Beloved heavyweight boxing champion went undefeated during his entire pro career
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
As the adage states, never judge a book by its cover; something that is well applied to Rocky Marciano. He was not the biggest fighter in the heavyweight division. According to an ESPN article about Marciano, he was only five-foot-ten and a half inches tall and weighed 183 to 189 pounds. Marciano also had the shortest reach of any heavyweight champion at 68 inches. But he did not let that impede him in the ring. And when Marciano’s punches did reach an opponents’ face or chin, they packed power and devastation. Marciano could also take a punch, making him even more ferocious and unrelenting. He would only stop after he knocked you out.
This year marks 70 years since Rocky Marciano captured the heavyweight title, defeating Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th round. The fight occurred at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia on September 23, 1952. In the first round, Walcott knocked Marciano down with a left hook. But Marciano got back up and continued to fight. He was losing by points and needed a knockout to win. In the 13th round, Marciano landed a hard right punch to Walcott’s chin, who staggered into the ropes; Marciano followed and delivered another left-hand punch, dropping Walcott to his knees. Walcott slumped with his head pressed to the canvas as the referee finished his 10-second count; Marciano was crowned the new heavyweight champion. Notably, Marciano would be the only heavyweight champion in boxing history to go undefeated during his entire career. In 49 fights, Marciano had 49 victories, with 43 by knockout.
Michael Carbert, in an article he wrote for thefightcity.com in September 2021, stated that Marciano knocking out Jersey Joe Walcott was a significant moment for boxing in the early 1950s: “That short, vicious right hand would prove to be one of the most consequential punches ever thrown in a prize ring. A single blow not only erased Walcott’s lead on the scorecards but also marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the heavyweight championship and the end of Jersey Joe’s Cinderella career.”
According to biographies about Rocky Marciano on rockymarciano.net and biography.com, he was born Rocco Francis Marchegiano on September 1, 1923, in Brockton, Massachusetts. His parents were Italian immigrants, father Pierino and mother Pasqualina. Marciano was the eldest of six children. Pierino worked at a shoe factory as the family lived in poverty. Marciano aspired to become a professional baseball player. But those dreams ended after he was cut after a tryout with the Chicago Cubs’ farm team in North Carolina in 1947. Boxing now was the more attainable goal for Marciano as he learned how to box while in the US Army during World War II. His first professional fight was on March 17, 1947.
Marciano’s unorthodox style of fighting would attract critics, including Goody Petronelli, a noted fight trainer, who questioned Marciano’s ability to be a legitimate boxer in the ring. Petronelli saw one of Marciano’s early fights and told Sports Illustrated, “I never thought he’d make it. He was too old, almost 25. He was too short, he was too light. He had no reach. Rough and tough, but no finesse.” According to Marciano’s official website, a turning point occurred after Marciano began training with Charley Goldman, who “taught Marciano his trademark technique, which would serve him well as champion.”
Marciano would be known for his durability and being able to counter with damaging combinations. If an opponent were not ready to battle against Marciano, it would be a short fight. Marciano would have victories by knockout over Rex Layne, Joe Louis, Lee Savold and Harry (Kid) Matthews. He then got the opportunity to fight Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title. According to a profile of Marciano on biography.com, he successfully defended his heavyweight title on six occasions; winning five by knockout: “His last title fight was against Archie Moore, on September 21, 1955, where he knocked out Moore in the ninth round. Marciano announced his retirement on April 27, 1956.”
After boxing, Marciano made money by making numerous personal appearances. He also hosted a boxing television show, as well as being a boxing commentator in boxing matches for many years. Tragically, he would be killed in a private plane crash near Des Moines, Iowa on August 31, 1969—one day before his 46th birthday. Marciano was survived by his wife of 19 years, Barbara (who passed away in 1974 at age 46) and their two children: Rocco Kevin and Mary Anne (who passed away in 2011 at age 58).
Boxing historian, Bert Sugar, once described Marciano’s right-hand punch as “the most devastating weapon ever brought into the ring.” Mike Silver, another boxing historian, stated what made Marciano such a great boxer was his endurance and willingness to not give up: “The key to Marciano’s success is that he never gave up. Rocky never [quit]. He had the physical and mental attributes of a great fighter: [tremendous] heart; tremendous durability; knockout power and the belief that he could not be defeated.”
Lastly, Rocky Marciano left behind a legacy that has both fans and critics. Fans appreciated Marciano’s humble beginnings; a rags-to-riches story before becoming heavyweight champion. Others have questioned the legitimacy of Marciano’s undefeated record of 49-0, that he fought boxers who were aging and past their primes like Jersey Joe Walcott, Joe Louis and Archie Moore. Nonetheless, there is no doubt from 1952 to 1956, Marciano was the best heavyweight champion fighter of his era. And Marciano’s official website perfectly summarizes his legacy: “Although he may not rank in the top five boxers of all time in terms of skill, speed or power, Rocky Marciano was tough enough to compensate, and his fans recognized his grit. A [sportswriter] commented that if all the heavyweight champions of all time were locked together in a room, Marciano would be the one to walk out.”