September 1, 2011

To the Champion of Champions: Rocky Marciano the Undefeated

“The Brockton Blockbuster”
(Photo courtesy of listverse.com)
By Niccolò Graffio
“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.” – Jack Dempsey
During the time our people have spent living here in America, a number of figures, both real and imagined, have risen from our ranks to achieve icon status. These figures in turn helped to inspire future generations, either for good or bad. Of all of them, one of the most popular and enduring is the fictional boxer Robert “Rocky” Balboa, created and portrayed by actor Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky series of movies (1976-2006).

The saga of “Rocky” Balboa (as told in the original movie, Rocky) is the story of a man of Italian heritage, born of humble origins in the slums of Philadelphia, PA, who through sheer force of will plus back-breaking labor (in the form of training) manages to rise up from his lowly background and find himself facing the champion of the world in the ring. Though he loses the climactic final match, in the process he earns accolades and respect from his peers, plus a begrudging respect from his superiors (personified by boxing champ Apollo Creed).

The first movie, which was my favorite of the franchise, in many ways is analogous to the experiences of Italian-Americans, especially Southerners (which very well could have been its intent). Like Rocky, we started at the bottom of the food chain, slowly working our way up by our wits and our backs. There were never any “affirmative action” programs for us! During the long, arduous process we faced many adversities, both from within and outside our ranks. Though we never reached the top (prejudice against our people still fairly permeates American society) we have carved out a respectable niche for ourselves in this tossed salad called the United States of America.

Though it earned critical approval and made money at the box office, I was less impressed with the second movie, which I felt cheapened the message of the first. Stallone, like so many others, fell victim to the unfortunate disease known as “sequel fever”. After Rocky II the Rocky saga fell into the buffoonery of such memorable flicks as Rocky III, IV & V. There was some redemption (critically speaking) with the (hopefully) final installment, Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately, by that time the original message had long been lost in the name of box office lucre.

Sylvester Stallone admitted he was inspired to create the character of Rocky Balboa by legendary boxer Rocky Marciano plus the famous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975. It seems unfortunate, if not unjust, that the biography of a true boxing great has been eclipsed by that of a fictional creation based in part on him. Here’s to reality!

Rocco Francis Marchegiano was born in Brockton, Massachusetts on September 1st, 1923. His father, Pierino Marchegiano, was born in the town of Repa Teatina, Abruzzo, Italy. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1912. Marciano’s mother, Pasqualena Pacciuto, was born in San Bartolomeo in Galdo, Campania, Italy. Marciano was one of six children, three boys and three girls. At birth he weighed 12 lbs.

Rocky Balboa
Outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of New York Scugnizzo
At the age of 18 months “bambino Rocco” developed pneumonia, which almost killed him. His doctor told Rocco’s parents it was his remarkably strong constitution that saved him from death.

Growing up, he was known as the toughest kid in his neighborhood, though he was not considered any more pugnacious than anyone else. A star athlete in school, as a youth he had a dream to eventually become a major league baseball catcher. He did not do well in school, and dropped out at the age of 16 when a baseball coach barred him from playing on the school team. He then became a manual laborer while playing on local semi-professional baseball teams, all the time vowing not to follow in his father’s footsteps by winding up working in a shoe factory. In the meantime he worked out vigorously on homemade weightlifting equipment, so that by the time he reached young adulthood his 5’101/4” frame was well-muscled.

In March of 1943, Marciano was drafted into the Army, which stationed him in Swansea, Wales, where he helped ferry supplies to American forces across the English Channel at Normandy. While in the Army he got his first taste of the boxing ring when he won the 1946 amateur Armed Forces boxing tournament, representing Army. Laughably, he had taken up boxing in the Army mainly to avoid KP duty!

Discharged from the Army in March, 1947, he continued to fight in amateur competitions until March 17th, 1947, when he fought his first professional match against Lee Epperson, whom he knocked out in three rounds. One might think after this he would continue to box professionally, but instead Marciano returned to amateur boxing matches. He fought in the Golden Gloves All-East Championship Tournament in March, 1948, where he was beaten by Coley Wallace. He competed in the AAU Olympic tryouts in the Boston Garden, where he knocked out George McInnis. Unfortunately, he hurt his hands and was forced to withdraw from the tournament. He ended his amateur boxing career with an 8-4 record. That would be the last time he would experience a loss in the boxing arena.

Even before he was finished with amateur boxing, he continued to pursue his dream of eventually becoming a major league baseball catcher. In late March, 1947 he and a group of friends traveled to Fayetteville, North Carolina to try out for the Fayetteville Cubs, a farm team for the Chicago Cubs MLB team. After three weeks he was cut from the team, mainly due to the fact he could not throw from home plate to second base with any degree of accuracy. Unable to find any other team willing to give him a chance, he realized his dream of a career in major league baseball had come to an end.

With one professional match already under his belt, Marciano decided instead to pursue a career as a professional boxer. Even here, however, he faced some disadvantages early on. At 24 years of age, standing slightly over 5’10” tall, weighing 190 lbs, experts considered him too old, short and light to pursue a career as a heavyweight boxer. A noted fight trainer of the time, Goody Petronelli, caught one of his early fights and later recalled for Sports Illustrated, “I never thought he'd make it. He was too old, almost 25. He was too short, he was too light. He had no reach. Rough and tough, but no finesse.”

Undaunted, he auditioned in New York with fight manager Al Weill and trainer Charley Goldman. Though they didn’t consider him ready to be a top contender, they liked his heart and his strong punch. He entered the ring on July 12th, 1948 against Harry Bilizarian, whom he knocked out before the fifth round. He would go on to win 15 more fights, all by knockout, and all before the fifth round. Nine of them would be wins before the first round was over!

Rocco Francis Marchegiano, the high school dropout who failed in his attempt at an MLB career, who was told he’d never make it as a professional boxer, had found his niche! Family, friends, neighbors, etc from back home in Brockton swarmed to his matches in Providence, RI (where he fought most of his matches), yelling out the famous “Timmmmmmmmberrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” when it was obvious his opponent was about to taste Suzie Q (his pet name for his devastating right-hand punch) for the last time.

Early on in his new career he was confronted with a problem many of our people have faced in this country…his name. The ring announcer in Providence, RI could not pronounce his surname, so Al Weill suggested a pseudonym, “Rocky Mack” which Marchegiano immediately rejected. To his everlasting credit, he settled on the more Italian-sounding “Marciano” instead.

Pounding his opponent into submission
Photo courtesy of rockymarciano.com
Charley Goldman worked closely with Marciano, teaching him to compensate for his shortcomings as a fighter. To overcome his short stature (for a boxer), Goldman taught Marciano to fight from a crouching position. Angelo Dundee, who was Goldman’s assistant, later recalled, "Charley taught the technique that if you are short, you make yourself smaller. Charley let him bend his knees to a deep knee squat. He was able to punch from that position, come straight up from the bag and hit a heck of a shot ... It was just bang-bang-bang-bang-BANG and get him outta there. And he was the best-conditioned athlete out there."
While boxing was the most important aspect of Marciano’s life, it wasn’t the only one. In 1950 he married Barbara Cousins, with whom they would have one child, and then later adopted another. Their relationship was strained, sadly. She was a homebody. He, on the other hand, took readily to the limelight. He constantly traveled, making personal appearances, putting together business deals…and meeting beautiful women.

His success in the ring did not carry over in his business dealings. In fact, he was a poor businessman. On one occasion, for example, he purchased a large tract of land in Florida for a potential real estate development. It turned out to be swampland.

In addition, Marciano had always been fascinated by life in the fast lane. This fascination would put him in contact with a number of unscrupulous types, including mobsters such as Vito Genovese. A blemish on his reputation is the fact he was believed to have invested sizable sums of money with loan sharks. Since nothing was ever written down, the amounts, if any, can never be known with certainty. It is believed though by many that at the time of his death he had over $2 million loaned out or stashed away in secret locations that has never been found.

Though he enjoyed high living, Marciano was notoriously frugal! He never picked up a check, preferring to let friends and acquaintances do it, instead. These same people would also frequently give him spending money and even buy his clothes. It’s good to be the champ!

By the fall of 1951 Marciano had racked up 37 wins (32 by knockout). On October 26th he faced his greatest opponent up until that time – Joe Louis. Louis had come out of retirement because he needed the money to pay off debts to the IRS. Unfortunately, he was past his prime, though he was slightly favored to win. Louis received 45% of the purse while Marciano received only 15%. Marciano knocked him out in the eighth round, forcing him back into retirement permanently.

Incredibly, the crowd did not appreciate the up-and-coming “Brockton Blockbuster” knocking out the legendary “Brown Bomber”! After knocking him out, Marciano went over to console him, and noticed the only people cheering him were his faithful fans from Brockton, Massachusetts.

Marciano, however, had mixed feelings about beating a man he regarded as a personal hero, especially when that man was down on his luck. In fact, when he visited Louis in his dressing room after the fight, he broke down in tears at the sight of the former champ. After his retirement from boxing, he would say his fight with Joe Louis was his toughest match.

Nevertheless, Marciano’s victory cemented his reputation as a marquee fighter in the heavyweight division, and guaranteed him a shot at the championship title.

That shot would come five fights later on September 23rd, 1952 when he faced defending champion “Jersey Joe” Walcott in Philadelphia, PA. Walcott, no slouch either, dropped Marciano to the matt in the first round. Marciano, however, was able to summon his seemingly unlimited endurance to pull himself to his feet and come out swinging!

Though he was way behind on points and struggling offensively all night, in the 13th round he pulled an upset by giving Walcott a short, overhand right to the jaw, which knocked him unconscious. Rocco Francis Marchegiano, aka “Rocky” Marciano, was now the undisputed, undefeated, heavyweight boxing champion of the world!
The heavyweight champ
Photo courtesy of top-10-list.org
His first defense of the belt came a year later in a rematch against Walcott. This time, Marciano laid him out in the first round. Next on the hit parade was Roland La Starza, whom Marciano defeated by a TKO in the 11th round.

His next two fights would be against former heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles, who in the first bout became the only man ever to last 15 rounds against Marciano. Marciano won by decision. In their second bout, Charles wound up kissing the canvas in the eighth round.

Rocky Marciano’s last fight was against Archie Moore on September 21st, 1955. The fight had originally been scheduled a day earlier but had to be delayed due to a hurricane warning. Moore knocked Marciano down for a four-count in the second round. Marciano was able to recover and went on to defeat Moore by knockout in round 9. After the fight Moore told reporters, "Marciano is far and away the strongest man I've ever encountered in almost twenty years of fighting." For this fight Marciano earned his largest purse of $468,374.

On April 27th, 1956 Rocky Marciano officially announced his retirement from boxing. Reportedly, he had lost his zeal for boxing. He also accused Al Weill, whose contract called for him to receive half of Marciano’s earnings in and out of the ring, of cheating him.

On June 26th, 1959 Ingemar Johansson of Sweden defeated Floyd Patterson to become heavyweight champion of the world. Marciano toyed with the idea of coming out of retirement. However, after training for a month, he decided against it and never seriously considered coming out of retirement again.

After his retirement from boxing, Rocky Marciano began a new career as a TV personality. He first appeared in the Combat! episode entitled “Masquerade”. Afterwards, he hosted a weekly boxing show on TV in 1961. In addition, he worked as a referee and boxing commentator in boxing matches for years afterwards. He also made a memorable appearance as a celebrity contestant on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life.

Marciano also became involved in charity work, raising quite a bit of money for research into finding treatments for muscular dystrophy.

In late July, 1969 Marciano agreed to participate in the filming of the fight fantasy The Superfight: Marciano vs. Ali. Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali were filmed sparring, and then the film was edited to match a computer simulation of a hypothetical fight between the two heavyweights when they were in their prime. It aired on January 20th, 1970. North American theatres gave Marciano the victory in round 13 by a knockout. European theatres gave the victory to Ali.

The film triggered a controversy that has lasted to this day. Who would have won a fight between the two boxing legends? Everyone has their own opinion, but who is correct? Truthfully, we’ll never know. I must confess, though, I liked boxer Joe Frazier’s take on the matter.

“Joe Louis is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Rocky Marciano is second only to Louis. Where do I rate Ali? Somewhere below me. I beat him, and if I could beat him, no doubt Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano certainly could have beaten him.”
On August 31st, 1969 (the eve of his 46th birthday) Rocky Marciano was a passenger in a small private plane headed to Des Moines, Iowa. It was nighttime and bad weather had set in. The pilot, Glenn Belz, was inexperienced in flying under these conditions. Belz tried to land the plane on a small airfield outside Newton, Iowa but hit a tree two miles short of the runway, killing all on board. Marciano was on his way to give a speech in support of a friend’s son and had hoped to make it home in time for his birthday. Unbeknownst to him, his family and friends were planning a surprise party.

His wife Barbara died five years later at age 46. She is interred next to him in a crypt at Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. His father died in 1972; his mother in January, 1986.

In 1990, 21 years after his death, Rocky Marciano was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Though far from perfect, Marciano left a legacy larger than his life. While most boxing analysts do not list him as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, his record of 49 consecutive wins (with an 88% knockout percentile, no less) still stands. He is also the only professional heavyweight boxing champion to retire undefeated. His ability to compensate for his shortcomings, plus his tenacity in the face of unrelenting punishment, has served as inspiration for many, in and out of the boxing ring. Though in large part overshadowed by the fictitious Rocky Balboa, he nonetheless remains an icon to many Italian-Americans as well as the folks back home who to this day have fond memories of “The Brockton Blockbuster”.

Further reading:

 • Skehan, Everett, M.: Undefeated – Rocky Marciano, the Fighter Who Refused to Lose; Rounder Books (2005)