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The tragic tale of Terry Young

Terry Young
Carlos Acevedo tells the story 1940s lightweight Terry Young, a successful New York city boxer who led a hold-up gang

“Now he lives at home with his mother. He can’t get a job no place and fathers of kids all up and down the Avenue say, ‘Stay away from that Terry Young, he was a bad one. You hang out with him, and you’ll come to no good.’ Terry’s punch is punched out, and now when even kids run away from him on the block, he don’t care much what happens. In the old days, it was the kids who used to call him Tough Terry and tag behind him when he done road work down by the river. It was Terry who gave me his money and let me wear his clothes and who made me a fighter. Tough Terry! That was the only title he ever held.”

Rocky Graziano

IN the late 1930s, Terry Young was locked up in Coxsackie — a reformatory in upstate New York run like the prison in King of the Damned — along with two future legends: his boyhood chums Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano. Out of this remarkable trio, Young was the only one who never won a title. And he was the only one who could never succeed in the straight world.

Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta were childhood friends of Terry Young

Even LaMotta, after a withering stretch on a Florida chain gang in the late 1950s, was a peaceable if somewhat seedy citizen when Raging Bull brought him back to fame. For his part, Graziano spent roughly a third of his life incarcerated before transitioning into one of the most controversial and popular fighters of his era and then into a beloved television actor with a zany comedic touch.

But there was no second life for Terry Young, whose status as a bruising local hero could never eclipse his love of transgression. A lightweight terror who routinely headlined Madison Square Garden in the 1940s, Young is now a historical footnote whose limited notoriety can be traced solely to his friendship with Graziano. It was Young who convinced Graziano (then Thomas Rocco Barbella) to lace up the gloves. Although Graziano had learned the basics from his abusive father, an ex-journeyman washout, he had no interest in pursuing boxing as a vocation. Unless it was a rumble or a robbery, organised activities were anathema to the anarchic Graziano. That included a gym, where the discipline and toil on display usually blew Graziano out onto the street from which he came like a fierce backdraft in a burning tenement.

One afternoon an impromptu sparring session between Young and Graziano ended abruptly, with Young flat on his back after being smacked by a brickbat right hand. “From that day I first knocked him down,” Graziano recalled, “Terry Young never stopped his campaign to make me a fighter.”

If not for Young, the unbridled Graziano would probably have wound up sharing the same bleak fate as so many of his gutter sidekicks: chalk outlines under dreary lamppost light, long stretches behind bars, or a lethal date with “Old Sparky,” the infamous electric chair in Sing Sing prison. In fact, Graziano might have wound up like his old friend Terry Young.

Young, born Angelo DeSanza in 1921, turned pro on November 20, 1939, after years spent as a juvenile delinquent. He took his nom de guerre from his journeyman father, who had anglicised his name while fighting as a welterweight during the outlaw and no-decision eras. With his torrid style and savage charisma, Young was an instant crowd favourite. In his rookie year, Young racked up a record of 31-0-1, during the days when prizefighting was a self-supporting industry in New York City and fight cards took place every night of the week, except, of course, on Sundays.

Finally, on December 17, 1940, Young suffered his first defeat at the hands of perennial contender Bobby Ruffin. Over the next two years, Young swapped punches with some of the best lightweights in the world, with mixed results in the record books but unanimous approval at the box office.

As far as New York City was concerned, Terry Young was a bona fide star. By the middle of 1943, Young was rated among the top five lightweights in the world. Although the ranks were thin across all divisions because of World War II, it was no small feat to reach such heights: at the time, Young was in the mix with Beau Jack, Bob Montgomery, Sammy Angott, and Ike Williams. Despite his status as a headliner, however, Young was moonlighting to supplement his income. His side gig? Young spent his downtime masterminding armed robberies.

The sporting world was stunned when Young was arrested in June 1943 and charged with being the leader of a hold-up gang. Young was the bagman, waiting in a taxicab, when four of his henchmen stormed the Manhattan Democratic Club and robbed its members at gunpoint on February 16, 1943. After speeding away with the money, Young would later tell his crew that the spoils amounted only to $50. When the culprits learned that the take was more than $400, not even the underworld code of silence could keep Young safe. All the suspects subsequently arrested for the robbery betrayed Young and testified against him on the witness stand.

On October 29, 1943, Young pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and received a sentence of two-and-a-half to five years at Sing Sing correctional facility. Assistant District Attorney Emanuel Roberts summarised Young to the court: “This man is a local bully. He’s a leader of a gang of marauders who have perpetrated other stickups and used weapons, and he was the director, the brains, the fingerman, and in most cases kept the major part of the proceeds.” What made his downfall so shocking was his success as a boxer. Young, who had bragged about being a $10,000-a-year fighter (roughly $150,000 today), did not need the money he earned from theft. Young served two-and-a-half years in prison and began a comeback in August 1948, but he had lost more than just a step. Before his stint in Sing Sing, Young had racked up a record of 54-13-5. When he returned, after four years from the ring wars, he went 16-23, numbers better suited for no-hopers.

A helter-skelter schedule, typical of the mid-to-late 1940s, when fighters were craftsmen practicing a profession regularly, and grueling competition depleted physical reserves already diminished by a thousand fallow nights in Sing Sing and by dozens of toe-to-toe slugfests early in his career. Less than 18 months after launching his comeback, Young answered the bell with his bitter, sometimes profane, fury against Beau Jack, Billy Graham, Sandy Saddler, and Paddy DeMarco (twice). Invariably, Young drew overflow crowds to his fights. His popularity had always been something of a contradiction. Although Young quickened pulses with his frantic kill-or-be killed attack, his orneriness also made him a magnet for negative appeal.

He proved that in 1948, when brawls against his Greenwich Village rival Paddy DeMarco and former lightweight champion Beau Jack lit up the fight scene like a fireworks display gone awry. Because DeMarco was still a teenager, his first Madison Square Garden showdown with Young was limited by law to eight rounds. It was a bruising scrap, full of butting, heeling, and mauling — Young specialties — and the split decision went to DeMarco.

Less than a month later, Young would notch the biggest win of his career. As a late substitute, Young battled Beau Jack in the main event at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1948. One of the most beloved fighters in New York City history, Jack was making a comeback of his own following knee surgery that had kept him out of the ring for nine months.

Although Jack was a 3/1 favorite entering the fight and had outpointed Young back in 1942, he was already past his peak. This, his 25th headline appearance at Madison Square Garden, would be among his last hurrahs.

At the sound of the bell, Jack rushed across the ring and bombarded Young with lefts and rights, until Young returned fire and sent Jack to the deck for a short count. After Jack staggered to his feet, the real struggle began. When it was over, Young had earned a narrow decision that must have seemed like an anti-climax to a breathless crowd.

Young then became a candidate for a title shot against Ike Williams. But his curbside instincts distorted his viewpoint. Just how important was turf to Terry Young? Incredibly, he declined to face Williams in favour of a rematch with Paddy DeMarco. To Young, his neighbourhood reputation meant more than professional accomplishments.

DeMarco and Young met in a rematch two months later, on April 2, 1948, once again at Madison Square Garden. This time, over 17,000 fans shoehorned into the arena to watch a vicious grudge match that ended with DeMarco winning another split decision. Later, Young would offer these pleasantries about his rematch with DeMarco: “I bit him, I spit at him, and I cursed him. But nothing would make him fight. He’s a disgrace to the boxing game.” That was the last time Young would be a significant factor in boxing. Then came the inevitable knockout defeats, the cuts and bruises, the beatings for smaller purses, in smaller venues, far away from Madison Square Garden. Terry Young began to disintegrate.

His fierce dignity in the ring — Young was what was once known in bloodsport circles as “dead game” — compounded his troubles. During an era when referees were far more tolerant of blood, Young took several extended beatings that accelerated his deterioration. Knockout losses to Sandy Saddler, Charley Fusari, Percy Bassett, and Jose Maria Gatica chipped away at him. In his last fight, on August 3, 1953, Young took a pitiless thrashing from a young Tony DeMarco, who stopped him in five rounds.

Like so many neighbourhood roughnecks whose overidentification with street etiquette all but ensured stasis, Young was marooned on the East Side after his career ended. He became a local bouncer, made loose change as a small-time bookie, and roamed the shadowy streets at all hours. That lifestyle finally caught up to him on November 5, 1967, in a sketchy members-only lounge called The Playboy Social Club. According to reports, Young was not just a member of the establishment, but he was also the president.

Terry Young
Young [right] takes aim at Enrique Bolanos in Madison Square Garden in 1943

When Young, still brash, still abrasive, still willing to rumble, got into a dispute over stolen goods with the bartender of the club — a troublemaker named Lutgardo “Lucky” Bega — he refused to back down. But Bega was not Paddy DeMarco, or Sandy Saddler, or Beau Jack. In fact, Bega was not even one of the sidewalk delinquents fresh out of Coxsackie and roaming the Lower East Side. No, he was a hardened criminal who had already served time for manslaughter and who specialised in hot lead, not left hooks. In an eyeblink, Bega pulled out a .38 revolver and shot Young at close range. It was the kind of instantaneous reprisal common on the harsh streets which grew harsher with every passing year. Mortally wounded, Young staggered to the entrance of the club, where he collapsed, his fighting spirit finally extinguished.

Would Terry Young have been remembered as more than just a boyhood crony of Rocky Graziano if he had been able to free himself from crime?

The question seems moot. Young was a permanent resident of that half-lit world of burlesque joints, dive bars, flophouses, pool rooms, pokerino lounges, nightspots, floating craps games, boxing gyms, boarding houses, bookie parlors. In the Playboy Social Club, where he was murdered, there were several black and white photographs of him, some posed in fighting stance, hanging on the walls.

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