If anyone had asked my opinion on boxing a few weeks ago, my response would have been tepid at best. I’d never really given the sport much thought. And yet I now find myself staying up way too late watching grainy videos of boxing matches and old ESPN documentaries about famous boxers, discovering everything I can about New York’s boxing world in the late 1940s through the 1950s. What caused this rapid change of heart? Two words: Stanley Kubrick.
During Stanley Kubrick’s time at LOOK Magazine he photographed two stories about the daily life of boxers. The first featured Walter Cartier in 1949 and the second Rocky Graziano in 1950. These boxers couldn’t have been more different, and tracing the careers of both highlights the spectrum of men who were lured to this sport.
Walter Cartier was born in the Bronx in 1922. He started boxing with his brothers at an early age (his twin brother Vincent would later be his trainer) and after World War II gained prominence in boxing circles in New York City. At the time that Kubrick shot the LOOK story, Cartier was a 24-year old rising fighter, known for being a precise, smart, intense middleweight boxer. The article accompanying the photographs says that if, “the big purses elude him another year, he plans to quit the ring and attend law school.” But the big fights came and for years he was constantly on the cusp of becoming the middleweight champion. As an obituary reads, “Cartier was that handsome Bronx knockout kid who sold tickets. Here was a special kind of a fighter–clean living, loved being a boxer and always kept himself in shape.”
Below you can see the transformation from Walter Cartier, a typical young man living in Greenwich Village who goes on dates and plays with kids, to Walter Cartier the prizefighter.
Where Cartier was dedicated, focused, and meticulous, Kubrick’s next boxing subject was a knockout king – tough and brutal.
Rocky Graziano (born Thomas Rocco Barbella) grew up in the East Village (10th Street and First Avenue to be exact) and was a complete product of the rough neighborhood. By the time he was six years old, he had a reputation of being a good fighter. Or as he put it, “I was the best street fighter in history when I was growing up on the Lower East Side. Hell, I never lost a street fight. Never. I thought I could lick Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis or anybody. I was fantastic.” With a nasty habit of stealing, as he described it, “everything that began with an ‘a’ — a piece of fruit, a radio, a car, anything that wasn’t nailed down,” it’s perhaps unsurprising that Graziano had stints in reform schools and later, in prison. (For more fantastic quotes, see his New York Times obituary here.) After a dishonorable discharge from the Army for punching a supervising officer, he found himself back in New York City. A friend, hoping to find an outlet for Graziano’s aggression, took him to boxing mecca Stillman’s Gym.
Graziano originally viewed boxing as an easy source of cash – he notoriously hawked his first medal for $15 – but his natural talent led him to become the middleweight champion in 1946. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Graziano’s life story was made into the 1956 film, Someone Up There Likes Me, starring a young Paul Newman.
As with Walter Cartier, Kubrick’s focus is on the transformation of Rocky Graziano from loving family man to boxer. It should be noted, however, that this story came out after Graziano’s two-year suspension from professional boxing due to failure to report an attempted $100,000 bribe.
To see more of Walter Cartier, check out Stanley Kubrick’s first movie, the 16-minute Day of the Fight, which was inspired by the LOOK magazine story.
Both Cartier and Graziano continued to box through the mid-1950’s, after which they both tried their hands at acting, both securing steady roles in television shows. Walter Cartier performed in the Phil Silvers Show and Rocky Graziano co-starred in the Martha Raye Show.