by Robert Mladinich
Considering the fact that undefeated heavyweight Tony Grano of Hebron, Connecticut, didn't begin boxing until he was 20 years old, he's come a long way in a short time.
The former high school wrestling star, now 5-0-1 (5 KOS) as a pro, won a slew of amateur titles and was considered a frontrunner to represent the United States in the 2008 Olympic Games.
But Grano, who is now 25, had other plans. "By the time I'm 28, I want to be fighting for a [professional] heavyweight title," he said. "I accomplished a lot in the amateurs, and just thought it was time to turn pro."
Grano, who trains in New York, last fought on September 23 in Hartford, Connecticut, which is a stone's throw from his hometown. He personally sold a few hundred tickets to his fans, who saw him demolish a former middle linebacker turned boxer named Mike Miller, now 2-4 (2 KOS), of Akron, Ohio, in two rounds.
While a victory like the one over Miller might seem insignificant to some, if you go behind the numbers there is more than meets the eye.
Besides the fact that the 6'1", 214-pound Grano was outweighed by 41 pounds, Miller had gone the distance with undefeated Travis Kaufman, who was 3-0 (3 KOS), and once beat Nicolai Firtha, who was 7-1-1 (4 KOS) in his previous two fights.
One person who is not the least bit surprised by Grano's success is his adviser and co-trainer Andre Rozier, who also works with such hot prospects as middleweight "Mean" Joe Greene and super middleweight Curtis "Showtime" Stevens.
Rozier met Grano at an amateur tournament, when he was the head trainer of a regional East Coast team that included such standouts as Danny Jacobs, William Rosinski and Adam Willett.
Rozier, who was in the opposite corner of Grano, couldn't believe the durability and resilience that Grano displayed after Rozier's fighter got him in trouble.
"I said, 'Boy, this guy can rumble," recalled Rozier. "The fight was going back and forth and was a real war. I told my partner if I had a kid like this, if I could refine his natural ability, he'd be a beast."
At a national tournament in Little Rock, Arkansas, Grano had scored four straight knockouts to make it into the finals. By that time he and Rozier had developed a friendship and Grano would have loved to have had him in his corner for the championship match.
"If Andre had been in my corner, I would have won the final," said Grano. "I lost by one point. But I knew we were right for each other."
"If I was in his corner, he would've won," added Rozier. "He was reaching out but I couldn't respond to him. In the politics of amateur boxing, that would have caused World War III."
Another member of Grano's tight-knit circle is his father Bill, who admits that when his son first told him he wanted to box tried to talk him out of it.
"It's a very unforgiving sport," said Bill Grano. "But I saw how dedicated he was to it, and once he won the nationals you couldn't ignore his talent."
The younger Grano's braintrust have formulated a step-by-step plan to build Grano, despite his relatively small stature amongst today's heavyweights, into a bonafide contender.
They believe that within one year he will be a complete heavyweight, and within another year or two he will be on the cusp of winning a championship.
To that end they have provided him with challenging sparring partners. Grano worked for several weeks with Oleg Maskaev as Maskaev prepared to wrest the WBC heavyweight title from Hasim Rahman.
"Sometimes, for about four rounds, I'd think I got the best of him," said Grano. "Then I'd realize he's a 12-round fighter and whatever happened in the first four rounds didn't really matter. He is very strong and he's very determined."
One day at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, New York, Grano was discouraged after vigorously mixing it up with a fighter he didn't recognize. Afterwards Rozier asked him if he knew who the sparring partner was. Grano said he didn't. When he learned that it was former cruiserweight titlist Wayne Braithwaite, his attitude change completely.
"I guess I did alright," laughed Grano.
The only blemish on Grano's record is a six-round draw with Rodney Ray, who was 3-3 (3 KOS), in a bout that took place at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan in May 2006.
Grano said that he went into the fight thinking that the 6'7" Ray was actually four inches shorter than his actual height.
"I headhunted too much," he conceded. "I didn't prepare for such a tall guy. A lot of people thought I won, but the fight was close enough where I can't [complain]."
Exactly one week after his victory in Hartford, the media-savvy Grano made the rounds at the John Duddy-Yory Boy Campas fight at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
On a leave of absence from Local 777 of the plumbing and pipe fitter's union, Grano said that he was eager to get back in the ring, the sooner the better.
"I've had a lot of setbacks, including losing my best friend," he said. "But I'm not going to get distracted and I'm not going to get discouraged. I've stuck through enough hard times already to know that eventually this will all pay off."