- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

During the steamy summer of 1969, the former heavyweight champion of the world visited the District on what turned out to be a less than memorable business trip.

A local boxing promoter had brought Rocky Marciano here to referee a main event, but the only heavyweight champ ever to retire undefeated (49-0) looked as if he had never stepped inside a ring.

“The badly overweight Marciano lumbered about the ring wearing a lumberjack shirt and a befuddled expression,” the Evening Star’s boxing writer reported. “And when a knockout occurred, he inexplicably tolled, ‘Eight, nine, 10, 11…’ ”

After the main, Rocky literally grabbed his money and ran before the media could interview him. Marciano had a reputation for being funny with money, to put it charitably. Decades later, the story came out that he had kept big bucks, perhaps even millions of them, stuffed in mattresses and other hiding places rather than entrusting them to financial institutions.

Marciano’s strange D.C. interlude turned poignant a few weeks later when he and two companions were killed in the crash of a small private plane in an Iowa field. The date was Aug. 31, 1969, the eve of Rocky’s 46th birthday and 13 years after he announced his retirement as a fighter.

Despite Marciano’s often unorthodox behavior in his later years, he remained a hero to many who loved boxing and cherished its champions. Tributes and tears flowed across the nation.

“Everything I remember about him is good,” said Joe Louis, another of the sport’s all-time kings, whose career ended when Marciano knocked him out in 1951 on his way to the title.

Hours before the crash, Marciano appeared at ringside in Chicago to check out a boxer in whom friend Frank Farrell and Farrell’s father, mobster Louis Fratto, had an interest.

Rocky’s game plan was to fly by private plane to Des Moines immediately after the bout and catch a jet to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where a birthday party was scheduled the next day at his home.

It was, by any measure, a foolish scheme. Pilot Glenn Belz had only 231 hours of flying time, just 35 at night, and was not approved to fly by instrument. Plus, a weather briefing warned of storms over Iowa.

Nonetheless, Belz revved up his single-engine aircraft and took off from Midway Airport with Marciano next to him and Farrell in the rear seat. Soon after, the plane plunged sharply, struck a tree and crashed. Marciano, Belz, 37, and Farrell, 23, were killed instantly. Rocky’s once-invincible body was found in the fuselage amid wreckage scattered for 500 feet.

A flight official in Des Moines said Belz radioed him about 9 p.m. that he intended to land at an intermediate airport but did not say the plane was in trouble. Jasper County sheriff Darrell Hurley said the crash apparently occurred a short time later.

After conducting a mandatory investigation, the National Transportation Board noted that “the pilot attempted operation exceeding his experience and ability level… and experienced spatial disorientation in the last moments of the flight.”

Whatever. What mattered was that Marciano, along with two others, was gone - but hardly forgotten.

Four decades after his death, Marciano is recalled and revered as one of the great champions in boxing’s top division alongside Louis, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali.

Since the advent of the cyberspace age, various computers have staged simulated fights pitting Louis against Dempsey, Johnson against Louis and Marciano against Ali et al. These prove absolutely nothing, and debates still rage over which of these great heavyweights was the greatest (although Ali attempted to appropriate that sobriquet in the 1960s).

Marciano enthralled fans during an 8 1/2-year professional career with his willingness to take a punch and to give one with his swarming, relentless style. According to Boxing Illustrated magazine, the Rock’s sock “packs more explosive energy than an armor-piercing bullet.” None of his 49 victims have disagreed.

Perhaps Marciano’s most impressive victory was his decision - rare among star athletes - to quit boxing at the top of his game at age 33 and never return. Yet it still tugs at the heart that he didn’t live to enjoy such tributes as a post office being named for him earlier this year in his hometown of Brockton, Mass.

Rocky Marciano truly was indestructible in the ring. Outside of it, he was as vulnerable as the rest of us to the twists and turns of outrageous fate.

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