“Marciano wasn’t a good technical fighter,” adds Emanuel Steward. “But he was a smart fighter in a crude sort of way. The more I watched films of his fights, the more I realized how he maximized the limited skills that he had. He’d crouch down low; so once he got inside, it was hard to get a clean shot at him. You had to drop your hands to hit him, which meant he could come over the top with that overhand right. And there was another move, where he’d come in like he was going to clinch and you’d relax a bit and he’d hit you with a short left hook to the chin.”
“He wasn’t that big,” Steward continues. “He wasn’t that coordinated. He wasn’t that fast. His balance was poor. He had short arms. He cut easily. But he was always in incredible condition. He was incredibly strong physically. He’d punch, take whatever punches you threw at him, and punch some more.”
Bob Girard handed Marciano his fourth amateur defeat (the last time that Marciano lost a fight). “I beat him because it was three rounds,” Girard said years later. “There were a hundred guys who might have stayed three rounds with him. But no man in the world was going to beat Rocky in fifteen rounds. Every time he hit you, you saw a flash of light. You either grabbed him or you moved back. Because if he hit you twice, you were gone.”
“He hits you with something that looks like a little tap to the crowd,” cornerman Freddie Brown noted. “But the guy who gets hit shakes right down to his legs.”
“He must be good,” Charley Goldman concluded. “He always beats the other guy.”
On July 17, 1954, Marciano returned to the ring to fight Ezzard Charles.
Charles was one of the great light-heavyweights of all time. He’d succeeded Joe Louis as heavyweight champion by beating Jersey Joe Walcott for the vacant title in 1949. Two years later, Walcott returned the favor. Ezzard was only thirty-two years old, but his body bore the wear and tear of ninety-four professional fights.
There were 47,000 fans in Yankee Stadium. Marciano was a 7-to-2 favorite. Charles controlled the early stages of the fight, bloodying the champion’s nose in the first round and opening an ugly gash on Marciano’s left eyelid in the fourth stanza. The cut bled throughout the night despite Freddie Brown’s efforts. Afterward, Brown admitted, “With a cut like that, you got to be nervous.”
In round five, Marciano got his rhythm going and landed some good shots, including one after the bell.
“In the sixth round,” Liebling reported, “Charles began to go slack like every other fighter after Marciano’s punches have begun to tell. They have a cumulative effect that asserts itself.”
Charles regained the advantage in rounds seven and eight. “He fought savagely,” Liebling wrote. “The bounce and snap had left him for good now, but his determination was unbelievable. His face, rather narrow with a high curved nose, changed in shape to a squatty rectangle as we watched. It was as though he had run into a nest of wild bees.”
Rounds nine through fifteen belonged to the champion. Sullivan recounts, “Marciano’s punches were not only rocking Charles, but were also beginning to make a definite impact on the challenger’s appearance. His right eye gradually closed and his lower lip became split and swollen. More strikingly, a lump the size on egg suddenly appeared on the left side of Charles’s jaw.”
The challenger was now also having trouble breathing because, in the eighth or ninth round, Marciano had hit him in the Adam’s apple.
Marciano won a unanimous decision. “Rocky numbs you all over,” Charles said afterward. “Wherever he hits you, he hurts you.”
The fight was good enough to warrant a rematch. They met again at Yankee Stadium on September 17, 1954. This time, Marciano was a 6-to-1 favorite. He dominated the early stages of the bout and put Charles on the canvas in round two. After that, the challenger fought with extreme caution. Marciano’s most effective blows were after the bell and low.
In round six, everything changed. Marciano came out of a clinch with a gash on his left nostril that split his nose and cut to the bone. Charles would say that the wound came from a punch. Marciano claimed that it had been caused by an elbow. Films of the fight are inconclusive as to the cause.
Either way, blood was spurting.
“I knew something was wrong,” Marciano said afterward, “because the blood was running like from a faucet.”
Nothing Freddie Brown did in the corner after the round could stop the blood from flowing. “He looked like he’s got two noses, both bleeding,” the cutman said afterward. “I never saw a cut like that before.”
Marciano continued to press the action and land the more punishing blows. But time was short. The damage to his nose could easily force stoppage of the fight. He was in greater danger of losing than ever before in his ring career.
In round eight, he knocked Charles out.
"Rocky was great when he had to be great,” Al Weill said.
Eight months later, Marciano journeyed to San Francisco to fight England’s Don Cockell.
Cockell looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy. In reality, he was a fat light-heavyweight who’d been knocked out five times by opponents far less imposing than Marciano.
The British public was intrigued by the fight. Liebling described the challenger as “a fat man whose gift for public suffering has enlisted the sympathy of a sentimental people.” Sullivan puts the matter in perspective, noting that the bout “was widely cast as a test run for Marciano’s nose.”
Only 15,000 fans were in attendance at Kezar Stadium. Cockell played the role of a human punching bag with valor. Marciano looked clumsy and amateurish. “That was a very bad fight,” he admitted afterward. “I wasn’t sharp and I knew it.”
Marciano also fouled repeatedly, head-butting and hitting Cockell below the belt and after the bell several times. More flagrantly, he hit the challenger when the Brit was on one knee after being knocked down in the ninth and final round.
“On my wife and baby,” Marciano pledged when the fight was over, “I don’t do one of those things knowing I do it.”
“He was a bit deaf when it came to hearing a bell,” Cockell said.
Meanwhile, Marciano wasn’t making the money he wanted to make. Three decades earlier, Tex Rickard and Jack Dempsey had ushered in an era of million-dollar gates. Dempsey had been paid accordingly. But Marciano’s biggest purse had been US$250,000 (for his first fight against Ezzard Charles). For the Cockell bout, the amount was $115,000. None of his championship encounters had captured the public imagination.
That changed on September 21, 1955, when Marciano fought Archie Moore.
Moore was a great light-heavyweight, who’d been denied an opportunity to fight for the title until December 17, 1952, when, at age 39, he was given a shot at Joey Maxim. He made the most of it, beating Maxim and successfully defending his crown four times. Then, on May 2, 1955, he stepped up in weight and decisioned Nino Valdes, who was the top-ranked heavyweight contender at the time.
That set the stage for Marciano vs. Moore. They met at Yankee Stadium on September 21, 1955; three months shy of Moore’s forty-second birthday. The challenger weighed 188 pounds; only four ounces less than the champion.
Largely because of Moore’s loquacious personality, a crowd of 61,574 was on hand. Former heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, James Braddock, and Max Baer were at ringside. Four hundred thousand paying customers watched via closed-circuit in 133 venues across the country. Marciano was an 18-to-5 favorite. His purse would be US$470,997 ($3,770,000 in today’s dollars).
Marciano began the action wild as always. In round two, his wildness almost cost him the fight. A perfectly-timed right hand counter put him on the canvas for only the second time in his career. He rose quickly, but was on shaky legs. “I was dazed,” he admitted afterward.
Then, instead of letting Moore go for the kill, referee Harry Kessler erroneously began a mandatory eight-count, forgetting that the rule was not in effect for title fights. That gave Marciano extra time to recover. Years later, Moore would say of Kessler and that moment, “He knows I hate him. I hate him to this day.”
Marciano survived the second round. Then, inexorably, he wore Moore down.
"Rocky didn’t know enough boxing to know what a feint was,” Moore said afterward. “He never tried to outguess you. He just kept trying to knock your brains out. If he missed you with one punch, he just threw another. I felt like someone was beating all over my body with a blackjack or hitting me with rocks. I had the braggadocio and the skill and the guts, but that wasn’t enough. Marciano beat me down."
Marciano put Moore on the canvas twice in the sixth round and hit him after the bell for good measure. “That was unintentional,” the challenger said afterward. “And I hit him back unintentionally.”
In round eight, Moore was knocked down for the third time but was saved by the bell. In the ninth round, he was counted out.
“The biggest fight in years was one of the best in years,” Red Smith wrote.
“A lot of colored guys think Marciano couldn’t fight,” Moore told Donald Turner several years later. “But that’s not a fact. It’s a prejudice.”
After Marciano-Moore, the public’s appreciation of the champion grew. Then, to the surprise of the boxing world, on April 27, 1956, he announced his retirement from boxing.
Marciano was only thirty-two years old and had fought as a pro for less than eight years. But he’d trained long and hard for each of his fights and taken incredible punishment.
“I am retiring because of my wife and baby,” Marciano said in his retirement statement. “I am comfortably fixed and I am not afraid of the future.”
Naturally, there was skepticism. But Marciano had an answer for the skeptics. “I’m going to profit by other people’s mistakes,” he said. “If Joe Louis couldn’t make a successful comeback, I’m not going to attempt it.”
Marciano’s retirement coincided with the explosion of other spectator sports in the United States. In 1950, when he fought on television for the first time, there were 3,100,000 TV sets in America. By the time he faced Archie Moore, there were 32,000,000 sets and the medium was becoming adept at conveying the magic of sports.
After leaving the ring, Marciano made some television appearances and had a few product endorsements. He was constantly getting involved in business deals; a bowling alley, a restaurant, a sausage company, a spaghetti restaurant chain. Some were profitable. Most lost money.
In 1959, after Ingemar Johansson dethroned Floyd Patterson, there was talk of a comeback fight against the new heavyweight king. But Marciano nixed those rumors, saying, "I don’t want to be remembered as a beaten champion."
Throughout his career, Marciano had managed to steer clear of any visible mob involvement. That was important to rebutting the underside of the Italian-American stereotype and keeping him clean in the public eye. It’s likely that Frankie Carbo had a piece of Marciano by virtue of their mutual tie to Al Weill. But that was never part of the public record.
One of Marciano’s friends, Ed Napoli, said after the fighter’s death that Rocky had been offered a lucrative inducement to throw the Cockell fight, in which the Brit was a 10-to-1 underdog. According to Napoli, Marciano told the mobster who made the offer, “You disgust me. I’m ashamed that you’re Italian. Get out of here and don’t come back.”
But after Marciano retired, he became openly friendly with several mob figures, including Carbo.
“He saw Carbo as having class,” Sullivan writes. “Someone who knew how to dress, how to live, how to move, how to command respect, and how to treat other Italians. Moreover, Marciano liked the aura of danger and excitement that surrounded Carbo.”
William Nack elaborates on that theme, writing, “As celebrated a folk hero as he was to the workaday Italian-American, Marciano found himself to be an even more-respected figure among members of the underworld; a life-sized icon whose company and favor were sought by hoodlums wherever he went. Over the years, Marciano kissed the cheeks of many of the major crime family bosses. [But] in spite of the social contact he had with hoodlums, he feared the violence and notoriety of the underworld and made it a point not to get involved in their businesses.”
The exception to that rule, according to Nack, came when Marciano loaned $100,000 to Pete DiGravio (a loan shark linked to the Cleveland mob). From Rocky’s point of view, he was merely investing in a business. He wasn’t involved in the street end of things.
Still, the association with the mob was there.
Frank Saccone (Marciano’s longtime accountant) later recalled, “We’d go to these elaborate restaurants and sit with fifteen, twenty underworld characters. I was a naïve accountant from Brockton. I thought they were just friends of Rocky’s. Rocky finally told me who they were. They couldn’t do enough for him. They’d say to him, ‘I got a beautiful tailor. Let me take you down there and get you some suits.’ They’d buy him six suits, three dozen shirts. He loved it and they loved him.”
In a similar vein, Richie Paterniti (a friend of Marciano’s during the retirement years) told Nack, “Wherever we went, there were mob guys. They loved him because he represented what mob guys really want to be. He was Italian and he beat up every guy he faced. He exuded power, an air of authority. They all wanted to be with him. They kissed his ass.”
Nack further recounts, “When Vito Genovese was dying, he put out the word that he wanted Marciano to visit him in prison. Rocky went to Leavenworth to show Genovese films of his fights.”
The picture that Nack paints of Marciano in retirement isn’t pretty.
Before Marciano turned pro, he was dating Barbara Cousins, six years his junior and the daughter of a Brockton policeman. The press charitably referred to her as tall, blonde, and statuesque. They were married on December 30, 1950, over the objection of Weill, who feared that wedlock would interfere with Marciano’s training and, more importantly, his control over the fighter. On December 6, 1952, Mary Anne Marciano was born. Thereafter, Barbara suffered five miscarriages.
Marciano was not a “family man” where his wife and daughter were concerned. As a fighter, he was away from home more often than his profession demanded of him. Subsequent to his leaving the ring, he and Barbara moved to Florida, but he was rarely there. The marriage had become an empty shell.
“There were women for Marciano everywhere he went after his retirement,” Nack writes. “That a woman be waiting for him was as requisite for his appearance as the folded $100 bills.”
Dominic Santarelli (a longtime social acquaintance and fringe underworld figure) later recalled, “If Rocky ever went to some place and there was not a girl waiting for him, he’d never come back. He never had an affair. I don’t think he had sex with the same girl twice. Any girls he had sex with, you couldn’t bring her to dinner no more. That’s it. Get rid of her. He never wanted to see her again.”
“Rock was insane about girls, all the time,” Richie Paterniti remembered. “That’s all he wanted to do. Rock had orgies and parties. We had girls every single day and night. I had a suitcase that I took all over, filled with vibrators and electric massagers and all kinds of creams and oils.”
“He couldn’t stand married life,” Saccone told Nack. “He had no relationship with his wife.”
In 1968, the Marcianos adopted an infant boy, Rocco Kevin, who bore a definite resemblance to his father. By then, Barbara had developed a serious drinking problem, smoked heavily, and was grossly overweight. She died of lung cancer in 1974.
Meanwhile, in retirement, Marciano became obsessed with money beyond the bounds of rational behavior.
Fighters fight for money. That’s a given. After Marciano defeated Rex Layne in 1951, Al Weill observed, “Rocky is a poor Italian boy from a poor Italian family and he appreciates the buck more than almost anybody. He’s only got two halfway decent purses so far, and it was like a tiger tasting blood.”
Marciano himself said in 1955, “When you’re the heavyweight champion, the money is the big thing you’re going for because that’s why you became a fighter in the first place. They’re going to criticize you if you blow all your dough on fast living, and they’re going to criticize you if you hold onto it. I’d rather keep the money and let them knock me that way.”
Well and good.
But as he grew older, Marciano carried things too far. He had a pathological aversion to paying out. When he ate in restaurants (which was often), he did so only with friends or business associates who picked up the check or in places where he wouldn’t be billed.
Fellow hall-of-fame fighter Willie Pep later recalled being at nightclub with Marciano. The people at the next table bought them several rounds of drinks, so Pep bought a round in return.
Marciano took Pep into the men’s room and chewed him out. “Don’t do that.”
Pep protested, “Rocky; they’ve been buying us drinks all night.”
“And they’re going to keep buying,” Marciano instructed. “You don’t pay for anything when you’re out with me. It makes me look bad if I don’t buy a round.”
Don Elbaum, who was friendly with Marciano during the retirement years, recalls, “I was in Cleveland one time when Rocky flew in as the guest of honor for a dinner. He arrived at the airport with no suitcase and wearing shorts. His explanation was that he’d run to catch the plane and they hadn’t been able to load his luggage. So the organizers of the dinner had to buy him a suit to wear that night. I heard he did that a lot.”
“Rocky also had a thing about paying for telephone calls,” Elbaum continues. “He used slugs or a trip-wire that returned his money after he made a call from a pay phone. One time, I was in New York, staying at a hotel across the street from the old Madison Square Garden. I was going out for lunch when Rocky stopped me in the lobby and asked, ‘Don; do you mind if I use your room to lie down for an hour? I’m really tired’ I said it would be an honor and gave him the key. The next day, when I checked out, there was a twenty-five-dollar charge on my room bill for long-distance telephone calls. Twenty five dollars back then was a lot of money.”
Marciano structured his life in retirement so that he paid for virtually nothing. There were free rooms, free meals, free transportation. “The whole object of his daily existence,” Nack writes, “the reason for the network that moved and sustained him from place to place, was to get him from one sunset to the next without spending a dime.”
One night, Marciano went to see Jimmy Durante perform in Las Vegas. Durante took to the stage and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen; in our audience tonight we have the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world – and America’s guest – Rocky Marciano.”
Marciano was not amused. Yet he constantly hustled for more. He was always traveling. And he was obsessed with cash.
There were times when Marciano would take half of what he was promised for a speaking engagement if the tender came by cash rather than check. Part of his motivation was tax evasion. He never declared income unless there was a paper trail. When IRS inquires came, Frank Saccone managed to have them transferred to the IRS office in Brockton.
“They loved Rocky there,” Saccone later recalled. “It wasn’t difficult to get rid of cases. He was a great charmer.”
Marciano also had an irrational mistrust of banks. He hid large sums of money in curtain rods, light fixtures, toilets, and cities unknown. As much as two million dollars by some estimates. After his death, as a matter of record, none of it was found.
On August 31, 1969, one day shy of what would have been his forty-sixth birthday, Marciano boarded a small plane with the pilot and one other passenger for a flight from Chicago to a speaking engagement in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a free flight, courtesy of the pilot, which would enable Marciano to cash in his original plane ticket.
The plane crashed in a field near Newton, Iowa, killing all three men onboard.
Evaluating Marciano as a fighter through the prism of history elicits a wide range of responses. Some experts consider him great. Top Rank’s Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler takes a contrary view.
“Look at a tape of Marciano,” Trampler says. “Then ask yourself what you’d do if he was offered to you now as an opponent for a halfway-decent heavyweight. I’d take him in a minute for one of our guys. Sure, he didn’t duck anyone. There was no one for him to duck. I think he’s the most overrated fighter of all time.”
The great fighters who Marciano beat were getting on in years when he fought them. Joe Louis was thirty-seven. Jersey Joe Walcott was thirty-eight. Ezzard Charles was only two years older than Marciano, but had the wear and tear of close to a hundred fights on him. Archie Moore was forty-one and had answered the bell for round one almost two hundred times.
Add to that the fact that, too often, Marciano’s rough brawling style bordered on dirty.
And he would be too small to compete in the heavyweight division today.
That said; all a fighter can be is the best of his era. And Marciano could beat any fighter of his time. His uninterrupted reign as heavyweight champion of the world lasted for forty-three months. Over the past eighty years, only Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Larry Holmes exceeded that standard.
Getting hit and losing rounds never discouraged Marciano. No one ever broke his will. He was as tough in the thirteenth round as he was in the first. Time and again, he dug deep within himself and found what was necessary to win. As much as any fighter ever, he got the maximum out of what he had. In the ring, his character always stood up under pressure.
As for Marciano outside the ring; Jerry Izenberg sums up with the thought, “To be a fighter - any fighter, let alone the kind of fighter that Marciano was – you have to be a little nuts. He was a strange person but not a bad person. In a lot of ways, he was a very decent guy.”
One area where Marciano’s decency was on display involved the issue of race. During his career, segregation was law in much of the land. Indeed, when Marciano entered the ring for his first professional fight, Jackie Robinson had yet to play in an official major league baseball game.
Yet “throughout his career,” Sullivan notes, “Marciano avoided playing on racial issues. He never made a snide comment about the color of his opponent’s skin, nor did he ever subtly try to raise the specter of a race conflict.”
The key to Marciano’s legacy, of course, is that he retired as an active fighter while he was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world and stayed retired.
In other sports, magic numbers come and go. In baseball . . . 60 . . . 714 . . . 2,130 . . . 4,191 . . . are all gone. It’s the way of the world. Standards for immortality change.
But a half-century after Rocky Marciano’s retirement from boxing, his record of accomplishment still stands. He entered the ring forty-nine times as a professional fighter and emerged victorious forty-nine times.
Boxing’s magic numbers remain “49” and “0”.Thomas Hauser
can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (“Waiting For Carver Boyd
”) was published last month by JR Books. Hauser describes Waiting for Carver Boyd
as “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”* Read "Rocky Marciano Revisited – Part One" by Thomas Hauser - CLICK HERE!