From the 1910s to the 1950s, baseball and boxing ruled the sports world. Both sports were thoroughly democratic: In the ring, Rex Layne fought Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky Graziano took on Tony Zale. As a young man growing up in large Italian-American family in Brockton, MA, Rocky Marciano wanted to be a major league ballplayer. He had some tryouts, but as it turned out, the other big sport, boxing, was where he would turn pro.
Mike Stanton’s biography is the first such book on the champ in nearly two decades and it’s the best one so far. Stanton knows the fight game, both in and outside the ring. The book moves fast; lively and exciting, it is chock full of interesting anecdotes. On these pages, Marciano lives again.
Marciano was a shy man, probably due to being a product of a large family. His father was a mild-mannered shoemaker who suffered from injuries sustained in World War I. His mother was a boisterous woman, the happy matron of three boys and three girls, a woman who kept a steady diet of steaming Italian dishes her son’s way.
That paid off handsomely. The young Marciano didn’t care for school. A soldier in World War II, he was court-martialed for theft. When it came to boxing, however, Marciano was all business. The sport has never seen such a dedicated pugilist. “[You’ve] got to make boxing a kind of religion,” he once told a reporter. “You believe in yourself and you believe in the things you got to do. You never forget them for a minute. Then you get there and you think of what you had to go through and you say to yourself, ‘It was worth it, it was worth everything.’” After winning the title, Marciano trained for a defense of the crown. The actress Jayne Mansfield, a poor man’s Marilyn Monroe, visited the camp. Rocky had no problem turning this siren away. In the weeks before a fight, Marciano literally sealed himself off from the outside world.
The story of Marciano’s rise in the boxing world never grows old. He turned professional when he was 25, well past the average age. But the man had a punch, “Suzy Q” that when delivered, had a habit of putting opponents on their backs—often for weeks at a time. Marciano remains the proprietor of the most famous blow in boxing history. Fighting for the title against Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952, the challenger went into the final round trailing on points to the wily veteran. Marciano shockingly decked Walcott with a right cross, winning the title and in the process, keeping the entire citizenry of Brockton from going broke on the bets they had made. (“If he loses, 50,000 Italians are going to commit suicide,” one of Rocky’s boyhood pals told the press.) The photo of that punch remains the most legendary in all of sports. Marciano connects, Walcott’s knees buckle, his face becomes terribly contorted: It hurts every time you look it at.
Marciano was a puncher who learned how to box from Charley Goldman, a veteran of the sports’ prohibition days. He was managed by Al Weill. The former got Rocky fights; he talked up his prize fighter, but he also pocketed 50 percent of the money. Indeed, this biography is different in that it details the grip that organized crime had on the sport throughout the ‘50s. Marciano was clean; when a mid-level mobster tried to make him throw a fight, Rocky brushed him off. Still, a slice of Weil’s take went to Frank Carbo, the prime minister of the boxing underworld. In all, about 10 percent of Rocky’s total earnings went to the mob. Carbo and his associates ran the fight game like a well-oiled corporation, similar to the way that Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano ran their rackets. All of the top fighters—Joe Louis, Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Sonny Liston—had their careers run by the syndicate.
In the early 1960s, the Feds finally caught up with Carbo. By then, Marciano had retired. As with Joe DiMaggio, Rocky left while still on top, owner of a perfect 49-0 record. Let us remember Marciano in his prime. Did he retire too early? Friends thought so, but the man was heavily influenced by his loving parents; his mother, Pasqualena, would spend fight nights in a church with a friend, reciting the rosary, meanwhile Pierino Marciano suffered at ringside while his son took blow after blow from the best the game had to offer. Marciano’s retirement years were restless. He never lacked for friends or companions. Constantly on the road, he succumbed to adultery. His weight ballooned. Marciano even began paling around with organized crime figures he had once professed to dislike. Burned by Weil’s greedy ways, Marciano was paranoid. He insisted on being paid in cash for lucrative personal appearances. The money then, would end up stashed away under beds, in closets, in unknown locations.
“Oh, you’re gonna drive me crazy,” Pasqualena Marciano once told her son, wishing that he would get off the road and spend time at home. “Good thing I have Sonny and Peter [her other sons].” She meant it jokingly, but Marciano’s mother knew her son was gone. Rocky couldn’t go back to Brockton, back to his wife and children. He set up his home base in Fort Lauderdale, FL, but he couldn’t stay there, either. Marciano, as William Butler Yeats once sang of another tragic figure, could never part gray hairs. In 1969, he met a tragic ending in a Iowa cornfield.
Think of Marciano in his glory. If there is a weakness in the book, it is the author playing the usual rankings game. How does Marciano fare among other heavyweights: Louis and Muhammad Ali, Liston and Mike Tyson, Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson, Jess Willard and Gentleman Jim Corbett? Who cares? With Marciano, it all comes down to one number—49-0—and, of course, one punch. This top-notch biography not only brings Marciano back to life. It takes the reader into the ring, right there when every mouthpiece goes flying into the crowd, with every body blow, every connection to the arms and ribs and face, every knockdown, including those that Marciano sustained. It will also make the reader respect more fully those gladiators—Louis, Walcott, Charles, Layne, Carmine Vingo, Jake LaStarza and Archie Moore—who had the guts to step into the ring with the man who possessed fists of steel.
Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World by Mike Stanton is available on Amazon.