‘Why Waltz with a guy for 10 rounds if you can knock him out in one?’

Contributed by sportswriter Paul Zanon

Characteristics you tend to attribute to heavyweight boxing include, height and body mass. If you are lacking in those two departments, you need to compensate with great footwork. Standing at 5ft 10 inches, weighing around 185lbs, with slow feet and a short reach, Rocco Francis Marchegiano hardly possessed the resume of a future heavyweight legend. However, his boxing toolkit did possess certain assets that allowed him to overcome the odds. Tenacity, desire and a punch like a mule’s kick.

Born on 1 September 1923 in Brockton Massachusetts, Marciano was the product of Italian migrants. His mother came from San Bartolomeo in Galdo, in the region of Campania and his father Pierino, from Ripa Teatina, Abruzzo, future birthplace to future WBC light middleweight champion, Rocky Mattioli. Should you wish to visit Pierino’s hometown, you’ll be greeted by a beautifully sculptured statue of Rocky Marciano.

Young Rocco struggled with his first opponent, barely making it past the first round. Going toe to toe with pneumonia at the age of 18 months, the future legend was given a slim chance to survive. However, overcoming challenge in the face of adversity and certainly against the odds, became a way of life for one of the world’s most devastating punchers.

Marciano grew up in the small town of Hanson, Massachusetts alongside his two brothers and three sisters. Dropping out of school after tenth grade, he took on a number of jobs including a shoemaker, railroad layer, a chute man for the Brockton Ice and Coal Company and even a ditchdigger.

Sport wise, Marciano’s first loves were football and baseball. Boxing even wasn’t vaguely in the mix. It wasn’t until 1943 that the Massachusetts favourite decided to don the gloves for the first time after being drafted into the U.S. Army. Boxing ensured a better quality of life for serving soldiers, including a more nutritious diet and time away from some of the more menial tasks, in exchange for representing the Army in the ring. At the age of 20, with a massive appetite for anything presented to him on a plate, it was a no brainer.

Serving under the 150th Combat Engineers, Marciano was stationed in Swansea, South Wales and was involved in the English Channel Operations, ferrying equipment back and forth to one of WWII’s most historic plots of French earth, Normandy. It was here, on the Green, Green Grass of Home, that Marciano’s power was perhaps first put on public display.

Standing at the bar of the Adelphi pub, Marciano ordered a glass of milk. The towering Australian next to him decided the high pitched voice of the shorter, timid looking milk-ordering G.I., was easy prey. Perhaps Marciano was unaware of European legislation allowing alcohol consumption from the age of 18, but either way, he just wanted a glass of milk with no bother.

The Aussie decided to comment on Marciano’s drink of choice, asking if it was a strong enough, goading the smaller American to the point he had to defend himself. Marciano told a U.S. reporter after throwing a single punch: ‘The Aussie finished up sleeping on his back in a pool of his warm beer.’ (Source, Wales Online).

In an interview with John Summers from The Sunday Telegraph in 1965, Marciano recalled another encounter at a bodega grill on Wind Street, Swansea, when a group of Australians came over to him and said, ‘Yanks. You’re overpaid, over-sexed and over here.’ Marciano almost landed himself in a cell as all three Aussies were knocked out cold in a matter of seconds.

After the war was declared over in 1945, Marciano returned to Fort Lewis, Washington in the U.S. to complete his service. His regiment was eventually awarded five Service Stars for their involvement in Normandy, Rheinland, Ardennes-Alsace, Northern France and Central Europe. He received an honourable discharge from the army in the spring of 1946 and continued to compete in the amateur boxing leagues winning the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces Boxing Tournament. At this point, Marciano’s boxing record stood at eight wins and four losses.

Outside of the army leagues, his first official amateur fight was on 15 April 1946 in Brockton, against three time Golden Gloves champion, heavyweight Henry Lester. Despite smoking and consuming food like a high octane machine, with a purse of $30 on the line, Marciano went in to try and knock out his seasoned opponent in the opening session. Missing in dismal fashion, Marciano, perhaps out of frustration kicked Lester in the groin, earning himself a disqualification. Hardly the stuff champions are made of, but he learned from the lesson and made a solemn promise to himself to never enter a ring in that shape ever again.

Following on from the Golden Gloves, in August 1946, Marciano participated in the Amateur Athletics Union Olympic trials, knocking out George McInnis, but in doing so breaking his thumb during the contest, which in turn scuppered his Olympic dream.

Before fully dismissing his childhood dream, Marciano tried out with nonother than the Chicago Cubs, in the capacity of catcher. Unfortunately, his presence on the baseball field was far less impressive than that in the square ring and shortly after, on 17 March 1947, Marciano turned professional. His opponent was fellow debutant Lee Epperson and he was announced into the ring as ‘Rocky Mack,’ so his mother wouldn’t know he was boxing. Incidentally, Epperson never fought again after that contest, but I’m sure it made a great story in Epperson family folklore in years to come. ‘I was the first person to fight Rocky Marciano in a professional boxing ring and lasted three rounds.’

Interestingly, Marciano had a 16 month gap before his next pro fight returning to the amateur leagues. One year after the Epperson fight, in March 1948, Marciano fought in the Golden Gloves All-East Championships. Progressing to the final, he lost a controversial split decision over three rounds to Coley Wallace. His Florida born opponent went on to have a reasonable career as a professional (20-7), managed by the notorious gangster, Blinky Palermo. However, on retirement in 1950, Wallace became better recognised as an actor, going on to play the part of Joe Louis in ‘The Joe Louis Story,’ and was even featured alongside acting legend, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

When Marciano returned as a professional on 12 July 1948 against Harry Bilazarian, it was with a different mindset. He weighed in at trim 185lbs, was in great condition and on a mission. He adapted to the heavyweight scene by fighting from a low stance to gain entry into the guard of his taller and heavier opponents and in doing so became a smaller and harder target to hit. From a conditioning perspective, Marciano had even hired in the services of the infamous bodybuilding guru, Charles Atlas. Like Marciano, Atlas was also of Italian descent. Born in the town of Acri, in the province of Cosenza, Angelo Siciliano was possibly the original poster boy of bodybuilding billboards. Marciano strictly followed Atlas exercise routines of self-resistance. Atlas, who coined the advertising phrase, ‘Hey Skinny. Yer ribs are showing!’, had an impressive following. In addition to Marciano, Joe DiMaggio and King George VI also followed Atlas’ programs and rumours that even Mahatma Gandhi had enquired about his routines.

Disposing of Bilazarian in the opening round, Marciano went on to rack up a further 14 straight stoppage victories over the next 10 months, bringing his record to 16-0. The first man to last the distance with The Rock, was Canadian, Don Moggard, on 23 May 1949 at Rhode Island Auditorium, Providence.

Marciano fought a further eight times before the end of 1949, with the last contest against 6ft 4 inch Carmine Vingo on 30 December. Making his debut at Madison Square Garden, Marciano floored Vingo in the first and second sessions of what was a veritable slugfest. However, in the sixth round Marciano caught Vingo with a brutal uppercut, rendering him unconscious and by doing so, extending his record to 25-0.

Unfortunately for Vingo, he slipped into a coma soon after hitting the canvas. In the absence of an onsite ambulance, he was immediately carried off on a stretcher to the nearest hospital, two blocks away. As an anxious Marciano paced the corridors outside his opponent’s room, Vingo was being read his last rites by a priest. After undergoing brain surgery, Vingo eventually left the hospital two months later. In the interim, Marciano refused to step into a boxing ring until he knew his foe was well enough to walk out of the hospital on his own steam.

Post recovery, Vingo lived the sport through Marciano’s eyes. They struck up a very close friendship and in addition to being a regular at Marciano’s fights and training camps, he was also a guest at his wedding. Despite his brush with death, Vingo outlived Marciano by 46 years, passing away on 2 June 2015 at the ripe age of 85.

Shortly after Vingo regained consciousness, Marciano was back at Madison Square Garden, for his toughest test. On 24 March 1950, Brockton’s favourite fighting son took on undefeated Roland LaStarza, who boasted a record of 37-0. After 10 hard fought rounds, Marciano won a very tight split decision victory. Little did he know at the time, but it was the closest he came to having a blemish on his historic record.

After a three round destruction against Eldridge Eatman, Marciano took on Italian born, Gino Buonvino (surname translates as ‘Good wine’ in Italian) on 10 July 1950 at the Braves Field, Boston. Despite having a few of inches of height and reach advantage, not to mention giving over 10lbs away in weight, Marciano stopped the Bronx resident in the tenth round of an absolute barnburner.

Eight fights later, Marciano took on Utah fighter Rex Lane on 12 July 1951 at Madison Square Garden, for his first televised contest. Despite being a 9-5 underdog, Marciano stopped Lane in sixth round.

On 26 October 1951, Marciano took on his boxing idol, Joe Louis. After three years of retirement, Louis was forced to return to the ring, due to an unjustly huge outstanding debt with the IRS. The former long reigning world heavyweight champion, now 37 years of age, weighed 30lbs more than Marciano, in what was his 69th contest. Despite a spirited performance from The Brown Bomber in the mid rounds, he was knocked out cold through the ropes in the eighth session. Marciano went back to his dressing room and cried. Distraught by what he’d done to his idol, he went to Louis dressing room and apologised. Louis told Marciano to stop crying and that ‘The better man won on the night.’

In his next four fights, Marciano stopped Minnesota ring veteran, Lee Savold in six rounds, demolished Buonvino in two and obliterated Harry Mathews (81-3-5 at the time) in two at Yankee Stadium, with the fight acting as a heavyweight world title eliminator.

On 23 September 1952 he took on the reigning champion, Jersey Joe Walcott at Municipal Stadium, Philadelphia. After knocking Marciano down in the first round, Walcott pulled steadily away on the scorecards and going into the 13th round, Marciano knew a stoppage was his only hope. Forty three seconds into the session, Marciano unleashed one of the most perfectly thrown right hands in history, leaving the champion on his knees unconscious, while his left arm was caught up over the ring ropes. Marciano’s punch, better known as the ‘Suzie Q,’ became part of boxing history that night.

Despite a gallant second attempt by Walcott eight months later, Marciano brought the contest to a halt in only two minutes and 25 seconds of the opening round. Four months later, on 24 September 1953 former nemisis Roland LaStarza stepped up to the plate, having taken Marciano to his limits in their previous contest. However, this time, the world title was on the line, so the motivation for the Bronx wrecking machine was far greater.

However, Marciano was a different animal now. His experience, ring craft and desire to retain his title was at a peak. Going into the 11th round, LaStarza started to run out of gas and Marciano started to unload with some punishing blows, which culminated in a barrage of detonations that put LaStarza through the ropes. Despite making the eight count, Marciano jumped on him, unloading more crippling shots, forcing the referee to intervene and bring the fight to its conclusion. The contest was the 1953 Ring Magazine Fight of The Year.

Nine months later, on 17 June 1954, former world heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles became the first person to take Marciano the full 15 rounds, with the Rock taking a comfortable points victory. Three months later, the pair locked horns again at Yankee Stadium, with the outcome being more memorable on a number of fronts. Charles was knocked down in the second round, then rallied back, causing a grotesque cut on Marciano’s nose, almost splitting it in half. With the referee and doctors focusing on Marciano’s wound, The Rock brought Charles to his destruction in the eighth round, taking any decisions of a stoppage out of their hands. Winning the accolade two years in a row, the fight was named 1954 Ring Magazine Fight of The Year.

Despite a gutsy attempt from Britain’s very own Don Cockell, on 16 June 1955 The Battersea Blacksmith was halted in the ninth session of a rather scrappy affair. For more about Cockell and that contest, please click here 

Marciano’s last fight was on 21 September 1955 at Yankee Stadium, against the former light heavyweight world champion, ‘The Old Mongoose,’ Archie Moore. Despite being floored in the 4th round, Marciano stopped Moore in the 9th and in doing so, drew a line under his professional boxing career. Although relatively young, at the age of 31 and with an unblemished record of 49-0 and a knockout percentage of 88%, he became one of a handful of heavyweight champions to retire whilst still champion.

Post retirement, Marciano still kept a toe dipped into the fistic waters, occasionally refereeing and commentating on matches. The closest he came to making a comeback was in 1959 when Ingemar Johansson was champion, however, after an attempt to get back into shape, he soon realised that the desire to fight was long gone.

Some of the biggest debates in boxing revolve around fantasy matchups. Marciano himself was once asked how he would have fared against ‘The Manassa Mauler,’ and he replied, ‘Dempsey would have been in for the roughest fight of his life’. However, in February 1969, filming for a paradoxically real-life matchup of prime versions of Rocky Marciano versus Muhammad Ali, started - on computer. The encounter was entitled, ‘The Superfight: Marciano vs. Ali. The Computer Bout. Who was The Greatest?’ With a decent financial offer on the table, Marciano, 14 years retired, lost over 50lbs to look the part and even sported a toupee to step into the ring with an actual, real-life prime Ali.

The pair reportedly sparred around 75 rounds, with the likes of Max Schmeling, Joe Louis and Jim Braddock providing commentary. The data from the sparring was then fed into the computer and the footage, along with the results were aired on 20 Jan 1970 in over 1,500 cinemas in Northern America and Europe. Two endings were filmed. In Europe, Ali won via 13th round stoppage and in Canada and America, Marciano won via 13th round stoppage.

Unfortunately, Marciano never got to attend the movie. On 31 August 1969 at 6pm, The Brockton Blockbuster boarded a tiny Cessna 172 light aircraft, heading to Des Moines, Iowa as a storm was brewing. Despite warnings, Marciano took off with pilot Glenn Belz and Frankie Farrell (son of notorious mob-boss, Lew Farrell) and the trio perished when the aircraft crashed at 8.05pm into a tree in Newton, Iowa. Marciano died the day before his 46th birthday.

Marciano was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 and on 23 September 2012, a large bronze statue of The Rock was unveiled on the grounds of Brockton high school. How would Marciano have fared in today’s boxing circles? Extremely well I’d say. Most likely a light heavyweight or cruiserweight, mild mannered Marciano would have taken any opponent into the trenches and unless your chin was made from granite, if you got hit you were going down. To this day, he remains the only ever undefeated heavyweight champion in history.

Paul Zanon, has had nine books published, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and has contributed to a number of boxing publications, including, Boxing Monthly, The Ring, Daily Sport, Boxing News, Boxing Social, amongst other publications.

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