Marciano glorified boxing

Updated: June 12, 2006, 12:22 PM ET
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

"He was relentless. The bell would ring, he would be on you. The bell would ring, he stopped. The bell would ring again, he'd be right back on you," said George Foreman about Rocky Marciano on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Rocky Marciano had two goals in mind while growing up in Brockton, Mass. He didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps and work in a shoe factory. He wanted to be a major league catcher.

Funny how things developed.

Rocky Marciano
AP PhotoRocky Marciano smiles after his TKO win over Joe Louis in 1951.
Marciano couldn't make it with a Chicago Cubs' farm team because he didn't have a strong enough right arm. But the arm was powerful enough for him to register 43 knockouts in 49 fights. When The Rock retired in 1956, he was (and still is) the only heavyweight champion to exit undefeated.

The odds of Marciano succeeding in boxing seemed about the same as him reaching the major leagues. He was a crude barroom brawler type. For a heavyweight, he was considered too short (5-10 1/4) and too light (183-189 pounds) for most of his fights. His reach of only 68 inches was a distinct disadvantage (no heavyweight champ ever had such a short reach).

But how do you measure a person's heart? In that area, Marciano possibly had the largest in the sport. He refused to stay down, and he refused to lose. He might be bloodied, but he wouldn't be beaten.

"Rocky couldn't box like [Gene] Tunney, and probably couldn't hit like [Joe] Louis, but in one respect he had no challenger," wrote Pulitzer Prize winner Red Smith. "He was the toughest, strongest, most completely dedicated fighter who ever wore gloves. Fear wasn't in his vocabulary and pain had no meaning."

"The Brockton Blockbuster" was amazing in his resistance to punishment - his chin seemed to be cast in concrete - and destructive in administering it. He was a ceaseless aggressor, a human tank who would gladly absorb two or three punches just for the opportunity of landing one, especially with Suzie Q, his pet name for his thunderous right.

Of Marciano's first 14 pro fights, none went beyond the fifth round, with nine ending in the first.
When the esteemed Charley Goldman, who would become Marciano's trainer, first saw Rocky, he told Angelo Dundee, his assistant, "I gotta a guy who's short, stoop-shouldered, balding, got two left feet and, God, how he can punch."

Archie Moore, a knockout victim in Marciano's final bout, said, "After a fight with Marciano, you felt like someone had been beating you all over the body with a blackjack, or hitting you with rocks."

Physical condition was Marciano's forte in his monkish, monomaniacal pursuit of the title. He was as addicted to exercise as some are addicted to cocaine. It gave him more stamina than his opponent, and was instrumental in his knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott to win the heavyweight championship on Sept. 23, 1952.

Born Rocco Francis Marchegiano in Brockton, just outside Boston, on Sept. 1, 1923, he was the first of six children of Perrino and Pasqualena, Italian immigrants. Before dropping out of high school to make a few bucks - as a gardener, delivery boy, laborer for the gas company, and leather tanner at the shoe factory where his father worked - he starred in baseball and football.

He was introduced to boxing by an uncle, and fought during his stint in the Army during World War II, mostly because he wanted to avoid KP and other lousy details. He didn't think he would make boxing his career. But after his discharge from the Army in 1946, he began training.

On March 17, 1947, fighting under the assumed name Rocky Mack to protect his amateur status, he had his first fight as a pro, registering a third-round knockout and receiving $35. That was about $459,965 less than what Marciano would earn in his final fight.

That spring, Marciano's dream of becoming a major league catcher finally ended when he failed in his tryout with a Cubs' farm team in North Carolina. He continued to box as an amateur for another year before turning pro for good, at almost 25.

With his instinct for the attack and the power of his right hand, Marciano knocked out his first 16 opponents, nine in the first round. By now he was under the tutelage of Goldman, who trained fighters for New York manager and promoter Al Weill. Goldman instructed Marciano to fight out of a crouch.

"Charley taught the technique that if you are short, you make yourself smaller," Dundee said. "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."

Frank Sinatra and Rocky Marciano
AP PhotoFrank Sinatra and Marciano clown around during the champ's visit to the "Guys and Dolls" movie.
Victim No. 38 for the up-and-coming Marciano was old-and-should-have-stay-retired Louis, with Marciano sending the former champ into permanent retirement. He knocked Louis out with a powerful right to the jaw in the eighth round on Oct. 26, 1951. In the locker room afterwards, Marciano wept when he visited Louis.

Eleven months later at Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium, Marciano fought for Walcott's title. In the first round, for the first time in his 43-fight pro career, Marciano saw what it was like to look up from the canvas at the guy who just put you there.

A clever boxer, the 38-year-old Walcott frustrated Marciano, cutting him between the eyes and on the forehead. After 12 rounds, the champ was in total control, ahead by four rounds from one official, three by another and two by the third.

Marciano needed a knockout to take the title. Though battered and bloodied, The Rock wouldn't give in to defeat. Thirty seconds into the 13th round, with Walcott backed into the ropes, the exhausted Marciano delivered one of the most devastating punches in boxing history, a short right from Suzie Q to the side of Walcott's chin. Walcott sank to one knee, his left arm hooked around the middle rope, head resting on the canvas. Walcott was out, and Marciano was in as heavyweight champ.

There was no drama in the rematch, Marciano knocking out Walcott in the first. He had a more difficult time in his third and fourth defenses, against Ezzard Charles in 1954. In the first fight, after falling behind on points early, Marciano's right did more damage than Charles' left, and he kept his title on a unanimous decision.

Rocky Marciano/Archie Moore
Marciano (left) has his detractors, but his career KO-percentage is higher than that of Tyson or Ali's.
The rematch was even tougher. Charles hit Marciano with a left hook that split his left nostril down the middle in the sixth round. In the seventh, Charles inflicted a cut on Marciano's left brow. With blood spurting from both wounds, and aware that the referee was considering stopping the fight, a desperate Marciano unleashed a furious attack in the eighth and knocked Charles down twice, the second time for the count.

In Marciano's sixth - and final - defense, he came back from a second-round knockdown to KO Moore in the ninth round. Seven months later, Marciano, at 32, announced his retirement.

A Sports Illustrated story in 1993 didn't paint a pretty picture of Marciano's life after boxing. It said he was obsessed with collecting his payments for personal appearances in cash, evading paying income tax, having numerous sexual encounters with women other than his wife, never picking up a check, consorting with Mafia figures, and loaning more than $100,000 to finance a Cleveland loan shark.

On Aug. 31, 1969, the day before Marciano's 46th birthday, Barbara Marciano had planned a joint birthday party for her husband and herself (Barbara had turned 40 on August 30) in their Fort Lauderdale home. But Marciano, in Chicago, chose not to attend. Instead, he flew with the nephew of a mobster to make a personal appearance in Des Moines, Iowa. The small plane crashed in a cornfield in Newton, Iowa, killing both passengers and the inexperienced pilot.

At the funeral service of the popular former champion, Louis said, "Something's gone out of my life. I'm not alone; something's gone out of everyone's life." He bent over and kissed the casket.

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