Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times
by Russell Sullivan
University of Illinois Press / 368 pages / $34.95.
Though he remains the only man to retire as heavyweight champion with a perfect record (49-0), Rocky Marciano’s memory today is largely confined to the walls of Italian restaurants and pastry shops. Russell Sullivan’s new biography sets out to remedy this state of affairs, and in the process place Marciano in the context of his era — the 1950s, long maligned as a Dark Age of American conformity.
Born Rocco Marchegiano to an Italian immigrant who worked in the shoe factories of Brockton, Massachusetts, Marciano embodied the immigrant ethos of self-betterment that was at the heart of the American Dream. Determined to avoid the blue-collar life of his father — “He never made any money and he never had any fun,” the son lamented — Marciano sought escape in sports, first in baseball and finally in boxing. He became a professional at the late age of 24, but after establishing a crucial connection with influential manager Al Weill, he made a steady if unspectacular progress to the top of the heavyweight division.
Along the way, he became a symbol of what the author describes as the Age of Simplicity — an era when virtues like hard work, patriotism, family, and obedience were held up as the cultural ideal. Sullivan’s thesis is that Marciano came to represent these virtues for millions of Americans in the tense early years of the Cold War.
Sullivan then offers a predictable addendum — that Marciano was a more complicated man than he was made out to be, and that he did not always live up to these ideals. For example, he was not as devoted to his wife and children as his popular image suggested. He craved the fast life that his new wealth afforded him, and he became an avid womanizer after his boxing career ended. Of course, the Fifties themselves were far more complex than their popular image, and Sullivan sometimes forgets this with sweeping generalizations that descend into caricature: “Fifties Man was not only loyal but also had healthy respect for authority.… He followed orders and toed the line.” But the author makes good use of articles from the sports press and popular magazines, creating a vivid picture of the changing social landscape of Marciano’s championship years, 1952-1956.
Those changes included improving racial perceptions and the assimilation of white ethnic groups into the American social fabric, developments accelerated by World War II. While Marciano was often viewed as the latest in a long line of boxing’s Great White Hopes, he arrived on the scene after Joe Louis, who had won much goodwill from whites. As a result, many whites rooted for Louis when he fought Marciano in 1951. White fans were beginning, slowly, to look past race. Likewise, references in the press to Marciano’s ethnicity diminished throughout his career, a sure sign that the fighter was being viewed less as an Italian and more as an American. Marciano, then, stood as something of a unifying figure in America’s last “quiet” period, when an uneasy tranquillity masked the great social conflicts to come.
As a fighter, Marciano struggled with a short reach and an awkward style often described as crude. But he compensated for his limitations with an unbreakable will, a fanatical training regimen, and the greatest equalizer of all — lethal punching power. “Crude? Maybe so,” commented one sportswriter. “But the atom bomb that hit Hiroshima was relatively crude, too.”
Sullivan’s frank assessment of Marciano’s weaknesses makes the accounts of his triumphs all the more compelling. The author crafts detailed narratives of Marciano’s battles with Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Archie Moore. The effect on the reader is a renewed appreciation for Marciano’s often-disputed greatness. Sullivan mounts a cogent closing argument for Marciano’s stature at the end of the book, ranking him with Louis and Muhammad Ali in the first tier of heavyweight champions. This judgment, not as widely held as it once was, is surely justified.
Marciano was an intensely private man, and the record of his inner thoughts is scarce. Consequently, Sullivan’s depictions of many key boxing figures of the period, and especially of Marciano’s opponents, are much richer than what he provides on Marciano himself. In just a few pages, Sullivan manages mini-biographies of the fighter’s most famous adversaries, describing not just their boxing careers but their psyches with a depth that he never quite manages for his subject. His chapter on Ezzard Charles is especially poignant, some of the best work that has been done on that forgotten champion.
Sullivan’s main insight into Marciano is that he was motivated to succeed by fear of obscurity and determination to avoid the fate of his father. Beyond that, the author is reduced to speculation, though he clearly left no stone unturned.
Sullivan’s writing is sometimes repetitive, and he lingers longer than necessary in making points that are fairly straightforward. Nevertheless, Rocky Marciano is candid and superbly researched, and should become the standard biography of a champion once known far and wide.