In the entire history of the Heavyweight Championship of the World, only one champ has ever retired with a perfect, untarnished record. The Brockton Blockbuster, born Rocco Francis Marchegiano to Italian immigrants in Massachusetts, would hold the heavyweight title from 1952-1956 and hang up his gloves with a spotless record of 49-0-0.
In the years since his death, Rocky Marciano’s reputation has diminished somewhat. Many consider him an overrated brawler who was only undefeated because he never fought especially formidable opponents. This is, to a degree, fair. Though he faced Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Roland La Starza, conventional wisdom is that each man was past his prime by the time he stepped into the ring with the Rock. But, in addition to his unmatched record of perfection, he also has a staggering 88% knockout record (only 6 of his 49 opponents ever went the distance against him). How can this be? Marciano was short, light, flat-footed, not especially skilled, and completely without finesse. In short, he wasn’t a very good boxer. How did he maintain such a stellar championship and knock out all those superior talents? The answer seems to be: Strength, grit, toughness, and stamina. Marciano could walk straight through any punch another man offered him until he wore the poor fellow down. The 18-month old baby who was nearly killed by pneumonia displayed a “remarkably strong constitution” that would, later, prove the makings of a champion.
Unlike many of his fellow boxing champs, Marciano did not begin at an early age. In his teens, he dreamed of being a different kind of slugger, playing baseball for his high school and a local church league, before trying out for the Chicago Cubs. Cut from the team after a few weeks, he went to work at the local shoe factory, where the strenuous labor built his arms and upper body into a muscular physique. During World War II, he served in the army and took up boxing for the first time there, mainly to avoid KP duty.
As a professional fighter, Marciano was beloved of his fans and amiable as a champion, offering a smile and an autograph wherever he went. When he retired, he said shrewdly “I don’t want to be remembered as a beaten champion,” knowing that someone might, one day, put him where he had put Louis and Walcott.
On the eve of his 46th birthday, Marciano and two friends were flying in a 3-seat private plane, when a storm hit and the craft crashed into a tree-lined ravine in Iowa, killing everyone on board. Marciano’s tragic death reminds us all that, outside the ring, nobody ever wins his final bout.