THE first thing you’d notice when he greeted you was his eyes, the kindness in them. They’d twinkle as a smile creased his face and you knew he was genuinely happy to see you. You also knew that his youth was spent prizefighting; it was in the scar tissue that swelled his brows and the collapsed bridge of his nose. You felt it in the vice grip of his handshake, in the lingering power that had knocked out 32 men between the late 1940s and the early 1960s.

I used to see him sitting out front of cafés in Boston’s North End watching tourists meander by. Some would nod at him as he took in the sun, never suspecting that the bronze statue they passed at the top of Hanover Street was his image. He’d wink at their children as if sharing the secret.

He was happy to see everyone, though he didn’t always say so. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. The best of men, said a poet long ago, are those of few words.

“That’s Tony DeMarco,” I spoke for him. “He was the – as in the – welterweight champion of the world.” I was standing in Florian Hall, at Ring 4 Boston’s Annual Banquet with my two nephews on either side of me. Their eyes got wide. I told them all about the night in 1955 when he won the crown, how he walked from the family flat on Fleet Street to Boston Garden and went toe-to-toe with fate; how he ignored his pain and heaving fatigue and stormed after Johnny Saxton in the 14th round, throwing punch after punch until the referee stepped in and raised his glove.

It was the greatest moment of his life. But he didn’t gloat or parade around the ring like a peacock, he folded into the arms of his trainer and friends. When he made his way back to the dressing room, he went off by himself and cried like a baby. “I’m world’s champion,” was all he could say. “I’m world’s champion.” Half the neighbourhood came crowding in, the callused hands of labourers and longshoremen, bookies and bakers reaching for him, slapping him on the back. Shy and unaccustomed to celebrity, he retreated to the Statler Hotel, room 719, and called his mother. Veni intra, she said. “Come home.”

When he made his way back to the North End, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Everyone, young and old, was outside choking Fleet Street and Hanover Street, cheering and blowing horns and drinking wine and singing Italian songs. A cavalcade of cars wound through the streets bearing banners that said “Hail Welter Champ Tony DeMarco,” and “Fleet Street Loves You, Champ.” His mother, who had lit candles in two neighborhood churches and recited the rosary in her window for 14 rounds, fainted when he was swept into her arms. His father kissed him for the first time since he was a boy. By then, the back-slapping was making him wince.

He was 23 years old on that spring night. Sixty-four springs later, I escorted my nephews over to where he stood.

“Mr. DeMarco,” I said. “This is Frankie, as in Sinatra; and Jake, as in LaMotta.”

They did what my brother had taught them, they looked him in the eye and shook his hand firmly. I knew I’d hear about the power of his grip later, but it was DeMarco who feigned surprise. He let go of each of their hands and backed off shaking his own. “Wow,” his voice sounded like the Quincy Quarries. “Too strong for me.”

We’ve talked about him since. Tony DeMarco is a model for them. He’s what masculinity is supposed to be; what the best of men looks like. He’s grateful for what he has and does the best he can with it, begrudging no one who has more. He sees danger in hubris and stays humble. He’s not ashamed to cry. He’s gentle until he shouldn’t be. He knows that true strength is derived from faith, family, and community; and that we should appreciate those who came before us, imperfect though they may be.

In the fall of 1955, he made time to honour the Italian community that produced him and the Italian who made his life in America possible. He volunteered for the Christopher Columbus Day Celebration Committee and helped plan what used to be a four-day observance that began with Mass at St. Leonard’s Church and ended with a parade of 3,000 souls and dozens of marching bands. Later that fall, he showed us what proper perspective looks like: Salvatore Rebecchini, the Mayor of Rome, was visiting the North End with a host of political dignitaries and the press in tow. They had just left the Christopher Columbus Youth Center when they ran into DeMarco on the street. The mayor, a fan, wanted to have pictures snapped with him, but DeMarco hurried along. “Sorry,” he said, “I can’t stop now, I can’t be late to Mass.”

I told my nephews how devout he was, how he clung to his and their Catholic faith when life landed left hooks – and it landed some haymakers on him. He, like them, was one of two brothers; only his brother died of kidney disease a few years before DeMarco won the title. He was 14, the same age as Frankie. In 1975, DeMarco’s only son Vincent was also 14 when the bicycle he was riding was struck by a car and he was killed – on Father’s Day. In 1999, he lost his only daughter, Sylvia, to leukemia.

For him, especially for him, the ring was merely rehearsal; a training ground for dazzling triumph and heartbreaking loss.

Ten Fridays after he won the welterweight crown, he made his first defence against the number one contender Carmen Basilio in upstate New York —in Basilio’s backyard. He gave everything he had and then some, but was stopped in the 12th round. “No excuse,” he said afterward. “Basilio’s the toughest I’ve fought.”

“Wait, he lost the title?” Jake said, in disbelief.

“We all lose sometimes. What matters is what we do next.”

And what did DeMarco do next? He roared back. In the summer of 1955, he knocked out the seventh-rated contender in the first round. And then Basilio, who recognised the measure of the man he defeated for the crown, returned the favour that DeMarco had given him: he faced DeMarco in DeMarco’s backyard, at Boston Garden, and made a statement that should be tweeted to the lesser men sitting on their laurels today: “Any champion should be ready to meet the top contender in his class at any time. Tony didn’t tour the country knocking out stiffs. He gave me the first crack at the title and I’m doing the same by him.”

Tony DeMarco [right] throws a haymaker at Carmen Basilio in the fifth round of their championship bout in the Boston Garden

Basilio-DeMarco II was Ring Magazine’s 1955 Fight of the Year. DeMarco was winning the fight – his sledgehammers brought him within centimetres of reclaiming the coveted crown in the seventh round – but he had nothing left in the 12th. Basilio hit him with a barrage of rights and lefts and he went down hard.

I showed Frankie the film. I could’ve quoted Keats to him: There is no fiercer hell than the failure in a great object. I could’ve explained that Deontay Wilder is only beginning that fierce hell that DeMarco lived with for decades. But that seemed glum and he’s too young.

“Watch,” I said instead. “See how he gets himself back up?”

“He’s… staggering.”

“ – He’s staggering in the right direction. He goes into the trouble, not away from it.”

A photograph appeared in Sports Illustrated after it was over. Basilio is airborne, overjoyed. DeMarco is lying on his back in the foreground, his trainer crouching over him and cradling his head.

It haunts me now.

In early October, he was lying on a hospital bed at Mass General Hospital. I saw his wife Dottie cradling his head. Fluid had built up in his lungs and he had congestive heart failure; his kidneys were failing. He was not responsive, not with words anyway. When Dottie put her hand into his, his grip tightened. That was all that was left, a gesture of spent force and kindness.

He was soon moved to Season’s Hospice in Milton, just outside of his beloved city, and the grim referee began the count. Dottie interrupted it. No one gets to DeMarco except through her. “Tony,” she whispered. “Your brother and sister are waiting for you. Your mother and father, Vincent and Sylvia, they’re all there to welcome you home.”

He died a little after one in the morning on October 11 – on Columbus Day during Italian-American Heritage Month. He died exactly 24,300 days after he became world’s champion.

His funeral was in Boston’s North End at St. Leonard’s Church, which still looms majestically near Fleet Street and the ghost of the house in which he was born and raised. The limousines lining Hanover Street and the crowd of people filing in made me think of the parade and cavalcade on that night of nights so long ago. Politicians, restaurateurs, sons and daughters of the bakers and merchants who cheered themselves hoarse whenever he fought at the Garden – the North End turned out once more to pay him homage. In a pew near the front was an 88-year-old widow I’d met, who’d grown up across the street from him. On my right was Angelo Picardi, an acclaimed tenor who played the Vegas strip in the 1960s. I saw sports writers, ex-fighters, and ex-gangsters turned devout, and realised, again, the power of his kindness and the expansiveness of his embrace.

“We are here to celebrate the life of the welterweight champion of the world – the world’s champion! What an accomplishment that is and what a man he was,” Father Michael Della Penna said during his sermon. “Tony was not fighting against anyone. He was fighting for something. He was fighting for the people who lived in his heart, because he knew the truth of life: it’s love that makes us strong – it’s love that conquers.”

Mickey Finn, the president of Ring 4, struggled to keep his composure as he carried out the final 10-count over the casket, over his friend. Incense wafted through the church. The cantor, a soprano, sang How Great Thou Art as the casket was escorted down the centre aisle. A church bell tolled overhead, its last clang echoing with the sound of children in a nearby playground and the cheers of decades past.

When the hearse carried his body down Hanover Street, I stood and watched until the last car in the funeral procession disappeared out of sight. Then I found an empty chair out front of Caffé Vittoria and sipped espresso in the sun. Tourists meandered by. They chattered and smiled and never suspected that the man, the best of men, whose bronze image stands at the top of the street, had just left the North End for the last time.

Tony DeMarco was 89.