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THE ROCK
William Nack
August 23, 1993
Former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano was a tough-fisted brawler in the ring and a tightfisted mystery out of it
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August 23, 1993

The Rock

Former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano was a tough-fisted brawler in the ring and a tightfisted mystery out of it

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Rocky insisted. "I want the cash, right now!"

"But, Rocky, you're throwing $2,500 away!" said Saccone. "I know these people. I know this check is good. It's a cashier's check. It is cash in the form of a check. Try to imagine that."

There was no trying. "These are my deals," Rocky said. "If I want cash, it's my business. Don't interfere."

Marciano turned to the organizer. "Can you get me $2,500 in an hour?" he asked. An hour later the man was back with the money, as bemused as Saccone at Marciano's thinking. "Is this really what you want?" Saccone asked.

"That's great," said Rocky, happily handing the organizer the check.

Saccone traveled the world with Marciano, on hundreds of trips, and he never knew the man to want it any other way. "He had this crazy, crazy need for cash," Saccone says. "He loved the sight of cash. A check was just a little piece of paper. I remember times he'd get a check and lose it. He'd put it somewhere and forget about it. He'd reach in his pocket and pull out checks that were all tattered. I've seen him give away checks for $50,000, $100,000. I'm talking big money. He didn't even associate that with money. To him a check was just a piece of paper. But if he had $40,000 in $10 bills, there was no way he'd give any of that away. He believed in green stuff."

There was always plenty of it flowing his way and far more abundantly in the days after his retirement than during his years in the ring. Marciano was an enormously popular champion, and more than his complexion lay at the source of the appeal. The archetypal working-class stiff from blue-collar Brockton, he brought to the lights a boxing style edited down to its barest essentials, an unearthly power of will and tolerance for punishment, particularly around the chin; and he had what columnist Red Smith called "a right hand that registered nine on the Richter scale," and a left hook that trembled the upright like an aftershock. Stir into this mix an incomparable appetite for work, a quality of meekness and humility that was often affecting—after knocking out his boyhood idol, Joe Louis, in the eighth round of their 1951 fight in New York, Marciano wept openly in Louis's locker room—and that crooked smile on a darkly handsome mug, and what you had was the ideal composite for the central character in a cartoonlike Hollywood movie.

None of this was even remotely foreseeable in the beginning, back in the days he spent at the James Edgar Playground, in the rough-and-tumble Irish-Italian streets of central Brockton, where he dreamed of escaping the want of his childhood by making it as a catcher in the big leagues. Slow afoot, without a major league catcher's arm, he worked hours on his short, powerful stroke. "There were 40 or 50 of us shagging balls for Rocky," says Nicky Sylvester, a boyhood friend and later the court jester in his entourage. "He wouldn't give anyone else a chance. Two hours of hitting!" Marciano used to run lunch down to his father, Pierino, a laster at a nearby shoe factory, and the sight of his father standing at his machine, his undershirt drenched, both legs and arms moving at once, a dozen tacks held in his lips, spoke to him of a life he did not want to lead. "I'll never work in a shoe factory," he told his family, according to his brother Sonny. "I have to find away out."

Climbing out of Brockton and leaving the dread privations of his boyhood behind was the theme with variations that ruled him the rest of his life. "He was deathly afraid of being broke," says former world featherweight champion Willie Pep, one of Marciano's best friends. "He used to say to me, 'I'll never be broke again.' He was a tough guy with a buck. Rocky. He was afraid."

Marciano was drafted in 1943 and began boxing in the Army, chiefly as a way to avoid KP and other schlock details. He devoted all his considerable energies to it only after his discharge from the service, in 1946, and an abortive tryout with a Chicago Cub farm team in North Carolina in the spring of 1947. By then, fighting under an assumed name, Rocky Mack, to protect his amateur status, he had knocked out one Lee Epperson in the third round of a bout in Holyoke, Mass., and earned $35. He fought as an amateur the rest of that year and into the next, and at 5'10" and less than 190 pounds, with only a 68-inch reach, shorter than that of any other heavyweight champion who ever lived, he appeared on his way to Palookaville. One afternoon in '48, Goody Petronelli, who would one day train Marvin Hagler to the world middleweight championship, was leaving the gym on Center Street in Brockton when he ran into Marciano. Goody had seen him in the amateurs and was surprised when Marciano told him that he was turning pro.

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