The Heavyweight Bookshelf: Rocky Marciano

The bibliography on Rocky Marciano is not as extensive as on some other major heavyweight champions, and this may be fitting, as among the title’s major figures, he reigned at the top for one of the shortest periods: just three and a half years, from September 1952 to April 1956, when he took his perfect 49-0 record into permanent retirement. Marciano’s career, in fact, was one of the shorter ones by heavyweight championship standards, because he didn’t even start boxing in earnest until the comparatively late age of 23. Compare his title reign and career duration to some other notables: John L. Sullivan’s career lasted from about 1880 to 1892 (and he was champion for most of that time); Jack Johnson, whose first fight was in 1897 and whose last was in 1931, was champion from 1908 to 1915; Jack Dempsey fought (officially) from 1914 to 1927, and was champion for seven years; Joe Louis campaigned from 1934 to 1951, holding the title for nearly 12 years, longer than any other man; and Muhammad Ali’s career stretched from 1961 to 1981, and he spent more than seven years, all told, holding the title at various points during that period. The champion whose brief time at the top bears the closest resemblance to Rocky’s is Mike Tyson, who reigned only from November 1986 to February 1990—and if you want to be a stickler, only from June 1988, when he beat Michael Spinks to become the undisputed champion, to February 1990. That’s less than two years. Yet, without checking Amazon or consulting a library catalog, I feel confident in saying that Tyson has many more books written about him than does the Brockton Blockbuster.

Debates about Marciano’s place in the heavyweight pantheon continue. For some, he is overrated, his record padded with tomato cans and his biggest wins over washed-up boxing greats; for others, his advanced-age foes—especially Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore—remained formidable, and his perfect record stands as its own argument. Then there’s the testimony of Muhammad Ali, who sparred with Rocky for their fabled “computer fight” in 1969, shortly before Marciano’s death in a plane crash, and who told Howard Cosell in 1976 that Marciano’s punches left him sore for days afterward. He also said that Marciano was better than Joe Frazier, a highly debatable conclusion (from a hardly unbiased source), but an idea, as Cosell might say, “to conjure with.”

If the quantity of Marciano books is unimpressive, the quality is high. There are three main biographies, and all are worthwhile, distinctive pieces of work that round out a portrait. Brockton native Everett Skehan wrote the first, 1977’s Rocky Marciano: Biography of a First Son, which is rich in local detail, drawn from conversations with Marciano insiders and family. Skehan has lots of interesting anecdotes about Rocky, including two instances in which he refers to blacks in ways that don’t sound complimentary, though Marciano does not use the notorious epithet; Skehan offers no editorial judgment on these episodes or many others. His book is a trove of unvarnished reporting.

Skehan also offers a compelling portrait of Marciano in retirement, especially his habit of jotting down notes to himself, almost like a wandering diary or journal. In these notes, the picture of a restless, even haunted man emerges. Not long before he died at 45, the retired champion scrawled, “If you want to live a full life then live dangerously,” and then, on the opposite page, in all caps and underlined, wrote, “Insecure.”

In 2002, when Russell Sullivan’s Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times appeared, it looked to be the last word on the subject. Sullivan’s book is a model of the critical sports biography and social history, especially for its thorough combing of the social context of the Rock’s championship reign—in what might be called the quiet years of America’s postwar boom, before the tumults that marked the 1960s. Marciano’s championship reign predated all of that, and Sullivan has an eye for revealing nuggets from the era’s sports press, pointing out how their treatment of Marciano reflected social progress on two fronts: first, there was little, if any, talk of Marciano as a white champion or any attempt to whip up racial passions for his fights against black opponents; and second, Marciano’s rise reflected the emergence of Italian-Americans as mainstream American citizens. Sullivan points out how journalists rarely used crude ethnic stereotypes in writing about Marciano, in contrast with so much prewar writing about an earlier Italian sports hero, the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio. The Rock of His Times is an excellent book.

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Finally, there is Mike Stanton’s Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World, published this year. Stanton works Marciano’s story like a pro—a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman, he knows how to plumb archives with the best of them—and he tells it with rich detours into the histories of mob control of boxing, of Rocky’s manager Al Weill and trainer Charley Goldman, and Marciano’s early life in Brockton. He unearths some startling discoveries, none more so than the revelation that Marciano was court-martialed during his army service in World War II and spent nearly two years in a U.S. army stockade in Britain. The charges stemmed from a drunken incident with a buddy off base, in which they were eventually charged with assault and robbery of two Englishmen. Details of the incident are murky, with claims and counterclaims, but the army judge did not believe Marciano’s denials. Moreover, while the case was being adjudicated, Marciano’s commanding officer told investigators that the future champ was an “untrustworthy, unreliable and unsatisfactory soldier” and declared him of “no value to the Army.”

Yet Stanton also shows Marciano’s noble qualities—not just his indefatigable work ethic and toughness in the ring, but also his loyalty to family and friends, his generosity with those he loved and with many of his former ring opponents, and his thoughtful and fearful sides, such as his determination not to end up a punch-drunk ex-fighter and his lifelong terror of being poor again. The picture Stanton offers is the fullest yet of this iconic champion, and probably as full as will ever be needed. Unbeaten should stand as the definitive Marciano biography.

(Other Marciano bios include Bill Libby’s 1971 Rocky: the Story of a Champion and Michael N. Varveris’s Rocky Marciano: The 13th Candle, which appeared in 2000 and features conversations with many close to Rocky, including his devoted mother, Pasquelana.)

Along with their other virtues, Stanton’s and Sullivan’s books both offer extensive, chapter-by-chapter bibliographic essays, which make not only interesting reading but also help identify a wealth of newspaper and magazine stories about Marciano and his opponents. (I’m indebted to Sullivan’s pointing out of a two-part Saturday Evening Post feature in 1948 on Jersey Joe Walcott, authored by the fighter himself, and W.C. Heinz’s essay-portrait of Ezzard Charles, also in the Saturday Evening Post, from 1952.) Marciano fought during a sportswriting Golden Age, so he was covered extensively, and usually admiringly. “The endurance of Rocky Marciano was inhuman,” Jimmy Cannon wrote, “and he was a mercilessly strong man. So hard was his body that Louis said he hurt you badly if he bumped into you. He was like a belligerent turtle, all his vulnerable parts inside a thick shell.”

A.J. Liebling wrote some of his finest boxing essays about Marciano fights. In fact, the great New Yorker essayist covered five of Marciano’s seven world title fights, and each resulting Liebling dispatch is a gem. In my personal favorite, “Ahab and Nemesis,” Liebling chronicles what turned out to be the Rock’s last fight—his September 1955 title defense against Archie Moore. It’s a wizard piece of reportage, replete with Liebling’s typically lively descriptions—a knocked-down, beaten fighter “settled in one corner of the ring as heavily as suet pudding upon the unaccustomed gastric system”—and also his capacity for broadening the scope of his story, as, post-fight, he describes his trip home in a way that broadens the narrative beyond what happened in the ring. Libeling’s gift for turning a phrase does not desert him when describing Marciano: Rocky had, Liebling writes, “an apparently unlimited absorptive capacity for percussion.” In his fight against Moore, Liebling theorized, “Marciano, a kind, quiet, imperturbable fellow, would plan to go after Moore and make him fight continuously until he tired enough to become an accessible target. After that, he would expect concussion to accentuate exhaustion and exhaustion to facilitate concussion, until Moore came away from his consciousness, like everybody else Rocky had ever fought.” That’s about how things worked out.

Of all the journalistic renderings of Marciano, it’s hard to top the one written in 1993 by the irreplaceable William Nack, who died earlier this year. Nack’s “The Rock,” which appeared in Sports Illustrated, easily ranks as one of the essential Marciano treatments, and, given that it takes considerably less time to finish than any of the three major bios, you can make a good case that it’s the thing to read on The Rock, if you can read only one thing. Nack was a maestro of the long-form essay, especially the character study, and he’s at the top of his game here. A sample of his musings on Marciano:

Lord only knows what he might be doing today had he somehow survived his endless peregrinations; how many sacks of cash he might have wadded up and squirreled away in his far-flung caches; how big his lending business might have become; or how long he could have avoided arousing the serious curiosity of IRS agents, not only over his out-of-pocket lending business, for which he kept no books or paperwork, but also over his travels around the banquet circuit, where he insisted on payment in cash only. It was a strange, fantastic world he had built for himself, one shaped in considerable part by the obsessive, endless quest for $100 bills, for cash to feed his lending business, for cash to buy his way into multitudes of deals, for cash to toss onto Pasqualena Marchegiano’s dining room table.

It’s been an interesting 12 months or so for writing about the heavyweight champions. In that time, we’ve seen the publication of two books—Stanton’s Unbeaten and Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A Life—that seem destined to be regarded as the authoritative works on their subjects. Both books offer information never before made public, and, in some cases, never before known. This might seem surprising, given how much Marciano and Ali had already been examined. But if I’m justified in calling the heavyweight champions “the Boxing Kings,” then it stands to reason that the history of their reigns and their courts would be large enough to reward ongoing scrutiny—and discovery.