- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The heavyweight champion of the world stared out at the media assembled for his press conference and, in effect, uttered two words that never entered his mind in the ring.

“I quit,” Rocky Marciano said.

The date was April 27, 1956, and he was only 32 years old. But boxing is an ugly, brutal, often dishonest sport, and the Brockton Blockbuster — so nicknamed after his hometown in Massachusetts — was tired of it.

“I am comfortably fixed, and I am not afraid of the future,” Marciano said. “No man can say what he will do in the future, but barring poverty the ring has seen the last of me.”

And he meant it. When Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali came along to rule the heavyweight division over the next decade, Rocky could have made enormous sums for that era by returning. No way. And when he died in an Iowa plane crash on Aug. 31, 1969, his record in the ring (49-0) and his integrity remained unsullied.

Too many boxing icons have attempted comebacks or hung on long after they should have exchanged left hooks and right crosses for pipe and slippers. Think of Jim Jeffries, beaten to a pulp by Jack Johnson when he re-emerged as “The Great White Hope” in 1910. Think of Sugar Ray Robinson, losing to opponents he once could have thrashed blindfolded. Think of Ali, reduced to a pitiable figure in a painful loss to Larry Holmes.

Most of all, think of Joe Louis, once seemingly indestructible. After 25 successful title defenses, he retired in 1949 only to put on the gloves again a year later because he owed millions in back taxes. In a bout that gained Marciano national attention, he belted the old, fat and bald Louis hither, thither and yon in the fall of 1951 before winning on a TKO in the eighth round.

Louis had been Marciano’s idol, and the younger man wept as he visited Joe in the latter’s dressing room. Perhaps the memory of Louis sprawled helplessly on the ring apron while he was counted out loomed large in Rocky’s mind as he mulled his own retirement.

Fifty years later, Marciano remains the only heavyweight champ to retire undefeated. Gene Tunney and Lennox Lewis said so long with one loss apiece, but by the time Lewis yielded his WBC title in 2004, boxing was a dying sport that no longer captivated anybody except possibly Don King.

Like many jocks before and after, Marciano used his family as an excuse for retiring.

“My lonesome family convinced me I should quit while I’m still in good shape,” he said. “I didn’t get hurt physically while fighting.”

Which seems remarkable because Marciano was what used to be called a “Pier Six brawler,” meaning an inelegant fighter who would take three or four punches to land one. But he had an iron jaw and more than his share of “heart,” the intangible quality that allows a man to survive and thrive while others are attempting to separate him from his senses.

Surprisingly to those who never saw him fight, Marciano was a small (5-foot-10, 185-pound) heavyweight who seriously considered a boxing career only after failing a Chicago Cubs tryout as a catcher because of a weak arm. And when famed trainer Charley Goldman first began working with Rocky, he told an aide, “I got a guy who’s short, stoop-shouldered, balding and has two left feet. But God, how he can punch.”

So he could. Legendary sportswriter Red Smith described him this way in the New York Herald Tribune: “Rocky couldn’t box like Tunney and probably couldn’t hit like Louis … [but] he was the toughest, strongest, most completely dedicated fighter who ever wore gloves.”

After turning pro in 1947 — as Rocco Marchegiano, his birth name — Rocky won his first 37 fights, mostly by knockouts, before meeting Louis. That victory plus others over fellow contenders Rex Layne, Lee Savold and Harry Matthews finally earned him a title shot against 38-year-old champion Jersey Joe Walcott at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium in September 1952.

Though Marciano was favored, the tough and resourceful Walcott was no pushover. Jersey Joe knocked Rocky down in the first round, later cut him between the eyes and on the forehead and seemed in complete control through 12 rounds.

Time for Suzie Q, Marciano’s pet name for his devastating short right hand. After he applied it flush to Walcott’s chin in the 13th round, Jersey Joe sank to one knee with his left arm hooked around the middle rope and his head resting on the canvas. A few seconds later, the gallant old warrior was an ex-champion.

“I didn’t want to lose the title, but if I had to lose it, I’m glad it was to you,” Walcott told Marciano afterward. “You’re a good fighter, and you’re gonna be a great champ.”

In the rematch eight months later, Marciano knocked out Walcott in the first round, then KO’d Roland LaStarza and outpointed former champion Ezzard Charles. But his closest call in the ring came in a second fight with Charles on Sept.17, 1954, at Yankee Stadium.

In the sixth round, Charles landed a left hook that split Marciani’s left nostril. In the seventh, he cut Rocky’s left brow. With blood spurting from both wounds, it appeared the fight would be stopped soon.

“Ya gotta get him, Rocky!” Goldman shouted from Marciano’s corner. So Rocky did, knocking Charles out with a furious barrage in the eighth. The following year, he notched ninth-round KOs of Britisher Don Cockell and Archie Moore, the latter after being knocked down in the second round.

And then it was over, and the perfect record was in the books: 49-0 with 43 knockouts.

Marciano spent the last 13 years of his life making paid personal appearances. In 1969, he showed up in the District to referee a fight — “badly overweight and wearing a lumberjack shirt and a befuddled expression,” according to the Evening Star. When one of the boxers went down for the count, Rocky “inexplicably tolled ‘nine, 10, 11 — yer out,” the newspaper reported. Then he grabbed his money and ran before reporters could back him into a corner.

That Aug. 31, one day before his 46th birthday, he skipped a party planned by his wife, Barbara, at their home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and instead flew with a friend to make an appearance in Des Moines, Iowa. The small plane crashed in a cornfield nearby, killing the inexperienced pilot and both passengers.

It was Rocky Marciano’s only loss.

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