THE raspy voice on the other end of the phone asks me when I can come over to his home in Mount Vernon, New York, to discuss an important matter. The tone is one I am all too familiar with. A request will be made, one of which I can be of no help, but that doesn’t deter Steve Acunto from trying. When I arrive he wastes no time telling me what is on his mind. “MMA is ruining boxing,” he laments. “You have to use your influence to see that it is banned in New York State.”
Steve Acunto has devoted his life to boxing, and a long life it has been. Acunto age 98, is still striving to improve the sport he loves. For a man of his advanced years to retain the motivation and drive he has is nothing short of phenomenal.
Father time has slowed Acunto down physically. He stopped his daily routine of skipping rope at 93 and now spends most of his time sitting in a wheelchair when he is not taking an occasional stroll around the Victorian mansion he grew up in, one estimated to be around 200 years old. Father time has a tough adversary in Acunto. We agree that it won’t claim him until he at least reaches his 100th birthday on November 15, 2016.
Those who know Acunto intimately as I do, revere him. Others unfortunately have only witnessed him from a distance, failing to comprehend what this truly remarkable man has meant to boxing.
If you live long enough as Acunto has, eventually it becomes impossible to ignore your contribution to the sport. He has been inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame, and the State Hall of Fames of New Jersey and New York. He was also honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America with its “Long and Meritorious Service” award. But it is what Acunto has given back that trumps any accolades he has received.
“My inspiration was Gene Tunney,” he says. “When I was a kid I read his book that was named A Man Must Fight. I was a teenager at the time, but knew boxing was something that I wanted to make a big part of my life.”
“I was trained by Charley Goldman and he was so good to me,” said Acunto. “I must have sparred around 100 rounds with Ambers. We were friends. After a while I got to learn his style so well. One day I ducked under his left hook and came over the top with a right hand that put him down. Word got back to Al Weill and he wanted me to turn pro under his management. My parents though were as much against boxing as I was for it. They objected vehemently so I never turned pro, but the experiences at Stillman’s Gym were priceless.
“Lou Stillman was a nasty guy. Ambers liked to tease him, but Stillman had no sense of humor. I remember him once chasing Ambers out of the gym with a stick.
“Tommy Loughran was a great guy who I saw around the gym a lot. He lived at the New York Athletic Club.”
However it was a fleeting memory of Max Schmeling stopping by the gym in 1936, which stands out as a lasting memory for Acunto.
“I was skipping rope in the gym that day and in walked Schmeling. He had one of those big Hamburg hats on and started to talk about his upcoming fight with Joe Louis. He said he thinks he sees something, but wouldn’t tell us what it was.”
Later it was revealed that Max was referring to Louis dropping his left hand after throwing a jab. Schmeling capitalized on this by landing right hand’s throughout the fight to stop Louis in the 12th round of their first encounter.
Acunto had a career in public service, first working for the Department of Taxation and Finance in New York and then in law enforcement. This led to him being involved in various youth programs.
In 1945, New York State Athletic Commissioner Eddie Eagan brought Acunto on board as a boxing judge, his first assignment being at Brooklyn’s famed Eastern Parkway Arena. Ultimately he became a deputy commissioner where he served for decades.
It would have been a marvelous career had it ended with the commission assignment, but Acunto was just getting started. He became involved in training boxers, not looking to find a future world champion but to teach them the manly art of self – defense instead. Nevertheless he wound up training future junior middleweight champion Elisa Obed for a period of time when the fighter relocated to Westchester. However, Obed would eventually go back to the Bahamas, and the men parted on very friendly terms.
Acunto continued to train anyone who had a sincere interest in learning how to box. Westchester Community College hired him to teach the only course for credit in boxing in the United States.
Acunto leans over his desk and hands me a tape to slip into the machine. It is an instructional video he did with Willie Pep after the former featherweight great had long been retired. A group of youngsters surround the ring and listen to Acunto and Pep impart their knowledge. “If Willie was your friend he would do anything for you” said Acunto. “Sugar Ray Robinson might have been the greatest fighter in history, but for pure boxing skill Pep was the best.”
In 1988, Acunto and his wife Mercedes attended the Kentucky Derby. There a young attorney named Wolf Cohen introduced Acunto to Muhammad Ali. Acunto told Ali of the instructional video he had done with his close friend Rocky Marciano a couple of decades before, and would the former champion consider coming to New York to do the same? Ali broke into a grin.
“I love Rocky Marciano,” he said. “If he did it, I’m sure gonna do it. Give my brother your number and I’ll call.”
Acunto knew how hectic Ali’s schedule was and did not really expect him to respond, but not long after his phone rang and Rahman Ali was on the line from Atlantic City, where he and Muhammad had went to see the Mike Tyson–Michael Spinks fight.
“He wants to go up there and do that thing with you” Rahman said. “He’s never done that before. He’s really taking a liking to you. He said, that white guy knows what he’s talking about.”
Acunto beams with pride as we view the video of him and Ali gently going through the motions. Ali was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. He looks sluggish, but is a willing pupil as professor Acunto explains the finer points of the sweet science.
“Ali still calls me the teacher,” Acunto laughs.
Acunto describes Ali as one of the nicest people he has ever met in boxing, but the man he is most closely associated with is Marciano. In the late 1960’s they forged a friendship that arose through a mutual desire to improve the sport. As a result, they started a new organization that was named the American Association for the Improvement of Boxing.
Tragically right after forming the AAIB, Marciano was killed in a plane crash. His friend died, but Acunto would keep their dream alive. Every year until 2009, the AAIB would have a big yearly banquet in White Plains, called Boxerama. They would honor people in the boxing community with Rocky Marciano awards. One of the better presentations involved Larry Holmes.
The former world heavyweight champion had taken quite a bit of flak for a remark he made following his first defeat in 1985, a decision loss to Spinks. Very upset over coming just one fight short of tying Marciano’s 49 consecutive victories, Holmes said at the post fight press conference that “Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jock strap.”
The fall – out from the remark was enormous, resulting in Holmes spending years in a damage control mode claiming what he said was taken out of context.
Many years had passed, but Holmes’ image remained tarnished because of the remark. Acunto did not know Holmes personally, but he wanted to help him find closure and heal any ill feelings that Marciano’s fans had toward him. With the consent of the Marciano family, Acunto reached out to Holmes and said that the AAIB wanted to honor him with a Rocky Marciano award. Holmes readily accepted. He was presented with the award by Lou Marciano, Rocky’s nephew.
Acunto’s devotion to Marciano knows no bounds. He led a successful campaign to have a postage stamp approved in the Rock’s honor. The AAIB also has been to Washington D.C on numerous occasions lobbying for safety legislation that would protect the boxer, something that Marciano felt strongly about.
Acunto has also written a manual on how boxing can be improved and an instructional book teaching the technical aspects, both under the AAIB banner
The AAIB still exists with monthly board meetings, but as Acunto has slowed down so has the organization. Although they no longer hold Boxerama, their yearly golf outing is still going strong. Many former champions have participated over the years.
You would think that Acunto like most old – timers would tend to favor the fighters of his youth, but such is not the case.
“Bernard Hopkins is one of my all – time favorites, he is so savvy” says Acunto. “To perform as he has at his age is unheard of.”
“He definitely was one of the best ever, a brilliant boxer – puncher.”
Acunto also had kudos for Pernell Whitaker who he describes as one of the best pure boxers ever.
Roy Jones once travelled to Westchester to do an instructional poster with Acunto. So impressed with Jones’ performances when he was at his peak, Acunto had previously put him on a par with Robinson, but on reflection admits that may have been going a little too far.
“I would still rate him on the level of Ambers and Canzoneri which is pretty good company,” he says.
Acuto does not like extended all-time best lists, but after being prodded lists Robinson, Pep, and Benny Leonard in order as his top three pound for pound. Not surprisingly he rates Marciano as the greatest heavyweight of all-time, but puts Ali a close second, followed by Gene Tunney and Joe Louis.
“Ali would have boxed rings around Louis,” said Acunto, “he was too fast and clever.”
Being of Italian heritage and a very close friend of Marciano’s, would have made it unthinkable for Acunto to say that Ali would have beaten Rocky, but he acknowledges it could have happened.
“It would have been a great fight,” says Acunto salivating at the thought. “Ali would certainly have had a good chance, but Marciano’s power, drive, and determination were such that I believe he would have eventually prevailed. No one could come from behind in a fight the way Rocky could.”
Acunto’s wife Mercedes passed away in 2003. The marriage produced three daughters (Donna, Stephanie, and Laura) and a son (Steve Jr.) who all keep in close contact with dad.
Acunto’s den can pass for a mini museum. It is diversified with photos of family, baseball icons Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, and Marciano and Frank Sinatra squaring off. There is a signed portrait of Pep, and a special board for Tunney. On Acunto’s desk are pictures of Ali and Ambers. But It’s what’s inside a trophy case that makes the room a shrine. In it lays the Ring Magazine championship belt that was awarded to Marciano after he beat Jersey Joe Walcott for the world heavyweight championship in 1952.
Rocky can rest peacefully, secure in the knowledge that the belt is in the possession of someone who cherishes it as much as he did.