CAUGHT BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE | ROCKY MARCIANO

‘He doesn’t fight by the book but I got hit by a Library Tonight’

The immortal words of the Great Joe Louis referring to his fight with Rocky Marciano.

Let’s just get this out of the way before we continue, a fact that makes his journey all the more remarkable, Rocky Marciano was one of histories biggest overachievers, putting it bluntly he was the runt of the litter when it came to the heavyweight division far removed from the conventional type that we know to be its benchmark, the debate surrounding the ideology being that he simply had no business being in with the elite, aficionados would point out that he was too small, his reach too short and his footwork simply atrocious (often found tripping over his own shadow), to those listening It became then difficult to imagine him being anything but a placeholder for fighters on the up, but one man (that’s all it takes) didn’t share the view of the majority, far from it, he looked past the inefficiencies with a glint in his eye believing he had found a diamond in the rough in Marciano which left others to question the task that Charley Godwin had allotted himself.

In time that task became less of an ordeal more of a master stroke as the public watched in sheer amazement at the unfolding of his career. unbeknown to the naysayers but something Goodwin knew was there all along was that Rocky Marciano was a tough SOB, a man blessed with reserves of unrelenting energy but above all what ultimately put him in conversation with the greats is his fear of failure, something he would never even allow himself to give in to suggestion of its creation, it culminated in moulding the legend talked about to this day.

EARLY YEARS

Rocco Francis Marchegiano was a born fighter way before the bright lights of Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium shone upon his broad shoulders. His first battle came when aged just 18 months his life was near to being cut short from pneumonia, he won that particular fight but it was a familiar pattern that was followed throughout his adolescence to adulthood.

The child born to Pierino Marchegiano and Pasqualina Picciuto of the south side of Brockton, Massachusetts was never one to shy away from hard work. Marciano was never handed anything he didn’t work for, chute man on delivery trucks for the Brockton Ice and Coal Company, a ditch digger, railroad layer and shoemaker were all roles taken up by Rock all of which accumulated to create the foundations of the work ethic that he would later become synonymously attached to.

ACTION MAN

In March 1943, Marciano was drafted into the 150th Combat Engineers for a two-year term where he was stationed at Swansea in South Wales to help move supplies across the English Channel to Normandy.

The 150th was awarded service stars for Normandy, North France, Rheinland, Ardennes-Asace and Central Europe.

The times were he wasn’t loading supplies he would take the chance to hone his skills in the pugilistic arts but it was fair to say he was a work in progress with an amateur career which was patchy at best, recording just 8 wins against 4 losses.

On March 17, 1947 the opportunity arose to fight in a professional capacity. Rocky never one to look a gift horse in the mouth jumped at the chance, doing so victoriously by knocking out Lee Epperson in three rounds.

It was on that night the ring announcer rang out the name “Rocky Mackianno of Westover Field” a reoccurring theme of the mispronunciation of his birth name.

Perhaps at this junction you may be entitled to believe that the road that would lead to the career you discuss amongst yourselves today started the night he beat Epperson but it was later that he would embark on that particular journey, instead he would opt to go back into the amateurs for a time whilst quizzically also trying out for the Fayetteville Cubs, a farm team for the Chicago Cubs baseball team, luckily for us he quickly corrected his path, coming to the conclusion that he was much better suited to the punching people in the face than what he was with a bat in hand.

PAID RANKS

Rocky’s permanent residence in the paid ranks started with the first-round stoppage over Harry Bilazarian on July 12 1948.

Like a duck to water it seemed the most difficult obstacle was the ring announcer’s inability to pronounce Rocky’s name eventually leading to Marciano’s handler, Al Weill, suggesting a pseudonym. Initial suggestion was made for Rocky Mack but would land later on the immortal Marciano.

Continuing his blitzkrieg sixteen men fell by the wayside before any were able to hear the final bell, Don Mogard becoming the first man to make it through a contest, albeit on the losing end of a unanimous decision.

Rocky started to gain traction with fight fans especially in the Auditorium, Providence in Rhode Island that would become his stomping ground.

The ‘great white hope’ was banded around, a reference used frequently for any Caucasian able to put together a string of wins but he was a name still far from the minds of boxing aficionado’s, in their mind he was just another name on a list of many who had up until that point, fought nobody of note. 

He needed to change the narrative with Phil Muscato stepping into the fray. holding a record of 56–20–0 he was adjudged to be the most potent threat to Rocky’s unbeaten record, a thought process that as quickly emerged as it disappeared, lasting only five rounds the after-thought lingered of excitement at witnessing a solid prospect with the stoppage victory gained.

Carmine Vingo was another highly respected prospect who had up to that point amassed a record of 16-1 with the initial consensus split of a victor.

Marciano went to work, dropping Vingo in the first then again in the second before landing a jarring uppercut in the fifth which relieved Vingo of his ambitions.

He was rushed to the hospital where the punch so significant that it prompted the services of a priest to give the last rites, luckily Vingo called upon his fighting spirit to pull through to make a successful recovery where he later befriended Marciano.

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR FOR LA STARZA

Next came Roland La Starza a name known to you all as the man who came closest to handing Marciano a loss.

La Starza was 37-0 at the time the two men faced one another.

The Associated Press reported on the fight showing bias to Marciano :

“Rocky, a short-armed, slope-shouldered battler won the fight with a sensational punching display in the fourth round when he floored LaStarza. A low blow in the eighth round cost the free swinging Rocky a clear-cut triumph. He belted handsome Rollie all over the lot in the frame and hurt him with another one of his vicious rights to the jaw.”

Others were not so convinced, condeming the contest as a miscarriage of justice, New York Daily Herald called the decision “paper thin and exceedingly odd.”

There comes a time in every great fighters career where one can say they had rode their luck, this was that moment for Rocky.

In the subsequent fights that followed, none got so close, Marciano beat sixteen combatants including an ageing Joe Louis who was way past his days of glory by this time.

PASSING THE TORCH

Coming into the bout, Marciano was the underdog. Journalists around the time believed Marciano to be an oaf of a fighter, given credit for merely taking punishment whilst possessing a decent right hand.

Louis albeit ageing was adjudged to have enough left in the tank to deal with a man labelled ‘clumsy’ by the media.

Advantages in height with Louis standing 3½ inches taller whilst 29¾ pounds heavier not to mention a HUGE advantage in reach (76 inches to 67) added to the opinion of a winner.

One of the times leading journalists, Ed Fitzgerald was also of the same opinion however did lend his admiration saying, “Rocky is not in there to outpoint anybody with an exhibition of boxing skill, He is a primitive fighter who stalks his prey until he can belt him out with the frightening right-hand crusher. He is one of the easiest fighters in the ring to hit. You can, as with an enraged grizzly bear, slow him down and make him shake his head if you hit him hard enough to wound him, but you can’t make him back up. Slowly, relentlessly, he moves in on you. Sooner or later, he clubs you down.”

Louis in truth looked every bit his age. He was no more the silky mover, the fluidity had long but past, but regardless he won a few of the early exchanges, relying on muscle memory to thwart the oncoming Marciano.

Like Fitzgerald suggested, the longer the bout went the more Marciano kept coming, wave after wave of offense would eventually lead to a knockdown in the eighth. It served more so a hurtful shot than contest ender but the follow up was way more severe. ‘Suzie-Q’ aka the right hand of Marciano landed flush that subsequently put Louis through the ropes with no hope of returning to his feet. Referee Ruby Goldstein who happened to be a good friend to Louis, waved off the fight immediately.

He would later say, “For many people it was a sad affair, A great sports figure like Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth is finished. People idolized Louis. They didn’t want to see him when he was not himself. It wasn’t easy for me. We were friends. But when you’re a referee, you’ve got to steel yourself. You’ve got to realize there are two boys in the ring, and they are trying very hard to win the fight.”

The knockout to a certain extent represented the passing of the torch.

A subdued response from Marciano afterwards reflected his remorse “I feel sorry for Joe, I’m glad I won, but I feel sorry.”

Louis humbly acknowledged the loss knowing that he had run his course. Father time beats every man brave enough to try his hand to this there are countless examples.

It was just the second loss of a career that spanned 17 years for Louis.

Media afterwards asked the question, ‘Did Schmelling hit harder’ to which Louis replied. “Well this boy took me out with two or three punches, it took Schmelling 100, of course I was 22 years old then”

MARCIANO TOO GOOD FOR JERSEY JOE

September 23rd,1952 the date Marciano would get his chance to become champion of the world, All that was standing in his way was an ageing Jersey Joe Walcott.

Marciano entered the contest the betting favourite which suited Walcott who was looking to turn the odds in his favour. His intention wasn’t to allow Marciano to steam-roll him the way he had everyone else.

Fight fans were pessimistic to the tactic but Walcott shocked all in attendance as he dropped Marciano for the first time in his 43-fight professional career courtesy of the same punch that Walcott had earlier floored Ezzard Charles and Joe Louis.

Rocky would later reflect on the shot that finally got him “I got up fast because I was more mad at myself than hurt,”

Round after round, Walcott continued to put a beating on Marciano but by the end of the sixth, the challenger had got a foothold in the contest.

Marciano had suffered a deep gash on his head whilst Walcott a cut eyelid during one of many clashing of heads.

It’s become a thing of folklore what occurred afterwards, whether it is the solution used on Marciano or Walcott, somehow it found its way into the eye of the challenger.

By the end of the seventh Marciano came back to his corner complaining, “I have trouble with my eyes I can’t see.”

Walcott at that point was ahead on all three scorecards 7-4-1, 7-5, and 8-4, all what was needed was to stay upright for a mere nine minutes.

Into the 13th round they went, Walcott inexcusably stepped back ready to position his right hand to the face of Marciano but it would allow ‘Suzie-Q’ to strike, needing a much shorter flight path, landing flush on the chin of Walcott the shot would leave him motionless for what must have seemed an eternity for the newly dethroned.

The knockout to this day is one that has been replayed countless times. The fight itself lived up to its billing, named The Ring Fight of the Year. The 13th round was named Round of the Year and the fight was ultimately named the 16th Greatest Title Fight of All-Time.

WALCOTT FALLS IN ONE

The rematch was sought from all in the anticipation that lightening would strike twice, hoping it would be just as enthralling as the first but ultimately it would last 12 rounds less than its original, courtesy of a body shot that was followed up with a racking uppercut.

The knockout was spectacular but the feeling of confusion was the overawing emotion that came from the bout with two times registered, one at 1:25 that would have meant the quickest knockout in the heavyweight divisions history whilst the second time registered 2:25.

Regardless the outcome remained the same, Walcott believed it to be a short count, ‘I thought the count had only reached 8’ but excuses fell away the same way he did…quickly.

On the back of this rematch, it brought another familiar name back to the fold, the man who came closest to handing defeat to Marciano in Roland La Starza.

Again, so much better in rematches, Marciano disappointed all of those looking for a tight affair that in truth witnessed La Starza being too brave for his own good.

La Starza used a high guard that Marciano simply punched through, doing so in such a way that La Starza was left with haematomas on both arms with even a suggestion of a dislocation. It was due to this tactic that Marciano found shots needed to end the contest.

La Starza later had surgery to repair the calcification on his arms, but without excuse for the loss.

“I’m sorry, I honestly thought I could beat this guy but he’s a great fighter”

Even when calls of foul play rang loudest, Ronald simply said “That low blow didn’t affect me, he was just too much for me”

Since winning the title, the fights came thick and fast. Next came one hell of an encounter in the shape of Ezzard Charles. The challenger was aiming to become the first ex-champion to regain the heavyweight crown.

The stage was set, Yankee Stadium filled with the expectation of a brawl and that’s exactly what the paying public got. Both men went head-to-head from start to finish with Marciano adjudged to have done enough in the latter rounds to win the contest.

“He gave me a helluva fight. He deserves a return fight if he wants it.” said Marciano afterwards.

An enraged Charles told his story of events saying, “I want him again, I thought I won. I think I came closer to knocking him out than he did me. The next time it will be different.”

The next time was very different but not in the way Charles had envisaged.

In the rematch, eight rounds are all it took for Marciano to put away Charles. Dropping him in the second seemed to sap all the energy from the challenger as he became more cautious thereafter.

However an element of optimism appeared for Charles when Marciano emerged from a clinch with a nasty looking cut grotesquely appearing at the tip of his nose (I’m sure you’ve all seen the picture).

Charles targeted the cut, but Marciano found a left hook / right cross to the jaw to get the job done further pushing the envelope to be in debate for one of the greats the sport as ever produced.

Two fights would remain before Marciano would hang up the gloves, a stoppage win over Battersea’s Don Cockell and finally a stoppage win over the ‘mongoose’ Archie Moore.

The Moore fight came with a sting in its tail, repeating the feat of Charles in dropping Marciano with a sense of amazement hanging over those in attendance of an upset.

Marciano himself said afterwards, “I blanked out for a second but I snapped out of it”

Marciano not the hollow head many claimed him to be, changed tact by manoeuvring Moore to the ropes to land an assortment of hurtful shots. In the sixth following an onslaught of action, Moore’s legs betrayed him.

The old ‘Suzie-Q’ would again strike before a right for good measure dropped Moore to the canvas briefly. Rocky was in no mood to allow the fight to continue longer than needed, swarmed the challenger before putting him on the canvas again, this time for an eight count.

Moore’s back was against the wall finding himself in a last stand situation found two beautiful right hands to stem the oncoming traffic from Marciano but it was temporary. Marciano like he did for the majority of his career continued forward, landing at will as Moore’s eye shut closed.

The bell ultimately saved Moore in the eighth following a clean shot to the jaw from the champion but the fat lady was starting to clear her throat.

In the ninth with his back against the ropes Moore began with another two perfectly thrown right hands before Marciano levelled him with a superb left hook to finish matters.

“When the doctor asked if I wanted to quit (after the eighth) I said no fighter should lose except for the centre of the ring” said Moore afterwards “I’m happy it ended the way it did, I wouldn’t want to lose sitting in the corner”

Rocky gave his view on Moore, saying “I hit him with enough to knock out a dozen men, but he was clever, he would roll with the punches and knock them off with his shoulders and arms”

The question was often asked of the toughest opposition, Rocky simply would say “He (Moore) was one of the toughest, I’d have to include Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles but Moore was definitely the cleverest”

THE FINAL CURTAIN

Retirement rang in the air afterwards with many including Rocky himself conflicted on a decision

“There is a lot of pressure from my family to retire. It has been a pretty bad ordeal for them, I don’t know what I should do”

“Personally at this point I don’t think I should retire”

He succumbed to the pressure to do so at the age of just 32, making the decision to walk away at the top (a rarity in this sport) culminating a 49-0 unblemished resume.

Briefly toying with the idea of a comeback in 1959 to face Ingemar Johansson, Rocky went through the motions of a training camp but unfortunately for the fight fans he decided against it.

LIFE AND DEATH AFTER BOXING

In the years that followed, Marciano filled his time in commentary, he showed up on TV from time to time whilst also keeping his various franchises afloat.

On August 31, 1969 (the day before his 46th birthday) tragedy struck with news that brought the boxing world to its knees, Marciano had passed away.

In disbelief families huddled around radios to hear reports of a plane crash that carried the former heavyweight champion.

A private plane heading to Des Moines, Iowa found bad weather, mixed with the fact that the pilot Glenn Belz had only 231 total hours of flying time (35 of them at night) and had no instrument rating meant it was a disaster waiting to happen.

The inexperienced Belz tried to land the plane at a small airfield outside Newton, Iowa but would only succeed in hitting a tree two miles short of the runway.

Flying with Marciano in the back seat was Frankie Farrell, 28, the oldest son of organized crime figure Lew Farrell.

Marciano, Belz and Farrell were killed on impact.

The National Transportation Safety Board report stated, “The pilot attempted an operation exceeding his experience and ability level, continued visual flight rules under adverse weather conditions and experienced spatial disorientation in the last moments of the flight.”

Marciano was on his way to give a speech to support his friend’s son and there was a surprise birthday celebration waiting for him.

He had hoped to return in the early hours of the morning for his 46th birthday celebration with his wife.

Marciano left behind a wife and two children, an unblemished record of 49-0 whilst standing amongst the sports greatest of all time.

Numerous sites to this day name Marciano in their ‘greatest lists’ and although debate is raised on the level of opposition faced, it can hardly be considered Marciano’s fault for the predicament he finds himself in, the fact remains that he faced the best available to him from that specific era.

I’ve stated earlier in this article of his obvious weaknesses to which there were many but the equalizer for all his discrepancies was a huge right hand that brought opposition to their knees and spectators to their feet.

All opposition found between The Rock (Marciano) and a Hard Place (Suzie-Q) had not remained there for very long as we remember a fighter who defied the odds to become one of the sports great success stories.