Born as Rocco Marchegiano, Rocky Marciano is considered one of the greatest boxers of all time with a record of 49-0, retiring as the heavyweight champion of the world, but there was a time when boxing wasn’t part of his plan — at least not until after his time in the Army.
Marciano grew up playing sports like football and baseball. He never put on the boxing gloves until after he was drafted into the Army in 1943. After basic training and a deployment to Wales, he came to Fort Lewis in 1946 for discharge.
According to Duane Denfeld, Joint Base Lewis-McChord historian, that’s where Marciano began boxing.
“A boxing coach saw him and told him he had some talent,” Denfeld said.
Unlike most professional athletes who came through the installation, Marciano had no previous boxing experience. The majority of his work resume was manual labor such as delivering ice.
Marciano went to the boxing gym on base as a way of avoiding less than desirable chores. Through the year, he accumulated an amateur record of 8-4 and won the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces Boxing Championships.
“He hadn’t any formal training, and he had no style to speak of, but his punch was enough to ensure success,” wrote Russell Sullivan in his 2002 biography, “Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times.”
Shortly after leaving the Army, Marciano decided to tryout for the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
“Guess he wasn’t convinced at the time,” Denfeld said.
Sullivan wrote that Marciano had doubts about boxing after visiting an Army friend in Chicago after being discharged. He visited a boxing gym in the city where the head trainer told him he was too small to be a heavyweight.
When it came to heavyweight fighters’ measurements, Marciano came in a little under the expectation. He stood an inch short of 6 feet and weighed just under 190 pounds. He entered the sport late at age 25, and many critics said he didn’t have the reach or the finesse to succeed.
Despite earning a knockout victory over Lee Epperson in three rounds in March 1947, Marciano was still fixated on trying out for the Cubs. He fell short after struggling to throw from home plate to second base as a catcher.
“His success in the ring made him a camp celebrity of sorts (at Fort Lewis), but his enthusiasm for boxing as a potential career remained tepid,” Sullivan wrote.
He made a full effort after returning to his hometown of Brockton, Mass. While working at a gas station, Marciano went back to amateur boxing and won several titles in the northeast, including the New England AAU Heavyweight Championship in 1948 with a broken thumb.
After completing the recovery, he decided to go pro, according to Sullivan.
“Boxing for the sport of it had limited appeal for Rocco Marchegiano, but it nevertheless represented his last real chance to make a name for himself — and escape a life of poverty,” Sullivan wrote.
Including his original pro debut in 1947, Marciano won his first 16 professional fights by knockout. Slowly, he became a world title contender and became World Heavyweight Champion in his 43rd fight Sept. 23, 1952, knocking out Jersey Joe Walcott.
The names he defeated included some of the best at the time. Even Joe Louis, who also served in the Army, came out of retirement to fight Marciano at Madison Square Garden in October 1951. Marciano won by technical knockout and was the third person to defeat Louis.
His was not a long professional career — about eight years. Marciano, at age 32, retired in April 1957 with a record of 49-0 with 43 knockouts. He was the only heavyweight champion to finish his career without a loss.
Marciano passed away just before turning 46 in a plane crash in Iowa Aug. 31, 1969. His legacy lived on as the inspiration to Sylvester Stallone’s character in the 1976 film “Rocky.”