With the Great Depression and Second World War firmly in its rear-view mirror, the 1950s saw the United States of America finally transition into a state of normality. Poverty had evolved into prosperity, radios made way for TVs and most importantly, life, which had been rife with uncertainty, was simple again.
It was an age that embodied the American Dream more than any other era in the history of the nation and within this time period, alongside the picturesque suburbs, immaculate lawns and white picket fences, stood a cultural icon who, better than anyone, understood the values of the so-called dream.
Today, the words ‘Rocky’ and ‘Marciano’ are almost mythical. Mention his name to any boxing fan and you’ll be met with wide-eyed enthusiasm for a fighter who stands tall among boxing’s immortals with an unblemished 49-0 professional record, a heavyweight feat that still stands today. For all of his mysticism though, the ballad of Rocky Marciano was an incredibly simple tune.
Rocco Francis Marchegiano, the son of two Italian immigrants, was born in 1923 in Brockton, Massachusetts, rising from a shoemaker to become one of the most celebrated boxers of the 20th century. It was his father, Pierino, who told the young Rocky that anything was possible in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and that he shouldn’t be wasting his life toiling away. “Get out of this factory and be somebody important,” he would repeatedly urge his son.
In the end, it would be his family values that would motivate Marciano to achieve all he did. As the family’s eldest son, Marciano felt huge pressure on those broad shoulders at a young age to rescue his family from a life of poverty, living in a run-down section of the immigrant-filled city of Brockton - he was a family first kind of guy, an important mantra for anyone of Italian heritage and it was a route along the Pursuit of Happiness that mirrored the era perfectly.
Al Weill, Marciano’s manager, once said of his fighter, “Rocky is a poor Italian boy from a poor Italian family, and he appreciates the buck more than almost anybody. He's only got two halfway decent purses so far, and it was like a tiger tasting blood.”
Combining formidable punching power, seeming inexhaustible stamina and a granite-like chin, Marciano was relentless on his way to the top, beating all who stood before him including the likes of Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Joe Louis and Roland La Starza. A very crude fighter (and a tiny heavyweight by modern standards at just 5ft10in), he certainly wasn’t the silkiest heavyweight to ever step foot in the ring but what he did well, he did almost effortlessly: He came. He saw. He conquered.
Such was Marciano’s natural athletic prowess, he might never have laced up a pair of boxing gloves had his love of another sport, baseball, perhaps the only sport in the US that captured the American imagination more than boxing in the 50s, panned out. As a youngster, Marciano worked hard at a career in baseball even earning himself a tryout at the Chicago Cubs but was eventually cut because he lacked strength in his right arm.
Had his mother, Pasqualina, had her way we might have seen Marciano the quarterback, such was her fear for her son’s safety in the rough and tumble world of pugilism. Just to get her off his back, Rocky would have to take a football with him when he hit the road for his runs with his training partner and friend, Allie Columbo. The two would pass the pigskin back and forth with one another, so as not to raise suspicion from the Marciano matriarch.
Undeterred from the failed baseball try outs and his mother’s ever watching eye, he put full focus on becoming a heavyweight boxer - that right arm might not have been up to scratch for the big leagues of baseball but in the world of boxing, it reaped pure, unadulterated devastation. Of his 49 professional fights, 87.76% failed to hear the final bell, each a victim to Marciano’s secret weapon - a right hook he called ‘Susie Q.’ In a December 1963 issue of Boxing Illustrated, Marciano’s punching power was put to the test: "Marciano's knockout blow packs more explosive energy than an armor-piercing bullet and represents as much energy as would be required to lift 1000 pounds one foot off the ground."
America’s love affair with one of its favourite sons was sadly a fleeting one. Marciano enamoured millions to him over an eight year career that coincided with the nation’s golden era, enthralling all who watched as he swept through the heavyweight ranks with a relatively calm ease, retiring undefeated in 1955, having defended the title for a sixth and final time against Moore. In retirement, Marciano stayed as popular ever, remaining in the public eye with stints on television, whilst resisting the temptation to return to the ring.
In 1969, on the eve of his 46th birthday, a private jet carrying Marciano hit a tree in Iowa. Marciano, the pilot and Frankie Farrell, the oldest son of Lew Farrell, a boxer and childhood friend of Marciano, were killed instantly.
Today, Marciano’s legacy stands as strong as ever and he remains one of the most beloved heavyweights in American boxing history, even though many who were lucky enough to have witnessed him in his pomp are sadly gone now. The poor, first-generation Italian kid, who was on a collision course with poverty is epitome of what the American Dream means to many - the ability to rise to the top, no matter the adversity.
The boy from Brockton, to whom family meant everything, did that as well as anyone.