UConn Professor Chronicles Rocky Marciano's Rise Set Against Boxing's Murky Underworld
Rocky Marciano’s rise through the heavyweight boxing ranks included a stop in Hartford, where he dispatched one of the countless “stumblebums” and “ham-donnies” used to beef up his record before the big stage beckoned.
Those terms, culled from the colorful sportswriting parlance of the bygone era Marciano dominated, breathe life into Mike Stanton’s new biography “Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World.”
“They were great, caustic writers,” Stanton said of the scribes who chronicled Marciano’s chase for a championship that once held a place in the culture akin to the presidency. “They really were very cynical and hard-bitten and jaded. It was that film-noir [style]. I pictured this book like I was writing it in black and white.”
Released on June 26, Stanton’s book transports readers to a time when boxing’s popularity surged among the bloodthirsty masses and Marciano, the stout slugger with the mythically potent right hand, was appointment viewing at the onset of televised sports in America.
A hero of New England’s hardscrabble manufacturing hubs and burgeoning Italian-American population, the Brockton, Mass., native won all 49 of his professional bouts to retire as heavyweight champion in 1956. But Marciano’s legacy isn’t without its question marks, the result of the mafia’s meddlesome grip on “the fight game.”
Stanton, a Windsor Locks native and an associate professor of journalism at UConn whose investigative reporting helped bring a Pulitizer Prize to the Providence Journal in 1994, spent four years researching the project, a self-described “offshoot” of his bestselling debut “The Prince of Providence: The True Story of Buddy Cianci, America's Most Notorious Mayor, Some Wiseguys, and the Feds."
A young Cianci attended Marciano’s fights in Providence, as did Stanton’s late father, Earl, whose autographed poster of Marciano was among his most cherished possessions. This inspired the author to scour archival press clippings, some from the pages of The Courant; track down dozens of living relatives and associates; and pore over transcripts of the many interviews the soft-spoken Marciano gave before dying in a plane crash on Aug. 31, 1969, one day shy of his 46th birthday.
“I feel a real connection to my dad, to that greatest generation, to that era in America in the middle of the 20th century when the country was really changing,” Stanton said. “Boxing and ‘I Love Lucy’ were the two things that sold TV sets when Americans, right after World War II, started to buy TVs. And mobsters follow the money.”
A crowd of 1,010 paid a total of $1,581.75 to get a glimpse of Marciano at the Hartford Auditorium on March 20, 1951, and, with his right hand still recuperating from an injury, he delivered a second-round knockout of the winless journeyman Harold “Kid” Mitchell by pounding away with his left.
Within 18 months, Marciano — born Rocco Marchegiano, the oldest of six children in a household that scraped by on shoe factory earnings — was beating Jersey Joe Walcott for the title in Philadelphia, the culmination of a carefully charted path devised by mob-tied manager Al Weill.
Stanton recreates that fight and many others with vivid and often gruesome detail. “Walcott’s head swiveled grotesquely, his face distorted like a gruesome rubber mask folded in on itself,” he writes of the deciding blow. But the author clearly revels just as much in intricately capturing the chicanery outside the ropes that continues to mar the sport’s reputation to this day.
The cast of memorable characters in Stanton’s book is as long as Marciano’s list of victims. It’s easy to see why the champ’s diminutive, cigar-chomping trainer Charley Goldman would influence the Mickey character in the “Rocky” movie franchise.
Like the fictional Rocky Balboa, Marciano’s lack of refined boxing ability often left him battered. But no one better embodied the proverbial “puncher’s chance” than the Brockton Blockbuster, whose signature punch — dubbed “Suzie Q” by Goldman — was the ultimate equalizer.
“I got a fighter who’s stoop-shouldered and balding and has two left feet,” Goldman once said. “He don’t look so good with the moves, but his opponents don’t look so good with their backs on the canvas.”
Connecticut is the backdrop for another one of the book’s enduring anecdotes. Traveling near Danbury on the night their brother captured the heavyweight crown, two of Marciano’s sisters were stopped by state troopers who were searching for a pair of escapees from the nearby women’s prison.
They had quite a piece of evidence to prove their alibi: in the trunk of their car was one of Marciano’s gloves, still sticky with blood, a memento with which he’d entrusted his sisters. The troopers asked them to come back to the station and pose for photos.
At that point, Marciano was an icon, and the public fascination exhibited by those officers would foreshadow his tragic final chapter. Wistful in retirement — about a family he let slip through his grasp, about the competitive high no hobby could replace — the former heavyweight champ wandered the country, cashing in on his fame.
Marciano was rough around the edges in his youth, earning an Army court martial for robbery and assault that Stanton unearthed while sifting through a Sports Illustrated reporter’s notes. But he was fiercely loyal to his friends and his boxing brethren, forging a barrier-busting bond with Muhammad Ali.
His record, though perfect in the wins and losses sense, may not be quite as revered as others. But his place among boxing’s great heavyweights is unquestioned, especially in the modest New England neighborhoods where he was worshipped alongside Ted Williams and Bill Russell.
“[What drew me into the story] is kind of that primal urge to survive and excel and make something of yourself in this world that’s increasingly changing, becoming more industrialized,” Stanton said. “Here you are an immigrant’s son, in the ring, not a lot of other marketable skills, and this is your way to succeed and assimilate. And so that’s why I think his story is really remarkable.”
Stanton will be discussing the book and signing copies at Bank Square Books in Mystic on July 18 at 6:30 p.m.