After centuries of organized, paid fighting, boxing remains a truly provocative human endeavor. Even the sport’s abolitionists could begrudgingly pay their respect to the excitement it offers. And the excitement is in no small part due to the palpable uncertainty hovering about at all times.
One aspect of boxing — the knockdown — epitomizes a portion of its peculiarity. Even among the wider array of combat sports around today, boxing’s knockdown remains unique in its ability to both score points and temporarily stop the ongoing action.
The knockdown itself additionally has deeper meaning 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 inevitable adrenaline surge is a sign of in-ring maturity and discipline.
On a more paleolithic level, though, knockdowns are just fun to watch. Even when a fight is one-sided.
One pleasant, mild Miami Beach evening in January of 1954, Charley Norkus dashed Danny Nardico’s big plans by swapping knockdowns for 25 minutes.
At 6’0″ and stout, Norkus was a natural athlete, excelling in swimming and track and field before picking up boxing in his teens. Twice the “Bayonne Bomber” reached the Golden Gloves finals before joining the U.S. Marines, where he would successfully fight for the All-Navy team.
Norkus was 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 kill Norkus’ hopes of fighting in the Olympics, though there was no shame in in the loss. Wallace earlier defeated Rocky Marciano in an open Golden Gloves tournament in 1948, and was both a Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union heavyweight champion.
The world of paid fighting wound up unforgiving, however, and in his first 10 bouts Norkus racked up a 7-3 record, with only one of his victories against a foe with a winning record. And he saw a lot of blood.
Norkus’ pressure-fighting style and constant sledging away paired with thin skin meant he cut easily. Nevertheless, Norkus avenged his first three losses in short order.
A fight against future heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano in Providence, R.I., in May of 1952 fell through when 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, the bout scrapped.
When Marciano won the heavyweight title later that year, it made the potential match-up all but impossible as Norkus couldn’t seem to string many high quality wins together.
By 1954 Norkus had endured 11 losses, with three directly resulting from cuts, though cuts were likely a factor in more. But Norkus had been cut and injured in victory, too. Ultimately it was just part of boxing.
Then a fellow named 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. At only 18-years-old and not long after leaving high school, 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 later said, “After World War II, everything in life is a cakewalk.”
His career was steadier than Norkus’, though it wasn’t without its own unwanted detours. Nardico’s daughter, Danella Plum, later told 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 struggled in his previous 10 or so bouts before meeting Norkus. He defeated an aged and heavy Jake LaMotta and he scored his third and fourth wins over Lalu Sabotin. But he also dropped decisions to Joey Maxim, Dan Bucceroni and Larry Watson.
Likely his most significant accomplishment in that time span 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 the “Bronx Bull” LaMotta down.
For nearly four months Nardico and his manager Lou Viscusi banked on a looming tangle with Marciano, turning down other fight offers in the hope that the champion’s manager Al Weill would finalize the deal. Negative press reaction to the matchup, which was all but finalized, meant the idea got dropped. So Nardico moved forward and signed to fight Norkus.
Nardico’s trainer, who was fittingly named Bill Gore, said of his charge before the Norkus fight, “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.”
Ghee Laico, Norkus’ manager, said, “Charley will come out swinging and flatten this guy in three rounds.”
Nardico, the ill-tempered fellow with the pirate tattoo on his right bicep was pegged a 3-to-1 favorite. Both men agreed to waive the three knockdown rule.
Though another television program bought the Wednesday time slot generally used for fights and the Norkus-Nardico bout was officially held off-TV, it was fortunately still filmed and apparently even 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 he traded 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.
Game as ever, Nardico braved salty jabs and a few snappy right hands 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 crimson proof of battle, Norkus rose and made it to the bell.
It was clear neither man would be setting many traps or developing sophisticated opportunities. Both had a 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, as he worked his right uppercut and jab into the fight as Nardico ducked low.
Round 6 continued to be a mugging affair inside, the difference at range being 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 yet rocked back onto his heels regularly. A right hand once more had Nardico dancing a jig before another few punches sent him sagging almost through the ropes later in the round.
On a few different occasions the action came down to slow-motion right hand exchanges, Norkus winning all but the last one, which decked him good and 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 had set in for both men, and the first serious offense in the 9th was Norkus nearly losing his footing from a jab. He slowed the pace with a few clinches before landing some effective rights — first an uppercut, then a straighter version. And then a lightning bolt of a short right hand 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 told reporters 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.”
An Associated Press 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. 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.
Nardico was later 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 1954 before to Willie Pastrano, Archie Moore and Charlie Powell and retiring in 1959. He would later become a noted referee, and 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.
In 1959 while working as a bouncer at the Frolic Cafe in New York, Norkus was shot twice by an intoxicated patron who earlier had to be physically escorted off the premises. The former fighter survived, but never worked in a bar again.
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 in the end, years after they chipped away at themselves in the ring, their battlefield away from home, it took horrific diseases to make these men stop fighting.