Book review by John J. Raspanti
“His whole life was a million to one shot.”
That line, from the iconic film, Rocky, could describe the life of Rocky Marciano, the undefeated former heavyweight champion of the world.
As Mike Stanton writes in his fabulous new biography on Marciano, Unbeaten, despite the odds, Marciano refused to lose. He overcame short arms, injuries, doubt, a scheming manager, and dirty promoters, to win the heavyweight championship of the world in 1952, when he nearly decapitated Jersey Joe Walcott with a perfectly-placed right hand.
The son of Italian immigrants, Rocky Marchegiano (his last name was changed to Marciano in 1948) grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts. His extraordinary rise somewhat parallels another icon of the 1950s, Elvis Presley.
Both were poor and hated school. Their futures looked bleak. Presley had a voice, while Marciano had a punch. Presley discovered his talented early, while Marciano dreamed of being a professional baseball player.
When that hope failed, he appeared destined to dig ditches or work alongside his father at a shoe factory in Brockton. Marciano, though, could always fight, even though he didn’t take it seriously. It was part of what one did growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Brockton. But he quickly figured out that he could make a lot more money fighting than digging.
In his early 20s, after a short and dishonorable stint in the Army (he was ultimately honarably discharged in 1946), Marciano entered the ring for the first time. He was clumsy and hit air more than his opponent, but his power made boxing fans sit up and take notice. The wins started to pile up. He was determined and could take it and be ferocious to boot.
A few years later he’d reached New York and hooked up with well-known manager, Al Weill, and acclaimed trainer, Charlie Goldman. Marciano couldn’t stand the grandstanding, and dishonest, Weill, but he loved working with Goldman.
The diminutive former fighter knew he had his work cut out for him.
As Stanton writes, “That first day, Goldman had Rocky work out on the heavy bag. He didn’t even know how to face the bag. His feet were wide apart, his head too high, and his arms wide apart.”
Goldman said later, “I’ll eat my hat if I ever saw anyone cruder than Rocky. But he had something, a strong right arm, I could see.”
In 1949, Marciano faced fellow unbeaten heavyweight Carmine Vingo. That “strong right arm” almost killed the 20-year-old Vingo. Marciano was a killer in the ring and the fans loved it. Outside of it, he was modest and soft-spoken.
Two years later, Marciano faced his idol, Joe Louis, who had returned to the ring due to serious problems with the IRS. After knocking out Louis, Marciano cried in his dressing room. He apologized to the former champion.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” said Louis. “You licked me fair and square.”
Marciano captured the heavyweight title eleven months later by outlasting Walcott. Ignoring temporary blindness (courtesy of a substance in Walcott’s gloves), a knockdown, and his own blood, Marciano knocked out Walcott in the thirteenth round.
He defended his title six more times, shocking the boxing world by announcing his retirement a few months after knocking out light heavyweight king, Archie Moore. Marciano was 49-0 when he decided to hang up his gloves. He had lost his edge and couldn’t handle the thought of losing. He was also tired of the influence the Mafia had over the fight game.
As Stanton writes, he was also concerned about the effects his career was having on his family.
Later that night, in his suite at the Concourse Plaza Hotel near Yankee Stadium, the champion was more subdued. He hadn’t called his mother yet, as he did after he fought. He sat in the kitchen, resting his head in his hand, when his father walked in.
Pierino was always great at making Rocky feel good after his wins, but tonight he was restless. His face was tired and he looked pale.
“Pop, what’s the matter with you? Rocky asked. “You look worried.”
“I’m all right,” he said. “I’m all right now.”
Retirement was difficult for the 32-year-old Marciano. He adopted a gypsy life, traveling endlessly and selling his name. He made a ton of money, loaned it to friends, and lost a bundle. He also hid thousands of dollars—money that after he died in 1969, his family was never found.
Mr. Stanton’s prose flows beautifully throughout the book. He’s blunt and to the point but he’s fair as well, giving the reader a warts and all look at Marciano. A few minor errors are easily ignored.
Unbeaten is the third, and unquestioningly the best, biography I’ve read on Marciano.
Mr. Stanton deserves credit for bringing a legend back to life.