Farewell to a true champ, North End’s Tony DeMarco
There is a statue of Tony DeMarco, the boxing champion, in the North End. It is where he was born and where he lived. He died last week, age 89.
Well into his 80s, DeMarco would every so often set up shop in the sun at the site of the statue, located at Hanover and Cross streets.
There the genial once welterweight champion of the world would autograph sold copies of his book “Nardo: Memoir of a Boxing Champion” to tourists and other interested parties.
DeMarco was honored with the statue in 2012.
North End residents and other Bostonians who knew him called him “Champ” as they waved or stopped to make small talk. Perhaps the visits gave DeMarco a chance to recall his glory days. Or maybe it was just something to do.
Nardo was the nickname his Sicilian immigrant parents gave him. His birth name was Leonardo Liotta, which would not have been a bad name for a fighter.
But when Nardo, a teenage amateur boxer, went to turn professional, he was denied a boxing license because at age 16 he did not meet the 18-year-old age requirement.
So Nardo took the name of another North End kid named Tony DeMarco and got his license.
But then the real Tony DeMarco told Nardo that he was going to also turn pro.
“I said, ‘What name are you fighting under?” DeMarco said in a 2011 Cyber Boxing Zone interview. “He said ‘Tony DeMarco.’ I tell him, you can’t have it. Pick another name. So, he took the name of another kid named Michael Termini, who also wanted to turn pro, but he had to take his brother’s name.
“So, there were three of us fighting, all from the same neighborhood, all using someone else’s name.”
Nardo’s first fight as Tony DeMarco took place at Boston Garden on Oct. 21, 1948. He won by a knockout. His last fight, also at the Garden was on Feb. 6, 1962.
In those 14 years, DeMarco compiled a lifetime record of 58 victories, many by knockout, to 12 defeats and one tie. DeMarco fought at a time when prize fighting was a major sport in the country and fighters were celebrities.
DeMarco’s biggest victory came following an epic battle with Welterweight Champion Johnny Saxton at the Garden on April Fool’s Day, 1955.
After pummeling each other for 13 rounds, DeMarco destroyed Saxton in the 14th round and the referee stopped the fight. DeMarco was the new champion and the toast of the North End.
But typical of the self-effacing and humble man he would become, DeMarco, who walked to the Garden from his home on Fleet Street in the North End for the fight, also walked home after the fight, this time carrying the championship belt.
But he was not champion for long. Sixty-nine days later Carmen Basilio beat him. Their rematch in 1955, which Basilio won again, is considered a classic in boxing history.
In his career, the pride of the North End fought every major fighter around, including eight world champions, before leaving the fight game for good. Yet he never lost his sense of humility or his habit of lending a helping hand to those down their luck.
He moved his wife and family to Arizona where the dry climate would help his asthmatic son, Vincent. But Vincent, 14, was struck by a car and killed. Two years later the couple’s daughter, Sylvia, died from leukemia.
DeMarco returned to his roots in the North End and got a job at the State House as a court officer in the House of Representatives. He remarried.
There he reunited with State Auditor Joe DeNucci, a former middleweight contender, and fellow Italian American, who DeMarco had mentored in boxing years before.
People at the State House who knew nothing of DeMarco or his fighting career would usually be astonished when they learned that this unassuming and kind court officer had been such a famous and accomplished professional fighter — in short, a champion.
He did not look or act the part. He never swaggered.
People who knew him called him “Champ” — not because he was once the famous welterweight champion of the world, but because he was a kind, unassuming and big-hearted man.
He was buried Tuesday. Cover lightly, gentle earth.