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Boxer Tony Zale, “Man of Steel,” dies at 83

March 21, 1997

PORTAGE, Ind. (AP) _ Tony Zale traded northwestern Indiana’s steel mills for the boxing ring, battling his way to the world middleweight title and three bruising contests with Rocky Graziano.

His endurance in the face of relentless physical punishment earned Zale the nickname the ``Man of Steel″ and helped him hold onto his title through most of the 1940s.

Zale died Thursday at a Portage nursing home after several years of battling Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.

Born in Gary, Ind., as Anthony Florian Zaleski, Zale held the National Boxing Association title for eight years after defeating Al Hostak in July 1941. But he was best known for his matches against Graziano, becoming the first fighter to knock him out.

Friends and relatives remembered him as a gentle man who came from a close-knit, Polish-Catholic family. His father died when he was 2 years old.

While Zale had a gentle demeanor, that changed when he stepped into the ring, recalled his nephew, Raymond Zale of Crown Point, Ind.

``His personality completely changed when he walked into that ring. He was a killer. He wanted to destroy his opponent, and he did that,″ Raymond Zale said.

Herbert G. Goldman, editor of International Boxing Digest, said that Zale’s ability to take physical punishment more than earned him the ``Man of Steel″ nickname.

``He was a great fighter, a courageous fighter who always gave his all,″ Goldman said. ``He certainly was one of the most vicious body punchers the game has ever known.″

``There was no quit in the man. When he hurt, he’d come back and fight until he dropped. That is the sort of courage you rarely see in the fight game today.″

Zale quit his job at Gary’s steel mills when his boxing career took off in the 1930s, and he altered his Polish last name to Zale.

In 1935, his first year as a professional, Zale felt overworked after battling through 28 contests and went back to steel mills. Two years later, at the age of 24, he returned to the ring with great success. He eventually was paired with National Boxing Association middleweight champion Hostak, beating Hostak in a 10-round contest.

Zale won the 1940 title fight by knocking out Hostak in round 13, but didn’t gain universal recognition as the world titleholder until he defeated Georgie Abrams in 1941.

Zale then joined the U.S. Navy and was out of the ring for four years. When he was discharged in 1945, he returned to the ring with Graziano waiting in the wings.

Zale rallied to retain the middleweight title in the first fight in 1946, but Graziano triumphed in the second pairing the following year.

In their third meeting, in 1948, Zale knocked out Graziano in the third round. But three months later, French boxer Marcel Cerdan dethroned Zale, who then retired from boxing at age 35.

Three months after beating Graziano, Zale was dethroned by French boxer Marcel Cerdan and, at 35, decided to call it quits.

Zale and his late wife, Philomena, are survived by two daughters.

The funeral will be Monday at Stilinovich and Wiatrolik Funeral Home in Merrillville, Ind.