Life outside the ring becomes gentler for former lightweight 'Tough Tony' Puleo

September 27, 1992|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Contributing Writer

It's not quite dawn, and Ruxton is asleep. But "Tough" Tony Puleo is jogging down Bellona Avenue, his feet pounding the pavement as they did 40 years ago when he was an up-and-coming lightweight.

He doesn't have much company -- deliverymen heading for Graul's Market, a few motorists who give him a wide berth and a motorman who dims his lights on the day's first outbound light-rail train.

Usually, Tough Tony doesn't stop. But this time he spots an injured bird by the side of the road. A parakeet? Someone's pet? An escapee from a pet shop?

When he picks it up, it flutters out of his hand and flies into the grill of a passing school bus. A hungry crowd of neighborhood cats gathers. But Tough Tony, who once gloried in boxing's gladiator ring, has a soft spot. He scoops the bird up again, cups it in his hand and moves on.

He chugs up Bellona Hill onto Woodbrook, across Stevenson Lane and Osler Drive, and finally home to West Joppa Road in Riderwood. There he nurses the bird for a couple of hours, but it dies. Still, Tough Tony is content. He did the best he could.

Life has been good to this cabbie and cigar-smoking raconteur, ex-pugilist and longshoreman, Brooklyn brawler and self-taught piano man.

He spends his days driving and entertaining other people. But he spends his mornings alone, running eight miles in two hours. A quarter-century ago, he could do it in 50 minutes.

"I use LSD," he says. "That's long slow distance."

After breakfast, he climbs into the cab he bought in 1979.

"I wanted something to do. I love people, and when you drive a cab you have your freedom, which is very important to me."

At 61, Tough Tony is 5 feet 6 inches tall and 20 pounds over his fighting weight of 40 years ago. But he's still agile. When he shadowboxes, his body moves on springs -- back and forth, up and down, side to side -- Fred Astaire across a slick dance floor.

"The only ring scar I have is a cut over my left eye that Libby Manzo delivered in a fight," he says, chuckling. "It's now part of my wrinkles."

Before the wrinkles, there was glory. It was 1954 at New York's Madison Square Garden. Tough Tony can still close his eyes and see himself standing in the boxing ring, the lights dimming, the trumpets blaring. He was the Golden Gloves winner.

"I looked out into the crowd and, believe it or not, I saw my father," he said. "The place was packed. He was so proud."

He was 24 then, fresh out of Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood "where the cops travel only in pairs and they haul at least two stiffs a week away to the morgue."

He was the toast of the town. The Daily News gave him the Ray Robinson Outstanding Boxer Award and a ceremony at the Astor Hotel. The big-time New York sportswriters were there, all of them trying to get a few precious words from the man

they called the "Rough Tough Brooklyn Body Puncher."

"I ran into the Brooklyn Fox Theater, and there on the Pathe newsreel was a clip of my Golden Gloves fight. I couldn't believe it," he said. "By the time I returned home to the neighborhood, I was a hero to the kids. They were all shouting: 'Hey, Sonny! Hey, Sonny!' " Which is what they called him before he became Tough Tony.

The son of Italian immigrants, he literally fought his way out of Red Hook.

"I still have a left hook like a mule's kick," he says with pride. "I was a wild kid. Boxing gave me confidence, and at the same time I was able to work off some steam."

His father was a foreman for stevedores who worked Grace Line ships. When the time came, Tough Tony became a longshoreman.

"In those days, the gangs would often fight one another," he remembers. "It was rough, just like in 'On the Waterfront.' I used to loosen my hands up by hitting big bags of coffee which came up from South America in the holds of ships."

His life and career parallel the story of Terry Malloy, the character Marlon Brando portrayed in "On the Waterfront."

"Sure, I remember the film," he says in a thick, raspy Brooklynese accent with hints of Sylvester Stallone and a young Brando. "In fact, it was filmed on Pier 5 in Hoboken, the old Holland-America line pier."

He replays the car scene, as Terry confronts his brother, played by Rod Stieger.

"Chaaaleee, you're my brudda," he says, milking the line. "You shudda looked out for me. I cudda been somebody. What did I get but a one-way ticket to Palookaville?"

Life didn't treat Tough Tony so badly. Fight managers told him: "Keep your nose clean, and you'll be as famous as Howdy Doody and Mr. Peepers."

He fought in the St. Nicholas Arena on Long Island, the Eastern Parkway Arena and, of course, The Garden. It was a good time, for a while. Then his manager started making fun of him.

It was on a normal day. He had just finished a workout at Stillman's Gym, crossed the street and seen his manager, Dominick "The Fox" Lanza, getting a haircut and talking to

comedian Fred Allen. "The Fox" turned to Allen and said: "Here comes my punchy fighter."

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