It was popular to assume in 1954 that life was simple: Everybody was focused on work, duty and family. Even celebrities—of which sports stars were still the most reliable, depending as they did more on substance than style—insisted they were consumed with the mundane, to the apparent satisfaction of the striving classes who deified them. "She broils a hell of a steak," Joe DiMaggio said, describing his surprisingly routine life with his new bride, Marilyn Monroe. "When she's working, she's up at five or six in the morning and doesn't get through till around seven. Then we watch a little TV and go to sleep."
Rocky Marciano, then, was surely the poster boy for this generation, which honored hard work and self-improvement above all. Few organisms were ever constructed around such streamlined purpose. He was a guy with no obvious skill, no ambition beyond the most transparent, and certainly no social advantages. And yet he was, in 1954, the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world and, not only that, was regularly photographed eating spaghetti and meatballs at his mother's table. A mama's boy.
Marciano incorporated all the great themes of the time (he was even a returning veteran) and thus was the most important star in this country's most important sport. This was no Golden Age of boxing, nobody argued that, and when Rocky beat the faded Joe Louis in 1951, he did not immediately ascend to the pantheon. He was far too crude an athlete—a brawler, really—for that sort of distinction. But his raw determination, particularly his ability to transform apparently lost causes into victories, was inspirational to the point of becoming a national characteristic (and perhaps, one could imagine, the model someday for a cinematic character also named Rocky).
In 1952, in what may have been his signature fight, Marciano challenged Jersey Joe Walcott for the title and was well on his way to losing, having been flattened a minute into the first round and cut badly in the sixth. Walcott pressed his advantage in the late rounds and needed only to coast to the finish to keep his championship when, in the 13th round, Marciano, taking whatever punishment was necessary and looking as if he'd been turned inside out, waded in and landed a short overhand right. A writer at the scene described Walcott "crumpling all the way in sections like a slow-motion picture of a chimney stack which had been dynamited." And you wonder why boxing was the principal TV sport of the time?
When American traits such as doggedness and the use of fairly applied force are demonstrated on such a grand stage, the national satisfaction can only be described as acute. But in Rocky's hometown of Brockton, Mass., where the gambling action on his fights had become an underground economy, there was as much relief as there was pandemonium. When writer W.C. Heinz visited the town, he learned it had become routine for the citizens to supplement their pensions with their winnings from Rocky's fights. (A cabbie told Heinz that he took an elderly Italian couple to the loan office before every fight, and for the previous Marciano fight, "they borrowed $3,000 on their house.") So Rocky's come-from-behind knockout of Walcott was met with a civic sigh of relief.
Heinz also discovered that hometown enthusiasm could reach dangerous levels. No rioting, nothing like that. But he did meet a young man who in the excitement over the Walcott fight "fed his hand into a ventilating fan" at the Ward Two Memorial Club and would be "forever lacking the first joint of two fingers."
By 1954 the rest of the country had caught up with Brockton, and Rocky was celebrated not just for his championship but for the folk-hero life he was leading outside the ring. There was his status-sanctioning visit to the White House, where Dwight Eisenhower, perceived as a similarly plainspoken and simple-living man, greeted him and DiMaggio; there were frequent appearances on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town show on Sunday nights; and there was fame-affirming hobnobbing with fellow celebrities. Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds visited him in camp, Frank Sinatra was at ringside, Jerry Lewis hung out with him. "Do you realize what you are, Rock?" the comedian told this son of a poor immigrant shoemaker. "You are the boss of the world."
The press found him to be a wholesome embodiment of American virtues, a terrific family man who bought his parents a house in Brockton and changed diapers in his own. "He's a wonderful father," his wife, Barbara, told reporters. "He gets up early just to change and bathe the baby."
This placed him on a domestic level with, oh, Marilyn Monroe. It was fiction—his wife later calculated he spent just 152 days at home during the four-year period of his championship—but it was undisturbed by more sordid revelations. He really was a mama's boy; he really was without vices, or most vices. And he really was an overachieving workaholic. He trained everything (his eyeballs even, following a pendulum with his eyes as he reclined in bed) to an extreme, sparring an amazing 250 rounds for one fight (when a more reasonable 100 would have sufficed).
There was, despite his apparent awkwardness, a physical genius to him. He weighed only 185 pounds, and no heavyweight champion ever had a shorter reach, yet he surely had a club. A young fight fan named Joe Rein, who would occasionally see Marciano in Stillman's Gym in New York City, remembers the purity of his power: "I watched guys come out of sparring with him, and it was just seismic.... If you'd dropped them 20 stories to concrete below, that's what guys looked like afterward. A unique gift he had. To see him punch, it was like he was lobbing paving stones."