My Uncle Tio was a moron.
Although that may seem like a harsh thing to say about another human being, let alone one related by blood, it was the most accurate term we could use to describe him and still consider ourselves Christian. That he hobnobbed with the rich and famous, befriended Hollywood icons and influenced popular culture was irrelevant. The fact remained – Tio was an imbecile, a gobshite, a dope. Among the inhabitants of lower Manhattan, he was considered a very big idiot living in a very big village.
But he was also handsome. Devastatingly so. In fact, no less an authority than Rudolph Valentino called Tio the most handsome man he had ever seen.
He also possessed a childlike curiosity that more than compensated for his lack of intelligence. What was perceived as ignorance by the ignorant was seen as intelligence by the intelligencia.
Tio’s road was carved out for him by yardsticks, the kind favored by the Sister’s of St. Joseph of Halifax. The wood served two purposes – to measure the distance between objects, and to close the distance between education and understanding. In Tio’s case, the space between the written and spoken word became an ever–widening chasm. Although today our emotional and educational shortcomings are explained away as disorders and treated as diseases, such was not the case in Tio’s day. Despite his natural curiosity and eagerness to learn, the fact that what his classmates saw as ‘pool’ and he saw as ‘loop’ was more than a little disconcerting to him. Even the nuns, who at first were amused at his confusion, quickly became annoyed at his refusal to see things the way everyone else did.
Although stupidity could be cured with a stick, blasphemy could not. The world came to a grinding halt for Tio the day the first grade class of The Immaculate Heart of Mary School was first introduced to the Almighty. As the class proceeded to spell the name of man’s Creator at their desks, Tio proceeded to spell the name of man’s best friend at the blackboard. All hell, as well as several yardsticks, broke loose. Priests were summoned, incense burned, archangels invoked, all to no avail – Tio would not recant. By equating the Creator with the creature, no less a four legged one, this six year old had committed heresy.
Forced to learn among the pagans at P.S. 193, Tio’s prospects of education, not to mention salvation, grew dim. His inability to read even the most rudimentary texts and his refusal to worship a deity with hind legs made him an outcast, a pariah, even amongst his own clan. Once the golden boy, Tio was now as unwelcome as a fly at an ointment factory.
He found his redemption in the ring. His movie star good looks, combined with a punch that rivaled that of his godfather, the great Jack Dempsey, made him a local legend. Stories of his sparring sessions with some of the great fighters of the day – Max Baer, Max Scheming, and even the great Joe Louis, became the stuff of folklore. According to one account, a 16 year old Tio knocked the Brown Bomber out cold in sparring one week before the first Scheming fight, shattering Joe’s confidence, not to mention two of his back molars. A perfect 40-0 record, with 39 knockouts, gave Tio the one thing he so desperately craved – respect.
It also gave him something else he craved – affection, particularly from the opposite sex. Tio’s prowess in the ring was rivaled only by his prowess in the boudoir. Women from all over, not just France, clamored for a shot at the title – Mrs. Tio Snow. Three decades before the sexual revolution, and four before Mickey’s admonition to Rocky Balboa that women weaken legs, Tio had trouble balancing a schedule as both a lover and a fighter. While one career flourished, the other suffered. Tio soon discovered, much to his dismay, that he could not please all of the people all of the time, at least not on a daily basis, and still pursue a career in the ring. Forced to choose between his two great loves, Tio did the only honorable thing he could and chose neither.
Impressed by his Solomon – like wisdom, Maggie, moved by compassion and a desire to push the final bird out of its nest, suggested that he move west to be closer to his godfather (and now surrogate father after his own had died) Jack Dempsey. The Manassa Mauler, by now long past his prime and retired from the ring, took Tio under his wing and introduced him to some of the Hollywood elite. Before long Tio was hobnobbing with the rich and famous – Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and David O. Selznick. Because of his striking looks, Selznick was convinced that Tio had a future in film.
Only one thing stood between Tio and stardom – intelligence. Like a blind man in a bowling alley, Tio struggled to stay out of the gutter. His lack of confidence caused him to mumble his words, leading to take after take until finally, after take 106 of a two take shot, Tio had decided he was no thespian and headed back to New York.
It was about this same time that Tio befriended a young acting student who had just moved from the Midwest – Marlon Brando. Brando was fascinated by his new friend. He mimicked his every mannerism, grunt and scratch to a tee. Bolstered by his training as a Method actor, Brando became Tio. The results were amazing. Word soon spread of this young genius and how he was about to revolutionize the theatre forever. After the opening night performance of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, it was clear that a star had been born.
Brando and Tio were like long lost brothers, where there was one, there was the other. Tio was no longer fraternizing with pugs, he was hobnobbing with pundits. Frustrated by his inability to understand what they were talking about, Tio decided it was time he put his brain through training. Brando encouraged his friend, and suggested he take up the practice of learning a new word every day. According to Brando, it would only be a few years until he could carry on intelligent conversations with the likes of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Tio wasted no time. On the set of Brando’s new film, The Wild One, Tio found a quiet spot where he could get to work.
He opened a dictionary, flipped through the pages and, with eyes closed, jammed his index finger on the first new word of the day. ‘Rebel: verb. Rise in opposition or armed resistance to an established government or leader.’ With eyes closed, Tio repeated the word and its meaning over and over until he couldn’t forget it.
The movie’s director, Laslo Benedek, was walking across the movie set when he noticed the strange ritual. “Hey Tio, what are you doing?” Eager to put the fruits of his labor into practice, Tio wasted no time. “Rebelling.” Curious at the response, Benedek pressed Tio further. “What are you rebelling against?” Tio was stumped. “Whaddya got?” asked Tio. Benedek grabbed a clipboard and began writing.
Brando idolized Tio, he became the older brother Brando never had. Still, Tio had problems adjusting to life as a sidekick. He decided the time had come to move on. One afternoon, while taking a cab to the set of ‘On The Waterfront’, Tio leveled with Brando. Rather than living in his shadow, Tio explained, he would pursue his own calling. Brando pleaded with Tio to reconsider, reminding him of the good old days, of their barroom brawls and romantic conquests. If only Tio had been more disciplined and saved his testosterone for the ring, it would be him, and not Brando, who would be the star. For Tio, this road not travelled was too much to bear. “You don’t understand, I coulda had class, I coulda been somebody, I coulda been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it, Marlon.” With those words, the two parted. Tio set out in search of Dog.
He remembered a story that Charlie Chaplin once told him about a place called India where the cow was considered sacred. Although it was not exactly the deity he was looking for, at least it was a step in the right direction. Tio was offered a ride by his good friend and sometime sparring partner Howard Hughes. Hughes was a skilled pilot, and looked for any excuse to travel abroad, especially if it meant being Tio’s wingman. It was on this trip that Tio was introduced to an Indian ascetic, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Tio was fascinated by the Yogi’s stories of reincarnation and karma. He would spend hours at a time trying to comprehend life’s great mysteries until one day he suffered what can best be described as a charley horse in his head. Not able to apply ice to the affected area, Tio decided to give his underdeveloped cerebellum some time to recuperate. One afternoon, the Maharishi happened upon Tio sitting cross legged in the garden with a blank stare on his face. “What are you thinking about, Tio?” asked the Yogi. “Nothing”, replied Tio. With one word, the Maharishi became enlightened, and Transcendental Meditation was born.
Years later, while visiting second cousin John Lennon in Liverpool, Tio recounted his adventures in India to several of John’s friends. One in particular, George Harrison, was mesmerized by Tio’s spiritual journey to the East, and vowed that if their new band, called the Beatles, ever made any money, he too would go to India and meet the Yogi.
Rich in spiritual treasures but poor in earthly ones, Tio decided it was time to go back to America and start making a living. Still regarded as a pagan oddball by most of his family, Tio decided he would move to Los Angeles, a place where even he was seen as a conformist. Not long after his arrival, Tio received a call from another cousin, Bobby Kennedy. Bobby, Jack and Tio had been inseparable as teenagers. Stories of their late night carousing from New York to Boston had become the stuff of legend. It was hardly a surprise when Bobby asked Tio to keep an eye on a friend of his now that he was living in LA. Her name was Marilyn. Oblivious to popular culture at the time, Tio accepted and arranged to meet the actress at her Hollywood bungalow.
What happened next was predictable. Marilyn, derided by many as a vapid, bubble-headed birdbrain, had finally met her match. Never before had she been in a relationship where she was the intellectual heavyweight. Tio was a breath of fresh air – no more lecturing on the finer points of playwriting by Arthur Miller or the quantum physics of hitting a curveball by Joe DiMaggio. Tio was a man of action, and act he did, so much so that the police were called to the house on more than a few occasions, responding to complaints from the neighbors of the loud “acting” sessions taking place at all hours of the night.
But something had changed for Tio. Although by no means a prude, ever since his pilgrimage to India he discovered a part of himself that he was unaware of before. Tio had developed a conscience. Torn between his feelings for Marilyn and loyalty to his cousins, Tio decided to end the affair and pursue a higher level of consciousness. This news did not sit well with Marilyn. Despondent over the prospect of having to hear over and over complaints about Jackie this and Castro that, Marilyn Monroe, screen legend and spurned lover, took a handful of pills and went to sleep forever.
Tio was devastated; his only consolation was that he and Marilyn might meet again in another life. In the meantime, he had to put food on the table. Since he was really only good at two things, one of which had just ended in suicide, he rededicated himself to his first true love – fighting. Already past his prime, Tio decided to support himself by training the general public. He opened a small studio in Hollywood and named it after his family’s legendary gym in NYC, the Trinity Boxing Club.
Tio had found his calling. Part trainer, part philosopher and part shaman, Tio set Tinsel town on its ear. Trinity became a who’s who of the Hollywood elite. On any given morning, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Burt Lancaster could be seen doing roadwork with Tio in the Hollywood Hills while stars like Elvis Presley (Kid Galvan), Paul Newman (Somebody Up There Likes Me), and Kirk Douglas (Champion) would be mixing it up in the ring later in the day. Even his old friend Marlon Brando would stop by and hit the bags and get in a few rounds of sparring. “Were Tio still around,” Brando told an interviewer in 1984, “he never would have let me get as fat as I am today”.
Tio achieved mythical status. His influence extended well beyond the entertainment business – he had become a powerbroker. Politicians and business moguls would come to see him, cannolies in hand, to pay their respects. Ronald Reagan, whom he had met on the set of ‘The Knute Rockne Story’, sought Tio’s blessing before he ran for Governor Of California. Uncle Tio was now Godfather.
Never was his influence more evident than when his old friend Brando was vying for a role, hoping to resurrect a career that had sunk alongside the USS Bounty. Desperate for work, Brando sought Tio’s help in locking down the part of Don Corleone, even though it had been promised to Ernest Borgnine. Tio, who would be training the movie’s producer Al Ruddy that very afternoon, put Brando’s fears to rest. “Don’t worry, Bud” Tio reassured him, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Despite all the adulation and success, Tio was restless. There was one thing that still eluded him, that kept him awake at night – that he could have been a contender. Although he was now close to 50 years old, Tio believed he still had one more fight in him. Friends and family pleaded with him, citing his age and an enlarged prostate as only two of the reasons he should reconsider. Tio would hear none of it – he began training for his comeback.
On April 1, 1970, Uncle Tio entered the ring for the last time. What has generally been dismissed as urban legend, has, for my family anyway, cemented his legacy. Tio was hungry for a challenge, and he found one in a twenty-one year old Olympic gold medalist named George Foreman. Foreman, one of the most feared figures in boxing history, had already gotten his professional career off to a 12-0 start, 11 coming by way of knockout. The prospect of a 50-year-old man fighting a young lion like Foreman was insane. Still, Tio had something to prove.
No longer the brash, swashbuckling fighter of his youth, Tio had developed something in his travels that he never had in a gym – an intellect. As he stood across the ring from the biggest man he had ever seen, Tio remembered the example of his former mentors, Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Employing a strategy known as passive resistance, these two cultural icons were able to overcome more formidable opponents through practiced noncompliance. Tio decided that what’s good for Gandhi was good for the gander, and put the plan into action from the opening bell.
No one can say with any certainty how long the fight actually lasted. According to Muhammad Ali, who was sitting ringside, the bout was stopped somewhere around the third round. Others had it going to the seventh round before it was actually halted. No one can say with any authority because all records and remnants of the fight have been purged and the winner never declared.
The most credible account came from none other than Bruce Lee, whose influence on Tio was never more evident than on that crisp, April evening when a washed-up, fifty year old warrior knocked out the future heavyweight champion of the world without throwing a single punch.
What many feared would become a bloodbath was nothing of the sort. While one man threw punches with a ferociousness not seen since Joe Louis’ one round dismantling of Max Scheming in their historic rematch, the other seemed to envelop, even embrace the punches. Bruce Lee’s advice to Tio in the dressing room to “be like water” had taken shape. Uncle Tio had chosen the way of the peaceful warrior.
The term “punching oneself out,” commonly used to describe the state of sheer exhaustion a fighter feels from unleashing a barrage of punches with complete disregard for the time constraints as laid out by the Marquis of Queensbury, was never meant so literally as on that night. Foreman, furious that Tio refused to “fight back like a man,” was fueled by rage at a man who was either too dumb or too arrogant to even defend himself. Foreman’s intention was no longer just to win, but to wound.
Unfortunately for Foreman, Tio had different plans for the evening. Since in boxing, as in ballroom dancing, it takes two to Tango, Tio decided to sit this one out. What was left was one man trying to fight a shadow. Like the sound of one hand clapping, Foreman’s threats to separate Tio from his senses fell on deaf ears. The only sounds that night was the incredulous gasps as Foreman, having thrown almost 300 punches per round, slowly started to dismantle. “Big George” began to collapse to the canvas in sections until the referee, with no other choice, began to count out the outstretched Foreman. With “9, and 10,” separating Tio from the biggest upset in boxing history, the fight was interrupted when a deputy athletic commissioner, fearing the inevitable, jumped up onto the ring canvas and halted the bout, citing an obscure rule, called “the Willie Pep clause” calling for a fighter to throw at least punch per round. The fight was declared a ‘no-contest’ and any record of the affair has since been relegated to recollection.
The same can be said of Tio. After the fight, Tio was quickly escorted to his dressing room and, just as quickly, escorted out of the arena by several members of the Los Angeles Police Department. What happened next has been the subject of much speculation. By some accounts, Tio was brought to the Mexican border and told never to come back. Other accounts don’t have him being so fortunate. Despite hundreds of “Tio sightings” across the country (the most credible coming from his former pupil, Elvis Presley, who claims to have seen Tio at a 7-11 in Memphis, Tennessee in 1974), Tio was declared legally dead by the State of California. His boxing trunks, the last vestige of Tio’s life here on earth, was packed with some of his belongings and shipped back to my family in New York.
The Catholic Church, in its ultimate wisdom (and a hefty donation from the Kennedys) deemed it appropriate to absolve Tio for his past heretical utterances and afford him a proper Christian burial. The funeral in New York City was like a Who’s Who of high society. Everyone from Marlon Brando and Muhammad Ali, who served as honorary pallbearers, to California Governor Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, made up the Standing Room Only crowd at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Beatles, minus Ringo Starr, performed ‘Let It Be’ as the procession made it’s way down Fifth Avenue to the Holy Cross Cemetery in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn. It was there that Tio’s trunks, and some other artifacts of his time on Earth, were placed in a pine box and laid to rest beside my great grandparents, Lorenzo and Maggie. On May 10, 1974, Uncle Tio had come home.