Born in New York City on June 6, 1922, Thomas Rocco Barbella grew up as the fifth child of Nick and Ida (Scinto) Barbella. Nick Barbella had pursued a career
as a welterweight boxer in his youth under the name Fighting Nick Bob, but retired from the sport after about seventy bouts. He encouraged his sons to take up the sport, but his youngest son felt that the elder Barbella favored his older brother, Joe, in their matches. Their relationship was further strained by his father's alcoholism, which often produced violent outbursts directed at everyone in the family. Adding to the tension, Ida Barbella was often hospitalized for mental problems. All of this occurred in the unrelenting poverty of the Barbella family's Lower East Side neighborhood, where many children pursued a life of crime on the streets in order to help their families survive.
Dropping out of school in the sixth grade, young Barbella began running with a juvenile gang that specialized in petty theft and street fighting with rival gangs. By his own estimate, he spent at least half of his time before his twenty-first birthday in reform schools or jail cells. After three terms in reform schools as a teenager, Barbella started to find a more stable influence in his life when he began visiting Stillman's Gym around 1939. Although he had hated boxing under his father's direction, he now enjoyed the discipline and physical outlet of the sport. He began fighting some bouts as an amateur and adopted a new name, Rocky Graziano, which he took from a boyfriend of his sister. As he had on the streets, Graziano quickly gained a reputation in the ring as a boxer who lacked finesse but made up for it with the raw brutality of his punches.