Which heavyweight boxing champion in the last century knelt on his knees to pray to St. Anthony before his first title fight, read The Confessions of St. Augustine before defending his title, and said: “The biggest thrill I could think of would be an audience with the pope?”
The answer: Rocky Marciano, heavyweight boxing champion from 1952 to 1956, when at age thirty-three he retired with a perfect record (49-0, with 43 knockouts). Equally unique, Marciano never came out of retirement to challenge subsequent champions, a temptation very few ex-champions have overcome, much less succeeded at.
He was born Rocco Francis Marchegiano (Mark a-jahn-o) on September 1, 1923, the second son (the first died shortly after childbirth) of Pierino and Lena Marchegiano, first generation Italian immigrants who came to America after the first World War. Pierino’s exposure to mustard gas during combat changed his life, but not his toughness. Asked about his reaction when flying shrapnel hit his jaw and snapped off some teeth, Pierino replied, “I just spit them out and kept coming.”
He and Lena settled in Brockton, a small city twenty miles south of Boston. Until Rocco put Brockton on the national map, his hometown was best known for its shoe factories. Rocco inherited his father’s toughness, for he survived a deadly bout of pneumonia when he was two. Lena’s doctor said she could have no more children; this put a fine edge on her concern for Rocco’s health.
Lena prayed to St. Anthony for her son’s recovery, promising to give up her diamond engagement ring if Rocco recovered. She and her friends prayed the Rosary at the child’s bedside and waited. At the time many children died of pneumonia, but Rocco eventually recovered, and Lena kept her promise.
The doctor was wrong. The Marchegiano’s had five more children after Rocco: Alice, Connie, Elizabeth, Louis, and Peter. They all lived in a two bedroom apartment. Rocco slept in the living room with the windows open, even in the winter, as if in defiance of his bout with pneumonia.
His upbringing was steeped in Italian customs and traditions. His parents loved opera, ate Italian food, and had wine with dinner. As a boy Rocco was preoccupied with his physical condition. When he wasn’t playing sports he was running and exercising.
After serving as a GI in World War II, Rocco played minor league baseball. At the time boxing was a diversion, a way to make a few bucks to help out his family. Then he was cut from the Chicago Cubs farm system. Rocco was in his twenties, when most fighters hit their peak. He had no boxing skills. He was awkward in the ring. He was undersized for a heavyweight. Rocco’s biggest limitation was arms so short they were almost stubby. It is difficult to win a fight when you can’t reach your opponent. On those occasions Rocco reached opponents with his right hand, however, they fell down and didn’t get up.
Marchegiano went to New York and met Al Weill, a boxing manager who tried to Americanize his name. Rocco refused but eventually he tired of having his name misspelled and mispronounced, and allowed his name to be shortened to Rocky Marciano. Rocky slowly became a better boxer, but it was his punching power that kept him undefeated. He knocked out nine of his early opponents in the first round. Several opponents quit boxing after being knocked out by Marciano. Once he hit a man so hard he almost killed him. Marciano spent hours at his opponent’s hospital bed, and in church praying for the man’s life. He said if the man died he would quit fighting. The man recovered, but never fought again.
(An experiment was performed on Rocky’s punching power. The 1963 issue of Boxing Illustrated claimed: "Marciano's knockout blow packs more explosive energy than an armour-piercing bullet and represents as much energy as would be required to spot lift 1000 pounds one foot off the ground." Although this sort of ‘science’ was probably conducted by zealous Marciano fans, it is undeniably true that Rocky hit really hard.)
After knocking out an old Joe Louis, Rocky got a title shot. The champion was Jersey Joe Walcott, a ring veteran most experts picked to beat Marciano easily. Before the fight Marciano met with a priest, who after their meeting said: “That boy is no ordinary prizefighter, he is one of the most dignified, straightforward people I have ever met in my life. The people of the world should be informed of this boy’s character and personality.”
Marciano’s character was on display in his first fight with Walcott, which was a classic. Walcott’s experience kept Marciano off-balance and sometimes made him look ridiculous. Rocky kept coming, even after Walcott knocked him down, closed his left eye, and opened cuts on his face that required fourteen stitches to close.
Far behind on points late in the fight, Rocky needed a knockout to win. He backed Walcott into the ropes. Walcott bounced off and threw a hard left hand. Marciano stepped inside and beat Walcott to the punch with a short right hand that traveled maybe eight inches. It hit Walcott’s jaw with the sound of a baseball bat. Walcott collapsed to the canvas and was counted out. Rocky Marciano was champion.
Marciano’s determination in the Walcott fight showed the world the new champion’s character and personality. Although he enjoyed being champion, Marciano remained unchanged. The nicest thing about being champ, he said, “is that people like you.” Everyone but boxing experts, who found Rocky’s style too crude to suffer. Rocky was a brawler. He hit his opponents on the break, after the bell, and below the belt. Rocky always apologized, but the fouling continued.
As he continued to successfully defend his title, Marciano gradually drew respect from critics. He would never be a classic boxer, but he worked unceasingly at improving his craft, and trained relentlessly. One sportswriter said Marciano brought the “austere, sackcloth-and -ashes approach of a monk” to his training. The famous sportswriter Jimmy Cannon observed that Marciano trained “like a man practicing a holy ritual.” Before fights he would slip away to a church or chapel to pray. Sometimes he would cover his chin and hands with St. Jude’s oil while in his corner waiting for the start of that fight.
Rocky was an old school Catholic. He would interrupt his training schedule to attend Mass. Once, as a joke, the reigning sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield, was smuggled into a room where Marciano sat, alone. A few minutes later she came out complaining: “What is he, crazy? He didn’t want anything to do with me.” Marciano seemed more comfortable in the company of clergy than actresses. He golfed with priests, helped promote parish functions, even lunched with Cardinal Spellman. Life magazine called him “pure of speech” and “a clean living boy.” He was elsewhere described as “astonishingly innocent,” and “totally without deception, totally without guile.” He didn’t drink or smoke; in fact, when a host at a party for Marciano in Brockton offered the champ a drink, Rocky replied, “If you don’t mind, I’ll take an apple.”
Not that there is anything particularly Catholic about being a teetotaler. It’s just that Marciano, though intelligent, was a very simple man who never forgot where he came from. Even as champion he came to the ring in a robe bearing the colors of BrocktonHigh School (even though he dropped out in the tenth grade). And Brockton loved him right back, at least in part because many of them became rich betting on Rocky’s fights.
While sportswriters criticized Marciano’s boxing shortcomings, no one criticized his character, as the following quotes show:
Marciano was “a kind and decent man.”, He was “inherently a decent, righteous and truly wonderful guy…His innate decency and wholesomeness shine through in a dedicated glow.” Or: “We never cease to be amazed at the humility of Rocky Marciano…he treats everyone if they were the celebrity and he the awed little guy.” Another writer called him “probably the humblest of heavyweight champions.” Said another: “He reminds you of a great, friendly collie …with the grin of a shy fellow happy to be recognized, at last, as a member of the gang in good standing.” He was “the gentlest athlete I have ever known,” and again: “a man of simplicity and sincerity.”
Perhaps it was his simplicity that allowed him to retire after beating everyone worth fighting. Yet his retirement years revealed a man who seemed simple, but often was not.
Rocky ran from an early age. His fanaticism about physical conditioning, along with his determination and punching power, led to an unequalled record for a heavyweight champion: forty-nine professional wins, no defeats, forty-three victories by knockout. It was an incredible run. After the Rock retired he kept running.
Outwardly Marciano’s life after boxing was quite successful – unlike many fighters, he kept his money and his wits. He retained his public life, crisscrossing across the country to give speeches, participate in benefits, and conduct business. He was invited to the White House to meet the President. He even had a role in a movie. He was famous, successful, and well thought of.
He rarely saw his wife and children; or his parents, brothers, and sisters. His marriage was strained. His wife, Barbara, was unable to have the large family Rocky wanted. They had one daughter, but Barbara miscarried when Rocky was away, and wasn’t able to have any more children, although the two did adopt a boy (Rocky Jr.). Barbara missed Rocky, and drank too much. She smoked too, and developed a glandular problem. Rocky seemed too busy to be home.
Maybe Rocky ran to avoid an estranged relationship with Barbara. Or the estrangement may have developed over Rocky’s running, which may have sprung from a preoccupation with money. His friends said the only thing Rocky was afraid of was being poor. Yet even after he had enough money Rocky went after more. He didn’t trust lawyers or accountants, and preferred to deal in cash. Rocky didn’t trust banks, either, so he hid his cash: in the ground, inside toilet tanks, in light fixtures. He even used a coat hanger to stuff money inside curtain rods.
Rocky was generous with people who were down and out, often giving them unsecured loans that were rarely paid back. Rocky never wrote anything down, he tried to keep track of his loans in his head, and sometimes forgot who owed him, and how much. Yet he used a wire to try to get coins back he used to make telephone calls. And he could be incredibly tight with a buck. He usually didn’t pay anything for his cross-country trips: no plane fare, hotel fare, or meals. He made sure the people who invited him paid for everything.
Rocky’s last big payday was a computerized fight with Muhammed Ali in 1969. Rocky hadn’t fought or trained for fourteen years. Ali was in retirement too, after having his title stripped for refusing the draft. Marciano went back into training and bought a toupee. Then Rocky and Ali sparred 70 rounds for the camera, simulating different endings to the fight. Ali later said that Marciano punched so hard he was sore for days after. The sparring film would be spliced together to match the computer outcome of the fight – a closely guarded secret that would not be revealed until “The Superfight” aired in theaters.
On August 31, 1969, Marciano planned to interrupt his business circuit and fly back to Florida to celebrate his forty-sixth birthday with his family. At the last minute Rocky decided to squeeze in an appearance at a steak house in Des Moines, Iowa. There would be good food, a nice check for a few words, and still enough time to fly back for his birthday. He boarded a small, single engine Cessna. There was bad weather and the plane ran low on gas. The pilot landed the plane in a field in Newton, Iowa, and rammed into a lone tree in the middle of the field. The pilot and his two passengers were instantly killed. Marciano’s body was found pinned beneath the wreckage. An obituary in his home state of Massachusetts read:
“In this age of the anti-hero and the non-hero, Rocky Marciano was the hero with whom the mass of Americans could readily identify, the hero who surmounted all difficulties by dint of hard work, dedication and perseverance. He was a near-classic example of the triumph of classic virtues (Boston Herald Traveler, September, 1969).”
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An investigation into the crash of the Cessna in NewtonIowa cited pilot inexperience as the cause of the crash. The pilot had not flown at night before, became confused by the bad weather, and attempted to land in a field rather than the Newton airport.
Marciano died without a will. Although he left thousands (some claim hundred of thousands) of dollars stashed away or buried underground, none of it was found to aid Barbara and the children, who were impoverished after Rocky’s death.
Five months after Marciano’s death “The Superfight” debuted in theaters. The computer’s result: Marciano knocked out Ali in the thirteenth round. Ali complained about his ‘loss’, alleging the computer was made in Alabama.
In 1976 Sylvester Stallone began his “Rocky” franchise. Stallone credited Chuck Wepner’s losing effort in a fight with Muhammed Ali as the inspiration for the film, yet the similarities of Rocky Balboa to Rocky Marciano are numerous and obvious.
Everett M. Skehan, Rocky Marciano, Biography of a First Son, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1977.
Russell Sullivan, Rocky Marciano, The Rock of His Times, 2002, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.