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Sparring partners honor a South Philly friend

As 300 friends, relatives, and boxing buddies from the old South Philly neighborhood looked on, a dark blue drape was removed Saturday from a statue at the triangle where Mifflin and 13th Streets meet Passyunk Avenue.

As 300 friends, relatives, and boxing buddies from the old South Philly neighborhood looked on, a dark blue drape was removed Saturday from a statue at the triangle where Mifflin and 13th Streets meet Passyunk Avenue.

And then the figure of fighter Joey Giardello emerged in bronze, gloves on and muscles flexed, poised to deliver a punishing blow.

"It is awesome, unbelievable," said Brian Graniela, the young owner of the Warrior Boxing Gym at 1209 Mifflin. "The statue's gorgeous."

Had he lived to see it, Giardello, really Carmine Orlando Tilelli, would have been moved to tears, his widow told well-wishers gathered under a dazzling blue sky.

"All I can say is he would have been in awe and humble," said Rosalie Tilelli. "In reality, that's what he was - a very humble man - and I love him and miss him very much."

A South Philly fighter who reigned as world middleweight champion from 1963 to 1965, Giardello died at 78 in 2008, the year before he was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

But his memory lived on in the stories of the old sparring partners and training-camp buddies who showed up Saturday, some from many miles away.

"We had so much fun on this avenue. I'm so glad they put the statue here," said Joe Viola, 77, of Longport, N.J., who helped Giardello train on the third floor of the Passyunk Moore Gym in the city's East Passyunk Crossing area.

"He'd go in and out of the stores here. Everybody knew Joey," Viola said.

Giardello was portrayed, on the one hand, as a busy counterpuncher with a cruel left hook and, on the other, as an inveterate jokester who drew the unsuspecting into his web.

Carmen Bartolomeo, 76, a sparring partner of Giardello's after the latter came to South Philly in 1948, said the fighter would lay the groundwork for a prank by saying: "Take a ride with me."

The two would drive to the soft-pretzel bakery at Seventh and Federal. Bartolomeo would go in to make the purchase. "I come out, and Joey's gone," Bartolomeo said.

The only time the trainers saw Giardello mad was when they swiped his Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap and hid it, Bartolomeo said. They learned not to do that again.

"He wore that hat 100 percent of the time. I wonder if he had it on when they were making the little Tilellis," said Bartolomeo, drawing laughter from the crowd.

John DiSanto, a longtime boxing fan and marketing director of Fairhill Street Productions in Mantua, was the impetus for the $100,000 statue project, which took 21/2 years to complete.

The money was raised from private and nonprofit donors, and a trust is being planned for the statue's maintenance, DiSanto said.

DiSanto's website,, along with the Veteran Boxers Association and Harrowgate Boxing Club, both in Philadelphia, sponsored the project.

"Boxers are a special breed," DiSanto told the crowd. "I really believe it is important to remember these guys and what they did."

What made Giardello remarkable was his ring longevity and how long he waited for a shot at the middleweight champion's belt. Of 133 fights, he won 101 (33 by knockout), lost 25, and tied 7 times.

"He fought his whole life to get a shot at the title," DiSanto said. "When he got [it] in 1963, he was 32. His approach was just keep fighting."

On June 24, 1963, Giardello beat Sugar Ray Robinson for the chance to unseat world middleweight champion Dick Tiger. On Dec. 7, he took the title from Tiger by decision after a 15-round match in Atlantic City. During his reign, he successfully defended his title against Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

In 1993, Giardello was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Today's boxers, DiSanto said, have a much quicker road to the top - 15 or 20 fights as opposed to the 100 Giardello fought.

Starting in his late teens as, DiSanto put it, "clean and beautiful," Giardello slugged away. Over the years he bore the scars of battle; the statue shows him tousle-haired and flat-nosed.

The statue was sculpted by Carl LeVotch, a neighbor of Giardello's after the family moved to Cherry Hill. LeVotch took the commission to honor the fighter and "the man."

"Once in a while," he said, "somebody comes along that shows us what we can do in a lifetime, and Joey was one of those people."