Rocky Marciano, a favorite of working-class boxing fans in the 1950s, inspired the fictional Rocky Balboa in the films from 1976 to 2015.
Like Rocky Balboa, Rocky Marciano had a sweet, unassuming temperament. Like Rocky Balboa, Rocky Marciano lived clean, worked hard and punched like a jackhammer.
Like Rocky Balboa, Rocky Marciano adopted an unusual training regimen that gave him more stamina than anyone in boxing. He ran uphill at full speed, then back down backward. He went shoulder deep in a swimming pool and threw punches for 45 minutes. He jogged 6-7 miles every day, including Christmas.
Most of all, he had heart.
Rocky Marciano refused to believe he couldn’t win all the time, according to his biographer Emanuela Audisio. “There are some who never give up,” he wrote. [They] “always win: with a broken nose, with closed eye, a blood-red mouth. Rocky was like this. Rough, wild, graceless.
Unlike Rocky Balboa, Rocky Marciano came from Brockton, Mass.
He was born Rocco Francis Marchegiano on Sept. 1, 1923, the oldest son of six children of Italian immigrants. He played baseball and football in high school, but dropped out before graduation. He went to work with his father in a Brockton shoe factory.
The U.S. Army drafted him in 1943 during World War II and sent him overseas. He realized his potential as a boxer after he decked an Australian during a brawl in a Welsh pub. While finishing out his service in Fort Lewis, Wash., he won the 1946 amateur armed forces boxing tournament.
After his discharge he fought on the amateur circuit. Critics said he had a clumsy technique. He took punch after punch while waiting for a chance to deliver a punishing blow. (To see a highlights video of Marciano’s career, click here.)
In 1947, he and a group of friends went to Fayetteville, N.C., to try out for a Chicago Cubs farm team. The team cut him after three weeks, and he devoted the rest of his athletic career to professional boxing.
When a ring announcer in Providence, R.I., couldn’t pronounce ‘Marchegiano,’ he changed it to Marciano.
He beat Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title on September 23, 1952 in Philadelphia, becoming the Great White Hope in an age when African-Americans won nearly all the championships. Some say Rocky Marciano was popular simply because he was white.
Rocky Marciano, though, was no racist. He idolized Joe Louis, who he knocked out on Oct. 26, 1951 at Madison Square Garden. After the old fighter retired, Rocky Marciano helped him out financially.
He reigned as champion from that day in 1952 to April 27, 1956.
Secret of Success
Though Rocky Marciano was always an underdog, he was the only heavyweight champion to finish his career with no defeats. Forty-three of his 49 wins were knockouts.
He won because he trained himself into a physical condition that gave him more stamina and energy than his opponent. He walked 75 blocks from his room to the gym, drank very little and carried a jar of honey in his pocket to sweeten his coffee.
He always ate vegetables and chewed but never swallowed steak, spitting it into a bowl. He exercised his eyes with a pendulum over his bed. For one fight, he trained 250 rounds – far more than his competitors.
Up to three months before a fight, Rocky Marciano secluded himself from his wife and family. A week before a fight he refused to look at mail, take a phone call, meet new people, shake hands or go for a car ride.
“He just had more stamina than anyone in those days,” said fellow boxer Archie Moore. “He was like a bull with gloves.”
After he retired, he fixated on making money. He was terrified of dying broke, and traveled the country making personal appearances and investing in business deals – restaurants, farms, a bowling alley. He relentlessly sought and saved cash. He also became a womanizer.
On Aug. 31, 1969, the eve of his 46th birthday, Rocky Marciano died in a small plane crash in Newton, Iowa.
Images: Rocky Marciano, three-quarters: By Mohamed Said Momo - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49230741; Rocky Marciano, head shot: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16565141. This story was updated in 2018.