From the bestselling author of The Prince of Providence, a revelatory biography of Rocky Marciano, the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.
The son of poor Italian immigrants, with short arms and stubby legs, Rocky Marciano accomplished a feat that eluded legendary heavyweight champions like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson: He never lost a professional fight. His record was a perfect 49-0.
Unbeaten is the story of this remarkable champion who overcame injury, doubt, and the schemes of corrupt promoters to win the title in a bloody and epic battle with Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952. Rocky packed a devastating punch with an innocent nickname, “Suzie Q,” against which there was no defense. As the champ, he came to know presidents and movie stars – and the organized crime figures who dominated the sport, much to his growing disgust. He may have “stood out in boxing like a rose in a garbage dump,” as one sportswriter said, but he also fought his own private demons.
In the hands of the award-winning journalist and biographer Mike Stanton, Unbeaten is more than just a boxing story. It’s a classic American tale of immigrant dreams, exceptional talent wedded to exceptional ambitions, compromises in the service of a greater good, astounding success, disillusionment, and a quest to discover what it all meant. Like Suzie Q, it will knock you off your feet.
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The Terrific Three
Rocky Marciano wore out a pair of shoes the way he wore out his opponents in the ring.
Running tirelessly through the streets of his childhood in Brockton, Massachusetts, he chased a dream while fleeing the tedium of a life in the shoe factories. Rocco was a familiar sight around town, his feet pounding through the Italian second ward with its triple-deckers and grape arbors, past the sandlots where he played baseball and the woods where a one-legged gambler ran a Sunday dice game, through the bustling downtown with its impressive architecture, church spires, and movie palaces where a boy could sit in the balcony and daydream. Some days he ran through the West Side, where the factory managers and Brockton's well-to-do lived, past their fieldstone mansions and elegant white colonials where he delivered the Brockton Enterprise and occasionally filched a bottle of milk left by the dairyman. On workdays, when the factory whistles blew, he ran by the sprawling brick shoe plants to bring his father his lunch. His father, Pierino Marchegiano, an Italian immigrant, worked at one of the city's several dozen shoe factories, laboring over a backbreaking machine that formed the heels and toes, helping produce the twelve million pairs of shoes that Brockton sent the world every year.
When Rocky became a famous boxer, the Doyle Shoe Company started giving him ten pairs of black Vici kid road shoes a year. He returned one pair after running seven hundred miles in them, worn through on both soles. He thought nothing of walking twenty miles to see a Brockton High School football road game, or thirty-five miles to Providence, Rhode Island, after he started boxing there.
The shoes Rocky wore when he trained fared little better. He wore a hole in the left front sole, illustrating the force with which he pivoted on the ball of his foot to launch his wrecking ball of a right hand. In 1951, when he beat Joe Louis to establish himself as the top heavyweight contender, Webster's dictionary marked the first use of the expression "shoe leather," for "basic, direct or old-fashioned methods." Rocky's shoes were the size of an ordinary man's, 10½, but the width hinted at his broader stature — EE.
Two other local shoe factories made the shoes that Rocky wore when he stepped into the ring, carrying the hopes of Brockton on his squat shoulders. For each fight, the Howard & Foster Shoe Company made him two pairs of some of the lightest boxing shoes ever produced, attaching black yellow-back kangaroo uppers to a lightweight sole manufactured by the Potvin Shoe Company. After Rocky became champion, the women in the stitching room asked if they could sign their names in his shoes. They were allowed to sign one pair. It was a perfect marriage of form and function, Rocky wearing out Brockton's shoes with the industry that made him and his city great. Brockton made shoes, shoes made Brockton, and Brockton made Rocky Marciano, who would become its most famous export.
"The important thing," said the vice president of Howard & Foster, "is that our employees feel as though they're helping Rocky in the ring."
* * *
In the early 1920s, Rocky's grandfather Luigi Picciuto bought a simple white-shingled cottage at 80 Brook Street in Brockton's Ward Two. His daughter and new son-in-law moved in upstairs. He planted grapevines in the side yard and strung lights in the backyard so that the men in the neighborhood could come over on Saturday nights to play bocce and drink his homemade wine.
Luigi was a muscular, broad-shouldered man, six foot two and 220 pounds, with a flowing black mustache and dark, sensitive eyes. He was a commanding presence, a natural-born leader back in his native Italy and in Brockton, where everyone in the neighborhood called him mastro, master artisan.
"Everything about him was big," Rocky recalled. "He played big, he worked big, he gambled big, he drank big, he ate big, he talked in a big voice."
Luigi was a blacksmith from the Italian hill town of San Bartolomeo in Galdo ("in the clouds"), a tiny village perched on a mountainside near Naples with houses clinging to the steep slopes. He was a respected man in his community, a local cavour, or leader, who mediated disputes in the absence of any formal government. But Italy was racked by corruption and poverty, and in 1914 Luigi joined the tide of four and a half million Italians who immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920.
Luigi's blacksmith skills made it easy for him to get a job with a railroad in New Jersey, and he soon brought over his two oldest daughters, Carmella and Pasqualena. The women went to work in a garment factory in Newark. Within a year, Luigi was able to bring over his wife and their four younger children. The family settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, tragedy struck. Luigi's nine-year-old son Nicholas was run over and killed by a truck while riding a wagon that Luigi had built him for Christmas. Heartbroken, Luigi said that he couldn't bear to stay in Bridgeport. He took his family to Brockton, where Carmella had moved after getting married.
Luigi's second-oldest daughter Pasqualena, or Lena, born in 1902, was a bright, vivacious, dark-haired young woman who had inherited Luigi's exuberance, determination, and strength. As a girl in San Bartolomeo, she walked down one hundred steps every day to fetch water from the village well, balancing the jugs on her sturdy shoulders as she climbed back up. The curious and quick-witted Lena was not content to fulfill the traditional role of a woman of her times. She wanted an education so that she could become a schoolteacher. That put her in conflict with Luigi, who saw no reason to waste money on schoolbooks for a girl. When he caught her sneaking off to a school in a neighboring village, he grabbed a wooden chair in his blacksmithing shop and broke it over Lena's head. The chair shattered into pieces as a sobbing but unhurt Lena protested her father's stubbornness.
In Brockton, Lena got a job in a corset factory. When she was eighteen, she began to notice a quiet young man whom she had first seen at a friend's house. He was not loud and boisterous like the other boys in the neighborhood. His name was Pierino Marchegiano, and he worked in a shoe factory. He was seven years older and had emigrated from Italy to America a few years before Luigi.
Pierino was born in 1894 in Ripa Teatina, a village on the Alento River in Italy's Abruzzi region near the Adriatic coast. Despite its placid beauty, the region had a history of association with great fighters. Warriors who fought with Achilles in the Trojan War were said to have founded the nearby city of Teate. For centuries, the region resisted conquest by the Roman Empire. As a boy, Pierino played in the shadow of two medieval watchtowers, monuments to a lawless age when mercenaries had protected the village. Pierino liked to use a phrase coined by a nineteenth-century diplomat to describe the region's beauty and people — forte e gentile, strong and gentle.
Pierino was a strong boy with large hands who spoke little of what must have been a painful childhood. He never knew his own father, Rocco, who died when the boy was young. His mother died when he was twelve, and his grandmother raised him. When he was seventeen, Pierino set sail for America alone. An uncle knew the owner of a construction company outside Boston, who agreed to offer Pierino a job. Eventually he settled in Brockton and found work in a shoe factory.
Pierino was proud of his adoptive country, and when America entered World War I, he was one of the first Italians in Brockton to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. He joined the U.S. Marines, and fought on the Marne and in the Argonne during some of the war's bloodiest battles. In the spring of 1918, his brigade repelled the last great German offensive of the war at Château-Thierry, fifty miles from Paris. When shrapnel from a grenade pierced his left cheek, Pierino spit out three teeth and kept fighting. Later, when a tank exploded near his trench, more shrapnel pierced his right leg; subsequent surgeries left that leg shorter, forcing him to wear a platform shoe on his right foot and walk with a limp.
But the worst injury Pierino suffered was from being gassed, one of the horrors of modern chemical warfare introduced during World War I. The mustard gas poisoned his lungs and left him weak and frail and gasping for breath for the rest of his life. He sucked on Life Savers to mask the bitter taste in his mouth. A photograph of Pierino when he entered the U.S. Marines shows the squat, muscular physique of his firstborn son, the future heavyweight champion. But when he returned to Brockton in 1919, he had lost his youthful strength and vigor. Had it been worth it? For the rest of his life, he would remember the parting words of his commanding officer: "Pierino, you can be proud to call yourself an American."
The war may have shattered Pierino's constitution but not his toughness. He went to work at the E. E. Taylor shoe factory in Brockton, in one of the plant's most physically demanding jobs, operating a No. 5 bed laster. Pushing the pedals of the clattering machine with his feet, tacks in his mouth, Pierino shaped the shoe leather around a mold, or last, to form the toes and heels of the shoe, then used a hammer to tack the pieces of leather together for stitching. The smell of leather was overpowering, especially in the summer, when the factory became a sweatbox.
One night at a church social, Pierino met Lena. They embarked on a traditional Italian courtship, the ever-vigilant Luigi chaperoning them everywhere. Once, at an amusement park, Luigi panicked when he briefly lost track of the couple in the Tunnel of Love. Pierino stole a first kiss on the Ferris wheel, when Luigi couldn't see, and proposed at a concert.
They were a study in contrasts, the thin, serious Pierino and the plump, vivacious Lena. They married on August 7, 1921, at St. Patrick's Church in Brockton. She was nineteen and he was twenty-six. At their wedding reception, Luigi raised a glass of wine in a toast to his new son-in-law and pronounced, "May you and my beautiful daughter live to be a hundred — and may your firstborn be very famous."
* * *
Rocco Francis Marchegiano entered the ring for the first time shortly after one a.m. on September 1, 1923. At twelve pounds, ten ounces, he was a natural heavyweight. Dr. Josephat Phaneuf, who delivered the baby on the second floor of Luigi's cottage on Brook Street, recalled that it was a difficult delivery because of the size of the head. Years later, Dr. Phaneuf would tell patients, "I was the first one ever to hit him."
Someone sent a card that Pierino would cherish always, with a drawing of tiny boxing gloves, inscribed, "Hail to the Champ."
His parents were elated. It was Lena's second pregnancy; her first had ended the year before, with the birth of a thirteen-pound son who died the same day. Worried that her job at the corset factory had contributed to the loss of the baby, a distraught Pierino insisted that Lena quit and stay home when she became pregnant again.
It was a rare victory for Pierino in a household dominated by his forceful wife. Pierino wanted to stop at two children, so they could afford to give them everything and send them to college. But Lena insisted on six, telling Pierino that the children could share. In the years that followed, Lena gave birth to Alice in 1925, Concetta in 1927, Betty in 1931, Louis (or Sonny) in 1933, and Peter in 1940. She also suffered two more miscarriages.
Not long after Rocco was born, the fates seemed to be conspiring to take him away. During the cold, rainy March of 1925, when he was eighteen months old, Rocco came down with pneumonia. He was sick for more than a week. His parents took turns sleeping on the floor beside his bed, listening for the raspy sound of his breathing. His fever climbed to 105. Dr. Phaneuf came and went, doing what he could, but there were no antibiotics and not much that could be done for pneumonia, which killed many babies in the 1920s. Ultimately, the doctor told Pierino and Lena that it was up to the baby's spirit to fight the sickness. If he survived, Dr. Phaneuf said, he would probably grow up to be a very strong man.
Leaning over her son, watching the life drain from his still, pale body, Lena repeated, "Figlio mio, figlio mio. Cuore della mia vita." While other women consoled her, male relatives and friends stood vigil in the kitchen with a disconsolate Pierino and Luigi.
One woman dipped her finger into a teaspoon of olive oil and dropped it into a bowl of water, chanting an incantation to remove the malocchio, or evil eye, that seemed to hover over the child. Frantic, Lena took off her most valuable possession — a diamond solitaire ring from Pierino — and hung it on a statue of Saint Anthony as an offering to cure her son.
The next day, the baby's great-aunt Paolina Mangifesti, a gnarled woman in her nineties, came to pay her respects. She found Lena and the other women gathered around the listless baby, clutching their rosary beads. But she had seen pneumonia in babies before, back in Italy. She took one look at the listless Rocco and called for some warm water and a teaspoon. Parting the baby's lips, she dribbled the liquid into the baby's mouth. Almost immediately, Rocco made a big noise in his chest, his eyes fluttered open, and his lips moved.
He was dehydrated, Paolina explained. Give him some chicken broth. If he doesn't want it, force it down. Lena followed her instructions, and the fever subsided. Before long, the baby had regained what would become a prodigious appetite.
In the joy of Rocco's recovery, and the bustle of taking care of him and cooking and cleaning, several days passed before Lena remembered her offering to Saint Anthony. She checked the statue. Her diamond ring was gone. She refused to believe that one of the friends or relatives who had been in and out of the house during Rocco's illness would have stolen it. Saint Anthony had taken it, in answer to her prayers.
* * *
They called themselves the Terrific Three: Eugene Sylvester, Izzy Gold, and Rocco Marchegiano. They were three Depression-era boys running through the streets of Brockton — playing baseball at James Edgar Playground, fighting for their honor behind Petti's garage, sneaking under the fence at the Brockton Fair, bumming day-old doughnuts from the friendly baker at Bob's Lunch on Crescent Street, washed down with quarts of fresh milk swiped from the doorsteps of Brockton's affluent West Side.
The three friends modeled themselves after a trio of street urchins in the popular 1930s comic strip Red Barry. The syndicated strip chronicled the adventures of a square-jawed, hard-punching detective who fought crime with the help of three boys — the Terrific Three. Red Barry was inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracy, but he fought crime with his fists, not his brains or fancy gadgets.
Eugene, Izzy, and Rocky banded together when they were around twelve. Izzy, a tough, wiry Jewish kid who liked to gamble and take risks, had just moved into the neighborhood from the East Side, Brockton's poorest neighborhood. Eugene and Rocky had grown up near each other. Eugene, tall and thin, with dark black hair and a handsome face that he highlighted by pushing back the brim of his baseball cap, was an impish wiseacre always stirring up trouble. Rocky was the strong, silent one, good-natured and shy but a fierce competitor and sore loser. Often, he was the one called on to bail his fast-talking friends out of a scrape.
Summers and after school, the boys lived outside, in the parks, on the streets, banging through their kitchen doors to eat and sleep, then hurrying back out to play ball or chase some mischief until their parents sent a brother or sister to fetch them home. There was little extra money for entertainment. But despite the Great Depression, it was in many ways an idyllic childhood. Families scraped by and looked out for one another. Despite layoffs and cutbacks, the shoe factories remained open; Pierino kept working. Mothers saw to it that there was enough food on the table, supplemented by fruit and vegetable gardens, wild mushrooms and dandelion greens, and public assistance provided through the "bean line," the daily dole of baked beans, a slab of pork, and brown bread. Lena cooked generous Italian meals that her eldest son gorged on, and always made sure that her children had a dollar for the Brockton Fair.
The Brockton of Rocky's youth was a melting pot of Italians, Irish, Lithuanians, Swedes, Poles, Germans, and French Canadians. The immigrants had helped build a thriving manufacturing city defined by the name of its leading newspaper — the Brockton Enterprise. Wrote one local nineteenth-century historian, "You could always tell a Brockton man by his smile. He was just about the most thoroughly alert and modernized commodity that New England has to show." In 1883, Thomas Edison chose Brockton for a historic breakthrough, throwing a switch that illuminated downtown through the world's first three-wire underground electrical system. The city also boasted the nation's first electric fire station and trolley system. The stately downtown, walking distance from Rocky's house, had impressive brick blocks of department stores, elegant bank buildings, a modern train station, and a graceful stone city hall and public library. Rocky lived across the street from James Edgar Playground, named for the Scottish immigrant who had founded one of the city's biggest department stores. In the 1890s, Edgar had started dressing up as Santa Claus to entertain shoppers at Christmastime, creating a phenomenon that drew visitors from Boston and inspired department stores in larger cities to follow suit.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unbeaten"
Copyright © 2018 Mike Stanton.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Two Funerals 1
1 The Terrific Three 13
2 Brawler in the Brig 38
3 Rocky Mack 59
4 Suzie Q’s Broadway Debut 76
5 Timmmberrr! 91
6 A Good Dream and a Hard Fall 119
7 The Octopus 133
8 Requiem for a Heavyweight 153
9 Twelve Inches to Glory 180
10 The Lion and the Lamb 209
11 The Mongoose and the Mob 233
12 America’s Guest 264
13 The Fiftieth Fight 293
Epilogue: Ghosts 312
Appendix: Rocky Marciano’s Professional Ring Record 323
A Note on Sources 325
Illustration Credits 374
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While this book covering the life and career of Rocky Marciano is informative and rich in detail, this very attention to detail made it a tough one for me to read. I found myself going back to try to connect my current page to what was being written previously. It's a good book for boxing historians and researchers but for a casual fan just wanting to learn a little more on the legend that is Marciano, it bogs down in too many spots. I'll give it three stars as it may be good for some readers, but I am not one of them.