Rocky Marciano: Remembering the Natural Fighter
May 12th marked the 60th anniversary of Rocky Marciano's exciting, one-punch third round knockout of Bernie Reynolds. "The Rock" would fight once more before challenging Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight championship of the world. The rest is history.
On March 31, organizers in Brockton, Mass broke ground on a statue to honor boxing legend Rocky Marciano. Standing nearly 20 feet tall and weighing approximately 4,000 pounds, it will likely be the largest statue to a boxer ever commissioned.
The statue will showcase Marciano landing 'Suzie Q,' his famous right-hand that felled Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952. The floored champion, who was motionless on the canvas after absorbing the punch, was counted out and Rocky Marciano became the world's heavyweight king.
The statue dedication is slated for September 2012.
Rocky Marciano was primal in his attack. He was an atavistic fighter who would have also excelled back in the bawdy, barrel chested days of the bare-knuckle kings; in fact Marciano was often compared to those who reached even further back with one scribe tagging him as "the Twentieth-Century caveman."
Known as the "Brockton Blockbuster," Marciano was something to behold. His two-fisted bombardment was akin to, in the words of the erudite A.J. Leibling, "a bulldozer attacking the side of a mountain" and by the late British journalist Harry Carpenter as "watching a man open a can of tomatoes with a sledgehammer!"
Sigmund Freud once wrote 'everyone has a genius for something.' For Rocky Marciano, it was fighting.
"My mom said I was always destined to be a fighter because I looked so much like one as a young boy," recalled Rocky in his retirement years.
Perhaps she was right for her eldest surviving son (the first had died soon after birth a year before Rocky) had seemingly tried everything outside of boxing but fate always intervened to pull him back into the fistic fold.
Fighter or Baseball Star?
Rocky Marciano, born Rocco Francis Marchegiano in 1923, was raised in the post-depression days of the nineteen-thirties with dreams of baseball stardom. And just across from his family home in Brook Street, Brockton, sat the vast James J. Edgar Playground which was fitted with a full sized baseball diamond; it was here that the child played out his fantasy.
His parents, both immigrants from Italy, were no doubt pleased their boy was channelling his energy into activities other than fighting in the streets, something for which he was gaining renown. It was his friends who were seemingly mostly responsible for getting him into the majority of his brawls, later recalling how they would send their pal, Rocky, against the biggest of guys over some alleged insult or feigned transgression.
Knowing that Rocky could really brawl and fight their battles too almost backfired when his friends sent him against an older boy one winter. Rocky tore into his larger foe and cracked him viciously, flooring the boy and splitting his eyebrow causing blood to gush.
"We thought, Christ, we have to be careful who we send "The Rock" against. He really is going to hurt somebody," recalled one of Rocky's childhood friends. It was at around this time that Rocky allegedly told his father that he 'was afraid of hitting somebody too hard and killing them.'
Naturally Rocky's love of baseball would not shield him from his natural instinct to fight. Perhaps Rocky Marciano was the first great fighter who fought purely for the love of it rather than necessity? After all, he did not suffer the crippling drawbacks in childhood that seemingly hardened previous champs like Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, nor future champs like George Foreman and Mike Tyson. Rocky could have made a living in other professions but fighting seemed to drag him into her fold - And Rocky was always more than willing. As a result, Marciano would get into skirmishes with others over lost balls which ultimately led to the infamous battle for the title of 'King of the Hill' against the powerful and feared Julie Durham. Rocky won, but it was a hell of a fight whilst it lasted.
The U.S. Army Recruit
In 1943, at the advanced age of nineteen, Marciano had quit school in order to bring in an income for his family, which now included his two brothers and three sisters. He was called up to serve the United States in World War II. Rocky was posted to Wales where his fighting spirit caught the eye of his commander who introduced him into bootleg boxing in the local booths that were prevalent throughout Wales at that time. Nevertheless, Rocky was not just confined to battling in the ring.
Tales of his brawls in the bars and streets of Welsh towns and cities are alive still. Although many are without complete foundation, one or two have conviction including Rocky's battle with an Australian serviceman in a Swansea bar which still, even today, retains its connection to the even which Marciano himself recalled often.
Rocky's fists would lead him into trouble with the authorities on more than one occasion whilst serving his country, the result of which would - in a roundabout way - lead to Rocky becoming a professional fighter.
Every life has an evolution - a starting place and a line that leads the participant to their final place. After the war ended, instead of returning to civilian life Rocky Marciano remained at Fort Lewis in Washington where he joined the camp's boxing team and competed in an amateur tournament. The still green Marciano made it to the final where he lost despite knocking out his opponent in the dying seconds but the fighter was saved by the bell or the knockout came just as the bell rang. The details are not clear. Nevertheless, it was Rocky's inclusion in this particular tournament that led to the beginning of his abandonment of baseball for boxing.
In December 1946, Rocky finally found himself back in civilian life and, despite recovering from a badly broken hand that would plague him for the remainder of his fighting career, he immediately entered a few local amateur shows in and around his native Brockton, Mass. Although he was largely successful, Marciano lost a few bouts as an amateur.
In what would be his first professional bout against Les Epperson in Holyoke, Mass, Rocky won in three torrid, action-packed rounds, scoring a knockout. But the experience was not the most pleasant for the aspiring fighter as there were arguments over his purse sum. In addition, Rocky later admitted he had to hide his bruises from his mother whom he was certain would force him to quit upon seeing them. The fight, which took place in March 1947, is surrounded by many myths including the changing of his name. He was alleged to have fought under the name Rocky Mack.
With his fleeting baseball dreams still simmering, Rocky was given a golden opportunity to try-out for Major League Baseball's Chicago Cubs. Allegedly, Rocky Marciano could knock the ball right out of the park but his fielding and throwing were substandard. As a result, the Cubs passed on "The Rock."
The Crowd-Pleasing Brawler
Rocky returned to boxing, and amateur tournaments, in earnest. (During the time, a fighter could compete as an amateur despite receiving a purse in previous bouts). He spent the remainder of 1947 in various competitions which led to his entry into the Golden Gloves All-East Championship Tournament and an eventual bout against the highly touted Coley Wallace in March 1948. Before the Wallace bout, Marciano was not popular as many considered him nothing more than a lucky fighter with a powerful punch. Some even detested his sly style of leaning back against the ropes seemingly feigning injury and then propelling himself back into action by uncorking uppercuts as his opponents went in for the presumed kill.
Many in Lowell, Mass, in particular, were embarrassed Rocky was their champion and seemingly would have been glad to see him lose. But Rocky would change their minds after facing Wallace in the tourament finals. The young Marciano, despite taking on a much larger and presumably more talented foe, fought fearlessly despite dropping a three round decision. After the judges ruled in favour of Wallace, bedlam broke lose in the arena as many in attendance were furious at the result. In fact, the local amateur governing body conceded that a wrong had been done by offering Marciano, the defeated fighter, a place on the prestigious all-eastern squad which had been previously reserved for the winners of the tourney.
Despite losing, Marciano had made a name for himself as a crowd-pleasing brawler and chose to continue to compete locally as an amateur to milk his new-found acclaim.
Pictured: RING Magazine's 1955 Fighter of the Year, Rocky Marciano, left and Archie Moore on the cover of RING Magazine
The late spring led to another hand injury which prevented him competing for several weeks. But it was during this time Marciano would turn pro soon thereafter, signing with New York promoter Al Weill. The promoter had initially made approaches to take on the Brockton heavyweight after his battle with Wallace a few months before.
It was July 1948 that Rocky Marciano, then Rocco Marchegiano, officially launched the professional career that would eventually catapult him into boxing lore and sports stardom.
His career has been derided, praised and criticized but never, ever equalled.
The life and career of Heavyweight Champion of World Rocky Marciano must never be lost behind the enigma that he has become.