Rocky Marciano (born Rocco Francis Marchigiano) died on this day in 1969. He remains the only heavyweight champion in history to retire undefeated. He grew up poor in Brockton Massachusetts and discovered boxing in the Army, but only took to it as a career after doing stints as a ditch-digger, railroad layer and shoe-factory worker.
He was known, outside the ring, for his kindness and gentleness, refusing to engage in violence even when provoked. A sort of innocent, even as the heavyweight champion of the world he would still introduce himself to old friends (“Hey, remember me? Rocco?”), as though they might not know he was. At that time the heavyweight champ was probably the most famous person in America who didn’t live in the White House. He appeared to be free – this is in the 1950s – of the scourge of racism, and even homophobia, once defending a gay man at a party (“So he’s queer – does that make him less than you or me?”).
In the ring, he was, well, undefeated! He remains however a polarizing figure in boxing circles. He was a very crude fighter. He had very little footwork or head-movement, very little of the technical, scientific skills that many boxing scholars prize. So the question remains, how did he reach this pinnacle of his art?
The answer is, mostly, training. Rocky trained harder than anyone. His training camps were famous for their utter austerity and discipline. If other fighters were in camp for two months, he would be in camp for four. His camp would be way up in the hills, and as it went on, he would gradually decrease his contact with the outside world. A man who loved women, who loved rich Italian food, who loved being with people, he would separate himself from all of that to prepare for a fight. No visits, no letters, no phone calls. No conversations that were not about boxing. There would be nothing in his life, nothing in his mind, except for the upcoming fight.
The result was a focus and a level of conditioning that had not been seen before and has not been seen since. No one has been in better shape than this man. He might be up against someone more technically proficient, but Rocky would NEVER GET TIRED. In the 15th round he would be just as fresh as the first.
His method of boxing was to always move forward. He would take two, three punches to get in range, then he would unload. His right hand was his meal ticket. His knockout average was 87.75 percent. He only needed that one, split-second opportunity to unleash that right hand. And, as his opponent tired, opportunities started to present themselves.
Several times, Rocky would be well behind on points into the last round – meaning he would lose if he didn’t get the knockout. But he knew – moving slowly, methodically, taking a shot on the chin here and there – that his moment would come. And it always did.
What I get from this story is that a person who is not naturally gifted can still become great through sheer force of will and determination. He knew very well that he didn’t have amazing technical skills. So he found a way to make up for it. To this day there are boxing fans and scholars who dismiss him as one-trick pony. Maybe he was. But in his professional career he stepped into the ring 49 times, and 49 times he stepped out as a victor- 43 times with the knockout. It’s unclear what these boxing fans have done with their lives.
There is also a lesson in this about recognizing your limitations. He would have wasted his time trying to become a flashy, dancing boxer. So he found what he could do, and he worked on that with a determination that defies description. And there is a lesson about patience. Waiting for that moment. Keeping that right hand ready.
Here’s to Rocky. He never took a step backwards. May we all have just a little bit of that chin, that determination, and that one knockout punch in our own battles.