Although onetime heavyweight contender Charley Norkus of New York more than held his own against such championship caliber opponents as Willie Pastrano, Archie Moore, and Ezzard Charles, he did not have the privilege of fighting Rocky Marciano, who retired as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history.
The reason for that career disappointment was not the fault of Norkus. The April 26, 1952, issue of the Syracuse Post Standard reported that the Norkus-Marciano bout, which was scheduled for May 26 of that year, was cancelled because of a 30-day suspension handed down to Marciano by Rhode Island boxing commissioner Charley Reynolds.
The future heavyweight champ had been charged with “deception” during an exhibition tour in which he sparred with his brother, Louis Marchegiano, who fought under the pseudonym Pete Fuller.
“My father fought a lot of great fighters,” said Charlie Norkus Jr., a retired New York City firefighter and current president of Ring 8, Veteran Boxers Association in New York.
“But he would have loved to have fought Marciano,” he continued. “Their styles were well-suited for each other.”
Between 1948 and 1959, Norkus compiled a record of 33-19 (19 KOS) against formidable opposition. Although he lost to the aforementioned champions, as well as Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson (seen in action during their 1954 scrap topping this story), Pat McMurtry, and Roy “Cut and Shoot” Harris, he defeated such notables as Roland LaStarza, Cesar Brion, and Charlie Powell, who also beat Norkus in the latter's second to last bout.
Most memorable, however, are Norkus's thrilling back to back bouts against Danny Nardico in 1954 in Miami Beach. The first has been described on Boxrec as “a thriller, with eight knockdowns,” six of which were scored by Norkus who won by eighth round TKO. According to Norkus Jr., the fight was significant for reasons other than it being a barnburner.
He said the fight was not slated for television but broadcasters were in town for the matchup the following week between Archie Moore and Joey Maxim at the Orange Bowl. The producers wanted to test out new lenses and asked promoter Chris Dundee, as well as Norkus and Nardico, if they could film two rounds, with no audio. Because this was an experiment no payment was granted to any of the parties. After two rounds the producer realized what a thriller the fight was and ordered more film from the truck, which Norkus Jr. describes as “a godsend.”
The entire bout – sans audio – was saved for posterity and audio was added later.
There was so much buzz from the fight, a rematch was immediately ordered for two months later, and was sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale. On fight night, 4,500 fans jammed the Miami Beach Auditorium.
This time the hard-punching Norkus, who Hall of Fame columnist and cartoonist Bill Gallo once described as having a “low hands style, always with that great left hook ready to unload” won a unanimous decision.
According to Norkus's biography in the journal for his posthumous 1996 induction into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, “The rematch, on national TV, had no knockdowns, but was a toe to toe fight with Norkus the victor again.”
Norkus's biggest “knockout” is one that only movie buffs will recall. In the 1961 film “Splendor in the Grass,” Norkus and Billy Graham, who many consider “the uncrowned welterweight champion” after getting robbed against Kid Gavilan in a 1950 title bout, rough up and “knock out” a young Warren Beatty during a New Year's party scene.
If you listen closely, you will hear Norkus say, “Okay Charley, had enough?”
The multi-talented Norkus also appeared in the films “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Hustler,” “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” and “West Side Story.”
Born in Queens in 1928, Norkus was a standout athlete in swimming, diving, and pole vaulting. He first entered a boxing gym at age 16 and was immediately hooked. Within months he competed in the Golden Gloves tournament.
Just prior to the end of World War II, Norkus and several friends dropped out of Jamaica High School and joined the Marine Corps. When his superiors learned he was an accomplished boxer, he joined the team and won a military title. Out of the ring he earned a World War II Campaign Medal.
At the 1948 Olympic Trials, Norkus lost a decision to Coley Wallace, who had an amateur victory over Marciano. Wallace went to the London Games as an Olympic alternate and five years later played the title character in the film “The Joe Louis Story.”
Norkus turned pro in late 1948 and quickly became a fan favorite. He was as honest of a fighter as the day is long, and he never gave anything less than a superlative effort in everything he did in and out of the ring.
Norkus Jr. said his father was astute enough to leave boxing at the right time. In his last bout, in February 1959, he won a decision over Waban Thomas in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he had been assigned a decade earlier while on active duty in the Marine Corps.
“My father was a sensible man,” said Norkus Jr. “He was in Ingemar Johansson's camp as a sparring partner, but he realized at that stage of his career he was there to build up the careers of other fighters. He knew where that was going, so he got out. But he had saved enough of his ring earnings to buy a house for his family.”
Living on Long Island, Norkus became a liquor salesman. He moonlighted as a bartender at a midtown Manhattan bar called the Frolic Café. One night, in July 1959, bouncer Paddy Flood, who later became a renowned trainer, threw out a patron who had been harassing a female customer.
The guy returned a short time later, packing heat. Flood was on a bathroom break so Norkus came from behind the bar to eject the unruly customer. The gunman, on parole after serving time for killing his wife, opened fire as Norkus decked him with a right hand.
Norkus was shot twice, in the groin and the stomach. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where doctors said his tremendous physical condition enabled him to survive.
The parolee was convicted and died while incarcerated at Sing Sing in the 1980s.
Norkus went on to live a full and happy life and was always ready to lend a hand. Jake LaMotta asked Norkus if he could assist him in getting a liquor route, which he gladly did. Trouble was the fabled Toots Shor's was on the Raging Bull's route – and everyone wanted to buy him a drink. LaMotta didn't know how to decline.
Norkus, on the other hand, was extremely responsible and knew where to draw the line between work and play. Whether he got that from his upbringing, or the Marine Corps, he was squared away in all aspects of his life.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Norkus was a popular referee in the New York area. He was the third man in the ring for bouts featuring the likes of Mike Tyson, Gerry Cooney, Buddy McGirt, and Renaldo Snipes.
In 1978, the NYC Detectives Endowment Association honored him as a “boxing great” at the Downtown Athletic Club.
This writer remembers him well from my early days on the boxing beat in the late 1970s. One night, in a Long Island dressing room, he and Billy Graham, who had just worked a show as referees, were getting changed into their street clothes. Somehow I wound up in their room, uninvited, but they chatted with me as if I was the most important guy in the world.
I wish I could recall the conversation because it left an indelible impression. Here I was in the company of two boxing legends, both of whom were treating me with an inordinate amount of respect.
Norkus passed away from gall bladder cancer at the age of 68 in March 1996. On the day he died, his family was informed that he had been elected into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame.
Henry Hascup, the president of the NJBHOF, has known Norkus Jr. for many years and said his father was blessed to have such a loyal and loving son. Every year Norkus Jr. goes in his own pocket to purchase two tables and several ads for the induction ceremonies. Norkus Jr. fills the tables with young amateur fighters, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds.
Realizing the hefty cost, Hascup once asked Norkus Jr., who he said has “a heart as big as the great outdoors,” why he was so generous. To say he was touched by the response would be an understatement.
“My father would want me to,” said Norkus Jr. “That's why I do it.”