On Sept. 1, 1923 Mr. and Mrs. Pierino Marchegiano of Brockton, MA became the proud parents of a lively twelve pound baby boy. The child was named Rocco Marchegiano, but the world would one day know him as the legendary boxer Rocky Marciano. When “bambino Rocco” was 18 months of age, he contracted pneumonia. Although the infection nearly killed him, his exceptionally strong constitution enabled him to survive without impairment. As a pre-teenager, Rocky relished his mother’s Italian cooking so much he bordered on being stocky.
This was underscored by his relatively short but muscular arms and legs. However, even at this young age, his overall bearing suggested exceptional physical strength. Throughout his teenage years, Rocky took great advantage of living across the street from the James Edgar Playground, where he especially enjoyed playing baseball. It was during this period that he began the habit of exercising to his limit. ” After spending countless hours hitting and chasing after baseballs, he would often go home and do chinups and lift homemade weights until he was totally fatigued.
After supper, “Rocky and his pals often spent hours pummelling a stuffed mail sack that hung from an oak tree in the Marchegiano’s back yard…. In hot weather, they usually finished their workouts by racing over to Saxton’s Spring to get a cold drink of water. ” Unfortunately, Rocky’s experience of growing up in a multi-ethnic, working-class setting contributed to his involvement in a number of “altercations. ” Although most were territorial battles that took place at James Edgar Field, some occurred well beyond….
Even prior to his teenage years, Rocky’s reputation for being a “really tough Italian kid” extended all the way over to the Bush, Brockton’s Irish section. However, by the time he was 14, Rocky’s notoriety as a baseball slugger began to overtake his reputation as a slugger with his fists. The legend of his athletic prowess began at age 15 when, as cleanup batter on the local American Legion team, he blasted a towering home run over the left field fence at James Edgar Playground. It landed on the front porch of a slightly irate neighbor.
At age 15, Rocky entered Brockton High School – an institution with a nationally prestigious football tradition. Error! Bookmark not defined. Rocky’s favorite subjects were Italian and Manual Training. And, except for a rather erratic scholastic record, all went reasonably well for him – at first. In the fall of his sophomore year he won the position of center on the varsity football team. Long after he became a great boxer, he liked to recall how one of the greatest thrills of his life was when – as a substitute linebacker – he intercepted a pass and ran 60 yards to score a touchdown against arch-rival New Bedford.
The following spring, Rocky became the first string catcher on the BHS varsity baseball team. It is said that his throws were almost always on target, and few runners beat his “rocket-like” pegs to second base “until after that fateful day he threw his arm out. ” An unusually slow runner, Rocky was now relegated to occasionally playing right field and pinch hitting. During this time, he was chastised on a number of occasions for consistently violating a long standing school policy that prohibited dual involvement in a local church league. Finally, he was cut from the team.
This upset him so much, he began cutting classes. That summer, Rocky spent a good deal of time with older friends in downtown pool halls and ten cent movie theaters. He also enjoyed swimming and hiking in Brockton’s beautiful Field Park. When fall rolled around, he decided not to return to Brockton High School. Realizing he had very few skills to offer an employer, he briefly considered a former teacher’s plea that he enroll at the “old” Brockton Vocational School. Ultimately, however, he decided that the obligation to immediately get a job and help out his struggling family was paramount.
Traditionally, in Brockton – the former men’s shoe capitol of the world – this meant starting at the bottom rung in a local shoe factory as a floor sweeper. In 1940, the New England shoe industry was in shambles. The “Great Depression” and competition from foreign imports had combined to produce mass unemployment and fierce union rivalries. At one point, over half of Brockton’s factories had closed down, and President Franklin Roosevelt personally intervened to control threats of violence.
Meanwhile, Rocky’s father, Pierino – who was not as established as the unionized immigrants who had long preceded him to Brockton – struggled to hold on to a non-union job at the local Stacey Adams Shoe Company. Although he appreciated having work, Pierino constantly worried about the future. Pierino especially resented the prejudice he had to put up with each day from a number of his co-workers and superiors. Not surprisingly, he was totally against the idea of his son persuing a career as a local shoeworker.
After failing two attempts to get a driver’s license, Rocky finally got a job with the Brockton Ice and Coal Company as the “chute man” on a delivery truck. He utterly detested it. Each night he came home covered with soot and grime, with his lungs full of coal dust – all for 10 dollars per week. It wasn’t long before he began searching for an “alternative career. ” For the next several months, Rocky went from one “grubby” job to another. Throughout this period, he persistently begged his father to help him get some kind of work at Stacey Adams.
In the meantime, the onset of World War 2 gave the Brockton Shoe industry a sudden – but temporary – boost. Pierino finally gave in and said “O. K. ” With all the overtime, Rocky’s income suddenly doubled. For the first time in quite a while he felt that “things were looking up…. ” Rocky especially enjoyed working with his fellow Italian shoeworkers – and with his father. As a youngster, he had often delivered a hot lunch to him by tossing it up into his waiting hands through a second story window along side Pierino’s workbench.
Now, he anxiously looked forward to eating lunch and having a cold bottle of coca-cola with him each day as they “threw the bull” with a small circle of paisanos. There was another very interesting feature: With youthful pride, he noticed that his boring and strenous new job as a “last puller” – which he learned to do with lightning speed with both hands – was “beautifully pumping up his arms and upper body. ” Unfortunately, Rocky eventually began to feel “perpetually nauseated.
It turned out that he was mildly allergic to leather dust and the vinegar-like stench typically associated with shoe factory curing ovens. At this same time he began to struggle with periods of claustrophobia and despair, which he tried to relieve by constantly day dreaming about his after hours successes playing baseball. Finally, with his father’s blessing, Rocky quit his job at Stacey Adams, and gave up all hope of becoming a skilled shoemaker.
Fortunately, the next major step in Rocky’s career was decided for him by the U. S. Government. At age 20, he was inducted into the Army and shipped overseas to England. However, as the war on the European front was beginning to draw to a close, he was soon flown back to the States, where he was assigned to Ft. Lewis in the State of Washington to await transfer to the Pacific Theater. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in August of 1945, the nation’s long anticipated encounter with Japan was precluded. Rocky now awaited either a stint with General Mac Arthur’s rehabilitation forces or outright discharge.
During this tedious interim, Rocky made the crucial decision to inject a little excitement into his life by representing his unit at Ft. Lewis in a series of amateur fights. He did so well “he soon found sparring partners in short supply. ” In April, Rocky got a two week furlough. As soon as he arrived home in Brockton, he boasted to his uncle, Mike Piccento, about his boxing successes at Fort Lewis. Piccento was so impressed, and elated, he immediatly had a friend – a small-time local promoter – arrange a local fight with a black New England amateur heavy weight named Henry Lester.
Rocky could hardly wait to get….. into the ring to demonstrate his new found prowess before his home town friends – and a few old adversaries. Typically, he felt absolutely no uneasiness about the fact that Lester was a former Golden Gloves champ. The match took place on April 15, 1946 in the dingy and smoke-filled Ancient Order Of Hibernians Hall on Ward St. The purse was $30. 00. From the opening bell, “things looked pretty rough. ” Rocky was so overweight, and out of condition from smoking two packs of camels per day, he was completely exhausted by the third round.
When he finally realized he was about to go down in defeat, he suddenly reverted to street fighting and “instinctively” kneed Lester in the groin. The referee gave him the only disqualification he would receive throughout his boxing career. The boos of the large crowd and the local newspaper’s off-hand account of his performance – and disqualification – greatly embarassed him. Nevertheless, some of his closest friends convinced him that he did pretty well. “He took great encouragement from their praise of his fearlessness with a much more experienced boxer….
But, he most appreciated their expressions of astonishment at the damage he had inflicted when he stung Lester with couple of wild ‘windmill-style’ uppercuts and overhand rights. ” As soon as Rocky got back to Ft. Lewis, he cut out smoking and beer, and went on a crash diet in preparation for entering a triple elimination series for the AAU championships in Portland, Oregon. Although he won these first two amateur fights – by dramatic first round knockouts – he seriously injured the knuckles on his left hand in the latter.
Fighting the remainder of that fight with one hand against tough 6 foot 3 inch Joe De Angelis from Chelsea, MA. , he lost the final and decisive bout. Rocky now had to undergo delicate hand surgery and two months of rehabilitation. To make matters worse, a well meaning Japanese medical officer and friend in the boxing program – who was dazzled by the tremendous velocity of Rocky’s punches – advised him that because of seriousness of the injury he “would never make it as a heavyweight boxer. “
In the summer of 1946, Rocky received an honorable discharge and returned to Brockton. Like most other World War Two veterans he became a “member” of the “52/20 club” wherein jobless veterans were provided $20. 00 per week until they could find a job – for up to a year. During this period Rocky began playing baseball in earnest for the regionally famous semi-pro Taunton Lumber Team. The following spring, Rocky and several other players from the area were invited by a scout from the Chicago Cubs to attend that team’s annual “tryouts” in Fayetteville, No. Carolina.
Although Rocky’s hitting was superb, the peculiar recurrent weakness in his usually powerful throwing arm – which in no way ever affected his ability to throw a punch – resulted in his rejection after a three week trial. Rocky and his still hopeful comrades continued to linger around Fayetteville until an official bluntly told them that “not one of them was good enough to ever become a professional baseball player. ” Dejectedly, they all headed back to Brockton.
Immediately after returning home – and in spite of his mothers loathing of boxing – Rocky began to seriously work on improving his overall physical condition in preparation for becoming a professional boxer. He now spent countless hours sparring with his brother, Louis. Interestingly, on some occasions, Rocky felt Louis was taking a bit of an advantage of him and he would “over retaliate. ” Often, the only thing that would get Rocky’s attention, and cool him down, was Louie’s threat to tell their mother, Pasqualina, of Rocky’s secret intention of becoming a champion boxer.
In spite of Pasqualina’s strong admonitions and suspicions, Rocky and his life-long close friend and trainer Allie Colombo continued to pursue the arduous routine of fully preparing “The Rock” as a professional fighter. Allie set up a brutal regimen that included a minimum of seven miles of roadwork per day, wearing very heavy training shoes. On their frequent sunrise excursions through Rocky’s favorite trail in Field Park, Allie always encouraged him to run as fast as he could up the park’s steep “Tower Hill. ” He then had him do slow “back pedals” down the hill, and charge right back up… er and over again.
Rocky often said that such training was the key to the surprising endurance of his legs, especially as evinced in his “brawl” with Ezzard Charles when he went 15 rounds for the first time in his professional career. Countless citizens from Brockton – and even from as far away as Boston and Providence – still have vivid memories of Rocky plodding through streets and highways in cumbersome shoes and passing a football with Allie. Few realize that the inital purpose of carrying the football was to keep Rocky’s true ambitions from his mother.
Interestingly, as their workouts progressed, both men became highly skilled at throwing fast accurate passes to each other – with either hand. “This enhanced Rocky’s unique skill in ‘fending off’ and ‘picking off’ some of the punches of relatively tall and longer armed opponents, giving him split second opportunities to work his way in with his powerful jabs, uppercuts, and overhand rights. Rocky’s inside workouts took place at the Brockton YMCA where Allie placed great emphasis on having Rocky tread water as long as he could while throwing underwater punches.
To this day, many spectators recall that “No one ever got more body weight into a punch when slugging that old YMCA training bag than Rocky Marciano… It was obvious to everyone that if he just hit an opponent’s arms with those punches he was going to take the steam out of them… Even way back then, we were absolutely sure he would someday be the world champion… ” Within a few months, “The Brockton Blockbuster” was trimmed down and ready to start his career as a professional.
The remainder of Rocky’s life story has the legendary quality of a classic Roman gladiator. After winning 37 fights by knockouts – including a momentous victory over Joe Louis – he finally got the answer to his dreams. On Sept. 23, 1952, Rocky fought Jersey Joe Walcott for the world heavyweight championship. Although he was knocked down in the first round – and was behind in the scoring for the first 7 rounds – he finally won in the 13th by knocking out Walcott with a desperately powerful – and accurate – right punch.
It was sort of a unique “right cross” that he always referred to as his “Susie Q. ” Rocky defended his title six times, winning five by knockouts. As a professional, he won an unprecedented 49 straight fights of which 43 – or 90 % – were by knockouts. Rocky was once asked if it was the hated memories of breathing coal dust and the putrid smell of factory shoe leather that fired him up with unrelenting determination to succeed as a boxer- especially when he had been knocked down, was badly cut, and was losing a fight.
He replied that “the thing I thought about most was the hardship my father and mother faced throughout their lives… I knew that, if I didn’t overcome the challenge at hand, I and they would surely never get another chance to escape poverty and oblivion. ” He also acknowleged that, in his earliest fights, he often thought about impressing his girl friend (and later wife) Barbara Cousins – and her friends – pointing out that, “At the time, not many people were very positive about my prospects as a serious boyfriend. “