Park, the Boston Arena, and Mechanics Hall. Not even John Kiley, the well-known organist, played as many joints.
The tape of the Saxton fight, available on YouTube, is a frightening reminder of how savage the sport was in the day. The two fought into the 14th round, which ended at 2:20 on a technical knockout, DeMarco punching Saxton senseless along the ropes with a flurry of lefts and rights. The Globe’s Jerry Nason wrote that DeMarco landed 17 consecutive shots to Saxton’s head.
Saxton, “upright and senseless,” according to Nason, never hit the deck. Referee Mel Manning finally stepped in, at least a half-dozen shots too late, and declared the TKO.
As a triumphant DeMarco returned to his celebratory corner, a rubber-legged Saxton meandered around in a stupor, making ready to punch. Saxton, age 78, died in 2008, diagnosed with pugilistic dementia.
DeMarco’s real name was Leonardo Liotta. Friends and family members called him Nardo. With a local priest’s help, he forged documents and took the name of a North End friend, enabling him to turn pro at age 16. Another local boy who became quite famous, Leonard Nimoy, lived just blocks from the Garden in the West End. Mr. Spock and Mr. DeMarco/Liotta were born less than 10 months apart.
The night DeMarco beat Saxton, his sister Mary ran to a Garden pay phone to tell his parents the news. They were only a few blocks away on Fleet Street, in the five-room apartment where 23-year-old Tony still lived.
“He won!” Mary shouted through the phone.
Their Nardo was the new world champ.
“God,” said his mom, “is with my son.”
North Enders streamed into the DeMarco’s Fleet Street apartment. In a follow-up call from the Garden, around 12:30 a.m, Tony listened to his mom implore him to get home.
“Nardo,” she said, “you’re keeping these people waiting.”
A dutiful DeMarco hot-footed it home, embraced his well-wishers, and by 1:30 a.m. he was sitting in a Friend Street eatery with Rip Valenti for a victory dinner.
“The greatest night Little Italy ever had,” John Ahern wrote two days later in the Globe.
Al Valenti is spending the weekend writing DeMarco’s eulogy, a daunting task, one that will require the sort of focus and determination that the one-time world’s greatest fighter brought to the ring.
“His life,” said Valenti, “was an epic journey.”