A Rock from a Hard Place

Of boxer Rocky Marciano and the punches he landed at a time when mafias and mobs made the sport a tough world to be in.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | Published: October 20, 2018 2:16:08 am

Rocky Marciano (Right) takes on Joe Walcott, September 23, 1952 Courtesy: Unbeaten: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Rocky Marciano

Book: Unbeaten: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Rocky Marciano
Author: Mike Stanton
Publication: Macmillan
Pages: 400 
Price: 699

He was the original “Rocky” before Sylvester Stallone burst onto the big screen. And “The Rock” before Dwayne Johnson captured the popular imagination. But Rocky Marciano will always finish third in a popularity contest. His Hollywood counterparts, synonymous with the monikers, admittedly owe a major chunk of their personas to Marciano. The Italian-American’s poster adorned the wall of his celluloid alter-ego Rocky Balboa’s rundown apartment, while WWE star-turned-actor Johnson regularly quotes the boxer on social media.

A product of the pre-pop culture world, Marciano (born Rocco Marchegiano), became the heavyweight champion in 1952, a time when boxing was nothing more than a refuge from digging ditches, delivering coal and labouring in candy factories — dead-end jobs reserved for the working-class Italian-American population. Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, Marciano took up professional boxing at 24, learning how to correctly punch at an age considered to be a boxer’s prime. Eight years later, Marciano retired with a record of 49-0, with all but six of those wins coming via knockouts. But Marciano’s legacy isn’t without its share of blips on his career radar.

For fight fans, Marciano will never be the best heavyweight boxer simply because he didn’t compete against the best. While he did retire idol Joe Louis — “I’m glad I won but sorry I had to do it to him” — the 38-year-old ‘Brown Bomber’ was leading on points before Marciano knocked him out in the eighth round. Marciano himself called it quits in 1955 with Floyd Patterson gunning for the title, and missed Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali by almost a decade.

The bigger blemish on the perfect record, however, can be traced to to the corruption endemic in the fight game. Marciano’s rise was controlled by his mob-tied manager Al Weill and Frankie Carbo, a mafia capo suspected of at least five murders and known as the “underworld commissioner of boxing.” Post retirement, Marciano kissed godfathers on both cheeks, mingled with movie stars but refused to flirt with the idea of a fiftieth fight, turning down lucrative offers for a comeback, “I don’t want to be remembered as a beaten champion.”

In Unbeaten, author Mike Stanton sets out to do the challenging job of introducing the revered, flawed figure to a new
generation. The former investigative reporter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Providence Journal, brings his trademark exhaustive research to put together the complex portrait of Marciano, a follow-up to The Prince of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci, America’s Most Notorious Mayor — his bestselling debut chronicling another colourful Italian-American with mob connections. Perhaps Frank Sinatra could round off a trilogy?

There have been hagiographies aplenty on Marciano, including Everett Skehan’s remarkable 1977 effort, said to have been heavily influenced by the boxer’s family. Not afraid to present the unsavoury side, Stanton also digs up the little-known story of Marciano earning an army court martial and a two-year military prison term for robbery and assault.

Stanton allows those interested a look behind the scenes — 49 pages are allocated to notes on sources, bibliography and acknowledgements. It’s certainly a fruit of labour, but unfortunately the initial sections of the book seem laborious. Stanton is at his reporting best here — his writing is crisp with a sense of urgency. However the information overload in the starting chapters could scare away those with only a passing interest. The book shines when Marciano, and Stanton, put on the gloves.

The colour television revolution was still a decade away when Marciano faced Archie Moore in his last fight. As a result, all that’s left in the name of archival footage are the final few bouts, captured in all of their grainy, black-and-white glory. But Stanton transports the readers ringside at Madison Square Garden and Rhode Island Auditorium, ensuring they register every punch. Several excellent boxing films and books this side of Raging Bull have adopted the Scorsese school of storytelling, ditching blow-by-blow accounts in favour of nightmarish imagery. Stanton goes in the opposite direction, breaking down the mechanics of the sweet science and presenting the visceral bouts in a blunt, direct manner, without flamboyance or flourish. In a way, Stanton’s style is not too different from Marciano’s.

Messy footwork and slow movement made Marciano less of a boxer and more of a brawler. But the book shows how the heavyweight champion with the shortest reach got his trademark style. Practising under the low ceiling of his basement led to his crouched stance, and he rarely dropped his hands to protect his midsection — so fearful was Marciano of having his face marked up in front of his mother. Then there was ‘Suzie Q’, a Hail Mary overhand right punch which won him fights and fans. “People wanted to see the fighter with the tremendous knockout punch that had nearly killed a man,” Stanton writes.

The most poignant chapter tells the story of Carmine Vingo, another Italian-American with an eye on the $1,500 prize money and Marciano’s then 25-0 record. Fighting a day after his 20th birthday, an outclassed Vingo caught a punch that landed him in a coma, and partially paralysed him for life. Marciano visited him in hospital, and donated part of his purse, but according to Vingo’s wife, never delivered on his promises to set him up with a business. Another opponent, Harry Haft — a Polish Jew who was forced to take up boxing at a Nazi slave camp, claimed that he had been threatened by Marciano’s people to take the fall. Tiger Ted Lowry would be remembered for being the only man to go the distance twice with Marciano, winning the first fight in many eyes. “I feel as if I was cheated out of my little piece of history,” Lowry said a few years before his death in 2010. The book thus attempts to humanise the so-called “bums of the month”, the unheralded boxers used to pad up the star’s numbers.

Marciano was killed in a plane crash in Iowa — 100 miles from where Buddy Holly and the music died — in August 1969, on the eve of his 46th birthday. Two years before his death, he proclaimed, “As people get more civilised, they will ban boxing. A hundred years from now we’ll be like the gladiators, something out of history.”

Fifty years on, there is no talk of a boxing ban, only growing indifference towards the sport. Marciano, however, has been reduced to a footnote, more so with Floyd Mayweather coming out of retirement last year to win against a martial artist and take his record to 50-0.
Stanton’s book thus comes at the right time, bringing attention to a forgotten champion and his forgotten era. Marciano defeated those who lined up against him, in an age when the mafia essentially acted as the governing body and there were offers one couldn’t refuse. The generations-spanning fantasy match-ups and hypothetical “greatest heavyweight of all time” debates are especially outlandish, because at 180 pounds he would have been a cruiserweight today. Rocky Marciano left the ring unbeaten. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?

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