- Don Stradley
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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."
"Nothing could hurt the guy," Petronelli added. "He was like concrete."
According to Duva, Marciano's pride in being champion kept him on top.
"He used to tell me, 'Nothing makes me feel better than to walk into a restaurant and hear someone say Hi champ.'"
Retiring undefeated became Marciano's claim to fame, but when Ingemar Johansson defeated Floyd Patterson for the championship in 1959, Marciano considered a comeback.
"He was offered $1.2 million to fight Johansson, which is like $20 million now," said Duva, who'd been enlisted to work Marciano's corner. "Rocky would've knocked him out, too. He never wanted to fight Patterson because Patterson was quick. But Johansson stood right in front of you, which would've been perfect for Rocky."
When Patterson signed for a rematch with Johansson, Marciano lost interest.
Marciano tried his hand at television and radio work, but the old street fire occasionally surfaced, such as in 1964, when he was in Miami doing radio spots for the Sonny Liston-Muhammad Ali fight.
"Rocky went to the gym where Liston trained," Duva said. "He was supposed to interview him, but Liston kept teasing Rocky, saying, 'You wouldn't last two rounds with me.' Rocky stayed calm, but he was getting mad. Finally, Rocky said, 'Get me some trunks, some shoes, and gloves and let's see what happens.' Rocky was serious. Liston's people ran in like they were doing the 100-yard dash, grabbed Sonny and took him out of the gym."
After coming to terms with his retirement, Marciano turned his attention to scouting for the next great heavyweight.
"Rocky and I were interested in managing a heavyweight," Duva said. "We were going to drive around the country and visit football camps. I've always maintained that these guys go into football only because they haven't been introduced to boxing. The idea was to find some big kid and talk him into becoming a fighter. We came close to signing Jim Brown. But Jim Brown's agent wanted Brown to fight a six-rounder with Rocky. Then Brown thought about it and changed his mind."
Duva had agreed to go into the restaurant business with Marciano when, on Aug. 31, 1969, a single-engine Cessna carrying Marciano lost power over an Iowa cornfield and crashed.
"I'll never forget it. Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott were crying [at Marciano's wake]," Duva said. "Walcott walked to the casket and collapsed, he was crying so much.
"You see, Rocky was very close to fighters. If Rocky had a speaking engagement coming up, and a friend of his was in a jam, Rocky would call the place and say, 'I'm sorry, I can't make it, but I'm sending Joe Louis or Willie Pep.' Rocky would make a sacrifice, just to make sure his friends got paid."
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.
3hMichael C. Wright