Marciano made Brockton, Mass., matter
Forget the glossy record and the fact that he took to the sport in his 20s; Rocky Marciano secured his place in boxing history -- and in Massachusetts folklore -- with one perfectly timed right cross to Jersey Joe Walcott's chin, writes Don Stradley.
Originally Published: August 14, 2008By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesBetween his concrete fists and granite chin, Rocky Marciano, right, punched his place into boxing folklore.If Rocky Marciano did nothing else in his career, his first fight with Jersey Joe Walcott still would have guaranteed him a secure place in boxing history. With one mighty wallop, Marciano simultaneously sent Jersey Joe to the canvas ("like flour out of a chute," wrote author A.J. Liebling) and put his hometown of Brockton, Mass., on the map in glowing letters. Go there now and you'll still find some of the faithful -- old Italian men, ex-pugs, gym rats, long-retired New Englanders, and Marciano's neighbors and relatives -- and they'll regale you with tales of the Rock.
Of course, Marciano loyalists tend to confuse "undefeated," with "unbeatable," but that's to be expected. Few cities have ever loved a fighter the way Brockton loved Marciano. Watch films of the Walcott fight and its aftermath. One patron, barely able to control his joy, squeezes past security and makes it to the ring apron, before he's fended off by Marciano's scowling manager, Al Weill. It was the happiest kind of bedlam. A passage from the New Yorker describes a throng of fans descending on the ring, and hints at the love felt by Marciano's regional supporters: "All the ringside seat-holders from Brockton, Swansea, Taunton, New Bedford, Attleboro, Seekonk, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, East Providence, Providence, and even Hopkinton, Hope Valley and Wakefield, climbed over the shoulders of the sports writers, kicked them under the typewriter benches, stamped on their typewriters, and got up into the ring to shake hands with Rocky." When Marciano returned to Brockton a few days after winning the title, he was treated to a parade that drew between 60,000 and 100,000 people. "He was our little champion," said Goody Petronelli, the Brockton trainer who guided Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Marciano was special because he had everything working against him, from his short stature to his advanced age -- he was well into his 20s before he seriously pursued boxing -- yet he still succeeded. By most logic, he should have remained a club fighter in Providence, but within that short-limbed body lurked unimaginable determination. And if Marciano never attained the larger-than-life aura of a Jack Dempsey, he was certainly a star in his time. From 1952 through 1955, each year's biggest boxing gate featured the Brockton Blockbuster. Hall of Fame trainer Lou Duva first saw Marciano at Stillman's Gym in New York, where Charley Goldman was trying to smooth Marciano's rough edges. Duva had heard rumors about Goldman's new project -- a failed Italian ballplayer who had boxed a bit in the army. "He was tripping and missing," Duva told ESPN.com. "We all thought, 'This guy can't even walk.' But I noticed whenever he landed a punch, the other guy would go spinning like a top." Duva believes Marciano was the greatest heavyweight ever. "All the other guys; Louis, Dempsey, Ali, they all lost," Duva said. "In their prime, they lost. Rocky never lost."
Staff/AFP/Getty ImagesA patented right hand from Marciano disconnected Jersey Joe Walcott, left, from his senses -- and unseated him as heavyweight champion.
All the other guys; Louis, Dempsey, Ali, they all lost. In their prime, they lost. Rocky never lost.
-- Hall of Fame trainer Lou Duva, on why Rocky Marciano was the best heavyweight ever
Petronelli had retired from the navy, and he and Marciano had planned to open a gym together in Brockton, along with Petronelli's brother, Pat. He was driving across the plains when he heard a radio report that Marciano had been killed. "I had to pull over," Petronelli said. "It was such a shock to me. I didn't believe it. He would've been my partner." Even after his death, Marciano seemed alive in Brockton. Rumors circulated for years that Marciano had buried a fortune in the city's fairgrounds or in the walls of someone's home. Who knows how many Brockton kids frittered away summer afternoons in vacant lots, digging around for Rocky's money? Nothing ever turned up, but it comforted fans to think some part of Marciano still existed just beneath the surface of their city. "It may have been true," Duva said, joking. "He didn't like banks." Duva eventually found his heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield. Holyfield won the title by leveling Buster Douglas with the sort of sweet, looping punch favored by Marciano. As the ring filled with people, Duva pointed to the sky and shouted, "This is for you Rocky!" The Petronelli Gym heralded a great champion, too. When Hagler won the middleweight title, a special presentation of the belt was made by Walcott. "Can you imagine Walcott coming to Brockton after Rocky Marciano did a number on him?" Petronelli said. Actually, it was Walcott who did the number on Marciano. Walcott dropped him in the first round and was leading on all three scorecards before Marciano's thunder-boomer landed in the 13th. The punch laid waste to the old champion and, in doing so, promised a gloomy little factory town that it would never be anonymous again. Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.
Ralph Morse/Getty ImagesMarciano, center, was treated to a parade in his honor upon returning to Brockton with the heavyweight title.
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