AT first glance there’s nothing immediately conspicuous about the date April 27, 1956. President Dwight Eisenhower sat in the White House. A four hundred foot rampaging reptile monster called Godzilla was unleashed and played to packed movie theatres. Elvis Presley topped the music charts with Heartbreak Hotel, his first million selling record as the Rock and Roll dance craze swept the nation. Sex symbol Brigitte Bardot took centre stage at the Cannes film festival as the paparazzi shot pictures of her frolicking on a beach with a parrot. Meanwhile, at a press conference held at the Hotel Shelton in New York City Rocky Marciano, world heavyweight boxing champion announced that at 32, he was hanging up his gloves to spend more time with his family.

Sixty-one years on is Marciano an enduring legend or a faded hero who belongs to a misty-eyed bygone age? His retirement brought the curtain down on the last great heavyweight from the Golden Age of Boxing. With his fighting reputation intact Marciano’s 49 victories in 49 contests and 43 knockouts is still the yardstick by which future heavyweight champions are judged. We look back at how Marciano became the undisputed heavyweight king.

Rocco Francesco Marchegiano was born in Brockton, Massachusetts on September 1, 1923, the eldest of six children. For Marciano, the son of a shoe factory worker, life was a continuous fight. Afflicted by pneumonia as a child he was given little chance of survival. He waged a tireless battle against excruciating back pains. He quit school at sixteen to work in a succession of dead-end jobs; firstly as a truckloader followed by stints in a sweet factory and shoe-shining parlour and then as a gas company pick-and-shovel labourer. Life looked bleak. In 1943 he was drafted into the United States Army, and on his return his dream of becoming a baseball player vanished following an unsuccessful trial with the Chicago Cubs.

Boxing threw him a lifeline. A twelve-fight amateur career culminated in him winning the New England title. In March 1947 Marciano scored a third-round knockout on his professional debut. His early appearances in the provincial obscurity of Rhode Island got him noticed. Marciano signed forms with New York fight manager Al Weill who astutely placed him under the stewardship of top trainer Charley Goldman. Marciano made his debut in New York in his 23rd fight. He signalled his arrival in 1950 when he outpointed unbeaten contender Roland La Starza. In the following year he knocked out prospect Rex Layne, contender Freddie Beshore and then disposed of his childhood hero Joe Louis in eight rounds. In 1952 he first dispatched Lee Savold and then Harry “Kid” Matthews, in a world title eliminator. On September 23, 1952 Marciano challenged Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title in Philadelphia. Marciano overcame a first-round knockdown and in the 13th round produced the most spectacular one punch knockout in boxing history later described by Bernard Fernandez as being delivered “with the force of a meteor slamming into earth” [pictured below]. Eight months later Walcott was blasted out in one round.

rocky marcianoMarciano fought regularly averaging six appearances per year, and between 1952-55 he contested seven world title fights stopping La Starza, Walcott and Ezzard Charles in rematches. He brought to his fights a ferocious intensity and non-stop action and the gift of a knockout punch placing him at the very top of the league of heavyweight hitters. Marciano knocked out 88 percent of opponents compared to 76 percent by Joe Louis. Boxing historian Bert Sugar described Marciano’s right hand punch as “the most devastating weapon ever brought into the ring.”  Marciano knew he possessed the tools to get the job done privately admitting to his closed circle “Why waltz with a guy for ten rounds if you can knock him out in one.” His devastating power was felt by Carmine Vingo, who ended up in a coma, Walcott remained unconscious for two minutes after their first battle and Savold was hospitalised after suffering the worst beating of his seventeen year career. He destroyed his opponent’s desire to stay in the profession and accounted for thirteen permanent retirements. Budd Schulberg, award-winning screenwriter and boxing aficionado, likened Marciano’s capability of grinding down an opponent to a “hydraulic drill attacking a boulder.” Arthur Daley exalted him as a “perpetual motion punching machine”. He was a diligent and dedicated trainer. Marciano’s boundless reserves of stamina explained his overpoweringly aggressive style and his remarkable recuperative powers meant he was seldom troubled. Younger brother Peter Marciano revealed, “Rocky lived like a monk. He was always in incredible condition. He was devoted to training and he could always throw more punches than he ever faced. He’s never been given full credit for his condition.”

Yet boxing scribes harped on about Marciano’s flaws as a boxer describing him as crude, wild swinging and awkward and unfair comparisons were drawn with Louis. When Charley Goldman was assigned to work with Marciano he just laughed at the challenge facing him. But after a number of years of working with his eager student he remarked, “I got a  guy who is short, stoop-shouldered and balding with two left feet, (Rocky’s victims) all look better than he does as far as moves are concerned, but they don’t look so good (laying) on the canvas.”

Some have questioned Marciano’s achievements arguing his main challengers were past their prime and the heavyweight division was in a slump. But the quality and quantity of contenders during this era is arguably superior to anything seen in the past 35 years. They were hungry and tough resourceful fighters who learnt their craft by fighting regularly. Joe Louis was 37, diminished yes, but still quite formidable and entered the contest on the back of eight straight wins. Yet nobody had battered Louis into submission the way Marciano did. Ezzard Charles was pure class and a threat. Walcott and Archie Moore were skilful big punching champions who could look after themselves. The late Curtis “The Hatchet” Sheppard, one of the sport’s biggest punchers, fought Walcott and Moore twice apiece. He remarked: “I was surprised when Marciano beat him (Walcott) like that. That gives you an idea of how tough Marciano was and how hard he hit. Marciano’s secret was his ability to avoid women and night life. He could keep coming and with that chin and power, he couldn’t be denied.” A day after his knockout loss to Marciano, Archie Moore told the New York Times, “Marciano is far and away the strongest man I’ve ever encountered in almost 20 years of fighting. And believe me I’ve met some tough ones.”

rocky marcianoHis critics ask how would Marciano have handled modern era super-sized heavyweights? After all he possessed the shortest reach in heavyweight boxing history at just 68 inches and stood only 5 foot 10 ½  inches in height and never weighed more than 192 ½ pounds. Peter Marciano refutes this argument. “Rocky fought a number of guys who were 30-40 pounds heavier than he was, and those were his easiest fights. It was guys who were a little smaller, a little quicker, who threw punches in combinations that gave Rocky a more difficult time. Forget size, Rocky was tremendously strong. His strength was, and I hate to say the word, but it was almost superhuman. Big guys were made for him. The bigger they were, the easier it was for Rocky to tire them out and then to knock them out.”

Mike Silver, eminent boxing historian concurred: “The key to Marciano’s success is that he never gave up. Rocky never threw in the towel. He had the physical and mental attributes of a great fighter: Tremendous heart; tremendous durability; knockout power and the belief that he could not be defeated. [Charley] Goldman taught him the tricks of the trade. He was not as easy to hit as he appeared. His style was deceptive. He did not throw one punch at a time. His volume of punches per round is among the highest of any heavyweight champion. They were thrown in a continuous pattern. No heavyweight could keep up with this incessant pressure and was either knocked down or worn out by his almost superhuman physical specimen. A fighter who has the one punch knockout power to end a fight at any time is very very dangerous. [Muhammad] Ali and [Gene] Tunney could outpoint you but they did not have that quality. Don’t let anyone tell you different – Rocky faced and defeated some very formidable heavyweights. Walcott and Charles were not washed up when they fought him. They both fought the first fight brilliantly. These and the fight with [Archie] Moore showed why Rocky was great by defeating much better boxers.”

Dan Cuoco of the International Boxing Research Organisation explained, “What Rocky Marciano gave up in height and reach he more than made up with one punch knockout power, extraordinary strength and stamina, an insatiable will to win, mental toughness and plenty of guts… Although he missed a lot his savage body attack would wear his opponents down. What he lacked in speed, he more than made up for by the volume of punches he threw. When he was caught with a good punch, his world class chin held up admirably.”

Steve Corbo, boxing announcer added: “Watching old films it seems he (Marciano) didn’t care how rough things got. He just seemed to know he was going to win. Knock down, cut-off his nose, split open his eye. It didn’t matter because he’d get up and keep coming like a freight train until he rolled over his opponent.”

Marciano was voted three times the Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year (1952, 1954, and 1955) and from 1952 the same journal awarded his involvement in the Fight of the Year for three consecutive years. Most boxing experts place Marciano in their top ten some even higher. In the Ring Magazine 2000 poll, Marciano was voted as the ninth greatest fighter of the twentieth century among all weight classes. Bert Sugar rated Marciano as the sixth best ever heavyweight and the fourteenth best fighter of all time.

Whether you are an admirer or a detractor, perennially extensive coverage of his much fabled unbeaten 49-0 record has preserved Marciano’s legacy from beyond the grave. Since his death in a plane crash in Iowa on August 31, 1969, he has made a great impression on the public mind Marciano’s brutal slugfests are replayed to a savvy social media generation. Sports stadia and commemorative statues across the United States and in Italy are named after him. Annual boxing shows and sporting festivals are held in tribute to Marciano. Let’s not forget his toughness, persistence and never-say-die combative spirit and triumph over adversity inspired Sylvester Stallone to pay homage to him in the iconic Rocky films. His legend continues.

Rolando Vitale is the author of The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955