Commentary

Remembering Joey DeJohn

He helped create the heyday of boxing in upstate New York and was idolized in his native Syracuse, even without ever winning a title. Don Stadley takes a look at the life of Joey DeJohn.

Originally Published: May 14, 2008
By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com

Joey DeJohn didn't like to talk about his past.

He told the Syracuse Herald in 1992, "The old days, I don't like to hear about them, really. I like to hear about the horse to pick at Finger Lakes, or what's biting at Otisco Lake. That's what I like."

His real name was Joseph Di Gianni, his nickname, "Golden Boy," and as the most popular of the fighting DeJohn brothers of Syracuse, Joey DeJohn helped create the heyday of upstate New York boxing.

DeJohn died last Friday at Oswego Hospital in upstate New York. He was survived by longtime companion Patricia Corp, two children and several grandchildren. He was 81.

During the 1940s and '50s, DeJohn was a walking legend of almost Babe Ruthian proportion. There were stories of DeJohn knocking opponents 10 feet into the air and healing sick children with his phone calls. In his prime he drove shiny, fin-backed cars and swaggered the way contenders swaggered in the 1940s, when America was tough and boxing was front-page news.

His professional record, 74-14-2 with 52 knockouts, barely hints at his explosive ring style. Upon learning of DeJohn's death last week, boxing historian Don Hamilton told the Syracuse Post Standard, "He's one of the few fighters who could sell a place out and lose, and then a month later, take another fight and sell the place out again. He was an incredibly dynamic fighter to watch, win or lose."

DeJohn's career came to a violent climax when he was matched with Jake LaMotta in 1949. The State Fair Coliseum in Syracuse, a concrete barn full of cigar smoke and bloodthirsty fans, was packed the night DeJohn and the Raging Bull tore into each other.

DeJohn was ahead on points when he grew exhausted and collapsed in the eighth round. That's how it goes when you smoke a pack a day and would rather drink than duck.

By his own admission, DeJohn's career would've been better if he'd trained a little. Or at all. Along with cigarettes, he had a weakness for Scotch, and a gambling habit that kept him up long past the hour that is good for a pug.

I disappointed a lot of people here on the North Side, a lot of people believed in me. I let 'em down, I guess. I could've done the right thing, and I didn't. I have to live with that.

-- Joey DeJohn, on regretting not living up to his potential

"I disappointed a lot of people here on the North Side, a lot of people believed in me," DeJohn said in 1992. "I let 'em down, I guess. I could've done the right thing, and I didn't. I have to live with that."

DeJohn's lax training prevented him from reaching the top, but he created plenty of memories at ground level. His Feb. 25, 1949, Madison Square Garden bout with Pete Mead was chosen by Ring magazine in 1999 as one of the 10 best fights in Garden history.

French middleweight Robert Villemain beat DeJohn in 1952, but said, "That DeJohn's not human. I was never hit so hard in my life. All the middleweights should chip in and set up a fund and give it to DeJohn if he would promise to retire."

DeJohn's brother, John, managed Carmen Basilio. The monastic Basilio was in awe of the hard-partying Golden Boy. When Basilio fought on the undercard of a Joey DeJohn main event, he'd skip his shower so he could sit ringside and enjoy the mayhem. As LaMotta once said of DeJohn, "He threw those 'wow' punches."

DeJohn served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. As a youngster he showed a talent for drawing, but followed his brothers into boxing, even though, in his own words, the sport "makes no sense."

Life after boxing made no sense, either. Retiring in 1955, DeJohn stayed out of the news until 1960 when his first wife, Rose Marie, was involved in a major heroin bust. The scandal rocked upstate New York. By 1962 she was cleared of smuggling charges, but by then she and Joey were estranged. In 1975, DeJohn was arrested and charged with assaulting a Syracuse man; nothing came of it.

DeJohn quit drinking, but kept a low profile in Syracuse. He told the Syracuse Herald that he felt uncomfortable among the locals. "They look at what I could have been," he said. "They know."

His suspicions softened in 1997 when he was inducted into the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame. He and his brothers made occasional personal appearances and maintained their status as local icons. In 2007, DeJohn was inducted into the Buffalo Hall of Fame.

DeJohn never received a title shot, but he fought at a time when there was only one champion per division. His admirers say had he fought today, when alphabet titles are plentiful, he would have won a world title.

But being a contender in DeJohn's time was more prestigious than being one of today's tin-pot titlists. In DeJohn's era, a contender stood at the edge of greatness. That's not a bad way to be remembered.

And if Joey DeJohn didn't want to talk about the old days, it was because he knew better than anyone how things could've been.

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.