Standing at 5′ 10″ and with a wingspan of 67″, on paper Rocky Marciano should never have been a contender. He became history’s only World Heavyweight Champion to retire undefeated.
“I can’t sing and I can’t dance” -Marciano on why he took up boxing.
Rocky Marciano (born Rocco Francis Marchegiano) was born into an Italian immigrant family in a stable, working-class neighbourhood in Brockton, Massachusetts. With his mild manners, white skin and soft diction, Marciano is quite possibly the biggest misfit in the history of the World Heavyweight Championship.
Throughout his youth, Marciano learned and developed the values and virtues that cemented his legacy in the history of the sweet science. Marciano gained the reputation of a hard grafter who was never afraid to roll his sleeves up in High School due to the grit and determination he showed in the first two sporting loves of his life: baseball and American football. His love of baseball proved a little too much when he was expelled from the school baseball team for joining a church league.
Surprisingly, it seems the only contact Marciano had with the sport of boxing in his adolescence was with the heavybag he made out of a stuffed mail bag and hung in his back garden.
“In the ring, I never really knew fear.”
Having worked as a manual labourer and a shoemaker since dropping out of school at the age of 16, Marciano was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 for a term of two years. During this time, it was his job to ship supplies to the Allies in France across the English Channel. More importantly, when World War II came to a close and shortly before his discharge, Marciano began an amateur boxing career winning the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces Boxing Tournament.
The Rock made his professional boxing debut at the Valley Arena, Massachusetts on 17th March 1947, knocking Lee Epperson out in the 3rd round. Despite this first successful bout, Marciano decided to try out for a professional baseball team. However, after being cut from the team in the 3rd week of training, Rocky joined the professional boxing ranks for good and thus paved the way for a stellar career.
Under the tutelage of the legendary Charley Goldman, Rocky Marciano’s pugilistic skills were honed.
“Why waltz with a guy for ten rounds if you can knock him out in one?”
Almost as soon as his professional career began, Rocky Marciano trained under the guidance of revered trainer, Charley Goldman. Absorbing his wise words like a sponge, the once clumsy and uncoordinated Marciano was sculpted into well-balanced fighter with knockout power in both hands. The fact that he won his first sixteen bouts inside the scheduled distance is testament to this.
In addition, drawing on his athletic background and his knowledge that the boxing gods did not bless him with the physical gifts to help him in the heavyweight division, Marciano quickly gained the reputation as the hardest working fighter most had ever seen.
Most punishing and toughest training regime to grace boxing?
Rocky Marciano’s training camps were quite simply worlds of pain. First of all, Marciano ran long distances every morning of the year, including Christmas Day, in the week before a fight he would run around fifteen miles each morning. Often, he would pummel a 300lb heavybag for up to an hour, strengthen his muscles with 1000’s of bodyweight exercises and practise throwing punches under water so as to generate more power from his comparatively small frame. Marciano’s legendary trainer, Goldman, became the first man to use pads as a training method so that Rocky’s once inaccurate fists would home in on any opponent’s chin.
As a result, whenever Marciano stepped in the ring, any given opponent could expect nothing less than relentless, overwhelming pressure as soon as the first bell tolled. If you watch any Marciano fight reel, a number of attributes become apparent, even to the casual observer: Rocky had the heart of a lion, the punching power of a mule and, most importantly, incredible will to win. With constant and consistent training, dieting and learning from his legendary trainer religiously, Marciano became recognised as a genuine contender and dangerously powerful foe. This was cemented when he knocked out Rex Layne (a 5/9 betting favourite) in the second round on 12th July 1951 at Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of boxing.
Marciano’s journey to the heavyweight title involved fighting his hero, former Heavyweight Champion of the World, Joe Louis.
Having amassed a record of 37-0 (32 KO’s), Rocky Marciano entered the ring in Madison Square Garden on 26th October 1951 standing opposite the legendary former champion Joe Louis. Despite the fact Louis was thirty-seven years old and was clearly not the fighter he once was, Louis was at the end of a strong comeback during which he had only lost one fight to the skilful veteran, Ezzard Charles. Marciano started strong and really made Joe Louis finally look his age. The ferocity and the relentless pressure from Marciano proved too much for Louis who was stopped (for only the second time in his career) in the 8th round and knocked into permanent retirement. Marciano’s attempt to win the heavyweight crown was now imminent.
After ending Joe Louis’ career for good and winning his next 3 fights by knockout inside 3 rounds, Marciano’s shot at the title loomed.
On 21st September 1952, Rocky Marciano stepped through the ropes for the 43rd time in his professional boxing career to face Jersey Joe Walcott for the richest prize in sport, The Heavyweight Championship of the World. Walcott didn’t follow the script of the Rock’s forty-two previous opponents. On the canvas for the first time in his career in the first round, being beaten to the punch, down on all the judges’ scorecards, Rocky Marciano was being outboxed by Jersey Joe through twelve rounds. Coming off his stool to face Walcott in the 13th, Marciano looked like he was facing his first professional defeat and a lashing from the press the following day. However, with his never-say-die attitude, Marciano pulled off a feat which still mesmerises boxing fans to this day. Feinting with his left hand and throwing Walcott’s focus off for a fraction of a second, Marciano slammed a vicious and brutal right hook into the Jersey Joe Walcott’s jaw sending him to the canvas for the full 10-count. That night, Marciano gave Walcott a painful reminder that at any time in a fight, you are always one punch away from victory. But more importantly, Rocky Marciano was now the Heavyweight Champion of the World!
Eight months later, with a humiliated Walcott wanting revenge and Marciano never one to turn down a challenge (or a chance to prove he wasn’t a one-punch wonder), the two fighters went toe-to-toe again. Their second meeting went a little differently. Rushing from his corner, not giving Walcott an inch and only two minutes into the first round, Marciano hit Jersey Joe flush on the jaw with a thunderous straight right hand punch, knocking him out for the full count once again. The Brockton Blockbuster was truly lived up to his nickname.
With the heavyweight championship belt securely around his waist, Marciano ruled the division for four years before announcing his retirement in 1956.
“I don’t want to be remembered as a beaten champion”
Seven months after knocking out “The Old Mongoose”, Archie Moore in the ninth round, Rocky Marciano put his career in the ring behind him and retired from the sport with a perfect professional record of 49-0 (43 KO’s). Never has boxing ever seen such a physically unsuitable candidate for the heavyweight division prevail through sheer grit, determination and dedication as Marciano did.
Tragically, Rocky Marciano died at the age of forty-five on 31st August 1969 in a plane crash. He will forever be remembered as the champion who never relented or gave up in the ring. A fighter who always found a way to win.