Heavyweight Champ Rocky Marciano and the Power of Endurance

Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano inherited his father’s strong will and had an indefatigable heart to win.
Heavyweight Champ Rocky Marciano and the Power of Endurance
Rocky Marciano in his fighting pose, photographed by Herb Scharfman on November 9, 1951. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
11/25/2023
Updated:
12/29/2023
0:00
Rocky Marciano was a relentless force in the boxing ring. He was a heavyweight who seemed to never tire. He hit men so hard their mouthpieces along with teeth flew out. He ended the careers of some fighters, and nearly the life of one. But where did that power and stamina―that heart―come from? It came from his father: the thin, bespectacled shoemaker who suffered from poor health.

Like Father, Like Son

Pierino Marchegiano was born in a small Italian village east of Rome along the Adriatic Coast. Life in Italy, though beautiful, was not sustainable. At 17, Pierino joined the more than 4 million Italians between 1880 and 1920 who immigrated to America. He found a job at a shoe factory in Brockton, Massachusetts, quickly learned English, and fell in love with his adopted country.

September 23, 1952: Pierino’s ears perked up to the sound of the national anthem. As the music faded, the large crowd at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium roared in patriotic applause. His son Rocco Marchegiano (Pierino named him after his father) walked to the center of the open-air stadium, wearing a robe with his slightly altered name stitched on the back: Rocky Marciano.

It was the ultimate American moment for the Marchegiano family and for countless Italian Americans across the country. Rocky, the son of Italian immigrants, would be battling for the heavyweight championship of the world against Jersey Joe Walcott.

Marciano’s father, Pierino Marchegiano, was one of the first Italian Americans in Brockton to enlist as a Marine in World War I—the heaviest fighting the American soldiers would experience. A painting of the Battle of Belleau Wood titled “Wheat Field Charge” (also known as “How Twenty Marines Took Bouresches”) by Frank Schoonover, 1919. (Public Domain)
Marciano’s father, Pierino Marchegiano, was one of the first Italian Americans in Brockton to enlist as a Marine in World War I—the heaviest fighting the American soldiers would experience. A painting of the Battle of Belleau Wood titled “Wheat Field Charge” (also known as “How Twenty Marines Took Bouresches”) by Frank Schoonover, 1919. (Public Domain)

Pierino’s War

Thirty-four years before the title fight and five years before Rocky Marciano was born, Pierino found himself witness to a very different battle. When America entered World War I, he was one of the first Italian Americans in Brockton to enlist. The 23-year-old was shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Marines in Chateau-Thierry. Their immediate objective was to stop the Germans from crossing the Marne River. Their ultimate objective was to keep them from reaching Paris.
The Battle of Chateau-Thierry in June 1918 was the beginning of the heaviest fighting the Americans would experience. It would extend to the Battle of Belleau Wood, where Germans nicknamed the Marines “Devil Dogs” in reference to their ferocity. In the early morning hours of June 1, the Germans tried skulking across the river. The Americans opened fire, taking the enemy by surprise. The Germans returned fire, shelling the American positions. The fighting continued into the night, at times erupting in hand-to-hand combat. It was the beginning of the end for what had become known as The Great War.

The War in the Ring

The ring at Municipal Stadium was surrounded by current and former champions. Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Jimmy Braddock, Sugar Ray Robinson. Marciano, an 8-to-5 favorite, hoped to soon join their champion ranks. Although the smart money was on the undefeated Marciano (42-0), Walcott scoffed at the odds and declared, “He can’t fight. If I don’t lick him, take my name out of the record books.”

The opening bell had hardly rung before Walcott made the bettors shiver with anxiety. Walcott landed a hard left hook to Marciano’s chin, dropping him for the first time in his career. It was the same left hook he landed to knock out Ezzard Charles for the title. The crowd roared and jumped to their feet, but almost as quickly as the crowd had risen, so had Marciano.

The knockdown was no fluke. Marciano was in for the greatest test of his boxing career.

The 13th round Suzie Q that won Marciano the title of World Heavyweight Boxer against his opponent Jersey Joe Walcott on September 23, 1952.(STAFF/Staff/AFP/Getty Images)
The 13th round Suzie Q that won Marciano the title of World Heavyweight Boxer against his opponent Jersey Joe Walcott on September 23, 1952.(STAFF/Staff/AFP/Getty Images)

The Crimson Mess

Marciano may have heard war stories from his father. If not, Pierino’s scars were enough to convey that his father had endured the worst that war could offer. Pierino had not only fought at Chateau-Thierry, but he also fought in the bloodiest campaign in American history: the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

A scar was visible on the left side of his face from when a grenade exploded near him. The blast had sent shrapnel through his cheek, knocking loose several teeth. Undeterred, he spit them out and kept fighting.

Walcott’s punch by no means compared. Marciano was back on his feet, moving quickly to Walcott. The champ continued to pour on the punishment. When he landed another hard left hook and a straight right, ringside announcer Bill Corum announced, “Those are stunning, powerful blows that Joe is landing.”

The two fighters pounded away at each other. In the fourth round, Marciano tried his famous Suzie Q―a feint left followed by a hard right. He missed, only grazing the neck of Walcott. The two were gaming for a knockout, landing several punches even after the bell. By the sixth round, Walcott developed a cut on his left eye and Marciano a cut on his forehead.

“Marciano’s face is a crimson mess,” Corum proclaimed.

Inside the trenches along the Western Front, Pierino had become acquainted with the “crimson mess.” German machine gun fire and mortars decimated the line in an attempt to stop the incremental Allied advance. The creaking sound of metallic tracks halted when a sudden explosion left the tank frozen in place, sending shrapnel everywhere. Pierino grabbed his right leg, itself a crimson mess. “Medic!”

Chemical Agents

Marciano’s and Walcott’s cornermen worked to staunch their bleeding. Chemical agents were innocently used, but to painful effect.

Sweat, blood, and a chemical seeped into Marciano’s eyes, making it impossible to see clearly. Walcott pummeled the challenger with jabs. In desperation, Marciano landed a hard right to Walcott’s face. The crowd uttered a collective “ooh.” It was a punch that had dropped lesser men.

“There’s something in my eyes. They’re burning,” Marciano yelled. His corner worked feverishly to wash out the chemical, but to no avail.

A postcard of World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano, circa 1953. (Public Domain)
A postcard of World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano, circa 1953. (Public Domain)

“They’re trying to get whatever it is out of Marciano’s eye,” Corum explained before the start of the ninth round. “He was squinting badly at the end of the round and he is still in his corner.”

A hideous yellow smoke flowed across the destroyed landscape of France. A cry rang out. “Gas!” Pierino fumbled for his mask. He had no doubt heard, if not witnessed, the symptoms and ultimate fate of those who inhaled the chemical agent of mustard gas. Frantically, he pulled the mask over his face. A panic surged through him as his eyes burned and his breathing became difficult. He had not put the mask on quickly enough.

Pierino would spend the rest of his days with a sulfuric taste in his mouth and lungs that struggled to capture enough oxygen.

The cornerman pressed the water-soaked rag onto Marciano’s face in hopes of clearing the fighter’s eyes. Finally, relief.

“Bang! Bang! Bang!” Corum called out. The two fighters landed monstrous punches to face and frame. As the round neared its end, Marciano leaned forward, hoping to land his Suzie Q. It landed solidly, but Walcott shrugged it off and responded with a hard right. A flurry of power punches ensued. “And they fight past the bell, ending round nine,” Corum exclaimed.

A Battle of Attrition

The sweat-drenched, blood-splattered foes stalked each other in the 10th. Walcott’s left eye had swelled to near closure, as had Marciano’s. For both, the swollen, distorted area became a target. Marciano landed a jab then a hard right to Walcott’s chin. The champ laughed it off. Marciano landed a hard right hook that could be heard several rows deep. The crowd screamed in anticipation.

“Marciano hit him with a good right hand and brought that silly grin to Walcott’s face,” Corum said.

Walcott responded with a right to Marciano’s chin. Marciano leaned away then stepped forward with the hardest body shot of the fight. Walcott leaned over and returned a body shot of his own. Marciano doubled over before ripping a deadly right to Walcott’s head. Barely fazed, the champ landed a right hook to Marciano’s body. The 10th would herald the hardest punches of the fight.

“Bang. Bang again!” Corum called. “It’s a battle of attrition now.”

The two leaned on each other, only coming up to throw hooks and uppercuts. A split second before the bell, Marciano missed with a left uppercut, but landed a devastating right. The sound of it, like a mallet to hamburger meat, echoed from the ring. The crowd oohed. The champ walked away seemingly unaffected.

Keeping his title as heavyweight champion of the world, Marciano defeated Archie Moore on September 21, 1955. “Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano” photographed by Osvaldo Salas, 1956. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Keeping his title as heavyweight champion of the world, Marciano defeated Archie Moore on September 21, 1955. “Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano” photographed by Osvaldo Salas, 1956. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

A Show of Endurance

When Pierino returned home after peace was settled in Europe, he faced his own battles of attrition. His body and mind had taken a beating. Along with physical struggles, there arose strong anti-Italian sentiment as labor strikes and anarchist movements increased. Pierino never joined a union; he preferred to work steadily, keep his head down, and power through the hard times.

When he married Pasqualena Picciuto at St. Patrick’s Church on August 7, 1921, his father-in-law, Luigi Picciuto, raised a glass and proclaimed, “May you and my beautiful daughter live to be a hundred―and may your firstborn be very famous.”

Their firstborn would become very famous indeed. But before his meaty fists elevated him to celebrity, he watched his father use his hands to provide for a family of six children. From the Roaring ’20s through the Great Depression, Pierino walked to work every day in a suit and hat. He would change into his work clothes and then back into his suit before returning home. Pierino was the symbol of work ethic, perseverance, and pride—values clearly reflected in his eldest child.

The Final Round

Marciano had never fought past the 10th round before. The greatest test of his career would arrive in the 11th. A moment that would require all of his power to endure.

One, two, three, four Marciano punches missed, bringing a white-mouthguarded smile to the champ’s face. Walcott responded: One, two, three, four—five, six solid punches landed in succession.

“Now Walcott has Marciano in trouble! Marciano is rocking,” Corum exclaimed. “Marciano’s eye is badly cut.”

Referee Charley Daggert broke the two fighters apart. Walcott walked toward the bent Marciano and drove a right to the side of his head. “Walcott trying to finish him. He’s got him pretty near helpless. Rocky hanging on,” Corum yelled into the microphone. Walcott landed another left hook. “Walcott’s fight now if he can finish him.”

The crowd held its breath. “And the bell. A welcome bell for Rocky Marciano,” Corum said.

Marciano had survived the 11th. But Walcott, seemingly made of iron, was not done. In the 12th, he pounded Marciano’s swollen shut eye with jabs. Marciano landed a hard right hook, but Walcott again took it in stride. “Walcott seems to be able to handle anything Marciano can throw,” Corum said.

Marciano lunged and missed. He tried to pin Walcott on the ropes. Walcott halted Marciano’s momentum with a crushing left that erupted the crowd. He followed with an equally powerful left to the head. Two more hooks landed to close the round.

By now, Walcott had a commanding lead. Daggert had the fight scored 7-4-1. Judge Pete Tomasco and Judge Zach Clayton had it scored 7-5 and 8-4, respectively.

A photograph of Marciano displaying his fist of fame to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and World Series champion Joe DiMaggio (L) in 1953. (Public Domain)
A photograph of Marciano displaying his fist of fame to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and World Series champion Joe DiMaggio (L) in 1953. (Public Domain)

Marciano had landed punches that had knocked out opponents. Punches that had knocked opponents out of the ring. Walcott, however, appeared unconquerable. The bell rang and the fight now entered “the championship rounds.”

“Now we go Round 13. The unlucky number. Maybe,” Corum stated.

For the first half-minute, the two fighters worked cautiously. Jabs falling short. They circled the ring as if trying to conserve energy.

“Walcott is plainly intent on staying away if he—There’s a right hand!” Corum yelled over a raucous crowd.

Marciano had executed the Suzie Q to perfection. His right hook had connected on the front left side of the jaw just as Walcott began to throw a right of his own. Marciano had beaten the champ to the punch, and now Walcott was a crumpled heap, his left arm dangling on the rope. “Five! Six! Seven!” Daggert yelled over Walcott’s unconscious body. “Eight! Nine! Ten!”

“And Rocky Marciano is the heavyweight champion of the world!” Corum yelled. “Rocky Marciano!”

It was over. Pierino―the standard of strength and endurance for the Marchegiano family―embraced his son, Rocky Marciano―the American standard of strength and endurance.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.
Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.