In 1956 32-year-old Rocky Marciano retired from the ring undefeated in 49 professional fights. Throughout his professional career, he scored 43 knockouts, defeating other greats like Joe Louis. The 1948 Golden Gloves award winner reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1952 until his retirement four years later. Long before his sudden death in 1969, Marciano had become a legend in his time.
He originally wanted to play baseball
Rocco Francis Marchegiano was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1923, hence the nickname of “the Brockton Blockbuster.” His parents were Italian immigrants, and he and his five siblings lived right across from the local playground. Young Rocco loved baseball. He dreamed of being a professional baseball catcher. He also loved working out and used homemade weights to build his strength.
He went to high school in Brockton, where he was on the football and baseball teams, but left before graduating. He swept floors in a shoe factory and did a string of other jobs until he was drafted into the army during World War II. Marchegiano’s unit went to Wales to help deliver supplies to beleaguered Normandy across the English Channel. He would serve in the Army until 1946, when he completed his service stateside.
Becoming a boxer
As he awaited his discharge papers, Marchegiano found boxing as a way to get out of hated KP duty at Fort Lewis in Washington State. He won an amateur contest in 1946, and the following year knocked out his opponent in a professional fight. He failed to make the cut—allegedly due to a lack of strength in his right arm—when he tried out for the Chicago Cubs, but back home in Brockton, he started training as a boxer with a long-time friend. He got a manager, Al Weill, and a professional trainer, Charley Goldman. He undertook a grueling physical conditioning program that had him putting on specially made, heavy training shoes and running 7 miles daily.
There were plenty of reasons for him to have failed at boxing. Sportswriters have described his style as “crude,” more suitable for bar fights than the ring. He was shorter and lighter than most heavyweights and had a shorter reach as well. But, as sportswriter Larry Schwartz once put it in an ESPN.com article, “How do you measure a person’s heart?” Marchegiano, in the view of Schwartz and numerous other observers, had possibly the biggest heart we’ve ever seen in an athlete. When knocked down, he might have been bloodied, but he got back up, giving his all to every contest.
Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith called him the “toughest, strongest, most completely dedicated” boxer ever.
Heavyweight champion of the world
In 1948 the newly minted professional beat Harry Bilzerian and went on to beat more than a dozen other opponents, achieving knockouts in all these contests before Round 5. He won nine of these before the end of Round 1.
As the new boxer’s fame spread, sports announcers noted their trouble pronouncing Marchegiano, so Rocky Marciano was officially born.
On September 23, 1952, Marciano faced off against Jersey Joe Walcott (first known as Arnold Raymond Cream) for the world heavyweight title. His opponent knocked him down in the first round. Marciano got back on his feet, only to lag behind for the next six rounds. He refused to give up or give in.
In the 13th round, the exhausted Marciano landed a precision-timed right punch on Walcott and knocked him out. That made Rocky Marciano the new heavyweight champion of the world, and his devastating right-hand punch earned the nickname “Susie Q.”
Marciano defended his heavyweight title on six occasions. In five of these, he defeated his opponent in a knockout.
In the fall of 1955, he stood in the ring opposite Archie Moore and knocked him out in the ninth round. Moore later commented that he felt as if he’d been hit with a blackjack.
On April 27, 1956, Rocky Marciano announced he’d be retiring from the ring. He remains the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated.
Tragedy and memory
After his boxing career ended, Marciano did referee work and sports commentary and became the host of a regular television show on boxing. He and his wife, Barbara, were the parents of a daughter and a son.
Just before he would have turned 46, Marciano was aboard a single-engine plane heading out of Chicago. Night and thick sheets of rain downed the plane in a cornfield near Newton, Iowa. There were no survivors.
After Rocky Marciano knocked out the great—but then past-his-prime—Joe Louis in 1951, he broke down and wept when he spoke with Louis in the locker room. “Joe, I’m sorry,” Marciano said. It was the end of Louis’ career.
At Marciano’s funeral, Joe Louis said that something had “gone out of everyone’s life.” He leaned over and planted a kiss on his rival’s casket.