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"I never thought he'd make it," Petronelli says. "He was too old, almost 25. He was too short, he was too light. He had no reach. Rough and tough, but no finesse."
But he had that hammer, that CroMagnon chin and that fearless, unbridled instinct for the attack. He turned pro on July 12, 1948, when he scored a first-round knockout over Harry Bilazarian in Providence, and then fought 10 more times before Christmas, all the matches ending in knockouts, seven in the first round. Brockton is only 25 miles from Providence, where he fought 15 of his first 17 fights, and a Brockton cheering section soon began showing up to witness the mayhem. Recalls Sylvester: "When Rocky had a guy in trouble in Providence, all the Italians from Brockton would stand up and yell, Timmmmmberrr!' "
They were shows bereft of art. Trainer Lou Duva, who would take Evander Holyfield to the heavyweight title some 40 years later, recalls driving with Vic Marsillo, the manager of Sugar Ray Robinson, to see an early Marciano brawl in New England. The word footwork does not make it in describing what Duva saw that night. "Rocky kept falling down," he recalls. "He kept missing and going through the ropes. I said to Vic, 'He's as strong as a bull.' Vic said, 'Are you kidding? He can't light at all.' It was Charley Goldman who straightened him out."
Charley trained fighters for Al Weill, the New York manager and promoter, and that fall he had Marciano and his Brockton trainer, Allie Colombo, begin working with him in Manhattan. Goldman was the training guru for a young Angelo Dundee, later the trainer of Muhammad Ali and Ray Leonard, and Goldman seemed apologetic about how the young man looked. Says Dundee, "So Charley told me, 'Ange, I gotta guy who's short, stoop-shouldered, balding, got two left feet and, god, how he can punch!' I remember going on the subway to the CYO gym, and in walks Rocky with a pair of coveralls and a little canvas bag." Goldman knew that Marciano had trained hours as a baseball catcher, and he taught him to swarm and slide and throw from a crouch, rising as though he were pegging to second base.
"Charley taught the technique that if you're tall, you stand taller," Dundee recalls. "If you are shorter, you make yourself smaller. Charley let him bend his knees completely to a deep knee squat. He was able to punch from that position, come straight up from the bag and hit a heck of a shot.... It was just bang-bang-bang-bang-BANG and get him outta there. And he was the best-conditioned athlete out there."
No one understood his limitations better than Marciano himself, and his whole monkish existence in the gym and on the road was geared to making up for them, to developing what gifts he had. He thought nothing of walking the 75 blocks from his room to the gym to train. A health buff long before it became the fashion, he ate veggies, sipped only an occasional glass of Lancer's rosé, always with dinner, and carried a jar of honey in his pocket to sweeten his coffee. He chewed but never swallowed his steak, and left the ruminated chaws in a bowl next to his plate. And Marciano may be the only fighter in history who exercised his eyeballs, obtaining for this purpose a pendulum that he rigged above his bed. Lying flat on his back, with his head still, he would follow the pendulum back and forth with his eyes—convinced, of course, that stronger eyeballs did a better fighter make. More than once he sparred 250 rounds for a single fight, 100 rounds more than normal, and there was never anything in his ring work to suggest a hesitation waltz.
Marciano never met an opponent, particularly among the 43 he knocked out, who did not leave the ring with a fairly intimate knowledge of that fact. Even long after Goldman had straightened out his feet and taught him how to slip a punch and make a weapon of his left, there was a merry unpredictability about what would happen next when Marciano was in the ring. He threw punches from every conceivable point on the compass, and the legal ones landed everywhere from the navel to the top of the head. Some even found the chin.
But it was in the fights in which Marciano was in trouble, behind in points or cut and bleeding, that he created the persona he would carry with him all the way to that fatal field in Newton. And his signature moment in the ring, the instant when the myth was born, came at the single most dramatic turning point of his life. It was the night of Sept. 23, 1952, in Philadelphia, in the 13th round of his 15-round title fight against the world heavyweight champion, Jersey Joe Walcott, and the time was growing short for an increasingly desperate Marciano. A beautiful boxer, clever and resourceful, Walcott had built up an easy lead in points, and all he had to do was keep Marciano away. Marciano had chased but not quite found, had thrown but not quite landed, had struck but not quite hard enough. By the 13th round he knew there was only one way to win it. He waded in yet again. And then, as Walcott feinted back toward the ropes, Marciano suddenly stepped in and threw a short, overhand right that struck Walcott on the jaw with such force that it distorted his face, dropped him to one knee and left him slumped forward, kneeling unconscious, with his left arm slung through the ropes.
So Marciano's long journey out of Brockton was finally over, and the belief in his indomitability became a kind of article of shared faith among his ardent followers. Marciano defended his title only six times in the 3½ years that he held it, but he did nothing to discourage the belief that he was invincible and much to embellish it. In fact, in his second fight against Ezzard Charles, in New York, on Sept. 17, 1954, he once again turned imminent defeat into sudden, stunning triumph. Like one of those Benihana chefs butterflying a jumbo shrimp, Charles hit Marciano with a blow in the sixth round that split his left nostril down the middle; blood spurted everywhere. At the end of the round no amount of work could stanch the bleeding. Marciano's corner was in a panic. The ring doctor let it go through the seventh, with Marciano bleeding heavily, but by the eighth round the corner sensed that time was short. They were all screaming at the champion to press the attack. Marciano fought with a fury. A right hand floored Charles. Glassy-eyed, he climbed back slowly to his feet. Marciano rushed back at him, landing thumping lefts and rights, until Charles at last fell for the count.
No matter what happened, in the end the Rock would find a way.