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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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When Marciano retired on that April day in 1956, seven months after knocking out Archie Moore in nine, he had not only fulfilled his father's most oft-expressed wishes—"Don't do anything to disgrace the family name. Don't do anything I'll be ashamed of"—but he had also brought honor to it beyond the old man's unlikeliest hope. More than undefeated, he left the ring utterly untainted, and this despite one underworld figure's efforts to coax him to hit the water in his May 16, 1955, defense against Don Cockell, an Englishman, in San Francisco. One of Marciano's closest California friends, Ed Napoli, recalls the day he sat with Marciano in a hotel room in that state and listened as a gangster made him an offer to throw the light. Cockell was a long shot, at 10-1, and Marciano could always win back the title in a rematch.

"Rocky, you can be set the rest of your life if you throw this fight," the mobster told him.

At which point Marciano got angry, Napoli says, and ordered the mobster out. "You disgust me," the fighter told him. "I'm ashamed that you're Italian. Get outta here and don't come back." The fight ended in the ninth round with Cockell, out on his feet, sagging in the arms of referee Frankie Brown.

As celebrated and mythic a folk hero as he became to the workaday Italian-American across the land, Marciano found himself to be an even larger, more respected figure among members of the underworld, a life-sized icon whose company and favor were sought by hoodlums wherever he went. Over the years, with all the running around he did, Marciano kissed the cheeks of many of the major crime-family bosses—Raymond Patriarca, Carlo Gambino, Frank Costello and Vito Genovese, who when he was dying put out the word that he wanted Marciano to visit him in prison. Rocky paid the call. "Rocky went to Leavenworth to show Genovese films of his fights," says Richie Paterniti, one of Marciano's best friends during the last 12 years of his life. "Wherever we went there were mob guys. They loved him because he represented what mob guys really want to be, the toughest guy in the world, right? A macho guy. They all had respect for him. They all wanted to be with him. They kissed his ass. Every mob guy. He was an Italian, and he beat up every guy he faced. He exuded power, an air of authority. That's why they wanted to bask in his sunshine."

They could not indulge him enough. They bought him dinner and gave him money and set him up with their tailors. When Saccone first went to New York with Marciano, he found himself among all these shiny suits. "We'd go to these elaborate restaurants and sit with 15, 20 underworld characters, but I didn't know it," he says. "I was a naive accountant from Brockton. I thought they were just friends of Rocky's and they liked him. Rocky finally told me who they were. They couldn't do enough for him. They'd say to him, 'I got a beautiful tailor. Let me take you down there and get you some suits.' They'd buy him six suits, three dozen shirts. He loved it and they loved it."

In spite of the casual social contact he had with hoodlums, he feared the violence and notoriety of the underworld, and he made it a point not to get involved in their businesses. "Let's keep our distance," Marciano used to tell Paterniti. In fact, according to an underworld source, one of the most feared hoodlums in the history of organized crime, Felix (Milwaukee Phil) Alderisio, saw Marciano not only as a venerated Italian-American folk hero whose reputation had to be protected, but also as a kind of naive, innocent bumpkin from Brockton who had to be watched, lest he stumble blindly into trouble. "He was an Italian champ, and they wanted him to be clean," the source said. "All the boys. That came out of Chicago. Milwaukee Phil said, 'Keep him clean. Don't get him dirty. Protect him at all costs. He's a goofball; he doesn't know what he's doing.' Chicago had an umbrella over him."

The only time Marciano ever faced serious trouble with the law was after he began quietly investing vast sums of cash, $100,000 at a crack, in the loan-sharking business of Pete DiGravio, with whom he often stayed in Cleveland. "If you've got some cash and want to make some money on it," DiGravio told Rocky, "I've got the outlet. Guaranteed. No bad debts in my place." The Rock was in. Marciano never felt that he was involved in anything illegal, says Saccone, and justified his investments on the grounds that he was merely lending to the shark and not involved in the dirty end of the business, on the street itself.

Of course, there was never anything in writing, since the Rock did not believe in paper. "All unsecured loans," says Saccone. "Never secured. Never-never. No piece of paper. No note. Nothing signed. All in his head. I can recall him saying to me, 'Jeez, I know I loaned somebody $5,000 in New York, and I can't remember who it was. But I'll remember it.' He never did. It was gone. Rocky was a very articulate, intelligent man, but when it came to business, he was so, so stupid."

This nearly got him into trouble in Cleveland when the Internal Revenue Service started looking into DiGravio's affairs. When the IRS asked him where he had obtained some large sums of money, DiGravio told investigators, "Rocky Marciano loaned it to me." And when they asked to see the contracts, DiGravio told them, "We don't have contracts. He just gave me the cash." With nothing on paper, Marciano grew anxious when the Cleveland IRS office invited him in for a visit to explain his ties to DiGravio. Marciano was an extravagant evader of taxes, never declaring any income unless it left a paper trail, but until the Cleveland inquiry, Saccone had finessed all IRS queries by having them transferred to the Brockton office, where "they loved Rocky," says Saccone. "It wasn't difficult to get rid of the cases. He was a great charmer, Rocky. We'd spend two minutes discussing the case, and the rest of the time Rocky would tell stories about his first fight with Walcott. The IRS guys would eat it up."

Cleveland was another matter. Marciano and Saccone made the trip together to Ohio, and the morning they arrived they called the IRS office to tell investigators that they were in town. "Forget about it," the agent told Saccone. "Pete DiGravio just got killed." DiGravio had been cut down by rifle fire on the 16th hole of a golf course outside Cleveland. Marciano, Saccone says, never saw a dime of the thousands that he had given the shark—fearing that word of his loan might leak out, he never made a claim on the estate—and this was not the first time that one of his investments had evaporated. Marciano raced around the country looking for deals to sink his money in, and he lost hundreds of thousands in ill-chosen ventures. Taken in by the hoariest of scams imaginable, he once actually bought swampland in Florida. He lost nearly $250,000 on some coal company in Pittsburgh, even more than that investing in component parts for telephones, and once confided to a Florida friend, Jim Navilio, that he had found an investment that couldn't miss: "I got a guy who can cure arthritis." said the Rock.

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