Redemption: The Life & Death of Rocky Marciano By John Cameron (Aug 4, 2010) Doghouse Boxing
The following is an excerpt from, Redemption: The Life & Death of Rocky Marciano, a biography being composed by John Cameron, this chapter deals with the then Rocco Marchegiano’s first steps into an brief but spectacular amateur career in late ‘47 through early 1948, which would lead directly to Marciano turning professional and later becoming the only undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. It did not begin so smoothly for the man who would be king however for previous to this part of his life he had spent the year since leaving the army in December ‘46 (where he had first began to fight on a regular basis) chasing his dream of baseball glory
, yet this dream had died with the realization that the man who would stop forty-three of his forty-nine opponents lacked power in his throwing arm, thus as 1947 drew to a close options were swiftly running out for the former labourer, he wanted to find a way out of the drudgery of the factories and shovel brigade, he had, it seemed, only one last shot, and he took it:
“I told him what a waste it would be if he never fought again, and if he didn’t how he’d regret it for the rest of his life.”
For Rocco the failure to secure a place in the world of his dreams would come as a traumatic blow. “I was running out of options and I knew it,” he would confide, “After the Epperson bout I had turned my back on boxing, and now baseball had turned its back on me. I was so sure I was going to be a baseball star, I just hated going back home.”
Despite his conversation with Gormely on that dejected journey home he was merely suggesting something of which he had lost heart, therefore now there seemed only one viable avenue left; football. In the 1950’s this sport was still in its relative infancy in terms both of professionalism, and fan support, sure the amateur leagues were thriving, but the paid ranks were still struggling to catch the attention of a nation, it would be another two decades before the emergence of the Super bowl which would cement the games popularity placing it second only to baseball in the heart of American’s. Still, it paid better than those menial ‘blue collar’ jobs which seemed to await him.
Thus for the remainder of the year this prospective sporting star would devote himself to the sandlot games that were regularly held in the Brockton parks. Although playing as an amateur he would receive a small allowance for his participation, yet as Barbara recalled, “He was a good tackler, but boy was he slow, Rocky was built for power not speed. Deep down I think he knew this wasn’t going to lead him anywhere but he kept plugging away just in case.”
All this while, the now no longer youthful Marchegiano trained assiduously at his local Y.M.C.A. He was determined to get into the best possible condition he could in order to be ready should that call ever come from a scout for one of the big teams desperate to find themselves a star, it had happened regardless of how tenuously, in baseball, why not in football too; to this end he had given up smoking, a residue from his service days, and begun to again work out aerobically yet recalling the advice of earlier he would still refrain from lifting weights, yet perhaps his most unique, some would say bizarre, form of exercise was his penchant for practicing moves underwater, first in the form of lunging tackles for his abortive football career, and later adapting this technique to the throwing of punches. Charley Goldman, later to become the then Marciano’s trainer would explain this practice to an incredulous New York reporter in 1950, “Rocky he just dives right into a pool (sometimes even from the second floor window!) and practices punchin’ underwater until he has to come up for air. He says punchin’ underwater develops the muscles of his back because he has to punch without getting’ set on his feet in the water.
“What’s wrong about that. I’ve known guys who developed punch by throwin’ rocks at rabbits, or shoein’ horses, or working in a boiler factory.”
Back in 1947 however when the idea of reporters converging to watch him train was still a fantasy, he would devote his weekends to football thus forgoing the luxury of time spent with Barbara. “She was very understanding,” Rocky would say looking back. “Even then she understood what was needed to succeed.” All the while, unbeknown to Rocco he was being watched, but not by a studious scout for a pro football team, but by his friend, Allie Colombo, who still held the promises made the year before regarding him and his buddy making it big in boxing close to his heart.
“I would watch him play in O’Donnell Park,” recalled Colombo, who now had been released from his Air force duties and struggling to find a path for himself in civilian life (there was a rumour that he had put an end to a promising military career himself for as Marciano recalled in 1969, “He (Colombo) already had been in the army eight years and he was going to make a career out of it. He saw me fight one night. Everybody was laughing at me because I was awkward and crude. But Allie didn‘t.” Rocky then continued to describe how his friend walked away from his service to his country and ploughed his savings of just under two-thousand dollars into helping launch Marciano‘s boxing career. “He gave up his security because he believed in me. He never told anybody.” If this is true it was one hell of a sacrifice on Colombo’s part for at this stage Rocco really had no intentions of turning professional, let alone becoming a champion).
“I still get chills up and down my spine just thinking about how he was wasting his life playing ball,” continued Allie. “Everything he had done as a kid-the fight with Julie Durham, the time he was eight and I put him in the ring with a twelve-year-old kid, five inches taller and thirty pounds heavier, in my Uncles backyard…I just knew he had to be a champion.”
Thus he chased him, chased him as hard and relentlessly as Rocco chased down opposing players on the field. There were many reasons why he pursued him so, but the first and biggest was concern for his friend, “I watched him go from being a kid full of ambition to a young man who seemed almost drained, this football thing was him clutching at straws, I knew it and he knew it, but he wasn’t listening to me, so finally I approached his mom and pop, they were the only ones he ever truly trusted.”
Eventually his father would heed Allie’s advice and speak to his eldest son. “He was no’ happy, I could see that, so I take him and I tell him, ‘Rocco you a big strong boy, you go fight, you go be somebody’. He was worried about what his momma say, but I say, ‘I speak to her, I the man of this house, she do what I say’.” Finally his “momma” acquiesced, but on the condition that at the first injury he would quit the ring. “I used to have to bare my chest to see that there were no bruises,” said Rocky to author Harold Mayes. “When she saw (a) rope-burn I was very close to having to call the whole thing off.” Also, under no-circumstances ever expect her to come to any of his fights.
“The Rock was like new man,” said Allie. “He actually came to me and asked me to help him train; he was full of enthusiasm about it all. I think the main reason he turned away from boxing was because of his mom, he never liked hiding the fact he fought away from her, but when she said okay, it was on.”
At first Allie knew his limitations, he was fully aware that in order to move Marchegiano into the professional sphere of boxing he was going to need assistance, with this in mind he at first considered approaching his old friend Richard (Dick) O’Connell in Holyoke, but Rocco balked at this suggestion, “Forget it, I don’t want anything to do with that bum.” He still felt sore at the fiasco of the Epperson match and believed, rightly or wrongly, that due to O’Connor being instrumental in setting up the bout that he was therefore one of the main instigators for the ensuing calumny. It would be the sign of a trait which would follow the then Marchegiano through-out his adult life, he would hold a grudge if he felt someone had steered him wrong, as Eugene Sylvester was quoted as saying after his friend had retired over a decade later. “If the Rock liked you, if you were his friend, you had it made, but if you crossed him, forget it, he was unmerciful.” Rocco however already had someone in mind; re-enter Generosa “Gene” Caggiano.
Caggiano, who had promoted the Lester debacle the previous year, had himself been a professional fighter in his youth, though by no means old when Rocco approached him he was a mere thirty-six, yet the pinnacle of his career had allegedly come when he had fought eight rounds with a young Henry Armstrong who would go on to be the only pugilist to hold three world titles simultaneously. His glory days behind him now he had retained his connection with boxing through training and managing amateurs, occasionally promoting shows both in Brockton and near-by Buzzards Bay, none of these ventures had made him wealthy for at this stage in his life he was employed as a mechanic by the local Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company.
At first suggestion of managing Rocco however, Gene was apprehensive about taking this, as he saw it, raw novice under his wing. “I was aware of him, but only through his loss to Lester,” he recalled. “And when I was told he had already fought as a pro I became even more nervous about the entire affair, but in the end I thought, ‘What the hell have I got to lose?’ ”
Later it would emerge that this was not the first time Rocco had approached him about resuming a boxing career, he had in fact first made advancements towards Gene in January of that year, but due in no part to his still mending hand this idea was quickly abandoned.
To Allie, who one presumes was unaware of this earlier contact, it appeared that a minor stroke of fortuity had arisen which would see all three Brocktonians together rise to great heights, Caggiano as manager, Colombo as trainer, and Rocco as champion. This association seemed a natural, thus, for now at least, the future seemed bright for the first time since early spring, the Marchegiano roller-coaster moved on.
Between late October and early January the driving forces behind Rocco’s fighting career would guide their boy through at least seven successful bouts. “Kind of bootleg boxing,” as Rocco would reflect, for although these bouts were technically amateur he did receive a purse for each outing to the grand sum of thirty-dollars. Yet Caggiano, who would be offered a choice of four prospective opponents for each battle, would admit that during this early phase of Rocco’s amateur showings he held an unusual uncertainty as to his charges ability, he would confide that he was, “…nervous about over-matching the kid, each time he fought I thought I had put him in over his head.”
He seemed to be justified in this regard when, on January 4th, 1948, his fighter found himself in Boston where he was competing in the All-Amateur Massachusetts heavyweight championship, a stepping stone into the regional Golden Gloves to be held the following week in Lowell.
In the first round Marchegiano overcame a game but outgunned Jim Connolly with-in the first three minutes, yet in the second and final heat that evening he would find himself on the receiving end of defeat, his conqueror was a hulking tannery worker from Lynn on Massachusetts North Shore, who also happened to be defending the title he had won the previous year.
Bob Girard wasn’t only big, he was also smart, with fast pulverizing hands, however his one draw back was the very brittleness of those fists, if he failed to connect properly he would, in his own words, “…feel the pain right down to my toes…” leading him to box on the offensive when this occurred, costing him victory over several less-than-worthy opponents.
“How do you think I beat Rocky, I beat him because it was three rounds,” said Girard in a magnanimous gesture towards the man he had defeated. “There were a hundred guys who might have stayed three rounds with the Rock. But no man in the world was gonna beat Rocky in fifteen rounds; not Dempsey, not Ali, not anybody…Every time he hit you, you saw a flash of light. You either grabbed him or you moved back, because if he hit you twice you’re gone."