The real Rocky of boxing: Rocky Marciano
In the winter of 1976, a movie was made which has defined boxing for generations since. It was named “Rocky”, and it made a star out of a previously unknown actor who went by the name of Sylvester Stallone. At some or the other point of our lives, we have all tried to emulate Rocky Balboa, the fighter who never gave up. But seldom did we wonder as to whether Rocky was just a figment of Stallone’s imagination or if people like that did exist in the real world. Well, it is said that the storyline of the movie was based on the famous 1975 fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, with certain parts based on Joe Frazier’s life. But Rocky Balboa, the “Italian stallion”, also had a namesake in real life, and he was Rocky Marciano, the “The Brockton Blockbuster”: the only undefeated World Heavyweight Champion ever in the history of the sport.
Rocky Marciano was born under the name Rocky Francis Marchegiano in Massachusetts to Italian immigrant parents on the first day of September, 1923. His father was a worker at a shoe factory and Rocky grew up in abject poverty. He almost died from a bout of pneumonia when he was only a year and a half old, but he came back from the dead, just like he always did later on during his exploits in the ring. Boxing was not his first choice, and he rather seemed to show a penchant for baseball and football during his growing years. He also did some odd jobs on the side to sustain himself which included, amongst others, shoemaking and ditch digging. But he always had a spark which showed that he was cut out for greatness.
Rocky was drafted into the army in 1943 when the Second World War was at its peak, and this was a major turning point in his career, as he started boxing, strangely not out of love for it but to avoid doing certain undesirable work, like helping out with the cooking. Right after serving his term in the army, Rocky won the Amateur Armed Forces Boxing Tournament in 1946 and began to take boxing seriously. The final death knell in his hopes of pursuing baseball was struck when he failed to make the cut as a catcher at the Chicago Cubs, and boxing seemed to be the only way forward for him. He was hardly a legend in the amateur circuit, and when he finally turned professional, he had an amateur record of 8 wins and 4 losses, pretty stale compared to his legendary conquests in the ring as a professional.
Rocky had his first professional fight against Lee Epperson in 1948 which he conveniently won by a knockout. But he kept boxing as an amateur even after that, and finally made the ultimate switch to the professional circuit later that year against Harry Bilizarian – whom Rocky defeated without breaking a sweat. He took the professional boxing world by storm by knocking out all of his first sixteen hapless opponents. Don Mogard did manage to last 10 rounds against the fierce Rocky, but he too lost by unanimous decision.
Rocky’s dominance was there to stay as few opponents seemed to be strong enough to take his beatings. Rocky had made a name for himself as a tireless and dangerous puncher, but his notoriety hit the pinnacle in a 1949 match against Carmine Vingo, who was taller and heavier than Rocky and had a win-loss record of 16-1 going into the match. Vingo had just celebrated his birthday the previous day and was in very high spirits before the game, oblivious of the fate that awaited him inside the ring. Rocky knocked him down in the first and second rounds before knocking him out with a left hook in the sixth. Vingo went down crashing and was admitted in the hospital with brain damage and a 50% chance of survival. He did recover but never boxed again in his entire life.
Rocky went on to defeat many lesser known opponents in his subsequent fights until he finally faced the iconic “Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis in October, 1951. Marciano was declared an underdog; but at 28, he was almost a decade younger than the ageing Joe Louis who was forced to fight as he was neck deep in debt. Rocky knocked out his opponent over the ring in the eighth round, a nasty embarrassment for someone of Joe’s stature, who was named the greatest heavyweight of all time by the International Boxing Research Organization in 2005. Joe retired immediately and Rocky established himself as one of the best boxers in the world.
Rocky finally got a shot at the World Heavyweight title against Jersey Joe Walcott in September, 1952; a bout which went on to be voted as the greatest knockout ever in a 2006 poll by ESPN. Walcott seemed to be winning comfortably leading in the points table till the thirteenth round when suddenly, Rocky’s famous lethal right hand punch “Suzie Q” knocked him out and Rocky finally became the World Heavyweight Champion. As a proof of his dominance, Rocky knocked Walcott out in the first round itself in his first title defense the following year.
Rocky defended his title a total of six times, and the only boxer who managed to last fifteen rounds against him was the light heavyweight legend, Ezzard Charles, in their bout in the June of 1954. But he too was knocked out by Rocky in his next title defense exactly three months later. In the final match of his career in September, 1955, Rocky Marciano faced Archie Moor. Moor knocked down Rocky in the second round itself, and it was only the second time in Rocky’s career that he had been knocked down. But he recovered to knock-out Archie in the ninth round, a fitting end to a legendary career. When Rocky hung up his gloves for good the following year, his win-loss record read 49-0, with no ties and an unbelievable 43 knockouts.
Unlike many of his compatriots, Rocky didn’t squander his wealth or vanish into oblivion after his death. On the contrary, he successfully mastered a variety of roles, including that of a commentator, wrestling referee and a successful businessman. But there was one more twist to come in the life of this boxing great which was equally tragic and fascinating. On the night before his 46th birthday, Rocky died in a plane crash over Iowa. The celebrations his family had planned for his birthday back home had to wait for another life. The legend whom no mortal soul could ever defeat had finally gone down to death, fighting till the very end of his life.
Rocky Marciano was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990; ironically alongside Joe Louis, whom he had so famously defeated in his heyday. Strangely, you will seldom, if ever, find Rocky featuring in the top five of any greatest boxer’s list compiled, and few people have even heard of him. The reason for this is that Rocky lacked the copybook technique of Joe Louis or the personality of Muhammad Ali or the speed of Tyson. Standing an inch less than 6 feet and with a reach of just 67 inches, Rocky was never the regular heavyweight type. It was only through sheer grit and an indomitable spirit that Rocky Marciano overcame all his handicaps and went on to achieve such great feats in such a great sport. He was indeed the real hero of boxing- the real Rocky Balboa.