Musings: Rocky Marciano And A Bygone Age

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

ROCKY MARCIANO AND A BYGONE AGE

The late Anthony Athanas, the legendary restaurateur, was a great fight fan. As a
fledgling restaurant operator, based then in New Bedford, he was particularly taken by
Rocky Marciano. Anthony regularly attended Rocky’s fights, held in the early days of his
career in Providence, and was convinced that he was indestructable.

One evening I happened to be at Anthony’s flagship restaurant, Pier Four, on Boston’s
waterfront, in the company of John Tunney, then a United States senator from California,
and – more important to the context of this story – the son of former heavyweight
champion Gene Tunney. Anthony came over to the table to swap boxing stories and he
told of the night in 1952 when he traveled to Philadelphia to see Marciano fight Jersey
Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title. So confident was the young Athanas in the
outcome that he mortgaged his house to place a bet on Marciano. In the first round
Walcott caught Marciano with a vicious left hook, knocking him down for the first time
in his career. Rocky wasn’t the only one who was decked by that punch. When he went
down, so too, envisioning his house and financial future being kayoed, did Anthony
Athanas. In a dead faint.

Rocky quickly bounced back onto his feet and went on to win the crown with a dramatic
thirteenth round knockout. Anthony, too, recovered, collected on his bet, and went on to
his own remarkable career.

The story illustrates what a huge impact boxing had in those days. It was second only to
baseball in popularity, but Ted Williams had to share the celebrity spotlight with Joe
DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Bob Feller. Entertainment, too, had multiple stars who vied
for top honors: Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, and a cast of thousands. But
there was only one heavyweight champion of the world, and everyone knew who he was.
Rocco Marchegiano (his name before it was changed) from Brook Street in the Ward
Two section of Bockton, Massachusetts, was the number one celebrity in the world.

That’s not an exaggeration. It seems hard to believe in today’s society, but such was the
case back then. In 1953, President Eisenhower hosted a luncheon at the White House for
forty-three notable American sports figures. It was not Jesse Owens, or Tris Speaker, or
even the great DiMaggio over whom the president fawned; it was Marciano, the Champ.

In a compelling book, “Unbeaten,” in which he documents Rocky’s rise to superstardom
in the sleazy world of professional boxing, author Mike Stanton takes us back to that
bygone era of glory and corruption.

There are two main reasons for boxing’s fall from its pinnacle of popularity. The first is
that it was controlled by the Mob, and everyone knew it. Fights were fixed and all kinds
of skulduggery, none of it good and most all of it illegal, was going on. Marciano, while
he was never involved in a fixed fight, detested having to deal with the low-lifes,
including his own manager, who controlled the sport. Jimmy Cannon, the great New
York columnist, memorably called the fight game “the red light district of sports.”

The other reason for boxing’s decline is its violent nature. It’s not the manly art of self-
defense; it’s the cold, merciless business of beating the bejabbers out of the other guy.
We’ve always known about punch-drunk old fighters who hung around too long, but we
managed to put it out of our minds while thrilling to the sight of two well-conditioned
combatants doling out – and absorbing – tremendous beatings. Nowadays CTE (chronic
traumatic encephalopathy), a form of brain damage first discovered in National Football
League players but also prevalent among boxers, has raised our awareness of the dangers
of boxing.

The only one around Rocky who objected to his chosen profession was his mother; she
never saw him fight, preferring instead to go to Brockton’s St. Patrick’s Church, lighting
candles and praying for him as well as for whomever his opponent happened to be. The
time he really could have used her prayers was after he retired when he seemed to lose
his way in life.

His plodding style as a boxer, willing to take two, three, four, or more punches in order to
land one of the haymakers for which he was justly famous, guaranteed that he’d absorb
tremendous punishment, especially as the quality of his opponents improved.

We’ll never know if Rocky suffered from CTE because he died forty-nine years ago in a
plane crash. He certainly never showed any signs of being punch-drunk; but he also
became extremely eccentric, which can also be a symptom of that form of brain damage.
He became distrustful of banks and demanded that he be paid up front in cash for his
personal appearances, which he roamed the country making in a nomadic lifestyle.
He kept his money in paper bags that he stashed in all manner of places – pipes, toilet
bowl tanks, buried God-knows-where. He kept no formal records, so when he died his
family was left with nothing rather than a substantial inheritance.

“Unbeaten” is in many ways a cautionary tale, but there still is the unmistakeable aura of
the heavyweight championship of the world and what it was like just to be in its glow in
those days. An old colleague of mine from WBZ in Boston, Harry Savas, grew up in
Brockton. He was just a kid when Marciano won the title, and he told me once of the day
Rocky returned to his home town for the first time as champion. The streets were mobbed
with twice as many people as who lived in Brockton and Harry, then a little kid,
reminisced about chasing after the open convertible in which Rocky rode. As he told the
story, Harry’s eyes lit up in excitement at the memory of it.

Where was it, I wondered, that I had seen that expression on someone’s face before?
Then it struck me. That was the way Anthony Athanas’ eyes lit up when he told Gene
Tunney’s son about the night Rocky Marciano won the heavyweight championship of the
world.